Christmas Considered Historically

A study of the historicity, dating and historical details of Jesus' birth
which is the basis of the celebration of Christmas.

©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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   Christmas is a multi-faceted phenomenon in our society that must be considered from many different perspectives if we are to understand the full-orbed implications of the event. This study will proceed to consider the Christmas reality historically, theologically, celebrationally, and personally, with the objective that the Christian reader might better understand and celebrate Christmas.


   Technically, it is not really "Christmas" that we are considering in this chapter, but the historical birth or advent of Jesus Christ as recorded in the natal narratives of Jesus in the two gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matt. 1:18­2:23; Lk. 1:26-56; 2:1-40). The celebration of the birth of Jesus was later referred to in the English speaking world as "Christmas."

Twelve Events of Jesus' Birth

   A popular Christmas song refers to cultural gift-giving on the "Twelve Days of Christmas," but we shall consider the twelve basic events of the historical birth of Jesus as recorded in the gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke.

(1)   Joseph and Mary betrothed - Matt. 1:18,19; Luke 1:26,27

   According to the accepted Jewish betrothal custom, Joseph and Mary had made a contractual pledge to be married. This commitment was considered so binding that dissolution required a formal decree of divorce, as Joseph considered doing. Cohabitation and sexual coitus were not considered proper during the betrothal period as the betrothed parties were preparing for their wedding festival.

   Tradition indicates that Joseph was considerably older than Mary. The absence of later mention of Joseph, may indicate that he had died while Jesus was fairly young, and was not alive during the time of Jesus' passion.

   We do know that he was a carpenter (Matt. 13:55), and he seemed to be able to care for his family, even in a foreign country (Egypt).

   That a betrothed woman should become pregnant was a disgrace. Joseph's knowledge that he had not had intercourse with Mary would have given him cause to dissolve the betrothal, but being a righteous and merciful man he was willing to do so without public humiliation.
The supernatural conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary was caused or created by the Holy Spirit. As the "second Adam," Jesus was only the second man to ever live who had only God as His father. His was a divine paternity. Though fully human, "born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4), He did not participate in the sin consequences predicated to all of the human race because of Adam's sin (Rom. 5:12-21).

(2) Angel appears to Mary - Luke 1:26-38

   Tradition has indicated that Mary was quite young at the time of her betrothal and pregnancy. It is often estimated that she was between twelve and sixteen years of age, though there is no Biblical evidence concerning her age.

   Mary's statement in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) has been taken by some to indicate that she was of "low-estate" (Lk. 1:48) socially. These words may simply indicate her humility at being so used of God.

   Befuddled at the announcement that she would bear a child though she had no sexual intercourse with any man (cf. vs. 34), she was nonetheless willing to accept the explanation of the angelic messenger that "nothing will be impossible with God" (vs. 37). She consented to be so used of God in accord with His declaration.

   Later in history Mary was elevated in veneration in the Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) referred to her as the "Mother of God" (theotokos). She was regarded as immaculately conceived without sinful depravity, a perpetual virgin never having had sexual contact with any man (cf. Matt. 13:57; Mk. 6:4; Jn. 7:5), taken up to heaven in an assumption of body and soul, and as the "queen of heaven" who served as a co-mediator (cf. I Tim. 2:5) and co-redemptrix with Jesus.

(3) Angel appears to Joseph - Matt. 1:20-25

   Joseph is likewise informed by an angel that the conception of the child in Mary's womb was by the Holy Spirit. He must have been a man full of trust in God.

   Joseph was told that he was to name the son "Jesus", as Mary had been told also (Luke 1:31). The name "Jesus" come from the Hebrew Yeshua, derived from Yehoshua, meaning "Yahweh is salvation." It is the same name as "Joshua" in the Hebrew Old Testament. In further amplification of the meaning of His name, Joseph is told that Jesus "will save His people (those identified with Him) from their sins" (vs. 21), as a savior (cf. Lk. 2:11; Jn. 4:42).

