No, I didn’t get the title of this THOUGHT backwards! My THOUGHT this week deals with the timing of the incarnation of the Son of God. Is December 25th, or for that matter, winter, the time of the year in which Jesus was born? While the Bible does not say anywhere that Jesus was born on a specific day of the year, there are enough clues given in it that make an early winter date of birth probable.
The Bible states that Herod (the Great) was king over Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. History tells us that Herod died in the spring of 4 BC. Therefore, Jesus had to be born sometime before that. The Magi come before Herod, looking for the place where Jesus was to be born. As Herod communicates the place of Bethlehem to them, he also commands them to return to him “on their way home” supposedly that he might go to see the newborn king. Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi went home via the scenic route. When Herod realized he had been duped, he ordered the execution of children under the age of two years in the area around and including the town of Bethlehem. For him to realize this, it seems probable that a couple of weeks had transpired since the magi first came to him. In that it took a couple of weeks for the magi to travel from “the east” (probably Babylon) to Jerusalem, it means that the very latest Jesus could have been born would be late winter of 4 BC. Undoubtedly some time passed between the issuing of the edict to kill the children and Herod’s death which would make the time of Jesus’ birth earlier, such as a winter birth.
Another clue in the Bible is that shepherds were keeping their sheep outside of the town of Bethlehem. While the Christmas carol may say that it was a “cold winter’s night, Scripture does not. Sheep were generally brought into areas around cities during winter months. During the rest of the year, the sheep would be grazing in more wilderness areas. The Mishnah states that sheep that were worthy of being a Passover offering were kept in the fields for thirty days before the feast. This means they could have in the fields in February, which is one of the coldest and rainiest months in Israel. Therefore, a December nativity is certainly possible.
One final clue that might indicate a winter nativity is found in the narrative concerning Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. Luke states that this priest was of the course of Abijah. The priests minister in the Temple according to what course they belonged. The course of Abijah was the eighth course to minister. The problem in calculating when this course would have ministered is that Israel’s calendar was lunar based rather than solar. Consequently, it is only possible to give a range of time that Zacharias would have been in the Temple when the angel appeared to him announcing John’s future birth. Since each course ministered twice in a year’s time, it is possible that Zacharias was ministering between the middle of April to the end of June in his first ministry of the year and between middle of October and then end of December during his second ministry. If Zacharias’ wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant immediately after his first ministry, and if that first ministry was in the end of June then Jesus would have been conceived around the end of December and born around the end of September. If, though, John was not conceived immediately at the conclusion of Zacharias’ Temple ministry, then Jesus would have been born later into the year. If it was Zacharias’ second turn for ministry during that year and if it was in mid October, then Jesus could have been born in mid January.
So while there may not be conclusive evidence for the time of Jesus’ birth, it certainly is possible that we celebrate the season for the reason correctly. But it is of little value if we know the season for the reason correctly if we don’t know the reason for the season. It was the Apostle Paul’s greatest desire that he might know Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:10). I hope this Christmas it is your desire too.