Was December 25 the birth date of Jesus, son of Virgin Mary?

Jerusalem on Dec.28 of 2006

A 3rd century theologian of the Catholic Church in Rome named Hyppolytus was the first person who proclaimed December 25 as the birth date of Jesus.  Very little is known about Hippolytus in history except that he was a 3rd century priest, a Greek speaking Roman cleric and an anti-pope who often came into conflict with the popes.  He was exiled in the island of Sardinia in southern Italy where he died.  He was given the title of 'saint' much later.

The earliest mention of some sort of observance of the birth of Jesus on December 25th is in the Roman Calendar, which indicates that this festival first began being observed by the church in Rome by the 2nd century (or the year 336 A.D.).  Later, most influential Christian personalities began favoring the same date.  Thus, the practice began and got established gradually.

All known figures in the history of the Church who asserted and confirmed the 'correctness' of this date did so by accessing the Roman birth census.  There is absolutely no record prior to that indicating December 25th as the birth date of Jesus.  Thus, it eventually became the officially recognized date for Christmas.  However, there's little doubt that this was entirely arranged by the authorities in Rome for purposes of convenience rather than any historical truth.

It's interesting to consider the weather conditions at that time of the year in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The Jewish month of Chislev (corresponding to November/December) was a month with cold and rainy weather. The month after that was Tebeth (December/January). It saw the lowest temperatures of the year with occasional snow in the highlands. The Bible does not say when Jesus was born, but it does give sound reason to conclude that the birth of Jesus did not take place in December.  Let's discuss what the Bible mentions about the climate of that region, and the Bible's own contradiction of the period of Jesus' birth.

Bible writer Ezra shows that 'Chislev' was indeed a month known for cold and rainy weather.  After stating that a crowd had gathered in Jerusalem "in the ninth month [Chislev] on the twentieth day of the month," Ezra reports that people were "shivering . . . on account of the showers of rain." Concerning weather conditions at that time of the year, the congregated people themselves said: "It is the season of showers of rain, and it is not possible to stand outside." (Ezra 10:9, 13; Jeremiah 36:22).  The shepherds living in that part of the world made sure that they and their flocks were no longer out of doors at night in December.  The Bible reports, however, that shepherds were in the fields tending their flocks on the night of Jesus' birth.  In fact, the Bible writer Luke states that at the time of the birth of Jesus, shepherds were "living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks" near Bethlehem. (Luke 2:8-12).   Notice that the shepherds were actually living outdoors, not just strolling outside during the day. They had their fields at night. Does that description of outdoor living fit the chilly, rainy and sometimes even snowy weather conditions of Bethlehem in December?  It obviously doesn't.  Judean winters were too cold for shepherds to be watching their flocks outdoor, particularly at night.  Many historians and scholars note that Luke's descriptions of shepherds' activities at the time of Jesus' birth suggest a spring or summer birthdate.

For the purpose of upholding the tradition of December 25th, many orthodox Christians argue by refuting the actual climatic conditions of Bethleham and the regions around.  They claim that these regions come under the umbrella of the Mediterranean climate of mild winters with February at its coldest.  Thus they argue that December can be balmy enough to graze sheep.  However, according to weather analysts and the residents of this part of the world, such a claim completely contradicts the actual and existing winter conditions of the region.

Palestinian and Western meteorologists tracked December weather patterns for many years and concluded that the climate in this region has been essentially constant for at least the last 2,000 years. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible states that, "broadly speaking, weather phenomena and climatic conditions as pictured in the Bible correspond with conditions as observed today" (R.B.Y. Scott, Vol. 3, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1962, p. 625).

The temperature in and around Bethleham in December averages around 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) but can drop to  below freezing, especially at night.  Snow is common for two or three days in Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem in December and January. These were the winter months of increased precipitation at the time when the roads became practically unusable and people stayed mostly indoors.

This important piece of evidence along with the narration of Luke 2:8 stating: "Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night" goes much against a December birth date for Jesus.   A common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them.

The Roman census presided by Roman officials took place every year by law in every province under Roman rule.  Census was also imposed on Syria and Judea (ancient name of a portion of Palestine) when these two provinces came under direct Roman rule.  It involved the enrollment of every citizen for evaluating their assets for tax purposes.  It was mandatory for every person living within the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire to participate in the census every year.

The Roman census recorded by Luke is yet another evidence arguing against a December birth.  Let us read the census described by Luke 2:1-7 that mentions: "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered... So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem..., to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son..."

Authors, historians and scholars argue that the Roman and Judean rulers knew that taking a census in winter would have been impractical and unpopular.  Generally a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy, the weather was good and the roads were still dry enough to allow easy travel. According to the dates for the Roman census, this would probably be the season of the birth of Jesus, son of Mary -- perhaps September or October.

It's important to know that in the first 200 years of Christian history, no mention is made of the calendar date of Jesus' birth.  Not until the year 336 A.D. does one find the first mention of a celebration of his birth.  Why this omission?  According to the church, for 3 centuries after Jesus, the event considered most worthy of commemoration was the date of his "death."  In comparison, the date of his birth was considered insignificant.  As the Encyclopedia Americana explains, "Christmas... was, according to many authorities, not celebrated in the first centuries of the Christian church, as the Christian usage in general was to celebrate the death of remarkable persons rather than their birth..." (1944 edition, "Christmas").  Origen, a Christian theologian in the early days of the Christian church (185-254 A.D.) strongly recommended against birthday celebrations. "In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world" (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 edition, Vol. 3, p. 724, "Natal Day").

Speculations on a specific date of birth of Jesus began as late as the 3rd and 4th centuries. A loud controversy arose among the various church leaders. Several of them were strongly opposed to such a celebration. During this time, eight specific dates during six different months were proposed by various theologians.  December 25th, although one of the last dates to be proposed, was the one finally accepted by the leadership of the Church in Rome.

Just as all authentic Biblical history is completely lost at present, so is the authentic birth date of Jesus, son of Virgin Mary.