So, exactly when was Jesus born? Every year, as the Christmas season approaches, many Christians ask the obvious questions related to the birth of Jesus. First, was Jesus actually born on 25th December? And second, if He wasn't born on this date, why in the world do we celebrate it as if He was?

A FAMILIAR SCENE: We're all familiar with the idea of the shepherds being among those who went to worship the newborn Christ but does their presence tell us more about when the event took place? PICTURE: © Duncan Walker (www.istockphoto.com)

"(T)he Bible is absolutely silent about the precise date on which Jesus was born, but a careful and somewhat forensic investigation of the Scripture will give us a rough guideline related to the birth of Christ, and if nothing else, shed some light on whether or not 25th December has anything to do with Jesus' true birthday."

Well, the Bible is absolutely silent about the precise date on which Jesus was born, but a careful and somewhat forensic investigation of the Scripture will give us a rough guideline related to the birth of Christ, and if nothing else, shed some light on whether or not 25th December has anything to do with Jesus' true birthday.

To begin, we have to take a minute to understand the way that ancient Jews lived and raised sheep in order to understand when Jesus was born. Does that sound crazy? Well, hang with me here for a minute. It was the Jewish custom for shepherds to send out their sheep into the fields in the early spring at about the time of the Passover. They did not bring these sheep home until the first rains started in early to mid-fall.

During this time, when the flocks of sheep were out in the open fields, shepherds would stay with the sheep to insure their safety. They would stay with the sheep both day and night. This would continue until the shepherds drove their sheep back in from these fields early in the month of "Marh-esvan" (a period of time we would now locate sometime in October). In essence, shepherds stayed in the open fields with their sheep for the entire summer.

This cultural tradition, documented in many non-Biblical records and accounts of the time, is also well documented in the Jewish scriptures. The Book of Ezra documents the fact that the winter rainy season was a time when the Jewish people knew better than to leave themselves out in the rain: Ezra 10: 9-13: "So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, 'You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. Now, therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers, and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.' Then all the assembly answered and said with a loud voice, 'That's right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do. But there are many people, it is the rainy season, and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter."

The Jewish people endured the winter as a time of rainy and harsh weather. It was not the time to be out in the rain, tending flocks in the open fields. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived also affirmed this fact in Song of Solomon 2: 11, "For behold, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone."

Given this brief cultural background of the ancient Jewish shepherds, let's now take a look at what the Bible has to say about timing of Jesus' birth: "And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night." (Luke 2: 8)

Notice a couple of things here. It is clear that the shepherds are living in the fields with their sheep. The Greek word translated here in the New American Standard Version as "staying out" is "agrauloúntes". It means that they were staying overnight; the shepherds were "camping out", so to speak. In the KJV, the expression translated as "abiding in" the fields with their sheep. They are not out on a day trip, at least not according to the Scripture. They are actually living out there with their flock! This certainly seems to indicate that we are within the range of time when shepherds drove their sheep into the open fields and stayed with them for the May to October time period. They are already out there at the time of Jesus' birth, and they apparently have not yet returned. If nothing else, this seems to indicate that Jesus is born sometime between May and October, and certainly not as late in the winter as December.

So why do we celebrate it on 25th December?
This is really the 64,000 dollar question (for those of you old enough to remember the famous game show). For many Christians, there is some discomfort about the dating and origin of our Christmas holiday, primarily due to the fact that its dating (and many of its symbols) are rooted in prior pagan traditions. The present date for Christmas (25th December) traces back historically to the 4th century.

When Constantine declared that Christianity was to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, he introduced the faith to a culture that was already deeply committed to the pagan worship of prior Roman Gods. Christian leaders were in for a real challenge as they tried to eclipse prior cultural commitments to these Gods. Pagan festivals and celebrations abounded throughout the year, celebrating and honoring Roman Gods of one variety or another.

"(I)t shouldn't surprise us that early church fathers decided to redirect and reinvent the holiday as a Christian celebration. From the very beginning, this was a strategic move on the part of those who wished to advance the truth of the Gospel. Whether their efforts were misguided or not, their inner most desire was to draw people from a lie, to the source of all truth."

One of Rome's biggest religious festivals occurred in the winter. The festival was called "Saturnalia", and it was a celebration that coincided with the winter solstice. It occurred very roughly over a period of time that corresponds to 17th to 24th December, and ended on 25th December. This date, declared by Emperor Aurelian in 274AD to be "Dies Natalis Invicti Solis" ("Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun"), was a celebration of the Roman god, Saturn. 25th December is also the winter solstice. It is the time when the sun, after being at the lowest point in the skies, begins to rise over planet earth, resulting in longer days. It marked the beginning of a number of pre-Roman pagan festivals and also served as the marker for Roman holidays.

