One can make a credible case for January 6, 2 BC as the date of Jesus’ birth and December 25, 2 BC as the date of the visit of the Magi. It would make sense for the two dates to be switched on the church’s liturgical calendar so that the celebration of Jesus’ birth would come two weeks or so before the commemoration of the Magi’s visit rather than after.
The December 25 date, however, also has very old associations with the birth of Christ itself. It was popularized by Julius Africanus in his Chronicle (AD 221), so it must have been around by the end of the second century at the latest. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 236) also suggested the date of December 25. It is worth one last post to explore two additional reasons for the popularity of this date.
The Computation Hypothesis
One reason the church may have shifted its traditional date for the birth of Jesus from January 6 back to December 25 has to do with a Jewish ideal that the patriarchs and other biblical notables lived an integer number of years. Thus, the date of their death corresponds with the date of their birth or conception. Following this presupposition, some early Christians attempted to establish Jesus’ birthday by counting back from the calendar date of the crucifixion. Western fathers took this date to be March 25, which was then seen as the date of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary as well, with Jesus’ birth nine months later on December 25. In the East, however, the crucifixion was dated to April 6, resulting in a date for the nativity of January 6. The point is not whether the integer-age theory has any merit (it does not!). Rather, the point is that early Christians, who believed this theory, could have used it to arrive at a mid-winter date for the birth of Christ.
This “computation hypothesis” has recently been championed by Thomas J. Talley (The Origins of the Liturgical Year [Liturgical Press, 1991]). He notes the following.
- Augustine (fifth century) alludes to the fact that the Donatists, unlike the Catholics, had not adopted the celebration of Epiphany on 6 January, which seems to imply that they did celebrate 25 December, which in turn suggests that this date for Christmas must have already existed prior to the Donatist schism of 311.
- As early as the late second century, Clement of Alexandria believed that Jesus was born on January 6, 2 BC. By the computation hypothesis, this would place his crucifixion on April 6, which in Asia Minor was the solar equivalent of 14 Nisan, the date of Passover. The choice of January 6 as Jesus’ birth date could be dependent on that fact.
- The Canons of Athanasius (fourth century) has the focus of Epiphany clearly on the baptism of Jesus; the nativity is not mentioned; and a considerable point is made of Epiphany being the beginning of the year. Talley argued that, as a result of January 6 being regarded as the birth of Christ, it came to be treated as the beginning of the liturgical year in Egypt, just as 25 December seems to have been viewed in the Roman Chronograph of AD 354.
By now you may be wondering why I have not mentioned pagan influences as a factor in the adoption of December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. I have saved it for the end because, despite its popularity, it is a theory with very little documentary evidence to commend it.
There is, of course, the long-held theory that Christians adopted December 25 in order to compete with pagans who already associated this date with the worship of the “unconquered sun.” In AD 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 to be the birthday of the unconquered sun. According to this theory, the pagan celebration was a major factor in the rise of the Christian alternative.
William Tighe, however, has challenged this theory, asserting that there is in fact no evidence for a pagan observance of December 25 prior to emperor Aurelian’s decree. In Rome, the principal feasts in honor of the unconquered sun took place in August, and, as Hippolytus and Julius Africanus attest, Christians had already been celebrating the date as the birthday of Jesus for at least 50 years before Aurelian. December 25 as “the birthday of the sun” is definitely pagan, but there is no evidence it is pre-Christian.
According to Tighe,
In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin [who first proposed the pagan connection] that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.
There may well have been syncretistic borrowing involved in the creation of a December 25 holiday, but the direction of that borrowing is largely in the opposite direction from what is normally supposed.
But isn’t December 25 associated with the birth of Mithras? No, it is not. At least, Mithraic scholars seem not to be aware of this fact. The earliest existing record of the story of Mithras’ birth dates from the second century, perhaps a hundred years after the Gospel accounts were written. Christopher Butler has catalogued the supposed parallels between Jesus and Mithras and finds them all wanting. (In a similar vein, see here.) Nowhere in these myths is there explicit reference to December 25 as the birthday of Mithras. The assertion that December 25 was Mithras’ birthday relies on an identification of Mithras with the “unconquered sun” of Aurelian—which may or may not be a valid identification!
This doesn’t mean that pagan symbols and observances didn’t eventually get swallowed up into Christmas. The yule log, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree are obvious examples that this was in fact the case. The feasting, gift-giving, and visiting with friends associated with the Roman Saturnalia no doubt finds a parallel in traditions associated with Christmas. But as far as the actual date on which Jesus’ birth was first celebrated, pagan parallels do not actually seem to exist.
Update: GetReligion points to some recent articles on the pagan-influence hypothesis.