Advent 2 Midweek “The Dating of Christmas: Conception”
December 9th and 10th, 2020 – Luke 1:26-38
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The dating of Christmas is our topic again this evening. This topic is important to study because of the many different opinions about the date of Christmas. These opinions affect people’s faith and, unfortunately, if the dating process is misunderstood, may become a stumbling block for people who cannot see past the detail to the greater message of Christ and the Gospel.
As we discovered last week, many people think the Christians stole the pagan celebration of worshipping a sun-god to instead celebrate the birth of the Son of God. If this date was “stolen” it might not be the actual date for the birth of Jesus but a symbolically ideal time for it to be celebrated none-the-less. The queen herself celebrates her birthday on a different day than the actual day of her birth. Of course, the more important day to mark and celebrate Jesus was not the time of his humble, seemingly unimportant birth, but the day He died, and most importantly, the day He came back to life from the dead. The same day we gather each week, the Lord’s Day, Sunday.
This time we look at another theory on why December 25th has been marked for over 1500 years as the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Several leaders of the church soon after Jesus’ ascension had many theories to the date of Jesus’ birth. Clement of Alexandria (150 A.D. – 215 A.D.) writes a whole chronology linking significant political figures, such as the Roman emperor Commodus, to the commonly calculated number of years Moses lived before him based on ongoing calculations of the years of each notable figure between them. Generations and years listed in Scripture also were used to calculate the date of Jesus’ birth. Some calculated the exact date as August 28th, May 20th, April 20th/21st, and Clement himself concludes “From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days” which gives a date of November 18th.
As you can tell, with so many ideas on the date of His birth less than two hundred years after it there is a lot of “noise.” It becomes hard to silence it all and focus on the logic for one single date. I hope you are seeing from this, that to base your faith upon the date we now celebrate Jesus’ birth would be wrong. Your faith should be grounded in the details that God HAS recorded for us. It should be grounded in the fact of the event itself, but more importantly, it should be grounded in what Jesus says to us. “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
However, there is one theory from all this study of history that arises as common and still taught today. Spring dates from March to April appear over and over as the date of His birth. There is some cool symbolic grounding for this. According to Genesis 1, on the first day of creation God “separated the light from the darkness.God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night’” (Genesis 1:4-5). The idea is that God divided the night and the day into two equal parts at this point. Therefore, the first day of creation would be on the vernal equinox (aka Spring Equinox) when the night and day are of equal length. Today, the equinox is on March 20th. What we know now about astronomy and the revolution of the earth around the sun being imprecise, the date of the equinox changes over time. In the Roman calendar close to Jesus’ birth, the equinox occurred on March 25th. Follow me so far?
Jesus, as we heard in the Epistle, represents the “new creation” so there was a belief that His birth would have coincided perfectly with the date of the original creation. I am not exactly sure what this belief was based on but it was a belief of the time. Maybe a made-up belief or knowledge long-lost.
The Gospels have Jesus’ crucifixion, the far more important date of Jesus, in the spring. There was another belief that all perfect beings would live complete (not partial) years. Therefore, Jesus’ crucifixion would have been also on March 25th, His birth date and the date of the initial creation of the world. Not long after, Julius Africanus a historian from around 200 A.D. wrote that March 25th would not have been His birth date but His conception date when His life truly began. Even today, the church has celebrated the conception of Jesus, the visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, on March 25th. Calculate a perfect gestation period of nine months, and you have Jesus’ birthday on December 25th.
An exact science? Far from it. We can assume that people writing over 1500 years closer to the event would have more accurate information we do not have and, therefore, have a better vantage point to calculate these things, but, even then, we are 1500 years away from them with our own cultural context and ways of recording our history and passing it on. It would be unwise to place an unnecessary bias on the ancient’s perspective or an unfair advantage on our own.
But wait, isn’t there a way to calculate the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, when He also would have been conceived, and count forward from that nine months? Well, the date of Jesus’ crucifixion was on Passover. The Passover is calculated off the Hebrew calendar which is based on the lunar cycle (aka the moon). Passover is always on a full moon on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. For us, that means we are trying to calculate a moving target two-thousand years ago with a calendar unfamiliar to us and translating it into our modern calendar making educated guesses and assumptions all the way. I know, I said last week that the day of the resurrection was what was enormously important to the early Christians and we do know Christians celebrated Jesus’ resurrection on the Lord’s Day, aka Sunday, aka. the “eighth day of the week”, aka the day of the new creation, right away. Easter was quickly celebrated each year on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox, but that date is never even static on our calendars today.
There are several Scriptural and historical clues to the exact date of the crucifixion that year. One of the dates would be roughly April 7th A.D. 30 in our calendar. Interestingly enough, if you calculate nine-months from then you get the date of January 7th which is exactly when the Eastern Christian Church celebrates Christmas.
Wow! How is that for a lot of information with so few conclusions? If you research into it further on your own, you will find a plethora of theories on the date of Jesus’ birth. Some are better than others. Perhaps, if nothing else, this will help you as you talk with others to not let December 25th get in the way of the fact of Jesus’ coming. Did Jesus come in 30 BC? No. That’s too early. Did He come in 30 AD? No. That’s too late. He came somewhere between. He certainly was born on a specific day of a specific month at a specific time. Do we know that exact date? No? Maybe we do?
But that is okay. Even in our lives now, how accurately you can tell me when you ate two weeks ago on this day, does not change the fact that you ate sometime between time x and time y.
For now, you know one more theory and its history, to the date of December 25th for celebrating the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ -the one who is the start of the “New Creation,” and the “Light no darkness can overcome.”