Every year during the Christmas season, churches, homes and even businesses display nativity scenes portraying the common image most people have in mind about the birth of Jesus Christ.
A Christ-child representation usually occupies center stage, lying in a manger with outstretched arms as His loving mother Mary (with Joseph standing somewhere beside or behind her) kneels, gazing adoringly down at Him. Surrounding the family will be the three wise men, wearing ornate kingly garments and bowing worshipfully. And, of course, a nativity scene wouldn’t be complete without some shepherds, sheep, cows and donkeys in close proximity.
If you have read this column in the past, you know that we often challenge traditional Christianity for inaccurately portraying Jesus and His teachings. We don’t do this just to be picky, but because we believe that when it comes to Jesus and the Bible, truth matters.
After all, the Bible claims that Jesus was the Son of God, literally God in the flesh. Doesn’t it make sense that any teaching about Him must be presented with care and fidelity to the biblical text? Sadly, many of the images in our minds of Jesus’ birth contain myths with no grounding in the biblical record.
Although Christianity celebrates His birth as one of its two most holy and sacred holidays, it’s striking that only two of the Gospel writers chose to even write about the event. Luke gives it the most attention, while Matthew covers it only very briefly. Mark and John don’t reference it at all—devoting their Gospels instead almost entirely to Jesus’ adult life, ministry and death. The later New Testament writers, such as Paul, Peter, James and Jude, don’t mention Jesus’ birthday at all!
Does that mean Jesus’ birth was insignificant? Not at all! But the fact is the Gospel writers put very little emphasis on it, meaning we have few details of the actual event. Let’s explore a couple of common myths and misperceptions regarding the birth of Jesus, and then ask the most important question.
Jesus was born on Dec. 25
Millions of people around the world celebrate Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25 (those in the Orthodox tradition celebrate it about two weeks later on Jan. 7, which is Dec. 25 on the old Julian calendar). But is there any reason to believe that Jesus was born in the middle of winter? Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts give no direct mention of the date or season. When the Bible is noticeably silent on such a detail, it is wise to consider that perhaps there’s a reason for that silence. Is it possible that God left that detail ambiguous because He didn’t intend Jesus’ birth to be celebrated as a holiday?
The Bible’s silence on any specific season or date of His birth is notable, but also significant are the clues in the Gospel accounts that point to Jesus’ birth not occurring in the winter.
First, consider the reason Joseph and Mary traveled to Jerusalem. Luke records: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. … Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem … to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child” ().
It is doubtful that Roman authorities would have required people to travel and register for a census in the typically rainy and cold winter months of the year (; ). More likely, they would have conducted the census during a season when it would be easier to travel.
Luke provides another key detail indicating this didn’t take place in the winter months: “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” ().