Although brother Ferrell Jenkins shows that it is possible for shepherds to be in the field in December (See http://ferrelljenkins.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/was-jesus-born-in-winter/ ), he does not argue that Jesus WAS born in the winter months, inclusive of December, but that the argument that shepherds would not be out in the fields in December is not a strong and reliable argument against a December birth for Jesus. Our brother Jenkins says:
I am not saying that Jesus was born in December. Only that the common misunderstanding about Bethlehem winters is based on our lack of knowledge about the local terrain.
Some take that to mean that Jesus could have been born in December, and that the only argument against a December birth has been disproven. Actually, shepherds in the field is not the only argument that shows December to be the unlikely time for Jesus’ birth. From Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus we learn the following facts:
» Zacharias, a priest, performed his duties during the course of Abijah.
» After he returned home from Jerusalem, Elizabeth conceived.
» Mary conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy.
» John was born approximately six months before Jesus.
The Course of Abijah
To date Jesus' birth, we need a starting point. Fortunately, Luke supplies one in mentioning "the course of Abijah" (Luke 1:5). Is it possible to know if this course existed then, when it fell during the year, and how long it lasted?
Indeed it is!
I Chronicles 24 lists the courses, divisions or shifts of the priesthood that served in the Temple throughout the year. Verse 1 states, "These are the divisions of the sons of Aaron." Among the sons of Eleazar were sixteen heads of their father's house, while among the sons of Ithamar were eight additional heads of house, making twenty-four courses (verse 4).
These courses of priests were divided by lot to be officials of the sanctuary and of the house of God (verse 5). Beginning on Nisan 1, these courses rotated throughout the year, serving in the Temple for one week apiece. The course of Abijah, the course during which Zacharias was responsible to work, was the eighth shift (verse 10).
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian—who was, by the way, of the priestly lineage of the course of Jehoiarib, the first course—supplies further information about the priestly courses.
"He [David] divided them also into courses: and when he had separated the priests from them, he found of these priests twenty-four courses, sixteen of the house of Eleazar and eight of that of Ithamar; and he ordained that one course should minister to God [during] eight days, from [noon] Sabbath to [noon on the following] Sabbath. And thus were the courses distributed by lot, in the presence of David, and Zadok and Abiathar the high priest, and of all the rulers: and that course which came up first was written down as the first, and accordingly the second, and so on to the twenty-fourth; and this partition hath remained to this day" (Antiquities of the Jews, 7:14.7).
These courses were strictly followed until the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.
The Talmud describes the details of the rotation of courses, beginning on Nisan 1. With only twenty-four courses, obviously each course was required to work twice a year, leaving three extra weeks. (The Hebrew year normally has fifty-one weeks. Intercalary, or leap, years have an additional four weeks.) The three holy day seasons, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, during which all the courses were required to serve, made up these three extra weeks. Thus, each of the courses worked five weeks out of the year: two in their specific courses and three during the holy day seasons.
This fact forces us to choose the first shift of the course of Abijah as the time when Gabriel visited Zacharias in the Temple. Frederick R. Coulter, in his A Harmony of the Gospels (p. 9), computes it this way:
In the year 5 bc, the first day of the first month, the month of Nisan, according to the Hebrew Calendar, was a Sabbath. According to computer calculation synchronizing the Hebrew Calendar and the stylized Julian Calendar, it was April 8. Projecting forward, the assignments course by course, and week by week, were: Course 1, the first week; Course 2, the second week; all Courses for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, the third week; Course 3, the fourth week; Course 4, the fifth week; Course 5, the sixth week; Course 6, the seventh week; Course 7, the eighth week; Course 8, the ninth week; and all courses [sic] the tenth week, which was the week of Pentecost.
Zacharias of the course of Abijah worked the ninth week in his assigned course and the tenth week in the Pentecost course, and this period ran from Iyar 27 through Sivan 12 (Hebrew calendar) or June 3 through 17 (Julian calendar). He probably returned home immediately after his shifts were completed, and Elizabeth most likely conceived in the following two-week period, June 18 through July 1, 5 BC.
With this information we can calculate Elizabeth's sixth month as December, during which Mary also conceived (Luke 1:26-38). It is probable, because of the circumstances shown in Luke 1, that Mary conceived during the last two weeks of Elizabeth's sixth month. Thus, John was born in the spring of 4 BC, probably between March 18 and 31. By projecting forward another six months to Jesus' birth, the most probable time for His birth occurred between September 16 and 29. It is an interesting sidelight that Tishri 1, the Feast of Trumpets, is one of the two middle days of this time period.
Flocks in the Fields
There is additional proof that Jesus was born in the fall of the year. The census of Quirinius that required Joseph to travel from Galilee to Bethlehem would most probably have taken place after the fall harvest when people were more able to return to their ancestral homes (Luke 2:1-5). Besides, it was customary in Judea to do their tax collecting during this period, as the bulk of a farmer's income came at this time.
