Jesus' Other 'Birth-days'

This thread is going to be about the different days that different Christians have historically celebrated Jesus’ birth. Hey, since it’s Christmas. :smiley:

Almost everybody nowadays commemorates Jesus’ birth on December 25th. I say almost, because there is a segment of Christianity that celebrates it on a different date. And no, I’m not talking about a Protestant denomination here. :stuck_out_tongue:

Even today the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates the Nativity (Surb Tsnund) on January 6th, while a good deal of Christendom commemorates the feast of the Epiphany (Theophany for Eastern Christians). And here’s the thing: the Armenians have actually preserved here an ancient custom that had been lost in most of the East.

Back in in the 4th-5th century, the commemoration of the Nativity on December 25th was pretty much a Western thing; Eastern Christians meanwhile commemorated the Nativity along with some other events in Jesus’ early life twelve days later, on January 6th. Eventually what happened was that the two respective feasts each went beyond their original borders: most Eastern Christians began to adopt the Western Nativity date, while the January 6th feast made its way to the West, now commemorating certain events in Jesus’ early life aside from the Nativity.

In fact, even before this time, when the possible dates had been whittled down into two, some earlier generations of Christians (we’re talking 2nd-3rd century here) gave various dates for Jesus’ day of birth or commemorated it on a few other days of the year.

These are what we’ll be looking at in this thread.

Here is a source for what you mention.

The feast of the Baptism of The Lord is Theophany which was the feast celebrated in the eastern regions, but on the same date was celebrated the miracle at Cana, the Nativity, and the visit of the Magi.

The reason why our fathers changed the solemnity celebrated on 6 January, and transferred it to 25 December follows: it was the custom of the heathens to celebrate the birthday of the sun on this very day, 25 December, and on it they lit lights on account of the feast. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians too participated. When, therefore, the teachers observed that the Christians were inclined to this festival, they took counsel and decided that the true birth-feast be kept on this day, and on 6 Jan., the feast of the Epiphanies. Simultaneously, therefore, with this appointment the custom prevailed of burning lights until the sixth day."

Martindale, C.C. (1909). Epiphany. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

December 25 on the Julian calendar falls on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
January 6 on the Julian calendar falls on January 19 on the Gregorian calendar.

Nowadays, yes. The gap between the Julian and the Gregorian actually increases with time: the difference between the two increase by three days every four centuries.

Back in 1582, Gregorian January 6th would have been Julian December 27th, 1581. By the year 3000, Gregorian January 6th would be Julian December 17th, 2999. (Now during the 400s, there would have only been the gap of a single day between the two calendars; the date would have been the same a hundred years earlier (the 300s).)

So to start:

Diversely Different Dates: The 2nd-3rd Centuries

This was a time in Christianity when there was still little to no agreement about when to commemorate Jesus’ birthday (or whether one should even be commemorating this at all; cf. Origen claiming that celebration of birthdays are to be shunned as pagan). Some Christians were already trying to make guesses as to what year Jesus was actually born: a few even went so far as to determine the exact date.

But as a whole, Christians in the first two hundred years paid more importance generally to the later events of Jesus’ life - His death and Resurrection - than they did to His birth. (It’s telling that one of the greatest controversies in early Christianity is when to celebrate Pascha/Easter.)

The two earliest Christian holy days - both connected with the Passion and Resurrection - were modified versions of two of the three major Jewish festivals: Passover (= Holy Week and Easter/Pascha of course) and the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot (= Pentecost). By contrast, feasts commemorating Jesus’ early life - such as Christmas or the Epiphany - don’t have a clear Jewish origin (St. John Chrysostom sort of acknowledges this: “Did the Jews … ever share with us the day of the Epiphanies?”) and may have been instituted later, among gentile Christians.

Just to give a sample of the lack of a single standard at that time, here’s Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.21):

From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days = November 18, 3 BC, using the Roman calendar]. 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 [Julian May 20th, 2 BC].

