THE DATE OF THE FIRST ADVENT
An Investigation of the Uses of History
by Jared L. Olar
``A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.''- Saul Bellow
My article ``Let's Celebrate the Advent Season!'' in the debut issue of Grace and Knowledge included a discussion of the controversial subject of the date of the birth of Jesus Christ. In this follow-up article, I have chosen to respond to several historically inaccurate statements that have appeared in recent years in publications of my church, the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), regarding the date of Jesus' birth and the adoption of December 25 as the festival of His nativity. I sincerely request that any flaws or inaccuracies in my discussion below be brought to my attention.
To start, I would like to review some of my church's recent history relating to this subject. Since the end of 1995 the WCG has been gradually introducing into its worship culture the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. For instance, in the Dec. 5, 1995 issue of The Worldwide News (WN), one of our elders, Michael Morrison, put forth various arguments in favor of the celebration of Christmas on December 25. At that stage he argued only that such a thing was not forbidden, as we had formerly taught for many decades. However, he tentatively proposed that Jesus may in fact have been born on December 25, something that most serious and qualified historians no longer maintain. (I shall explain the reasons for this scholarly consensus below.) Also, from the end of 1995 both The Worldwide News and The Plain Truth (PT) magazine--formerly the flagship publication of the WCG, now a separate Christian ministry though still tenuously affiliated with the WCG--have replaced their traditional special coverage of the biblical festivals of the autumn with special coverage of Christmas. Again, the Pastor General and ruling elders of the WCG have even instructed all of our church pastors to preach sermons in December on the story of Jesus' birth and the miracle of the Incarnation.
Finally, the WCG member letter from the Pastor General for the month of December 1998 was devoted to certain controversies which are threatening the WCG with further loss of members, if not formal schisms in the years ahead. These are the controversies regarding the date of Jesus' birth and the propriety and timing of the celebration of that event. In this discussion, I will touch on the issues of propriety and timing only incidentally if at all. Instead, my focus will be fixed upon the historical controversy over the date of Jesus' birth and my church's use of history. In his letter, our Pastor General, Joseph Tkach, Jr., offered a few arguments in favor of the traditional December 25 date of Jesus' birth, along with (a slightly garbled version of) the argument in favor of the Tishri date of His birth which I mentioned in our last issue.
Therefore, I will compile various crucial quotations from the
abovementioned sources and offer responses. The historical dispute
about the date of Jesus' birth generally revolves around three issues: 1)
the shepherds living out in the fields, 2) the time of year that John the
Baptist's father served in the
``Some people have claimed that Jesus was born near the fall festivals. That is possible, but it is not proven. It is not likely that Augustus would risk a rebellion by requiring each person to go to his own city at the same time as the local religion required everyone to go to Jerusalem.''
One of the unspoken assumptions apparently behind this reasoning is that Augustus' decree was fully implemented in the same year that it was issued. The other assumption is that the decree of Augustus required that everyone register for this census at their own cities. There is no explicit biblical or extra-biblical basis for either of these assumptions. On the contrary, it is quite conceivable to suppose that so unprecedented an undertaking as this empire-wide census would have to have been implemented over the course of a few years. Certain regions and provinces would have been registered before other areas.
In truth, difficulties in determining the date of the decree of
Emperor Augustus, and of reconciling the known dates of Quirinius'
governorship with the various proposed dates of Jesus' birth (see Luke
2:2), could indicate that Joseph and Mary were not registered in the same year
of the decree. In that case, we have absolutely no reason to assume that
there was any conflict between the decree of Augustus and the obedience to that
decree whenever and however it was implemented in the
However, for the same reasons explained above, we cannot put too much stock
in the objection that Joseph and Mary would not have made a difficult journey
in mid-winter when Mary was near the end of her pregnancy. If Jesus were
born in the months of Kislev or Tebeth (December and January), does that mean
His parents made their journey in the winter? Luke's words could safely
and easily be interpreted to mean that Joseph and Mary went to
Continuing with the same article:
``Many people have objected to the idea that Jesus was born in December, since there were shepherds in their fields (Luke 2:8), and shepherds didn't normally do that in December. But we must remember that this was not a normal year. Augustus had told everyone to go to his or her own city (verse 3), but the shepherds had not--they were living in the fields! They may have been tax evaders. They had reason to stay away from town as long as they could. Of course, this doesn't prove that Jesus was born in December, but it does show that the chief objection to a December birth isn't necessarily conclusive.''
