As surprising and controversial as that claim may be, given what little information we have about when Yehoshua ha’Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah, also known as the Christ) was born, December – possibly (but not necessarily) the 25th – is a completely legitimate candidate for the time His birth.
The favourite alternative to December 25th is the Feast of Tabernacles in September/October, or the Feast of Trumpets shortly beforehand in September – although several others have been proposed (such as Passover, also the day of His death).
The most common objection to December is that that month, in the Northern Hemisphere (and therefore Israel) is the beginning of winter, and that it would’ve been too cold for the shepherds to be out in the field. Some of them add that the shepherds would’ve only been out during the lambing season, in spring.
It is thus with great irony that we observe that not only did Israeli shepherds primarily spend the night in the fields with the flocks in winter and spring (thus ruling out Trumpets, Tabernacles, and the entirety of September and October, and making December, January and Passover look that much more likely), but that the lambing season – when the future Passover lambs were born, I might add – is in Winter – specifically from December to January.
From an interview with Dr Jeff Chadwick:
Jeff: The average day in Jerusalem in December and January is partly cloudy with green grass and jacket temperatures, nothing like the winters of Utah and Idaho. That brings up another thing and this is what I call the myth of the lambing season.
GT: Oh really?
Jeff: Yeah, because, you know, the idea that Jesus was born in the Spring, was not unique to Latter-day Saints in the 1800’s. Others were suggesting this as well. Protestant writers in America familiar with freezing North American winters, because they were usually from New England or somewhere like that, couldn’t imagine how shepherds could be in the fields abiding by their flocks in December, “Aww, just much too cold. No shepherd could be out with his flocks in December,” they ruled. So, it must be in the springtime because spring is when the lambs are born and since Jesus was the lamb of God, that’s when he would have been born, too, is in the spring. This, of course, plays in really well with the tradition among the Latter-day Saints that Jesus was born in April. The problem is it’s an entire falsity. The reason why is that shepherds did and still do go out with their flocks all Winter long.
I have stood in the fields outside of Bethlehem on several Christmas Eves because I get to be there from time to time and the shepherds are out there with their sheep and little lambs have been born already in December. They don’t wait. Now here in our climate, just because of the way that the lambs and the sheep bear, they’ll wait until it’s a little warmer and they’ll lamb in March and April. But that’s not the way that it works in the holy land because the climate doesn’t require it. Biology works partially because of its climate.
(Note that it’s a Mormon website.)
A more detailed description of this line of evidence is thus:
‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night‘
Years ago, in large volumes entitled Picturesque Palestine, the much-traveled Canon H. B. Tristram (died 1906), who had made frequent visits to Palestine, wrote as follows (Vol. I, page 124):
“A little knoll of olive trees surrounding a group of ruins marks the traditional site of the angels’ appearance to the shepherds, Migdol Eder, ‘the tower of the flock’. But the place where the first ‘Gloria in excelsis’ was sung was probably further east, where the bare hills of the wilderness begin, and a large tract is claimed by the Bethlehemites as a common pasturage. Here the sheep would be too far off to be led into the town at night; and exposed to the attacks of wild beasts from the eastern ravines, where the wolf and the jackal still prowl, and where of old the yet more formidable lion and bear had their covert, they needed the shepherds’ watchful care during the winter and spring months, when alone pasturage is to be found on these bleak uplands“. (Italics supplied).
Here an authority of no mean standing tells us that in the dry summer season the hills are well-nigh bare, affording insufficient pasture, so the shepherds then normally keep their sheep near the town and enfold them at night. But when the winter rains fall, the hills become clothed with grass, and the shepherds, knowing this, take their sheep further a field. Then, because it would make the sheep walk too far to reach the folds every evening, expending energy needlessly, they simply watch their flocks in the fields all night. This seems to be precisely what the evangelist Luke describes:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). The shepherds were not in the town; the flock was not in a fold in or near the town. They were afar in ‘the field’ or common pasturage. The sheep were taken there only in the winter, when the winter rains brought forth grass on the hills.
Another authority of the highest rank, Dr. Alfred Edersheim, who considers it likely that the angel appeared to the shepherds at the traditional site, states:
“This Migdol Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep-ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town” (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah 1:186).
He surveys (in Appendix VII) all the evidences he is aware of, and while he admits that ‘absolute certainty’ is impossible as to the exact date of the Nativity, he shows that the known ‘factors do not really conflict with the December dating. “There is no adequate reason,” he wrote, “for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds which seem to me historically untenable.”
Readers of Scripture who possess first-hand knowledge, or have acquaintance with authoritative works on the climate of Palestine, recognize that the arguments against the December date, based upon wintry and snowy conditions, are untenable. The facts have long been known.
As far back as 1863, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, under the heading ‘Palestine: the Climate’, explained the rarity of snow in southern Palestine, while it conceded its more frequent occurrence in the northern parts of the land. The mean temperature at Jerusalem during December is said to run around 47 to 60 degrees F.
It certainly would not hurt sheep to be out at night in that sort of temperature. The Dictionary further states:
“As in the time of our Saviour (Luke 12: 54), the rains come chiefly from the S. or S.W. They commence at the end of October or beginning of November, and continue with greater or less constancy till the end of February or middle of March, and occasionally, though rarely, to the end of April. It is not a heavy continuous rain, so much as a succession of severe showers or storms with intervening periods of fine bright weather, permitting the grain crops to grow and ripen. And although the season is not divided by any entire cessation of rain for a lengthened interval, as some represent, yet there appears to be a diminution in the fall for a few weeks in December and January, after which it begins again, and continues during February and till the conclusion of the season.”
It may be noted that the traditional date .for the birth of Christ falls in this period of the diminution of rainfall toward the end of December. The former rains would have produced grass on the hills, and the fine bright weather intervening between the rains, with temperatures averaging 55 degrees F. would be excellent for sheep grazing on the hills east of David’s royal city.
Unger’s Bible Dictionary, published by the Moody Press in 1959, has little to add to the foregoing. Under the heading ‘Palestine: Climate’ it speaks of the winter season, ‘moist, rainy, mild, from November to April’. Under the heading ‘Winter’ we are told that “the cold of winter is not usually very severe, though the north winds are very penetrating from the middle of December to the middle of February. Snow and hail during most winters fall on the hills. On the central range snow has been known to reach a depth of nearly two feet, and to lie for five days or even more, and the pools at Jerusalem have some times been covered with ice. But this is rare. On the central range the ground seldom freezes, and the snow usually disappears in a day.”
When it is remembered that the foregoing is a general description for the whole land of Palestine, the northerly highlands included, which are cooler than the Bethlehem region, it is not difficult to believe, as a missionary who had lived east of the Jordan for a number of years, told the writer, that one might see shepherds out with sheep at night any month of the year; they go where there is pasture. And it is clear that it is only during the winter that pasture is to be found on the hills east of Bethlehem.
So, shepherding habits support the now-traditional date of Yeshua’s birth (December 25th or thereabout).
The temperature in Jerusalem (a stone’s throw from Bethlehem) in December (winter) and March (spring) is remarkably similar – and not too cold for sheep.
To say it is too cold for sheep in the fields at night in December (but not in March) is more geographic myopia.
Seeing snow yesterday in Glenrothes, I’d say, “Get the sheep inside!” But in Jerusalem at mid-day, it was 13 C/55 F and partly cloudy — almost like one of our summer days! The average low in December is 5 degrees C (41 F), the average high 12 C (53-54 F). In March, the averages are 6 C (43 F) and 15 C (59 F) — little difference.
This morning, the forecast shows no temperature below 5 C / 41 F in the next ten nights. (Time to move to Israel!) It isn’t too cold for sheep in the fields outside Bethlehem. This argument may make sense in Britain, but it is silly in Israel.
In other words, if it’s “too cold” for the sheep to be out in winter, it’s too cold for them to be out in spring. The argument simply doesn’t work. (Fun fact: my town’s winter temperatures are similar to Jerusalem’s.)
A description of the lambing season can be found here (I’ll just give the link for brevity’s sake:
The other main objection to a December 25th birth is that the day was “pagan”; usually the birthday of most of the pagan gods, due to being the winter solstice. Aside from the fact that December 25th is NOT the solstice (although it’s close), almost every single pagan god claimed to have been born on December 25th either doesn’t have a reported birthday, OR their reported birthday ain’t even in December!
The “sole” exception (pun intended) was Sol Invictus, a Roman deity who was created by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD – DECADES after Christian authors had begun proposing December 25 (or thereabouts) as Yeshua’s date of birth.
