Despite doubts leading many to dismiss December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth, further debate now reopens the question whether maybe this was the right date after all.
Not that we really needed to know, or God would have told us more precisely. In our family, we used to say that Jesus’ birthday is like our cat’s birthday: we don’t know exactly when it was, so we arbitrarily pick a date and celebrate. Origen (third century AD) dismissed the question entirely, pointing out that the only two birthday celebrations recorded in scripture were those of Pharaoh and Herod, both of which ended with someone being put to death.
Two basic arguments have led us to question the traditional date of the Nativity. One is the claim that this date was a strategic choice with no basis in fact, a date which was chosen to co-opt a popular pagan celebration of the winter solstice, either the Roman Saturnalia (which turns out to be several days earlier than December 25), or the Feast of Sol Invictus (right date, but questionable claim as to which one came first).
The other argument is that the weather in December in Bethlehem is cold and rainy and totally unsuitable for shepherds to be camped out in the open, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Some have suggested that Jesus’ birth was actually in the spring. There is also the attractive possibility that he was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, citing John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and [literally] pitched his tabernacle among us,” although there is no hard evidence for this claim.
Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1:21) is one of the earliest to give us a date for Jesus’ birth. He accepts the date May 20, 2 BCE, although he has heard traditions that it was April 19 or 20 of the same year. Numerous other early church writers made similar claims. See W.E. Filmer, “The Date of Christ’s Birth Corrected” (http://www.dec25th.info/The%20Year%20of%20Christ%27s%20Birth%20Corrected.html).
While a majority of scholars believe that Jesus must have been born before 4 BCE (often 6-7 BCE, at the time of a major planetary conjunction), they tend to do so partly because it is common to date Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE. Josephus states that Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse. However, according to a physicist named John Cramer (https://www.scribd.com/document/306395810/Herod-s-Death-Jesus-Birth-and-a-Lunar-Eclipse-Biblical-Archaeology-Society), there are two other possible lunar eclipses to which Josephus may have been referring, the last of which was on December 29, 1 BCE (!). If we revise Herod’s death accordingly, the 2 BCE claims become plausible.
But how can we be so sure it didn’t happen the other way around? It would appear that the church was already celebrating December 25 as the birth date of our Lord, which leads the emperor to try to stomp on it by setting his own holiday on that date. The reason the church was already celebrating on that date was because of the common belief that Jesus was both conceived and crucified on the date of the spring equinox, which was calculated to March 25, for reasons beyond the scope of this post. Do the math, and we arrive at a date of December 25 for Jesus’ birth, long before Sol Invictus was put on the calendar. (For the full story on this, see Kurt Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth” at http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/58/58-2/JETS_58-2_299-324_Simmons.pdf.)
We can celebrate the Incarnation anytime! This season is as good as any. If Jesus happens to be “trending” now, so much the better as a chance to grab people’s attention with the Gospel. But if he’s being crowded out by shopping and winter holiday noise that has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, we can always relocate our celebration to another time, such as the Orthodox date, or whenever. It’s the event and what it means that are important. Praise God for the arrival of God-in-the-flesh, whenever it happened!