Monday, December 07, 2009

Why December 25?

(Church of the Nativity, Jerusalem)

Was Jesus born on December 25? Probably not.

Was December 25 recognized as Jesus' birth because it was borrowed from pagan celebrations? Probably not. Christmas is not really a spinoff from pagan solar festivals.

How, then, has December 25 come to be associated with the birth of Jesus? The current issue of Biblical Archaeological Review has a theory. ("How December 25 Became Christmas")  The theory goes as follows.

  • Jesus' birth may lie in the dating of Jesus' death at Passover.
  • Around 200 AD Tertullian "reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. 9March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d."
  • BAR cites other sources that reason this way.
  • This way of reasoning, while sounding strange to us, "reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together."
  • "The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud."
  • BAR says that, although of course we cannot be sure about this, the idea that December 25 as Christmas is derived from pagan celebrations has problems. "The actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism."