Was Jesus Born in the Snow?
“HEAVY Snow Paralyzes Jerusalem” and “Snowy Siege Staggers the North.” Such headlines in The Jerusalem Post became second nature for Israeli readers in 1992, in what proved to be one of Israel’s hardest winters of the century.
By January the summit of Mount Hermon was covered with 22 to 40 feet [7-12 m] of snow, and the winter was far from over. From the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee down past Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem (seen on the cover), even on south into the Negeb, time and again Israeli daily life and routine were paralyzed by a graceful and delicate, yet potent, visitor. One Jerusalem Post article stated: “Heavy snowfalls succeeded yesterday in doing what a rain of Katyusha rockets last week failed to do, closing settlements and keeping residents firmly entrenched in their homes.”
The harsh winter brought havoc to more than city dwellers. Reports came in of hundreds of cows and calves, as well as thousands of chickens, that froze to death as nighttime temperatures plummeted below freezing. As if the snow were not enough, heavy, frigid rains also took their toll. One day, two young shepherd boys, apparently trying desperately to save a number of their sheep that were caught in a flash flood, were themselves swept away and drowned in the torrent.
Although this was not a typical Middle Eastern winter, the Israeli magazine Eretz reported: “The meteorological data that has been collected and recorded in the land of Israel for the past 130 years reveals that snow in Jerusalem is a more common phenomenon than might be expected . . . Between 1949 and 1980, the city of Jerusalem had twenty-four snowy winters.” But is this merely of meteorological and human-interest value, or does it hold particular meaning for Bible students?
What Significance for Bible Students?
When thinking of Jesus’ birth, many people conjure up in their mind’s eye the emotionally appealing manger scene often displayed at Christmastime. There lies the baby Jesus, wrapped warmly and guarded by his mother, with snow softly blanketing the surrounding landscape. Does this popular view fit the Bible’s description of this historic event?
The Bible writer Luke relates a carefully documented account of Jesus’ birth: “There were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks. And suddenly Jehovah’s angel stood by them, and Jehovah’s glory gleamed around them, and they became very fearful. But the angel said to them: ‘Have no fear, for, look! I am declaring to you good news of a great joy that all the people will have, because there was born to you today a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, in David’s city [Bethlehem]. And this is a sign for you: you will find an infant bound in cloth bands and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there came to be with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: ‘Glory in the heights above to God, and upon earth peace among men of goodwill.’”—Luke 2:8-14.
If you were to read this account to the average Israeli today and ask him what time of year this could be, he would likely answer, “Sometime between April and October.” Why? The answer is simple. From November to March is the cold, rainy season in Israel, and December 25 is certainly in the wintertime. Shepherds would not be living out-of-doors, keeping watch over their flocks in the fields at night. Considering the reports at the beginning of this article, you can well understand why. Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, is located in the higher elevations and is just a few miles from Jerusalem. Even in years when the weather is less extreme, it is quite cold there at night during the winter.—Micah 5:2; Luke 2:15.
A look into history at the time of Jesus’ birth sheds light on the fact that he was not born during December’s snow. Jesus’ mother, Mary, although in an advanced stage of pregnancy, had to travel from her home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. She and Joseph did so to meet the requirements of the census decreed by the Roman ruler Caesar Augustus. (Luke 2:1-7) The Jewish populace, resenting the Roman rule and its heavy taxation, was already on the verge of rebellion. Why would Rome unnecessarily irritate them by requiring many to travel to be registered during the most difficult and even treacherous winter weather? Is it not far more reasonable that this would have been decreed for a season that lends itself to travel, such as spring or autumn?
Biblically Based Calculations
The historical and physical evidence disqualifies December, or any other winter month, as fitting the accounts of Jesus’ birth. Moreover, the Bible reveals through prophecy the time of year that Jesus was born. Where does it do this?