Frankly, I cannot help but feel embarrassment for my church when our representatives commit these sorts of historical blunders. Consider the following problems with this hypothesis: First, Luke would be presenting us with the image of God's angels selecting not merely smelly social outcasts (which is how shepherds generally were looked upon), but actual criminals in their hideouts, to be the first to hear the news of the birth of the Messiah. This raises the humorous possibility of the shepherds' fright resulting from their mistaking the angels for Roman census officials. It would surely make for an interesting nativity scene: one of the shepherds standing guard outside Jesus' birthplace lest Roman sentries discover their presence and drag them down to the nearest census registrar! (Indeed, those shepherds must not have chosen a very good disguise. How long, I wonder, would it have taken the Roman authorities to realise that those particular shepherds should not be out in the fields during winter?) What I am getting at with this bit of levity is that outlaw shepherds would not be as able to serve as effective newsbearers of the Messiah's birth (consider Luke -20).
One of the first and most important rules of historical inquiry is to respect the sources. This hypothesis fails to do that. Notice that nothing whatsoever in the text of Luke indicates that these shepherds were breaking Roman law. Rather, Luke is explicit about what these shepherds were doing and why they were there:
``There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.'' (Luke 2:8)
Nothing here about ``shepherds hiding out in the fields nearby, keeping
watch lest Roman officials find them and make them register for the
census.'' If that is what they were doing, why did Luke say they
were merely watching over their flocks? Luke's words about everyone
going to his own city to register were clearly meant to explain how Joseph
and Mary ended up in
Now, as mentioned above, one of the frequent objections to the
traditional December birthdate is that cold or rainy weather would have
prevented shepherds in the
However, Ralph Woodrow in his book Christmas Reconsidered has presented information and reasoning on this point which is far superior to the implausible and unnecessary tax evader hypothesis. His authority was Alfred Edersheim's classic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, which argued that Jesus was in fact born on the eve of December 25 (Tebeth 9 on the Hebrew calendar). Following Edersheim, Woodrow shows that around the time of Christ, some flocks, including flocks near Bethlehem and Jerusalem, were left out of doors all winter--though whether any shepherds lived out in the fields all winter is less clear. Second, he suggests that the shepherds mentioned by Luke were forced by poverty to keep their flocks out when normally they would have been brought in to winter quarters. This latter suggestion, though unfalsifiable, is at least more plausible than the tax evader theory. Frankly the tax evader scenario is nothing more than special pleading. Even as we have suggested that the shepherds were tax evaders, we may with almost as much reason (and with the same sort of violence to the text, the same sort of lack of respect for the primary sources) argue, as some have, that Jesus was actually a woman posing as a man. Sure, it is possible, and it accounts for some of the evidence, but we have no justifiable cause to alter the obvious meaning of the text so drastically.
The WN article next shows this astounding sentence:
``In the year 221 (long before the time of
Let us go back to the primary sources. I have before me a copy of every one of the few surviving fragments of the five volumes of the Chronographiai of Julius Africanus, which were completed and published in 221 A.D. I can assure my readers that Africanus says nothing whatsoever regarding the date of Jesus' birth. He does devote special attention to the Seventy Weeks Prophecy of Daniel 9, but his calculations based on Daniel's prophecy are concerned with the year that Jesus commenced His ministry, not with the year or season of Jesus' birth. This fact, incidentally, is why I am not surprised that Africanus did not explain how he arrived at the date of December 25--because whatever he might have written about the date of Jesus' birth (assuming he ever wrote anything at all) has not survived.
I suspect that this error resulted from the fact that all we have left of Africanus' chronological treatises are those passages fortunate enough to be incorporated into later sources such as the world chronicle of Eusebius Pamphilii. One of those sources undoubtedly shows December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth, and perhaps that entry appears near enough on the page to an extract from Africanus that we (or more likely, the tertiary source upon which we relied) concluded that the December 25 date derived from Africanus.
