Christians did not celebrate Christmas as a regular festival at the end of December until the middle of the 4th century. The date of December 25th was likely chosen because it was already the date of a major celebration in the Roman Empire. Even most Christians recognize it is almost certain that Jesus was not born on December 25th 2,014 years ago. If not on December 25th year zero, when was He born?
The Gospel writers provide very little in terms of specific dates and the precise timing of Christ’s birth remains a matter of debate among scholars. There is, however, some information that we can piece together that gives us some clues.
Unfortunately, the most specific reference in the Gospels turns out to be of little help. Luke specifically records that Jesus was born during a Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was a governor in Syria (Lk. 2:1-2). Unfortunately, historians have found no records of any such census, order by Augustus, or evidence of Quirinius in Syria at that time. Despite Luke’s detailed reference for establishing the timing, it does not help us today.
There are, however, other clues. We know from the Bible that Jesus was born near the end of the reign of Herod the Great (Mt. 2:19). Josephus records an eclipse just prior to Herod’s death and that eclipse occurred March 12th in the year 4 B.C. We also know that Herod died prior to Passover and the Passover in 4 B.C. began on April 11th. Therefore, Jesus could not have been born any later than March or April of 4 B.C.
Matthew’s gospel indicates that Jesus may have been as much as 2 years old when Herod ordered the massacre of the male children (Mt. 2:16). If Jesus was 2 years old, he may have been born as early as 7 B.C. This means Jesus must have been born between 7 and 4 B.C.
Another way to try to determine the timing is to work backward. It seems likely based upon the dating of John’s ministry (Lk. 3:1) that Jesus was probably baptized and began His ministry in the summer of 29 A.D. It is likely that Herod expanded the age range of the children to be killed to be sure that Jesus did not escape. If so, Jesus would have been slightly younger than 2 years old during the massacre and was probably around 32 years old in A.D. 29. This matches up with Luke’s comment that he was “around” 30 years old at the time (Lk. 3:23).
There is potentially another clue in John 2:20 that supports this date although it is not easy to see in many English translations. Most translations of John 2:20 make it sound like the conversation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders takes place 46 years after the construction of the Temple began. A number of scholars, however, argue that the meaning of the Greek text is not that “it took 46 years to build”, but rather that “it was built 46 years ago”.
According to ancient records, Herod began the construction in 19 B.C., the 18th year of his reign. Although the entire complex was not completed until AD 64, Josephus records that the priests completed the inner sanctuary in less than 2 years. The Passover that would have occurred 46 years after the completion of the sanctuary would have been in spring of AD 30. This aligns with Jesus beginning His ministry in summer or fall of AD 29.
John’s Gospel records three Passover celebrations during the course of the ministry of Jesus. It is likely there is an additional year of ministry between the first (Jn. 2:13) and second (Jn. 6:4) where Jesus ministered in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. This would suggest a crucifixion in A.D. 33. We know Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday (Mk. 15:42; 16:1,6). We also know that it was the time of the Passover and that the night before He was crucified, Jesus shared a Passover meal with His followers (1 Cor. 11:23). Since the Passover meal was eaten on the 14th of Nissan the year of Christ’s death had to be a year when Nissan 14 fell on a Thursday. The two possibilities are AD 30 and AD 33. As we have already shown, a date in A.D. 33 works well.
Therefore, working backward also supports a range of 6 to 4 B.C., but was it December 25th?
The earliest tradition of the Church places the birth of Christ in winter and nothing in the New Testament contradicts this (yes shepherds may have been in the field at this time). Various arguments have been offered for a winter birth and although they are not conclusive, they do show the traditional winter birth is plausible. It is therefore possible that Jesus was born in December. It is, however, unlikely that He was born on the 25th. Around A.D. 194, Clement of Alexandria provided the first precise date given by a Christian teacher. He argued that Christ was born on November 18th. A date in mid-November fits nicely with the chronology discussed above. In fact, a date much later than this requires a birth in 4 B.C. near the latest possible time and compresses the early events of Christ’s life.
It cannot be proven with certainty, but it is likely Jesus was born between mid-November and the first week of December in 5 B.C.
This article closely follows Kostenberger, Kellum, and Quarrels, treatment in The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown, and Paul L. Maier The Date of the Nativity and The Chronology of Jesus’ Life which is available online here: http://inchristus.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/maier-date-of-the-nativity.pdf