Much debate arises, in some circles, during this time of the year concerning the actual birth date of Christ. While the traditional date for most of the world is observed on December 25, many are adament that this is erroenous, perhaps even heretical. Many of the most passionate insist that Jesus’ birth must have been sometime in the Spring, and that the December date is little more than a co-opting of a pagan holiday, Saturnalia.
I am not sure the actual date matters. It seems to me that if the Lord wanted us to know, he would have made it abundantly clear in his Word – just as he did for various other occasions that were to be observed. That said, I appreciate the musings of 19th century historian Alfred Edersheim on this subject. In his monumental work, Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah (which has pretty much been the standard on the life of Christ since its publication in 1883) Edersheim makes a pretty good case for the traditional December date.
Here is the pertinent excerpt from Life & Times, Appendix VII: On the Date of the Nativity of Our Lord, slightly edited to contemporaize some of the language:
So much has been written on this subject, and such accord exists regarding the general question, that only the briefest statement seems required in this place. More space should be reserved for subjects which have either not been treated by previous writers, or that offer some manner or form that makes a fresh investigation desirable.
At the outset it must be admitted, that absolute certainty is impossible to determine as to the exact date of Christ’s Nativity – the precise year, and even more so the month and the day.
But in regard to the year, we do possess such data as to invest it with such probability, it almost amounts to certainty.
1. The first and most certain date is that of the death of Herod the Great.
Our Lord was born before the death of Herod, and, as we judge from the Gospel-history, very shortly before that event.
Now the year of Herod’s death has been ascertained with, we may say, absolute certainty, to have been shortly before the Passover of the year 750 A.U.C., – which corresponds to about the 12th of April of the year 4 before Christ, according to our common reckoning. More particularly, shortly before the death of Herod there was a lunar eclipse, which, it is astronomically ascertained, occurred on the night from the 12th to the 13th of March in the year 4 b.c. Thus the death of Herod must have taken place between the 12th of March and the 12th of April – or, say, about the end of March.
Again, the Gospel-history necessitates an interval of, at the least, seven or eight weeks before that date for the birth of Christ. (We have to insert the purification of the Virgin, at the earliest, six weeks after the Birth; The Visit of the Magi; and the murder of the children at Bethlehem; and, at any rate, some days more before the death of Herod.) Thus the Birth of Christ could not have possibly occurred after the beginning of February 4 b.c., and most likely several weeks earlier.
This brings us close to the ecclesiastical date, the 25th of December, in confirmation of which we refer to what has already been stated in Book II, Chapter 6 (of Life & Times; see especially note 955).
At any rate, the often repeated, but very superficial objection, as to the impossibility of shepherds tending flocks out in the open during that season of the year, must now be dismissed as utterly untenable, not only for the reasons stated in Book II, Chapter 6, but even for this: that if the question is to be decided on the ground of rain-fall, the probabilities are in favor of a December date as compared with a February date – later than which it is impossible to place the birth of Christ.
2. No certain inference can, of course, be drawn from the appearance of ‘the star’ that guided the Magi.
This, and the grounds of our investigations, have pointed to a confirmation of the date of the Nativity, as given above, to have likely been in December. This has been fully explained in Book II, Chapter 8, paragraph 11
3. On the taxing of Cyrinius, see Book II, Chapter 6, paragraphs 4 & 5
4. The next historical datum furnished by the Gospels is that of the beginning of St. John the Baptist’s ministry, which, according to St. Luke, was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, and when Jesus was ‘about thirty years old’. (Luke 3.23) The account of this with our reckoning with the date of the Nativity has been shown in Book II, Chapter 11, paragraphs 14-15.
5. A similar conclusion would be reached by following the somewhat vague and general indication furnished in John 2.20.
6. Lastly, we reach the same goal if we follow the historically somewhat uncertain guidance of the date of the Birth of John the Baptist.
Luke 1.5 tells us that that the annunication of John’s coming birth occured while his father, Zacharias, officiated in the Temple during ‘the Course (or Division) of Abijah’. (see Book II, Chapter 3, paragraph 4)
Josephus tells us that at the time of the destruction of the Temple, ‘the Course (or Division) of Jehoiarib,’ which was the first of the priestly courses/divisions, was on duty. That was on the 9-10 a.b of the year 823 A.U.C., or the 5th August of the year 70 a.d. of our era. If this calculation is correct (of which, however, we cannot feel quite sure), then by counting ‘the courses’/divisions of priests backwards, the Course of Abijah would, in the year 748 A.U.C. (the year before the birth of Christ) have been on duty from the 2nd to the 9th of October. This also would place the birth of Christ in the end of December of the following year (749 a.u.c), taking the expression ‘sixth month’ in Luke 1.26, 36, in the sense of the running month (i.e. from the 5th to the 6th month, Luke 1.24).
But we repeat that absolute reliance cannot be placed on such calculations, at least so far as regards month and day.
Again, while perhaps the actual date of Jesus’ birth is not essential to our faith, Edersheim gives us something to think about.