Christmas. History or tradition?

The dates of Christmas are not just a tradition, the findings at Qumran indicate that they may in fact be a historical reality.

Gerardo Ferrara-December 21, 2022-Reading time: 6 minutes

Interior of the church in the place where, according to tradition, Jesus was born (Photo: Gerardo Ferrara).

Why do Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25? Since the Renaissance, there has been a widespread belief that this date was chosen only to replace the ancient cult of the "Sol Invictus", whose solemnity fell precisely on that date ("dies Solis Invicti") which, in the Julian calendar, corresponded to the winter solstice, that is, to the marriage of the longest night and the shortest day of the year.

What was, or rather, who was this "Sol Invictus"? It was precisely the personification of the sun, identified with Helios, Gebal and, ultimately, with Mithras, in a sort of monotheistic assimilation between the deity and the solar star. The cult of the "Sol Invictus" originated in the East (in particular, in Egypt and Syria), where the celebrations of the rite of the birth of the Sun involved the faithful, from the sanctuaries where they gathered, going out at midnight to announce that the Virgin had given birth to the Sun, represented as a child. From the East, the cult spread to Rome and the West.

Is that really the only reason we celebrate Christmas at this time of year? Perhaps not. In fact, the discoveries at Qumran have established that we do have reason to celebrate Christmas on December 25.

The year and day of Jesus' birth

Let us remember, first of all, that Dionysius the Less, the monk who in the year 533 calculated the year of the beginning of the Christian era, put back the birth of Christ by about six years, who, therefore, would have come into the world around the year 6 B.C. Do we have any other clue in this regard? Yes, the death of Herod the Great in the year 4 B.C., since he died at that time and we know that more or less two years had to pass between the birth of Jesus and the death of the king, which would coincide with the year 6 B.C.

We know, then, again from the evangelist Luke (the richest in detail in the narration of how the birth of Jesus came about) that Mary became pregnant when her cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant. Western Christians have always celebrated the Annunciation to Mary on March 25, that is, nine months before Christmas. Easterners, on the other hand, also celebrate the Annunciation to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist and Elizabeth's husband) on September 23. Luke goes into more detail when he tells us that, at the time that Zacarias learned that his wife, already as old as he was, would become pregnant, was serving in the Temple, being of priestly caste, according to the class of Abia. However, Luke himself, writing at a time when the Temple was still functioning and the priestly classes followed their perennial rotations, does not make explicit, taking it for granted, the time when the Abia class rendered their services. Well, numerous fragments of the Book of Jubilees, found precisely in Qumran, have allowed scholars such as Annie Jaubert and the Israeli Jew Shemarjahu Talmon to reconstruct with precision that the Abia rota took place twice a year: the first from the 8th to the 14th of the third month of the Hebrew calendar, the second from the 24th to the 30th of the eighth month of the same calendar, thus corresponding to the last decade of September, in perfect harmony with the Eastern feast of September 23 and six months from March 25, which would suggest that the birth of Jesus really took place in the last decade of December and that it therefore makes sense to celebrate Christmas at this time of the year, if not on this day!

The Census of Caesar Augustus

From the Gospel of Luke (ch. 2) we know that the birth of Jesus coincided with a census taken throughout the land by Caesar Augustus:

"In those days a decree of Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken of the whole land. This first census was taken when Quirinus was governor of Syria. Everyone went to register, each one in his own city."

What do we know about it? From what we read in lines VII, VIII and X of the transcription of the "Res gestae" of Augustus found in the "Ara Pacis" of Rome, we learn that Caesar Octavian Augustus took a census of the entire Roman population three times, in the years 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and A.D. 14. It is in this context that the famous census recounted in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 2:1) must be placed.

