Friday, December 15, 2023

Christmas Confusion: When Was Jesus Born?

      In this series on mistakes and inaccuracies in the way we retell the stories of Jesus’ birth, we’ve already seen  that Jesus probably wasn’t turned away from an inn and born in a stable. We don’t know how many Wise Men came to give gifts to Jesus, and none were at the manger.  

     In this post we’ll talk about two related Christmas myths — one that has to do with the date we celebrate Jesus’ birth, and one that comes out of that.

     First, let’s talk about Jesus’ birthday.

     We don’t know when it was. There. Done. There’s nothing in the New Testament’s stories of Jesus’ birth that tells us anything about what time of year it was. 

     We do kind of know the year. Augustus was the Emperor in Rome; Luke tells us that much. That narrows down Jesus’ birth to the range of January 16, 27 B.C. - August 19, A.D. 14.  Luke also tells us that Quirinius was governor of Syria, the Roman province in which the Holy Land was included. We’re on a little bit shakier ground there; we know that there was a census in A.D. 6, but that’s too late for the census mentioned in Luke, which is probably why Luke refers to it as “the first census,” to differentiate it from the later one that was better-remembered. 

     We know the A.D. 6 census was too late because of the third bit of historical data we have: Herod the Great was King of Judea, according to both Matthew and Luke. He was a client king of Rome, and we know he reigned from 37 - 4 B.C. We also know that Jesus was “about 30 years old” when John the Baptist baptized him and he began his work, and that John began baptizing in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign as Emperor of Rome, which most historians estimate would have been A.D 28-29. Allowing for a few years of leeway in the estimate of Jesus’ age at his baptism, most New Testament scholars place his birth year between 6 and 4 B.C.

     But wait: Doesn’t “B.C” mean “before Christ?” How could Jesus have been born at anything “B.C.?”

     This gets complicated, but it springs from the fact that a Scythian monk named Dionysius, who lived about 500 years after Jesus, was the first one to really try to tie the calendar to his birth, and he was working with some incomplete or confused historical data. However it happened, his calculations were off by a few years. (Still, 4-6 years off isn’t too bad!)

     As to the specific date, there isn’t any solid biblical data. Could have been December 25th. (The often-quoted idea that shepherds wouldn’t have been out with their sheep in December assumes too much; the temperature right now in Bethlehem, on December 13th at 1 AM, is 53°.) Some interpreters have tried to set the time of the year from Zechariah’s temple service, assuming it was the Day of Atonement, but the text doesn’t say that it was. The fact is that we just don’t know. 

     So, how in the world did we come to celebrate Christmas on December 25th?

     Well, not all of the church has, or does. Some Christians celebrate Epiphany, on January 6. Some Christians don’t celebrate Christmas at all, precisely because the Bible doesn’t tell us when Jesus’ birth was, or even that we should celebrate it. Paul’s words probably apply here: “One person considers one day more sacred than another;  another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” Of much more concern than whether or not we celebrate December 25th as religious observance is that we choose to celebrate or not to celebrate out of reverence for the Lord, and that we not look down on Christians who make a different decision about that than we do.

     Here’s the second myth we need to consider: There’s a bit of popular “wisdom” among some Christian communities that Christmas’ origins are pagan, that December 25th is the church’s attempt to “Jesus-ify” the festivals of either Saturnalia (to honor the God Saturn) or Sol Invictus (the Sun god), and therefore Christians shouldn’t celebrate it all.

     Again, choose not to celebrate if that seems right to you, but you should know that there is no evidence that the date of December 25th has pagan origins. What is possible — though not certain — is that Christians chose the date of December 25th because of its proximity to the winter solstice, the day after which the sunlight hours begin to increase. The Romans likely chose the date for the festival for Sol for the same reason. For Christians, though, the increasing sunlight represented the light of Christ entering the world. 

     If that’s the case, then December 25th was never intended to be historically accurate, but rather theologically significant. Especially in a non-literate world, using the calendar to tell the story of the birth of Jesus literally bringing light into the world would be memorable.

     Christmas’ supposed pagan roots developed out of hostility toward Catholicism during the Reformation of the 14th and 15th centuries. It was easy to claim the Catholics had just painted a Christian whitewash over a pagan celebration to fool poor, silly pagans into becoming converts. We know, however, that December 25th was fixed as the date of Christ’s birth sometime in the early 4th century — before there was a Catholic church or Pope as we know them. 

     I think the value of Christmas isn’t in fixing with certainty the date of Jesus’ birth. As near as I can tell, that has never been its intent. Christmas is a celebration of Jesus coming into our world, becoming us, to overcome the sin that had broken us and show us what we can be. As the Son was willing to be incarnated, it’s good for us to have a date to mark on our calendars. It helps to make it real for us, maybe, to recognize that on one particular day in human history, God entered into our world in the form of Jesus to heal our disease, bear our sins, suffer our death, and bring us life. We don’t have to know the correct day. Jesus never asked us to celebrate his birthday. Certainly, many aspects of the celebration as we know it today don’t serve us well in remembering him at all. But I think we need a date on our calendars. To my brothers and sisters who might object, “We remember Jesus’ coming every day,” I’d just say, “Do we? Or are we more likely to just go about our business as usual, rarely recalling that he ‘became flesh and lived among us’?”

     But I also think it’s good that we don’t know the date he was born. Because, of course, you can’t pin God to a date. One of the things the prophets of the Old Testament mocked about idols was that you had to put them on a cart if you wanted to move them. Israel’s God had led the patriarchs to the Promised Land. He had led their descendants through the Red Sea and the desert and across the Jordan when he brought them back. He moves. You can’t hem God in, most certainly not into a square on a calendar.  When he became one of us, he did so for all of our days, our good ones and our bad ones, the ones filled with celebration, but also the ones filled with grief and pain. Or shame. Or failure. Our best days, and our worst. Faithful days, and unfaithful ones.

     I hope you’ve seen, as we’ve tried to explore some of these Christmas myths, that Christmas is an often-feeble, flailing attempt to capture something that can’t be captured — Immanuel. God With Us. This Christmas, and all year long, may you know with certainty that he is very much with you, always, in everything that you celebrate and everything that you must endure. That’s why we celebrate Christmas.  

     May you and your family know the presence of God in Jesus this season.

No comments:

Post a Comment