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Some Thoughts on "Silent Night"

By James D. Tabor
Chair,Dept. of Religious Studies,
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Tabor Blogs

December 2009

December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus can be traced back to the early 3rd century CE although it did not achieve more universal recognition until the late 4th century. It is common to hear the charge that “Christmas is pagan,” based on the popularity of the Roman winter festivals of Saturnalia (Dec 16-24), and Sol Invictus, that marked the Winter Solstice (Dec 21st), or “birth of the sun.” Certainly the celebration of such winter festivals in various cultures where Christianity spread, perpetuated in our day at office parties and social gatherings, have contributed to the seasonal popularity of December 25th, with or without much focus on the birth of Jesus.

However, as far as we can tell, the designation of December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus had nothing to do with pagan customs and practices. Rather it was based upon the detailed chronological calculations of early Christians such as Julius Africanus (c. 200 CE). Africanus who put the conception of Jesus around the Vernal Equinox (March 20th), which gave him his date of December 25th, nine months later, for Jesus’ birth. It is possible that the view common in some Jewish circles that Adam was created in the spring, at the time of the Equinox, contributed to the idea that Jesus, as a “second Adam,” was incarnated on this day as well.

The New Testament gives us precious little about the chronology of the birth of Jesus. No month or season is explicitly mentioned in either Matthew’s or Luke’s birth stories. Luke does mention three things that chronologists, both ancient and modern, have used to attempt to get a more precise date. He puts the conception of John the Baptist shortly after Zechariah, his father, carried out his priestly duty in Jerusalem as part of a cycle of priests known as the “Abijah” group (Luke 1:5, 8; see 1 Chronicles 24 where these “courses” of priests are listed). He then tells us that Jesus and John are about six months apart in age (Luke 1:26), and he notes that when Jesus is baptized he is “about 30 years old” (Luke 3:23). It is upon this tiny thread of Luke, which most historians would place wholly in the realm of the theological, that any attempts to place the time of the birth of Jesus have hung (see the extensive discussion of Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Yale University Press, updated 1999).

According to Josephus, each priestly section served for periods of eight days, from noon on one Sabbath to noon on the following Sabbath, twice a year, with everyone serving during the three festivals, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The cycle began on Nisan 1st, which was in the spring, just before Passover, and the “Abijah” group was eighth in line. Scholars have worked this out in various ways and the major proposals are surveyed in Jack Finegan’s A Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Hendrickson, 1998).

Reconstructing the chronology of Luke’s “thirty-something” Jesus who dies in April, 30 CE, puts the baptism of Jesus by John in the fall of 26 AD, around the time he turned 30, which would also place his birth date in the fall (September), rather than the winter (December). This assumes that the time of the birth of John the Baptist, six months earlier (March), is related to Zechariah’s service in the Temple as part of the Abijah section that finished its duty in June of the previous year. Thus one gets:

Conception of John the Baptist: late June, 6 BC

Conception of Jesus: late December, 6 BC

Birth of John the Baptist: late March, 5 BC

Birth of Jesus: late September, 5 BC

Given such a construction, ironically, Christmas turns out to be the time of the young teenaged Mary becoming pregnant, with Jesus’ birth in late September, nine months later. The source of that pregnancy is a matter of debate among believers in a literal “virgin birth,” (Jesus had no human father), most academic scholars of early Christianity (his father was Joseph and the virgin birth story theological myth), and a minority view that Miriam became pregnant from an unnamed father in circumstances unknown to us, which is my own leaning (see Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Sheffield, 2006). Subsequently, Joseph took her as his wife, but was not the father of the unborn child. Part of the profile of Jesus then was that he and his mother faced the scandal and gossip throughout their lives associated with the charge that he was a mamzer (John 8:41; Jesus as "son of Mary" in Mark 6:3).

So, if one is imagining this season, and imagining is all we can do, given our scanty sources, one might honor Miriam, the Jewish mother of Jesus, in whose heart were kept secrets to be judged only by her and by God. This would include hard times she must have endured during the ensuing months of her pregnancy through the winter of 6-5 BC when she fled her home-town area of Sepphoris to hide out in the hill country of Judea with her relative Elizabeth (all according to Luke again!) I am thinking here of a different kind of “Silent Night,” but with thoughts and emotions every bit as touching as those of a manger scene.

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Comments (17)

Very interesting. Makes me want to know more.

Didn't the winter solstice used to fall on December 25, before calendar drift?

You state, "the designation of December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus had nothing to do with pagan customs and practices. Rather it was based upon the detailed chronological calculations of early Christians such as Julius Africanus."