In addition to this, 25th December was also celebrated as the day on which the Iranian mystery god, Mithras, was born. He was considered to be the "Sun of Righteousness". The foundation clearly existed for this pagan celebration, and its formidable tradition competed for the hearts and minds of God starved people within the Roman Empire. So it shouldn't surprise us that early church fathers decided to redirect and reinvent the holiday as a Christian celebration. From the very beginning, this was a strategic move on the part of those who wished to advance the truth of the Gospel. Whether their efforts were misguided or not, their inner most desire was to draw people from a lie, to the source of all truth.

An early church theologian of the fourth century, writing about the newly named celebration marking the birth of Jesus said: "We hold this day (25th December) holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it".

The first Christmas celebrations were little more than a simple mass, but as the generations passed the holiday of Christmas grew to overtake a number of other cultural holidays across the world. As each culture added its own bit of folklore to the tradition, we eventually found ourselves with the holiday that we know as Christmas Day. Many of our present day traditions have little to do with the Bible story of the nativity, and little to do with the Scriptural evidence. 

So Is Christmas just a pagan distraction?
I do have a number of friends who truly hate Christmas. I'm not just talking about my friends who are atheists; I'm talking about Christian brothers and sisters who believe that the rather pagan origin of the Christmas holiday invalidates it entirely. They often tell me that to celebrate Christmas is to acknowledge its pagan roots. For them, celebrating Christmas is actually the equivalent of celebrating the ancient pagan mythologies and gods, and they believe this to be a form of idolatry. That's not actually an isolated view. Christians throughout the centuries have sometimes come to the same conclusion about Christmas. The holiday was even slow to catch on in America and gain the acceptance of the first settlers to the colonies. The celebration of Christmas was even banned by law in Massachusetts in the colonial days of our forefathers!

But think about it for a moment. When we co-opt an ancient celebration, symbol or word and give it a new meaning, are we acknowledging the first meaning or the secondary, more powerful meaning that we have ascribed to the date, symbol or word? Let me give you some examples. There are several English words that originally had a very different meaning than they do today. In fact, these words meant exactly the opposite of what they presently mean! The word "brave", for example, first meant "cowardice". The word "luxury" first meant "a sinful self-indulgence". Even the word "nice" first meant "stupid" or "foolish" in the 13th century! Now none of us have stopped using these words because their meaning has changed. None of us are so committed to the origin or original meaning of the word that we refuse to speak them! In fact, most of us don't even know the origin of these words. We embrace their contemporary meaning, and our ignorance of past expressions does not invalidate what they mean to us today. These words are still useful and practical in our everyday lives. In a similar manner, our present day holidays, regardless of their original meanings are equally valuable and practical as spiritual commemorative events. 

"As Christians, it shouldn't really matter to us what the origin of the holiday was all about. It shouldn't matter what it originally represented or celebrated. What matters now is the new meaning that we have ascribed to the day, and this new meaning has power and practical use in our daily life."

If you need a further example, we could always look to the cross. In Roman times, the cross was an ugly, brutal instrument of death. The outskirts of large cities were often landscaped with crosses that lined the roads leading to the city. Criminals were brutally executed on these crosses and displayed for all to see. The message of the cross was clear. The cross was a symbol of the power, authority and bloody brutality of the Empire. The cross served to remind all those who saw it that Roman law was final and supreme. The cross certainly was filled with meaning in the days before Jesus. But all that changed after the resurrection, as a new faith system was born and adopted the cross as a new kind of symbol. For us as Christians, the cross demonstrates the gift of Jesus who died there to make eternal life possible for all those who believe. For us, the cross symbolises the sacrifice that is necessary for our sin, and the fact that Jesus, a sinless man and God Himself, was executed there to pay for sins He didn't even commit - to pay for our sins. So, for us, the cross has a new meaning. It is a meaning that we have ascribed to it as believers and it is a meaning that supersedes the old fearful symbolism of the Roman Empire. The cross is now our symbol of grace and sacrifice.

Now I doubt that Christians who refuse to celebrate Christmas also refuse to honor or wear the cross. But the Christmas holiday is really no different. As Christians, it shouldn't really matter to us what the origin of the holiday was all about. It shouldn't matter what it originally represented or celebrated. What matters now is the new meaning that we have ascribed to the day, and this new meaning has power and practical use in our daily life. We are not ignorant of our history. We recognise that traditions and customs have grown over the years. But in the midst of all of this we still know the truth, and we have simply adopted this holiday as a practical and real way to enjoy and celebrate our Savior.

J. Warner Wallace is a US detective (currently working cold case homicides), a missions leader and a church planter. For more from him, see www.PleaseConvinceMe.com/www.AnswersForAtheists.comThis article was first published on Assist News Service.