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 [Julian January 10th]; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month [Julian January 6th]. 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 [March 21st]; and others the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi [April 21st] and others say that on the nineteenth of Pharmuthi [April 15th] the Saviour suffered. **Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi [April 20th/21st].[/size]

In this passage, Clement gives at least three dates. The first date is apparently his personal opinion, the date he thought Jesus was born in: “a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days” before the the emperor Commodus was murdered in December 31st, AD 192 - November 18, 3 BC. The other two instances are basically Clement reporting what some other people apparently thought: according to them, Jesus was born either on Pashons 25 (May 20th) or a month earlier, Pharmouthi 24/25 (April 20th/21st).

(As an aside, Clement reports about Basilidean gnostics commemorating the baptism of Jesus on either Tobi 11 or Tobi 15. Leaving aside the fact that the Basilideans are gnostics, this is actually one of our earliest sources that describe a feast commemorating an event in Jesus’ early life being held on January 6th.)

So far, that’s three different months - April, May and November. The candidates will grow a bit from here: both December 25th and January 6th will have to coexist with these other dates before they become the last two standing.

Minor trivia: the day before Pashons 25 is still a feast day in the modern Coptic calendar. Now, however, it isn’t directly connected with Jesus’ birth anymore - the Copts have since adopted December 25th - but the arrival of the Holy Family into Egypt, one of the seven minor feasts of the Lord in the Coptic tradition.**

I don’t believe it’s just the Armenian Church that does 6.JAN - the Coptic Christian Church also has the Nativity on the 6th. Not sure about other ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Churches 9Assyrians, Ethiopian, etc.)

The Copts AFAIK do celebrate the Nativity on December 25th (Koiak 29). But in the Gregorian calendar, Julian December 25th currently falls in January 7th. That’s why Churches that still use the Julian calendar hold the feast of the Nativity on January 7th nowadays.

To continue:


We have another early Christian writer who attempts to pin a date to Jesus’ birth: St. Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170-235). In fact, I think Hippolytus’ quote (as it is passed down across different manuscripts) does a good example of just how there was little to no agreement in those days.

The first Advent of our Lord in the flesh, when He was born in Bethlehem, happened on the eighth day before the kalends of January, on a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of Augustus (= December 25th, 3/2 BC), in the year 5500, reckoning from Adam. He suffered in His thirty-third year, on the eighth day before the calends of April (= March 25th), on a Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius, while Rufus and Rubellius were consuls.

This quote is from Hippolytus’ Commentary on the Prophet Daniel, which actually happens to be the earliest surviving Christian commentary on a biblical book (written somewhere between 202-211). At face value, Hippolytus would seem to be the first Christian writer to expressly suggest the date of December 25th as the day of Jesus’ birth.

All well and good, but there’s something that complicates this picture a bit. The thing is, while most manuscripts of Hippolytus’ commentary do say that it was “the eighth day before the kalends of January” (= December 25th), we actually have variant readings in some other manuscripts of the work here: one does not specify the day at all, the other reads instead “on the fourth day before the … of April” (there’s a rather convenient gap in the text at this point.)

So all in all, there are three variants for Hippolytus:

(1) “the eighth day before the kalends of January” (December 25th)
(2) “the fourth day before the … of April” (March? / April?)
(3) Date unspecified

While the December 25th variant enjoys the advantage of being the majority reading, some scholars are not so sure that this was actually what Hippolytus wrote. They think that this must have been a later edit to his work, made when the December 25th feast became the standard date in most of the Christian world. Instead, they think that the other two variants have more chance of being authentic (applying the principle of lectio difficilior or ‘the more difficult reading is the stronger’), the April variant in particular. All this because of one statue.

In 1551, a marble statue of a seated male figure was discovered in the cemetery of the Via Tiburtina in Rome, where Hippolytus was buried. On the sides of the seat was carved a table for the calculation of the date of Easter, and on the back the titles of works written by Hippolytus. It is now generally accepted that the statue was probably that of Hippolytus - or to be more precise, a statue recycled - the original figure seems to be that of a woman - and turned into a monument for Hippolytus.

Here’s the interesting thing. On the cycle of Easter dates, there is one item that stands out: “the fourth day before the nones of April” (i.e. April 2nd), against which is the notation in Greek: γένεσις Χριστοῦ (genesis Christou), “birth of Christ.” This entry actually fits in with the April variant of Hippolytus’ text.

