Was Christ Really Born on December 25th? How Modern Astronomy has Reignited the Debate.
Every year, people ask me: Was Jesus really born on December 25th? Is the Christmas holiday just paganism wrapped up in a pretty bow? Or, my skeptical friends ask me: Is there even any secular historical references to corroborate the Nativity story? Thankfully, there’s a lot of fascinating answers to these questions! And here are a few thoughts that might stimulate some answers!
For years, people have argued over whether or not the Bible’s nativity story actually took place around Christmas time. Celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25th wasn’t very popular at all until the Roman emperor Constantine gave Christianity special status in 336 A.D.
Of course, December 25th wasn’t chosen at random. It’s possible to date the origins of “December 25th” back to 273 A.D. But make no mistake, amidst early Christians, there was hardly consensus that December 25th was in fact the accurate time of Christ’s birth.1 And modern astronomy software seems to be adding to the intrigue.
Now that computers exist, it’s possible to actually “rewind” the positions of the stars using astronomy software. As a result, for the first time ever, we now have the ability to mathematically prove that, not only did the Star of Bethlehem exist; but, we now know exactly what it was – as well as the exact dates that it “receded over Bethlehem.” Naturally, this has whipped up a new debate about the true birthday of Christ.
Researchers now know that the Star of Bethlehem was a rare convergence of Jupiter and Venus. And it’s mathematically possible to verify that it would have looked like the brightest “star” anyone of that time had ever seen. If you were a Magi looking at the stars from the vantage point of Babylon, this massive star would have appeared over Judea. Obviously, the reason why first century folks were freaking out about “astronomical signs” was because there were a lot of Messianic prophecies related to the stars that were coming true at that exact moment.
For example, first century Jews knew that the Messiah was going to be a “king” who was born through a virgin, a lion out of the tribe of Judah. And ironically, Jupiter (known as the king planet) circled Regulus (the king star) three times inside of the constellation “Leo” (known in those days as “the Lion”). And after doing so, Jupiter passed straight down the center loins of “Virgo” known as “the Virgin” before converging with Venus. Thus, we can understand why King Herod freaked out enough to start killing babies. The storyline of the Messiah was literally playing out in the stars. And the whole Judean world was riveted by these signs.
And, by December of 2 B.C. this convergence would have taken place directly over Bethlehem. On exactly December 25 of 2 BC Jupiter entered retrograde motion. And if you were traveling from Jerusalem (like the wise men) it would have looked like the star was moving towards Bethlehem & then suddenly stopped! (If you want to know more about the facts behind this, check this out: http://www.bethlehemstar.com)
Does all of this mean Jesus was born on December 25th? Not necessarily. Some argue that the only part of the nativity story that actually happened on December 25th was the arrival of the Magi. Many argue that Jesus was already a toddler by this point. I personally believe that the entire nativity story (as many Christians imagine it) could have in fact happened all at that time. Do I know it for certain? Of course not.
But what about all of those Christians who think December 25th is nothing more than a pagan tradition with no real connection to the actual nativity?
Well, it’s definitely true that the modern concept of Christmas has been influenced by a half dozen pagan holidays over the centuries (which is true of almost every major Christian holiday).2 Naturally, this has caused a small number of Christians to boycott the holiday.
Keep in mind: Throughout the ages, many Christian leaders have sought to commandeer many pagan holidays for Christ – taking the approach that God loves to “steal back” that which the devil stole (instead of just burying our heads in the sand). And for the most part, the historic church has successfully co-opted almost every pagan holiday with the exception of Halloween – as many Evangelicals prefer to “re-treat” on this one (pardon the pun).
My view has always been: “Who the heck cares if Jesus was born on Dec. 25th?!” I personally don’t think it really matters. Even more, if we really wanted to get legalistic about “purging all traces” of worldly traditions out of the church then, where do we stop? Do we force all churches to play 6-stringed lyres and wear 1st century sandals? I’ve noticed that most of these Christians who boycott Christmas ironically have all sorts of pagan-influenced traditions in their worship – but they’re just not aware of them.
In the end, I’m not trying to throw any stones. If you want to believe that Santa is Satan, that’s fine.
I promise not to call you a “Baby-Jesus Hater” – (as long as you don’t get snarky on social media – cuz, if you do, all bets are off : ) Honestly, most Christmas boycotters are probably just sick of hearing Mariah Carey’s hoochie Christmas album – which I totally understand.
That being said, as a Christian leader, I’m far more worried about our countries’ unprecedented struggle with porn, pedophilia, gossip and materialism than I am about the worldliness of Christmas trees or Starbucks cups. At some point, we Christians need to choose our battles more wisely when these perennial ethical debates explode across social media.
All I know is this: Hundreds of millions of people open themselves up to the Scriptures every Christmas. That’s a HUGE opportunity for the Gospel. Half of the people at our church came to Christ at one of our Christmas celebrations because we utilized this holiday for kingdom purposes. I personally don’t believe that December 25th is sacred according to the scriptures. I don’t even believe that Christians “need to” observe Christmas (or Easter for that matter). But what is ABSOLUTELY SACRED is when “lost people get found” (Luke 15). And, for now, Christmas is a perfect opportunity to share our faith.
So, no matter what you believe about the specific details of the Biblical nativity, don’t allow silly arguments (Col. 2:16; 2 Tim.2:23) to distract you from the amazing harvest that happens this time of year.
“Those who lead many to righteousness [will shine] like the stars forever and ever” Dan. 12:3.
In the end, the real “Christmas stars” are the ones who use this holiday to impart “peace on earth” and “good will towards men.” And no matter what you’re doing this time of year, make sure to fill up on the Holy Spirit and His fruit before you jump headlong into the chaos of relatives, holiday travel, and Christmas parties.
P.S., If you’re struggling with stress due to family and relatives, check out this video message on how to survive it all during the holidays: https://goo.gl/wcojnE
1 Some Early Church Fathers (who lived in the centuries immediately after the Apostles) argued for dates like May 20th, or April 18th – as well as a host of other dates.
2 Many historians conjecture that there were political pressures that further cemented December 25th as the special day. Early Christians wanted to commandeer and co-opt certain religious festivals throughout the ages – all of which happened around the same time of year. Some point to the Roman festival of Saturnalia; others to Teutonic feasts. Still others point to the birthday of the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness,” Mithras, as well as a handful of other religious holidays.