Every year, usually in December, the discussion comes up, “was Jesus really born on Christmas Day?” Here’s my research looking at many details of the nativity, not just the date. Some of you may well know all of this, but for those who don’t I hope it’s helpful to have it all described in one place. I felt it might be a bit too provocative to publish it for Christmas, so I’ve waited till February to put it out there. I may do a follow up article looking at where all our Christmas practices come from and what they mean—maybe.
Jesus was born on the festival of Sukkot
Sukkot is also known as the feast of Tabernacles or booths. It falls in September or October each year and is also known as the feast of Nations and the feast of Ingathering.
The feast of Tabernacles was set up by God through Moses – all the Jewish people live in little temporary shelters made from tree branches etc for seven days each year in memory of the exodus from Egypt. Importantly, it also signifies God’s desire to dwell among men, just as he did in the Garden of Eden.
“So I will consecrate the tent of meeting (tabernacle) and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” Exodus 29:44-46
It is one of the three compulsory feasts in Israel – all the men have to go up to Jerusalem to present the first fruit from the harvest (Jesus is described as God’s firstfruit of the Kingdom),
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 1 Corinthians 15:20-23
The harvest aspect will also be fulfilled when Yeshua returns as he will harvest the world for final judgement.
Next the priests sacrifice 70 bulls to atone for the nations (70 is the biblical number which symbolically stands for all the Gentile nations, however many there actually are) and finally, everyone is ‘to rejoice in the Lord for seven days’ (which means that God laid on a very special party to celebrate the birth of Jesus).
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1:22-23
This is quoted from Isaiah who prophesies that the name, or nature, of the coming Messiah will be Immanuel, since it means ‘God with us.’ This became true through the miracle of the virgin birth when Jesus (or Yeshua) was born.
Tabernacle is a Hebrew word meaning shelter or tent, but it is also used in the Bible to speak about our bodies. In the Kingdom of God, his tabernacle is actually within all believers, in their spirits.
The festival of Tabernacles is terribly important to God. In this passage from Zechariah God is talking about the nations who will attack Jerusalem in the last days – in other words very shortly:
Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. Zechariah 14:16
This means that God intends this feast to continue, even after his Second Coming and throughout his 1000-year reign on earth – so it was definitely not just ‘Old Testament’. God expects us to be celebrating it every year.
He’s so serious about it that the nations which rebel and refuse will receive plague and no rain and God will ‘smite the nations who do not keep the feast of tabernacles.’
God’s feasts were set up, among other reasons, to rehearse their ultimate fulfilment when Yeshua came (and when he comes again). They were defined by God so that every Hebrew adult or child would immediately recognise their Messiah. In Psalms 118:14-15 there is a direct reference to the feast of Sukkot which also describes the day God becomes man:
The LORD is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation (Yeshua),
Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents (tabernacles) of the righteous. Psalm 118:14-15
What about the eighth day?
The eighth day is a solemn assembly called to rejoice in the Torah or teachings of God. The eighth day of a Hebrew boy’s life is also the day when he is circumcised. Circumcision in the Old Testament was not just the sign of the consecration of His chosen people, but also contained the idea of spiritual purity. It was the seal of God’s covenant of grace, promised to Abraham, and so included the promise of redemption.
So, again, even as a baby, Jesus is literally acting out the meaning of the festivals as they happen. Getting circumcised on the last day of the feast of Tabernacles was confirmation of God’s eternal covenant with Israel.
Getting the date by working from John the Baptist
We also know that it had to be at the end of September or right at the start of October from the references to John the Baptist. From Luke 1:5–
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Luke 1:5
Because he was of the priestly division of Abijah, we know that his turn to serve at the temple would have been at the end of June. The sequence of the divisions is covered in 1 Chronicles 24:1-19, and specifically, verse 10.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. Luke 1:8-13
So, Elizabeth conceived at the end of June. Then:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. Luke 1:26-27
So Mary conceived at the end of December. So by the calendar, Jesus would have been born at the end of September or very early in October.
Shepherds and angels
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:8-14.
December in Israel is very cold, with snow all round Jerusalem – far too late in the year for shepherds to still have their flocks out on the hillsides – September would have been much more likely.
In those days, so I have heard, the people of Bethlehem had a village tradition. Whenever a woman was about to have a baby of the line of David, the village band would gather, with their instruments, outside the family home and wait patiently until the child was born. If it was a girl, the father would come out and shrug, telling the band it was a girl and they would go home again. But if it was a boy – since it could be the Messiah – the father would go up on to the flat roof of the house and shout “It’s a David!” (in Hebrew, of course!), and the band would start to play as they led a procession all round Bethlehem.
This time however, since Joseph and Mary had just arrived, even though they had family in town, nobody knew they were there, so there were no musicians to proclaim the good news. So God filled in the gap by filling the whole night sky with an awesome angelic choir praising God for his Messiah.
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” Luke 2:22-24
But if we look up Leviticus 12:6 it says:
“‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.
Continuing into verse 8 it says:
“‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’” Leviticus 12:6-8
So we know that the Holy Family was too poor to buy a lamb for Mary’s purification so we also know that the Magi had not yet visited, since their generous gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh would have left the family very well off.
The Magi and the star
The Magi were not kings, nor were they simply wise men. Throughout the ancient middle east, the Magi were the astronomers and astrologers who, among their official duties, commissioned, or rejected, or even deposed, the kings of Babylon, Assyria, Persia and Medea. As a result they were feared and respected even by the Romans.
They were terribly important, powerful men who wore conical hats and always rode the very best horses, not camels – they were far too important to ride camels – and they would have had many attendants and servants. They have given us the word magician and the hat to go with it.
Daniel was a fervent believer and prophet, who, despite being in exile, was a man of immense power since King Nebuchadnezzar had appointed him ruler over Babylon and chief of the Magi.
Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men (the Magi). Daniel 2:48
Ever since then, the Babylonian Magi had been believers in the Jewish God and custodians of the prophecies of Daniel. For over five hundred years they had passed on the teachings of Daniel regarding the coming of the Hebrew Messiah and the signs to look for.
This is why the appearance of this new star led them immediately to the little country of Israel seeking the promised King – even though it was then firmly under the control of the Romans.
Their expedition would have included somewhere between 50 and 100 Magi on horseback, together with hundreds of servants, attendants and slaves – quite an army. This would have taken some time to organise, equip and mobilise and then they had to face a journey of several months. As a result, it could have been at least a year from the appearance of the star before they would have turned up in Jerusalem.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Matthew 2:1-3
Apparently, when the Magi turned up, Herod’s army were away on the coast, putting down a rebellion, so he and the city were virtually undefended. An army headed by the most powerful men in the known world suddenly marched in to Jerusalem, talking about a new king. Of course Herod was disturbed!
The Magi however, had not come in conquest, so Herod found out all he could about the new king and the star, and sent them on their way to Bethlehem to find the child. His plan was to kill the baby and remove the challenge to his throne.
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. Matthew 2:9-10
They hadn’t followed the star all the way – it reappeared overhead as they approached Bethlehem.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
Notice they now live in a house in Bethlehem – probably belonging to members of Joseph’s extended family since he was from the town. The Magi’s normal job may have been assessing the suitability of prospective kings but this time they had no intention of assessing the Messiah, or even officially approving his reign – they had simply come to worship, since they already knew he was God.
The gifts of the Magi
People assume there were three wise men simply because three types of gift are reported. Their traditional names were given them much later by the Roman Catholic church.
All the gifts were costly and would have been boxed in elegant hand-crafted containers as befits a royal gift.
- Gold – to testify to his divinity and kingship
- Incense – to testify to his role as divine intercessor since, in the Bible, incense symbolises prayer
- Myrrh, which was used for embalming the dead – to testify to his role as God’s perfect sacrifice who would die for the sins of the whole world. To give a young baby embalming fluid as a birthday present shows that they were in no doubt at all about his true identity, but I suspect it might have bothered the parents.
Back to Herod
Meanwhile Herod (remember him?) was waiting for the return of the Magi so he could murder the baby, but God had other plans so he warned them to go home by another route and also warned Joseph to take his little family off to Egypt – immediately. And not a moment too soon.
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hosea 11:1)
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:15) was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:12-18
If the Magi had told Herod that the star had appeared one year before, it would make sense for him to target all the boys under 2, just to make sure the ‘new king’ couldn’t escape. I have to admit, my heart breaks for the young families in Bethlehem who experienced this horrible act—no wonder the mothers refused to be comforted!
That is about all I have been able to find out—if you know anything more, please pass it on.
Bless you folks, Geoff >ᴥ<