Rediscovering The Nativity Story: Where And When?

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?

 

WHEN?

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.

WHERE?

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”[1].

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”[2].  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!

 

 

[1]Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.

[2] Ibid.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Ashley

    Does it really matter if we get the date wrong, or if our celebration clashes with some old heathen festival?
    What really matters is how and what we celebrate.
    In some British Commonwealth countries, the Queen’s Birthday is celebrated on a different day to her actual birthday. This because the celebration started with her father’s (or grandfather’s) birthday and it was easier to continue the same date than to keep changing it for every new monarch.
    Just so, we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. Most christians realize that we cannot be accurate about the date but that hasn’t bothered anyone so far.

    But for interest sake, thank you Julia. A very interesting blog.

  2. Pumza

    I enjoyed the read …after everyones posts

  3. Kate

    Yes, I’ve known September is more likely Christ’s birth time & danced about between Christians refusing to celebrate during the pagan festival & Hannukah only worshippers too. Woe ! Christmas Crisis nowadays!
    I LOVE your perspective of the Light of the World amidst the Darkness..
    Sadly MANY Christians now also add to this darkness by their “ letter of the law “ adherence which kills! They hide away at Christmas time, won’t go near any celebrations including their own family members’, nor Community Carols etc.
    I LOVE Christmas! My perspective is that we are IN this world ( but not of it ) AND THIS is indeed OUR time to be totally OUT THEREproclaiming OUR Saviour Lord!! The carols are praise & worship to our precious Lord! The words are glorious & profound! We get to sing them sincerely , openly in our communities! ( not just secluded away in our own churches) THIS is how we shine OUR LIGHTS in this dark world. We can also take every opportunity to talk about Jesus birth & why He came to earth etc. Christmas is one of the two times in our Western World when we can easily, freely testify about our wonderful Lord & Saviour!
    The WHY is sooo much more important than the where & when.

  4. David Hereford

    Thank you Julia for your faithfulness in bringing clarity for us about Father’sScripture.
    The person not the timing is our focus!

  5. Margaret Vaughan

    Shalom Julia and thank you for provoking some important questions. I am still researching the birth of Yeshua, so it would be too dogmatic to claim I know all the facts. However, it would seem much more likely that he was born in September/October, Miriam having conceived in December. If Zechariah, as I believe, finished his temple duty (possibly the first) around the end of June, then Elizaberh would have been in her six month of pregnancy in December and certainly during Chanukah? There remains a query as to whether she became pregnant almost immediately after Zechariah finished his temple duties and Miriam became pregnant soon after Gabriel’s annunciation to her? However, Elizabeth when six months pregnant and on Miriam’s visit to her, blessed the fruit of Miriam’s womb, which surely tells us Miriam was also pregnant at that time. So John the Baptist would have been born possibly in Nissan 1 or likely during the Pesach when Miriam was some three months’ pregnant? While it may seem odd for Yosef to be in Beit-Lechem for the birth of Yeshua during the Feast of Tabernacles, this was no ordinary situation. She was carrying the Messiah!! Gabriel was leading Miriam and Yosef to safe places, including Egypt after Yeshua’s birth to escape Herod, and Yeshua’s birthplace was codified centuries beforehand in any event, as foretold by the prophets! So Yeshua was born in a stable, perhaps not a Sukkot, and certainly in a field where shepherds were watching over their flocks, at night!!. Your suggestion that it would have been too cold for them to be out in the fields in December is fairly unanimous, despite some opposition.. Although Beit-Lechem is a mere 6 miles from Jerusalem, with Miriam in heavy labour on the back of a donkey or camel, a cold winter would not surely have proved to be an advantage to mother and child? On the other hand was Yosef there for the census and if he was it can’t have been during Sukkot surely??? There are obvious references in the scriptures to Yeshua “tabernacling among us” in Sukkot just as there are references to him being “the Lamb of God”.born in the Spring? The Feast of Tabernacles in the Autumn and the Pesach in the Spring, can’t both relate to the time of Yeshua’s birth. And is it true that lambs were only born in the Spring as some believe? We know that Beit-Lechem provided the Passover lambs every year for the Temple sacrifices, but some say lambs were bred throughout the year in Beit-Lechem? Passover lambs had to be male, one year old and without blemish , in which case were they bred not merely in the Spring? You see, there are many questions that haven’t yet settled into a final answer!!!! Please forgive me for probing the issue so pointedly. Finally, however, I am convinced, due to Talmud and Torah references that the only way ro be sure of Yeshua’s birth is a near to correct calculation of dates when Zechariah finished his Temple duties, which would take too long to explain in this comment. Blessings.

