Some rather interesting books have been published that recount stories of people who remembered living past lives that intersected with the life of Jesus. This is fascinating because it’s amazing how little we really know about Jesus, one of the most influential persons of modern human history. For example, we don’t even know his real birthday. Certainly we celebrate his birthday as ‘Christmas’ but this date has no basis in historical fact or even biblical reference. Granted, the bible gives some clues about general time periods and seasons, which we will examine shortly, but nothing specific. (Unfortunately, the bible has very little value of historicity, given the large number of changes, edits, and deletions that have occurred as well as the poor habit of accepting myths and stories as facts, and even incorporating myths and stories from other cultures and religions into Christianity such that very little remains that can be identified as both unique and historically factual. But this is a discussion for a later time.)
Let’s explore what we can ascertain about Jesus’ true birthday. We begin with an examination of the pre-Christian predictions of the coming of the Messiah, which leads one to the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud predicted the coming Messiah would be signaled by an omen in Pisces. This could be interpreted either as occurring during the zodiacal time period of Pisces, which begins in the middle of June and lasts for approximately one month, or when an astronomical omen occurs within the area of the constellation of Pisces, regardless of timeframe. We’ll leave that data point for the moment and examine how early Christians dealt with the matter.
Unfortunately, there is no mention of a holiday festival commemorating Jesus’ birth by the earliest (first and second century) Christian writers. Origen of Alexandria (c. 165-264 C.E.) went so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries of their gods (and saviors), dismissing them as pagan practices that should not be similarly adopted for Christianity. Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150- 215 C.E.), made reference to a discussion on the date Jesus was born. According to Clement, several different days were proposed by various Christian groups, including January 2nd and 6th, April 18th, 19th, and 21st, and May 1st, 20th, and 28th, of which Clement “preferred” May 20th. Perhaps surprisingly to modern day Christians, December 25th wasn’t mentioned at all. Eventually, the early Church settled on January 6th, which Epiphanius explained was the date of the pagan festival of Kore, which the Christian festival of the birth of Christ subsumed in order to replace.
Beginning no later than the early-fourth century (and likely much earlier given the festival of Kore event just described), Christians began deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals as a means of assimilating and replacing the various pagan religions. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who wrote in a letter, dated 601 C.E., to a Christian missionary in Britain, his recommendation that local pagan temples not be destroyed but rather be converted into Christian churches and their pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts for Christian martyrs; thus, more effectively assimilating and replacing the former pagan religion and its adherents. (Similarly, in 533 C.E., the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus also called for the transferal of Roman religious allegiances to Christianity from its pagan roots by means of assimilation, wherever possible, of pagan beliefs, practices, festivals, and places of worship. This second example demonstrates the practice of assimilating Paganism into Christianity was widespread, deliberate, and relentless until Paganism and its followers were completely subsumed into the new religion.)
Once Christianity became legally accepted by the Roman Empire under Constantine, the young religion was forced to undergo a massive process of change in order to adapt and survive in the highly paganistic Roman environment. Nothing was more important to the Roman Empire than peace and stability, for through the Pax Romana, Roman peace led to prosperity, growth and strength. So, for example, to harmonize Christianity with Roman law and dissociate itself from its Jewish origins, Christianity shortly adopted Sunday as its own holy day vice the Sabbath (Saturday), which had been recognized since the beginning – given that Jesus was a practicing Jew after all.
The people of the Roman Empire were also accustomed to celebrating the birth of their (various) Pagan gods on December 25th. Consider, adherents of the gods Attis, Mithra, Osiris, and Dionysus all celebrated their lords’ birthday on December 25th. Immediately preceding this was the Feast of Saturnalia, a seven-day Roman celebration that started December 17th and ended December 24th, leading up to the great religious birthday celebration on the 25th. Then in 274 C.E., Roman Emperor Aurelian blended the Saturnalia celebration with the large number of birth celebrations of savior gods from the various Pagan religions into a single holy day celebration, the feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), known as Natalis Invictus – the rebirth of the sun – on December 25th. (The winter solstice generally occurs circa December 21-22 – in modern times – and by the 25th the days are growing visibly longer, thus symbolizing the rebirth of the sun.)
