Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Birth of Jesus, December 25th or Not.

(This blog was first published last year.  I thought I would resubmit it here for your enjoyment.)

Christmas is one of those holidays with a strange mixture of secular and religious elements.  Growing up, I experienced them all.  Santa brought gifts on Christmas morning, and as a child, that seemed the most important thing to me.  But there was this other thing happening on the same day, the birth of Jesus.  I never could quite figure out what one had to do with the other, but since my parents seemed to accept it, so did I.

Later on, when I “discovered” that Santa didn’t really exist, I remember thinking once or twice that the other thing must be a fantasy as well, but Mom and I along with my younger siblings still went to church every Sunday so maybe that was the real part. To make a very long story short, I continued in my church life and became an alter boy and was an active part of the church for many years.

One day I was sitting in a class on the history of the church, and we were going over the origins of the church calendar.  This was the traditional Christian annual cycle of festivals and seasons: Christmas, Easter, Lent, Trinity, Advent and so on.  The book we were using at the time showed me something that has stayed with me ever since.  On two adjacent pages were two identical charts, one showing the traditional Christian calendar, and the other showing the pagan calendar from ancient Rome.  The two were absolutely identical in every way except for the names of the holidays, festivals and seasons.  I was somewhat shocked upon seeing this, much like the time when I discovered that Santa didn’t really exist.

I had read the Bible and this didn’t make any sense to me.  There was nothing in the Bible about anything called Lent or Advent or Easter.  There was nothing in the Old or New Testaments that was calendar specific about Christmas, the birth of Jesus being on December 25th.  So naturally I asked questions.  Big mistake!  The instructor, a local Bishop, could not answer me stating, that “New traditions had to start somewhere” and that I should not ask such questions.  The “Church Fathers” knew what they were doing was from God and that this issue of holidays had been decided long ago.

That answer just didn’t sit right with me.  I felt like another long held belief was destroyed.  That a foundation stone was just pulled out from under me, and the house was tilting.  I had recently read the Old Testament, Leviticus specifically, and the account of the Children of Israel coming out of Egypt in Exodus.  I read how God was with them, manifest in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for 40 years in the wilderness.  I wondered where was this God today? God himself said that He never changes, so where is He?  These accounts were in our Bible, and I was told many times that the Bible was the word of God, so it all must be true.  But the Bishop said that the Old Testament was just “old stories” that no one believes them to be real except for the Jews.  I, of course, thought to myself that, “if one part of the Bible is “just a story” then what makes the other parts “real”?  It wasn’t long after this experience that I decided I wasn’t going to go to church anymore.

A few years later I was saved, and things started to make much more sense.  But there were still some of the same questions.  However I knew now that Jesus was real and He was a very real part of my life.  I filed most of these questions away and figured that they would be answered in good time.  But the one question remaining that always came to the surface was about Christmas: this date of December 25th.  What is it about this date for the birth of Jesus?  It isn’t in the Bible at all so why do we celebrate the birth of Messiah on December 25th?  Thinking back, I remembered the charts from the class on Church History.  Was December 25th really borrowed from pagan Roman worship practices?  I could not get away from that idea!  But I continued to celebrate the birth of Messiah on this date anyway for no other reason than long standing tradition and no better understanding of a real birth date that is only implied in scripture and not mentioned directly.

Over the years, I have learned that there is nothing wrong with traditions in and of themselves as long as they don’t interfere with or trump scripture, the origins and history surrounding such traditions not withstanding.  Jesus Himself observed traditions not limited to specific scriptural origin as demonstrated in the Gospel of John chapter 10 where Jesus is celebrating the Feast of Dedication or better known by its actual Hebrew name of Hanukkah.  (See my previous blog posts on the feast of Hanukkah.)  But when was Jesus really born?  Can we find out by a closer examination of the scriptures?  The answer is, yes we can.

