Objections to the Christian Faith from the Unchurched and De-Churched
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Resurgence Leadership #033: John Piper, Why I Trust the Scriptures, Part 1
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When Was Jesus Born?
Not Much Clarity
There is simply no clarity regarding the timing of Jesus’ birth. The Scriptures do not speak directly to the issue, but the presence of flocks in the field has caused many to question the traditional December date of Christmas. This is because grazing in the field seemingly indicates a milder climate than that of winter, although there are reports of occasional breaks, for upwards of a few weeks, in the rainy winter season. Commentator William Hendriksen raises an interesting point as well: “At this season of the year many roads in that region are impassable. No government would have forced people to travel then to the places where they must be registered" (New Testament Commentary: Luke, vol. 11, 150).
On the other hand, New Testament scholar Darrell Bock shows that while “some Jewish traditions argue for grazing in the period from April to November,” others note “that these restrictions are limited to sheep ‘in the wilderness’” (Luke 1:1-9:50, 226-227). Furthermore, a section of Talmudic literature (M. Šeqal. 7.4) “implies year-round grazing, because the Passover lambs graze in February, which has the harshest weather of the year. Thus, this reason for rejecting the tradition is not definitive" (Ibid., 227).
Where Did December 25th Originate?
The traditional December 25 date of Jesus’ birth originated during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine (A.D. 306–337). As Bock describes, the December 25 date coincided with a pagan feast of Saturnalia, or the rising of the sun from darkness. . . . But the tradition for the date may go back even further, since it may be mentioned by Hippolytus (A.D. 165–235) in his Commentary on Daniel. However, Hippolytus’s meaning is disputed, as it is unclear whether he is referring to the date of the birth or the date of the conception. If it is the latter, then a December date is presented, but the reference is unclear. Alongside the possible third-century testimony for a December date stands Clement of Alexandria’s testimony (ca. A.D. 200) for an April/May date.
Without a clear date for Jesus’ birth, it seems the early church simply seized the opportunity that the pagan feast of Saturnalia provided. The feast celebrated the return of the sun after weeks of ever-increasing darkness, which parallels the biblical metaphor of Jesus illuminating our dark world. Furthermore, Saturnalia included the sharing of gifts, which corresponds to the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi and the gift of salvation Jesus gives.
In the West, the date of December 25 was established by the time of Augustine. Unlike the Western Church, the Eastern Church observes Christmas on January 6, as the day that both Jesus was born and the Magi visited him. Additionally, determining the year of Jesus’ birth with exact precision is incredibly complex. The two gospels that speak in greatest detail about Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke) are unclear on this point.
In the Fullness of Time
Therefore, it seems most wise to say that it was 5 or 4 B.C., as those are the years nearly every evangelical scholar accepts after looking at all of the evidence. In the end, the year and date of Jesus’ birth are apparently not a significant issue because God did not find them valued enough to clarify in Scripture, which simply says it happened “in the fullness of time.”