Prudent Christian forefathers realized that if the celebration of the birth of Christ looked more like a pagan holiday, then more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated. So, it was a relatively simple decision to once again reset the date of the birth of Christ, from January 6th to December 25th, in order to match the pagan holiday of Sol Invictus, since the actual birth date of Jesus was both unknown and unrecorded in the church’s own official account, the Bible. The first known modified celebration of Christmas on December 25th was in Rome on 336 C.E. By 379 C.E., the new date of celebration for the birth of Christ had spread to Constantinople, thence to Antioch in 380 C.E., and to Alexandria by 430 C.E. By changing Jesus’ birthday celebration to December 25th, Christianity brought itself into alignment with the Roman regime and the then established state (pagan) religion.
An examination of Jesus’ true birthday should begin by first trying to determine his year of birth, which seemingly should be the easier task than the date, at least statistically speaking. The Gospels of both Luke and Matthew date the birth of Jesus to the reign of King Herod of Judea, which lasted from 39 BC to March, 4 BC. Luke (2:1-7) further clarified, “When Cyrenius was governor of Syria, Joseph went to Bethlehem, to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife. While they were there, she brought forth her firstborn son.” From this passage we examine Cyrenius, also known as Quirinius, who went as Legate to Syria in 6 C.E., but we know from a Roman inscription discovered in Antioch that he also went to that country, under orders of Augustus Caesar, on a military mission in 7 BC.
Luke 3:23 further provides that Jesus was “about 30” when he started his ministry, which commenced with his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Luke clarified in chapter 3, verses 1-2 that the ministry of John the Baptist started in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. Depending on whether Luke used the Julian or the Roman regional year calendar, the fifteenth year of Tiberius was either 1 January – 31 December, 29 C.E., or Autumn 28-29 C.E., respectively. Now, the Lucan term “about 30” is a broad term that would span the age range from 26 to 34, thus the earliest possible year for the birth of Christ would be obtained by subtracting his maximum age at the start of his ministry, or 34 years old, from the earliest point on the Roman regional year calendar, or 28 C.E, providing an earliest date of birth of 7 BC.
Comparing the information in the previous two paragraphs, we find the earliest year of birth as 7 BC and the latest as 4 BC. However, given the events which occurred in the year of Jesus’ birth (visit by the Magi to both King Herod and Jesus, and the order of the ‘death of the innocents’ by King Herod), as well as Herod’s own death in early 4 BC and poor state of health immediately preceding his death, Herod would have been in no condition to consummate either of those two requirements, thus signaling the true period of likely birth as between 7- 5 BC.
Now onto the more difficult question: the most likely date (or season) of birth. Again, according to Luke (2:8), Jesus was born in the season “when shepherds abide in the field and keep watch over their flock by night.” This ensures the period must have occurred sometime between mid-March and mid-October because the winter months in Palestine comprise a cold, rainy season, prone to frost so flocks were/are not put out to pasture, especially from December – February. In fact, it was/is Jewish custom for shepherds to put their sheep to pasture in early spring at about the time of the feast of Passover and to bring them home when the first rains started in early to mid fall. Throughout this period, the shepherds would remain with their flock to insure their safety. If we can abide by the historicity of Luke on this passage, it tells us little more than the historically practiced dates of Christmas, i.e. both January 6th and December 25th, are inaccurate – as would be expected given the dates’ history and reason for their (falsified) origin.
In order to dig deeper, we should search for clues elsewhere in the Bible – including perchance, some of the more apocryphal books. For example, in The Acts of Yesu (Jesus), written by Siphur (supposedly following a personal visit with Jesus), chapter 7 provides this clue, “The whole gathering knew that the child [Mary] who had given birth to a boy child in the spring was the boy child from God.” If this statement is accurate, the season at least is relatively assured and matches what we know of sheep herding habits in ancient Israel.
