SPECIAL NOTE: THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 2014 BUT IT IS WORTH A REPEAT!
Perhaps an unusual post to write four days after Christmas but there is often a great controversy as to when/where/how and even if Jesus was born. However, and especially in light of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s specious and condescending Twitter posts on Christmas Day, the validity of this post is more relevant than ever. By the way, it is sad that a scientist of Dr. Tyson’s renown has to reduce himself to specious attacks on a theological issue of which he has no academic or theological knowledge. It is indeed sad because Dr. Tyson does not have a personal relationship with Messiah Jesus and in this regards he needs and deserves our prayer and not our condemnation. But enough of the brief rabbit trail….
The “if” question is not seriously considered by any REAL Biblical scholars for even the renowned atheist, but actual Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman writes: “The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus” (Did Jesus Exist, p. 96).
However, the when/where/how are up for some debate among Biblical theologians on all ends of the academic spectrum. We will never understand this side of heaven the “HOW” mystery of Luke 1:35, “And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.'” Of the four other times that the word for overshadow (ἐπισκιάζω) appears in some form in the New Testament, three occur in the Synoptic Gospels and all relate to the transfiguration account with Peter, James, and John with the other time coming from Acts 5:15. The closest understanding that one can approach to overshadow is to that of the Shekinah glory of God coming down and enveloping Mary but even that explanation is inadequate. As written earlier, the “HOW” mystery will only be understood in heaven. The “WHERE” mystery is not a mystery at all for both Micah 5:2,Luke 2, and Matthew 2 tells us where – Bethlehem of Judea (in a later post hope to deal with the skeptics and cynics on these passages including how the Simeon of Luke 2 could just in fact be Hillel’s son!).For this post hopes to offer a hypothesis on just WHEN Jesus was born and perhaps WHY the timing is significant.
I personally believe Jesus was born during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (the 21st of Tishrei) between 6-4 BC. I will provide a brief explanation as to why; however, and for those who are unfamiliar with the festival, I want to write a brief explanation as to what Sukkot was and is all about from a Biblical and modern perspective.
What Is Sukkot from the Biblical Perspective?
The festival of Sukkot is the final Biblically mandated festival (the seven festivals along with the command to observe Sabbath are found in Leviticus 23) and occurs after the Festival of Trumpets (aka Rosh Hashanah) and Yom Kippur. The official ordinances (i.e., regulations) for Sukkot are found in Leviticus 23:33-44. The Bible passage as stated below that the Jewish people are to make booths (Sukkahs) from branches and palm fronds, etc. and dwell in these booths for seven days during Sukkot. There is also the waving of the lulav and etrog during Sukkot but that is not crucial to this discussion. It was and is to be a reminder festival (after the Jewish people were settled in the land) of God’s provision for the Israelites during their time in the wilderness.
Leviticus 23:40-43 — And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year. It shall be a statute for ever in your generations: ye shall celebrate it in the seventh month. Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (KJV — Public Domain)
The ultimate fulfillment of this festival is found in Zechariah 14:9-21 during the Millennial Kingdom from the Christian understanding (and this is important); however, it was recognized that Sukkot along with Passover and Shavuot were to be pilgrimage festivals in which the Jewish men were to go to Jerusalem for the sacrifices that were to be offered in verse 37 of Leviticus 23. An interesting Bible Study/Quiet Time would be to read the Pilgrimage Psalms of Psalm 120-134 as they would have been read/recited/sung by the travelers as they were on their way to Jerusalem for these festivals (FYI — Jesus would have would have been well-acquainted with these Psalms being that He was a good Jewish man as well).
Why Would Sukkot Be a Good Timing for Jesus’ Birthday?
FIRST, and this was always something that my father (the Baptist pastor) believed as well, the timing of the shepherds being in the field “keeping watch over their flock” could not have been in December. The weather in Israel in December, and I have been there, is too chilly at night for shepherding. A better time for shepherding is September/October which just happens to coincide with the festival of Sukkot. Incidentally Alfred Edersheim in Sketches of Jewish Social Life (p. 77-78) disagrees with me and argued that Jesus was born around Passover but E. Earle Ellis allows for any major Jewish festival which would require attendance (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) in The New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Luke (p. 79). Therefore, we have several options/alternatives for Jesus’ birth date but I still would argue for Sukkot.
SECOND, and this might take some explanation, there is the matter of the Ushpizin. The concept and/or definition of the Ushpizin is the word for “guests” in Aramaic and it is part of the Sukkot tradition. The idea of the Ushpizin is that for each of the seven nights of Sukkot, there could be a guest arriving in the Sukkah appointed by God. There is some debate as to the who the guests might be (see picture to the left and also available at http://www.sukkahworld.com/images/ushpizin-infographic.jpg). However, it is the where and when this tradition began that is most interesting and most prophetically important to this discussion, except for the fact that I believe the Ushpizin guests most logically fit to be — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David (remember this view for later).
There are some who argue that the idea of the Ushpizin is a solely Kabbalistic idea and began with the codification of the Zohar during the early Medieval period (here and here); however, Maimonides was not a Kabbalist, he pre-dates the writing of the Zohar, and he mentions the Ushpizin (here and here). FYI — there will be some who will seek to argue that the pragmatic Jewish philosopher Maimonides was not adverse to Kabbalah but they are grasping at straws. Additionally, and this is my personal view, there is strong evidence that the Kabbalists simply “borrowed” the Ushpizin idea from the Second Temple Period (i.e., before, during and after the time of Jesus). The Book of Jubilees which was written as an apocryphal book during the Intertestamental period mentions the idea that Abraham built the first Sukkah and waited for Ushpizin in Genesis 18 (here and here). Amy Jill-Levine who is not a Jewish believer in Jesus but a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University also will argue that the concept of the Ushpizin was a concept understood during the time of Jesus (here).
Therefore, a logical argument is that God would ordain the Son of David to be born on the night that David as the final Ushpizin guest was to arrive at Sukkot, which would be the 21st of Tishrei. Jesus as Messiah arrives right on time with His first coming as the Suffering Messiah and will arrive at the final Sukkot (see Zechariah 14) as the Reigning Messiah … right on time.
THIRD, there will be some who will argue that Jesus was born in a stable because the innkeeper didn’t care and threw Mary and Joseph out in the cold. My question — is that tradition or Scripture? The answer and to prove that Tevye is not the only one who can sing the song … “Tradition!” Let’s examine the actual text of Luke 2:6-7 … “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
There is no mention of stable? There is not even a mention of a cave which is a common and newly popular option. We only have the mention of a manger and the fact that there was no room for them in the inn. Let’s look at what this really could mean for just a moment. The word for “manger” is φάτνη which is a place to feed animals but also could be connected to the ledge where the hay was kept for the animals who would have stayed in a Sukkah (here and here). The word for “inn” is κατάλυμα which is the same word used to describe the place where Jesus and His disciples had Passover before His crucifixion in Mark and Luke. They were not kept out of the guest room at the Motel 6 but out of a conference room and they would have been because not only the census being taken but also because it was Sukkot and all of Israel was heading to Jerusalem (about seven miles away from Bethlehem). And ultimately, where else and when else should the Son of David be born but in the Sukkah as the Davidic Ushpizin guest of Sukkot?
There is so much more that could be written. Perhaps there is so much more that should be written. However, this is only a discussion starter. I could be wrong on the date of Jesus’ birth and that is okay because the truth is that Jesus was born and my hope is secured. My eternity is secured. My salvation is secured because of this truth regardless of when the date might be. I just think it was the 7th Night of Sukkot because the Messiah arrives right on time … for both of His arrivals.
SPECIAL NOTE: I don’t believe that Jesus was born on December 25th, but I actually have no problem with remembering HIS birthday on this date as long as we remember it is HIS BIRTHDAY and not a gift grab for ourselves. I appreciate the concerns of those who do have issues but as long as we keep the focus on Jesus, that is the main point and it should not be made a test of fellowship between believers and churches.