In ancient times, taking a census of the whole land obviously had to take some time before the census was completed. And here another clarification of the evangelist Luke gives us a clue: Quirinus was the governor of Syria when this "first" census was taken. Well, P. Sulpicius Quirinius was governor of Syria probably from 6-7 AD. There are divergent opinions of historians on this question: some suppose, in fact, according to the so-called Tivoli Tombstone (in Latin "Lapis" or "Titulus Tiburtinus") that Quirinius himself had an earlier mandate in the years 8-6 BC. (which would be compatible both with the date of the Augustan census and with the birth of Jesus); others, however, translate the term "first" (which in Latin and Greek, being neuter, can also have adverbial value) as "before Quirinius was governor of Syria". Both hypotheses are admissible, so that what is narrated in the Gospels about the taking of the census at the time of the birth of Jesus is plausible.

In Bethlehem of Judea

Bethlehem is today a city in the West Bank and there is nothing bucolic or manger-like about it. However, two thousand years ago it was a small town, known, nevertheless, for being the home of King David. From here, the scriptures said, should come the messiah awaited by the people of Israel (Micah, ch. 5).

In addition to the time, therefore, the place where this messiah was to be born, expected, as we have seen, by the Jewish people and their neighbors in the East, was also known. 

It is curious that the name of this place, composed of two different Hebrew terms, means: 'house of bread' in Hebrew (בֵּֽית = bayt or beṯ: house; לֶ֣חֶם = leḥem: bread); 'house of meat' in Arabic (ﺑﻴﺖ = bayt or beyt, house; لَحْمٍ = laḥm, meat); 'house of fish' in the ancient South Arabian languages. All the languages mentioned are of Semitic origin and, in these languages, from the same three-letter root, it is possible to derive a large number of words related to the original meaning of the root of origin. In our case, that of the compound noun Belenwe have two roots: b-y-t which gives rise to Bayt or Beth; l-ḥ-m which gives rise to Leḥem or Laḥm.

In all cases Bayt/Beth means home, but Laḥm/Leḥem changes meaning depending on the language. 

The answer lies in the origin of the populations to which these languages belong. The Hebrews, like the Aramaeans and other Semitic peoples of the northwest, lived in the so-called "Fertile Crescent", that is, a vast area between Palestine and Mesopotamia where agriculture could be practiced, so they were a sedentary people. Their main means of livelihood was, therefore, bread. The Arabs, a nomadic or semi-nomadic population of the north and center of the Arabian Peninsula, predominantly desert, obtained their main sustenance from hunting and agriculture, which made meat their food par excellence. Finally, the South Arabs, who lived on the southern coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, had fish as their main food. Hence we can understand why the same word, in three different Semitic languages, means three different foods.

Consequently, we can see how Belen has, for different peoples, an apparently different but in fact univocal meaning, since it would indicate not so much the home of bread, meat or fish, but the home of true food, that which one cannot do without, that on which one's subsistence depends, that without which one cannot live. 

Curiously, Jesus, speaking of himself, said: "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink" (Jn 6:51-58). 

History has told us that, as early as the middle of the second century, St. Justin and then Origen, an author of the third century, confirmed that in Bethlehem, both Christians and non-Christians knew the exact location of the cave and the manger, and this because the emperor Hadrian, in 135 AD, with the intention of erasing from memory the Jewish and Judeo-Christian places in the new province of Palestine, wanted to build pagan temples exactly on the site of those of the ancient faith in the region. This is confirmed by St. Jerome and St. Cyril of Jerusalem.

Just as in Jerusalem, on the site of the shrines in honor of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Hadrian had statues of Jupiter and Venus built (Jerusalem had been rebuilt in the meantime as "Aelia Capitolina"), in Bethlehem a forest sacred to Tammuz, i.e. Adonis, had been planted. However, thanks to the knowledge of the stratagem of Hadrian, the first Christian emperor, Constantine and his mother Helena were able to find the exact locations of the primitive "domus ecclesiæ", which later became small churches, where the memories and relics of the life of Jesus of Nazareth were venerated and kept.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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