I’m sure you’ve felt it, by now, even if you’re not steeped in the traditions of Christian lore. I mean the frenzied activity, as the number of available shopping days ticks down. The hyper-activity of your kids, as the holiday period approaches. The lights, and decorations. The advertising.

Yes. Christmas is coming.

But, what’s it all about? Really?

In this series of twelve instalments, I’ll be exploring several aspects of the Yuletide phenomenon, as we edge inexorably toward Christmas Day, itself.

Twelve instalments, I said. Not days – necessarily. I’ll be posting them in such a way that – should the Internet gremlins intervene, or (God forbid; but I do have a life, you know) I suddenly go AWOL in pursuit of my own festive fun – you won’t miss out on the whole story. So, please bear with me.

We begin with December 25th.

The day of Jesus’ birth. Maybe.

Jesus. Who?

Venerated as a great prophet (at the very least) by the major world religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, Jesus of Nazareth was a Galilean Jewish Rabbi / teacher, healer, and inspirational founder of the religious movement that bears his name.

Known as the Christ, or The Anointed One (from the Greek word, ‘khristos’, meaning “the anointed”), Jesus is believed by Christians to have been born as the actual son of God. His mother Mary (a virgin) is believed to have become pregnant by an act of divine intervention, rather than any means known to man.

Jesus himself is believed to have been born to Mary and her husband Joseph (a poor carpenter) in the town of Bethlehem, in the province of Judaea.

The question is: “When?”

Taken as Gospel

Jesus was a historical figure, who was documented by several scribes and historians of the time. Among these were the writers of the New Testament Gospels of the Christian Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Two independent approaches have been used to determine the year of Jesus’ birth. One method analyzes the Nativity (birth of Jesus) accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, in conjunction with other historical data. The other works backwards from the chronology of the start of Jesus’ ministry (his preaching and healing works), taken from the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of Matthew (Chap. 2, Verse 1) states that: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king.” This refers to King Herod the Great, who is generally acknowledged to have died around the year 4 BC.

The Gospel of Luke (Chap.1, Verse 5) mentions the reign of Herod, shortly before the birth of Jesus.

Most scholars generally assume a date of birth for Jesus between 6 and 4 BC.

By combining information from the Gospel of John with the writings of the theologian Flavius Josephus, it has been estimated that, around 27-29 AD, Jesus was “about thirty years of age.” Assuming the year 28 AD to be roughly the 32nd birthday of Jesus gives a birth year of around 6-4 BC, again.

So far, so good.

AD? BC?

In the year 525 AD, Pope John the First asked a Roman monk named Dionysius Exiguus to prepare a standardized calendar for the Western Church. Dionysius established that Jesus was born in the year AD 1 (or 1 AD) – where AD stands for Anno Domini (Latin, for “in the year of our Lord”). This was to become a universal reference point for dates. Anything prior to this year was considered BC, or “Before Christ.”

Dionysius’ method is the basis for the common Gregorian calendar used throughout the western world – in which the current year is 2011.

Calendar Issues, Too

Prior to the wide adoption of the Gregorian calendar, each historian used a different point of reference to calculate time – such as the year of the death of a certain king, or the onset of a specific war.

Other calendars – such as the Jewish one – operated on a strict lunar cycle, for each month. There were variations from year to year, as determined by the irregular orbits of the Earth and moon.

The historian, Clement of Alexandria stated that: “From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days.” The Roman Emperor Commodus referred to here died on 31st Dec., AD 192.

Assuming Clement used the Roman calendar, Jesus would have been born 194 years previously, on 18th Nov., 3 BC. But Clement lived in Egypt, and would likely have used his own region’s calendar. On this basis, Christ would have been born on 6 Jan., 2 BC.

Incidentally, before the Christian Church fixed the date of the Nativity as 25th Dec., the date generally accepted in the Eastern church (and quite possibly, the Western) was the 6th of January.

But, What About The 25th Of…?

Writing again on two separate occasions, Clement of Alexandria also put forward a case for “the 25th” as Jesus’ birth day – albeit, in two different months.

In the first case, he puts the day as “in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon.”

The Emperor Augustus reigned from the Battle of Actium, on 2nd Sept., 31 BC, so Clement’s “twenty-eighth year” on the Egyptian calendar lasted from 29 Aug., 3 BC to 28 Aug., 2 BC. The 25th day of the Egyptian month of Pachon would have been 20th May, 2 BC.

In another text, Clement put Jesus’ birthday as the twenty-fifth of the Egyptian month of Pharmuthi – one month earlier. But crucially, on the 25th of that month.

An association between Jesus’ birth and the 25th day of a month was established.

The Western Church of the 4th century AD was first to set this date in the month of December. This not only tied in to what – by virtue of the writings of Clement and others – had become a tradition that Christ was born on the 25th. The date also coincided with the important Roman (Mithraic religious) feast of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birth of the Unconquered Sun) – and the marking of the winter solstice.

Replacing this pagan feast with Christmas no doubt helped to make Christianity – the newly adopted official religion of the Roman Empire – acceptable to the Roman elite and army, many of whom had been devotees of Mithra.

25th December is the Roman equivalent of 25th Kislev, on the Jewish calendar. This date is the beginning of Hanukkah, the 8-day celebration also known as the Feast of Dedication, or the Feast of Lights. Leaders of the 4th century Christian Church may have felt it appropriate that Jesus Christ – known to them as the Light of the World – should have been born during the Feast of Lights.

The Gospel of Luke (Chap. 2, Verses 17 and 20) even provides some (tenuous?) support for this. Luke reports that the shepherds who attended Jesus’ birth spread “abroad” the new, and then “returned”, rejoicing.

“Abroad” in this sense could be taken as meaning that they carried the news to the many devout Jews assembled in Jerusalem, at that time.

“Returned” would imply their coming back to Bethlehem, after the closing days of the feast. The ongoing festivities might also have contributed to the congestion of Bethlehem – and Joseph and Mary’s difficulties in finding lodgings, there.

Curiously too, taking 25th Kislev as the date of Jesus’ birth does not undermine the claim that he was born on 6th Jan. In the year 4 BC, the 6th of January coincided with the 25th of Kislev.

So.

The 25th? The 6th of January?

The year 4 BC? 6 BC? 2 BC?

Some other date?

We can’t say, for sure.

Why Does It Matter?

Besides the presents, you mean? And the turkey dinner?

Well, the birth of one whose message – peace, love, forgiveness of sins, the continuous effort to do good – has impacted literally billions of lives, the world over. That’s worth celebrating, I think.

No matter what day it was.

Celebrating, How?

Ah, well. That will be the subject of my next, and subsequent instalments.

Till then.

Peace.

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