By Rev. Dan Bergman
There is much in our Christmas culture that makes us find it difficult to imagine any setting for the nativity other than a cold winter’s night. Take the example from the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter’” which I’ll admit, I really do like! This song (which I’ve sung in many-a Christmas cantata) is based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti. Here are some of the words:
In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter Long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Do you have a picture in your mind of this scene? Beautiful as it may be, it is most assuredly an inaccurate one. Was Jesus born in the bleak mid-winter? Even though we may be fond of this notion, if we really want to get to the truth, and deduce when the Messiah actually entered this fallen world through physical birth, we must leave all preconceived notions behind. I invite you to join me in this investigation. We may have our ideas and beliefs challenged, but take heart, we can get to the bottom of this mystery! Are you ready?
Exhibit A: The Census from Rome
This passage from Luke immediately gives us some historical perimeters as to when the birth of the Messiah occurred:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Beth-lehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:1-7
When were Roman censuses normally conducted, especially one that required much travel on the part of many subjects of the empire? In his article in Holy-Days and Holidays, Cunningham Geikie states that this census “could hardly have been at that season [winter], however, for such a time would surely not have been chosen by the authorities for a public enrollment, which necessitated the population’s traveling from all parts to their natal districts, storms and rain making journeys both unsafe and unpleasant in winter, except in specially favorable years. Snow is not at all uncommon at Jerusalem in the winter months, and I have known it so deep that people lost their way outside the gates.” 1
Exhibit B: The Shepherds in the Fields
There has been much study given to the possible climactic conditions of a winter nativity, which if viewed with an unbiased eye, can quickly give us some aid in narrowing down the timing of Jesus’ birth. Listen to Luke’s report of the angelic announcement to the shepherds:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:9-11
It has been deduced by Israeli meteorologists after years of study that the climate and weather patterns in Israel have come to the conclusion that “broadly speaking, weather phenomena and climatic conditions as pictured in the Bible correspond with conditions as observed today.” 2
In 2016, the coldest average low of the year in Bethlehem was at the end of December and the beginning of January. The average low was 39° Farenheight.3 As one commentary put it, “These humble pastoral folk are out in the field at night with their flock—a feature of the story which would argue against the birth [of Christ] occurring on Dec. 25 since the weather would not have permitted it.4
If the Israeli meteorologists’ projections of first century climate is accurate, we definitely would not find the shepherds abiding in the fields watching their flocks by night in Bethlehem’s winter. Holman’s Harmony of the Gospels informs us that this seems “to indicate a birth between March and November, since the sheep were usually kept in folds rather than in open fields during the winter months, making our December date of the observance suspect.”5
Exhibit C: The Schedule of the Priests
Darrell Pursiful states well our intention in this subject: “In theory, if one could pinpoint the day on which Zechariah and Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist, one could extrapolate an approximate date of Jesus’ birth. Elizabeth was “in her sixth month” of pregnancy when the angel Gabriel came to Mary. Therefore, approximately fifteen months after Elizabeth conceived, Jesus was born.” 6
Scripture that we find in the Tenach (Old Testament) in conjunction with rabbinical tradition, sheds some light on an interesting aspect of the timing of the Messiah’s birth. These have to do with the “courses” of the priestly divisions, as scheduled based upon the divisions and families from 1 Chronicles and the Mishna Ta’anit (Rabbinical writing: “Fasting”). Let’s take a look into Luke chapter 1, and examine a little closer than perhaps we have in the past, the background of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist:
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth… And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” Luke 1:5,8-11
Focus in on the phrases “course of Abia” and “order of his course.” Zachariah was of the course (or family) of Abijah. According to 2 Chronicles 23:8, these courses rotated from Sabbath to Sabbath. This rotation would repeat twice a year. It is inferred by Luke that Elizabeth would conceive John shortly after Zachariah’s return from Jerusalem. Shmuel Safrai, in his work A Priest of the Division of Abijah, details for us the timing of service for Zachariah’s priestly course:
During the Second Temple period, the twenty-four priestly divisions served in the temple at Jerusalem in a rotation system. A list of priestly divisions can be found in 1 Chronicles 24:7-18… The priests themselves lived not only in Jerusalem but also in other settlements in the land of Israel. When it was “time for the division to go up [to Jerusalem]” (Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:2), the priests left their homes, went up to Jerusalem for a week, and afterwards returned to their homes in Judea or Galilee… Abijah was the eighth priestly division.7
Once we examine the timing of these rotations, we can get a little bit closer to nailing down a more concrete time frame. Zachariah’s course was the eighth.8 The courses started with the first month in the Hebrew calendar Nisan9 (March or April of our calendar). His shift would actually be on the tenth week of this rotation.