To further refine the date, we again return to prophesy from the Old Testament. The Book of Numbers (24:17) provides, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel,” indicating that a star (or some kind of celestial apparition like a star) would herald the arrival of a new King of Israel. From this clue, we can examine the record of celestial events between 7-5 BC to see what may have occurred that was noteworthy.
Indeed, during 7 BC a rare triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the Constellation of Pisces. The first conjunction occurred beginning in the morning sky of Friday, 29 May, 7 BC. The second conjunction occurred beginning around midnight on Thursday, 1 October, 7 BC, and the third conjunction occurred beginning in the evening of Saturday, 5 December, 7 BC. To ancient astrologers, the constellation Pisces was astrologically associated with Israel, thus these conjunctions indicated that a particularly important event would occur in Israel. Ancient astrologers had no way of knowing that a triple conjunction would result once the first conjunction occurred, so the more times the conjunction repeated itself, astronomers would interpret the portended event would be ever larger. We know that this 7 BC triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was important to Babylonian astronomers (The Magi) since a clay tablet, known as The Star Almanac of Sippar, found about 30 miles north of Babylon, referred in detail to this triple conjunction, and the tablet has been positively dated to 7 BC.
As important as the triple conjunction was, what followed shortly thereafter was even more important astrologically speaking: the massing of three planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, again in the constellation Pieces during the month of February, 6 BC. There was a tradition of associating the conjunctions and massing of planets with omens of pending important historical events. This particular event was interpreted as a sign that a very great king would be born in Israel. Such a massing occurs only once every 800 years, and occurs much, much more infrequently in the constellation Pieces. At this point, the Magi (astronomers) knew an important event wouldoccur, but they still did not necessarily know when it would occur, or necessarily who would arrive, other than a great king.
Others, however, like the Jews, and especially the Essene sect, knew exactly for whom they were waiting, as indicated by an Essene prophesy, “The stars will rise together and when they meet it will portend the time of his [the Messiah’s] coming.”
Still, the most important signs are portended in threes, so even if they did not necessarily know the portended king would be the Jewish Messiah-king, the Magi at this point would have been on standby, waiting for the final sign of His arrival.
This final sign was described in the Gospel according to Matthew (2:1-9) as a star that we refer to as the Star of Bethlehem. This star was unlike normal stars in that it was 1) a star that had newly appeared, 2) had traveled slowly through the sky against a static background of other immobile stars, and 3) appeared to stop moving across the sky when the magi arrived at Bethlehem. (In some translations, a further reference is made that the star ‘stood’ over and ‘pointed’ at where the Lord lay.) There is but one astronomical object that could satisfy these descriptions of new appearance, and both movement and stability (as well as an impression of pointing with a head at the top, as if standing), and that object is a comet.
Around the time of Christ, comets were associated with the birth of great kings and good news, and many astrological records were made of their infrequent appearances, providing some historical evidence for our further examinations. The Chinese, for example, kept excellent astrological records, and recorded the arrival of Haley’s comet, beginning on 26 August, 12 BC and which remained visible for 56 days. Obviously, 12 BC precedes the period of interest for the birth of Christ, but thankfully it was not the only comet recorded in the ancient world. An unknown comet of spectacular prominence was recorded by Chinese astronomers, beginning 9 March, 5 BC, and remained visible for an amazing 70 days, indicating it was both very large and thereby very bright (in order to be seen for such a long period of time with the naked eye).
