Where is there Biblical authority for the celebration of Christmas? Does the Bible command Christians to observe the birthday of Jesus Christ. Strange as it may seem, there is no Scripture commanding Christians to observe a wintertime holiday season!
The facts about the origin of Christmas will startle you! Abundant historical evidence proves beyond doubt that Christmas is not of Biblical origin at all. The festival, believe it or not, had its beginnings among the pagans! “Christmas” customs were being observed by almost the whole of the pagan world centuries before Jesus Christ!
The largest pagan religious cult which fostered the celebration of December 25th as a holiday throughout the Roman and Greek worlds was pagan sun worship – Mithraism. The chief deity in this heathen religion was the “Sun Goddess”, the Oriental goddess of the heavens, called “the queen of heaven.” The season of year when this goddess received her greatest adoration from the pagan world was at the time of the winter solstice, in December. This winter festival was called “the Nativity” – the Nativity of the Sun.
Sir James Frazer in his monumental work on ancient religion, “The Golden Bough,” relates that during the 2nd and 3rd centuries after Christ an intense rivalry was apparent between professing Christianity and this old pagan religion of Mithraism. Of course, Christianity, so-called, managed in the end to suppress this strongly implanted pagan creed, but the victory was in name only! History shows a good deal of compromise was affected by the early Catholic leaders with the teachings of Mithraism. Notice: “An instructive relic of the long struggle between Christianity and Mithraism is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival. In the Julian Calendar the 25rh of December was regarded as the “Nativity of the Sun.” The ritual of the nativity, as appears to have been celebrated in Syria and Egypt, was remarkable. The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, “The Virgin has brought froth! The light is waxing.” The Egyptians even represented the newborn sun by the image of an infant (remember, this was before Christ) which on His birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers” (from The Golden Bough, St. Martin’s ed, pp. 471-472). The similarity between this ancient pagan rite and the modern Christmas is as striking as it is obvious!
Another fact recorded by Frazer concerning this winter festival: “No doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the 25th of December was the great Oriental goddess whom the Semites called Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess” (p. 472).
The “Heavenly Goddess” was the pagan Queen of Heaven whose worship (with all her festivals) is utterly condemned in the Bible. Read it for yourself in Jeremiah 7:17-29; 44:15-19.
What led the ecclesiastical authorities to institute the festival of Christmas? The motives for the innovation are stated with great frankness by a Syrian writer (5th century A.D.) “It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which (time) they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true nativity (of Christ) should be solemnized on that day,” concludes Frazer’s quote.
This could hardly be plainer! The Catholic Syrian writer in question lived only a few years after the Christmas festival was officially adopted and sanctioned by the Catholic Church. He knew it was borrowed directly from the heathen. And yet, those Church elders had the plain injunction from God (which they were all aware of) that the customs of the heathen were not to be brought into the worship of Christ. See Jeremiah 10:1-4 for a specific prohibition of the Christmas celebration.
The major reason December 25th was chosen to commemorate Christ’s birthday was that it represented the chief religious day among most of the heathen. The Church authorities erroneously reasoned that it was proper to replace the sun god with the son of God – Christ.
Hardly any of the early scholars really believed that Christ was born on December 25th. In fact, there were all types of guesses by the men of the 4th and 5th centuries, and almost everyone disagreed with the others. See Smith’s Dictionary Of Christian Antiquities, Vol. 1, p. 358. But the people just could not give up celebrating the season.
The truth is, no man knew or knows when Jesus Christ was born! The Gospels say nothing as to the day of His birth. This lack of reference is in itself significant. If God had wanted Christians to celebrate His birthday He surely would have told His people when it was!
This omission also shows how unconcerned the gospel writers were over the exact date of Jesus’ birth. To the early Christians, there was nothing especially significant in a birthday. Actually, the only two instances of birthday celebration in the Bible refer to evil men. Notice Gen. 40:20 where Pharaoh’s birthday was observed. And also Matt. 14:6 where it describes John the Baptist being beheaded at Herod’s birthday party!
Only the heathen celebrated their birthdays in Bible times. No wonder, then, that the early Church never observed the birthday of Jesus Christ. That was a custom of the heathen, not of God’s people! The authoritative Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “In the scripture, sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthdays”
Thus, it becomes easy to understand why the question of Christ’s birth did not really become important until the 4th and 5th centuries. At this time, the matter was looked into because of the influx of pagans into the “Church” and because of their adherence to their old customs, wanting to celebrate the birthdays of their old gods. So, to please the pagans, December 25th was chosen. The Church was, however, destitute of records which showed the exact day of Christ’s birth. So it had to forge them in the name of the Roman archives.