I believe that the Birth of Jesus (I will call Him by His Hebrew name “Yeshua” from this point on in the blog) is clearly foretold in prophesy and witnessed in the Gospel accounts just as the prophets had written.  Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah, born and raised a Jew, from a Jewish mother and (earthly) father, raised and educated as a Jew, taught His disciples as a Jewish Rabbi and died as the King of the Jews of the House of David.  It stands to reason that His life and mission will follow the pattern that God Himself ordained for Him from before creation as opposed to any new or “borrowed” doctrines, dates and traditions.

John 7:16 Jesus answered them and said, My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me.

Let’s take a look at the scriptural evidence for the correct birth date of our Messiah Yeshua.  There are seven Feasts of the LORD in Leviticus chapter 23: eight if you include the Sabbath.  They are generally thought of as the Jewish Feasts or Holidays, but this is not the case as the Bible tells us in Leviticus 23:1-2

Leviticus 23:1-2 MKJV 1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, The feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim, holy convocations, even these are My appointed feasts.

Verse 2 clearly states that these are God’s feasts, not the feasts of the Jews but His “appointed feasts”.  In Deuteronomy, three of these feasts are described as pilgrimage feasts.

Deuteronomy 16:16 MKJV Three times in a year shall all your males appear before the LORD your God in the place which He shall choose: in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and in the Feast of Weeks, and in the Feast of Tabernacles. And they shall not appear before the LORD empty.

This gathering of the men in Jerusalem at the Temple was practiced right up until the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE.  The historian Josephus recorded that over 2.5 million people would gather in Jerusalem at these pilgrimage feasts.  The birth of Yeshua is closely linked with the birth of His first cousin commonly known as John the Baptist.  We find the account of John’s conception in Luke chapter 1.

Luke 1:5-13 MKJV 5 In the days of Herod, the king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abijah. And his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blameless in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. 7 And they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren. And both were advanced in their days. 8 And it happened in his serving in the order of his course, before God, 9 according to the custom of the priests, it was his lot to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And all the multitude of the people were praying outside at the time of incense. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him as he was standing on the right of the altar of incense. 12 And seeing this, Zacharias was troubled, and fear fell on him. 13 But the angel said to him, Do not fear, Zacharias. For your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.

How do we know when this took place?  To find out we need to know what a “course” is and how it relates to priests serving in the Temple.  There were thousands of priests who served in the Temple.  Under the reign of King David, the priests were divided into courses where they served for two weeks out of the year and in addition, during the pilgrimage festivals.  We find this detailed in 1st Chronicles chapter 24 speaking to the division of the priests.  The course of Abijah is the eighth course.  The courses of priests began with the first month on the religious calendar, the month of Nissan, and each course served for one week twice each year plus during the pilgrimage feasts.  So the eighth course would serve during the eighth full week from the first of Nissan.  This would put Zacharias serving the week just prior to the feast of Shavuot or Pentecost.  Since Shavout was a pilgrimage feast, Zacharias would also serve during this week as well.  This was the time when the angel appeared to Zacharias and told him that his wife will conceive and bear him a son. 

How do we know that this was at the feast of Shavuot and not during Zacharias’ second time of Temple service later in the year?  The hint comes to us from the Greek words used in the manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel.  In verse 10, Luke records that “it was the time of incense and that a multitude of worshipers were present for the ceremony”.  The time of the incense was a part of the daily Temple service but during the pilgrimage feasts there would be huge crowds of people outside the Holy Place and filling the courtyards.  The courtyards on the Temple mount covered an area greater than 30 acres and could accommodate tens of thousands of people during pilgrimage feasts.  Luke, in his account, uses the phrase “pas plethos” which means the “whole multitude” or “everyone”.  Seven other times Luke uses this terminology in his Gospel.  It is always used in reference to large crowds of people.  Zacharias’s other time of Temple service is in the middle of the month of Kislev, about 6 weeks following the Feast of Tabernacles where the worshipers in the Temple would consist of the considerably smaller, day to day crowd.

