Adapted from a talk given by Redeemer Adjunct Faculty, Mr. Stephen Bagby
At one time or another most of us have stopped to consider the following question: When was Jesus born? Our minds typically run to the most familiar answer: December 25th of the year 0! The correct answer is that Jesus may have been born on December 25th but was definitely not born on the year 0. He was in fact born between 4-6 B.C. How was Jesus born before Christ? Let me explain. The idea of demarcating time as years before Christ (B.C.) and after Christ (A.D., from Latin: Anno Domini = in the year of the Lord), came from a sixth century monk named Dionysius Exiguus. Dionysius reasoned that if Jesus Christ is the Creator and Lord of history then there is no need to date our years according to the reign of temporal rulers like Roman Emperors or kings. So Dionysius invented the B.C./A.D. dating system, but it wouldn’t make its way into mainstream thought for another two centuries. In the year 731 the English scholar Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and in this work incorporated Dionysius’ dating system. Bede’s work was immensely popular throughout the Middle Ages and has remained the way of understanding years even to our own day. However, Dionysius made a mistake in his calculations, and so the years are off by about five, hence, 4-6 B.C.
The actual month and date of Jesus’ birth is more complicated and conjectural. According to the Roman calendar spring equinox fell on March 25th, and people felt this date carried a sense of re-creation and life. A prominent third century theologian named Hippolytus spoke of March 25th as the date on which the world was created by God. He even went a step further by arguing that it was also the date of Jesus’ death. By doing so he sought to join creation and redemption on the same date. Christians began to deduce that if Jesus died on March 25th, he must have been born on March 25th thirty three years previously, a deduction that was made because of what is called the “whole year theory.” This theory supposes that when someone’s death date is recorded, it is speaking to the whole year, not partial years. Several years later, in an ingenious move, a man named Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that we should understand March 25th as the Incarnation insofar as it was the day Jesus was conceived. He first took on flesh at his conception. So if Jesus was conceived on this date then he must have been born nine months later on December 25th.
The date of December 25th was further supported by biblical imagery related to light. Early Christians were reading the Old Testament with Christ in mind, and at least one theologian found Malachi 4:2 to apply nicely to the Son of God: “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” Motifs like “light” and “rising” were applied easily to Christ. After all, light imagery plays a large role in Scripture, especially John’s gospel, and the resurrection (“rising”) has always been the hope of the church. But this dating in December gained even more traction with a popular feast in the Roman world. The third century Roman emperor Aurelian instituted the cult Sol Invictus, that is, the cult of the Unconquered Sun. This cult was celebrated on December 25th—winter solstice—because this was the day in which the sun began to grow stronger and stronger. A feast was celebrated to announce the sun’s strength and prominence in Roman religious life. Christians seized on this as they understood Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness, as growing stronger and stronger after his birth at the time of the winter solstice. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Feast of John the Baptist is six months after that of Jesus. The summer solstice in June marks the diminishing of the sun and coincides nicely with John the Baptist’s own words in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” A document called the Chronography of 354 is our earliest piece of evidence for the date of Jesus’ birth as December 25th. It records how the church in Rome declared this date in the year 336.
It is true that to a certain extent the Feast of the Nativity, or Christ’s Mass, was an opportunity to counter a pagan feast. This provided Christians with a way of appeasing Roman converts who were accustomed to celebrating a religious festival on that day. But by redirecting this pagan holiday towards Christ they sought to capitalize on people’s religious yearnings and habits. As the liturgical theologian Laurence Hull Stookey states it, the “nature religions now could be seen as incomplete strivings after the truth made known fully in Christ.” Alongside the increasing popularity of ascribing Jesus as the “Sun of Righteousness,” December 25th became solidified in much of the Western ecclesiastical tradition.
Let me end by noting a great irony in all of this. The celebration of Christ’s Incarnation has become so important for us today, yet we have no record of any Christian formally celebrating the Incarnation prior to the year 336. However, prominent Christian theologians in these early centuries such as Melito of Sardis, Clement of Alexandria, and Athanasius, were men whose writings are characterized by the saving importance of the Incarnation! So whether or not we choose to celebrate Christmas let us not forget how the Father sent the Son to live, die, and rise for our salvation, and gave us the Spirit for new life and power. For that we rightly proclaim, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”