What does the Bible actually tell us about this great tradition?
The story of the birth of Jesus is probably the most famous account in human history. After all, we set our calendars by it, and probably two thirds of the world's population celebrate that birth, in one form or another. But how accurate are the details of this monumental event? Furthermore, does it matter if what we believe about Jesus' birth is based on truth or tradition?
To those of us who do not believe in God, it should be important to establish what the facts are, simply to enable us to make a judgement about whether we can place any credibility in the account as genuine history. On the other hand, for those of us who do have faith in Jesus and his teachings and accomplishments, it should be of vital importance to know the truth about his birth and his life. Jesus himself was a champion of truth, promising those who listened to him “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jesus plainly stated that he came to the earth "To bear witness to the truth."
So let me examine the story of Christmas and find the facts, the truth of it. Since the account of Jesus' birth originates in the Bible, let me base this evaluation on the Bible alone, referring to established historical details to fill in any gaps.
The first question which arises about Christmas is “When?” How do we find the actual date of Jesus' birth?
It seems strange that if Jesus had wanted people to celebrate his birthday, he would have included it's date in the Bible. Yet it is not there. However, it is possible to narrow the date down to within a couple of days, using the Bible.
Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24-27), shows that the Messiah, or Christ was to arrive at the end of 69 weeks of years, these weeks beginning in the Autumn of 455 B.C. and ending in the Autumn of A.D. 29. The prophecy spoke of the sacrifice the Messiah would offer “In the midst of the week,” (or half a week, 6 months). We know from the priest inauguration laws that men could not act in worship until they were 30 years old. Jesus was 30 when he was baptized in the Jordan. Therefore he would have been 33 and a half when he gave his life. Since it was actually in the spring of A.D. 33 that Jesus Christ was executed, then three and a half years (or, half of a seven-year week) would take us back to the beginning of the week in the autumn of A.D. 29 for Messiah’s baptism.
John The Baptist's father, Zechariah, was told of the birth of John while he was in the second round of the eighth course of the monthly priestly duties. Upon completing his priestly duties in that allotted course, Zechariah returned home to his wife Elizabeth and then their son John was conceived. This would have been at least in late June or early July of the year 3 BCE. About six months later (in our December), Jesus was conceived. Nine months after that Jesus’ birth would occur about October the 1st in the year 2 B.CE.
So where did the date of December the 25th come from?
That date was adopted by the Roman Catholic church (overseen by Emperor Constantine). This was done to merge the growing movement of Christianity with the established Roman form of worship. The date of the 25th was already established as the birthdate of the Roman god Saturnalius. That event was celebrated with drinking, feasting, decorating homes, and the exchange of gifts. (Sounds familiar).
What about the “Star” that led the wise men?
Regarding the “Star” itself, this causes much confusion among believers and scholars, not only about the date it appeared but, also about how it appeared and from whom. History, and the churches have always treated the account of the star as emanating from God, guiding the ”Wise men” to the place of the Messiah's birth.
Yet, the Biblical evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Consider the men who followed the star. They came from the east. They were not “Wise men” but astrologers, a practice forbidden by God's laws. Furthermore, they were the only ones who saw the star. They were led by it, not to the infant but to Herod, an enemy who tried to slay the child, and as a result, hundreds of children were slaughtered. Furthermore, the star “Came to stop above the stable.” Have you ever heard of a star that could place itself in orbit above a building? If the star was sent by God (breaking his own laws) then why were the shepherds who were in the fields that night not aware of it or told of it. According to the Bible they were told by the angel "And this is a sign for you: You will find an infant wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger." There was no mention of a star.
Could there be any other Biblical explanation for the phenomena? Consider this; The Bible describes the chief enemy of God, the “Resistor” and “Slanderer” - Satan, as a “god” of “Crafty acts” in which he “Keeps transforming himself into an angel of light,” whose operation is “With every powerful work and lying signs and portents” This manipulative spirit was able to make a serpent appear to speak, and was described by Jesus as “A manslayer when he began.”
Was Jesus a baby in a manger when the astrologers found him?
The word used to describe the child of Joseph and Mary was Greek for “Infant.” This meant a child, not a baby. To confirm this, consider the gifts that were brought for Jesus – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. These were very valuable things that would have been worth a small fortune. Yet, after Jesus was born, Mary went to the temple to offer a sacrifice, as required after birth, under the Mosaic law. The law required a lamb to be sacrificed. However the law did allow those who were poor to offer instead a dove. What did Mary offer? A dove. This shows that she was still poor. But she would not have been poor if she had already received those gifts. That is why King Herod demanded the deaths of children “Up to the age of two” because he knew that the child that had been born was no longer a baby. Also, the scripture describes the astrologers entering the “House” not a stable (see Matthew 2.11).
Another important question we might ask is – Did God and Jesus ask us to celebrate Jesus' birthday?
Jesus was an Israelite, a Jew. He would have been circumsized on the 8th day, like all other Jewish boys. He would not have celebrated his birthday because it was not a Jewish custom. Neither would his Apostles have celebrated his birthday. There is no mention in the Bible of anyone celebrating Jesus' birthday. The only event that was commanded to be remembered and observed was Jesus' death. The Bible says that “Better is the day of one's death than one's birth.” Why would it say that? Because, at birth, a person has no reputation, no relationship with God and no activities to be judged on. But at death, a person has established a lifetime of behaviour, and has demonstrated by their life course, if they are loyal to God or not. Jesus lived and died completely loyal to God, his Father. His death and sacrifice accomplished incredible benefits for the human race. But his birth accomplished nothing.
But some might argue that it doesn't matter when Jesus was born, as long as we worship and remember him. Although that sounds like a noble sentiment, it is a little misguided and it contradicts what Jesus himself commanded.
Jesus urged us to “Worship God with spirit and truth.” What did he mean by that? Well, to offer praise to God, to serve Him on His terms (not ours), we need to make sure that our behaviour and our expressions are in keeping with God's spirit, that they are clean and acceptable to Him. Furthermore, it is essential that our worship be based on absolute truth. The God of the Bible, and His Son, Jesus do not tolerate lies, in any form. We cannot celebrate God's goodness using deceit.
When we consider the overall facts about the festival of Christmas, it doesn't seem to bear any resemblance to the pure truth of Christianity instigated by Jesus himself. Would Jesus approve of having his name associated with an event which is shrouded in lies and superstitions, an event which encourages overindulgence, pagan customs and the accumulation of crippling debt?
I think all of us - religious or not, Christian or not, know the answer to those questions.
In establishing the truth about Jesus' birth and life, Christianity is not diminished but, rather, it becomes clear and powerful, free from myths and lies. The real joyful message from the Bible was not about Jesus being born as a baby but, him being crowned as King of God's Kingdom. When he was on earth, Jesus demonstrated on a small scale what that kingdom would do for future mankind. Jesus taught us to always keep that kingdom in mind and to pray for it -"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."
When God's kingdom comes, it will do wonderful things, as the Bible fortells;
"Death will be no more, neither will sorrow, nor outcry nor pain."