In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the birth of Christ – some children will even innocently celebrate it as Jesus’ birthday. But there is still an element of the unknown about the exact date when this event happened. About the only thing we’re certain of is that it definitely did not occur on December 25, in the Year 0.
For starters, there was no Year 0; in fact, there was no specific dating system then. Dates back then were measured by the year of a king’s reign, which would have varied from country to country. The Jews currently do have a specific dating system that puts us in the year 5778, which would have Jesus’ birth around the year 3760. But even this has a flaw, since the Jewish calendar doesn’t line up exactly with our current calendar.
The dating system that we use today was divided into two periods – B.C., or Before the birth of Christ, and A.D., Anno Domini, Latin for the Year of the Lord, meaning after his birth. This dating system came about long after the fact, in about 525 A.D. although it wasn’t widely used until 800 A.D. In this dating system, we have the year 1 B.C. followed by the year 1 A.D. – no Year Zero. So, at best, Jesus would have been born in 1 A.D. But that is also not the case.
Herod died in March or April of what we now call 4 B.C., meaning Jesus was born at least four years Before Christ.
We know that, according to Matthew 2, that King Herod was still alive when Jesus was born. Herod died in March or April of what we now call 4 B.C., meaning Jesus was born at least four years Before Christ. Hmmm.
But it may have been even earlier. We don’t know when the wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus. While some have speculated it could have been up to two years after his birth, Matt. 2:8 suggests that he was still in Bethlehem. Since Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth (Luke 2:4), it is likely they would have made their way back home within a few months after the birth.
We also don’t know how long the wise men stayed, or how long it took Herod to figure out that they’d tricked him. Long enough, it seems, for Joseph to gather his family to flee to Egypt. Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in the area ages 2 and under “in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.” That does seem to indicate that Jesus may have been a toddler by this time, or it may mean that Herod just wanted to make really sure he got the right kid.
But what day was Jesus born on if he wasn’t born on Dec. 25?
So, at the very least, Jesus would have had to have been born at the very beginning of 4 B.C., but more likely in 5 B.C. or even as early as 6 or 7 B.C.
But what day was Jesus born on if he wasn’t born on Dec. 25? Since the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks at night (Luke 2:8), the angelic visitation would have occurred between April and October (the other months would have been too cold to keep the sheep out at night). Some scholars have used the knowledge of the priestly cycle of service to determine when John the Baptist was likely born, and then been able to extrapolate from that a date for Jesus’ birth. The best guess currently is that Jesus was born sometime in the last half of what we now know as September. If that was in 5 B.C., he would have been around six months old when King Herod died, or 1-1/2 if he was born in 6 B.C.
The first record of a Christmas celebration is Dec. 25, 336 A.D.
So why has Dec. 25 been recognized as the day for Jesus’ birth? No one knows for sure. For the first 300 years the early church didn’t celebrate his birth at all, focusing instead on his crucifixion and resurrection. The first record of a Christmas celebration is Dec. 25, 336 A.D., ordered by the Roman Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity.
Dec. 25 may have been chosen because it coincided with pagan winter solstice celebrations, or aligned with the Jewish Hanukkah festival. Early Christians speculated that, based on the date of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary conceived on March 25. That meant that if her pregnancy went exactly nine months, he would have been born on Dec. 25. Eastern churches, however, calculated that he would have been born on Jan. 6 and celebrated Christmas on that day. Some groups, like the Amish, still celebrate Jan. 6 as Old Christmas. It is also the 12th day of Christmas.
Over the years, Dec. 25 became a convenient time in Western Europe and America to celebrate Christmas because it was too cold to engage in any farming. They had more time to plan a celebration. For many people today in northern countries, the cold and shorter days mean more indoor time, so it is still a convenient time for celebrations.
We’ll all feel very blessed this year as we celebrate the Savior’s birth on Dec. 25. But if you really want to get Jesus a birthday cake, the more realistic time to do so would be around September 25. And add four or five candles since he was born at least several years before 1 A.D.