A question of faith: When was the birth of Christ? We cannot be sure
A: We cannot be sure of the day and month, nor the year, of Jesus’ birth. Many scholars date the Nativity to several years before the traditional first year of the Lord (Anno Domini or A.D. 1) This earlier date is based in part on the historian Josephus, who places the death of Herod, king of Judea at the time of Christ’s birth, at 4 B.C. However, other scholars contend that Josephus (who held other inaccuracies) is incorrect about the timing of Herod’s death. They believe Jesus could have been born in December in the final days of 1 B.C., ushering in 1 Anno Domini (since there is no “zero” A.D. year).
As for the time of year, the church declared as early as the second century that the angel Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ conception to Mary occurred on March 25, and Jesus was born nine months later on Dec. 25. St. Hippolytus made this claim, also noting Jesus’ death date of March 25 (which would mean that Jesus was conceived and died the same day).
March 25 is significant in the Jewish tradition since it was the date assigned to the beginning of creation and the commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-19) – both of which Christians see as linked to the sacrifice of Christ. Since the early Christians thought of Isaac as a figure of Jesus and Jesus as the sacrificial lamb that God promised to Abraham (Genesis 22:8), the annunciation of Jesus was also commemorated by Christians on March 25.
Drawing from that tradition, St. Augustine in the fourth century explained the theological significance of Jesus’ conception and death occurring on the same date: “The womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.” The common date allowed for a link between the foretold messiah and the announcement and birth of Jesus.
Despite the witness of the early church, many today question this tradition of dating the Nativity to Dec. 25. Some contend that it was chosen as the birthday of Jesus because it was the date of the celebration of the birthday of the Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun – a pagan god). However, there is little evidence of Dec. 25 being connected to the sun god before the reign of Julian the Apostate (who was trying to replace Christianity with paganism) in the fourth century – by which time Christians were already celebrating Christmas.
Some point to the likelihood of a springtime birthday for Jesus, when shepherds would have kept their flocks outside (as described in Luke 2:8), or to spring or summer months, when it was more common to call for a census (Luke 2:4-5). Others, however, note that Palestine (with an average high temperature in December of nearly 60 °F) is not subject to harsh winters, precluding activities generally omitted in the winter months.
We will never know for sure whether Jesus was born in winter or the spring, whether in 4 B.C. or 1 B.C. Even if Dec. 25 was not the birthday of Jesus and it was a date the church selected later, the date – and its relationship to March 25 – retains its theological significance. The lack of surety of the date of Christmas should not prevent us from celebrating the reality of the Nativity. For what is most important is that the Word became flesh, that God entered space and time.