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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20 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.

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  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

  8. Does it not make sense that our Lord would come to BE WITH US during the Feast of Tabernacles? This is a time when God comes to DWELL with MAN, also figuratively to “shelter” Man. There are many relationships with Christ to Tabernacles. Tabernacles would either be at the end of September or Beginning of October by the Vernal Equinox, however, the Abib, barley ripening in the head, might be as much as a month later, bringing the 7th month into mid to later October and Tabernacles in early November . Enough rain could have brought new grasses by September, so we have a stretch of time in the fall when the sheep would be grazing. I have also read about the flocks taken “in” after the 8th day of Tabernacles, but don’t have the source to quote for you at the moment. Shalom.

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  11. ‘The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection of photos includes some photos of shepherds with their flocks in the Bethlehem area on Christmas day” THIS PICTURE IS IN THE DAY, NOT IN THE NIGHT.

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  15. Actually, Scripture gives good reason for accepting December as the time of Jesus’ birth. If you work from the time that Zechariah was in the temple, which Scripture does tell us, you can find John’s birth, which leads us to Jesus’ three months later.
    http://taylormarshall.com/2012/12/yes-christ-was-really-born-on-december.html

    I personally have been in Jerusalem (higher altitude than Bethlehem) in January (which is usually colder than December). It’s not that cold. A good wool coat and a campfire are all you would need to live outside at night in December in Bethlehem.

  16. From Jericho to Bethlehem, it is a 3500 Ft. climb.

  17. I think we need to take Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, into consideration. Various “scholars and theologians” estimate that the journey would have taken any where from 5 to 10 days, through the harsh elements and dangerous conditions of mountainous terrain, i.e. snow, cold, bandits, etc. Scripture tells us that they journeyed when “Mary was great with child”.
    Shortly after they arrived, “her days were accomplished”. Typical time frame for a pregnancy. Then, according to Law, Mary was unclean for 7 day, and on the 8th day, the baby was circumcised and named, Jesus. Then, after 33 days, (from birth or after circumcision is not clear), Joseph and Mary journeyed back to their home in Nazareth, in the northern highlands of Galilee. (LK2:21,22,39)
    This would make the trip back home, on a donkey, with a month old child, near mid, to late January. Travel conditions would have been next to impossible, with temps dipping below freezing, even during the day. Mountain passes and trails might have been blocked by snow or mudslides.
    So, maybe the sheep and the shepherds were out in the fields at night in late December. But, I don’t believe that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem during that time. We know the Romans were cruel occupiers and rulers at that time, but they weren’t stupid. The decree went out, that all the world was to be taxed, and all went, to be taxed. Would the Romans demand that everyone travel during the worst, most difficult time of the year? Or, would they demand that everyone travel when it was easier? Late August through mid-autumn would be perfect for travel. Caravans were abundant. Harvest season would be upon the land. Sheep would have been sheared, and wool would have been sold for the winter. There would buying and selling, bartering and trading. An abundance of commerce and currency. THAT is when the Romans would have decreed a census for taxation purposes; when most people had something to tax, not during the winter when people were living on supplies bought or harvested months before.

  18. According to Micah 4:8 The Messiah was to be born at the Tower of the Flock (Shepherd’s Tower). Micah 5:2-5 Is located in Bethlehem, Ephrathah of Judah. Outside Bethlehem at the Shepherd’s Tower, Migdal Eder was where the Lambs for Temple offering was birthed in a protective cave. In the spring they would wrap the unblemished lambs in swaddling cloth to keep them from injury. Swaddling cloth was mainly used on bodies for burial and for these lambs born in Bethlehem. Lambs are born in the Spring and these lambs of the Shepherd’s Tower were for sacrifice to prefigure Jesus.

    Shepherds are not in the fields with their sheep in the winter, but were in the fields from spring to Autumn. They are taken to Jerusalem’s temple six miles away and enter through the Sheep’s Gate. Jesus also entered the city through the Golden Gate and to the Temple where the money changers were through the sheep’s Gate. It seems fitting that Jesus the Lamb of God was born in the Spring and also enter through the Sheep’s Gate for temple sacrifice.

    The Magi according to Matt 2 came to a house to honor the King of the Jews who was not a baby but a child. Herod ordered all male children to be killed in Bethlehem under the age of 2. This was at most 12 male boys. Jesus was mostly under the age of 2 but older than one at the visit of the Magi from the East.

  19. Many of your statements do not harmonize with the biblical facts. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to Egypt, and only returned to Nazareth after learning that Herod was dead. This fact is discussed in some of my material.

  20. Pingback: Was Jesus Born December 25? If Not, Should We Celebrate Christmas December 25? – Re-theologizing

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