If in fact so early and influential an authority as Africanus had
preserved the date of December 25 for the birth of Jesus, it is
extremely unlikely that there would have been the controversy and doubt
regarding this issue which Christendom has perennially experienced.
This statement of ours is, I regret to say, just an example of shoddy
historical research. We may therefore dismiss everything else on this
particular topic found in the article's succeeding few paragraphs.
In those paragraphs may be found the claim that the choice of December 25
for the festival of Jesus' nativity may have had nothing to do with pagan
influence on fourth century Christianity, because Africanus (``long before
the time of Constantine'') supposedly claimed Jesus was born on that date.
However, there is scant evidence that anyone before the time of
Indeed, the earliest evidence of a Christian observance of December 25 as
the festival of Jesus' birth is still that which is found in a document dated
354 A.D. This document, the Depositio Martyrum, indicates that by
336 A.D. the church at
Nor indeed are we able to ascertain how anyone in those days could have determined the Roman equivalent of the Hebrew date of Jesus' birth. I am not aware of any evidence that the Romans customarily recorded the dates of Jewish births in their registers. Nothing Luke wrote, and no primary source prior to the fourth century, indicates that the date of Jesus' birth was recorded in the census records, although such is not impossible. Also, supposing that Jesus was born in the winter months of Kislev or Tebeth (roughly equivalent to our modern December and January), the date of His birth on the Hebrew calendar would not have remained constant on the old Julian calendar. When the story of the December 25 nativity first appears in the historical record during the fourth century, why was there no accompanying controversy concerning ``Hebrew date versus Roman date''?
Although it is true that we may not (to use the WN article's words)``dogmatically say that the Dec. 25 date was contrived simply because a pagan festival already existed on that date,'' there is a real probability that is what happened. Motives for said contrivance are debatable, of course--the WN article's assertion that it arose as a rival to the Mithras feast is possible, but the primary sources are silent on that question. Therefore it follows that we must reject these statements of Hank Hanegraaff on page 23 of the November-December1998 issue of the PT:
``While we do not know the exact date that Christ was born, we do know why the early Christian church chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25. The church was not Christianizing a pagan festival, but was establishing the celebration of the birth of Christ as a rival celebration.''
Hanegraaff is going farther than the primary sources can take us. It is not an undisputable fact that the December 25 custom arose as a rival to the pagan December 25 festival. In any event, I must point out that to the impartial observer there is no meaningful difference between ``Christianizing a pagan festival'' and ``establishing the celebration of the birth of Christ as a rival celebration.'' These two apparent alternatives in fact are not really alternatives at all, but, like the Johannine witnesses of I John 5, they ``agree in one.'' Further, I would sincerely like to know how, in the absence of primary sources, we could ever discern the reasons and motives behind the institution of the December 25 nativity festival in the fourth century. To repeat my above words, the hypothesis that it arose as a rival to the Mithras feast is one of two possibilities, but it is one for which there is only circumstantial evidence, if that.
However, the cultural and political realities of the
reign of Emperor Constantine, when Christmas first appears in the
historical record, make it probable that Christmas did indeed
originate against the background of Constantine's well-documented
policy of amalgamation of Christian and pagan systems. We need to
keep in mind that the fourth century was a crucial era in the history of
Christianity. This was the era when Christianity finally was granted
toleration and the persecutions ended. In a relatively short period of
time, the Emperor would give up his patronage or support for the old pagan
cults, and instead would begin to provide financial patronage and moral support
for Christianity, and even begin to meddle in ecclesiastical
affairs. Although he was favorable to the Christian religion,
I will here place parallel two quotes, one from the already-cited WN article (left), and one from Mr. Joseph Tkach, Jr.'s December 1998 member/co-worker letter (right):
``..., but a later author calculates the
``Some early Christian writers
date in this way: Zechariah was serving
(John Chrysostom, 347-407) taught that
in the temple during the fall festivals
Zecharias (sic) received the message
when Gabriel told him that his wife
about John's birth on Atonement,
would conceive (Luke 1:8, 23). Jesus
which falls in September or October.
was conceived six months later (verse 26),
This would place John the Baptist's
near the spring equinox. Jesus would
birth in June, and the birth of
therefore be born in late December.''
Jesus six months later, in December.''
