The date of Christ’s “genesis”

Pastor Joseph Abrahamson has started a fascinating series on why the church celebrates Christmas on December 25 and when this started.  He includes a number of links and references, and he critiques the notion that Christians co-opted a pagan holiday.

I was fascinated by the evidence he offers about the Feast of the Annunciation (when the angel appeared to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit), which was celebrated on March 25, a date established before  200 A.D.  The church added nine months from that date, which gives us the Baby so conceived being born on December 25.

I have heard it said that the date of Christ’s birth was once considered to be March 25, but that claim is based on a mistranslation and misunderstanding of “genesis.”  Rev. Abrahamson quotes Clement of Alexandria, in his “Stromata,” dated between 193 and 215 A.D.:

And there are those who have determined our Savior’s genesis
not only the year, but even the day, which they say took place
in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus on the 25th of Pachon.

Rev. Abrahamson comments:

The important line is “our Savior’s genesis.” The month of Pachon in the Egyptian calendar at that time corresponded to March in the Julian Calendar.

Christ’s genesis, or conception on the 25th of Pachon was in what our calendar would equate with March 25th. The celebration of Christ’s birth would be nine months later: December 25th, in our calendar. ANF 2:333 translates “birth” rather than “conception”. The translation of “genesis” as conception is consistent with Clement’s usage of this word in other contexts, for example:

“It is not therefore frequent intercourse by the parents, but the reception of it [the seed] in the womb which corresponds with genesis.” (Clement of Alexandria Stromata 3.12.83.2)

via Steadfast Lutherans » Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Christmas.

So the early church believed that a person’s “genesis” begins with conception and not with birth.  That’s an important point for the pro-life cause today.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://Gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    The Apostle’s creed also illustrates that the early Church regarded conception as the beginning of human life.

  • http://Gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    The Apostle’s creed also illustrates that the early Church regarded conception as the beginning of human life.

  • Other Gary

    Strikes me as not very convincing. Isn’t it more reasonable to suppose that once Christianity had taken hold in the empire, the birth of Jesus became of keen interest to the nascent Church, even if the knowledge of when it happened was unknown or forgotten?

    The date for the Annuciation would have been fixed after Christ’s birth had already become attached to December 25, based on the 9 month gestation. According to this hypothesis, it’s not that Clement of Alexandria is knowingly reporting a falsehood, it’s what he believes must have happened.

    Jesus may really have been born on December 25. Or the date may have been settled on for other reasons. We simply don’t know, and probably should not give too much weight to Clement’s reference.

  • Other Gary

    Strikes me as not very convincing. Isn’t it more reasonable to suppose that once Christianity had taken hold in the empire, the birth of Jesus became of keen interest to the nascent Church, even if the knowledge of when it happened was unknown or forgotten?

    The date for the Annuciation would have been fixed after Christ’s birth had already become attached to December 25, based on the 9 month gestation. According to this hypothesis, it’s not that Clement of Alexandria is knowingly reporting a falsehood, it’s what he believes must have happened.

    Jesus may really have been born on December 25. Or the date may have been settled on for other reasons. We simply don’t know, and probably should not give too much weight to Clement’s reference.

  • SKPeterson

    OG @ 2 – It looks like you may have the ordering backwards; the date of Christmas was derived from the date of Jesus’s death, which thereby derived the date of the Annunciation, etc, etc. Should we take Clement at his word? Why not? Pr. Abrahamson actually cites a great reference from Andrew McGowan, which can be accessed here: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp, which covers much of the same territory as the article found at BJS, but with ample information on the various how’s and why’s of the dating. McGowan provides other cites of scholars weighing in against the Solstice theory, particularly cite [4]: Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.

  • SKPeterson

    OG @ 2 – It looks like you may have the ordering backwards; the date of Christmas was derived from the date of Jesus’s death, which thereby derived the date of the Annunciation, etc, etc. Should we take Clement at his word? Why not? Pr. Abrahamson actually cites a great reference from Andrew McGowan, which can be accessed here: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp, which covers much of the same territory as the article found at BJS, but with ample information on the various how’s and why’s of the dating. McGowan provides other cites of scholars weighing in against the Solstice theory, particularly cite [4]: Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.

  • Michael B.

    “So the early church believed that a person’s “genesis” begins with conception and not with birth. That’s an important point for the pro-life cause today.”

    The Didache explicitly condemns abortion. But if you’re trying to prove that earlier Christians opposed abortions, you’re probably making your job a lot harder than it needs to be. For one, just go 150 years into the past in America, and look what any mainline denomination had to say about any birth control (let alone abortion). If one opposes a prophylactic, I think it’s safe to say he will also oppose abortion.

    However, if you want to start saying that early Christians regarded the conceptus as a person, then you start getting into trouble. First, how would an early Christians define conception? (How would we define the ‘moment’ of conception for that matter? Conception is a highly-involved process lasting hours, and how do we define the exact moment that a person is there, whereas before it wasn’t?)

  • Michael B.

    “So the early church believed that a person’s “genesis” begins with conception and not with birth. That’s an important point for the pro-life cause today.”

    The Didache explicitly condemns abortion. But if you’re trying to prove that earlier Christians opposed abortions, you’re probably making your job a lot harder than it needs to be. For one, just go 150 years into the past in America, and look what any mainline denomination had to say about any birth control (let alone abortion). If one opposes a prophylactic, I think it’s safe to say he will also oppose abortion.

    However, if you want to start saying that early Christians regarded the conceptus as a person, then you start getting into trouble. First, how would an early Christians define conception? (How would we define the ‘moment’ of conception for that matter? Conception is a highly-involved process lasting hours, and how do we define the exact moment that a person is there, whereas before it wasn’t?)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com tODD

    Michael B. (@4):

    First, how would an early Christians define conception?

    I thought about this, too, but there appears to be an obvious answer in the original post, in the quote from Clement of Alexandria:

    It is not therefore frequent intercourse by the parents, but the reception of it [the seed] in the womb which corresponds with genesis.

    So there you have it, in terms they both used and, obviously, understood: conception/genesis happened upon the “reception” of “seed” in the womb. And, to a reasonable approximation, that is still how we understand things today with all our scientific knowledge.

    Conception is a highly-involved process lasting hours, and how do we define the exact moment that a person is there, whereas before it wasn’t?

    To quote your previous statement, “you’re probably making your job a lot harder than it needs to be”. Who here is trying to pin down conception to the minute or second? At best, we’re talking about pinning down the event to a particular day. So it’s not terribly hard to say when someone was conceived at that level of granularity.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com tODD

    Michael B. (@4):

    First, how would an early Christians define conception?

    I thought about this, too, but there appears to be an obvious answer in the original post, in the quote from Clement of Alexandria:

    It is not therefore frequent intercourse by the parents, but the reception of it [the seed] in the womb which corresponds with genesis.

    So there you have it, in terms they both used and, obviously, understood: conception/genesis happened upon the “reception” of “seed” in the womb. And, to a reasonable approximation, that is still how we understand things today with all our scientific knowledge.

    Conception is a highly-involved process lasting hours, and how do we define the exact moment that a person is there, whereas before it wasn’t?

    To quote your previous statement, “you’re probably making your job a lot harder than it needs to be”. Who here is trying to pin down conception to the minute or second? At best, we’re talking about pinning down the event to a particular day. So it’s not terribly hard to say when someone was conceived at that level of granularity.


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