Scientists have discovered the earliest known Hebrew writing — an inscription dating from the 10th century B.C., during the period of King David’s reign.
The breakthrough could mean that portions of the Bible were written centuries earlier than previously thought. (The Bible’s Old Testament is thought to have been first written down in an ancient form of Hebrew.)
Until now, many scholars have held that the Hebrew Bible originated in the 6th century B.C., because Hebrew writing was thought to stretch back no further. But the newly deciphered Hebrew text is about four centuries older, scientists announced this month.
“It indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research,” said Gershon Galil, a professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel, who deciphered the ancient text.
The writing was discovered more than a year ago on a pottery shard dug up during excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, near Israel’s Elah valley. The excavations were carried out by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At first, scientists could not tell if the writing was Hebrew or some other local language.
Finally, Galil was able to decipher the text. He identified words particular to the Hebrew language and content specific to Hebrew culture to prove that the writing was, in fact, Hebrew.
“It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah (‘did’) and avad (‘worked’), which were rarely used in other regional languages,” Galil said. “Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah (‘widow’) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages.”
The ancient text is written in ink on a trapezoid-shaped piece of pottery about 6 inches by 6.5 inches (15 cm by 16.5 cm). It appears to be a social statement about how people should treat slaves, widows and orphans. In English, it reads (by numbered line):
1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord]. 2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an] 3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and] 4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king. 5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
The content, which has some missing letters, is similar to some Biblical scriptures, such as Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, and Exodus 23:3, but does not appear to be copied from any Biblical text.
In 2007, Time magazine asserted that the Bible “has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment and culture than any book ever written”.
It’s a bold claim, but one that’s hard to refute. What other book resides on bedside tables in countless hotel rooms across the globe? What other book has bequeathed the world such instantly recognisable catchphrases as “an eye for an eye”, “thou shalt not kill” and “eat, drink and be merry”?
Factor in the number of copies that have been sold down the centuries – somewhere in the region of five billion to date, swollen by a further 100 million every year given away for free – and there’s no denying that the Bible’s influence on Western civilisation has been monumental.
But if the Bible’s standing as a cultural behemoth is beyond doubt, its history is anything but. For centuries, some of the world’s greatest thinkers have puzzled over the origins and evolution of this remarkable document. Who wrote it? When? And why?
These are the thorniest of questions, made all the more tangled by the Bible’s great age, and the fact that some, or all of it, has become a sacred text for members of two of the world’s great religions – Judaism and Christianity – numbering more than two billion people
Archaeology and the study of written sources have shed light on the history of both halves of the Bible: the Old Testament, the story of the Jews’ highs and lows in the millennium or so before the birth of Jesus; and the New Testament, which documents the life and teachings of Jesus.
These findings may be incomplete and they may be highly contested, but they have helped historians paint a picture of how the Bible came to life.
For centuries, the Old Testament has been widely interpreted as a story of disaster and rescue – of the Israelites falling from grace before picking themselves up, dusting themselves down and finding redemption.
Nowhere is this theme more evident than in Exodus, the dramatic second book of the Old Testament, which chronicles the Israelites’ escape from captivity in Egypt to the promised land.
But has archaeology unearthed one of the sites of the Israelites’ captivity?
That’s the question that some historians have been asking themselves since the 1960s, when the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak identified the location of the ancient city of Pi-Ramesses at the site of the modern town of Qantir in Egypt’s Nile Delta.
Pi-Ramesses was the great capital built by Ramesses II, one of Egypt’s most formidable pharaohs and the biblical tormentor of the Israelites. It’s been argued that Pi-Ramesses was the biblical city of Ramesses, and that the city was built, as Exodus claims, by Jewish slaves.
It’s an intriguing theory, and one that certainly has its doubters. But if it were true, it would place the enslaved Israelites in the Nile Delta in the decades after 1279 BC, when Ramesses II became king. So what happened next?
The Bible is in little doubt. It tells us that Moses led the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt (whose population had been laid low by ten plagues inflicted on them by God) before Joshua spearheaded a brilliant invasion of Canaan, the promised land. The historical sources, however, are far less forthcoming.
As John Barton, former professor of the interpretation of holy scriptures at the University of Oxford, puts it: “There is no evidence of a great invasion by the Israelites under Joshua; the population doesn’t seem to have changed much in that period as far as we can tell by archaeological surveys.”
In fact, the best corroborating evidence for the Bible’s claim that the Israelites surged into Canaan is Merneptah’s Stele.
