In honor of Christmas, I will be blogging daily until Christmas Day about certain elements of the birth story that have become distorted over time. I will also be engaging in my annual “prank” of rearranging manger scenes so that they are theologically correct. This is a vast improvement from others who enjoy stealing baby Jesuses from manger scenes. So long as neither is a live manger scene, I guess these are mostly harmless.
Every day I will list one “fact” about the birth of Jesus and then try to separate the truth from the misconceptions. Hope you find it informative, but most importantly I hope it will bring the coming of our Savior to life so that this Christmas “God with us” becomes a reality to you.
Jesus was born on December 25th in the year zero.
No one knows for sure when Jesus was born, but we know for sure that He was not born on December 25th and certainly not in the year zero (there is no such thing as the year 0).
What we do know is that Jesus had to be born before Herod the Great died because Herod is in the birth story. “Josephus tells us that Herod died after a lunar eclipse. He gives an account of events between this eclipse and his death, and between his death and Passover. A partial eclipse took place on March 13, 4 BC, about 29 days before Passover, and this eclipse is usually taken to be the one referred to by Josephus.” (Wikipedia “Herod the Great”)
The “star” appeared to the Magi two years prior to their visit with Herod. We can infer this from several clues in Matthew’s gospel.
First, Herod “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Matthew 2:16) Herod and the Magi understood that the appearance of the star marked the day of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was therefore about 2 years old when the Magi visited Jerusalem.
The second clue is in Matthew 2:11 when the Magi are led by the star to Jesus. “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” Notice Matthew does not say “stable” or “barn” but “house” and he refers to Jesus as “the child” not “the baby.” Most likely the Magi visited Jesus in His hometown of Nazareth (Luke 2:4) about two years after His birth, placing Jesus’ birth around 6BC.
“Magi” is the root of our word for “magicians,” but they were not known for sawing beautiful women in half or pulling rabbits out of their hats. Magicians appear frequently in the Old Testament (Genesis 41, Exodus 7-9, Daniel 1,2) and were expected to interpret dreams, turn water into blood, turn sticks into snakes, and predict the future. The Magi were indeed “wise men” in the sense that they were very well-educated in the arts – especially astrology, which helped them predict the future. So there must have been something quite unusual about the star that made them travel thousands of miles to pay homage to Jesus.
Since the Magi went to Jerusalem, they must have ascertained from the star that a new king had been born in Judea. What made them think that? Michael Molnar has an interesting theory. “lunar conjunctions (close approaches) with Jupiter were one condition for a king’s birth in astrology. I looked for the closest conjunctions, namely occultations (planets eclipsed by the moon) in the time frame biblical scholars claim as likely for the birth of Jesus. I quickly focused on the occultation of April 17, 6 BC after realizing that Jupiter was also “in the east” in the constellation Aries. “In the east” is mentioned twice by Matthew because astrologers such as the Magi said this was the most important time for Jupiter to produce future kings. Moreover, the Moon’s incredible nearness to Jupiter amplified that power. Jupiter “in the east” in Aries was the Magi’s star.” (http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/)
Molnar seems to bring together evidence from the Bible, astronomy, astrology, archaeology, and history in a way that fits the right timeline and conditions.
- Jesus was probably born around 6BC (two years before Herod’s death).
- Jesus was probably born in the spring when shepherds are more likely to be “keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8).
- A heavily-pregnant Mary would also be better able to travel during the spring rather than try to make the trip during the more extreme weather of winter or summer.
- A sign in the heavens in the spring of 6BC happens rarely enough that astrologers would definitely take notice.
So why do we celebrate Christmas on a day Jesus was not born? December 25th used to be a popular festival before Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Rather than eliminate the festival, the Church decided to replace all of the festivals with Christianized forms of similar festivals (kind of like trying to celebrate “Jesusween” instead of Halloween). So Saturnalia combined with Bruma and the winter solstice to create Christmas. I’ll let Sheldon Cooper explain it in his own unique way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqiiCOFR0Y8
So should we petition the government to change Christmas to April 17th? No, that really isn’t necessary and it is not an absolutely certain date. The point of Christmas is not to be “right” about everything and get all upset when someone writes Merry Xmas. The point of Christmas should be to realize that God became a helpless baby when the world seemed to be without hope and full of darkness. And with this realization, we can live our lives generously giving to others just as graciously as God gave to us His one and only Son. No longer would we give our “gifts” out of obligation or cultural practices, but we would give our time, money, labor, and anything else we can think of year round even to those who don’t deserve it because we know we don’t deserve it either.
Other relevant posts:
Away with the Manger
God With Us: The Real Meaning of Christmas