The statue and the April variant on the Commentary on Daniel would thus have Hippolytus (or, supposing that the April reading on the Commentary is an interpolation as well, someone else who knew a tradition similar to that reflected on the Easter table on the statue) believe that Jesus was born on the fourth day, before the nones of April (= April 5th); in other words, Jesus is said to be born on a Wednesday, April 2nd (counting inclusively).

The April 2nd date is given as one of the possible dates for Passover/Easter; it might show that Hippolytus or whoever wrote it had the idea of Jesus being born on the Passover (April 2nd) of 2 BC (as noted in the quote, Hippolytus thought that Jesus was born on the 42nd year of Augustus’ reign, 5,502 years after Adam = 3/2 BC).

An anonymous work from North Africa attributed to St. Cyprian of Carthage called De Pascha Computus repeats this idea of Jesus being born on a Wednesday. The anonymous author claims that the first day of creation coincided with the first day of spring (= March 25th), when day and night are of equal length, and that Jesus’ birthday fell four days later (= March 28th), on a Wednesday, the same day God created the sun according to Genesis. (Jesus = Sun of Righteousness, get it? ;))

To sum up the dates we’ve encountered so far:

Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 200): November 17th/18th, May 20th (Pashons 25), April 20th/21st (Pharmouthi 24/25)
Hippolytus of Rome (ca. AD 204): December 25th (variant 1) or April 2nd (variant 2)
De pascha computus (AD 243): March 28th

A word about Clement. A few scholars such as British-born American historian R.H. Bainton had suggested that the period to the death of Commodus was actually reckoned, not by the Roman (Julian) calendar as is generally thought, but by the old, uncorrected Egyptian solar year (of exactly 365 days). Doing this would move the Nativity (as per Clement’s opinion) from November 17th-18th into January 5th-6th - the ‘traditional’ Eastern date.

What’s interesting is that I notice that all of these dates actually fall into two seasons: spring (March/April/May) and late fall-winter (November/December/January). In other words, the candidates all fall somewhere in the winter months or in the spring (very symbolic seasons; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the spring dates fall near Easter/Pascha). No one had apparently suggested Jesus was born in summer. :smiley:

I should add: some people have actually suggested that Hippolytus in another work (the Chronicon) actually pushes for a December 25th date. They actually explain the April 2nd date and the Greek word genesis (which to be fair, is more often used to refer to His birth and is usually interpreted that way) as referring to His conception.

In any case, this would show that at least in Rome, December 25th was already a candidate during the 3rd century. (No surprise here, since the other earliest reference to the December 25th date comes from the Chronography of 354 - which has a Roman provenance.) Some people would also add in another Latin (this time, a north African) writer, Julius Africanus, as another early example of a December 25th proponent.

So we can say at least that by the 3rd century, we already begin to see a process of standardization occurring: in Latin areas (Italy and North Africa), the idea of commemorating Jesus’ birth on December 25th was already gaining hold, if it hasn’t already, among many Latin Christians. (Conversely, you might also see Clement of Alexandria as proof that the January 6th counterpart was developing at the same time in the East.)

And guess what? The December 25th date need not to have a pagan origin.

Over long periods of times, absolute dates get shifted.

The exact date is not what is important. We might have slipped a few days over time. What is important is that we celebrate it once a year. And keep in mind, in our lifetime, the celebration of the birth of Christ will be challenged (it already is).

Here’s a little digression.

Christian Jerusalem: 4th-5th Century

One of our surviving sources for liturgical practices in Byzantine-era (4th-5th century) Jerusalem are medieval Armenian lectionaries, which essentially reflect the liturgical tradition of the Church in Jerusalem - or, as it was also known back then, Aelia Capitolina - at that time. (The contents agree with what we know from the writings of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386 AD) and the travel notes of the pilgrim Egeria; in fact, they are often identical.)

