This month, all over the Christian world, we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. Why do we celebrate on that particular day, December 25? When I was little, I was taught that Christmas Day was Jesus’ birthday. Later on, I was told that we are not certain of the year, much less the day, of His birth. The Bible narrative says that on that day, the shepherds were in their fields tending their flock. Certainly shepherds wouldn’t be in their fields at the beginning of winter, but more likely in the spring. I also recall being told that early-on, Christianity “adopted” that date in order to co-opt a pagan winter festival that was being celebrated at the time.
The cover story of this month’s National Geographic is titled, “The Real Jesus – What Archeology Reveals About His Life.” Unfortunately, it reveals very little about His birthplace in Bethlehem. As the article says, “…the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call…the old adage I learned in Archaeology 101 – ‘Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ – applies here.”
So that got me thinking. How do we know what day to celebrate our own birthdays? Well, it’s the day that appears on our birth certificate. Who is the one person in this world that can certify that we were born on a specific day? Our mother, of course, the person that provided the information for our birth certificate.
In contrast to the other evangelists, Saint Luke is the only one who records certain events involving the Blessed Virgin Mary and the infancy narratives: The foretelling of the Birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, the Annunciation of Christ’s Birth to Mary, the Visitation, the Circumcision and Presentation, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple.
So where do you suppose Luke got his information? I think there are a few clues in his Gospel itself: First, he begins by saying, “those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us”. After describing the visit of the shepherds on Christmas night, he says, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart”. Similarly, after finding 12-year-old Jesus in the temple and recording the conversation he had with Mary, Luke relates, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.” Since Luke was a contemporary of Mary and the Apostles, it certainly seems reasonable that his information was obtained from those primary sources. In fact, when we read the Acts of the Apostles, Luke initially describes their activities in the third person, explaining what “they” did, but in Chapter 16 the perspective changes to “we”, as Luke apparently joins as a companion of Paul.
Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t record the date of Christ’s birth, but describes the event, its location, and time frame. Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor; we know that he reigned from about 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. There is no record of a universal census as described by Luke outside of the New Testament. From other sources, however, we know that there is a cave in Bethlehem that was venerated as His birthplace by the early Christians. This was recorded, according to Pope Benedict, as early as Justin Martyr (who died in 165) and church theologian Origen of Alexandria (who died in 254). Looking back a bit further, much of what we know about that time comes from Josephus, who was the most notable Jewish historian from the first century.
Now the dating of our calendar now in use to indicate the Christian Era was effected in the sixth century, when a Roman monk named Dionysius was asked by Pope John I to calculate upcoming Easter dates. As part of this exercise, he also calculated the date of Christ’s birth, which he pegged at December 25. Christ’s circumcision occurred eight days later, on January 1 of A.D. 1, and the crucifixion was in the year A.D. 33. From Matthew we learn that Herod was King of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Josephus, however, places the death of King Herod at what we today refer to as 4 B.C.. When scholars became aware of Josephus’ chronology in the 1600s, it created the uncertainty we still have today.
Recent studies of Josephus, however, indicate that his recording of dates was not entirely accurate. There are about 100 instances where he contradicts verified history and even his own chronology. Just to cite one example, In his Jewish War, Josephus records that Aristobulus, from the second century B.C., took the title of “king” 471 years after the Babylonian captivity. Yet in his Antiquities, he says it was 481 years, a ten-year difference, but modern historians now know that it was 490 years. Josephus is wrong on all accounts. In the Antiquities Josephus records a different date for Herod’s death, which would equate to 8 A.D. in our modern calendar.
What is more likely, I think, is to rely on another citation by Josephus that can be astronomically verified. In all of his writings, Josephus mentions a lunar eclipse only once, and indicates that Herod died shortly after the eclipse. While an eclipse was visible in Judea on March 13, 4 B.C., this eclipse was a minor, partial eclipse that occurred late at night. After that, there was another that occurred on December 29, 1 B.C. which rose at 53% eclipse and more likely to be noticed and recorded, which fits nicely with a December birthday.
As noted by a physics professor who provided the lunar eclipse information, “Perhaps the much-maligned monk who calculated the change of era was not quite so far off as has been supposed.”