It would be interesting to know what these calculations were. Picking December 25, then the winter solstice, instead of, say, December 24 or 26, can't have been entirely a coincidence.
#1 - August Berkshire - 12/22/2009 - 15:45

I have wondered for years: Is James Tabor Jewish or Christian?
#2 - Nancy K. Hart - 12/22/2009 - 18:27

In response to the question about James' faith. I am fairly certain the answer is, "Yes."
#3 - Doug Allen - 12/22/2009 - 20:35

Are you suggesting that the father was a Jew who joined the Roman army?
Indeed the Bible does say that YHWH Elohim is a "Father to the fatherless" so in a way whatever you say, God was still Yashua's Father - figuratively speaking.
#4 - Ryan Pickard - 12/23/2009 - 02:51

In antiquity, even as today, CENTENNIAL ANNIVERSARIES were seemingly strongly influential. For, King Josiah's religious reforms [c.622 BC] could quite conceivably coincide with the centennial of the fall of Israel [c. 722 BC], surely sending some sort of 'message' about the 'religious revival of the realm'. Likewise, Emperor Claudius' invasion of Britain [43 AD] closely coincides w/ the centennial of Caesar's invasion of Gaul [58 BC].

Now, the Messianic rebellion of Bar Kochba began in 132 AD. This closely coincides, with the centennial, of the Messianic ministries of John the Baptist, and his disciple Jesus of Nazareth.

Could there be any kind of connection ? Might the Messianism of the ministries of John & Jesus be echoed, surely in some more militant way, in the rebellion of Bar Kochba about 100 years later ? For example, could the Crucifixion have happened in 32 AD (or some such close connection) ?
#5 - Erik Nelson - 12/23/2009 - 09:28

Thank you for your continuing research of the historical Jesus. Truth is what Jesus is all about. Your blogs give clarity to His philosophical message that the 'Kingdom of God' is within us.
#6 - PJanny - 12/23/2009 - 11:45

Robin Lane Fox makes a convincing case Jesus died in 36.
#7 - Tania Winter - 12/23/2009 - 14:20

Thanks for all of your, do you believe Jesus is God in the flesh?
#8 - Wendy Patterson - 12/25/2009 - 10:56

#9 - Roger Stranc - 12/26/2009 - 16:27


At can be found a bible chronology that is based upon the Jewish Sacred and Secular years found in "Codex Judaica" by Mattis Kantor.

This work, "Chronicle" of Sequential bible Events, confirms over 145 "Bible" dates down to the "unlawful sacrifice" of Uzziah King of Judah. This "unlawful sacrifice" took place "two years after the earthquake" that is mentioned in Amos 1:1

If this is found to be true, and I'm quite certain it is, we do have a direct connection of the Jewish year 3142AM with the New Year Day "unlawful sacrifice" of King Uzziah.

Does anyone have a comment on this claim of finding a calendar connection at 3142AM, 750BC?

Please comment,

Bob Killian
Monte Carlo,
#10 - Robert P. Killian - 12/26/2009 - 17:07


I'm surprised to hear you say "the designation of Dec. 25th as the date of Jesus' birth had nothing to do with pagan customs." There's about a 365 to 1 chance of his being born then and most improbable that shepherds would have been outside "tending their sheep" IN WINTERTIME.

As I understand it, that particular day became significant once Julius Caesar adopted a more accurate calendar specifying the arrival of the winter solstice, something we now know actually happens on the 21st.

"Solstice" means "sun-halt," in this instance a moment commemorating the lengthening of the days and the warming of our planet. It also celebrates the birth of a Persian god-man named Mithras. This popular deity was a paganized product of Zorastrianism. As God's human offspring he was preferred over his Father, much as Yeshua was favored over Yahweh.

The 25th was eventually sanctioned as a Roman feast day by Emperor Aurelian but recast as "Christ's Mass" by Constantine who also commanded that the primary day of public worship be moved from a Judeo-Christian Sabbath (Saturday)to the Roman/Pagan Sun Day we observe today.
#11 - Don Smith - 12/27/2009 - 19:00

There are many possibilities surrounding the conception of Jesus and Mary's pregnancy, however, no one can state that the miracle of the holy spirit and virgin birth did not happen just as one cannot conclusively state that in fact it did. If one considers Mary's pregnancy the result of sexual relations (willingly or unwillingly), wouldn't she have been stoned to death according to Jewish law? What motivated Joseph to marry a young pregnant girl?