Another point is that Joseph and Mary had to find shelter in a barn or some other kind of animal shelter like a cave or grotto because the inns were full (verse 7). This indicates that the pilgrims from around the world had begun to arrive in Jerusalem and surrounding towns. Thus, the fall festival season had already commenced. There would have been no similar influx of pilgrims in December. http://www.cgg.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.sr/CT/ARTB/k/568/When-Was-Jesus-Born.htm
Read more: http://www.cgg.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.sr/CT/ARTB/k/568/When-Was-Jesus-Born.htm#ixzz1hx7HTl00
The Month and Day:
While the New Testament fails to give us a direct statement regarding when Jesus was born, we do have enough information to establish, within a close proximity, the birthday of John the Baptist. In his Gospel, Luke writes:
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. (Luke 1:5)
The priestly order of Abijah was, according 1 Chronicles 24:7-19, the eighth of twenty-four orders which served in the temple throughout the year. The Hebrew calendar is not like the Western calendar: it begins in March/April with the month of Nisan and is calculated upon the lunar-duration method. The third week of that first month is Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when all the priests regardless of their order would serve; this was also true for Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. Apart from these three high holy weeks, the 24 courses would serve in the temple in order from first to the last, each order serving a week at a time. Zechariah was of the eighth order, and this means that, with Passover and Pentecost factored in, Abijah’s first course of service in the Temple would have fallen the week immediately after Pentecost. And, it was most likely during this first tour of duty in 3 B.C. that Zechariah had the following encounter:
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section [“order”] was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:8-20)
Based upon what we are told above, this amazing event occurred while Zechariah was serving in the temple during the regular duties of the eighth course of Abijah. While it is just barely possible that this might have occurred during Zechariah’s second annual tour of temple-duty in the eighth course of Abijah, other circumstances make this quite unlikely. In other words, this occurred during Zechariah’s first Abijah tour of duty, which in 3 BC would have occurred the first week of June. After his service, Zechariah would have gone straight home:
When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. (Luke 1:23-24)
The wording is quite abrupt but not at all surprising: given the punishment he had suffered for not believing Gabriel’s announcement, Zechariah clearly didn’t waste any time but went immediately home. Given both his age and the fact that his home was in a “Judean town in the hill country,” we can surmise that it must have taken Zechariah at least a day or two to make the journey, but that within the week he would have been home. How much longer after that should we estimate that it took for Elizabeth to conceive? The passage doesn’t say, other than to apply an aramaic idiom which indicates both a short but not abrupt temporal frame; in other words, it was “after those days” in the sense that the conception wasn’t immediate, but neither did months pass. We can assume that a week or two transpired before the conception of John the Baptist and still be well within the intent and wording of the passage. Hence, we’re looking at the last week of June or the first week of July before Elizabeth would have conceived. Assuming a July 1st conception for John the Baptist, we can project the date of Jesus’ conception and birth from what Luke tells us next:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27)
The phrase “In the sixth month” means during the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Unfortunately, Luke is not more specific as to when in that month Gabriel appeared to Mary, only that it happened during that month. If Elizabeth’s first month had begun by July 1st, then Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel at some point during the month of December ... probably somewhere between the middle of the month and its end. This would allow time for Mary to proceed directly to Elizabeth’s immediately following her conception, spend “about three months” there, and then depart before John the Baptist was born.
To complete our speculation, if we assume that John the Baptist wasn’t premature, he would have been born at the beginning of April, 2 B.C. -- right around Passover. This is an amazing, but not altogether surprising conjunction, since the Jewish expectation had long been that Elijah would return at Passover! In a typological sense, he did: John the Baptist -- the new Elijah -- would prepare the way for the messiah. Since John the Baptist was conceived 6 months prior to Jesus’ conception, it obviously follows that 6 months after the birth of John the Baptist Jesus was born. It is a simple exercise to count the months:
If we project Jesus’ conception on or about December 24, and if we assume a normal pregnancy of 280 days, Jesus would have been born on or about September 29, 2 B.C.. Of course, this is only an approximate estimation. It is conceivable that John the Baptist could have been conceived and born a week or so earlier than our conjecture, or a week later. Likewise, it is entirely possible that Mary could have received Gabriels annunciation and conceived the Christ child as early as the very first week of Elizabeth’s 6th month, and not half to two-thirds of the way through the month. In this case, Jesus would have been born as early as the first week of September, rather than at the end of the month. Any combination of these factors might be possible, which could push Jesus’ birth as much as a month earlier, or a half-month later, depending upon the variables, but this doesn’t seem likely to me. I believe that the evidence points to a mid-to-late December conception and a late September birth for the Son of God.
What does it matter if Jesus was born on or about September 29th? In terms of our salvation and matters of eternal life: nothing. Salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not through the keeping of high holy days. However, it is important that we speak the truth, and this includes being truthful regarding what we are doing on December 25th.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus at a time other than its actual anniversary because doing so is convenient to the needs, history, and traditions of the Church. In the 4th century it was convenient because several pagan winter-solstice celebrations greatly appealed to many Christians, and since the Church couldn't stop the party they simply adopted and Christianized it. In our current day it's the religious, cultural, and historic inertia of 1700 years which makes it convenient and appealing to continue celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th. Granted, some don't consider historical inertia sufficient cause to continue the tradition, but in terms of practical reality that is precisely the reason the celebration continues even despite the political and cultural challenges which have risen to combat it in recent years. To put this another way, we continue with the tradition because we enjoy doing it. http://www.revneal.org/Writings/jesusbirth.htm
TB: The above writer admits that December is not the time of Jesus’ birth, but he winds up saying that the only reason is it celebrated in December is because “we enjoy doing it” and it is too hard to go against 1700 years of traditional inertia.
TB: We can certainly concede the argument that shepherds COULD be in the field at night in any month of the year including December, but there is better evidence available to point us more likely to a September date for Jesus’ birth and NO EVIDENCE that Jesus was born in December .
Evidence shows that though the early church could have selected a date to celebrate the day of Jesus' birth, they did not select such a date and God did not tell them to. We are happy Jesus was born, but God instructed a memorial of His death, but did not give instructions for a yearly memorial of His birth. That is where we should leave it.
Terry W. Benton