The other objection is that a pagan festival (Saturnalia) was held near that time.
So, the Creator of the Universe can’t choose a date to be born because some nutjobs had a festival shortly before/afterward?
No. Just no.
(I was saying no to the objection, not to Yeshua’s right to be born when He wants to be born.)
A not concrete, but plausible line of evidence is that Zechariah (husband of Yeshua’s mother Mary’s cousin Elizabeth) was serving in the course of Abijah when he was told he would have a son. It was presumably in the ensuing weeks that his son John the Baptist was conceived, and it was roughly six months after his conception that Yeshua was conceived, meaning Yeshua was born approximately 15 months – give or take a few weeks – after Zechariah’s vision.
From the evidence for date furnished by the narrative of the shepherds we turn to that supplied by ‘The course of Abia’, mentioned in Luke 1:5. King David had divided the priests into 24 courses, to serve in rotation. This they evidently did down to the time of the Babylonian Captivity. After the Captivity the courses were started again, and were still officiating in weekly rotation in New Testament times. It appears, however, that only four of the original 24 courses returned with the remnant of the nation to the land of Israel, the missing courses being filled by proxy from the four. To make matters even more difficult, the Bible names several ‘courses’ after the Captivity which cannot be identified with any of the original ones. It therefore follows that there is no certainty about the time of year when the course of Abia would be officiating. Nevertheless, such evidence as is available is favorable to the December dating of the Incarnation. It is necessary to look for the nearest datable reference to one of the courses, and from that to reach by calculation the year mentioned in Luke 1:5. On this matter it is helpful again to quote from the pages of Dr. Edersheim:
“I_n Taan. 29”_-i.e., the Talmudic Tractate Taanith, on Fasting and Fast-days -we have the notice, with which that of Josephus agrees (War 6:4, 1, 5), that at the time of the destruction of the Temple, ‘the course of Jehoiarib, which was the first of the priestly courses, was on duty.
That was on the 9-10 Ab of the year 823 A.U.C.” (i.e., in Roman reckoning), “or the 5th August of the year 70 of our era. If this calculation be correct(of which, however, we cannot feel quite sure), then counting ‘the courses’ of priests backwards, the course of Abia would, in the year 748 A.U.C. (the year before the birth of Christ) have been on duty from the 2nd to the 9th of October. This also would place the birth of Christ in the end of December of the following year (749), taking the expression ‘sixth month’ in St. Luke 1:26, 36, in the sense of the running month (from the 5th to the 6th month: comp. St. Luke 1:24).But we repeat that absolute reliance cannot be placed on such calculations, at least so far as regards month and day”.
For what this evidence is worth, therefore, it would appear that the Bible’s mention of ‘the course of Abia’ is in favor of a December Nativity for our Lord Jesus Christ.
Some provide astronomical arguments – which I’m rather hesitant to endorse or use, but if you’re interested, you can find it in the above link.
An interesting historical note is that according to an 8th-century church father, the date of Christmas was finalised when the Bishop of Rome, Julius I, checked the records from the census famously taken at Jesus’ birth at the request of St Cyril of Jerusalem, the records apparently confirming that our Messiah entered the world on December 25th. This story is a matter of dispute – the earliest record of it was written 400 years after it allegedly happened – although it was widely reported in the first few centuries AD that the then-preserved census records confirmed Yeshua’s birth, so there’s a real chance that it’s actually true.
Of course, Yeshua/Jesus’ exact birthdate cannot be determined for certain, although I am now inclined believe it was in December – potentially (but not certainly) on the 25th.
In the end, of course, it really isn’t an important issue – as evidenced by the fact that God declined to give the date in His Word. It won’t affect your salvation or your walk with YAH/GOD. What IS important is that Yehovah sent His Son to walk and live among us to die for our sins, to become our perfect sacrifice, to offer us life everlasting – IF we’re willing to accept His offer. Are you?
END NOTE: If the above is correct, the prophetic pattern of Yeshua’s life is astounding. Our Passover Lamb & Perfect Sacrifice, the Light of the World, was conceived at Passover, born at Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights celebrating the restoration of God’s ways – at the same time as the Passover Lambs, and ultimately sacrificed on Passover – before being raised again on First Fruits as the first fruit of the dead.