Given many questions as to whether Jesus was born on 25 December or not, I ask if the ambiguity in scripture is meant to teach us something?
Some things are simply not mentioned in biblical texts!
Given the nature of this question, I would like to give a more roundabout perspective taken from a Catholic perspective, if that is okay.
Strictly speaking there is no ambiguity in Scriptures on the subject matter of keeping or celebrating Jesus’ birthday. It simply is not mentioned in Scriptures. Some traditions chose to do so; while others chose not to do so. If I may be condemned for celebrating Christmas, so be it. I am not Ebenezer Scrooge and I do not humbug this subject matter as Ebenezer Scrooge would.
Yes, the Scriptures do not say anything about celebrating the Birth of Christ as we commonly say as Christmas, but the the Sacred Scriptures do not directly forbid it either.
As decided Christians, we can not all be in accord with this idea of celebrating the Birth of Jesus, in his incarnation and physically dwelt amongst men.
Yet, St. Paul himself admits, be it in a roundabout way, that some things may not be written down in Sacred Scriptures. I am not trying to be argumentative here. But rather point out that Catholics see things in a different light. As long as Christendom is divided there will be no unity in thought, tradition or beliefs to one degree or another.
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[a] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. - 2 Thessalonians 2:15
According to St. John Chrysostom the custom of celebrating the Solemnity of our Saviour’s Nativity in his Homily for this Feast, that the Western Churches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept it on December 25th.
Here is what the now famous liturgist Dom Guéranger, the foremost authority on the liturgy in his Liturgical Year has to say about this matter:
The Feast of Mary’s Purification is, therefore, part of that of Jesus’ Birth; and the custom of keeping this holy and glorious period of forty days as one continued Festival has every appearance of being a very ancient one, at least in the Roman Church. And firstly, with regard to our Saviour’s Birth on December 25, we have St John Chrysostom telling us, in his Homily for this Feast, that the Western Churches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept it on this day. He is not satisfied with merely mentioning the tradition; he undertakes to show that it is well founded, inasmuch as the Church of Rome had every means of knowing the true day of our Saviour’s Birth, since the acts of the Enrolment, taken in Judea by command of Augustus, were kept in the public archives of Rome. The holy Doctor adduces a second argument, which he founds upon the Gospel of St Luke, and he reasons thus: we know from the sacred Scriptures that it must have been in the fast of the seventh month [Lev. xxiii 24 and following verses. The seventh month (or Tisri) corresponded to the end of our September and beginning of our October. -Tr.] that the Priest Zachary had the vision in the Temple; after which Elizabeth, his wife, conceived St John the Baptist: hence it follows that the Blessed Virgin Mary having, as the Evangelist St Luke relates, received the Angel Gabriel’s visit, and conceived the Saviour of the world in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, that is to say, in March, the Birth of Jesus must have taken place in the month of December. - The History of Christmas (The Liturgical Year)
And now for St. John Chrysostom in his own words:
There is something which long ago patriarchs painfully longed for, prophets foretold and the righteous set their hearts on. Now it has come to pass and had its consummation today. God was seen on earth through flesh and dwelt among humankind. So then, beloved, let us rejoice with great gladness. For if John leapt in his mother’s womb when Mary visited Elizabeth, consider that we have actually seen our Saviour born today. So now we, much more, must leap, rejoice, and be full of wonder and astonishment at the grandeur of God’s plan which exceeds all thought. Think how great it would be to see the sun coming down from the heavens, running on the earth and sending out its beams on everybody from here. If the sight of such splendour would astound all who behold it, consider and contemplate now how great it is to see the sun of righteousness (Malachi 4: 2), sending out beams from our own flesh and illuminating our souls. Long ago I set my heart on seeing this day, and not just seeing it, but seeing it with such a great gathering of people. I continually prayed that our place of meeting would be filled just as we now see it filled. So this has come to pass and had its consummation. Although it is not yet the tenth year since this day became clear and familiar to us, through your zeal, it has now flourished as though it was given from the beginning many years ago. Because of this one would not be far wrong in saying that it is both new and old: new because it has only recently been made known to you, old and venerable because it has swiftly become similar in stature to days long recognised and it feels as though it is of similar age to them. It is as with carefully bred and cultivated plants (the ones that reach an impressive height almost as soon as they are placed in the earth, and are laden with fruit). This day was known from the beginning to those in the West: now it has been brought to us and before the passing of many years, has swiftly shot up, bearing such fruit as you now see – the precincts full and the church packed with the crowd who have gathered together. Expect a repayment worthy of such zeal from Christ who is born today in the flesh. He will reward you for this enthusiasm. Your heartfelt zeal for this day is a great sign of your love for the one who is born. If it is necessary for anything to be contributed by us, your fellow servants, then, as we are able, we will contribute it; or rather whatever words the grace of God gives me to build you up. What do you wish to hear today? You want, of course, to hear about this day. I well know that many are still debating with each other about it, some arguing against, some for. Everywhere there is a lot of conversation about this day, some saying accusingly that the day is a new innovation which has only recently been introduced, while others contend that it is ancient and venerable, that the prophets spoke in advance about his birth and that from the beginning it was plain and clear to those living from Thrace to Cadiz. So come then and let us begin to give an account of these things. At the moment a day which is debated among you enjoys significant goodwill. If it became more familiar to you it is obvious that it would enjoy even greater zeal. Clarity of teaching will consolidate its position among you.
