Whenever Christmas approaches, news stories will pop up of how Emperor Constantine chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus’ birthday “because it was already a Roman holiday.” The articles assert that “Christmas replaced the Saturnalia festivities in honor of the god Saturn” and that “the god Sol Invictus’ birthday was on December 25.” Did pagan holidays really decide when Christmas was celebrated? Let’s dig into the truth of the matter!
Who is Jesus?
Jesus is part of the Triune Godhead: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One God, but three Persons. Jesus is the Son of God, but He also is God. His human existence began when Mary became pregnant, but He has always existed. He created everything we see around us.
- “He (Jesus) was with God in the beginning. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him not even one thing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:2-3).
- “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).
Jesus was incarnated: born as a human. He ministered around the country of Israel: teaching, healing the sick and disabled, and raising the dead. He was completely good, with no sin at all. But the Jewish leaders convinced the Roman governor Pilate to execute him. Both Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders feared Jesus would lead an uprising.
Jesus died on the cross, carrying the sins of the entire world (past, present, and future) on His body. After three days He resurrected from the dead, and shortly after ascended to heaven, where He sits at the right hand of God the Father, interceding for us. All who trust in Him as their Lord and Savior are forgiven of their sins and saved from its punishment. We have passed from death to eternal life. One day soon, Jesus will return, and all believers will rise to meet Him in the air.
When was Jesus born?
As far as the year, Jesus was probably born between 4 to 1 BC. How do we know? The Bible mentions three rulers at the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew 2:1 and Luke 1:5 say Herod the Great was ruling Judea. Luke 2:1-2 says Caesar Augustus was ruler of the Roman Empire and that Quirinius was commanding Syria. By patching together the dates those men ruled, we have a window of time between 4 to 1 BC, most likely between 3 to 2 BC.[i]
We can also count backward from the time John the Baptist began his ministry, because the Bible tells us it was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign (Luke 3:1-2). Well, when did Tiberius’ reign begin? That’s a little fuzzy.
In AD 12, Tiberius’ step-father Caesar Augustus made him “co-Princeps” – the two men had equal power. Augustus died in AD 14, and Tiberius became the only emperor in September of that year.
Therefore, the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign would be AD 27-28 if we count from when his co-regency began or AD 29-30 if we count from when he became sole emperor.
Jesus started His ministry “around” age thirty (Luke 3:23), after John baptized Him. All four gospels make it sound like it was a matter of months from the time John began preaching to the time he baptized Jesus. When John began stirring things up, Herod arrested him.
Jesus most likely started His ministry sometime between AD 27 to 30, putting His birth around thirty years earlier, between 4 BC to 1 BC. We can’t go any later than 1 BC because the latest date for King Herod’s death.
Why is Jesus’ birthday celebrated on December 25?
The Bible doesn’t say anything about the exact day – or even the month – that Jesus was born. Secondly, celebrating birthdays wasn’t really a thing for Jews in that day. The only time a birthday celebration is mentioned in the New Testament is Herod Antipas (Mark 6). But the Herodian dynasty wasn’t Jewish – they were Idumean (Edomite).
So, when and how did December 25 become the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth?
In AD 336, the Roman Emperor Constantine called for a celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25. Constantine was baptized as a Christian on his deathbed but was supportive of Christianity throughout his reign. Why did he pick December 25?
Was it because it was the birthday of the Roman god Sol Invictus? Here’s the thing. There’s no documentation in Roman records that December 25 was ever a special festival to Sol. He was a minor god until Emperor Aurelian rose Sol in prominence in AD 274. Games (something like the Olympics) were held every four years in August or October in honor of Sol. But not December 25.
What about Saturn? The Romans did have a 3-day holiday from December 17-19, called Saturnalia. Gladiator contests were held, and the heads of gladiators were sacrificed to Saturn. You know those drawings of “death” – wearing a long hooded robe and carrying a sickle? That was how Saturn was depicted![ii] He was known for eating his own children.
The Roman emperor Caligula expanded Saturnalia to five days, from December 17-22. So, it’s close to December 25, but not December 25. Not to mention that Christmas festivities have never involved gladiator fights or offering severed heads to Jesus.
The first record we have of anyone mentioning the date of Jesus’ birth was the church father Clement of Alexandria, around AD 198. He documented in his Stromata his calculations of the date of creation and the date of Jesus birthday. He said Jesus was born on November 18, 3 BC.