Like all good autocrats, Merneptah, pharaoh of Egypt, loved to brag about his achievements. And when he led his armies on a successful war of conquest at the end of the 13th century BC, he wanted the world, and successive generations, to know all about it.
The medium on which the pharaoh chose to trumpet his martial prowess was a three-metre-high lump of carved granite, now known as the Merneptah Stele.
The stele, which was discovered at the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes in 1896, contains 28 lines of text, mostly detailing the Egyptians’ victory over the Libyans and their allies. But it is the final three lines of the inscription that has arguably excited most interest among historians.
“Israel has been shorn,” it declares. “Its seed no longer exists.” These few words constitute the first known written reference to the Israelites. It’s an inauspicious start, one that boasts of this people’s near destruction at the hands of one of the ancient world’s superpowers in their homeland of Canaan. But the Israelites would survive.
And the story they would go on to tell about themselves and their relationship with their God would arguably eclipse any of Merneptah’s achievements. It would spawn what is surely the most influential book of all time: the Bible.
Merneptah’s Stele may describe more Jewish pain at the hands of their perennial Egyptian persecutors, but it at least suggests that they may have been in Canaan during Merneptah’s reign (1213–1203 BC).
If the early history of the Israelites is uncertain, so is the evolution of the book that would tell their story.
Until the 17th century, received opinion had it that the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – were the work of one author: Moses. That theory has since been seriously challenged.
Scholars now believe that the stories that would become the Bible were disseminated by word of mouth across the centuries, in the form of oral tales and poetry – perhaps as a means of forging a collective identity among the tribes of Israel. Eventually, these stories were collated and written down. The question is by whom, and when?
A clue may lie in a limestone boulder discovered embedded in a stone wall in the town of Tel Zayit, 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem, in 2005. The boulder, now known as the Zayit Stone, contains what many historians believe to be the earliest full Hebrew alphabet ever discovered, dating to around 1000 BC.
“What was found was not a random scratching of two or three letters, it was the full alphabet,” Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland has said of the stone. “Everything about it says this is the ancestor of the Hebrew script.”
The Zayit Stone does not in itself tell us when the Bible was written and collated, but it gives us our first glimpse of the language that produced it. And, by tracking the stylistic development of that language down the centuries, and cross-referencing it with biblical text, historians have been able to rule out the single-author hypotheses, concluding instead that it was written by waves of scribes during the first millennium BC.
A: Some parts, such as the early chapters of Genesis, are myth or legend, rather than history. But parts of Samuel, Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah describe events broadly known also from Assyrian or Persian sources.
For example, Jehu, king of Israel in the ninth century BC, appears on an Assyrian monument, the Black Obelisk, doing obeisance to the Assyrian king. From about the eighth century BC onwards, the Old Testament contains some real historiography, even though it may not all be accurate.
A: I think we are. Much of the Old Testament is about seeing God at work in human history rather than in accurately recording the detail, and sometimes we exaggerate the importance of historical accuracy. The Old Testament is not a work of fiction, but nor is it a modern piece of history-writing.
A To a limited extent. It gives us a context within which the Old Testament makes sense, but it doesn’t confirm a lot of the details. It mustn’t be forgotten that archaeology has also yielded vast numbers of documents from the ancient near-east, such as Assyrian and Babylonian annals, which illuminate the Old Testament world.
A: The scribes are never described in detail in the Old Testament itself, but analogies with Egypt and Mesopotamia make it clear that there must have been a scribal class, probably attached as civil servants to the temple in Jerusalem or the royal court. After the exile of the Jewish people in Bablylon in the sixth century BC, scribes gradually turned into religious teachers, as we find them in the New Testament
A: Probably during the first century BC, though parts of it were certainly regarded as holy scripture much earlier than that. But the collection is a work of early Judaism. It should be remembered that for a long time it was a collection of individual scrolls, not a single book between two covers.
A: There are prophecies of a coming Messiah – which means ‘anointed one’ – occasionally in the Old Testament, and Christians claimed them as foretelling Jesus. But messianic hopes were not widespread or massively important in first-century Judaism and are even less central to the Old Testament itself. Christians discovered texts they saw as messianic prophecies – for example, in Isaiah 7 – though other Jews did not read them that way.
The first wave of scribes may, it’s been suggested, have started work during the reign of King David (c1000 BC). Whether that’s true or not, David is a monumental figure in the biblical story – the slayer of Goliath, the conqueror of Jerusalem. David is also a hugely important figure in the quest to establish links between the Bible and historical fact, for he appears to be the earliest biblical figure to be confirmed by archaeology.
“I killed [the] king of the house of David.” So boasts the Tel Dan Stele, an inscribed stone dating from 870–750 BC and discovered in northern Israel in the 1990s. Like the Merneptah Stele before it, it documents a warlord’s victory over the Israelites (the man doing the gloating was probably the local ruler Hazael of Aram-Damascus). But it at least indicates that David was a historical figure.
The Tel Dan Stele also suggests that,no matter how capable their rulers, the people of Israel continued to be menaced by powerful, belligerent neighbours. And, in 586 BC, one of those neighbours, the Babylonians, would inflict on the Jews one of the most devastating defeats in their history: ransacking the sacred city of Jerusalem, butchering its residents, and dragging many more back to Babylonia.
For the people of Israel, the fall of Jerusalem was a searing experience. It created, in the words of Eric M Meyers, a biblical scholar at Duke University in North Carolina, “one of the most significant theological crises in the history of the Jewish people”. And, according to many scholars, that crisis may have had a transformative impact on the writing of the Bible.
The Old Testament is far more than a formulaic story of a nation’s evolution, it’s also a chronicle of that nation’s relationship with its God. Did the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC convince a new wave of Jewish thinkers that they hadn’t been keeping their side of the bargain? Did it spur them into revisiting all previous editions of the Jewish scriptures in order to sharpen the emphasis on the agreement or ‘covenant’ between the people and their one God?
Whether this theory holds or not, there’s little doubt that by the time they returned from their Babylonian exile, the Bible occupied a unique place in the consciousness of the Jewish people. However, it would be centuries before the book would be revered as a secret text for non-Jews.
And the reason for that transformation from national to international significance was, of course, the figure of Jesus Christ. It’s the so-called New Testament, the account of Jesus’s life and teachings, that turned the Hebrew Bible into a civilisationshaping, global icon.
Most scholars agree that Jesus, a first-century religious leader and preacher, existed historically. He was born in c4 BC and died – reportedly crucified on the orders of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate – in cAD 30–33. Then, for around 40 years, news of his teachings was spread by word of mouth until, from around AD 70, four written accounts of his life emerged that changed everything.
The gospels, or ‘good news’, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are critically important to the Christian faith. It is their descriptions of the life of Jesus Christ that have made him arguably the most influential figure in human history.
We can’t be sure when the gospels were written,” says Barton, “and we know little about the authors. But the guess is that Mark came first, in the 70s, followed by Matthew and Luke in the 80s and 90s, and John in the 90s or early in the second century.
“In general, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the same story with variations, and hence are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels, whereas John has a very different style, as well as telling a markedly different version of the story of Jesus. Matthew and Luke seem to be attempts to improve on Mark, by adding more stories and sayings from sources now lost. John is a different conceptualisation of the story of Jesus, portraying a more obviously divine figure.”
Though the variations in the four gospels may have proved a source of frustration to those trying to paint a definitive picture of Jesus’s life and teachings, they offer a fascinating insight into the challenges facing the early Christian church as it spread around the Mediterranean world in the first and second centuries AD.
Mark, it’s been argued, wrote for a community deeply affected by the failure of a Jewish revolt against the Roman empire in the AD 60s, while Luke wrote for a predominately Gentile (non-Jewish) audience eager to demonstrate that Christian beliefs could flourish within the Roman empire. Both John and Matthew hint at the growing tensions between Jewish Christians and the Jewish religious authorities.
As a Jew, Jesus would have been well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and, according to the gospels, saw himself as the realisation of ancient Jewish prophecies. “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law, or the prophets,” Matthew reports him saying. “I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfil.” But for all that, by the time the gospels were written, schisms between Judaism and nascent Christianity were clearly emerging.
The Epistles, or letters, written by Paul the Apostle to churches dotted across the Mediterranean world – which are our best source for the initial spread of Christianity – confirm that Christianity started in Jerusalem, but spread rapidly to Syria and then to the rest of the Mediterranean world, and was mostly accepted by non-Jews, says John Barton, former professor of the interpretation of holy scriptures at the University of Oxford.
“The epistles [which make up 13 books of the New Testament] are our earliest evidence for Christianity,” says Barton. “The first date from the AD 50s, just two decades after the death of Jesus.”
As Paul’s letters to churches such as the one in the Greek city of Thessalonica reveal, the first Christian communities were often persecuted for their beliefs.
And it’s such persecution, particularly at the hands of the Romans, that may have inspired the last book of the New Testament, Revelations. With its dark descriptions of a seven-headed beast and allusions to an imminent apocalypse, Revelations is now widely believed to be a foretelling of the grisly fate that the author believed awaited the Roman oppressors of Christianity.
