The Actual Date of Christmas Day

Posted on 24 December 2014


The Timeline Continues to the New Testament – The Birth of the Lord

 

The next major event we will consider is the birth of the Lord Jesus.  Our modern calendar uses the Anno Domini method of designating the current year.  These words, abbreviated as A.D., mean “year of the Lord” in Latin and refer to the year in which the Lord Jesus was born.  We might, therefore, reasonably expect that we should know the year of the Lord’s birth by virtue of this method of keeping our calendar.  After all, this method has been commonly accepted – at least in Europe – for over a thousand years.  It was developed almost 1500 years ago by a monk known to history as Dionysius Exiguus.  When he developed it, he most likely had in mind either 1 B.C. or 1 A.D. as the date of our Lord’s birth.  We shall see that he was off by a few years.

 

The Bible does not appear to allow us to determine a date for the Lord’s birth the way it allows us to determine dates for major events in the Old Testament, as we previously did.  However, we can actually arrive at a date when we consider the Old Testament’s special days and years that were to be observed as part of the law given to  ancient Israel, and realize that there is a connection between them and New Testament events.  Once we arrive at the date, we will see how the Bible confirms it in a variety of ways.

 

The Bible clearly tells us that two major New Testament events occurred on annual feast days: first, that the Lord Jesus was crucified on Passover; and second, that the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost to begin the period when God used local congregations to bring the Gospel.  The birth of our Lord certainly ranks as a major New Testament event.  If we remember that the Lord Jesus used language suggesting the year of Jubilee when speaking of His ministry, we are on the right track to determine His birth date.

 

Earlier, we saw that the first year of Jubilee occurred fifty years after the children of Israel entered the Promised Land.  To review briefly, the Exodus was in 1447 B.C., Israel spent forty years in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land in 1407 B.C., and in 1357 B.C. – fifty years later – they observed their first Jubilee year.  Thereafter, every fifty years was a Jubilee year.  Therefore, the year 7 B.C. was a Jubilee year.  Based on a statement the Lord Jesus made, associating Himself with the Jubilee, we focus on 7 B.C. as the year of His birth.  The Bible tells us that Herod was king when the Lord Jesus was born.  In Matthew 2:1-2, we read about this in connection with visitors referred to as wise men:

 

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

 

When we check an encyclopedia, we find that there were several kings named Herod.  The one who was alive in the year 7 B.C. is known as Herod the Great.  According to history, he died in April of 4 B.C. – a date that is considered reliable and is consistent with our 7 B.C. date for the birth of the Lord.

 

Herod had asked the wise men to inform him of the child’s location; but the wise men were warned by God not to do so, and so they returned by another route to their own country after they had been guided to the Lord Jesus by a miraculous star.  Herod was furious that the wise men did not report back to him.  Apparently he was driven by an insane compulsion to perpetuate his name, to guarantee that the throne would pass to his offspring, and to protect it against the child who was born King of the Jews – Herod’s own title.  Herod issued the order to kill all male children in the region, hoping to kill the one child who might some day threaten his house.  We read about this in Matthew 2:16:

         

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was      exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

 

The 4 B.C. date for Herod’s death does not confirm our date for the birth of the Lord, but it’s consistent with it.  This is so because the Bible tells us that the children Herod ordered to be killed were two years old and under.  When he gave this order, he must have believed that no more than two years had passed since the time the child was born.  Herod was still alive in April of 4 B.C., more than two years after the Lord’s birth, to give this order; and so we have consistency with the secular record and the scripture telling us about this order.

 

The Bible tells us that the wise men were guided by a miraculous star to the exact house where the child Jesus was.  They brought Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  When the wise men left to return to their own county, God sent an angel to Joseph, warning him to flee to Egypt.  We read about this in Matthew 2:13-15:

 

And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.  When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

 

The Bible also gives us the date when the Lord’s ministry began.  We know from history that 29 A.D. was the fifteenth year of Tiberius.  In Luke 3:1-2, we read:

 

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being           governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

 

Later in the third chapter of Luke, and based on what we learn in the other Gospel accounts, we find that this John – known as John the Baptist, who is not to be confused with the apostle John – baptized the Lord Jesus.  Shortly after this, the Lord began His ministry.  All of this appears to have happened in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.  Tiberius ascended the throne in 14 A.D., and 15 A.D. was his first full year of reign.  Therefore, counting from 15 A.D. as the first year, we get to 29 A.D. as the fifteenth year and the time setting for these events.  In Luke 3:23, we’re apparently given the Lord’s approximate age at that time:

 

And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,

 

This scripture, however, seems to be telling us something altogether different than the Lord’s approximate age.  It appears to be a reference to the year the Lord began to live in Israel – about thirty years earlier – after Joseph brought his family back from Egypt.  We read about their return in Matthew 2:19-21:

 

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.  And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

 

We know that the Lord was actually 35 years old in the year 29 A.D., so He apparently began to live in Israel when He was about five years old.

 

Just as insight into the significance of the Jubilee year can lead us to the year of the Lord’s birth, the annual feast days can lead us to the month and day.  Earlier, we learned that a blast on the ram’s horn on the Day of Atonement marked a Jubilee year.   Also, it was only on this day that the high priest could enter into the most holy place in the temple, near the visible presence of the Lord.  This was the Old Testament feast day which – according to a great deal of Biblical evidence – had its fulfillment in the birth of the Lord Jesus.  The use of our English word “atonement” certainly seems appropriate here; for on the day He was born, the Lord Jesus was “at onement” or at one with us.  He became the Son of Man just as He was already the Son of God.

 

The day on which the Day of Atonement fell in the year 7 B.C. has been calculated to be October 2.  Although we haven’t proved that this was the day on which the Lord was born, we will see later on how tightly this date fits into the overall framework of dates that we discover from the Bible.

 

There is actually Biblical support for a day near October 2 as being the day of the Lord’s birth.  Let’s take a look at some of the evidence.  We know that God used John the Baptist – Elisabeth’s child – as a messenger for the Lord Jesus.  The Bible gives us clues about the timing of John’s birth, and we can use this information to establish the approximate time of the Lord’s birth.

 

We know that an angel spoke to Mary, giving her the news of her impending conception.  In Luke 1:35-36, we read:

 

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.  And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

 

As an estimate, let’s say the angel made this announcement about half way through the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy.  Assuming that Mary was with child by the Holy Ghost almost immediately after this, and assuming that Elisabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies were each of the normal nine month duration, we can conclude that Mary’s child would be born about five and a half months after Elisabeth’s.

 

The Bible gives us another clue – this one involving John the Baptist’s father, who was a priest named Zacharias.  In the first chapter of Luke, we learn that his “course”  – that is, the period of time during which he performed his priestly duties – was “Abia.”  This turns out to be the last half of the fourth month of the Jewish calendar.  The Bible also tells us that after he completed his course he returned to his house.  After that, his wife conceived.  Let’s assume Zacharias arrived home early in the fifth month of the Jewish calendar.  It has been calculated that, in 8 B.C., the last day of the fourth month of the Jewish calendar was early in our month of July, on July 5.  Elisabeth may have conceived about the middle of that month, being about July 15.  Therefore, John the Baptist would have been born the following year – about April 15 – and the Lord Jesus would have been born about five and a half months after that (about October 1, only one day earlier than our calculated date of October 2).

 





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