Was Jesus born in winter?

One of my readers left a comment on facebook saying the Bible indicates that Jesus was “born in winter.” She added, “That could be anytime between mid-October and mid-March.” Another reader said, ” I didn’t know the Bible said he was born in winter — I know shepherds were grazing their sheep when he was born…does this happen in winter in that part of the world?”

I am not aware of any suggestion in the Bible regarding the time of the year when Jesus was born. Luke tells us that shepherds were out in the field at the time.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 ESV)

Some writers have suggested that the birth was not likely in December. They say that shepherds did not watch flocks by night during December. In my outline study about Christmas, available here, I have a quotation by the late Dr. William Arndt, (of Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich fame) replying to this suggestion:

“Scholars have pointed out that the considerably lower altitude of the field may not be without significance, but may explain why even in winter shepherds would not find these fields too cold for their flocks.”  (From the Nile to the Waters of Damascus, p. 52)

In fact, when I first began traveling to Israel and Jordan in the mid-60s it was common for Bedouin shepherds to move with the seasons. In the summer we would see them in the mountains of Lebanon. In winter months they would move to warmer, desert areas. Today, we find many Bedouin shepherds watching their sheep on the eastern slopes year round, including the winter months.

The temperature around Jerusalem and Bethlehem is fairly temperate in the winter. Only a small amount of rain falls on the eastern slopes of the central mountain range. Both Jerusalem and Bethlehem are located on this ridge. We have written about the watershed ridge here and here.

The average monthly temperature for Jerusalem ranges from 47° to 56°. Rain can make it chilly.

The photo below provides an aerial view from over the Herodium (about 3 miles east of Bethlehem). This illustrates the terrain where shepherds might care for their flocks.

View east toward the Dead Sea and the the land of Moab in Jordan from over the Herodium. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

View east toward the Dead Sea and the the land of Moab in Jordan from over the Herodium. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection of photos includes some photos of shepherds with their flocks in the Bethlehem area on Christmas day. (Information about the collection is available at LifeintheHolyLand.com.) The photo below was made sometime between 1898 and 1946. It was taken either by the American Colony Photo Department or its successor, the Matson Photo Service.

Shepherds with sheep on Christmas day. Bethlehem on the ridge. Photo: LifeintheHolyLand.com.

Shepherds with sheep on Christmas day. Bethlehem is on the ridge. Photo: LifeintheHolyLand.com.

I am not saying that Jesus was born in December. Only that the common misunderstanding about Bethlehem winters is based on our lack of knowledge about the local terrain.

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7 responses to “Was Jesus born in winter?

  1. I think it’s another way of bringing up the role of diversity within the Christian tradition. Pluralism is a dirty word to some theologians and to some believers and this is just another example of killing the messenger. Not your post on the topic but an example of a position that many people find fault with.

  2. What about the idea that if the shepherds were in “the fields” as the text says, then it was between harvesting and planting times, therefore mid-summer to late fall?

  3. According to the standard Greek lexicon (BDAG), the Greek expression “in the fields” simply means to “live out of doors.”

  4. Thanks to all. Thanks wcombs for citing BDAG. My impression is that it simply means they were not at home in the town. Shepherds might build a sheepfolds, or use one of the caves for that purpose. Several who left comments on Facebook seemed to have a problem understanding this.

  5. Pingback: On the epistemology of Christmas « la vidaid loca

  6. The Scriptures did say that they were not at ‘home in the town’. That would be a belief. Rather they were ‘living out of doors’. Meaning they were on their own land but living or resting outside tending the Sheep. Therefore, this could not have been in December. Also Ezra 10:13 Give us a clue that the Jewish Month of CHISLEV was too cold because of the rainy Season. Although some shepherds may have there sheep grazing in December (if the weather permits), that does not mean they can ‘Live out of doors’ during this time. Judging from the Scriptures we have, it will be safe to say that Jesus was not born on December 25th nor the in Month of December.

  7. “The scriptures did not say” I meant

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