Despite that oppression, by the fourth century Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Mediterranean world, with the New Testament widely revered as a sacred text inspired by God. “It was around this time,” says Barton, “that the 27 books of the New Testament were copied into single books as though they formed a single work.”
One example is the Codex Sinaiticus, now in the British Library. “The first person to list exactly the books we now have as the New Testament is the fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, but it’s clear that he was only reporting what was already widely accepted.”
By the end of the early fifth century, a series of councils across the Christian world had effectively rubber-stamped the New Testament that we know today: the Bible’s journey to being the most influential book in human history was well and truly under way.
On 24 March 1603, King James VI of Scotland was also crowned King James I of England and Ireland. His reign would usher in a new royal dynasty (the Stuarts) and a new era of colonialism (most especially in North America). But arguably every bit as significant was his decision, in 1611, to introduce a new Bible.
The ‘King James Version’ (KJV) wasn’t the first to be printed in English – Henry VIII had authorised the ‘Great Bible’ in 1539 and the Bishops’ Bible had been printed during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1568 – but, in terms of impact, the KJV would dwarf its successors.
Shortly after his coronation, James was told that existing translations of the Bible were “corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original”. What his scholars produced was a book designed to be read out aloud in church – fast-paced, easy to understand, a masterclass in storytelling.
No other version would challenge its dominance in the English-speaking world until the mid-20th century. According tob historian Adam Nicolson, the King James Bible’s “particular combination of majesty and freedom, of clarity and richness, was for centuries held, particularly by the Victorians, to be the defining terms of our national identity”
In 1454, in the Rhineland town of Mainz, three friends – inventor Johannes Gutenberg, printer Peter Schöffer and financier Johann Furst – pooled resources and brainpower to come up with what the British Library describes as “probably the most famous Bible in the world”.
The Gutenberg Bible, as the three friends’ creation would come to be known, signalled a step-change in printing techniques. Whereas earlier Bibles were produced by printing presses that employed woodblock technology, the press that churned out the Gutenberg Bible used moveable metal type, allowing more flexible, efficient and cheap printing.
Gutenberg’s Bible also had massive cultural and theological ramifications. Faster, cheaper printing meant more books and more readers – and that brought with it greater criticism, interpretation, debate and, ultimately, revolution. In short, the Gutenberg Bible was a significant step on the road to the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Enlightenment.
In the words of Professor Justin Champion of Royal Holloway, University of London: “The printed Bible in the hands of the public posed a fundamental challenge to papal dominion. Once released from Latin into the vernacular, the word of God became a weapon.”
Sometime between November 1946 and February 1947, a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a cave at Wadi Qumran, near the Dead Sea. When he heard something crack he headed inside to investigate. What he found has been described by the Smithsonian Institute as “the most important religious texts in the Western world”.
What the shepherd had chanced upon were the Dead Sea Scrolls, more than 800 documents of animal skin and papyrus, stored in clay jars for safe keeping. Among the texts are fragments of every book of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esher, along with a collection of previously unknown hymns and a copy of the Ten Commandments.
But what really makes the scrolls special is their age. They were written between around 200 BC and the middle decades of the first century AD, which means they predate by at least eight centuries the oldest previously known Hebrew text of the Old Testament.
Were the scrolls left in the caves by a Jewish community living near the Dead Sea or, perhaps, by Jews fleeing Roman troops in the first century AD? We may never know for sure.
I might be about to ruin your Christmas. Sorry. But the reality is those nativity plays in which your adorable children wear tinsel and angel wings bear little resemblance to what actually happened.
Neither does your average Christmas card featuring a peaceful nativity scene. These are traditions, compilations of different accounts that reflect a later Christian piety. So what really happened at that so-called “first Christmas”?
Firstly, the actual birth day of Jesus was not December 25. The date we celebrate was adopted by the Christian church as the birthday of Christ in the fourth century. Prior to this period, different Christians celebrated Christmas on different dates.
Contrary to popular belief that Christians simply adapted a pagan festival, historian Andrew McGowan argues the date had more to do with Jesus’s crucifixion in the minds of ancient theologians. For them, linking Jesus’s conception with his death nine months prior to December 25 was important for underscoring salvation
Only two of the four gospels in the Bible discuss Jesus’s birth. Luke recounts the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, the couple’s journey to Bethlehem because of a census and the visit of the shepherds. It features Mary’s famous song of praise (Magnificat), her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, her own reflection on the events, lots of angels and the famous inn with no room.