Even though there are no records which show the date of Christ’s birth, there is sufficient evidence within the Bible itself which clearly reveals that His birth was nowhere near, of all days, December 25th.
First, to show this, let us consider the time of Christ’s ministry which we find revealed in the Gospel record.
The gospels show that Jesus Christ ministered a little over three years. To be exact, a prophecy in Daniel 9:27 shows that Jesus would preach the gospel for three and one-half years, or for one-half of a prophetic week. (A natural week has seven days). This section of Daniel describes a prophetic week or a period of seven prophetic days. In this prophecy, each day equals one year. Daniel, then, is speaking about a 7 year period; and in the midst of that period, that is, at the end of the three and one-half years, Christ’s earthly ministry would come to an end. (See Num. 14:34 and Ezek. 4:6) This Scripture in Daniel gives us a clear prophecy telling us that Christ’s ministry would last 3 ½ years!
Since we know that Jesus’ ministry came to an end at Passover time in 31 A.D (read our article: Was Christ Resurrected on Sunday), then 3 ½ years preceding the spring of 31 A.D. would put the commencement of His ministry in the early autumn of 27 A.D. But what does this prove? Let us see!
The gospel further tells us that Jesus began His ministry just as He was approaching 30 years of age (Luke 2:23).This was the age required by the Old Testament to which priests must attain before they could be installed as official ministers and preachers (Num. 4:3). The Jews also considered that 30 years of age was the age of maturity and real manhood.
Notice what this indication shows. Since Christ was just about 30 years old when he began His ministry in early autumn, 27 A.D., this clearly shows He was born sometime in the early autumn of 4 B.C. – 30 years before!
There are many proofs which point to an early autumn birth of Jesus. For example, if Jesus had been born in any of the seasons preceding autumn 4 B.C., He would have been past 30 at the commencement of His ministry. But the Bible says He was about or approaching 30.
Also, let us consider the season immediately after autumn 4 B.C. – the winter. If He had been born in the winter of 4-3 B.C. then He could, of course, have been under 30 when He began preaching. But this season is out of the question! Here is why! We have the plain testimony of the Scriptures that the flocks were still in the fields at the time of Christ’s birth (Luke 2:8).The flocks were never in the fields in Palestine during the winter season. They were kept inside barns or in protected places during the months from mid-October to mid-March. See Clark’s Commentary on Luke 2:8. The late autumn and winter of Palestine were too severe for the flocks to remain in the open and unprotected from the rain, wind and frost. Notice Matthew 24:30 for a reference to Palestinian winters. These facts alone prove that an early autumn 4 B.C date is the only conceivable period in which Christ could have been born!
In the New Testament we have another important chronological feature which will show the season of Christ’s birth. It concerns the time periods in which the Levitical priesthood served in the Temple. By comparing these prescribed times with certain New Testament references, we can arrive at the very season for the birth of Jesus Christ.
In the days of Christ, the Aaronic priesthood which offered the sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem was divided into 24 separate divisions. Each division (called a “course”) had one chief priest who was chosen by lot to represent the whole division in the Temple for a week’s period. This chief priest was to offer the evening and morning sacrifices and the incense offerings.
The priesthood was divided into 24 courses by David. In his time there had become so many priests that all could not possibly serve in the Sanctuary at the same time. So David divided them into 24 courses and gave instructions that one course should serve in the Sanctuary for one week, then the next course could serve the following week, etc. These 24 courses of the priesthood are described in I Chron. 24.The names of the individual courses are given from verse 7 through 19.
We are further told by Jewish records that each of these courses began serving at noon on a Sabbath and continued their service until noon the next Sabbath – a one-week period (Sukkah 55b). The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived during the time of the Apostle Paul and was himself a priest belonging to the first of the 24 courses (Josephus’ Life, 1), also tells us that each one of these courses served for one week, from Sabbath to Sabbath (Antiquities, vii, 14, 7).
The Jewish records again tell us that the course also served bi-annually – twice in the year. That is, the first course would begin serving in the spring of the year, on the first week of the sacred year. The second course would serve the second week, etc. This went on until the 24 course had served. Then, in the autumn of the year, at the first week of the civil year, the first course would commence again and all of the courses would repeat the order. Thus, on each of the 48 weeks during the year one particular course of the priest served in the Temple.
