When Was Jesus Born?
“THE most familiar solstic celebration of ancient times was that of the Romans,” according to science writer Isaac Asimov. It was the week-long Saturnalia (December 17 to 24), held in honor of their agricultural god, Saturn. Dr. Asimov also comments:
“The Mithraists celebrated the birth of Mithra at the winter solstice, a natural time, and fixed on the day December 25 so that the popular Roman Saturnalia could build up to the Mithraist ‘Day of the Sun’ as a climax. . . . Sometime after A.D. 300, Christianity managed the final coup of absorbing the Saturnalia, and with that it scored its final victory over Mithraism. December 25 was established as the day of the birth of Jesus, and the great festival was made Christian. There is absolutely no biblical authority for December 25 as having been the day of the Nativity.”
Interesting observations, indeed. But they do throw a pall over annual Christmas celebrations and raise certain questions. Is it possible to ascertain the year of Jesus Christ’s birth? Can the approximate day be determined? Indeed, when was Jesus born?
PINPOINTING THE YEAR
One way to ascertain the year of Jesus’ birth is to consider the divinely inspired prophecy of the “seventy weeks,” or “seventy weeks of years,” recorded at Daniel 9:24-27. (An American Translation; Moffatt; Revised Standard Version; compare New World Translation, footnote.) The angel Gabriel told the Hebrew prophet Daniel: “From the going forth of the word to restore and to rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Leader, there will be seven weeks, also sixty-two weeks [of years, or 483 years].”—Dan. 9:25; Num. 14:34; Ezek. 4:6.
When did these 483 years begin? In the fall of 455 B.C.E., during the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, when that Persian monarch decreed that Jerusalem and its walls should be rebuilt. (Neh. 2:1-8) Accordingly, that period of 69 “weeks” (483 years) ended in the fall of 29 C.E. The Messiah then appeared on the scene, for in that year Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer and became the Anointed One or Christ by being anointed with God’s holy spirit. (Matt. 3:13-17) Incidentally, Luke 3:1-3 indicates that John began his baptizing activity in the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” which year ran from August 17, 28 C.E., to August 16, 29 C.E.
How old was Jesus at his baptism? The Scriptures answer: “Jesus himself, when he commenced his work [right after being baptized], was about thirty years old.” (Luke 3:21-23) If we count back 30 years from Jesus’ baptism in 29 C.E. (and remember that there is no zero year between the B.C.E. and C.E. periods of reckoning), we find that he was born in 2 B.C.E.
Lending support to this date is the prophecy of the “seventy weeks of years.” It indicates that the Messiah would be killed, thus ‘causing sacrifice and gift offering to cease’ as no longer required, in the middle of the 70th “week.” (Dan. 9:27; Rom. 6:14; Heb. 7:26-28) This means that Christ’s ministry was three and a half years long. It began at his baptism in 29 C.E. and ended with his death at Passover time in 33 C.E. (Luke 22:7-20) Counting back 33 1/2 years (the length of Jesus’ earthly life) also enables us to calculate the year of his birth as being 2 B.C.E.
WHAT ABOUT THE DAY?
As just noted, Jesus died at Passover time, which was about April 1, 33 C.E. (Matt. 26:17-30) Since Christ was about 30 years of age when commencing his work and his ministry was three and a half years long, he was 33 1/2 years old around Passover time, or about April 1, 33 C.E. Christ would have been 34 years of age six months later, or about October 1. Again counting back, we must conclude that Jesus was born, not on December 25, but about October 1, in the year 2 B.C.E.
NOT BORN IN WINTERTIME
Wintertime does not suit the circumstances of Jesus’ birth 30 years earlier in Bethlehem. The cold rainy season for Palestine begins in late October and lasts several months. By December Bethlehem, like neighboring Jerusalem, experiences frequent frost at night. And how cold could it be? Concerning Judean King Jehoiakim, we read: “The king was sitting in the winter house, in the ninth month [Chislev, corresponding to November-December], with a brazier burning before him.” (Jer. 36:22) He needed such heat to keep warm. Moreover, in postexilic Jerusalem, the people Ezra assembled in the open during that same winter month were “shivering because of the matter [then under consideration] and on account of the showers of rain.” (Ezra 10:7, 9, 13) It is noteworthy that the next month, Tebeth (December-January), saw the lowest temperatures of the year, with occasional snow in the highlands.
Augustus Caesar ordered a registration that, as it turned out, coincided with the time of Jesus’ birth. But do you think that the Roman emperor would have unnecessarily provoked his often rebellious Jewish subjects by decreeing that they go to register in their home cities during the rainy, cold, wintry month of December, when traveling would be especially difficult? Not at all.
Shepherds were tending their flocks “out of doors” on the night of Jesus’ birth. (Luke 2:8-14) But already in the autumn month of Bul (October-November) the rainy season had started. (Deut. 11:14) By the latter part of October, when Bul began, the animals would have been brought into shelters at night. So the presence of shepherds in the open fields during the night harmonizes with other evidence indicating that Jesus was born in the early autumn month of Ethanim (September-October).
AN OBSERVANCE THAT IS REQUIRED
It is clear, therefore, that Jesus was not born on December 25. Rather, the available evidence points to about October 1 of 2 B.C.E. Hence, celebrating his birthday through Christmas observance on December 25 is totally inappropriate for those guided by the Holy Scriptures.
Yet the lack of a specifically stated birth date for Jesus should not disturb us. After all, the only birthday celebrations of Bible record are those of worldly rulers.—Gen. 40:20; Matt. 14:6; Mark 6:21-28; John 18:36.
Nevertheless, Jesus should be remembered. To that end, he instituted the Memorial of his death, often called the Lord’s Evening Meal. Christ did so on the last night of his earthly life, shortly before he gave “his soul a ransom in exchange for many.” (Matt. 20:28) Using the emblems of unleavened bread and wine to represent the body and blood he was about to offer, Jesus had his faithful followers partake, and urged: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, 20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26) Hence, although true Christians have some interest in knowing when Jesus was born, it is the death, not the birth, of Jesus Christ that they are to commemorate annually.