Given that comets signified the birth of great kings, and the arrival of a great king in Israel had been foretold both by prophesy and astrological signs, the Magi would have begun their journey to Jerusalem shortly after the arrival of the very large comet in March, 5 BC. Lawrence of Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom stated that a fully loaded camel could travel 100 miles if hard pressed and 50 miles comfortably in a 24-hour period, though few travelers would be inclined to travel for a 24-hour period without rest. The furthest the Magi are likely to have traveled is from Babylon to Jerusalem, a straight-line distance of about 550 miles directly across the Arabian Desert, or about 900 miles via the Fertile Crescent. Researchers have shown that as crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar took 23 days in 605 BC to travel from just north of Jerusalem to Babylon in a rapid return to take up the throne of Babylon. Hence allowing four to six weeks for the journey, including preparation time, it seems reasonable that if the Magi began their journey shortly after the comet’s first appearance on 9 March, 5 BC, then they could have arrived in Jerusalem by mid- to late-April, 5 BC.
The logical place for the Magi to visit would have been the King of Israel since the astrological signs had portended the birth of a new king, and Israeli historian Josephus recorded other meetings between King Herod and Magi from the East. However, King Herod had no newly born progeny to present the Magi, so his advisors instead offered the birth may have been the Messiah of Israel. According to the prophesy of Micah, the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem, a mere six miles from Jerusalem and requiring but two more hours to reach their destination.
The Gospel of Luke (2:1-7) notes Joseph’s reason for being in Bethlehem was a census. However, censuses were not held on a particular day but were spread out over a period of time to accommodate those travelers who had to journey from afar. Given the near proximity of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where all men had to appear during the feast of Passover, Joseph may have chosen to visit Bethlehem for the required census at the same time as Passover in order to save having to make the journey twice. At the time of Passover, Jerusalem would have been very packed with visitors, as would have Bethlehem as a spill-over village, thus explaining why the guest-room of the house was full (Luke 2:7), and causing the family to seek shelter in a cave.
Josephus (Jewish War, Volume 1, 229 and Volume 6, 270) stated that pilgrims came to Jerusalem about a week before Passover to undergo the appropriate purification rites, and the feast itself lasted for one week, making an average stay for the Passover feast last two weeks. Thus, it is tentatively suggested that the birth of Jesus may have occurred in the week before or immediately after Passover in 5 BC, which would have encompassed the period, 13-27 April, 5 BC.
Of further note, a birth at Passover time would be consistent with Jewish expectations for the birth of the Messiah. For example, Jewish scholar Abarbanal, writing in 1497 C.E. and still expecting the coming of the Messiah, stated that the messianic redemption would come in the month of Nisan (March-April period) since the “cup of Elijah” at the Passover meal preserves the symbolism that the new redemption will come during the same season as the Exodus from Egypt.
The 5 BC date for the Star of Bethlehem also fits well with the textual evidence for the length of stay of Jesus and his family in Egypt. According to Matthew 2:13-15, after the Magi had left Bethlehem, Joseph was warned that Herod planned to kill Jesus, so the family left for Egypt (a classic refuge for those trying to flee the tyranny of Palestine) and returned after Herod died. Both Origen and Eusebius stated that Jesus and his family were in Egypt for two years, and returned in the first year of the reign of Archelaus. Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons, started his reign when Herod died at the end of March, 4 BC. Thus, the first year of the reign of Archelaus was from April 4 BC to April 3 BC, and would match the two-year exodus described by the early Church fathers. The period in question also explains why King Herod ordered the execution of boys ages 2 and under (Matthew 2:16). The Magi’s first noted astrological event was the triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7 BC. Thus, Herod would have worried that if Jesus had been born at the earliest sign, he would have been two years old by the time of the arrival of the Magi.
After all the evidence is examined, we still have only locked down a two-week period, 13-27 April, 5 BC. However, returning to an early church tradition on the dates of Jesus’ birth, we find three dates that would agree exactly, and a fourth plausibly (if the Magi were a little slow to arrive): April 18th, 19th, and 21st and possibly May 1st, 5 BC. Still, the April dates may be most likely if Jesus was indeed born during the feast of Passover. However, until we can develop new research data it’s unlikely we’ll be able to refine this birth date any further. But then, does an exact date really matter? The spirit of Christmas, of remembering Christ’s arrival and the importance of His message – i.e. to love one another, and to treat each other as we would prefer to be treated our self – is important no matter what day of the year we decide to celebrate it.