So Elizabeth became pregnant sometime during the later part of the month of Sivan/first of part of Tamuz and hid herself away for 5 months.  This would take us to the later part of the month of Kislev to the first part of Tevet which is in the late fall, usually early December on our calendar.  This is when the angel appeared to Mary, the mother of Yeshua and told her that she will bear a child as well, Luke records in chapter 1 verse 36 that Elizabeth was in her sixth month at this time.

Luke 1:36-37 MKJV 36 And behold, your cousin Elizabeth also conceived a son in her old age. And this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

Verses 26-38 of Luke 1 recounts the angel appearing to Mary and telling her that she will bear the Son of God (vs. 35).  In verses 39-45 we see Mary traveling to “a town in the hill country of Judea” to Elizabeth and Zacariah’s home to share the good news.  It is amazing how the LORD works out the perfect timing.  This was at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.  On this Hanukkah season, the Angel Gabriel announced the coming of the Son of God into the world.  Later Yeshua said that He is the Light of the World.

John 8:12 MKJV Then Jesus spoke again to them, saying, I am the Light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

We know that human gestation is about 40 weeks, this is 280 days.  The Hebrew calendar that I have been using here bases the division of the months on the cycles of the moon with each month being 28 or 29 days long.  Mary, having conceived at the time of Hanukkah, near the end of the month of Kislev or the first of Tevet, counting 280 days until giving birth, places Yeshua’s birth at or near the Festival of Sukot or Tabernacles the following year.  How fitting this is and perfectly matches the Gospel narrative of the time of His birth.

The feast of Sukkot is one of the pilgrimage festivals spoken of in Deuteronomy 16.  Jerusalem would have been jammed with people coming to the festival as commanded by God in the Torah.  This is why there was no room for them at the inn.  For the five days between the Feast of Atonements (Yom Kippur) and the beginning of the Feast of Sukkot on the 15th day of Tishrei, The people of Jerusalem along with the traveling pilgrims would be constructing their Sukkah, which is a temporary dwelling place constructed like a hut with a semi open roof.

The feast of Sukkot is many things for the Jewish people.  It is a time to remember when they lived in temporary dwellings in the wilderness for 40 years.  It is a time to celebrate the bountiful harvest at the end of the year.  It is where our modern day American holiday of Thanksgiving has its origins.  But most important it is a time to remember and celebrate that God dwelt with them in the wilderness.  That He was on earth and an active presence with them every day.  And here on this particular Festival of Sukkot, with several million pilgrims in attendance, the Son of God has come to dwell with them!  The God of creation has once again come to His people.  Remember, Emanuel, God with us!

Above all the Feast of Sukkot is a time of great rejoicing.  It is a big party like atmosphere in the temple courts and all around Jerusalem and surrounding areas.  In Deuteronomy 16:14 it says:

Deuteronomy 16:14 MKJV 14 And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your male slave, and your slave-girl, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow inside your gates.

It was NOT winter!  Jerusalem and the surrounding towns are in the mountains of Israel, in excess of four thousand feet in elevation.  Bethlehem, where Yeshua was born, is less than 5 miles from Jerusalem.  It is frequently cold and snowing in the winter in and around Jerusalem.  The shepherds, who were most likely Levites because the flocks of sheep near Bethlehem were those of the Temple flocks, belonging to the Priests, would not have had their flocks out at night in the hill country around Jerusalem in the winter where there is no grazing available for the sheep.

The Gospel accounts clearly state that the shepherds were in their fields attending their flocks, at night, when the angel appeared to them saying “do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”  Great joy is what the Feast of Sukkot is all about.  During this festival, the Temple courts were lit up at night with gigantic lamp stands, 70 feet tall with huge oil lamps.  The wicks for these lamps were made from the soiled garments of the Temple priests that had been torn or cut into strips.  Piles of these strips were around the city and the Temple for use in the oil lamps.* Luke’s narrative in Chapter 2 verse 7 states that the baby Yeshua was wrapped in “swaddling clothes”.

Luke 2:7 KJV 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The word translated as “swaddling” is the Greek word “spragnoo”.  Which is number 4683 in the Strong’s Concordance and Dictionary.  “Spar-gan-o'-o a strip; from a derivative of the base of 4682 meaning to strap or wrap with strips; to swathe (an infant after the Oriental custom):--wrap in swaddling clothes.”  We see that the Baby Yeshua was wrapped in strips of linen, most likely the strips of the discarded priestly garments that were in abundance during this festival because of their use for the giant lamps.

These gigantic lamps burned all night for the entire Feast of Sukkot.  Remember that Jerusalem is on the top of a hill, four thousand plus feet in elevation.  Jerusalem was known at this time as “the Light of the World” because this light from the Temple courts could be seen from great distances on land and for several hundred miles out in the Mediterranean Sea.  How fitting is it, that God would have a “party” celebrating the birth of His Son, who is the true Light of the World.

This year as some of you celebrate Yeshua’s birth during this Christmas season, this December 25th, remember the reason you celebrate this day.  As we continue to study God’s word and discover His divine appointments, His feast days, we will discover that God wants to once again dwell with us.  He wants to come to our temporary dwelling, our “Sukkah” and meet us here.  Open your lives and your hearts to His word.  Come and meet Him at His feast, His appointed time.

Shalom and be blessed
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

Please visit our website at

* For information on Temple practices see

Also see Alfred Edersheim’s book titled “The Temple: Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ”

The following comments were submitted last year to this blog.  I thought I would include them here as well.

1: Anonymous said...
This is a wonderful article and I will pass it on! However, a couple of things I noticed:

"Jerusalem would have been jammed with people coming to the festival as commanded by God in the Torah. This is why there was no room for them at the inn." - Yeshua wasn't born in Jerusalem, He was born in Bethlehem! It was probably crowded because people were there for the census.
"...the Baby Yeshua was wrapped in strips of linen, most likely the strips of priestly garments that were in abundance during this festival because of their use for the giant lamps." - This is possible, however, Mary knew her time was close and would have been prepared for His birth with the proper supplies.

2: (my response) Thank you for your comment.

About Jerusalem's population during the pilgrimage feasts, the city in ancient times was much smaller than the city is today. The native population was less than 100,000. Jerusalem was surrounded by small villages and towns, Bethlehem among them. Bethlehem is less than 5 miles south of the walls of the ancient city and today it is difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins except for the signs and the border fence to the PA territory. It took all the accommodations available in these surrounding towns to house the people coming in for the pilgrimage festivals, the added burden of a censes not withstanding. Walking from Bethlehem to the Temple mount in that day would have taken less than 90 minutes. For information on the day to day life in Jerusalem during this time, see the works of Flavius Josephus. He was born in 33 CE and was present during many of these festivals in Jerusalem.

As far as the exact “materials” used by Mary and Joseph to wrap the baby Yeshua, we can only speculate. My purpose was to draw attention to an interesting possibility of the use of the strips of linen from the priestly garments. It is fitting that the King of Kings would be first wrapped in “priestly garments” at his birth. They were certainly available in Bethlehem since it is a city set aside for the Levites. The fact that they are the remnants of discarded and soiled garments is even more interesting in light that Yeshua would take on our “dirty laundry” so to speak at His death. Secondly the specific use of the term “spragnoo” in this context is as a noun and not a verb. It is in reference to a specific thing and not an action. Again, this is only speculation, but the cultural and linguistic context of the passage is interesting.


3: Dan, I have studied this for a few years now, and I can't get over the fact that I learn something new about every time I go back to it. It is amazing how His cyclical patterns work so wonderfully. I have many friends with whom to share this with.


No comments:

Post a Comment

You must include your name, city and state at the end of your comment. I do not accept comments from any one who identifies themselves as anonymous. All comments are moderated prior to appearing on this blog.