As Christmas draws near, I would like to say a few words about this wonderful time of a year. Yes, we all know that the origins of Christmas cannot be traced back to either the teachings or the practices of the first believers, and yes, we also know that Christmas was not observed until about 300 years after Christ’s death. I don’t think many people today believe that Jesus was really born on December 25, so what then do we celebrate on Christmas Day?
Before we answer this question, let us try to rediscover the Nativity story. In Luke 2, an angel appeared to the shepherds in the fields and said to them, “I bring you good news … great joy for all the people”. When did that happen? When was this great joy declared?
Anyone who has been to Israel at the end of December would definitely agree that December 25 couldn’t be the date for Christ’s birth. We know that the shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus’ birth. That would not happen in December, since December in Judea is very cold and wet, so the weather would not permit shepherds to stay in the fields at night. The end of December is in the middle of the rainy season in Israel, which lasts from Sukkot through Passover. But even if that particular December was not rainy, the nights in December are always very cold, even if the days are nice and sunny, so the shepherds, along with their flocks, would at least be in some shelter at night. On the other hand, early fall would fit perfectly with Luke’s account.
The most significant argument, however, is based on the timing of John the Baptist’s birth. John’s father, a priest named Zechariah, belonged to the “priestly division of Abijah”. He was taking his turn to serve in the Temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, would conceive a son. After Zechariah returned home, his wife conceived, just as the angel had said. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited Mary to announce the miraculous conception of Jesus.
The 24 courses of the temple priesthood are found in 1 Chronicles 24. Calculations are made showing that the Abijah division served in June. After Zechariah completed his service and traveled home, Elizabeth conceived. Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time of John’s birth. If we add another six months, we arrive at the end of September – Sukkot time – as the likely time of Jesus’ birth.
In addition, the Nativity story does have some possible allusions to Sukkot. First, you probably remember that Sukkot is a biblical Feast of joy, zman simchateynu, “the season of our joy”. Would it not be a proper time to declare “great joy for all people”?
Second, we can see an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles in the words of John: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”.
There are certainly more reasons and arguments for Jesus being born on Sukkot – I won’t cover them all here. The bottom line is that, based on the New Testament accounts, late summer or early fall seem to be the most likely time of Jesus’ birth – and based on the theological reasons and grammatical allusions, we can point out the specific time during this “late summer or early fall” season: the time of Sukkot.
We know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the time of a census, and December would not have been an appropriate time for a Roman census either: such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures sometimes dropped below freezing and roads were in a very poor condition. On the other hand, early fall – the time of Sukkot – would be a great time for traveling to Bethlehem. There is even a theory that Joseph and Mary planned their trip to Bethlehem to coincide with the Sukkot pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Traveling with a pilgrimage caravan from Galilee could have provided them safety on the journey. The busy time of pilgrimage might also account for the “no room at the inn” situation in Bethlehem.
There is something we have to understand about this “no room” situation, though. The traditional scenario – Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus in a stable, alone and abandoned – makes absolutely no sense against the social and cultural background of the story. First of all, if Bethlehem was Joseph’s place of ancestral origins, most likely he would have relatives there, and would definitely be welcomed in any home of these relatives. But even “if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the ‘sake of David,’ he would still be welcomed into almost any village home”.
So, what does it mean that there was “no room for them in the inn”(kataluma, in Greek, meaning “guest room”)? It probably means that Bethlehem was indeed very crowded (due to the busy time of Sukkot pilgrimage), and all the houses were indeed full. It doesn’t mean, however, that Joseph and Mary would be left to themselves somewhere: the very idea that they would not be taken into a house but would be somewhere away from others is culturally impossible. “Anyone who has lodged with Palestinian peasants knows that, notwithstanding their hospitality, the lack of privacy is unspeakably painful. One cannot have a room to oneself, and one is never alone by day or by night”. If the guest room in the house was occupied, Joseph and Mary would stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and they would be surrounded by people. In order to have some privacy at the time of childbirth, they would probably go to the only place in the house where there were no people: to a lower room where the animals were kept at night. After the baby was born, however, they would probably return to the main room. The traditional images of the Holy Family, bending over the baby all by themselves, are very beautiful – but also quite improbable.
WHAT DO WE CELEBRATE?
If Jesus was not born on December 25th, what do we celebrate on Christmas then? It is very popular today to denounce Christmas as a “pagan” holiday that has nothing to do with the Bible – and to be sure, nowhere does the New Testament indicate when Jesus was born. The Gospel writers either did not know the time of Jesus’ birth or didn’t consider it important, therefore the time of year that Jesus was born is a matter for debate and guesswork. Yes, it is commonly believed that the church chose December 25th in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. However, as happens so often, both in the Bible and in our lives, through the thicket of human weaknesses and mistakes, God still works out His purpose. By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, the message of Christmas has been made amazingly clear: In the world’s darkest hour, the “Light of the World” is born! For millions of believers, Christmas is a celebration of the true Light coming into the world! This is not a pagan message: The Divine Light overcomes even the darkest of darkness – and this is what we celebrate on both Hanukkah and Christmas!
Merry Christmas to all my wonderful readers!
May your hearts and your homes be filled with His Joy and His Light!
Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.