The Biblical Season of Christ's Birth

Dear TSH Family,

Merry Christmas!!!

As we celebrate the birth of Christ in the coming days, I want to take time to point out Biblical facts surrounding the actual season when birth of Jesus Christ took place. It is very important for us to know the real season on when Christ was born, and why it is important to all of us. Remember that on December-25, we are celebrating the “Tabernacle of God” – the Christ who came to live in and with us. Millions of Christians all over the world celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25. We call it Christmas. While most believers enjoy the holiday break and the opportunity to get together with family and exchange gifts, they would admit that December 25 is not likely the actual date on which Jesus was born. The question is, do we have anything to shed some light on the time of John’s birth? The answer is YES.

To understand the date of Jesus’ birth, therefore, we must correctly establish the date of John the Baptist’s birth. The story of Jesus begins with the birth of the forerunner, John the Baptist. He is the one sent by God to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1: 17). Why is it important to understand John’s birth? The reason is that Luke 1: 26 indicates there were six months between the conception of John and the conception of Jesus. If their conceptions were six months apart, then their births would also be approximately six months apart.

Consider Luke 1: 5: “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.” John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. Luke 1: 8–13 tells us that Zechariah was serving in the Temple when he received the news that Elizabeth was with child. Why does Luke mention the fact that Zechariah belonged to the priestly division of Abijah? Do we really care? Should we? I think so. It is important to pay attention to the details of Scripture. God did not fill the Bible with useless information. What at first glance may seem irrelevant or unimportant becomes very relevant once the Jewish cultural background is taken into consideration.

Luke’s mention of Abijah is a direct reference to the division of the priests into orders found in 1 Chronicles 24: 10. There it is stated that Zechariah’s priestly division, Abijah, was the eighth division to serve at the Temple. The Mishnah (Oral Torah) states that each division had to serve twice in one year (but not consecutively), with the first division starting on the first week of Nissan. Each division served a one-week period and all priestly divisions had to serve during the three Pilgrim Festivals (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles).

The following is the order of the priestly divisions in relation to the feasts (1 Chronicles 24 & the Mishna):
1.    First week of Nissan, the first priestly division of Jehoiarib serves 
2.    Second week of Nissan, second priestly division of Jedaiah serves 
3.    Third week of Nissan, Passover/ Feast of Unleavened Bread, all the priests serve
4.    Fourth week of Nissan, third priestly division of Harim serves 
5.    First week of Iyar, fourth priestly division of Seorin serves 
6.    Second week of Iyar, fifth priestly division of Malkijah serves 
7.    Third week of Iyar, sixth priestly division of Mijamin serves 
8.    Fourth week of Iyar, seventh priestly division of Hakkoz serves 
9.    First week of Sivan, eighth priestly division of Abijah serves
10.Second week of Sivan, Shavuot (Pentecost), all the priests serve (including the division of Abijah), and so on...

As a member of the order of Abijah, Zechariah served during the first week of Sivan and then was required to serve the following week for Shavuot (Pentecost).

After his service in the Temple, Zechariah went home to his wife. Therefore, John the Baptist must have been conceived sometime after Shavuot (Pentecost). Following this logic through, then John the Baptist would have been born in the month of Nissan (March-April), the month in which the Festival of Passover is to be observed. Keep in mind that the Scriptures say that John’s and Jesus’ birthdays are six months apart (Luke 1: 26–36). If John the Baptist was born in the Jewish month of Nissan (March-April), then Jesus the Christ was born in the Jewish month of Tishri (September-October)

BTW: If John was born around Nissan 15, during Passover, then Jesus would have to be born on or near Tishri 15, which happens to be the first day of the biblical Feast of Tabernacles. 

One note of interest about John the Baptist being born during Passover: The Rabbis teach that the prophet Elijah will appear at Passover to declare Who the Messiah will be. That is why an empty seat is left for Elijah at the head table during the Passover Seder. A child is released to the front door to see if Elijah has come to declare the Messiah. Jesus alluded to John serving in the role of Elijah in Matthew 11: 13–15: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.” In other words, John was born during the Passover, precisely the season when the rabbis expected the forerunner of the Messiah to come. I have established that it is possible that Jesus was born on or near the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Perhaps then it is more than a coincidence that the disciple John starts his Gospel by saying, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1: 14). The Greek word John uses for “made his dwelling” literally means that the Word of God “tabernacles” among men. This would seem to be a typically Jewish way of suggesting the season in which Jesus was born. 

All of us have the Nativity scene clearly engraved in our minds. There is Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus surrounded by shepherds, the three wise men, and a few sheep and cows. The scene appears on many Christmas cards and we can see it as we drive by churches during Christmas. If we examine the Scriptures carefully, however, we can see that this is not an entirely accurate picture. Take the three kings for instance. They didn’t appear until much later in Jesus’ life, we are never told how many there are, and we are never told that they were kings. You can check for yourself in Luke 2: 16–20. 

One element of the birth scene that we know is correct is the place where Jesus was born. It was a place built to shelter animals from the elements while they slept. According to Luke 2: 7, Jesus is placed in a manger. Traditionally this is understood to be a box where feed is placed for the animals. It was placed inside a shed or cave. In Luke 13: 15 this same Greek word for “manger” refers to a stall or the entire shelter. In Genesis 33: 17 we read: “Jacob, however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth.” The Hebrew word Succoth means “a shelter.” It is also the Hebrew name for the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths, because the people were commanded to build temporary structures to live in to remind them of their time in the wilderness living in tents (Lev. 23: 34, 42, 43).

The imagery is staggering when you stop and think about it. The Feast of Tabernacles is all about remembering that during the wilderness journey in Exodus God came to tabernacle or make His dwelling with the Israelites. He was with them in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. His presence was in their midst in the Tabernacle. Jesus was born around the time of the Feast of Succoth, or shelters, and placed into a manger or shelter by Mary, his mother (Luke 2:7).

The Apostle John in turn tells us that this Jesus is “God the Word” come to dwell or tabernacle among us for a time just as God came to live among the Israelites in the wilderness. What amazing timing for the birth of Jesus. He temporarily leaves the glory of heaven to come to earth and to pay the price for mankind. He dwells among us temporarily to reveal Who God is and to make it possible for God to be in the hearts of His people forever. 

Have a merry Christmas, and a Christ-Filled New Year! 

Your servant-in-Christ.

Adapted from “Understanding Jesus: Cultural Insights into the Words and Deeds of Christ.” By Joe Amaral