The Christmas story reveals how when beauty, goodness, and truth enter into our world, there remains outside forces determined to derail such splendor. Jesus birth was a magnificent scene abounding in love, yet lurking in the background was King Herod, who was hell-bent on destroying the Christ Child. Interestingly, we can see remnants of this scenario played-out today. As we approach the joy of Christmas there are outside forces that similar to Herod, seek to interfere with divine mysteries. Our days are abound with secular commentators who enjoy poking holes in the Christian narrative. Recently, World Economic Forum advisor Yuval Noah Harari casually asserted that, “Jesus is fake news.”
Every year right around this time numerous “experts” emerged to let the public know that Jesus was not born on December 25th. There was an article a few years ago in the Washington Post that insinuates that the Catholic Church arbitrarily selected the date of December 25th and that we don’t have a clue when Jesus was born. Other theories have surfaced that the Catholic Church co-opted the date of December 25th because this was around the time of an ancient pagan festival, and the Church wanted to use Jesus’s birth as a way to squash the pagan festival that celebrates the winter solstice. Many more theories abound as to why Christmas falls on December 25th. All of these speculations around December 25th assume that early Christians did not keep records of significant events as they played out on the Jewish calendar. Such a notion merely exposes the ignorance of modern thinkers. The Jews and the early Christians were meticulous at record keeping especially when it came to prophetic events about the promised messiah as it relates to the Jewish calendar. As we will see, providence works through certain people, at a specific time for a reason.
The Gospel of Luke gives us the most clues as to the date of Jesus’s birth. Rather, than view Luke’s Gospel as a biased biography of Jesus that was haphazardly constructed, historians agree that Luke’s recording was thoroughly documented. Scholar Sir William Ramsey spent many years doing precise historical research on Luke’s writings and noted, “In his references to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities and nine islands, Luke made no mistakes.” Ramsey went on to write, “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.”
In fact, the opening of Luke’s Gospel clearly suggests that he intends to give a historically accurate picture of what happened in the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth (see Luke 1: 1-4).
Luke’s writing leading up to Jesus’ birth gives us details about Jesus’s cousin’s birth, John the Baptist, and his father, Zechariah. To figure out the Biblical date of Christmas, let us first look at Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah that Elizabeth would conceive John the Baptist. When the angel appears to Zechariah, he is serving in the temple. In Luke 1:5, we read, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” Further, in Luke we read, “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. . . And there appeared an angel of the Lord . . . But the angel said, do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer is heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John (Luke 1: 8-12)” This tidbit of data is important because by knowing what division Zechariah belonged to, we can determine when he was serving in the temple.
There were twenty-four courses or divisions in the Jewish priesthood because Aaron, the brother of Moses, had twenty-four grandsons. Each of those grandsons and the priests that derived from them were divided into twenty-four units or divisions. About twice a year, priests course would come up to serve in the temple. Every twenty-four weeks there would be a turnover of rotation of priests. So, one course of priests would serve for a week, then another course would sign-in for duty and after that week, another priestly course would report in. We learn that St. Zachariah is in the course of Abijah. Jewish scholarly research coupled with the clues given in 1 Chronicles 24:10 allows us to know that those in the course of Abijah served during the 8th week of the annual cycle which would place this time period during the time of Av on the Jewish calendar. Looking at the historical record, at that time, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) occurred during Av on the eighth rotation. Yom Kippur generally falls between September 20th – October 5th in the Gregorian calendar. Let’s add up the clues – St. Luke informs us that when Zechariah was in the temple he had a vision of the angel. Then, after his division was completed, he went home to his wife and they conceived a son – John the Baptist. This means that if he finished up his rotation around September 22nd, and went home that child would have been conceived around September 25th.
Going back to the New Testament, we now come to the Annunciation to Mary. In Luke 1:26-27, we read, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.” This passage follows immediately after Elizabeth’s conception of John the Baptist, and in Luke 1:36, we see again that Elizabeth is in the sixth month of pregnancy. Six months after John’s conception date of September 25th would be March 25th. Doing the math, using the Gregorian calendar, this would place the Annunciation around March 25th, the date in which we celebrate this feast in the Church today.
All we need to do at this point is add nine months from March 25th, and the Biblical date of Christmas is indeed December 25th. In fact, as early as the second century, there were churches in Egypt observing the festival of Jesus’s birth on December 25th. The Bible gives us all the clues we need to determine the real date of Christmas. The next time a so-called “expert” asserts that we don’t know for sure when Jesus was really born, you can point to these passages in the Bible and confidently answer YES – Jesus was (likely) born on December 25th.