Questions From Readers
● Why is it that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays?
Basically, it is because they respect the Word of God and are keenly interested in responding to its indications.
Birthday celebrations are popular world wide and have been for millenniums. Often there will be a party, with presents being given. But does the Bible say anything about birthdays?
It can be said at the outset that the Bible does not discourage generous giving to a loved one. (Gen. 33:10, 11; Luke 15:22; 2 Cor. 8:19) Nor does it discourage enjoying a feast or party, for eating and drinking in moderation are recommended as one means of enjoying life. (Eccl. 3:12, 13) Jesus shared in a wedding feast. Job’s children held what may have been harvest feasts that occasioned family reunions. Abraham had a feast when Isaac was weaned. (John 2:1, 2; Job 1:4, 5, 13; Gen. 21:8) And even though it was not commanded by God, the Jews held an annual festival on the anniversary of the rededication of the temple, which feast Jesus attended.—John 10:22, 23.
The Bible does, though, indicate that certain caution is needed, for it would not be proper to share in just any celebration regardless of its reason or nature. (Ex. 32:1-6; 1 Pet. 4:3; 1 Cor. 10:20, 21) What about noting and celebrating birthdays?
Obviously, many true worshipers kept record of birth dates. Priests and others knew their ages. Such a matter was not left to guesswork. (Num. 1:2, 3; 4:3; 8:23-25) But there is nothing in the Scriptures to suggest that true worshipers had annual birthday celebrations.
The Bible reports only two birthday celebrations, both of persons who were not servants of the true God.
The first was that of Pharaoh of Egypt. It was marked by the hanging of Pharaoh’s baker, who had been in prison with Joseph. (Gen. 40:18-22) Commenting on Genesis 40:20, Dr. Adam Clarke observes: “The distinguishing [of] a birthday by a feast appears from this place to have been a very ancient custom. It probably had its origin from [the] notion of the immortality of the soul, as the commencement of life must appear of great consequence to that person who believed he was to live for ever.”
The second, some 1,800 years later, was the birthday of Herod Antipas. The account in Mark 6:21-24 reads:
“But a convenient day came along when Herod spread an evening meal on his birthday for his top-ranking men and the military commanders and the foremost ones of Galilee. And the daughter of this very Herodias came in and danced and pleased Herod and those reclining with him. The king said to the maiden: ‘Ask me for whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ Yes, he swore to her: ‘Whatever you ask me for, I will give it to you, up to half my kingdom.’ And she went out and said to her mother: ‘What should I ask for?’ She said: ‘The head of John the baptizer.’”—See also Matthew 14:6-11.
Regarding the account of Herod’s birthday, Dr. Richard Lenski comments: “The Jews abhorred the keeping of birthdays as being a pagan custom, but the Herods even outdid the Romans in these celebrations, so that ‘Herod’s birthday’ (Herodis dies) came to be a proverbial expression for excessive festival display.”
How are we to look at these two birthday celebrations? Is it just coincidental that they are mentioned and that both were for persons not having God’s approval? Or could it be that Jehovah deliberately had these details recorded in his Word, which he says is “beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight”? (2 Tim. 3:16) At the very least it can be said that these two accounts Biblically put birthday celebrations in a bad light, as a practice of those estranged from God.
Also, it is worth noting that God did not record the exact date of Jesus’ birth, which certainly would be the most important birthday if God’s servants were to celebrate birthdays. Instead, the Bible indicates the date of Jesus’ death and instructs Christians to commemorate that as an anniversary each year. (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-26) This harmonizes with the fact that the Bible says that the day of a person’s death is more significant than the day of his birth if he has made a good name with God during his lifetime.—Eccl. 7:1, 8.
Consistent with the Scriptural indications, the early Christians did not hold birthday celebrations.
“The notion of a birthday festival was far from the ideas of the Christians of this period in general.”—The History of the Christian Religion and Church During the First Three Centuries, by Augustus Neander.
As time passed and there was a falling away from pure Christianity, what began to be commemorated was the death, not the birth.
“The reverence in which the martyrs were held led to an undue attachment to the scene and day of their death. By a happy thought the day of a martyr’s death was called his birthday. The places where the martyrs had died were regarded with a holy awe. . . . On the anniversary days the services [in the churches] were largely devoted to recalling his services and character. . . . It must be remembered, however, that these [annual] memorial services were no part of the general order of the Church.”—History of the Christian Church, by Dr. John F. Hurst, Vol. 1, pp. 350, 351.
So even though the Bible does not contain a specific prohibition against birthday celebrations, Jehovah’s Witnesses have long noted the Scriptural indications and have not celebrated birthdays. In this, they harmonize with the pattern of the earliest Christians.
Also, while there is no Bible justification for annually celebrating the date of a Christian’s death, we can agree that the day of death is better than the day of his birth. Thus we should concentrate, not on the day of birth but on each day imitating Christ and reflecting God’s image. Should we die, then we will have glorified God by our way of life, and he will surely remember us.—Heb. 5:9; 11:6; Phil. 3:8-11.