In Luke (again!) the birth text indicates that the "shepherds were watching their flock by night" (lambing time). This would have occurred in early spring - March/April.
#12 - Vera Murano - 12/27/2009 - 20:50

There was a fiest in Jerusalem when Jeesus was born, is'nt that an exact day?
#13 - Olli Santavuori - 12/29/2009 - 03:43

In relating the story of Jesus, the Qur'an describes how Mary, the mother of Jesus, was approached by an angel from God, bringing her tidings she had never imagined: that she will give birth to a son, a Messiah, who will be of the righteous and will be a prophet of God, calling the Children of Israel (the Israelites) to the straight path of God.

“(And mention) when the angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near (to God). He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and will be of the righteous.” (Qur'an 3:45-46)

Naturally, for Mary, this news was both strange and seemingly impossible.

“She said, ‘My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?’ (The angel) said, “Such is God; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is. And He will teach him writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel.” (Qur'an 3:47-48)

The very nature of Jesus is so special, that God compares the uniqueness of His creation to that of the first man and prophet, Adam.

“Indeed, the example of Jesus to God is like that of Adam. He created him from dust; then He said to him, ‘Be,’ and he was.” (Qur'an 3:59)

Read the complete article at:
#14 - Ahmed SIRaj (IPSI) - 12/30/2009 - 01:30

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti :
Mithras was an Iranian Zoroastrian god who was popular with Roman soldiers. Mithras was created by the chief deity, Ahura-Mazda, to save the world. The day of the virgin birth of Mithras was December 25 (the solstice) it was also referred to as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which means the birthday of the unconquered sun.
Constantine in his wisdom was a marvellous manipulator:
Combining the Egyptian Ra –Mithras – Christianity made him the emperor of Rome
#15 - laszlo - 01/09/2010 - 17:30

The problem with Biblical chronologies is that they are all to often taken seriously by both layman and scholars alike hoping that they will reveal some sort of historical reality.

This same mistake was made by Arch Bishop Ussher (1581 - 1656). In his detailed study completed in 1654 using both Biblical and Classical texts, he calculated the date of the Genesis Creation to have been nightfall preceding 23 October 4004 BC.

In modern comparative studies, scholars now know that the Genesis 1 = P account and 2 = J account are much later when compared to the oldest accretions in the Hebrew Bible, the earliest legends are openly early mythical being based on general early Semitic stories where god or El fights the chaotic sea monsters called by names such as Leviathan, Rahab or the twisting serpent, and with the sea (yam) itself (See: John Day’s “God's Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament” (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications, 1985).

What is clear in the Gospel birth narratives both Matthew and Luke are that elements of myth were added much later to the Saying Source / Q document to make a theological. Such theological statements are base on early concepts of orthodoxy and oppose such anti material or flesh theologies as the Gnostics and Docetism.

While the birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke have what appears to be historical “facts” added to give them credibility, they are, never the less, theology and NOT history just as our earliest Christian tests (the letters of Paul) have no knowledge of such a miraculous birth of Jesus other than he was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4)

Finally, for those interested; a great lecture was given at the University of London by the late Biblical and Semitic scholar James Barr: “Biblical Chronology: Legend Or Science? The Ethel M. Wood Lecture 1987”. The complete text can be read on line here:
#16 - Harry McCall - 01/10/2010 - 22:49

I have a strange feeling that all references to Jesus'birth are probably true.
Jesus was a Jew and a Messiah. Succoth, the feast of Tabernacles is a Messianic Celebration. He was probably conceived in late December and in some cultures, birth dates are celebrated at the moment of conception. The feast of Mithras is one of many pagan feasts celebrated at Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and Israel is north of the equator. December 25 was the date of Winter Solstice in the old Julian calendar. Dionysius Exigiuus used the assumed date of his birth to establish the official date for Easter and established the dating system that we now use in the West: BC and AD; there is no Year Zero. There were a number of triple conjunctions in 7BC that the Magi would have used to ascertain when and where his birth would occur. The Magi were astrologer/priests, not kings.
We get our word 'magic' from their name.
On this basis, I believe that Jesus was probably born on the Feast of Tabernacles, because the Jews were supposed to return to their home town for the feast, not for a census. The sheep are brought indoors at the end of October; it often snows in Jerusalem in December. The sheep provided central heating for Jewish families. The year: almost certainly 7or 6bc because of the triple conjunctions. The December feast should be a Solstice feast, not a Christian one - in the Western World.
#17 - Dennis Studd - 10/17/2014 - 04:09

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