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Christmas, Saturnalia, and Dating Jesus’ Birth

Around this time every year, there’s a good chance you’ll hear people saying that Christmas is actually based on a pagan holiday. They say Christmas derives from the pagan holiday Saturnalia, which was an ancient Roman festival that celebrated the god Saturn. This holiday was celebrated in mid-December, and since Saturn was the god of agriculture, people decorated their houses with wreaths and greenery. People also gave each other gifts and sang songs of merriment. They lit candles, held festivals, and enjoyed meals with friends and family. Because many of the practices related to Saturnalia also relate to Christmas, people have concluded that Christmas is a knock-off of Saturnalia. These same people say that Jesus was NOT born in December but in the spring, and the only reason Christians celebrate Christmas in December is because of Saturnalia. But is any of this true? Many historians believe it to be true. Dictionary.com and History.com both emphatically state that Christmas stems from Saturnalia. Unfortunately, many Christians accept these conclusions too. But again, the question is: is this true?

For starters, it’s unlikely that if Jesus was truly born in the springtime, Christians would have even considered celebrating His birth in December as an attempt to “Christianize” the pagan holiday Saturnalia. We have a modern example of this. For instance, take President’s Day. In America, we celebrate President’s Day on the third Monday in February. But that wasn’t always so. President’s Day started out as just a celebration of President George Washington’s birthday, which is on February 22. Before 1885, there was no President’s Day. In 1885, a national recognition and day of remembrance of Washington’s birthday was established, and it became commonly known as President’s Day. It wasn’t until 1971 that an act was passed that President’s Day should be celebrated on the third Monday in February as a way of giving workers an additional 3-day weekend. But here’s the point: the reason we celebrate President’s Day in February and not some other month is because Georges Washington was born in February. For all those who like to say that it’s much more likely that Jesus was born in the spring, wouldn’t it be most likely that Christians would have chosen a springtime holiday to merge with their celebration of Jesus’ birth? There were plenty of Roman festivals that occurred in the spring from which Christians could have chosen to combine with their celebration of Jesus’ birth. It’s like President’s Day: they wanted to make it an official holiday, it started as a celebration of Washington’s birth, so they made the holiday in the month of Washington’s birth. Similarly, if Christians wanted to begin celebrating Jesus’ birth as an official holiday, which we know they didn’t do until the second half of the third century, and if He was born in spring (as many say), wouldn’t they have chosen to merge their celebrations with a spring holiday since Jesus was born during the spring (as they say)?

Furthermore, just because two things occur closely in time does not mean that those two things are related or derivative. This means that it’s possible that Saturnalia and Jesus’ birth both occurred in December without having any relation or dependence on one another. In fact, no one even accused Christians of taking over the pagan holiday of Saturnalia until the 12th Century. People today claim that Christmas is a ripoff of Saturnalia because of all the similarities. Remember, when people celebrated Saturnalia, they decorated with greenery, wreaths, trees, candles; they sang songs and enjoyed meals together. But Christians didn’t start decorating with Christmas trees until the 16th Century. Also, they didn’t start using candles on trees until the late 1800’s. And they didn’t start using Christmas wreaths until the 16th Century. So the celebration of Saturnalia and the celebration of Christmas would have looked nothing alike in the first few centuries (actually, would look nothing alike until much later).

Now, all of this argument is for naught unless we provide good evidence that Jesus was actually born some time in December. Is that possible? I think so. Let’s take a look.

Matthew 1:1 says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem “in the days of Herod the king.” We know that Herod ruled from 37-4 BC. He died in 4 BC. In fact, we know that Herod died in the spring (March or April) of 4 BC, so Jesus must have been born before 4 BC.

Relevant to Jesus’ birth, is His death: if we know about how old He was when He died, then we can better determine when He was born. Biblical scholars Andreas Kostenberger and Justin Taylor have argued convincingly that Jesus died on April 3, AD 33—and they have provided great historical and biblical support for this too. You can find their article here: April 3, AD 33 | Andreas J. Kostenberger | First Things. They come to this date based on a number of historical and biblical factors. For instance, the Bible says in Luke 3:1-2 that John the Baptist began his ministry in “the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” Tiberius began his rule in AD 14, so fifteen years later would be AD 28. This means John the Baptist began his ministry in AD 28. He must have been active in ministry for many months, possibly even a year, in order for him to gain his reputation and prepare the way for the Messiah. We know Jesus began his ministry shortly after John, allowing for the many months, to a year, of John’s preparation, let’s say Jesus began His ministry early in AD 29. Luke 3:23 says that Jesus was “about 30 years of age.” If He had been exactly thirty, it’s likely Luke would have said so. Also, during this time, it was common to round age up or down. If Jesus had been 35 or older, Luke would’ve rounded up to 40. Therefore, Jesus was between 30-34 when He began His public ministry. We know He was active in ministry for at least 3-4 years, meaning He was between 33-38 years old when He was crucified.

Now we can begin to put all of this information together. Since Herod died in the spring of 4 BC, Jesus must have been before then. Also, after Jesus’ birth, we have to allow time for Mary’s purification days (Luke 2:22), the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-38), the visit of the wise men (Matt 2:1-12), the flight to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15), and Herod’s slaughter of the children “who were two years old or younger” (Matt 2:16). To allow for all of those events, many months are needed and possibly up to two years of time. This pushes Jesus’ birth to 6 BC as the earliest possible date to allow for all the events.

But it would need to be late 6 BC. Why? Well because the Bible says that John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was serving with his priestly division, Abijah, at the time when the angel Gabriel announced to him that his wife would conceive and bear a son named John (Luke 1:5-25). Shortly after the announcement, Elizabeth conceived, and then 6 months later, Mary conceived (Luke 1:24-45). Mishna tradition states that there were, in those days, 24 priestly divisions, of which Abijah was 8th. Each priestly division served from Sabbath to Sabbath. Studies conducted by Paul Maier have shown that the division of Abijah served one week during the months of February and July of 6 BC. In my own research, helped by the findings of Maier’s research, I found that Zechariah’s division also served during the month of September in 7 BC. If Gabriel announced to Zechariah in September of 7 BC that his wife was going to conceive, then 6 months later, Mary conceived, which would be March of 6 BC, 9 months from March would be December, meaning Jesus, traditionally, historically, and biblically, could very easily have been born in December. Whether or not it was the 25th is another story. But the point is I believe there’s sufficient evidence to show that Jesus was born in December of 6 BC, began His public ministry at the age of 33 in AD 29, ministered for 3-4 years, and died on the cross Friday, April 3, AD 33 at the age of 37.

Christians should take heart. The “evidence” that Christmas is a Saturnalia knock-off is superficial and speculative at best. The fact that both occur in December is nothing but coincidence. Christians do not need to accept the well-published lie that the only reason we celebrate Christmas in December is because of a pagan holiday. There is sufficient biblical, historical, and traditional evidence to show that Jesus was in fact born in December. Christmas is not a knock-off. It’s not based on a pagan holiday. It’s a day where we rightly celebrate the birth of our Lord, our King, our Savior- Jesus!