    1. Julia Blum

      Of course, you are right Margaret, there are many questions that haven’t been answered yet! Many of these questions have been the subjects of discussion for a long time. Many respected scholars have commented on this topic over the years, so of course, I don’t expect you to accept my view as the only correct one. The purpose of these articles is not to prove anything or to give the final answers, the purpose is to bring some Hebrew insights into this discussion. Without knowing Jewish background, we can really miss a lot – and it’s precisely where I am trying to help.

    2. Julie Avigayil Hogan

      Indeed Yeshua’s birth can be determined according to Zechariah’s service / the time of Yohanan’s birth – more likely Tishri One (the Holy of Holies) as during Sukkot, wouldn’t EVERY ONE have been staying in a Sukkot and not a house or inn? Very plausible indeed for a stable birth during the Holy of Holiest “holidays” as truly all of Jeruslam and the surrounding areas would have been FULL of pilgrims.

      As far as celebrating “christmas”, I am on the other side of the fence. Paul says “There is NO OTHER name GIVEN AMONG MEN by which one can be saved.” The NAME “Jesus” wasn’t even in existence until 1611 when the Septuagint was transalted into English. No one had this name up until then. It’s merely a transilteration thrice removed – Yeshua, Iesous, Jesus. When the Word of God says that “at THE NAME of Yeshua (not Jesus) every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord” it means that there can only be ONE NAME which is backed up in the Tanakh under Zechariah 14:9, which says “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; in that day theres shall be ONE Lord with ONE NAME.” How will any answer to Yeshua when all they have been taught is “Jesus”?

      “You shall know them by their fruits”…”Jesus” followers. Believe me when I say that those who believe in the ONE NAME (Yehovah Yoshia – Yehoshua) are also very happy that Yehovah put on flesh and came into the world to reconcile it to Himself, but we’re not about to “mix seed” with an absolutely Pagan Roman Cathoic Church and their fake “Jesus” who is a “trinity” and celebrate “christ mass” with them in any way, shape, or form! There is ONE faith – ONE. Even the MUSLIMS are now celebratng halloween and christmas!!! They are of your faith?

      I believe the Word of Yehovah as it was given. There is no need to explain “the REAL reason for the season”. That, in and of itself, should be enough to convince anyone that not much has changed. People who are born of Yehovah know better than all of this non-sense and are not ashamed to be the “party poopers”.

      Avigayil

    3. Julie Avigayil Hogan

      Regarding the Scripture quote that He “tabernacled” with us…Hebrew children of this era (especially male children) were not named until the eight day when they were also they were circumcized becasue of the infant death rate. He could not have been born on Sukkot in order to have fulfilled this theory becasue He wuld not have had name, nor been circmcized, If He were born on Tishri 1, then He would have had a name and also fulfilled the Covenant Law of circumcision before Sukkot and only in this way able to “tabernacle” with us.

      I have researched this extensively based on the Scriptures. If you would like more info, you can contact me at jahogan2014@gmail.com.

      Avigayil

  6. Fred

    In Matt it speaks about Herod killing babies 2 yrs and younger in hopes to kill Jesus. Herod died in 4 b.c. meaning Jesus was born in 6 b.c.. In Luke the governor who called the census wasn’t governor until 6 a.d. meaning Jesus was born in 6 a.d.. No one knows when he was crucified but Pontus Pilate was in office from 26 a.d. to 36 a.d. and died 38 a.d. he crucified many Jews during this time for rebellion against Rome. When Jesus rode in Jerusalem on a foal is this when he was in rebellion? Jesus said that the only sign that would be given is the sign of Jonah where the son of man would be in the earth for 3 days and 3 nights and then be raised up. If he rose on the 1st day of the week then count backwards to 3 days and 3 nights he would have been crucified on the 4th day and put in the tomb the evening of the 5th day. This was brought up by some Jewish friends.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Fred, for your comment. Maybe, you would be interested to read my posts “The Last Supper and the Sign of Jonah” (archives of this blog), there I discuss in details the different scenarios of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and the probability of each scenario.