I have three convincing arguments to share with you through which we will know for sure that this is the time at which our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Word, was born. Of the three the first is that the news about the feast was swiftly circulated everywhere; it increased in prominence and the feast flourished. Gamaliel said of the proclamation of the Gospel – if it is from men and women it will come to an end, but if it is from God you will not be able to bring it to an end lest you are found to be fighting against God. I would confidently say of this day that, since God the Word is of God, far from it coming to an end, it is increasing in prominence each year and becoming better and better known. Within a few years the preaching of the Gospel had taken hold of the entire world even though it was shared in each place by ordinary people of little education like tentmakers and fishermen. The modest circumstances of its servants did it no harm, but the power of the message won over everything, brought to nothing whatever got in the way and demonstrated a strength of its own. - John Chrysostom - Homily on the Date of Christmas
Objections to celebrate Christmas will always exists as long a disunity exists. I guess as Catholics we have to help eliminate those objections to Christmas and the Dec. 25th Birth of Christ made Flesh?
Objection: The Dec. 25th birth of Christ invented by the Catholic Church in the 4th century.
Answer: There is no evidence supporting any part of this allegation. There is good evidence that the Nativity has been celebrated from as early as the second century, hundreds of years before the Catholic Church even existed.
The Catholic Church and Papacy as we know them today did not grow up until the 6th and 7th centuries. Boniface III, in 607, was the first Bishop to actually use the term "Pope." Prior to this, there was no centralized authority in the church to institute observance of the Nativity, and what customs existed grew up spontaneously by the common consent of the collective church. Not even the emperor Constantine (AD 242-337), who is sometimes associated with the beginnings of Catholicism and a centralized power in the church, ever addressed the issue of the Nativity.
Objection: If there was no Catholic Church or Papacy prior to the 6th or 7th centuries responsible for instituting celebration of Christ's birth Dec. 25th, what about an ecumenical council?
Answer: Here again there is no evidence supporting this supposition.
The first ecumenical council was the Council of Nicea in AD 325, long after the Nativity was already being celebrated. This council took up the question of the uniform celebration of the Pasche (Easter), but history is silent about it or any other council instituting the Feast of the Nativity. So far as may be authoritatively shown, if not set in the church by the apostles, celebration of the Nativity grew up spontaneously as a way of commemorating important events in sacred history, like the miracle at Cana, the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. In the East, January 6th (Epiphany) was kept as the date of Christ's birth until late in the fourth century, (though the same date was supposed by others to commemorate Jesus' baptism, the arrival of the Magi, or the miracle at Cana). In the West, the Nativity was celebrated Dec. 25th for as long as history remembers. The fact that the Nativity was celebrated differently in differnt places proves that no pope or council established the Feast of the Nativity, for if that were the case there would be no place for this difference to have grown up. Among the earliest testimonies to celebration the Nativity include the following:
- Theophilus, Bishop of Caesarea (A.D. 115-181) - Theophilus lived in the time of Emperor Commodus; he lived within 100 years of the apostles, and was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the very fount whence sprang our faith.
We ought to celebrate the birth-day of our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen." Magdeburgenses, Cent. 2. c. 6. Hospinian, de orign Festorum Chirstianorum
- Clement of Alexandria (AD 153-217) - In the second century, Alexandria became the intellectual center of Christianity, beginning with Clement, followed by his student, Origen.
*"And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon." (Stromata, I, xxi)
Counting from the death of Antony in 30 B.C., the 28th year of Augustus would have been 2 B.C. The first month of the Egyptian calendar was Thoth, answering to late August (Thoth 1 = August 29). The ninth month was Pachon. The 25th of Pachon answers to the 20th of May. However, this is usually explained by the fact that the months originally took their names from where they occurred in the year. Hence, October, November and December were the eighth, ninth, and tenth months counting from March in the original Roman calendar, which had only ten months. But the Greek Fathers frequently took April, instead of March, for the first month of the year, as we see expressly in St. Chrysostom, in Anastasius Patriarch of Antioch, the Apostolic Constitutions, in Macarius, Stephanus, Gobarus, and other of the ancients. This would make December the ninth counting from April. Supposing therefore that some were informed Christ was born the 25th day of ninth month, who then transferred it to the Egyptian calendar, the 25th of Pachon would be the result. This is the belief of John Selden and Johannes Keppler.
- Hippolytus of Rome (A.D. 170-240) - Hippolytus of Rome provides one of the earliest known references to the December 25 birth of Christ in his commentary on Daniel. Chrysostom says that the Feast of the Nativity was kept “from the beginning” by those in the west, and we find corroboration of this in Hippolytus:
“The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the calends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam.” (Commentary on Daniel 4:23)
The eighth before the calends of January is the twenty-fifth day of December, and the forty-second year of Augustus counting from the death of Julius Caesar was 2 BC.
- Apostolic Constitutions (circa A.D. 70-250) - The Apostolic Constitutions are a compilation, whose material is derived from sources differing in age. Early writers were inclined to assign them to the apostolic age and to Clement Romanus (A.D. 70), but they are now generally assigned to the second or third century. In the Fifth book, Sec. III, we find:
"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 counting from Nisan (April) is Casleu in the Jewish calendar. Transferred to our Roman calendar, the ninth month answers to December.
Diocletian (A.D. 303-304) - Nicephorus wrote an ecclesiastical history in which he reports Diocletian's destruction of a church on Dec. 25th, filled with worshippers celebrating the Lord's Nativity:
"At Nicomedia (a city of Bithynia) when the festival of Christ's birth-day came, and a multitude of Christians in all ages had assembled together in the temple to celebrate that birth-day. Diocletian the tyrant, having gotten an advantageous occasion whereby he might accomplish his madness and fury, sent men thither to enclose the temple, and to set it on fire round about, and so consumed them all to ashes, even twenty thousand persons."
John Selden in his monumental work, Theanthropos (1661, pp. 33, 34), confirms Nicephorus' report, saying that ancient Greek and Roman martyrologies date this event to Dec. 25th. It is probable that this occurred in A.D. 303-304.
Objection: Dec. 25th was assigned for celebration of Christ's birth to Christianize the pagan solstice, Saturnalia, Feast of the Unconquered Sun, and other pagan festivals.
Answer: Not one word from antiquity has ever been produced supporting this assertion. The whole notion is supposition at best, or deliberate slander at worst. The church fathers never spoke of Dec. 25th in connection with Christ's birth except as the traditional, received date of the Nativity.
- Saturnalia - The Saturnalia was originally celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth Kalends of January (Dec. 17). With the Julian reform of the calendar, two days were added to December, causing the festival to fall on the sixteenth Kalends of January. Macrobius reports that the addition of two days to December caused the festival to be celebrated more days than one, which, coupled with the Sigarillaria, came to be celebrated a full week, or Dec. 17-23.
"I judge that I've now abundantly demonstrated that the Saturnalia used to be celebrated on one day only, the fourteenth before the Kalends, but that it was later extended to three, first as a result of the days that Caesar added to the month, and then by the edict of Augustus in which he assigned to the Saturnialia a three day holiday. As a result, they begin on the sixteenth day before the Kalends and end on the fourteenth, when the one day observance was formerly held. But the addition of the Sigillaria extends the public bustle and religious celebration to seven days." Saturnalia I.10.23, 24
Thus, the Saturnalia reached only as far as Dec. 23rd and therefore cannot account for Christmas occurring Dec. 25th.