In the book of Daniel, chapter 9, we find one of the most impressive prophecies regarding the Messiah. It describes both his coming and his being cut off in death, which provided a ransom sacrifice to atone for sin and establish a basis for obedient mankind to gain “righteousness for times indefinite.” (Daniel 9:24-27; compare Matthew 20:28.) According to this prophecy, all of this would be accomplished within a period of 70 weeks of years, beginning in the year 455 B.C.E., when the command went forth to rebuild Jerusalem.* (Nehemiah 2:1-11) From the time division in this prophecy, it can be discerned that the Messiah would appear at the beginning of the 70th week of years. This occurred when Jesus presented himself for baptism in 29 C.E., officially beginning his Messianic role. “At the half of the week,” or after three and a half years, the Messiah would be cut off in death, thereby bringing an end to the value of all sacrifices under the Mosaic Law covenant.—Hebrews 9:11-15; 10:1-10.
This prophecy reveals that the length of Jesus’ ministry was three and a half years. Jesus died on Passover, Nisan 14 (according to the Jewish calendar), in the spring of 33 C.E. The equivalent date for that year would be April 1. (Matthew 26:2) Counting back three and a half years places his baptism in 29 C.E. at the beginning of October. Luke informs us that Jesus was about 30 years old at his baptism. (Luke 3:21-23) This would mean that Jesus’ birth also was near the beginning of October. In harmony with Luke’s account, the shepherds would at that time of year still be “out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.”—Luke 2:8.
From What Source?
Since the evidence points to early October as the time of Jesus’ birth, why is it celebrated on December 25? The New Encyclopædia Britannica shows that this celebration was adopted centuries after Jesus’ birth: “During the 4th century the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 was gradually adopted by most Eastern churches. In Jerusalem, opposition to Christmas lasted longer, but it was subsequently accepted.”
Why was the custom so easily accepted by those calling themselves Christians many centuries after Christ? The New Encyclopædia Britannica sheds further light on the subject: “The traditional customs connected with Christmas have developed from several sources as a result of the coincidence of the celebration of the birth of Christ with the pagan agricultural and solar observances at midwinter. In the Roman world the Saturnalia (December 17) was a time of merrymaking and exchange of gifts. December 25 was also regarded as the birth date of the Iranian mystery god Mithra, the Sun of Righteousness.”
Was all of this really a “coincidence”? By no means! It is a fact of history that in the fourth century C.E., under Emperor Constantine, the Roman Empire mutated from persecutor of Christianity to sponsor of “Christianity” as an accepted religion. As more of the general populace, who lacked background in the true meaning of Christianity, adopted this new faith, they began celebrating their familiar pagan festivals with newfound “Christian” titles. What date could be more appropriate to the celebrating of the birth of Christ than December 25, which was already marked as the birthdate of “the Sun of Righteousness”?
Does It Matter?
There is little question that Jesus’ first followers, who were of Jewish background, did not celebrate his birthday. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “the celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual.” Early Christians certainly would not have adopted such a celebration. Rather than celebrate his birth, they would respect Jesus’ command to memorialize his death, for which they had an incontestable date, namely, Nisan 14.—Luke 22:7, 15, 19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
Centuries before Christ, the Jewish people, who were then God’s chosen nation, were prophetically warned about the end of their coming exile in Babylon: “Turn away, turn away, get out of there, touch nothing unclean; get out from the midst of her, keep yourselves clean, you who are carrying the utensils of Jehovah.” (Isaiah 52:11) They were to return to their homeland to reestablish Jehovah’s pure worship. It would be unthinkable for them to adopt the unclean pagan customs and forms of worship that they had observed in Babylon.
Not surprisingly, this same command is repeated for Christians at 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. In place of the Jewish nation that rejected Christ, his followers became the representatives of pure worship. They had the responsibility to help others come out of spiritual darkness and into the light of truth. (1 Peter 2:9, 10) How could they possibly do this if they mixed Christ’s teachings with customs and holidays of pagan origin?
As much as it might appeal to popular tastes, celebrating a “White Christmas” amounts to “touching the unclean thing.” (2 Corinthians 6:17) One who truly loves God and Christ must avoid it.
Beside the fact that its origins are in pagan celebrations, we have also seen that Christmas does not represent truth, since Jesus was born in October. Yes, no matter what scene might come up in one’s imagination, Jesus simply was not born in the snow.
For a fuller discussion of this prophecy, see the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War? page 26, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Picture on page 4, 5]
Snow-covered Jerusalem, as seen from the east
[Picture on page 6]
Snow alongside the walls of Jerusalem
[Picture on page 7]
Only in the warm season can shepherds stay with their flocks at night on the rocky hillsides, as seen below