Advent, Christmas, and Messianics
It was the first Sunday in December. My wife and I were visiting my in-laws for dinner. As we sat around the kitchen table, we prayed, and someone lit the first of four candles, which were placed in the center of the table in a unique array. The mood was solemn, and the sole focus on one thing: Christ, our Savior, who was born into a sinful world to save it. This was the beginning of advent, the tradition of anticipating the Christmas event for the month leading up to it. I had never seen this before, but as I sat there, I found it beautiful.
At our fellowship, it is our tradition to celebrate the birth of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the festivals given to the Israelites in Leviticus 23. We do this based on Luke 1:5,1:24 and 1:26, which, if read loosely, could result in pointing to a Fall birthday. No one truly knows when Jesus was born. Most scholars either lean towards Spring or Fall, but even then, it is purely a guess. All the same, I tend to get excited whenever I see believers getting passionate about the Savior of the universe starting His mission on the day He was born.
Our family celebrates Hanukkah in December. Yes, even though we are Jesus followers, we celebrate Hanukkah. We love the lessons we learn from the Maccabees, the power of rededication, and how it ultimately reminds us of Jesus as the light of the world. It reminds us to be humble, directs our attention toward God’s Kingdom, and we remind ourselves that God has a plan and that we should be honored to be a part of it.
It is unfortunate, however, when we forget our calling as God’s children, His ambassadors of heaven on earth, and allow our differences to fuel pride and hatred. We see this most often take place in political arenas where we blur the line between who a believer is, and is not based on affiliation.
Maybe it isn’t just politics. Perhaps it is differing views on science or history. Many times, I see allegiance for God’s Kingdom traded in on account of when someone celebrates the birth of the King whom we supposedly represent. We have endured sharp comments for our belief that Jesus was born in the fall. We have also witnessed others spew vile remarks at those who carry the tradition of believing Jesus was born in early January or late December.
Many times, pseudo-historical fantasies are used as the knife. From December 25th being Nimrod’s or Baal Hadad’s birthday, millennia before the month of December even existed, to over-confident remarks about Christmas having some pagan foundation in its origins (such as being related to Sol Invictus) —all while actual historical sources for these types of claims tend to be sparse or absent entirely.
Why do we, as people, yearn for an identity built on isolation from the world that we have been charged to reach? In a season when many Messianics celebrate Hanukkah and Jesus being the light of the world, why is His light not seen in us?
Early Christians also faced differing opinions when it came to the birth of Jesus. The gospel writers give no specific dates of when Jesus was born, but it was not long before human curiosity sparked the conversation: when was Jesus born? By the early 200’s CE, Clement of Alexandria wrote about the many opinions common among Christians regarding the date when Jesus was born.
And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon. And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. And they say that it was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, the fifteenth day of the month Tubi; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month. And treating of His passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth; and others the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi; and others say that on the nineteenth of Pharmuthi the Saviour suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi.
-Clement, STEOMATA. XXII
At the time of Clement, December 25th had not yet been chosen as the date regarding Jesus’ birth. Look, however, at the vast array of opinions within the brotherhood of Christians. In this section alone, Clement lists seven different dates that early Christians believed Jesus might have been born.
By the 4th century, these many opinions had been consolidated into two main dates as the birthday of Jesus. Those dates were December 25th and January 6th. Egypt and Asia Minor leaned toward the January date, while the Western empire observed the event twelve days earlier on December 25th. Later, January 6th became the traditional day honoring the wise men who arrived with gifts for Jesus. Hence, the twelve days of Christmas.
But why were these dates chosen? Well, surprisingly, it was most likely based on a Jewish opinion concerning the redemption of the world. In the Babylonian Talmud, this early opinion is recorded:
Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.
– Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a
This Jewish idea, allegedly from the 2nd century and then later recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, asserts that the world will be redeemed the same date on the calendar that it came into being. Thus, early Christians seemed to believe Jesus was conceived on the same day he died, Passover.
In 200 CE, Tertullian of Carthage writes:
In the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses. Accordingly, all the synagogue of Israel did slay Him, saying to Pilate, when he was desirous to dismiss Him, His blood be upon us, and upon our children.
-An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 8
Here, Tertullian reports Jesus died on March 25th, Passover, according to his calculation. If the Jewish assertion is correct, and if Jesus was conceived on the same day He died, it means Jesus was conceived on March 25th. Nine months later, His birth was speculated to have occurred on December 25th.
A dispute between early Christians concerning the date of Passover did complicate things slightly. Due to the great Quartodeciman controversy, the Eastern Roman churches celebrated what we call Easter on the Passover day. The Western churches, however, chose to emphasize Jesus’ resurrection the following Sunday and celebrated Passover/Easter then.
The religious calendar was thus split among the Roman Christians. Instead of relying on Hebrew dates, both sides calculated the Passover dates according to their own reckoning. The Eastern church established that it was April 6th that was the real date of Jesus’ death and not March 25th. Twelve days apart.
Augustine of Hippo confirms the March 25th tradition in the late 4th century:
For He is believed to have been conceived on March 25th, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December 25th.
If, then, you reckon from that day to this, you find two hundred and seventy-six days, which is forty-six times six And in this number of years the temple was built, because in that number of sixes the body of the Lord was perfected; which being destroyed by the suffering of death, He raised again on the third day. For “He spake this of the temple of His body,”
-On The Trinity (De Trinitate), Book 4 chapter 5.
This date not only made sense of the Jewish assertion concerning redemption but also related to how long the Temple stood before it was destroyed, according to Augustine.
Later, when simple Christmas practices reached Europe, they seem to have picked up traditions, elements, and even decor from other cultures. The Christmas tree, for example, has long been speculated to have this background.
Unfortunately, unsubstantiated suspicion and hearsay are all we have until we find an actual source. What we do know is early Christians, much like today, felt compelled to celebrate their Savior’s mission, death, resurrection, and even arrival in the form of a baby. Even today, the Armenian church regards January 6th as sacred in their tradition. The Catholic and Protestant traditions, on the other hand, observe December 25th. Our own church’s tradition sets apart the Feast of Tabernacles to celebrate the moment “God dwelled among us.” Just like the early believers, we have dates scattered throughout the year, but one thing remains: Christ, our Lord, has come.
Matthew Vander Els
Pastor Matthew Vander Els is Founder of Founded In Truth Ministries and leads FIT fellowship in Fort Mill, SC. Matthew’s passion is the person of Yeshua and the power of the gospel, His crucifixion, and how the resurrection changed the world forever. Matthew also loves exploring the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and the archeology and anthropology of Near Eastern kingdoms as they relate to the Bible.