- Solstice - It is true that pagan peoples throughout the ancient world had various celebrations at the major turning points of the calendar, including the winter solstice, and that this anciently fell upon Dec. 25th. However, due to defects in the Roman calendar, by the time of Jesus' birth the winter solstice anticipated Dec. 25th by about two days. By the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, the astronomical event anticipated the calendar by four days. Therefore, to correct this deficiency and provide for the uniform observance of the Pasche (Easter), the council set the vernal equinox, which anciently fell on March 25th, to March 21st, moving it four days. But in correcting the civil date of the vernal equinox to correspond with the astronomical event, the winter solstice was also necessarily corrected, for the two stand in fixed relation one to another. Hence, the solstice now falls on Dec. 21st. However, the coincidence that the Nativity is celebrated on the day the solstice anciently occurred in the civil calendar is no more evidence that the date is contrived than the coincidence that Christ's passion and resurrection occurred near the vernal equinox. Indeed, might not God have chosen man's salvation to come about precisely this way because of its poetic symbolism and value? Malachi associated Christ with the sun over 400 years before his birth, saying, "the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings" (Mal. 4:2). New Testament writers make similar use of the metaphor (Lk. 1:78; Jn. 1:4, 9; 2 Pet. 1:19). Thus, it is altogether fitting that Christ should come into the world in the dark of winter, bringing spiritual light and salvation, and be raised from the dead in the spring when the earth is reborn after the pall of sin and winter death.
Sol Invictus - This is a facet of the winter solstice, but we treat it here separately. In A.D. 274 following his victories in the east, the emperor Aurelius built a temple and instituted quadrennial games in behalf of Sol Invictus, a pagan sun god to whom he attributed his victories. An illuminated codex manuscript produced for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus contains, in part six, a calendar for the year 354 (the Chronography of 354). (The Codex is available on-line here) This calendar bears the following inscription for Dec. 25th: "N INVICTI CM XXX". N = Natalis ("birthday/nativity"). INVICTI = "Of the Unconquered one". CM = Circenses missus ("games ordered"). XXX = 30. Thus, for birthday of the "unconquered one" that year, thirty games were ordered. Many believe this refers to Sol Invictus and the "birthday" of the sun god worshipped by the Roman Emperor Aurelius. Although this has been questioned and others believe the games instituted by Aurelius were kept in October, we may accept as true for present purposes that Sol Invictus was honored Dec. 25th.
Objection: Shepherds would not have been in the field keeping watch over sheep in winter.
Answer: This argument assumes that weather conditions in Jerusalem and Judea are similar to those of Europe and other northern climes. However, Judea is a desert climate. Its average high temperature in December is 57.2° Fahrenheit; its average low is 47.1°. Its record high in December is 79°. The Bible fully confirms the ability of shepherds to be in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks in December. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived year round in tents their whole lives (Heb. 11:9; cf. Gen. 128; 13:3, 18; 18:1, 9), as did many of the Jews for centuries after conquering Canaan (Jud. 4:18; Jer. 35:7, 10). Moreover, scripture specifically relates that Jacob kept watch over Laban's flocks by winter frost at night (Gen. 31:40). The pictures below were taken in Bethlehem at Christmas 1890 and 2006. As may be seen, the climate is perfectly suitable for being out of doors. Hence, there is simply no basis to this objection.
Bethlehem Christmas Pilgrims, 1890
Outdoor Service Christmas Eve, 2006
Objection: Jesus was probably born in September.
Answer: The usual method used as proof Jesus was born in September is the priestly courses. A second method is an interpretation of Rev. 12:1-5 vis-à-vis astronomical events. Both are wrong.
Priestly Courses: We know that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest and was executing his priestly office when told that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive a son (Lk. 1:5, 9). John was conceived six months before our Lord (Lk. 1:24, 26, 36). If it can be determined when John was conceived, it can be identified when Jesus was born some fifteen months later. There were twenty-four courses of priests (I Chron. 24:18). Zechariah was a member of the course of Abijah, the eighth course (Lk. 1:5; I Chron. 24:10). If it is assumed that the courses began their ministration in the spring on Nisan 1, the course of Abijah would have been serving the week of Jyar 20-26 (the eight weeks are as follows: Nisan 1-7, 8-14, 15-21, 22-28, 29-5 Jyar, 6-12, 13-19, 20-26). This is sometimes extended a week based upon the assumption that the normal progression of the course was interrupted by Passover Nisan 14. If so, Zechariah would then have been serving the week of 27 Jyar - 4 Sivan. Working from this latter date, and assuming John was conceived the first week Zechariah returned home, a normal 38 week gestation would place John's birth the week of Shebat 29- Adar 5. Jesus' birth 6 months (26 weeks) later would thus fall on Elul 4-10. If it is then assumed that Nisan 1 answers to April 1, Elul would then translate into September 4-10, for it is the fifth month from Nisan. In this way, therefore, it is argued that Jesus was born in September. However, there are several errors and oversights in this approach that render it untenable.