   Citing the prophet Isaiah, the angel informs Joseph that this child will be the fulfillment of the prophecy of "the virgin bearing a son, and calling His name 'Immanuel,' meaning 'God with us'" (Isa. 7:14).

(4) Roman census ordered - Luke 2:1-6

   History records that Caesar Augustus made a decree in 8 B.C. to enact a census of the Roman Empire. Herod the Great, king over the Palestinian region under the authority of Rome, would have been responsible to implement the census in his jurisdiction. Apparently he determined that this was best facilitated by having the Jewish people go back to their familial cities for registration and identification.

   Joseph was from the house and family of David, whose familial city was Bethlehem in Judea, approximately five miles south of Jerusalem. A particular date must have been set or else Joseph would not have felt compelled to take his pregnant bride on such an arduous journey of almost seventy miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

(5) Child born to Mary in Bethlehem - Luke 2:7

   Arriving in Bethlehem and unable to find lodging due to the influx of visitors arriving for census registration, Joseph and Mary were forced to spend the night in a cave or grotto where the travelers' animals were stabled. That night she gave birth to a son. Few details are provided concerning the birth, and whether Mary had any assistance other than her husband. Apparently it was a natural birth-delivery following a nine-month gestation period. It is referred to as a "virgin birth" only because Mary had never had sexual relations with Joseph or any other man, conceiving a child only by the Holy Spirit.

(6) Shepherds come to the stable - Luke 2:8-20

   Shepherds in the region of Bethlehem were tending their flocks at night. Perhaps it was lambing season. Some have conjectured that these were "lambs without blemish" being prepared for sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. In the Palestinian social milieu of that time shepherds were regarded as a low-class subculture, and were often isolated from the mainstream of Jewish life. How appropriate that Jesus' birth was first announced to the lowly and outcast.

   Angels appeared to the shepherds, and they were very frightened. The supernatural phenomenon of angels plays a big role in story of Jesus' birth, appearing to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. A multitude of angels were praising God and announcing God's peace among men (cf. Isa. 9:6)

(7) The child was circumcised and given the name of "Jesus" - Luke 2:21

   When He was eight days old Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish custom, probably in Bethlehem. This was a distinctive physical mark given to all Jewish males from the time of Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14).

   It was also at this time that Jesus was officially given the name "Jesus" as Joseph and Mary had both been instructed (cf. Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).

(8) Jesus presented at temple when 40 days old - Luke 2:22-40

   "Born of a woman, under the Law" (Gal. 4:4), partaking of Jewish ethnicity and heritage, Jesus participated in the traditional Jewish rites of religion, including circumcision and presentation at the temple in Jerusalem. Levitical Law required thirty-three days of purification for a woman who had born a son (Lev. 12:4), before she could go to the temple. These days were probably spent in Bethlehem with the newborn infant, Jesus. After the required time, and in accord with the Law (Exodus 13:2,12), Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple and made a sacrificial offering of "a pair of turtledoves and two young pigeons," which was the offering for those unable to afford a lamb for sacrifice (Lev. 12:8).

   Simeon, a righteous and devout, old Jewish man, had been told by God that He would not die until he had seen the expected Messiah. When Jesus was presented in the temple Simeon declared that he had seen God's salvation who would be "a light of revelation to the Gentiles" (Isa. 42:6; 49:6) and not only to Jews. Simeon told Mary that her son would be the basis of many Jewish people either stumbling or being resurrected (vs. 34), but this would require the piercing suffering of her own soul (apparently alluding to the death of Jesus). Anna, a prophetess in the temple, also recognized the infant Jesus as God's Redeemer (vs. 38).

   Having performed the requirements of the Jewish Law, Joseph, Mary and Jesus went back to reside in Nazareth (vs. 39)

(9) Magi from the East seek and find Jesus - Matt. 2:1-12

   Though a popular carol refers to "three kings of the orient," the Bible never indicates that there were three Magi or that they were kings. In fact, a distinction of "king" and "Magi" is made in Matt. 2:1. The term "Magi" comes from the same root as "magic" and "magicians." These persons were probably astrological magicians or sorcerers from Persia, Babylon or Arabia. Such persons (cf. Dan. 2:2) watched the stars, were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses, and attempted to predict events to come. Their abilities often gave them audience to the courts of kings, as well as great sway over the people. It should also be noted that in the eastern religion of Zoroastrianism there was the expectation of a coming King who would be announced by a sign in the sky.

   That the Magi have been calculated as three in number is undoubtedly a conjecture based on the three different kinds of gifts mentioned. Their gifts were gold, frankincense (fragrant gum resin used as incense) and myrrh (aromatic resin used in perfumes). The costly nature of these gifts provides a contrast that evidences the universality of Jesus Christ: the shepherds were poor, local and Jewish, while the Magi were rich, foreign and Gentile. Jesus came for all men, both Jew and Gentile (cf. Acts 1:8; Eph. 2:11-18)

   The star that the Magi observed has been the source of much conjecture and astronomical calculation. Was it an astronomical occurrence such as a meteor, or a comet, or a nova? It is calculated that Halley's comet would have appeared in 11 B.C. Or was the star the Magi observed a divinely placed supernatural light in the sky? It must also be asked whether anyone other than the Magi saw this star. Since they are the only ones reported to have seen the star, it might have been a special revelation for them. Herod inquired of them when and where they had seen the star (vs. 7), so apparently it was not a phenomenon of sufficient import that others had noticed.

   We must remember that just because the Magi saw a bright star in the heavens, it is not likely that they would just climb aboard a camel and make tracks in the desert. A caravan would have to be prepared, and supplies would have to be purchased. Probably a considerable group of servants would have to be collected, along with beasts of burden, and perhaps even soldiers to fight off highway bandits. This might have been an impressive entourage. Perhaps this explains why Herod "and all Jerusalem with him" were troubled (Matt. 2:3). And the request of the Magi for "the King of the Jews" (Matt. 2:2) would have been particularly troubling to Herod.

   The Jews did not have their own king (though they desired such), and Herod had been declared king over the Palestinian region where Jewish peoples lived. The star did not necessarily guide the Magi to Palestine, though the popular song refers to "following yonder star". If they were led by the star, why did they stop in Jerusalem to inquire where the king could be found? Why did it not guide them to Bethlehem? Perhaps it was a singular celestial phenomenon.

   When the Magi asked where the "King of the Jews" could be found, Herod interrogated the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of "chief priests and scribes", to ascertain where the Messianic king was to be born. They advised him that prophecy indicated that it was in "Bethlehem, in the land of Judea" (Micah 5:2). The city of Bethlehem, located five miles south of Jerusalem, was the familial city of famed King David (I Sam. 16:4; 17:12). God told David that his descendant would be the Messianic King (II Sam. 7:12,13).

   The star that the Magi had previously seen reappeared, and they were elated at its reappearance. The celestial light appears to have led them in a different direction than Bethlehem, where Herod had directed them and requested a report (Matt. 2:8). Perhaps the star directed them to Nazareth where Joseph, Mary and Jesus had gone to live after His presentation in the temple (Lk. 2:39). The time required for the Magi to journey to Palestine was probably many months, and possibly more than a year.

   Matthew records that the Magi entered into a "house" (Matt. 2:11) rather than a stable. Though Jesus was referred to as an infant "babe" (Greek brephos) while in Bethlehem (Luke 2:12,16), He is referred to as a "young child" (Greek paidon) when the Magi arrive (Matt. 2:8,9,11).

(10) Joseph and Mary take Jesus and flee to Egypt - Matt. 2:13-15

   An angel advises Joseph to take Mary and the child, Jesus, to Egypt to avoid Herod's search for Him. Matthew regarded this action as a fulfillment of Hosea's prophecy of God's delivering His Son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1).

