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Denis Giron

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The Nativity of the Messiah in the Swirl of Traditions and Calendars

“Non vi è mese nell’anno, ove forsè si eccettui il Luglio, che non abbia trovati partitanti, i quali lo proclamino pel mese Natalizio” —Antonio Maria Lupi[1]

The date of the birth of Christ is a controversial subject. For much of Christian history from the fourth century onward, a winter birth was accepted by seemingly nearly all of Christendom, perhaps largely through trust in Ecclesiastical authorities. In recent decades, however, the pendulum seems to be swinging in the opposite direction, with a great many even among the laity declaring that they “know” Christ was not born in December.

At the time of this writing, it is Christmas for those who follow the Julian calendar,[2] so, in the spirit of the feast, it seemed auspicious to briefly discuss some interesting evidence which might favor the plausibility of a winter birth for Christ, and then note some interesting convergences which have occurred in this Christmas season in particular.

When discussing what, if any, possible evidence there might be for determining the birth of Christ, I like to turn to a source some might find unexpected: the Babylonian Talmūd. Tractate Ta`anīt 29A provides one of the few sources to assign a date to a Jewish priestly course. The text includes a claim that when the first Temple was destroyed, it was the 9th of the Hebrew month of Ab, during the priestly course of Yehoyarīb.

If it is possible for the the priestly course of Yehoyarīb to fall around the 9th of Ab, then it is possible for Yehoyarīb to fall in early August (for example, in 2016, the 9th of Ab fell on 13 August, on the Gregorian calendar). From there, Christians may note that, according to Luke 1:5, Zechariah was in the Temple during the priestly course of Abiyah, which fell seven weeks after that of Yehoyarīb.[3] Therefore, if Yehoyarīb can fall in early August, then Abiyah can fall in late September or early October (for example, this year, seven weeks after 9 Ab [i.e. 13 August] fell on 1 October). A rather straight forward reading of Luke 1:26,36 leads many to believe Mary became pregnant roughly six months after Zechariah’s time in the Temple, which allows us to put Christ’s birth nine months later, or fifteen months after Zechariah’s time in the Temple (this could fall in late December or early January). Of course the argument is not without its pitfalls, but, at the very least, it shows the plausibility of a winter birth for Christ, in light of extant evidence.

Fascinatingly, another potential bit of evidence in favor of a winter birth for Christ might be found in yet another unexpected source: section 8 of Tertullian’s Adversus Judaeos.[4] In that text, Tertullian covers the amount of time from the birth of Jesus though the reigns of various emperors. He concludes with the calculation that the amount of time between the end of the siege of Jerusalem and the birth of Jesus is 52 years and 6 months. No doubt, those familiar with the relevant history will dispute the timeframes Tertullian assigns to certain reigns (not to mention that he totally omits the reign of Claudius), and, that aside, if the precise chronology were accepted, then with the destruction of the temple coming in the year 70, this would mean Christ was born in the year 18, far later than what is generally accepted.

Conceding that, the fascinating part can still remain for some, in the precise number of months. If the temple was destroyed in the summer (e.g. the 9th of Av on the Hebrew calendar), six months prior to that would be January or February. We can wave our hand and say Tertullian was simply wrong, but it is nonetheless interesting to note that one of the earliest sources to discuss the birth of Jesus can be interpreted as indirectly alluding to it happening in the winter.

But if we are delving into early Patristic literature, this immediately begs the question, what about those Patristic sources which explicitly endorse dates in other seasons? Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, book I, chapter 21,[5] states that some reckon the birth of Christ to have been on the 25th day of the month of Pachon (in Coptic, Pashons, also called Genbot by Ethiopians). That would put his birth in late May or early June. However, Ludwig Ideler argued that “the Egyptian Christians, when they heard that Christ was born in the ninth month, in namely the Jewish year, thought of the ninth of their own, hence Pachon.”[6]

It is interesting to note the Apostolic Constitutions (a text which dates at least as far back as the fourth century, which apparently compiles various earlier sources, and which many scholars believe was put together in Syria) states that the birth of Christ should be celebrated on the 25th day of the ninth month, without clarifying according to which calendar.[7] At this point, it will seem like pure speculation to argue that 25 Pachon was reached by misunderstanding an older tradition about Him being born on the 25th day of the 9th month of a different (i.e. Hebrew rather than Egyptian) calendar. But note that in the same portion of his Stromata, Clement affirms that from the birth of Christ to the death of Commodus were 194 years, 1 month, and thirteen days. Commodus died on 31 December. One month and thirteen days before that would put the birth of Christ around 18 November. However, if we note that Clement was probably going by an older solar calendar which did not employ our quadrennial leap years, that would make a difference of about 48 days. Ergo, the implication seems to be that Christ was born circa. 5 January.

That does not line up perfectly with 25 Kislev (i.e. the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar, when starting the count at Nīsan), but it does allow us to more plausibly learn towards the conclusion that perhaps the 25 Pachon date was based on a misunderstanding of an older tradition (and Clement goes on to mention the tenth month as another possibility). Either way, the text from Clement’s Stromata is often put up as affirming a Spring date for the birth of Christ, but many have failed to notice that it can alternatively be read as implying a winter date.

