Explaining the Birth of Jesus: Why Was Jesus Born? | Bible History

The two Gospel accounts of the circumstances of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ conceptions and births are found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. Neither Gospel account gives a specific date for either birth. Christians did not remember or celebrate exact birth dates. Church historians, for example, have a much easier task in identifying people’s exact dates of death because it is rare for a date of birth to be specified throughout most of church history. There are clues in the Gospel accounts and other Jewish literature, which, when pieced together, can help scholars propose calendar dates for Jesus’ birthday. One such proposal is mid-September, and it is made as follows.

First, a note from church history. The idea that Jesus was born on December 25th has become entrenched in Western celebrations since the fourth century AD. However, the first mention in Christian literature of Jesus’ birth being associated with December 25th was in Hippolytus’s Chronicon in about the year 235. In the roughly 240 years between the time of Jesus’ conception and Hippolytus’s Chronicon, there is no known mention of December 25th as Jesus’ birthdate. The Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in the year 1275, suggested that the church of that day had been celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 to coincide with the unsubstantiated, but widely held, belief that the world was created at the vernal equinox, which corresponded to March 25 on the Julian calendar. For symmetry’s sake, it was said that the Angel Gabriel announced the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary on the same date of the world’s creation and perhaps the same date of Jesus’ crucifixion. There are no biblical or logical bases for the world’s creation or the annunciation happening on March 25th; therefore, there is no necessity for Jesus to have been born exactly on December 25th.

In Luke 1:31, the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a son named Jesus. In verse 36, Gabriel also announced that Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, had been pregnant for 6 months. This would mean that the conception and birth of Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, would have taken place about 6 months prior to the conception and birth of Jesus.

When did Elizabeth conceive John the Baptist? According to Luke 1:5, John the Baptist’s father, Zachariah, belonged to the priest of Abijah’s division of Levites and was serving his duty in the Temple when the Angel Gabriel announced to Zachariah that his barren wife, Elizabeth, would conceive a son named John. According to 1 Chronicles 24:10, the duties of the descendants of Abijah took place in the eighth of twenty-four weeks of service. The first week’s service began on the first day of the month of Nisan. This calendar date would have fallen on March 20th in the year 6 BC. The eighth week’s service (corresponding to the scheduled week for the descendants of Abijah) would have begun on May 15 and lasted until May 22. However, all priests were required to serve during the following week celebrating the Day of Pentecost, so Zachariah’s duties would have lasted two consecutive weeks before he was able to return home to his wife, Elizabeth, no earlier than May 30. If one assumes that John the Baptist was conceived somewhat efficiently in the month of June and was born the following March, then Jesus would have been conceived in the month of December and born in the month of September. This would reflect the fact that Elizabeth had been pregnant for 6 months when she spoke with the newly pregnant Mary according to Luke 1:36.

While this is one way to argue for a mid-September birth date for Jesus, there have been other conclusions based on different understandings of when the course of Abijah served, and therefore when Elizabeth would have conceived John the Baptist. The most important emphasis of Jesus’ birth should not be figuring out the exact calendar date of his birth but rather the awe and worship inspired by Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy in being born of a virgin in the town of Bethlehem as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and Savior of the world. 

  1.  Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 1:5-2:40.
  2. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1:21; Origen of Alexandria, Homily on Leviticus, 8; Commentary on Matthew, 14:6.
  3.  Thomas C. Schmidt, “Calculating December 25 as the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’s Canon and Chronicon,” Vigiliae Christianae 69 (2015): 542.
  4.  Marie Casale, “The Course of Abijah Points to the Birth of Christ,” MariesLibrary.com, 2011, accessed December 20, 2021; www.marieslibrary.com/PDF_Articles/JesusBornCourseOfAbijah.pdf.
  5.  For example, see Joseph Lenard, Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed: His Birth, Death, Resurrection, and Ascensions, (New York: Wordzworth, 2018), chapters 1-2; “The 24 Priestly Courses” in Torah.com, accessed December 20, 2021; https://torahcalendar.com/PDF/24PriestlyCourses.pdf.
  6.  Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 7:14, 53:6; Micah 5:2; Luke 2:11; John 3:16.