On the Date of the Nativity of Our Lord

The question about the actual birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth is quite debatable. While few probably give it much serious thought, it seems that the most common assumption, at least in my circles, among those who do think about such things, is that it has to be at almost any time of year other than late December. I certainly do not have a definitive answer. I can’t say I even have a firm opinion. But I am at least intrigued by the suggestion of historian Alfred Edersheim, in his classic tome, The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, in which he makes a case for the traditional December 25 date:

So much, that is generally accessible, has of late been written on this subject, and such accord exists on the general question, that only the briefest statement seems requisite in this place, the space at our command being necessarily reserved for subjects which have either not been treated of by previous writers, or in a manner or form that seemed to make a fresh investigation desirable.

At the outset it must be admitted, that absolute certainty is impossible as to the exact date of Christ’s Nativity – the precise year even, and still more the month and the day. But in regard to the year, we possess such data as to invest it with such probability, as almost to amount 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, as 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 (Jos. Ant. xvii.6.4), which, it is astronomically ascertained, occurred on the night from the 12th to the 13th of March of the year 4 before Christ. 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 (comp. Ant. xvii.8.1). 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 been stated in vol. i. p.187, see especially note 3. At any rate, the often repeated, but very superficial objection, as to the impossibility of shepherds tending flocks in the open at that season, must now be dismissed as utterly untenable, not only for the reasons stated in vol. i. p.187, but even for this, that if the question is to be decided on the ground of rain-fall, the probabilities are in favor of December as compared with February – 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. That, and on what grounds, our investigations have pointed to a confirmation of the date of the Nativity, as given above, has been fully explained in vol. i. ch. vi… (see specially p.213).

3. On the taxing of Quirinius, see vol. i. pp.181, 182.

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’ (St. Luke iii.23). The accord of this with our reckoning of the date of the Nativity has been shown in vol. i. p.264.

5. A similar conclusion would be reached by following the somewhat vague and general indication furnished in St. John ii.20.

6. Lastly, we reach the same goal if we follow the historically somewhat uncertain guidance of the date of the Birth of the Baptist, as furnished in this notice (St. Luke i.5) of his annunication to his father, that Zacharias officiated in the Temple as on of the course of Abia’ (see here vol. i. p.135). In Taan.29 a we have the notice, with which that of Josephus agrees (War vi.4.1.5), that at the time of the destruction of the Temple the course of Jehoiarib,’ which was the first of the priestly courses, was on duty. That was on the 9-10 Ab of the year 823 A.U.C., or the 5th August of the year 70 of our era. If this calculation be correct (of which, however, we cannot feel quite sure), then counting the courses’ of priests backwards, the course of Abia 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), taking the expression sixth month’ in St. Luke i.26, 36, in the sense of the running month (from the 5th to the 6th month, comp. St. Luke i.24). But we repeat that absolute reliance cannot be placed on such calculations, at least so far as regards month and day. (Comp. here generally Wieseler, Synopse, and his Beiträge.)

Source: Appendix vii, The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah

What We Celebrate At Christmas Is Why We Go to Church

As Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year, church leaders across the country are making decisions about whether their respective congregation will hold services or forgo them. As one who holds a firm resolve about the prudency, even the appropriateness, of arbitrarily canceling services on any Sunday, no matter how noble-sounding the reasoning, I appreciate Grayson Gilbert’s thoughts on this matter, posted for Chorus In The Chaos:

Every set number of years, the church has an opportunity to gather with the saints on Christmas Day—and yet this often becomes a point of controversy for professing Christians. Some churches cancel services, while many others keep their doors open. I will admit at the onset of this that I believe those who shut their doors are not only doing a disservice to their congregants, but are in disobedience to the Scriptures.

The call to gather with the saints in the local assembly of believers is one that holds few exceptions to the rule. What has been traditionally held is that unless one is barred from attending church due to the providence of God or works of necessity, Christians should be among God’s people on the Lord’s Day (i.e., Sunday service). That time should be a designated time for all who profess faith in Christ simply because it is a time where the Spirit is uniquely present to work in and through His people as they serve one another, through the proclamation of the Word, the public reading of Scripture, corporate prayer, and congregational signing. In other words, unless we are providentially hindered or performing works of necessity, church attendance should be a non-negotiable to us. That is the general rule.

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O Come All Ye Faithful: When Christmas Falls On Sunday

Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year. It happens every several years. Across the country churches are cancelling Sunday service; or, harkening back to the pandemic, some are pre-recording elements of a worship service to be consumed via streaming at the convenience of those who take the time to watch. (Is “watching” actually worshipping? That’s probably a good subject for another post.)

Granted, church attendance will likely be low even in churches committed to holding worship services. And family time is important. So, I get the factors that lead some to feel the need to cancel. (Well, “need” is probably too strong of a word. “Preference” is probably more apt.) Point being that the issues that cause a dilemma for some are not lost on me.

The question is, what is the best way to resolve these tension points? Even granting latitude for the consciences of individual Christians and families, what should the Church do?

I appreciated the solution proposed by Blake Larebee in his post for Chorus in the Chaos: 3 Good Reasons to Move the Gathering to Saturday the 24th. (NOTE: I had to read through it twice before I caught what he was actually saying. The key is in the end, and what he proposes ought to be done on “The Lord’s Day”.)

J.C. Ryle on the Incarnation

Exchange (Red-Yellow-Orange)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ~ John 1.14

Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle elaborates on these words to deepen our appreciation for the Incarnation of Christ:

The plain meaning of these words is, that our divine Savior really took human nature upon Him, in order to save sinners. He really became a man like ourselves in all things, sin only excepted. Like ourselves, he was born of a woman, though born in a miraculous manner. Like ourselves, he grew from infancy to boyhood, and from boyhood to man’s estate, both in wisdom and in stature (Luke 2.52). Like ourselves he hungered, thirsted, ate, drank, slept, was wearied, felt pain, wept, rejoiced, marveled, and was moved to anger and to compassion. Having become flesh, and taken a body, He prayed, read the Scriptures, suffered being tempted, and submitted His human will to the will of God the Father. And finally, in the same body, He really suffered and shed his blood, really died, was really buried, really rose again and really ascended up into heaven. And yet all this time He was God as well as man!

Nowhere, perhaps, shall we find a more wise and judicious statement than in the second article of the Church of England. ‘The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, were joined together in one Person, that is to say, the Godhead and the manhood were joined together in one person, never to be never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man.’

Round Yon Virgin

Away in a Manger

Some of the more curious lyrics to songs seem to be evident in some of the best known Christmas-time hymns. At least it seems that way to me.

Perhaps the cause is sometimes from lack of attention. For instance, as a kid I was certain that the prolonged “glo-r-ia, in excelsius deo” of Angels We Have Heard on High was somehow about Oreo cookies.  I was in my early 20’s before I gave it enough thought and discovered the Latin lingo.  (Truth be told, even now knowing I still hear “O-re-o” echo in my head whenever the song is sung.)

But sometime it is not lack of attention, but archaic language that causes the confusion.  One such example may be some of the words to the song Silent Night, sung at the conclusion of many Christmas Eve services, as candles are being lighted all throughout the sanctuaries.  The folks from Mental Floss have shed some light on the odd phrases of that popular tune:

The “round” in Silent Night might call up imagery of the soft, maternal kind, but in the phrase “round yon virgin,” it simply means “around.” “Yon” is an antiquated word for “that one” or “over there.” The meaning of the phrase in the song depends on the line before it. It should be understood in the context “all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.” In other words “Everything is calm and bright around that virgin mother over there and her child.” In technical terms, “round yon virgin mother and child” is a prepositional phrase.

So now we know.  The words do not describe a pregancy weight gain, or some other kind of personal allusion, but rather an idylic bucolic serenity that accompanied the Prince of Peace into this world.

The Glory of God’s Incarnation

Incarnation (Red)

Martin Luther expresses his appreciation of Christmas, not just that Jesus was born, but how and to whom he was born:

If Christ had arrived with trumpets and lain in a cradle of gold, His birth would have been a splendid affair. But it would not be a comfort to me. He was, rather, to lie in the lap of a poor maiden and be thought to be of little significance in the eyes of the world. Now I can come to Him. Now He reveals Himself to the miserable in order not to give any impression that He arrives with great power, splendor, wisdom, and aristocratic manners. But upon His return, on that Day when He will oppose the high and the mighty, it will be different. Now He comes to the poor, who need a Savior; but then He will come as a Judge against those who are persecuting Him now.  ~ from a sermon from 1530

Remember Christ dwelt with us in humility so that we might approach him receiving the covenant of peace which he secured for us by the blood of his cross.  (Colossians 1.19-20)

We 3 Kings

We 3 Kings

You probably know the song, We Three Kings of Orient Are:

We three kings of orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

The song is based upon the account of the Magi, in Matthew 2.  And though it may be a little less than an accurate account, it is still among my favorites during the Christmas season.

What is inaccurate? For one thing, there is no reason to assume there were only three Magi.  The three is largely assumed because of the mention of three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There very well could have been, and very likely were, far more guys in the caravan than those lonely determined three.  That is just one example.  There are at least a few other somewhat trivial issues. But otherwise, while the song may be a little fanciful, there is nothing seriously erroneous about it.

But more important than a few questionable lyrics is a greater question: “What are some things we can learn from the three Magi mentioned in the song?” To answer this question we can benefit from a helpful little piece Martin Downes wrote a few years ago for Against Heresies: We Three Kings.

Check it out, and give it some thought. And remember, this is not a story limited to Christmas. After all, the Wise Men themselves did not actually arrive to their destination until some time after that first Christmas Day. So this is a story worth pondering well into the New Year.

The Nativity

Nativity Set

by C.S. Lewis

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed),
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!

The Christmas Distraction

Christmas Distraction

Jared Wilson counsels:

There is a great danger this Christmas season of missing the point. And I’m not referring simply to idolatrous consumption and materialism. I’m talking about Christmas religiosity. It is very easy around this time to set up our Nativity scenes, host our Christmas pageants and cantatas, read the Christmas story with our families, attend church every time the door is open, and insist to ourselves and others that Jesus is the reason for the season, and yet not see Jesus. With the eyes of our heart, I mean.

I suppose there is something about indulging in the religious Christmas routine that lulls us into thinking we are dwelling in Christ when we are really just set to seasonal autopilot, going through the festive and sentimental motions. Meanwhile the real person Jesus the Christ goes neglected in favor of his plastic, paper, and video representations. Don’t get distracted from Jesus by “Jesus.” This year, plead with the Spirit to interrupt your nice Christmas with the power of Jesus’ gospel.

The Santa Question

Santa (Rockwell)

Years ago, as a newly minted minister in my first year out of seminary, I made an off-the-cuff comment in one of my Christmas season messages.  I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was something to the effect of: “I don’t really care what you do with Santa”.  My intent was to demonstrate that Christmas Santa is nothing when compared to the Christmas Child – Jesus.

Honestly, I thought I made my point. If I had it to do over – and I do get to do it over every year – I would still say the same thing. But not everyone shares my perspective on this issue.

The next day, along with our regular mail, in our mailbox was a hand delivered, unstamped letter, from a man in the congregation.  It was thick. Nearly 10 pages – each of which made the same point from various angles: I had been derelict in my responsibility to the congregation by giving any wiggle room for families to include Santa Claus in their Christmas traditions.  At least that was his take. (Frankly, he was a pretty uptight guy about a lot of issues.)  Believe it or not, he even used the lame “Re-arrange the letters of Santa = Satan” rationale.

While my view has not changed, and I would still not hesitate to say something similar in a Christmas message, what has changed is my appreciation that not everyone shares my view on this matter.  And over the years I have been asked a number of times by conscientious parents how Christian families should deal with the Santa Question. I try to be more sensitive to the fact that there are several appropriate perspectives.

I recently read a piece by John Murchison touching on this very subject. He observes: “As parents who want our kids to worship Jesus and have fun at Christmas, it can be hard to know if Santa should be included in our traditions, and if so, to what degree.”  I agree.

Murchison observes, “I know of four different types of families when it comes to Santa”:

  • Families who do not include Santa in any of their Christmas celebrations
  • Families who tell their kids up front that Santa is “a fun game that we all play at Christmas”
  • Families who focus on the “historical” Santa, St. Nick
  • Families who go all-in on Santa

Murchison concludes: “I believe that any of these options can be valid options for a family, as long as two guidelines are followed”:

  1. Jesus must be more prominent in your home than Santa at Christmas.
  2. When “the Santa question” comes, don’t lie to your kids.

I concur. Murchison wisely and concisely gives counsel, without elevating his own view.

In our home, we never really did anything with Santa.  We never encouraged belief in him, nor did we ever instruct our children against him. Never did they receive a gift with Santa’s name on the tag.  While our children were certainly aware of Santa because of the symbols that permeate our culture this time of year, not the least of which are the Christmas season television specials, which we did allow them to watch if they wanted, none of our kids ever really thought much about Santa.  Our focus was always on God’s gift to us in the sending of his Son. (See Galatians 4.4-5)

I appreciate Murchison’s ultimate insight, which is in line with the counsel I would want to offer to anyone wondering about The Santa Question:

As long as you’re praying, reading Scripture, and searching out wise counsel, then I believe that you should follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the convictions that He places on your hearts.

And like Murchison, “I pray that our homes will be filled with talk of Jesus and His birth this season, whatever you decide about Santa.”

To read John Murchison’s article, click: The Santa Question