    2. Julie Avigayil Hogan

      They went to the tomb on the first day and discovvered that he had ALREADY risen. He was crucified on the Day of Preparation and had to be buried before sundown and the start of the Passover – rememebr, it was a Jew that asked for his body. If he did not bury Him quickly and go purify himself, he could not observe the passover as he would have been considered “unclean”. So, the “Day of Prepartaion” ended at SUNSET Wednesday the 14th. The Passover started at SUNSET – the start of the 15th day, or Thursday night. Your “counting backwards” has to start on Saturday before sunset. If He were to have been in the grave 3 days and 3 nights, he couldn’t have still been in the grave on Sunday or it would have been a 4th day.

      Saturday before sunset – Friday before sunset = 1 day
      Friday before sunset – Thurday before sunest = 2 days
      Thursday before sunset – Wednesday before sunset = 3 days

      Again, He was “already” out of the grave when the women arrived. The day before was the Sabbath and they had to wait until it was over to go to the tomb. As it would have been dark at sunset, they went at first daylight the next day. He had to rise just before sunset as He was buried just before sunset. If He rose on the first day of the week, it would have been just before sunset, not in the morning as the Scripture says.

      It’s very simple really. What most are doing is trying to keep the “Christian” tradition, which iisn’t corrrect at all. They worship on Sunday because of this supposed “Sunday resurrection” theory, when the 10 Commandments clearly states to “keep the Sabbath”. These Laws were given to the Jews. The only Sabbath they ever knew was Friday evening to Saturday evening – the seventh day, not the first. The “Christians” are all about keeping the 10 Cmmandments, but they will break this very obvious one?

      It’s called “reading”. Read what is there in Yehovah’s Word. What the people are doing is “listening” to “another Jesus”.

      Avigayil

  7. Angelika Walter

    Dear Julia, greetings! You make some good arguments that Yeshua was more likely born during Sukkot and not in December ( I remember also your post last year), but I like how you point out, that even if the date of Christmas is at or around a pagan festival, the message is not pagan at all: the true Light coming into the darkness of this world. I understand there are good reasons when even Christian believers do not like Christmas and prefer the biblical feasts – especially due to all the commercialization in western consumer society- but if believers fall into a proud and accusing attitude towards fellow believers who connect Christmas with beautiful family memories and who truly remember the incarnation, then it is not spreading light. May we learn to accept one another in the love of Yeshua and put him at the center!

  8. Dot Healy

    Your when and where reasoning is interesting and seems quite feasible Julia – but I guess, in the end it matters not ‘when’ and ‘where’, but that the Word did become flesh and dwell among us – and that His light continues to shine through the lives of all who call Him LORD. Although Christmas and Easter have both become very worldly celebrations, they are still a testimony to the birth and death of Christ that come around year after year.

  9. Chris Heng

    I like the attempt to reconcile the Truth with a Tradition… What really really gives me the chills is the last statement:
    “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!”

    What is that ‘light’ – to come (About this time and our in the world we see around us!) Remember we face that “other” light – ““How you have fallen from heaven, O [a]star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, You who have weakened the nations!””

    In this time of ‘Alignment’ shouldn’t we start to learn to question and set-apart what is true? Even if our traditions point us in the wrong direction??

  10. Zodwa

    Thank you, Julia for this well researched balanced expose. It stiff affirms my faith in Jesus and makes me understand the power of God in working through all conditions to reach humankind.

  11. Scott

    Thanks for an excellent post. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s December 19 post explains that December 25 can probably be traced back to the belief that the conception of the Messiah and the crucifixion of the Messiah would have occurred on the same day of the year. Pinning down the crucifixion date using the solar calendar is tricky, but early in the third century, Tertullian said that Yeshua was crucified on March 25. If that was also the date of the conception, then the birth would have been about nine months later, or December 25. The Easter Church calculated that the crucifixion occurred on April 6, so they calculated the birth to have been in early January.

  12. Stephen Funck

    Excellent. Sukkot fits well. An alternative reason for “no room in the inn”. Joseph’s family would have been horrified that he was bringing such same and expected them to accommodate Mary and her bastard. “Not in my house!” I do not expect Jesus would have been officially circumcised or entered onto the village record. Therefore he did not count when the infants were killed and the report would be made that all the boys on record were killed. More is included in the online chapter http://thesignofconcord.com/uploads/Bk_1_ch_3_A_Birth_in_Bethlehem_.pdf

  13. Judy Lamb

    Joy to the world, the Lord has come. May we be filled with complete joy all year long over God’s greatest gift to mankind.