Although millions of people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25, most scholars agree that he wasn t born on that day, or even in the year 1 A. D. Researchers believe the settled on Dec. 25 for many reasons, such as that date s ties to the winter solstice and Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the Roman deity Saturn. By choosing this day to celebrate Jesus birthday, the church could co-opt the popular pagan festival, as well as the winter celebrations of other pagan religions. But nobody really knows exactly when Jesus was born. Some scholars think that he was born between 6 B. C. and 4 B. C. , based partly on the biblical story of Herod the Great. Not long before Herod s demise, which is believed to have occurred in 4 B. C. , the ruler of Judea supposedly ordered the death of all male infants who were under the age of two and lived in the vicinity of Bethlehem, in an attempt to kill Jesus.
But historians disagree about Herod s actual year of death. What s more, the horrific mass infanticide is legend, not fact, Reza Aslan, a biblical scholar and author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), told. To pinpoint Jesus birth year, other scholars have tried to correlate the Star of Bethlehem, which supposedly heralded Jesus birth, with actual astronomical events. For example, in a 1991 article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomer Colin Humphreys proposed that the fabled star was actually a slow-moving comet, which Chinese observers recorded in 5 B. C. Scholars also debate the month of Jesus birth. In 2008, astronomer Dave Reneke argued that Jesus was born in the summer. The Star of Bethlehem, Reneke told, may have been Venus and Jupiter coming together to form a bright light in the sky.
Using computer models, Reneke determined that this rare event occurred on June 17, in the year 2 B. C. Other researchers have claimed that a similar conjunction, one between Saturn and Jupiter, occurred in October of 7 B. C. , making Jesus an autumn baby. Theologians have also suggested that Jesus was born in the spring, based on the biblical narrative that shepherds were watching over their flocks in the fields on the night of Jesus birth something they would have done in the spring, not the winter. Follow Joseph Castro on Twitter. Follow us
@livescience, Facebook Google+. The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times.
To top it off, in 274 C. E. , the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated. Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339 397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order.
But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods. It s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. Bible History Daily