Now, the matter of calendars was confusing back in that day. Clement taught in Alexandria, Egypt, so he was probably using an Egyptian calendar, which didn’t count leap years. If we take leap years into account and use his calculations, Jesus’ birthday would have been January 6, 2 BC.
About two decades later, the Christian scholar Hippolytus proposed April 2, 2 BC as Jesus’ day of conception. Nine months from then was early January, 1 BC. Hippolytus based his idea on a rabbinic Jewish teaching that creation and Passover both happened in the Jewish month of Nissan (mid-March to mid-April in our calendar). This was taught by Rabbi Yehoshua in the Talmud around AD 100.
Many 2nd and 3rd-century Christians ran with Rabbi Yehoshua’s idea of creation and Passover both happening in the month of Nissan. They knew Jesus died as the Passover Lamb. Exodus 12:3 told the Jewish people to acquire the Passover Lamb on the 10th of Nissan, so some ancient Christians reasoned that Jesus, the Passover Lamb, was “acquired” by Mary when she conceived Jesus on that day.
For instance, the Libyan historian Sextus African (AD 160 – 240) concluded that Jesus’ conception and resurrection were the same as the day of creation (the 10th of Nissan or March 25). Nine months after Sextus African’s March 25th date of conception would be December 25.
The salient point is that choosing December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ had nothing to do with Saturn or Sol or any other pagan festival. It had to do with the theology of the church at that time, based on earlier Jewish teaching. Christian leaders were proposing a late December birthday for Jesus decades before Emperor Aurelian elevated the worship of Sol.
Furthermore, Constantine the Great didn’t even live in Rome, which had become a backwater by that time. In AD 336, when December 25 became the official date to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, the emperor was living in his newly-built capital of Constantinople, on the border between Europe and Asia (today’s Istanbul). Constantine wasn’t Roman – he was from Serbia, north of Greece. His mother was a Greek Christian. The “Roman Empire” was Roman in name only by that point in history, which makes it even more unlikely that holidays celebrating Roman gods influenced the dates of church festivals.
The early church fathers felt John the Baptist’s birth might be another clue to the date of Jesus’ birth. A common belief in among some early church leaders was that John’s father Zachariah was high priest. They believe he was in the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement when the angel appeared to him. (Luke 1:5-25) That would have been in late September (in our calendar), so if John were conceived immediately after Zechariah’s vision, he would have been born in late June. Since he was six months older than Jesus (Luke 1:26), that would place the birthday of Christ in late December.
The problem with that idea is the Luke passage doesn’t speak of Zachariah as high priest, but only the one chosen by lot one day to enter the temple and burn incense.
Bottom line – December 25 was chosen to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ based on a popular idea in the 2nd and 3rd century church that Jesus was conceived in March. It had nothing to do with Roman festivals – Clement and Sextus were in Africa and Emperor Constantine was eastern European.
Is Jesus’ birthday on Christmas?
Is December 25 really Jesus’ birthday? Or is His birthday in April, September, or July? Although many of the early church fathers believed He was born in late December or early January, the Bible doesn’t tell us.
Some have pointed out that the shepherds were unlikely to be in the fields at night with their sheep, as Luke 2:8 says, because it’s chilly in Bethlehem in late December/early January. The average night temperatures there are in the 40’s F. However, Bethlehem gets most of its rain from November through February. This is when shepherds are most likely to take their flocks out into the hills when the grass is lush and green.
The chilly weather wouldn’t necessarily dissuade them from taking advantage of an excellent food source. After all, sheep are covered in wool! And the shepherds would likely have campfires, tents, and woolen clothing.
We really don’t know for sure when Jesus was born. But December 25 (or January 6) is as good a date as any. It seems reasonable to stick with the date that the church has used for almost two millennia. After all, it’s not the date that’s important, but the reason for the season – Jesus Christ!
Is Jesus birthday on Easter?
Some Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) had a theory that instead of being conceived around Easter, Jesus was born at that time. Elder Talmage authored a book claiming that Jesus was born in Bethlehem on April 6, 1 BC, the same day (but different year, of course) that the Mormon church was established. He based this on a book of Doctrine & Covenants (from Joseph Smith’s “prophecies”). However, Talmage’s proposal didn’t gain wide acceptance among all Mormons. The leadership generally favors a December or early January date in 4 or 5 BC.
