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When Was Jesus Born?

I received this question last year from a parishioner, but waited until the appropriate season of the year to pen a reply. Her question: "Was Jesus actually born on December 25th?"

As strange as it may seem, Christian scholars have absolutely no idea about the date of Jesus' birth. There is little help from the gospels and virtually no extra-biblical evidence of any type to help us. So why choose December 25th?

There are several prevailing theories, with the truth probably being somewhere in the midst of these. The first notion comes from the third century. During this period the Julian calendar was in use and the spring equinox was reckoned as March 25th by astronomers. Many Christian chronographers (time mappers) of this century believed the creation of the world had occurred on that date eons before. They concluded that surely, since Jesus was the new creation, he would have been conceived on this date and nine months later would have been born. Therefore, according to these chronologists Jesus' birthday must have been on December 25th.

Interestingly enough, it was also in the third century when the Roman Emperor Aurelan proclaimed the winter solstice, December 25th, as a feast day dedicated to the Roman sun god. With the advent of the winter solstice each day thereafter becomes increasingly longer. This gave rise to the story that the Roman sun god was born on December 25th. It would have been but a short stretch for Christians of that century to declare that, since Jesus is the light of the world, naturally he would have been born of that day.

The third theory, which is less a theory and more a historical fact, was that in the fourth century Pope Julius I dedicated December 25th as the feast day/birthday of Jesus Christ. The prevailing thoughts are that Julius was making an attempt to Christianize a prevailing pagan holiday (the feast to the sun god?!?). In any event, ever since then the Christian world has celebrated this date as Christmas.

But what about reality? When was Christ really born?

Of course, we're really not sure and we can't pinpoint it any narrower than to a season. But we can make a better guess than December. Since Palestine is in the northern hemisphere, their seasons follow the same seasons as ours thus December is winter in Israel too. It is highly unlikely that any Roman emperor would call for a census of the world during this season especially since most of the Roman-known world was in the midst of cold. Thus, any census would have normally taken place between early spring and fall. Summer would be the most likely choice since a census during July-August would not effect the agricultural industry as critically.

But why not winter? Though it is true there was little agribusiness going on during these months, traveling in winter was a rather bleak prospect. Certainly, it could be done, but it was generally carried out by the hearty or at least, by the physically able. A woman nine-months pregnant would hardly have made such a journey in the dead of winter.

So, summer is the most likely season in which Jesus was actually born (should Australians be getting a white Christmas?). Still, there's something good and warm about traditions and I'd be the last to advocate a change to July 25th as Christmas. On the other hand. . . .

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