First, postponing of the normal service of Abijah in the eighth week cannot be justified. Although the Mishna indicates all the courses served at the three great feasts of the year (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) (Finegan, p. 133, § 241), there is no basis for assuming that the normal rotation of the courses was suspended, rather then merely supplemented. The extra work associated with the great feasts might require additional courses to serve, but the regular evening and morning sacrifices and other priestly duties still had to be made throughout the remainder of the week. Hence, we would expect this responsibility to fall to the course whose duty it was to minister that week. The better view therefore is that the course whose turn it was to serve received assistance of other courses, not that the normal rotation was entirely suspended. Second, there were twenty-four courses of priests, but about 51 1/2 weeks in the Jewish lunar year of 354 days (about 54 3/4 weeks in leap years of 384 days). Each course therefore served twice annually, plus such additional weeks as necessary to fill out the year (e.g., some courses served a third time). The model above assumes Zechariah was serving in the first weekly ministration and does not allow for the possibility he was serving six months later, which would place Jesus' birth in March. Third, and most important, the best scholarship agrees that the priestly courses began their annual rotations in the fall on Tishri 1, not in the spring on Nisan 1 as proposed by the model above (Finegan, p. 134 § 243). It was the seventh month when the temple was dedicated by Solomon for which the courses were created in the first place, and the seventh month when the sacrifices resumed again under Ezra after the Babylonian captivity (I Kn. 8:2; Ezra 3:6). Hence, Tishri is the correct point for the annual rotation to begin, not Nisan. The most basic assumption underlying September birth model is therefore false. On the other hand, we have shown in our tables of priestly courses that, working from 1 Tishri and constructing the courses in twenty-four year cycles from A.D. 70 backward to 21 B.C., it is fully possible that John was conceived in the fall and born in June, placing Jesus' birth six months later in December.
Rev. 12:1-5: Another method of placing Jesus' birth in September was proposed by Ernest L. Martin in his book, The Star that Astonished the World (ASK Publications, 1996). Therein, Martin asserts that Rev. 12:1-5 provides an exact time for the birth of Christ, right down to the day and hour. Martin is able to do this by interpreting the woman as the constellation Virgo. He then urges that her being “clothed with the sun” signifies that the sun was midway in the constellation, thus clothing her. For Martin, the key is the moon beneath her feet, which he says could only happen within a 90 minute window one day in the year 3 BC. Thus, according to Martin, we have the precise means of dating Jesus’ birth:
“The Moon has to be positioned somewhere under that 7 degree arc to satisfy the description of Revelation 12. But the Moon also has to be in that exact location when the Sun is mid-bodied to Virgo. In the year 3 B.C.E., these two factors came to precise agreement for about an hour and a half, as observed from Palestine or Patmos, in the twilight period of September 11th The relationship began about 6:15 p.m. (sunset), and lasted until around 7:45 p.m. (moonset). This is the only day in the whole year that the astronomical phenomenon described in the twelfth chapter of Revelation could take place.”
Of course, at the critical moment that the moon is allegedly in position the sun has set, so it difficult to see how Martin can argue for the literalness of the vision. Moreover, the constellation Draco does not answer the description of the dragon in Revelation, nor for that matter does Virgo match the description of the woman (Virgo does not have a crown of twelve stars and Draco does not have seven heads and ten horns). Hence, Martin insists upon the literalness of the vision only when it suits him and not at all points. However, by far the most glaring discrepancy between Martin's account and scripture is the year of Jesus' birth. Luke is emphatic that Jesus was 29 going on 30 at his baptism in the fall of 15th of Tiberius (A.D. 29). This would place Jesus' birth in 2 B.C. Thus, Martin's interpretation of Rev. 12:1-5 is contradicted by God's inspired word. (For a full refutation of Martin, click here).
None of the normal objections put forward against Christmas and the Dec. 25th birth of Christ have any factual basis.
Objections to Christmas and the Dec. 25th Birth of Christ Answered
PS. Merry Christmas everyone!