If we go back to Clement of Alexandria, who proposed Jesus was born in November (in the Egyptian calendar, which would be early January in the Julian calendar), he also shared some other theories. One was the 25th of Pachon in the Egyptian calendar, which would be in the Spring, around the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Jews and Christians of Clement’s day loved to fixate on certain dates as of great importance – not just for a single time in history, but perhaps two, three, or more times. Although Clement mentioned this as a theory of his time, it never seemed to gain traction like the late December/early January time of Jesus’ birth.
Why do we celebrate Easter?
Almost immediately after Jesus died, resurrected, and ascended back into heaven, His disciples celebrated His resurrection from the dead. They didn’t just do it once a year, but every week. Sunday became known as the “Lord’s Day” as that was the day Jesus rose from the grave (Acts 20:7). The earliest Christians celebrated the “Lord’s Supper” (Communion) on Sunday and often baptized new believers on that day. Christians also began celebrating “Resurrection Day” annually during the Passover week, as Jesus died at Passover. Passover started at the evening of Nisan 14 (between late March to mid-April in our calendar).
Under Emperor Constantine’s instructions, the 325 AD Council of Nicaea changed the date of the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection (Easter) to the first full moon after the first day of Spring. Sometimes that falls at the same time as Passover, and sometimes the two holidays are separated by a couple of weeks.
Why do we celebrate Easter? It’s the day that Jesus defeated death by raising from the dead after His crucifixion. Easter celebrates the salvation that Jesus brings to the entire world – to all who believe on Him as Savior and Lord. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we have the same confidence that one day, when Jesus returns, those believers who have died will rise again to meet Him in the air.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). In Exodus 12, we read how the angel of death passed over any houses where the Passover lamb was sacrificed, and his blood painted on the doorpost. Jesus is the Passover Lamb who took away the penalty of sin and death once and for all. Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus.
When did Jesus die?
We know Jesus’ ministry lasted at least three years, because the Gospels mention Him attending the Passover at least three times. (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55-57). We also know He died at Passover time.
Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples on the first evening of the Passover celebration (Matthew 26:17-19), which is the 14th day of Nissan in the Jewish calendar. He was arrested that night, tried before the Jewish Council and Pilate the following morning (15th day of Nissan), and executed that same day. The Bible says he died at 3:00 that afternoon (Luke 23:44-46).
Since Jesus began His ministry around AD 27-30, He probably died three years later (maybe four), sometime between AD 30 to 34. Let’s see what days of the week the 14th of Nissan fell in those five years:
- AD 30 – Friday, April 7
- AD 31 – Tuesday, March 27
- AD 32 – Sunday, April 13
- AD 33 – Friday, April 3
- AD 34 – Wednesday, March 24
Jesus rose “on the third day – on a Sunday (Matthew 17:23, 27:64, 28:1). So, He couldn’t have died on a Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday. That leaves either Friday April 7, AD 30 or Friday April 3, AD 33. (He died on Friday, Saturday was the 2nd day, and Sunday the 3rd).
Why is Jesus’ birth so important?
The Old Testament prophets and saints looked forward with great anticipation to the coming Messiah – the Sun of Righteousness, who would rise with healing in His wings (Malachi 4:2). Jesus’ birth was the beginning of the fulfillment of all the prophecies about Him. Jesus, who existed with God from the beginning, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant in the world He created.
Jesus was born to live and die for us, so we could live with Him forever. He was born to be the light of the world, our Great High Priest, our Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, and coming King.
Old Testament prophecies about the birth of Jesus
- His virgin birth: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
- His birth in Bethlehem: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)
- His position & titles: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
- King Herod’s attempt to kill baby Jesus by killing all Bethlehem’s baby boys: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).
- He would descend from Jesse (and his son David): “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him” (Isaiah 11:1-2)
Are you cherishing Jesus daily?
In the Christmas season, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the busyness, the gifts, the parties, the decorating, the special foods – it’s easy to get distracted from the One whose birth we celebrate. We need to cherish Jesus daily – at Christmastime and throughout the year.
We should be mindful of opportunities to cherish Jesus – such as reading the Bible to learn more about Him, communing with Him in prayer, singing His praises, and serving Him in the church and community. During the Christmas season, we should carve out activities that focus on Jesus: worshiping Him with carols, attending Christmas church services, reading the Christmas story, reflecting on the spiritual meaning behind many of our Christmas customs, sharing our faith with friends and family, and ministering to the poor and needy.
Remember – the important thing isn’t when Jesus was born – the important thing is why He was born.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)