The liturgical practices described in the lectionaries appear to have been ancient. Armenian tradition claims that the Jerusalem liturgical tradition was initiated by James the Just, ‘brother’ of Jesus and the first bishop of Jerusalem in the 1st century and was completed by Cyril four centuries later. Even if one doubts this claim, the fact that the readings are already reflected in Cyril’s writings show that the basics of the liturgical practice (at least) was already in place during his time, if not before.

The Armenian lectionaries begin with the vigil of January 6th, what was then the Eastern (and still is now, for Armenians) feast of the Nativity. These are the order of readings:

January 5th (Place of the Shepherds, ninth or tenth hour - 3/4 PM)
Antiphon: Psalm 22 (23) (v.1: “The Lord is my shepherd.”)
Alleluia: Psalm 79 (80) (v. 1: “O shepherd of Israel, hear us, you who lead.”)
Gospel: Luke 2:8-20

(Cave in Bethlehem, night vigil)
Reading: Genesis 1:28-3:20
Reading: Isaiah 7:10-17
Reading: Exodus 14:24-15:21
Reading: Micah 5:2-7
Reading: Proverbs 1:2-9
Reading: Isaiah 9:5b-7
Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
Reading: Isaiah 35:3-8
Reading: Isaiah 40:10-17
Reading: Isaiah 42:1-8a
Reading: Daniel 3:1-35a
(Refrain: “Lord you have made the dew fall, a dew of mercy, and quenched the flame of burning fire, for it is you alone who are recognized as Savior.”)
Reading: Daniel 3:35b-51
(Refrain: “You have had pity on our fathers. You have visited us. You have saved us.”)
Reading: Daniel 3:52-90

Antiphon: Psalm 2 (v. 7: “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’”)
Reading: Titus 2:11-15
Alleluia: Psalm 109 (110) (v.1: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’”)
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

January 6th (Holy Martyrion, dawn)
Antiphon: Psalm 2 (The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’")
Reading: Titus 2:11-15 (v.1: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’”)
Alleluia: Psalm 109 (110)
Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25

And here is the pilgrim Egeria giving her description of Epiphany in Jerusalem:

Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord, and the rest which follows. And since, for the sake of the monks who go on foot, it is necessary to walk slowly, the arrival in Jerusalem thus takes place at the hour when one man begins to be able to recognize another, that is, close upon but a little before daybreak.

And on arriving there, the bishop and all with him immediately enter the Anastasis, where an exceedingly great number of lights are already burning. There a psalm is said, prayer is made, first the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed by the bishop; then the bishop retires, and every one returns to his lodging to take rest, but the monks remain there until daybreak and recite hymns.

But after the people have taken rest, at the beginning of the second hour they all assemble in the greater church, which is in Golgotha.

Now it would be superfluous to describe the adornment either of the church, or of the Anastasis, or of the Cross, or in Bethlehem on that day; you see there nothing but gold and gems and silk. For if you look at the veils, they are made wholly of silk striped with gold, and if you look at the curtains, they too are made wholly of silk striped with gold. The church vessels too, of every kind, gold and jewelled, are brought out on that day, and indeed, who could either reckon or describe the number and weight of the cereofala (candlesticks), or of the cicindelae (oil lamps), or of the lucernae (lanterns / lamps), or of the various vessels?

And what shall I say of the decoration of the fabric itself, which Constantine, at his mother’s instigation, decorated with gold, mosaic, and costly marbles, as far as the resources of his kingdom allowed him, that is, the greater church as well as the Anastasis, at the Cross, and the other holy places in Jerusalem ?

But to return to the matter in hand: the dismissal takes place on the first day in the greater church, which is in Golgotha, and when they preach or read the several lessons, or recite hymns, all are appropriate to the day. And afterwards when the dismissal from the church has been made, they repair to the Anastasis with hymns, according to custom, so that the dismissal takes place about the sixth hour.

And on this day lucernare (Vespers) also takes place according to the daily use.

The lectionary then continues through the octave of the Nativity/Epiphany, ending at January 13th, during which Jesus’ circumcision is commemorated. (Trivia: the feast of St. Stephen was commemorated on January 7th, and the raising of Lazarus on the 11th.)

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