Both presentations of Chrysostom's theory display what I find to be astounding credulity. We may dismiss this scenario without hesitation, primarily because Chrysostom made the blunder of having Zacharias serve in the
The reason that Chrysostom placed Zacharias in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to receive the angel's message is because he mistakenly had accepted the Protevangelion as an authentic relic of the Apostolic Age. To the contrary, this is an apocryphal work written in the second century and falsely attributed to Jesus' brother James. In this forgery or work of religious fiction, we find the biblical stories of Jephthah's daughter and the birth of Samuel the Seer attached to Jesus' mother Mary. We also find Jesus' reference to the murder of ``Zacharias, son of Barachias'' (Matt. ), manifestly the prophet who wrote the Book of Zechariah, erroneously attached to John the Baptist's father Zacharias the Priest. But most significant of all, in the Protevangelion, Zacharias is the High Priest. Interestingly, it is a priest named Samuel who serves as High Priest while Zacharias is incapable of speech. I wonder if this is the author's wink to his audience acknowledging his borrowing from and rewriting of biblical history (cf. the above reference to Samuel the Seer). Finally, according to this source, following the murder of Zacharias, the Jews appoint Simeon (none other than the Simeon of Luke ) as their next High Priest.
However, the Protevangelion, like other forged gospels of that
era which purport to tell of Jesus' birth and infancy, is silent about the
timing of the angel's coming to him in the
Needless to say, the succession of the High Priests derived from Josephus and later Jewish sources shows no priests named Zacharias, Samuel, and Simeon at the time of Jesus' conception and birth. Furthermore, Luke makes no mention of the Atonement ritual, nor of Zacharias entering the Holy of Holies. Rather, Luke wrote:
``In the time of Herod, King of Judaea, there was a priest named Zacharias,
who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah.... Once when Zacharias'
division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by
lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the
During the feasts, all twenty-four priestly divisions were present and
available for service in the
However, in the latest member/co-worker letter, we find the claim that
definite knowledge of the customs and rules pertaining to the rotation of
the priestly divisions is no longer available. It is true
that complete certainty may not be attainable, but a comparison of
biblical testimony with post-biblical sources (including calendar texts
among the Dead Sea Scrolls only made available to the public in the last
few years) tends to lend a great deal of support to the scenario outlined
by Dr. Ernest Martin in his 1961 PT article, ``When Was Christ Born?''
Abijah's division almost certainly served in the
But if it was the eighth month, then Jesus would have been born in late winter or early spring, close to or during the month of Nisan. Surprisingly, my church has never had much, if anything, to say about the springtime theory of Jesus' birth, which is just as old as the legendary December 25 birthdate. Significantly, the WCG formerly supported the autumn theory, using it as a reason to abstain from the observance of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox nativity festivals. But now my church supports (with reservation) the winter theory, using it as a reason to participate in the Catholic nativity festival. It is therefore natural that we would focus our attention upon the autumn and winter theories. After all, I cannot escape the conclusion that, then and now, my church's interest in Christian history has not primarily been out of a noble pursuit of truth, but instead out of an attempt to find seemingly historical evidence to support policies and practices. I long for theday when my church puts historical truth above temporary agendas such as the bolstering of liturgical innovations.
If it is truth in which we are interested--and we Christians are supposed to care about truth, even (or especially) historical truth--then we in the WCG will sooner or later have to put away our simplistic approaches to the history of early Christianity. If we do that, we will observe that the fourth century, the era in which Chrysostom lived, was a century rife with forged pseudo-historical documents coming from the hands of Christians. With Christendom then divided into several opposing doctrinal and liturgical camps (sounds awfully familiar), some proponents of various doctrines and policies had no qualms about composing falsehoods and just-so stories to provide ``historical'' support for their beliefs. Chrysostom's arguments in favor of the December 25 birthdate fall into that category. So too do the claims of Cyril of Jerusalem, cited in the latest member/co-worker letter as follows:
``Early Christian authors such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr mention the
tax census ordered by Augustus Caesar (Luke 2:1-7). The census records were
eventually taken to
We have uncritically offered this story, not asking why it was that for the first three centuries of Christian history no one seemed to know the date of Jesus' birth. Only in the fourth century do we find early Church Fathers such as Cyril and Chrysostom providing us with``historical'' arguments in favor of a winter birth of our Savior. At the same time these two Fathers were writing about the birth of Jesus, others were composing spurious reports on Jesus' crucifixion purportedly from the pen of Pontius Pilate. That no one in nearly three centuries of Christian history seems to have ever bothered to take the simple step of consulting the census records to learn the date of Jesus' birth is a very good indication that Cyril's census record is in the same class as the Gospel of Nicodemus or the Epistle of Lentulus. Of course, Cyril may deliberately have been misled. I would again like to point out that the Gospel of Luke gives us no reason to believe that the date of Jesus' birth was entered into the Roman census records.
In all likelihood, during the first two centuries of Christianity, Christians did not care about Jesus' birth--because in those days neither Christians nor Jews engaged in the (to them) pagan custom of birthday celebrations. Of the four canonical gospels, only two mention the birth of Jesus--and Luke alone describes it, while Matthew merely alludes to it--and neither of those two gospels expresses the slightest interest in the date of His physical birth. However, all four gospels describe Jesus' baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him in the form of a dove. This event in Jesus' life is, I perceive, something my church has never really understood, nor adequately tried to explain. Interestingly, in the minds of some early Christians (not just Gnostic heretics, contrary to Ralph Woodrow's statements in Christmas Reconsidered), Jesus' baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him was erroneously regarded as the human birth of the Son of God, the moment when ``the Word was made flesh and set up His tabernacle among us.'' (That opinion, known as ``Adoptianism,'' came to be formally excluded as heresy.) We have evidence of the Christian celebration of Jesus' baptism well before we have any indication of interest in celebrating the virgin birth. If our church is truly serious about the annual celebration of the events of the life of Jesus, can we omit a festival to commemorate His baptism? (Pentecost might be an appropriate occasion for such a commemoration.)
In closing, I would like to respond to Joseph Tkach's expressed opposition to Christians ``becoming side-tracked with irrelevant debate about the exact day of [Jesus'] birth.'' I cannot but agree with his insistence that we not allow controversies pertaining to the observance of nativity festivals to divide us and render our gospel witness ineffective. Nor do I wish to condemn Christians who participate in the traditional Catholic nativity festival in the month of December. I and my family celebrate the first advent of our Lord during the fall festival season--which may well (though perhaps may not) be the actual season of Jesus' birth, and in any event is filled with Hebrew liturgical symbolism pointing to the Incarnation and Coming of Christ--and we have no desire to be involved in Western Civilisation's ancient winter solstice festivities. But I see no need, nor can I deem it very beneficial, to heap abuse on Christians who participate in so old and so majestic a liturgical tradition as the Roman Catholic Christmas Midnight Mass.
However, I believe that as Christians we are to care about truth in all its forms, and that includes a striving for historical accuracy, and for excellence in our scholarship. It does us no credit to recycle stale old arguments, to breathe new life into pseudo-historical Christian legends, or to engage in shoddy historical scholarship in support of any position. If it is really true that Christians are free to observe the December 25 nativity feast regardless of whether Jesus was actually born on that date, then dredging up the just-so stories of Chrysostom and Cyril is unnecessary. However, it is significant that acceptance of Christmas was originally accomplished in part by the invention of that kind of ``proof.'' Sadly and shamefully, lies helped to establish the annual and understandably well-loved celebration of one of the central truths of the gospel. It is also significant that even today the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church declares December 25 as the actual date of Jesus' birth, not merely as the longstanding traditional date of the commemoration of His birth. It would appear that my own church's acceptance of the Catholic nativity feast is being supported by the same sort of questionable historical arguments.
My hope and prayer is that we in the WCG abandon our old habit of misuse of
Christian history. Whenever and however we Christians celebrate
Jesus' birth--or even if we abstain from such celebrations
altogether--we ought to seek historical truth, and accept it, even if it
tells us things that are inconvenient to our own plans and policies. The
``Truth is deemed a sadly dull and unromantic thing. It is not for truth that men seek, but for that which is pleasant to believe. Poor, ill-clad, shivering truth stands pitiful by the way-men have ever passed her by in search of that which they desire.'' - J. Horace Round
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