All four gospels agree that Jesus Christ was born prior to the death of Herod the Great (died March 13, 4 B.C.) and died when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea (A.D. 26-36). The challenge facing any reconstruction of Jesus’ life, the duration of which lasted almost exactly thirty-four years, is allowing sufficient time prior to Herod’s death for the early events of Jesus’ life to have taken place while at the same time having a death date of Friday on the day before Passover (Matthew, Mark and Luke) or the day of Passover (John).
Historically, scholars have assumed that the Christians assimilated their celebration of Jesus Christ’s birthday to either the celebration of the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, the natal day of sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) at the winter solstice, or the birthday of the Eastern god Mithras, whose birthday was celebrated on December 25. For centuries, scholars have suggested that pagans who had converted to Christianity were reluctant to leave behind their older traditions and practices and subsequently adapted or even invented the date for the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth to correspond to earlier pagan celebrations.
The first lists of Christian celebrations given by the church leaders Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200) Tertullian (A.D. 160-225) do not mention the birth date of Jesus Christ, and Origen (A.D. 185-254) disparages those who place emphasis on calculating Christ’s birth date. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) referred to Egyptian Christians who celebrated the birth of Christ in late May and others who were followers of Basilides who celebrated Jesus’ birthday on January 6 (Stromateis 1.21).
The tradition of celebrating Jesus’ birth in January or midwinter appears to be quite ancient. Eastern Orthodox Christians have celebrated the date of Jesus Christ’s baptism, called epiphany, on January 6 or 10 since the first century, and though the date of the Epiphany was never really disputed, some later Christians conflated the two dates of Epiphany with the date of Jesus’ birth.
Some ancient manuscripts contain an erroneous reading in Luke 3:22 that may explain, in part, the conflation of the two dates. That version of Luke 3 quotes the Father as saying to Jesus Christ, “Thou art my beloved Son; this day I have begotten thee, ” which indicated to some early Christians that Jesus’ baptism date (January 6 or 10) was also his birth date. The early January celebration of the date of Jesus’ birth and a mid-spring celebration of his birth date have equal claim to being the first dates celebrated by Christians. For unknown reasons, the spring celebration never caught on in mainstream Christianity.
The shift from celebrating Jesus’ birth in January to celebrating it on December 25 can be traced only as far back as the early fourth century A.D. What forced the shift from a January celebration to a December celebration is now unknown, but it became the predominant practice for all Christians, both in the East and in the West, by about A.D. 350. Therefore, the earliest celebration of Jesus’ birth may have been a winter celebration in January-but almost certainly not originally on December 25.
Living out a great season of my life, thanks to Jesus Christ, and two wonderful daughters, a great life's work. Loving this opportunity to share faith online... I'm a single Mom, convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, second-gen Italian, from the East coast originally. Love the fine arts, dance, frozen yogurt, temples, scriptures, writing, jazz, helping others reach their potential, king salmon, ....and not in that order. God is good. I feel it deeply when people have a misconception of Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ, His Son, that lessens or cheapens Them and blinds one's ability to feel His presence or to trust in an ultimately good eternal end to life's circumstances.