Silent Night in September
At some point in my youth I grew curious about why we Christians celebrate Christmas in December. When I asked my elders where to find Christmas in the Bible, they pointed me to Luke 2 and Matthew 2. Although those famous passages explained the details of Jesus’ birth, neither they nor anyone I asked could explain how those accounts got translated into the festivities of December 25. The best answer I got was something like this, “We really don’t know when Jesus was born. It probably wasn’t in the winter, but since we don’t really know, December 25 is as good a day as any.”
That answer never satisfied my curiosity as a child, and it should not satisfy any serious believer in Jesus, especially when we consider the high quality of Luke’s gospel. Dr. Luke was a meticulous scholar who recorded great detail both in his gospel and in the book of Acts. His accounts, such as those in the first two chapters of his gospel, included evidence he had acquired from people who witnessed the events. In particular, he must have talked with Mary the mother of Jesus to understand her thoughts and words. How is it possible, that she would forget when her Son was born, or that Luke would not tell us that detail? It truth, it is not possible to overlook such an important detail, and in fact Luke did tell us. All we need to understand the answer is a little Bible knowledge, not only of the scriptures, but of the Hebraic context in which they were written. Most of what we need is in Luke 1, with a little help from I Chronicles 24. We begin with the story of a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem:
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years. So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. (Luke 1:5-12 NKJV, emphasis added)
Luke explains how the angel Gabriel told Zacharias that Elizabeth would have a son named John who would be forerunner to Messiah. The he writes:
So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:23-28 NKJV, emphasis added)
Now we see the angel’s second announcement, telling young Mary that she will be mother of Messiah. Notice that Luke is specific about the time between Elizabeth’s pregnancy and the announcement to Mary. He says further:
And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.” (Luke 1:35, 36 NKJV, emphasis added)
From this we learn that John the Baptist is six months older than Jesus, a fact that is common knowledge in Christian circles. All we need to do is figure out when John was born and we will know when Jesus was born, but that is where the reckoning fails. It seems that the Church has lost the ability to determine when John was born, even though the answer is right in front of us.
The clue is with John’s father, Zacharias. When the angel came to him he was ministering in the Temple in the Hebrew month of Sivan, the third month of the Hebrew year, which corresponds to May/June. John was conceived in that same month, soon after Zacharias completed his Temple service. John’s birth happened nine months later, in the Hebrew month of Nisan, the first month of the year, which corresponds to March/April. Nisan is the month of the great Spring Feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits, which means that John was born about the time of Passover. This is a prophetically important thing for the man who came in the “spirit of Elijah”, the prophet who is to come at Passover before the Day of The Lord (Malachi 4:4-6). Jewish tradition has for centuries held that Elijah would come at Passover, which is why to this day Jews set a place for Elijah and pour a special cup of wine for him at their Passover seder meal.
But how do we know John was conceived in Sivan (June)? We know because his father Zacharias was of the priestly division of Abijah, one of 24 priestly divisions established by King David according to I Chronicles 24:
Now these are the divisions of the sons of Aaron. . . Thus they were divided by lot, one group as another, for there were officials of the sanctuary and officials of the house of God, from the sons of Eleazar and from the sons of Ithamar. . . Now the first lot fell to Jehoiarib, the second to Jedaiah, the third to Harim, the fourth to Seorim, the fifth to Malchijah, the sixth to Mijamin, the seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah, the ninth to Jeshua, the tenth to Shecaniah, the eleventh to Eliashib, the twelfth to Jakim, the thirteenth to Huppah, the fourteenth to Jeshebeab, the fifteenth to Bilgah, the sixteenth to Immer, the seventeenth to Hezir, the eighteenth to Happizzez, the nineteenth to Pethahiah, the twentieth to Jehezekel, the twenty-first to Jachin, the twenty-second to Gamul, the twenty-third to Delaiah, the twenty-fourth to Maaziah. This was the schedule of their service for coming into the house of the Lord according to their ordinance by the hand of Aaron their father, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded him. (I Chronicles 24:1, 4-5, 7-19 NKJV, emphasis added)
Each division served in the Temple twice a year for one week at a time, and all of them were there for the three great Feasts of Passover, Pentecost (Shavuot), and Tabernacles. Abijah was the eighth division and they served in the tenth week of the year, which takes into account the festival weeks of Passover and Pentecost when all the priests would have been serving. By this reckoning, Zacharias would have been in the Temple in late May or early June during the month of Sivan, and was home in time to beget John during that same month.
Jesus was born six months after his cousin John, in the seventh Hebrew month, Tishrei, which corresponds to September/October. Tishrei is the month of the Fall Feasts of the Lord, the High Holy Days of Trumpets/Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. The announcement to Mary of His conception occurred during the ninth month, Kislev, which corresponds to November/December and is the time of Chanukah. Chanukah is not a Feast of the Lord, but rather a memorial to God’s salvation of the Jews during the time of the Maccabees about 160 years before Jesus’ birth. It is called the Feast of Dedication since that is the time the Temple was cleansed and rededicated, and also the Festival of Lights since Chanukah recalls the relighting of the great menorah in the Temple. All of this fits with our Messiah’s purpose as the Redeemer and Restorer of Israel, and as the Light of the World, and thus it is no surprise that Jesus did observe Chanukah (John 10:22). However, His birth was nine months after Chanukah, during the Fall Feasts.
There is a question whether Jesus was born at the Feast of Trumpets or the Feast of Tabernacles. Both are prophetically sound, and both come within the same holiday period (Trumpets is on Tishrei 1; Tabernacles begins on Tishrei 15). Messiah comes at the last trumpet (Matthew 24:30-31; I Corinthians 15:52; I Thessalonians 4:16) to tabernacle (dwell) with us (John 1:14; Acts 15:16-17; Revelation 21:3). The important thing for us to understand that Messiah’s first coming is a picture of His second coming, and therefore we may be sure that Jesus was born at the time of the Fall Feasts.
The timeline presented here is based on the understanding that Gabriel appeared to Zacharias during the first term of his division’s service in that year. The division of Abijah served their second term of service in the seventh month, during the Day of Atonement. If that was the time Zacharias received the prophecy of his son, then John would have been born the following summer, and Jesus would have been born during the ninth month, Kislev, which corresponds to November/December. But before we conclude that Jesus could have been born in December after all, we must consider the full weight of Scripture. There are no appointed times of the Lord that occur in Kislev, and no prophecies about Messiah that specify the ninth month. The prophecies of Messiah revolve around the seven Feasts of the Lord in the spring and fall. For example, Jesus dramatically fulfilled the Spring Feasts:
- Passover: He is the Passover Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; I Corinthians 5:6-8);
- Unleavened Bread: He is the Bread of Life, pure and without sin (leaven) (John 6:53-58; Mark 14:22-25);
- Firstfruits: He is the Firstfruits of those who sleep (I Corinthians 15:20-23).
- Pentecost: He is the One Who sent the Holy Spirit to write on our hearts the Torah (instructions, commandments, and laws) which God gave to Israel at Sinai on that same day centuries earlier (Exodus 19:1-6; Acts 1:8, 2:1-4).
Given this scriptural pattern, it makes far more sense that Messiah would have come the first time, and will come the second time, at the season of the Fall Feasts.
There is good scholarship available to show through historical and astronomical records that Jesus was born in September, quite possibly in the year 3 BC. Some of those references are listed at the end of this article. Such research is excellent for confirming the biblical account. However, the greatest lesson we can take from this is the crucial importance of Hebraic understanding in our scripture knowledge. The Feasts of the Lord are still very much relevant to us today, and we have ignored them to our great loss. There is so much more of God’s truth and blessing available to us through the Hebrew context of His Word. The world still regards much of this context as “Jewish”, and there is some validity to that label. God has committed His oracles to the Jews (Romans 3:1-2, 9:1-5), and they are the only people who have even tried to keep the Feasts for the last 3,000 years. It is true that Jews have done this largely in ignorance of Messiah’s identity and His first coming, but that does not negate the truth of God’s Feasts. Neither does it prevent us from following the example of Jesus and His apostles in keeping the Feasts so that we may know more of Him and receive even more of His blessing.
I have written for him the great things of My law, but they were considered a strange thing. (Hosea 8:12, NKJV)
- A superb single-volume reference on the timing of Jesus’ birth is The Star That Astonished The World, by Ernest L. Martin. It can be accessed on the internet at http://www.askelm.com/star/. Of particular interest are chapter 5, “The Time of Jesus’ Birth” (http://www.askelm.com/star/star006.htm, and chapter 12, “The Census of Quintilius Varus” (http://www.askelm.com/star/star014.htm).
- The best astronomical study on the Bethlehem Star is by Frederick A. Larson. His work is available at http://www.bethlehemstar.net.
- For information on the Temple organization and functions, see the Temple Institute in Jerusalem (http://www.templeinstitute.org). Among the many resources there is a study of the priesthood, its divisions, and its duties during the Second Temple period which appears at https://www.templeinstitute.org/day_in_life/foreword.htm.
- In “Christmas Day: Was Jesus Really Born on December 25?”, John J. Parsons presents a Messianic examination of the timing of Jesus’ birth, with summary of arguments for both a September and December birth date. His article is at http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Christmas/christmas.html.
- For a comprehensive teaching on the non-biblical origins of Christmas and other church observances, 119 Ministries offers a two-part video series called “Sunburned”, which is accessible at http://119ministries.com/sunburned-part-1 and http://119ministries.com/sunburned-part-2. Transcripts of these teachings are also available through the 119 Ministries website.
- For a whimsical view of one person’s decision to walk away from Christmas and follow the Feasts of the Lord, see “The True Story of the Grinch and Christmas”, which is presented courtesy of Kenny Russell at his site, Bulldozer Faith, at http://www.bulldozerfaith.com/the-true-story-of-the-grinch-and-christmas.
 See Leviticus 23 for God’s establishment of His Appointed Times, or Feasts.
 For one Jewish explanation of this custom, see http://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/504495/jewish/Why-is-Elijah-invited-in-during-the-seder.htm.