But, added to these 48 weeks are three extra weeks in the year during which all 24 of the courses served together. These three weeks were during the three major Holy Day periods: the Passover in the beginning of spring, Pentecost in late spring: and the Feast of Tabernacles in the early autumn. Because multitudes of people were always in Jerusalem at these three times of the year, all 24 courses of the priests stayed on in Jerusalem and served together in the Temple (Sukkah, 55b).
So, the 51 weeks of the Hebrew Calendar are accounted for. Occasionally, a 13th month was added to the calendar to allow the months to remain in their proper seasons of the year. When this extra month was added, the priests who officiated in the 12th month repeated their service in the 13th – Miggalah, 6b.
It is important to realize that the first course of these 24 divisions began their ministration with the first Sabbath in the first Hebrew month – that was Nisan, in the very early spring. Read I Chron. 27:1-2 and following verses. With this information, it becomes possible to know the particular weeks in which each of the 24 priestly courses served in the Temple. And consequently, we can know the time period in which some significant New Testament events took place. Let us now see the importance of this information with regard to Christ’s birth.
In the gospel of Luke we are told that a certain priest named Zacharias was performing his service in the Temple at Jerusalem when a most marvelous thing happened. He was privately told that his wife Elisabeth, who was quite advanced in years, was going to conceive and bear a son and that the son’s name was to be John.
This is familiar to us all. But I wonder how many have noticed the time period in which Zacharias received this information? Let us notice this section of Scripture closely.
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia (Abijah in Hebrew): and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth” (Luke 1:5). This verse tells us the particular course of the 24 priestly divisions that Zacharias was serving in.
“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” (Luke 1:8-9).
Now this is very significant! It shows that Zacharias was serving in the prescribed time intended for the course of Abijah. By referring to I Chron. 24:10, you will see that the course of Abijah was the 8th in order. This plainly means that he was ministering in the 9th week after the beginning of God’s first month Nisan. (The reason it was the 9th week and not the 8th is that the Passover season always occurs in the first month and during the 3rd week. Since all 24 courses served that particular week, according to the laws set down by David, this means that Zacharias officiated during the 9th week after the beginning of Nisan, the first month in Spring. Now comes the question: On what days did Zacharias serve?
The year in which all of this occurred was 5 B.C. The first day of Nisan in this year was a Sabbath, the very day on which the first priestly course began its ministration. On our Roman Calendar, this was April 6th. Thus, by simple arithmetic, Zacharias, who served in the 9th week, was serving from Iyar 27 to Sivan 5 (June 1st to June 8th). This was the time he was told that his wife was going to conceive and bear a son. But let us go one step further.
There was no chance of Zacharias leaving immediately after the 9th week to return home. Why? Because the next week was a Holy Day “week” – it was Pentecost! Zacharias was obliged to remain over one more week with the other 23 priestly courses and serve in the temple. This extra service kept him in Jerusalem until Sivan 12, or June 15. At that time he was free to return to his home in the hill country about 30 miles south of Jerusalem.
Now why are all these dates important? We will see if we pay attention to what the sacred writer tells us.
“And it came to pass that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house” (Luke 1:23). This shows Zacharias returned home immediately after his ministration and then his wife conceived (v. 24). This would have occurred about the first week after he returned from Jerusalem. Gabriel had told him that he was to remain dumb, completely speechless, until the child was born. And too, Zacharias was a righteous man and was anxious to see God’s command fulfilled. So, with reasonable assurance, Elisabeth must have conceived sometime immediately after Pentecost week! This week was from Sivan 12 to Sivan 19 (mid-June).
With this information we are able to come to the exact season for John the Baptist’s birth. The human gestation period is very near 289 days or 9 months and 10 days. If we go forward this amount of time from about Sivan 16 or mid-June in 5 B.C., we arrive at about the first of Nisan (March 27th) 4 B.C. The birth of John the Baptist was undoubtedly near this time, in the very early spring.
Now, let us come to the main question: What about the birth of Jesus Christ? The gospel says that Jesus was just 6 months younger than John the Baptist (Luke 1:26, 36).And, by adding this six months to the time of John’s birth (the 1st of Nisan), we come to about the lst of Tishri or near mid-September for the birth of Jesus Christ. So again, we arrive at an early autumn birth for Christ. So Christ was not born in the winter after all!