The matter of the inn with “no room” is one of the most historically misunderstood aspects of the Christmas story. ACU scholar Stephen Carlson writes that the word “kataluma” (often translated “inn”) refers to guest quarters. Most likely, Joseph and Mary stayed with family but the guest room was too small for childbirth and hence Mary gave birth in the main room of the house where animal mangers could also be found.
Hence Luke 2:7 could be translated “she gave birth to her firstborn son, she swaddled him and laid him in the feeding trough because there was no space for them in their guest room.”
Matthew’s gospel tells a similar story about Mary’s pregnancy but from a different perspective. This time, the angel appears to Joseph to tell him that his fiancée Mary is pregnant but he must still marry her because it is part of God’s plan.
Where Luke has shepherds visit the baby, a symbol of Jesus’s importance for ordinary folk, Matthew has magi (wise men) from the east bring Jesus royal gifts. There were probably not three magi and they were not kings. In fact, there is no mention of the magi’s number, there could have been two or 20 of them. The tradition of three comes from the mention of three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Notably, the magi visit Jesus in a house (not an inn or stable) and their visit is as late as two years after the birth. Matthew 2:16 records King Herod’s orders to kill baby boys up to the age of two based on the report about Jesus’s age from the magi. This delay is why most Christian churches celebrate the visit of the magi on “Epiphany” or January 6.
Notably absent from these biblical accounts is Mary riding a donkey and animals gathered around the baby Jesus. Animals begin to appear in nativity art in the fourth century AD, possibly because biblical commentators at the time used Isaiah 3 as part of their anti-Jewish polemic to claim that animals understood the significance of Jesus in a way that Jews did not.
When Christians today gather around a crib or set up a nativity scene in their homes they continue a tradition that began in the 12th century with Francis of Assisi.
He brought a crib and animals into church so that everyone worshipping could feel part of the story. Thus a popular pietistic tradition was born. Later art showing the adoration of the baby Jesus reflects a similar devotional spirituality.
If we pare back the story to its biblical and historical core – removing the stable, the animals, the cherub-like angels, and the inn – with what are we left?
The Jesus of history was a child of a Jewish family living under a foreign regime. He was born into an extended family living away from home and his family fled from a king who sought to kill him because he posed a political threat.
The Jesus story, in its historical context, is one of human terror and divine mercy, of human abuse and divine love. It is a story that claims God became human in the form of one who is vulnerable, poor and displaced in order to unveil the injustice of tyrannical power.
While there is nothing wrong with the devotional piety of Christian tradition, a white-washed nativity scene risks missing the most radical aspects of the Christmas story. The Jesus described in the Bible had more in common with the children of refugees born on Nauru than the majority of Australian churchgoers. He too was a brown-skinned baby whose Middle-Eastern family was displaced due to terror and political turmoil.
Christmas, in the Christian tradition, is a celebration of God becoming human as a gift of love. To enjoy adorable, albeit a-historical, nativity plays and all the other wonders of the season is one way of delighting in this gift.
But if we nostalgically focus on one baby whilst ignoring the numerous babies who suffer around the world due to politics, religion and poverty, we miss the entire point of the Christmas story.
On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday?
The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season;
in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.
The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225).
Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.
This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed.
This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown).
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th
Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”
Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus’ origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament.
The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.
Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes:
“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 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] …
And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor).
The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” In about 400 C.E.,
Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation.
Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.
In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.
So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?
There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient)
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.In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.
They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.
More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.
There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.
Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers.
Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.
This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals.
A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings.
But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.
The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time.
Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover.
This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25;
it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.
This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states:
“Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, 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 him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.
In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas.
In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”
Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.
Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).
Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together.
One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.
The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date:
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.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)
Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.
In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions.
Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption,
we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too
Gazing in adoration at the newborn Jesus, three shepherds join Joseph and Mary in the manger in an early-15th-century painting of The Nativity, attributed to the Netherlandish artist Robert Campin. Outside the rustic shed appear two women, the midwives who attended Jesus’ birth.
Midwives! What are they doing in the picture? The Bible does not say that any women other than Mary were present at the birth.
Granted, Campin has taken some common liberties with the biblical story, transforming the Bethlehem countryside into a mountainous northern European landscape and depicting the baby in the nude, although the Gospel of Luke says he was “wrapped in bands of cloth” (Luke 2:12).
Yet the artist has faithfully portrayed much of the story of the shepherds who “went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16).
Although midwives do not appear in the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, they do play an important role in two texts that belong to the Christian Apocrypha: the Proto-Gospel of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew