Origin of Christian Holidays – Christmas – Part 3

The Practical Arguments Against December 25th.

I’ll start with some of the more rational arguments against December 25th being the date of Jesus birth.

These are all very good points and do generally point to the fact that we don’t actually know what time of year Jesus was born in. What isn’t obvious is that these are all criticisms of the narrative in the Gospel of Luke, not actual arguments against a winter birth.

What most people also don’t realize is that there are only two birth narratives in the Bible. One is in Matthew, and the other is in Luke. The gospels of Mark and John don’t have a birth narrative at all, and neither seem concerned about it.

The Christmas story that is most widely told is actually an amalgamation of the two narratives with heavy bias towards Luke’s narrative. This would be fine if the two narratives agreed with each other and differed only on minor details, but they don’t. In fact, Luke seems to go out of his way to emphasize details that call Matthew’s narrative into question.

It might help to have a very brief summary of how the birth narrative goes in Luke and Matthew and what some of the main differences between them are.

The Birth Narratives in a Nutshell

In Matthew, the holy family already lives in or around Bethlehem. Mary gives birth to Jesus, probably at home. They meet some wise men and flee from Bethlehem to Egypt to get away from King Herod. They come back some indefinite time later and take up residence in Nazareth.

In Luke, the holy family travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem due to Caesar Augustus requiring a census. Mary gives birth in a barn and places Jesus in a feeding trough to sleep. Some Angels talk to some shepherds who go to to meet the baby. Then, less then a year later they go back to Nazareth. Every year they make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.

Luke calls Matthew’s whole narrative into question by stressing the family’s annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This would be wildly impractical if not almost impossible if they spent any significant time in Alexandria.

Matthew calls his own narrative into question by having Herod the Great massacre all the little boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem, and the surrounding area. An event that not only does no one else mention, but the Jewish people somehow didn’t use as an excuse to get rid of a king they hated.

Seriously, they nearly revolted because Pilate wanted to place a picture of the emperor in the Temple. Seems like killing children like the villain in their most important story would have set something off.

So here are the reasons most of these practical arguments don’t hold much weight.

Jesus could not have been born in the winter because it says “Shepherds were watching their sheep at night”. It’s too cold for Shepherds in Israel wouldn’t have been watching them at night in December.

This is a fair argument. It’s just that it doesn’t take a lot of basic details into consideration and begs some questions.

First, are winters actually cold in Bethlehem? According to Wikipedia the average lowest temperature in December in Bethlehem is 7 degrees Celsius, which is 45 degrees Fahrenheit with the average high being 14C/57F. It snows an average of three days a year, and gets about 89 days of rain. Average high in the summer is around 30C/86F.

That’s a mild climate, as expected for a town less than fifty miles from the Mediterranean coastline. At night it might drop a little below freezing a few times a year. Even if average temperatures were a few degrees colder in Jesus’ day, it’s still not that bad.

Point is, the whole notion that it’s so cold in Bethlehem that the shepherds couldn’t possibly be out in December because they’d freeze to death is nonsense. They presumably knew about fire, and probably warm wool clothing.

The second question it raises is, would shepherds watch sheep by night at all? The answer is highly dependent on the value of the sheep. They’d have to watch out for wolves, lions, and other predators that would be active at night and don’t hibernate in the winter. There are some things you can do to mitigate that risk without having a guy physically watch them all night. Still, if they are valuable sheep, it might be worth the expense.

At least some of the flocks kept at Bethlehem were the sacrificial sheep destined for the Temple. These sheep had to be perfect and would certainly be the high value sheep you’d want to watch over at night, all year long.

In fact there was a tower just outside Bethlehem called “Migdal Eder” which was used to watch these sacrificial flocks, and keep the shepherds warm at night. This tower is mentioned twice in the Old Testament, and once by Josephus. This tower is where Abraham’s servant is said to have met Rebecca when searching for a wife for Isaac. It isn’t there anymore, and probably fell into disuse and ruin after Titus destroyed the Temple in 70AD.

No Temple, no sacrifices, no reason to maintain either those flocks or the tower.

The third point is, the narrative about the shepherds is from the Gospel of Luke. Of all the details Luke gets wrong, shepherds in Bethlehem watching flocks of sacrificial sheep at night in December is one that isn’t actually out of the question.

None of this proves a winter birth date, it simply proves it isn’t out of the question.

The Bible doesn’t actually say what time of year Jesus was born.

True. There’s nothing in the Bible that even indicates the time of year. Most arguments for or against are just extrapolating from the details we are given.

It doesn’t say he couldn’t have been born on December 25th either.

Joseph would not travel with a pregnant woman that late in her pregnancy, especially in the winter.

This is a good point, but again, this is only mentioned in Luke’s birth narrative. Matthew’s narrative agrees with this statement and just has them living in Bethlehem already, and raising Jesus in Nazareth after coming back from Egypt.

Travelling late in pregnancy is not necessarily a direct risk to the mother or baby in most cases. The reason pregnant women are encouraged not to travel late in the pregnancy is so there’s less risk of having the baby in unknown circumstances. Airlines ‘forbid’ eight month pregnant women on their airplanes mostly because they don’t want the liability for the woman going into labor on the airplane.

So yes, Mary could have made the three or four day trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey, even if she was about to pop. It would have been uncomfortable, unwise and impractical but it could have been done.

The reason actually given that Mary and Joseph travelled when they did is what’s absurd, not that it couldn’t happen in the winter. Luke claims there was an empire wide census that required everyone to travel to ‘their own town’ to be registered.

One could come up with a lot of sensible, plausible reasons Mary and Joseph would travel 90 miles, and crossing a national or territorial border while Mary was that far along. Some of them could even be spurred on by a census. Luke doesn’t do that though, he comes up with quite nearly the least plausible reason imaginable.

Joseph doesn’t go to Bethlehem because he was born there, nor because he normally lives there, or his father was from there. He didn’t even go there because it’s a town in his tribe’s traditional borders. No, he goes to Bethlehem because a single, famous, semi-mythological ancestor of his was born there over a thousand years prior. Then he immediately moves his family back to Nazareth. And makes the 90 mile trip to and from Jerusalem every year, without fail.

So, no Mary and Joseph didn’t travel 90 miles in the beginning of winter. They probably didn’t travel at all. Luke just made up a reason to get them to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Likely because he wanted a more important and dramatic reason than, “They lived there already and moved north to be closer to family after Jesus was born.”

Do these and other arguments show Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th?

They don’t really make the case either way.

If you consider only Matthew’s narrative as fact, there’s absolutely no reason Jesus couldn’t have been born on December 25th, or any other day of the year. If you do the same with Luke, there are some reasons that a winter birth is unlikely, but not impossible.

Either way, its dismissing the fact that the December 25th date was calculated based on Jesus’ death, not either of the birth narratives.






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