(Article published in the Dec 23, 2009
issue of Manila Standard Today)
Only those who still believe in Santa Clause presently believe that the Christ was born on December 25. The infancy narratives in the New Testament do not mention any date. What little they contain about when the birth took place point away from, and not at, December 25.
Matthew simply tells us of Joseph awaking from his sleep, doing as the angel of the Lord commanded him by taking Mary as his wife (but not having any marital relations with her until she had borne a son), and naming him Jesus.
Luke, on the other hand, talks of Joseph going with Mary to Bethlehem in Judea to register (not to secretly vote but to be counted publicly) and “while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” Luke further says that the shepherds who came to visit the Christ were at that time “in that region…living in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night.”
Since not even Cerge Remonde would have the gumption to claim that shepherds, though not as lettered as his boss, would be foolish enough to graze their sheep in the fields at night in mid-winter, then it is clear that Luke cannot be said to be suggesting that December 25 was the Christ’s birthday. If the Israelites were at all anything like us Tondo boys who stay at sidewalks up to late at night to escape the heat inside our houses, the Christ must have been born, if Luke’s story about the Shepherds is to be believed, sometime in the summer.
The early Christians themselves were not in
agreement on the date of Christ’s birthday. Titus Flavius Clemens, who is
referred to as Clement of Alexandria in order to distinguish him from
Clement of Rome, was inclined to espouse May 20. He lived around 150 to 215
AD and is regarded as one of the Fathers of the Church. Hippolytus, who had
a checkered career (at one time leading the church and at another fighting
the popes) but who nevertheless who ended up being buried in Rome as a
martyr, fought for January 2. Other dates suggested were March 5, April 18,
April 19, May 28, November 17 and November 20.
December 25 as the date to celebrate the Christ’s birth got a big break when Emperor Constantine gave Christianity freedom in Rome. In 336 AD, the Christians unofficially replaced the pagan feast that celebrated the birth of Saturn, the Sun God, with Christ’s Mass to celebrate His birth. In 350 AD, Pope Julius I made it official: the day of celebration, for pagans, of the birth of the Sun became the day of celebration, for Christians, of the birth of the Son.
Granted, however, that exactness on the date of the birth of the Christ was for the gospel writers and the early Christians was not important, what was Luke trying to tell his audience by associating the event in the context of the census of Quirinius?
Luke begins his second chapter by mentioning two undoubtedly historical figures: Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. “At that time,” said Luke, an edict went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the whole world. (This was the first census under Quirinius as governor of Syria.)”
Caesar Augustus was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. He initially ruled, together with Anthony and Lepidus, as one of the triumvirs. He was originally known as “Octavian” but was given the title “Augustus” by the Senate and the people in 27 AD. He died in 14 AD but not before designating his stepson, Tiberius, as his successor. It was during Tiberius Caesar’s fifteenth year that Jesus began his public ministry.
Quirinius’s full name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. He was made legate of Syria in 6 AD. He was specially charged with restructuring Judea as a Roman province after the deposing of Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great. He conducted a census of Judea (not of Galilee) in 6 or 7 AD. By itself, the mention of Quirinius in Luke’s account of the Christ’s birth thus seems to suggest that he puts birth as having taken place at that time.
But Luke’s first and third chapters cast doubt on the dating suggested by chapter 2. In his first chapter, Luke says in verse 5 that the announcement of the birth of John the Baptizer took place “the days of King Herod of Judea.” Herod of Judea died in March or April of 4 BC. Since Mary’s pregnancy began some six months after Elizabeth’s, the Christ’s birth must have been no later than fifteen or sixteen months after the announcement of John’s or no later than 3 BC.
Furthermore, the third chapter of Luke says the Christ “was about thirty years old when he began his work” in the fifteenth year of Tiberius which is about 27 to 28 AD. Hence, he must have been born around 3 to 4 BC at the time of Herod the Great who, as pointed out earlier died in 4 BC. Hence, the Christ could not have been born in 6 or 7 AD. Remember that it was Herod the Great who is said to have ordered the massacre of the innocents because the Magi did not tell him where they had found the newborn Christ.
So, if, to Luke, being exact about when the Christ was born was not important at all, why did he not, like Mark and John, simply skip the birth altogether? And if certainly, the birth could not have been on a December 25, what is there for us to celebrate on Friday?
What marks the tenure of Quirinius as governor of Syria was trouble and turmoil, not peace and quiet. The people were restive; the government was harsh. Not too different, submit, from our times today. And that is why remembering this Friday the birth of the Christ just might put in us the courage of hearts and the strength of limb to work on what he began to do, some two thousand years ago, the exact date we need not know, in the reign of Cesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria.