THE DEBATE OVER THE BIRTH OF JESUS
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200AD) recorded that Jesus of Nazareth was born in the forty-second year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus [3BC], however, he also recorded that diverse opinions existed on the subject of the day of the Savior's birth. Some Biblical chronologists in his time dated the birth April 19th, some May 30th, and Clement assigned it to November 17, in what would be in our calendar 3BC even though the Eastern Church celebrated the Nativity on January 6th. But there were other Fathers of the Church who favored December the 25th and this became the official date in the Roman Catholic Church.
We have firm documentary evidence that the birth of the Savior was celebrated in Rome on December the 25th by 336AD. The Eastern Church kept January 6th until the end of the 4th century and then joined in the observance of the December 25th date, agreeing to celebrate January 6th as the adoration of the Magi. But where and how did the Catholic Church in Rome, guided by St. Peter's successor, settle on December 25 as the day the Savior's birth? Successive attacks on the city of Rome by barbarian armies in the 5th century AD have destroyed any documentation that may have existed but is there a way to determine how the date of December 25th came to be the celebration as the birth of the Savoir?
The earliest mention that I have been able to find identifying the birth of Jesus as December 25th comes from a document entitled The Constitution of the Holy Apostles. Modern scholars continue debate the date this early Catechism of the Church was written. The Constitution of the Holy Apostles is not as old as the Church document entitled The Didache, which means "The Teaching" which was written between 50-100AD and which is acknowledged as the first catechism of the early Church. The Didache seems to be the successor to The Constitution and is, in fact, included in the 8 books of The Constitution. There is no doubt, however, that The Constitution of the Holy Apostles is an extremely ancient document written by the Fathers of the Church. Most scholars agree that the first 6 books cannot be written later than the 300s and some scholars argue that it may have been written in the 200s or even earlier. In the ancient writings of the Church that have survived it is frequently quoted and seems to have been an updating of The Didache as the official catechism of the Universal, catholic, Church. This very important document contains instructions on the celebration of the Holy Days such as these instructions in Book #5:
Book Five, section 3 for The Constitution of the Holy Apostles states: "ON FEAST DAYS AND FAST DAYS: A CATALOGUE OF THE FEASTS OF THE LORD WHICH ARE TO BE KEPT, AND WHEN EACH OF THEM OUGHT TO BE OBSERVED. XIII. Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month..."
The "ninth month" in the Roman calendar is our December. The Roman Julian calendar began the year with the spring equinox, which falls in late March/ early April according to our modern calendar. But why did the Fathers of the Church select December 25 as the birth date for Jesus when that date is never mentioned in Sacred Scripture? It is true that the 25th of December is not mentioned but there may be a connection to a Jewish feast day and other Jewish traditions that could identify the birth day of the Christ. For the earliest Fathers of the Church, who came from a Jewish tradition, even if they didn't have an oral tradition of Jesus birth [which they probably had at one time] it may have been reasonable for them to deduce from certain Scriptural texts a reference the date of Jesus' birth. There are both New and Old Testament passages that could provide the necessary keys to the dilemma.
New Testament: The Announcement of the birth of John the Baptist: Luke 1:5 "In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly divisions of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the Temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense."
Even though the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD the Jews can still determine the cycle of the priestly courses of service. Assuming that the annual complete cycle of the priestly courses was about the same in the time of Zechariah, the course of Abijah would have been on duty the week of Heshvan 17 – 24, which is our November 10th –17th. If that was the time when Zechariah received the announcement from Gabriel that Elizabeth would give birth to a son then, according to the references in the Gospel of Luke, it should have been about fifteen months until Jesus would be born. If those dates are calculated to account for the Jewish leap year, the month of Tebeth or December/January would be the time of the year for the birth of Christ. This is one way the time of the year could have been calculated. Another possibility concerns the instructions for celebrating the Feast of Atonement in the Old Testament. Old Testament instructions for the celebration of the Feast of Atonement, Exodus 30:7-8 "Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar (of incense see Ex. 30:1-6) every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before Yahweh for the generations to come. Do not offer on the altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it. Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns. This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come. It is most holy to Yahweh."
Exodus chapter 30 and Leviticus chapter 16 give the instructions for liturgical worship on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), one of the Seven Holy Feasts of the Old Covenant Church and the only feast when the blood of the sacrificed animal is placed on the horns of the altar of incense when the incense has been burned [see the document "The Seven Sacred Feasts of the Old Covenant" in the Resources section]. In the 1st century at the time of the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, there were about 20,000 priests throughout the country—far too many to minister in the Temple at one time. Therefore the priests were divided into 24 separate groups called 'courses' which may have been 24 families, all of whom descended from Aaron, the first High Priest. Each group, according to King David's directions (1Chronicles 24:3-19) took turns serving in the Temple and lots were drawn to assign duties. The priest Zechariah was a member of the Abijah division, on duty that particular week in Luke chapter 1. Each morning and evening a priest was to enter the Holy Place in the temple and burn incense. Lots were cast to decide who would enter the sacred room, and on this particular day the lot fell to Zechariah. This was perhaps a once in a life time opportunity for Zechariah but it was not a chance occasion. God was guiding the events of history to prepare the way for Jesus, the last lamb of sacrifice, the final atonement, to come to earth. And that brings us to the phrase in the Luke scripture that reads "all the assembled worshipers were praying outside." This phrase may refer to the gathering of the faithful at the Temple on the Feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The Feast of Atonement was the only Feast that involved a sacrifice on the Altar of Incense. On that day a great crowd of worshipers would be praying outside the Temple and facing the Holy Place as the priest burnt to offering of incense and smeared the blood of the sacrificed animal on the horns of the golden altar of incense.
So what is the significance of the Day of Atonement and the announcement of John's birth? The Day of Atonement is a time of national repentance. This was to be John the Baptist's mission: he was to prepare the way for the Messiah by calling the people to a baptism of repentance for sin. In the book of Leviticus Yahweh commanded that this feast was "to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work…[..]. Because on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you. Then, before Yahweh, you will be clean from all your sins." Leviticus 16:29-30. According to the calendar this day would fall near the autumn equinox, around the 25th of September. It has long been a tradition in the Church that the angel came to the priest Zechariah on the Jewish Feast of Atonement. If John's conception occurred on September 25th, nine months later would place his birth around June 25th. It is interesting that the Church has for centuries celebrated the feast of John the Baptist on the traditional day of his birth on June the 24th.
But how does that information help to determine the birth of Jesus? When the angel Gabriel came to Mary he informed her that her cousin Elizabeth was already six months with child: "Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month." Luke 1:36 Six months from September 25th gives us a date of March 25th for the Annunciation, very close to the Spring equinox. This is the exact date that the Church has always celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation. When you add nine months to March 25th you have December 25th as the birth of our Savior! Is it a coincidence that all these dates fall near the year's four divisions? No, our seasons and the momentous events associated with the coming of our Savior are all part of God's great plan since the creation of the world. (Our seasonal divisions were established after the Flood; see Genesis 8:22).
There is one more piece of evidence that may support the theory that the Church used this information to determine the birth of Jesus. According to the Fathers of the Church there was a tradition that Jesus died on the cross on the same day of the year that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Jesus died on the Feast of Passover, which falls near the spring equinox and that year might have been March 25th [end of March or early April is the yearly spread in calculating the date according to the moon’s cycle], but the Feast of the Annunciation is always celebrated on March 25th!
But if the Church has determined that Jesus was born December 25 why is it that the beginning of our civil calendar year, calculated by a Catholic Abbot in the 6th century (our liturgical year begins at Advent in early December), begins on January 1st? In 525AD mathematician Dennis the Short, Abbot of Rome, rejected the old Roman calendar which was dated from the founding of the pagan city of Rome and established a new calendar, which he dated from what he calculated as the year of the birth of Christ (designated as year 1 Anno Domini= "in the year of our Lord"). He decided to date the beginning of the civil calendar year with Jesus' entrance into the Old Covenant faith according to the Old Covenant Law. This event was commanded to take place eight days after the birth of a male child (Genesis 17:9-12; 21:2-4). Counting December 25 as day one, (which was the ancient custom since there was no concept of 0-place value) the eighth day is January 1st.
It is interesting that other Christian scholars disagreed with Dennis' year of birth calculations for Christ, supporting instead the testimony of Fathers of the Church Clement of Alexandria [3rd century] and Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in the Holy Land [4th century]. Both early scholars agreed that Jesus was born three years earlier [see Clement of Alexandria's Stomata, I and Eusebius' History of the Church chapter 5]. Eusebius wrote in his Church History "It was in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus and the twenty-eighth after the subjugation of Egypt and the death of Antony and Cleopatra". These calculations place Jesus' birth in 3BC BC= Before Christ. Eusebius is dating Augustus' reign from the death of Julius Caesar, in our time = 44BC and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra in 30AD, our time. Dates before the year 1BC and 1AD [the year designated by Dennis the Short as the year of Christ's birth] are counted in greater numbers counting backward from Christ's birth and in greater numbers counting forward. There is no year 0. In calculating the dates of ancient times it is important to remember that it was not until the Middle Ages that the concept of 0-place value was introduced in counting sequences so count the years including the first year in the sequence. This is why we calculate that Jesus was in the tomb 3 days instead of two days from Friday to Sunday.
Today most modern scholars have based the year of Jesus' birth on the report of the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus that Herod the Great died between a lunar eclipse shortly before his death and the Passover Feast soon after his death [Antiquities of the Jews 17.213, 156-191 and The Jewish War 2.10]. The great astronomer Johannes Kepler [d. 1630] in trying to identify Jesus' birth year through Josephus' information concerning Herod's death identified the year 4BC as the year of a partial lunar eclipse on March 12/13, with the Jewish Passover twenty-nine days later on April 11th. There was also a total lunar eclipse in 5BC but with a lapse in time of 7 months until the Passover this date seemed unlikely. Since the late 19th century most Biblical scholars, accepting the 4BC date for Herod's death, assume Jesus was born in year 7 or 6BC. Recently, however, modern astronomers have calculated that in year 1 there was full lunar eclipse viewed from Jerusalem on the night of January 9/10 and the Passover Feast of that year was celebrated just twelve and a half weeks later on April 8th. This information has caused some Biblical scholars to reassess the calculations of Jesus' birth year to the year 3/2BC. It has also been determined that scribal error compromised other accounts Josephus' dates concerning Herod's family. Copies of his history after the year 1544 indicate Herod actually died later than previously believed in the year that would correspond to our year 1BC. In all copies of Antiquities of the Jews 18.106 prior to 1544 Josephus places Herod's son Philip's death in the twenty-second year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, after ruling for thirty-seven years after the death of his father Herod instead of in the twentieth year of Tiberius as recorded in many copies of the history after 1544 [copyist evidently mistakenly failed to write 22 and instead recorded 20 years and the mistake was repeated by other copyist]. The older account from Josephus' history therefore places the death of Herod in the year 1BC our time. If King Herod died in year 1BC, according to our modern calendar, and if Herod believed Jesus to be just under 2 years old when he ordered the murder of the babies in all villages around Jerusalem, then a birth date of fall/winter 3/2BC for Jesus would agree with both Clement's and Euseibus' accounts!
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2012 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.