Why the tenth week? Because all divisions served during primary feast weeks of the Jewish year. So all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (the third week of the year). Likewise, all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (the ninth week). Thus, the eighth course of the priesthood would end up serving on the tenth week of the year.
Now we must make an assumption here. Remember we said that Zechariah’s division served at the temple twice a year. The Bible does not specify which of the two shifts of service it was. Regardless, nine months after one of the two dates John the Baptist was born. This would place his birth in March or September.
We will assume that Luke is recording Zechariah’s first shift of service for the year. We will find that assumption tends to prove true as we discover the dates of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ birth. Therefore, the date of Zechariah’s service (in Luke 1) would be the Jewish date of Sivan 12-18 (mid-June).10
Due to time of travel for Zachariah, at least one additional week should be counted before we can assume John was conceived. If the above timing is correct, John the Baptist would be born almost exactly at the beginning of Passover! What is even more amazing, is that the announcement to Mary of her conception of the Messiah comes in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy according to Luke – The Festival of Light – Chanukah! This fits very well with the words of John:
In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.11
Exhibit D: The Celebration of the Hebrews
The Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), is an amazing Jewish festival which lasts eight days. It is also known by the Hebrew name Sukkot (soo-KOTE) meaning “Booths.”
“Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the Lord seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath. And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the feasts of the Lord.” Leviticus 23:39-40, 42-44
A Sukkah (booth or tabernacle) is made even today by each family (or synagogue) at this time of year to commemorate this feast. If we follow our deductions from the probable timing of the Roman census, the shepherds abiding in Bethlehem’s fields at night, and the date of Zachariah’s priestly service (which gives us a fairly accurate timing for John’s conception), we really can ascertain a fairly accurate date for the Messiah’s birth! If as previously mentioned, Jesus was conceived on Chanukah, a normal gestation period would place His birth on the 15th of Tishri, September 29th according to our calendar, which is… the Feast of Tabernacles!
It is amazing to study the connections between the Messiah’s birth and this feast! Just as the children of Israel dwelt in booths as they wandered the wilderness, they are to do so once a year – in commemoration of the provision and presence of God! It is to be one of the most joyful times of the year in the life of an Israelite. It is therefore, not surprising to see the wording that John uses when he describes the incarnation of the Messiah, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” 12
The Greek word translated here as “dwelt” is σκηνόω (ske-NO) which literally means “to tabernacle.” The Companion Bible expounds on this thought:
The word tabernacled here receives beautiful significance from the knowledge that “the Lord of Glory” was “found in fashion as a man,” and thus tabernacling in human flesh. And in turn it shows in equally beautiful significance that our Lord was born on the first day of the great Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, viz. the 15th of Tisri, corresponding to September 29 (modern reckoning). The Circumcision of our Lord took place therefore on the eighth day, the last day of the Feast, the “Great Day of the Feast” of John 7.37.13
Have you come to a verdict? With the evidence thoroughly weighed, it is difficult to look back to any view that is based solely on tradition. As we have seen here, if we aren’t afraid to do some digging, we can arrive at a conclusion in this matter that is scripturally based. Realizing that the Messiah probably wasn’t born in “the Bleak Midwinter” doesn’t however necessitate changing the day that we celebrate His birth, as it was chosen for a reason (see previous article here). What we do need to take away from this investigation is a greater faith in the Word of God, a greater understanding that our God makes no mistakes, and a greater joy knowing that we can trust Him in every area of our lives!
With all of this in mind, the most important truth about the birth of the Messiah is the fact that it happened. It occurred just as the prophets foretold! He was born to die one day on a Roman cross, to pay the penalty for your sin and mine. Three days later He rose from the grave! Have you trusted Him as your Savior? If not, won’t you do so today?
1. Cunningham Geikie, “Christmas at Bethlehem,” Edward Deems, editor, Holy-Days and Holidays, 1968, p. 405.
2. R.B.Y. Scott, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Vol. 3, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1962, p. 625.
4. The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1971, note on Luke 2:4-7.
5. John B. Polhill, “The Time of Jesus’ Birth,” in Holman Christian Standard Bible: Harmony of the Gospels (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 290.
7. Shmuel Safrai, A Priest of the Division of Abijah, Jerusalem Perspective Vol. 2, No. 5, February 1989
8. 1 Chronicles 24:10
9. 1 Chronicles 27:2
11. John 1:4-9
12. John 1:14
13. E.W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible, Kregel Publications, 1995 Appendix 179