Now, we could argue back and forth about other details, like whether shepherds would be out with their flocks at night during the winter,[8] or even discuss whether the Qur’ānic narrative precludes a winter birth,[9] but I feel content with the paragraphs above at least helping to show that a winter birth may be more plausible than some might suspect. Here, before closing, I want to touch on some interesting convergences, alluded to near the start of this blog entry, which occurred during this Christmas season.

It was already noted that certain sources put Christ’s birth on the 25th of the ninth month, and some speculate that is according to the Hebrew calendar. Interestingly, this past year (2016), 25 Kislev on the Hebrew calendar overlapped with 25 December on the Gregorian calendar. Beyond that, there is a later Jewish tradition which holds that Jesus was born on 9 Tevet.[10] It just so happens that this year, 9 Tevet on the Hebrew calendar overlaps with 25 December on the Julian calendar (i.e. the date at the time of this writing: Gregorian 7 January, 2017). Of course such convergences do not prove anything, but I nonetheless found it worthy of note that, this holiday season, one ancient Christian tradition about Christ’s nativity may have lined up with the Gregorian date for Christmas, while an alternative Jewish tradition about Jesus’ birth almost simultaneously lined up with the corresponding Julian calendar date for the same feast.

On that note, and in closing, I’d like to wish a Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating today, and likewise express my hope that those who celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar also had a very Merry Christmas.

 

NOTES:

(1) Translation: “There is no month in the year, with the exception of perhaps July, for which I have not found partisans who proclaim it the month of the Navity”.
Source: Francesco Antonio Zaccaria, Dissertazioni Lettere ed Altre Operette del Chiarissimo Padre Antonmaria Lupi, (Faenza, 1785), dissertazione IV, p. 220, which can be viewed online, here:
https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_nlgHNxOR2hwC

(2) While it is popular to simply say “Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on 25 December, but [many] Orthodox celebrate on 7 January,” the somewhat more nuanced reality is that even the latter date falls on 25 December, according to the Julian calendar. That is to say, those who celebrate today and those who celebrated thirteen days ago actually agree that Christmas should fall on 25 December. They just don’t happen to agree when 25 December falls.

(3) Cf. 1 Chronicles 24:7-10; also see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book VII, section XIV, number 7.

(4) I consulted the translation in Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Christian Library, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1895), vol. XVIII, p.224.

(5) I consulted the translation in Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), vol. II, p. 333.

(6) Ludwig Ideler, Handbuch der Mathematischen und Technischen Chronologie, (Berlin: August Rücker, 1826), vol. II, p. 387, footnote 1, which can be viewed online, here:
https://archive.org/details/handbuchdermath02idelgoog
The German text reads: “die ägyptischen Christen, da sie hörten, dafs Christus im neunten Monat, nämlich des jüdischen Jahrs, geboren sei, dachten an den neunten des ihrigen, d. i. an den Pachon.”

(7) See book V, section III; I consulted the translation in Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Christian Library, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1870), vol. XVII, p. 130.

(8) Luke 2:8 places shepherds in the field with their flocks on the night of Christ’s birth, which many argue would not happen in the winter. One could counter that Genesis 31:40 flies in the face of the claim, as it has Jacob recounting being consumed by frost/ice (קרח) while tending the flocks on certain cold nights. Moreover, the Babylonian Talmūd, tractate Beytsah 40A, in the Mishnah portion, makes a distinction between different kinds of animals which people herd and bring out to pasture —midbariyot and bayaytot— and Gemarā in that same section provides the opinion of Rabī (Judah ha-Nasī) that midbariyot are not returned to a settlement, not even in winter. But most relevant would be the following report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which notes that even to this day, some Palestinian shepherds will be out in the fields with their flocks all year round, including during lambing season, which, interestingly enough, happens in December-January:
http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/p8550e/P8550E01.htm

(9) Many Christians would question the relevance of the Qur’ān, but this blog is owned by a Muslim, and, moreover, the question is of interest to me because there is a minority of professed believers in the Qur’ān who also celebrate the birth of Jesus in the winter (namely the `Alawīs). Ahmed Deedat popularized an argument that the stream and fruit-bearing tree in sūra Maryam 19:24-25 implies it was not during a Palestinian winter. However, one can counter that Tafsīr al-Jalālayn on that passage posits that the stream had been dry and the tree had been withered. In other words, they understood the text as meaning a miracle had occurred. One might object that they are under no requirement to side with the interpretations of al-MaHalī and as-SuyūTī, but the point of appealing to them is to show that it is far from obvious that the Qur’ānic text is making any reference to the season.

(10) Most would argue the tradition was influenced by Christian celebration. Nonetheless, it comes up in Yom-Tov Lewinsky, Sefer ha-Mo`adīm, (Tel Aviv: D’vir, 1957), vol. VII, p. 94, which can be viewed online, here:
http://download.hebrewbooks.org/downloadhandler.ashx?req=41742
Perhaps humorously, it also comes up in Hebrew Wikipedia’s entry for 9 Tevet (under the section on “Hagīm uMo`adīm):
https://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/ט’_בטבת

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