Merry Christmas, family of Jesus. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you!” (Luke 2:11).1 That’s the most important thing, right? A Savior has been born to us: Christ the Lord.
Now here’s a lighter question: When the angel said “today” a Savior is born, which day do you think it was?
Let’s do a little Christmas treasure hunt and see what we can find out.
First, is it possible that Jesus was born on December 25? Yes, it’s possible. There were indeed Christians living in the early A.D. 200s, including Hippolytus, who believed that Jesus was conceived at Passover (in March or April), and was therefore born in December or January. It’s true that in the later 200s the specific date of December 25 became a pagan holiday to the sun god, leading to muddled convergence with Christmas and the winter solstice. But there was already an existing Christian belief that Jesus was born this time of year.
While Jesus may have been born in December, there are other reasons to believe that Jesus might have been born in . . . October. (That’s right. If you’ve ever complained about stores putting up Christmas decorations in October, you might owe them an apology.)
Here are some compelling clues for Christmas in October.
Clue #1: The Date of Jesus’ Death. Jesus was likely crucified Friday, April 27, A.D. 31, as the ultimate Passover lamb. We know from the gospels that Jesus' ministry lasted about three and a half years (see also Dan. 9:27)—and that Jesus began His ministry when He was “about thirty years old” (Luke 3:23). (Priests had to be 30 to begin their ministry.) If Jesus was 33 and a half when he died April 27, A.D. 31, this would mean Jesus was born in October in the year 4 B.C. (Remember that there was no year zero, so we jump from A.D. 1 back to 1 B.C.)
Clue #2: The Shepherds in the Fields. In the fall months of September and October, the Bethlehem shepherds were still “living out in the fields” (Luke 2:8). In the winter rainy months of November and December, however, the shepherds typically brought their flocks into caves.
Clue #3: The Birth of John the Baptist. Luke 1:26 describes Jesus as being conceived about six months after John the Baptist was conceived. So if Jesus was indeed born in October, John would have been born in April—and conceived nine months earlier on July 5 B.C. But does this correlate with the description of John’s promised birth?
Luke 1 describes John as being conceived following the temple service of his father, Zechariah, a priest who served in the order of Abijah (see Luke 1:5-10; 1 Chron. 24:10). Abijah was one of 24 rotating priestly divisions, each of which served in the temple twice a year—for one week each, Sabbath to Sabbath. Additionally, all the priests served during the three great feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. However, the wording of Luke 1:8—“when Zechariah’s division was on duty”—seems to indicate that Zechariah was serving in one of his two assigned weeks. In The Desire of Ages, p. 97, Ellen White also focuses on Zechariah’s assigned service “twice a year.”2
Using the continuous priestly calendar, in the year 5 b.c. Zechariah would have served in the temple June 24-July 1 and Dec. 23-30. If Zechariah traveled home following his June 24-July 1 service, and John was conceived in July, John would have been born in April—and Jesus would have been born six months later in October. (Alternately, if John was conceived in January, then John would have been born in October—and Jesus born in March.) There’s no way to know with certainty when John was conceived, but the priestly calendar at least supports the possibility that Jesus was born in October. If John the Baptist was born around Passover (April 11, 4 B.C.), this timing also fits John’s biblical ties to the prophet Elijah, particularly if John began his ministry 30 years later at the Jordan River speaking to the traveling crowds at Passover.
If John was born around Passover, then Jesus was born six months later, perhaps during the Feast of Tabernacles (Oct. 6-13, 4 B.C.). The feast would have been a natural time for a census of Jews since many Jews would already be traveling to Jerusalem (in the tribal region of Judah). Additionally, this feast came just after the busy harvest season and just before the planting season.
The greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles (from Greek skene) was always the last day, the Sabbath. In fact, 33 years later, “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink’” (John 7:37).
The same apostle John who wrote those words also wrote these: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled [from Greek skene] among us” (John 1:14, TLV).3 Is it possible that on Sabbath, October 13, 4 B.C., Baby Jesus also cried out for all to come to Him?
Merry Christmas, family of Jesus.
Andy Nash ([email protected]) is an Adventist pastor and professor who leads Israel tours for all ages.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 97.
3 Bible texts credited to TLV are from the Tree of Life Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by the Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.