(11) Herod orders massacre of male children - Matt. 2:16-18

   Herod had been appointed by Caesar Augustus in 40 B.C. to serve as Palestine's ruler under Roman authority. He was respected by the Romans as a builder of fortresses, cities, temples, aqueducts. He encouraged foreign trade by building a port at Caesarea. He was an accomplished political conciliator who forced religious and ethnic groups to cooperate. The Jews, on the other hand, hated Herod for his heavy taxation, for his tyrannous cruelty and selfishness, and his political scheming which included many murders.

   When the Magi did not return from Bethlehem as Herod had requested (Matt. 2:8), and that probably because they never went to Bethlehem, Herod concluded that he had been outwitted, and became enraged. Herod ordered his soldiers to slay all children under two years of age. He chose this age group because he knew the child was no longer a newborn infant, but must have been between one and two years of age. This calculation was probably based on the time when wise men said they first saw the star, and the time required for their travel to Palestine.

   The slaughter of the Jewish infants was regarded by Matthew as being the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy of "great mourning and weeping for the children" (Jere. 31:15), which leads into his prophecy of a new covenant (Jere. 31:21-34).

(12) Return to Nazareth after Herod's death - Matt. 2:19-23

   When Herod was dead an angel again appeared to Joseph advising him to take Mary and Jesus back to Palestine. Hearing that Herod's son, Archelaus was ruling in Judea, and being warned in a dream not to go there, he decided to take his family back to Nazareth in Galilee.

The Dating of Jesus' Birth

   Our present calendar method of dating was first established in the sixth century (533 A.D.) by Dionysius Exiguus. He was a monk who was commissioned by Pope John I to develop a calendar system other than the old Roman calendar which dated years as AUC (ab urbe condita) from the founding of the city of Rome. Dionysius determined that historical time should be made to pivot at the birth of Jesus, the singular most important event in history. Using the best historical sources available to him at the time, Dionysius calculated the years back to Jesus' birth and established the first year of Jesus' life as 1 A.D. (anno Domini), meaning "year of the Lord." Years prior to the birth of Jesus were calculated backwards beginning with 1 B.C. (before Christ).

   Later it was determined on the basis of additional historical evidence that Dionysius had miscalculated by several years. How did this happen? Dionysius found a statement by Clement of Alexandria that Jesus was born in twenty-eighth year of the reign of Emperor Augustus. What he failed to take into account was that Augustus first ruled under his given name of Octavian before the Roman Senate conferred on him the name of Caesar Augustus. Scholars now conclude that King Herod probably died in the year 4 B.C.

   What then are the criteria by which we might attempt to determine the date of Jesus' birth? Correlating the Biblical records with known historical dates, the following observations can be made:

(1)    Herod the Great ruled as king in Judea from 40 - 4 B.C. Allowing time for the Magi to travel to Palestine, and noting that Herod sought to kill all infants up to two years of age, we must allow at least two years prior to 4 B.C. for the birth of Jesus.

(2)    Caesar Augustus had ordered a census (Luke 2:1). Historical records seem to indicate that Augustus Caesar ordered censuses in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D. If the census of 8 B.C. is the one referred to in Scripture, we must allow time for the logistical implementation of the census in regards to census-takers, notification, etc.

(3)    That Quirinius was governor in Syria (Luke 2:2) when a census was ordered has often been used to discount the Scripture record because Varus was the governor of record in Syria beginning in 7 B.C. An inscription was discovered by archaeologists in 1764 which seems to indicate that Quirinius may have had an official capacity in Syria both in the years B.C. and A.D. This is not much help in dating the birth of Jesus.

(4)    Luke, a very trustworthy historian, records that Jesus began His ministry when He was "about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23). Granted, the word "about" allows for approximation.

(5)    John records that soon after the commencement of Jesus' ministry when Jesus first cleansed the temple, the Jewish authorities indicated that Herod's rebuilding of the temple was in its forty-sixth year (John 2:20). Historical records indicate that the temple construction began in 22 B.C., making the forty-sixth year of construction about 24 A.D. Thirty years prior to 24 A.D. would be approximately 6 B.C. which references well with the above noted criteria, though no certainty of His birth year can be assigned.

   The time of year, i.e. the month and day of Jesus' birth, are even more questionable. Herod would have likely implemented Augustus Caesar's edict for a census in such a way as to best facilitate such for the Palestinian people. He certainly did so in accord with the Jewish nationalistic model of "returning to one's own family city of origin," which was not the procedure followed in the rest of the Roman empire. The census would probably not have been ordered at a time that would have interfered with spring and summer agricultural operations, which were so important to the Palestinian economy. Therefore, the date of the census was probably not in winter time (November to March) when Palestine can be very cold, and travel can be very difficult. The fact that the shepherds were tending their sheep at night might indicate warmer temperatures, particularly the spring season when the lambs were generally born. But since the spring was the time of preparation for agricultural planting, perhaps the fall season after the harvest would have been most convenient. We do not know the season when Herod ordered the census to be taken. It was apparently a definite, specific time, or else Joseph would not have taken Mary on such a trip of approximately seventy miles so close to the time of her delivery.

   Speculations concerning the dating of Jesus' birth have abounded in Christian history. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-220 A.D.) dated the birth of Christ on November 18, but noted there was great variance of opinion about the date of Christ's birth. An early anonymous work, de Pascha Computus (The Computation of the Passion), indicated March 28 as the day of Christ's birth. Others (ex. Julius Africanus, 221 A.D.) regarded March 25 as the birth date. Many of these conjectures were based on the premise of a perfect annual period between Jesus' birth and death. Calculating from His death in the Spring at Passover time, usually calculated as March 25 or April 6, they thus selected the same date for His birth. Gradually this became identified with the date of the supernatural conception of Jesus, and the date of His birth was pushed back nine months to Dec. 25 or January 6. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), in his work De Trinitate, for example, writes that, "He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; ...and He was born according to tradition on December 25th". Others have indicated that December 25th was selected as the day of Jesus' birth because it was time of the winter solstice when light overcomes darkness. The Egyptian calendar long celebrated May 20 as the date of the entry of Jesus and His parents into Egypt as they fled from Herod, but this does not facilitate the dating of Jesus' birth because we do not know how much time elapsed between His birth and the family's flight. The month and day of Jesus' birth must be left as uncertain.

Historical Foundation of Christian Faith

   Despite the lack of definite dating of Jesus' birth, the historical event of His birth is most important to the Christian faith. Christianity is not the perpetuation of merely subjective phenomena, but is founded on verifiable historical events. Those who would question the historicity of Jesus and identify the records of His life as but religious myth are either uninformed or have an agenda to deny the truth. F.F. Bruce has written:

"Some writers may toy with the fancy of a 'Christ-myth,' but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the 'Christ-myth' theories."1

The witness of the Jewish historian, Josephus, who lived in the later part of the first century A.D. (c. 37-100 A.D.), is particularly pertinent. Writing of the time when Pilate was procurator, Josephus notes,

"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works - a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."2

   The historical verification of Jesus' life is well attested. Though the date of Jesus' birth is unknown, the fact of His birth is well authenticated.

   Millions of men have been born, lived and died throughout the history of mankind. What makes the birth of this child different than all others, many of which have been forgotten or are merely names on genealogical records? The birthdates of a few great personages are remembered (example: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, etc.), but for the most part people soon forget historical trivia about the lives of their forebears.

   Obviously, the birth of Jesus, from which most of the world determines historical, calendar time (though miscalculated), has had an impact beyond all others. We must go beyond the historical details of His birth to an explanation of this singularly significant event.


1    Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents. London: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship. 1966. pg. 119.
2    Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. The Antiquities of the Jews. Book 18, chapter 3, section 3. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1987. pg. 480.