There are many other evidences which show Christ’s early autumn birth. For one, we are told that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be taxed (Luke 2:1-5).At first sight we might think that this may have been the only reason for their journey from Galilee to Bethlehem. Such, however, was not the case. For if the journey was for taxation purposes alone, only Joseph, the head of the house, was required by law to go. There were absolutely no Roman or Jewish laws which required Mary’s presence. But yet, Mary went with Joseph. This fact alone has puzzled commentators for centuries. Why was Mary there?
The fact is, this taxation was coincident with the end of the agricultural year in Palestine, that is, in the early autumn just before the Feast of Tabernacles. It was customary to pay taxes on agricultural products at the end of the civil year, at the end of the harvest. For example, the Law of God commanded that the tithes of agricultural products could be paid year by year (Deut. 14:22). This civil year for tithes and taxes was reckoned from early autumn to early autumn. Even the Jews today adhere to this method of reckoning the ending of the civil years.
Some, however, assume that while all this was very true among the Jews, this particular taxation was decreed by Augustus Caesar, the Roman Emperor (Luke 2:1).Thus, they conclude, it must have been conducted in the Roman manner and not dependent upon Jewish laws. This assumption is not consistent with the facts of history. At the time of this taxing, Judaea was merely a “protectorate” of Rome. The Romans did not exact direct taxes from the people during this early period. They were receiving tribute from Herod, but the Romans allowed Herod to gather the taxes as he saw fit. And, it is plainly known that Herod was endeavoring to follow the customary laws of the Jews. Even the most critical of scholar hold that this particular taxation in 4 B.C. was conducted purely in the Jewish manner (Ency. Biblica, cols. 3994-3996). This is, then, a plain indication that the taxation was very near the lst of Tishri, the ending of the civil year in Palestine when such things were common.
Many people have wondered why there was such a large crowd of people in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. Of course, there was the taxation at the time (Luke 2:1), but it never was customary for many people to crowd a town and stay there for a period of time just for taxation purposes. And, as already mentioned, why did Mary journey to the south with Joseph when there was no Roman or Jewish law which commanded her presence at such a place of taxation?
Joseph and Mary had gone to Bethlehem just at the end of the Jewish civil year. This would have been just the beginning of the Hebrew 7th month of Tishri. During this particular month, Jerusalem and all the immediate towns were filled with people who had come to observe the Holy Days in this 7th month: the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23).
Bethlehem was one of the towns right near Jerusalem (about 5 miles south) and was considered in the ‘festival area’ of Jerusalem. (See Shekalim, vii, 4.) When the people would come to keep the ordained Holy Days of God, Bethlehem became filled with people. Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentions that it was customary for over 2 million Jews to go to Jerusalem for Passover (one of the Holy Days). Normally, Jerusalem was a city of only 120,000 inhabitants. You can imagine what these 2 million people would do to the housing situation in Jerusalem and the surrounding towns. No wonder, then, that in Bethlehem “there was no room in the inn” (Luke 2:7). The time Christ was born was at a season when Bethlehem was filled with people coming to the Holy Days at Jerusalem.
It is also interesting to note that the “inn” in which Joseph and Mary were to stay was not an ordinary caravan hotel. This word in the Greek is used only two other times in the Bible – Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11. In both places it refers exclusively to temporary “guestchambers” which housed people in Jerusalem during the festival periods. And, since Bethlehem was one of the “overflow” towns which housed many of the people coming to Jerusalem for the Holy Days, it is readily understandable why such “guestchambers” would be in Bethlehem as well.
Actually, these “guestchambers” were primarily in the private homes of people who had opened up their rooms for the influx of people attending the feast.
Rather than remaining at home as ordinarily would have been done, Mary had to come to Bethlehem, and while residing in the “overflow” town of Bethlehem (there being no room for them except in a manger), Jesus Christ was born.
With this evidence, we can confidently place the birth of Jesus Christ sometime in the early autumn, undoubtedly in the 7th Hebrew month. It could not possibly have been in any other season!
We have Christ’s ministry commencing in autumn 27 A.D. right near his 30th year. This places His birth in the early autumn of 4 B.C. But still, with all these indications of the proper season of Christ’s birth, we still do not know the exact day! Let us wake up to the truth about Christmas and quit the pagan superstitions we have inherited from childhood!