*Why do we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th? Does Hollywood portray the wise men correctly?*
It’s easy to remember (approximately) how long ago Jesus of Nazareth was born (and when we’re talking about ancient history, mostly everything is “approximate”) because our western dating system is centered around his birth. Thus, just over 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the two Gospels to give us the birth narratives of Jesus, don’t tell us the date Jesus was born, but they do tell us Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great were in power. Ancient historians often “date” the events they’re writing about by telling who was in power. Most scholars put Jesus’ birth somewhere between 7 BC and 4 BC. A sixth-century monk named Dionysius Exiguus developed our modern calendar, but it appears he miscalculated the birth of Jesus by at least 4 years. Further, as far as the actual day and month of Jesus’ birth, no one knows. As stated above, the Bible doesn’t say.
The earliest known day Christians celebrated Christmas was January 6th, and some churches in the east still do so on this date. Celebrating on December 25th appears, as some have theorized, to have started during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine over 300 years after Jesus’ birth. The day was likely the pagan “holiday” of Saturnalia and instead of simply banning these ceremonies, Constantine, the first emperor to become Christian, may have changed it to a Christian celebration to help ease his empire from paganism to Christianity.
A similar theory points out that the winter solstice is very close to December 25th. Another similar theory says December 25th is when Emperor Aurelian dedicated his temple to the god Sol Invictus; Constantine, before becoming Christian, had worshipped Sol Invictus and, thus, picked this date to instead celebrate Christmas.
On the other hand, Dr. Gregg Allison of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary doesn’t think these theories are plausible. He says the early church in the 3rd and 4th Centuries were certainly not open to pagan practices. In fact, at that time the church “denounced any association with paganism and pagan festivals.” Allison goes on to explain that the early church believed Jesus was conceived on the same day he was crucified (Why? No one knows for certain anymore), which would’ve been the 14th or 15th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar. That would be March 25th on the Roman calendar for Jesus’ conception through the Holy Spirit, and then nine months later is December 25th.
(Watch a short video of this explanation by Allison here.)
(Sources: Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels by Mark L. Strauss; The Case For the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel; Southern Seminary Magazine, Spring 2012, Volume 80, Number 2)
And what about the 3 wise men?
How many wise men visited the newborn Jesus on the first Christmas? Was it three? Or was it not three wise men but three kings?
The Gospel of Matthew only says that the magi — non-Jewish wise men “from the east” — arrived “after Jesus was born.” Most likely, the magi were pagan priests who studied astrology. No mention of any kings visiting the young Jesus is recorded in the New Testament.
King Herod, learning from the magi of the birth of this new king of the Jews, asked the magi to inform him when they found the new king so he could also honor him, though Herod secretly planned to kill him. The Jewish chief priests and scribes told the magi that, according to scripture, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so it logically follows that the magi would go there next. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi returned to their home country “by another way.”
After learning what the magi had done, Herod orders all boys ages two and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area killed. Earlier, Herod had questioned the magi about the “exact time” when the star that had brought them searching for the new king of the Jews had appeared. So, when the magi arrived, it’s possible Jesus was around two-years-old. When the magi find him, Jesus is described as a “child,” which could be a baby or an older child. Keep in mind, the magi didn’t have modern transportation and we don’t know from how far away they traveled.
After Jesus’ birth, did Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem for an extended time (possibly with family)? Or did Herod simply order all boys ages two and younger to be killed because he was a paranoid, bloodthirsty maniac? (Which history definitely supports; Herod was so protective of his power that he killed his own wife, some of his sons, and many rabbis. He was not even technically a Jew, and he was placed in power by the Romans.) How much time lapsed between when the magi first saw the star and they arrived in Bethlehem?
Also, Matthew doesn’t report how many magi came. The tradition of three magi comes from the three types of gifts brought by them: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Further, nothing in the Gospels explicitly states Jesus was born during the day or night.
I’ll have to say, the most plain, straightforward reading of the account in Matthew supports the traditional interpretation that the magi arrived in Bethlehem, if not at the exact time of Jesus’ birth, sometime near the time of his birth. The fact that they followed a star implies they did arrive at night. Further, we’re also told an angel appeared to the shepherds as they were watching their flocks by night, which further implies Jesus was born at night.
But it’s a good exercise to read the scripture closely and consider these possibilities. We grow so used to hearing or seeing many of the narratives in the Bible portrayed certain ways — especially the most popular stories of the Bible, and definitely something as widely known and adapted as the Christmas story — it’s good for us take a close look at scripture, see what it truly says, and imagine the story for ourselves. Doing so will bring to life passages that we may have taken for granted for a long time, and it may lead us to discovering something new.
NEXT: What did Joseph & Mary do with all that gold from the magi? Did Jesus’ family believe in him?