CHRISTMAS IN OCTOBER
Why not December?
While we cannot be sure, it seems unlikely that Jesus was born in late December. Shepherds are just not out with their flocks during the winter in the Judean hills. The normal practice was to keep the flocks in the fields from spring to fall. Also, it seems like winter would be a specially hard time for a very pregnant Mary to travel the about 70 mi from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We are often told that we “don’t know what time of the year Jesus was born”. Actually, a careful study of the information found in the gospel of Luke, plus the knowledge passed on to us by the Jewish historian Josephus, can shed light on the time of Jesus’ birth.
The Jewish Priesthood
At the time when king David was on the throne, there were 24,000 priests. He organized them into 24 divisions (1 Chro 28:11-13, 19), with each division serving for a week (1 Chro 9:25), from Sabbath to Sabbath, twice a year, non-consecutive weeks. Also, all priests were required to serve 3 extra weeks during the year (Deu 16:16): Passover Unleavened Bread, Pentecost and Tabernacles. That added up to 51 weeks, the number of weeks in the Hebrew calendar
John the Baptist
According to Luke 1:5, Zacharias was a priest of the division of Abijah. That means that he would have served during the week that ran from the 27th of the Jewish month of Iyar to the 4th of Sivan. Following that week was the week-long celebration of Pentecost, so Zacharias would have stayed in the Temple and served that week also. When his duties at the temple were finished, he returned home and Elizabeth conceived shortly after his return home. This sets the date for John’s conception at about the third week of Sivan.
Exactly 41 weeks from that date is the beginning of the Passover/Unleavened Bread Feast. This very strongly suggests that John could have been born the first day of Passover and circumcised on the last day of the Holiday. Jews have expected Elijah to come at Passover to announce the coming of Messiah, thus they set a chair and a cup of wine for Elijah at the Seder, and the door is left ajar for the prophet. John’s birth during Passover would fulfill both the prophecy in Malachi 4:5 and the Jewish expectations.
After announcing to her that she would give birth to Messiah, Gabriel told her about Elizabeth’s being 6 months pregnant already (Luke 1:36). Mary left Nazareth immediately (with haste according to verse 39). When Mary arrived to Elizabeth’s home she was already pregnant, since John still in the womb recognized the unborn Jesus (verse 44). That sets the conception of Jesus at about the end of the month of Kislev, during the Feast of Lights, Hannukah.
We need to let go of some of the traditions we associate with Christmas. First, we think of Joseph and Mary rushing to Bethlehem to register as soon as the decree from Caesar Augustus was issued. But, actually, they had a whole year during which to register. There was no reason for people to flock to Bethlehem all at once, of for Joseph to bring Mary all the way from Nazareth when her pregnancy was so far along.
There were 3 major Holy Days when Jews were expected to make every reasonable effort to come to Jerusalem (Ex 23:14): Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. During these days Josephus claims that the population of the “greater: Jerusalem would swell from about 120,000 to over 2 million. Every home in the area was open to guests, inns were full, and during the Feast of Tabernacles families would allow out-of-town visitors to spend the night in their sukkah (booth), even going to the effort of leaving some food on a “food shelf” attached to the inside wall of the sukkah. If Jesus was conceived during Hannukah, his due date would have fallen within the week of Tabernacles (late September to October, in the Gregorian calendar). It is more likely that Joseph and Mary came to Jerusalem to fulfill their obligation and decided, while they were there, they would go over to Bethlehem to register for the census. It is then very likely that they were offered someone’s sukkah to spend the night, and that it was there that Jesus was born. And when the Baby was born, they would have laid Him on the “food shelf” to keep Him off the damp ground.
Well, you may be asking, what happened to the stable, the manger, the animals…? The translators of the King James Bible were Greek and Hebrew scholars, but Gentiles, unaware of ancient Hebrew customs. It is a fact that the Hebrew word sukkah can be translated as temporary shelter, booth, barn… Did I just say barn? It is easy to see how the “food shelf” would become a food trough, and how cattle and sheep would be added to the “manger scene”.
Since the first and last day of Tabernacles were High Sabbaths, and no travelling was allowed, it is easy to imagine Joseph making an effort to reach Bethlehem before sundown on the eve of the first day of Tabernacles. That would have Jesus born that night, on the 15th of Tishrei. And He would have been circumcised on the day after the last day of Tabernacles, the most joyous day of Simchat Torah when Jews rejoice in the Torah (the Word of God).
What about us, Christians?
It seems to me like we ought to celebrate Hannukah, as the time when the Light of the World was incarnated. It was also during Hannukah that Jesus said “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). Actually, this year I have lit a menorah, although a virtual one, on my Face Book page.
As far as His birth during Tabernacles, John 1:14 tells us that Jesus was made flesh and dwelt among us”. One of the translations of the Greek word for dwell is to tabernacle. And somehow, the idea of the Bread of Life (John 6:33-51) being placed on the “food shelf” seems very appropriate. So, should we celebrate Tabernacles? Zechariah 14:16-17 tells us that one day all nations will be required to honor this day. What greater reason could it be than because it is the birthday of the King of Kings?