WAS CHRIST really born on the 25th of December?

Amid claims by historians that the Christmas date originated from pagan feasts, Fr. Gerardo Tapiador, a professor of Sacred Scriptures at the San Carlos Seminary, believes that the basis of such claims are unfounded if Jewish traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus are to be invoked.

“Some scholars think that the birthday of Jesus is actually based on actual pagan feasts,” Tapiador told the Varsitarian. “This is because instead of making cross-references to the Old Testament, some scholars try to link Jesus’ birthday to pagan feasts and other extra-Biblical sources.”

In his book Hark the Herald: How the Bible Tells Us When Jesus Was Born (St. Paul’s, 2000), Tapiador cites the Feast of the Tabernacle as the time when angel Gabriel appeared before Zecariah to announce that his wife Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, would soon give birth to John the Baptist who shall “prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

“Since the Feast of the Tabernacle coincided with the feast of Booths, which corresponds to the Hebrew feast Succoth, the former must have been celebrated on the seventh month or the Ethanim,” Tapiador, the NCR Regional Director for the Episcopal Commission on the Biblical Apostolate in the Philippines, said. “In the original Roman calendar, the Ethanim corresponds to the month of September.”

By the time the Feast of the Tabernacle has ended, Zecariah must have gone home on a full moon, coinciding with Elizabeth’s conception according to the Gospel of Luke. Since a full moon occurs in the middle of the month, Tapiador asserts that Elizabeth’s conception must have taken place between Sept. 18 to 24.

“If Elizabeth conceived on Sept. 25, six months after the angel Gabriel revealed Mary’s conception of Jesus on the 25th of March, the day the Feast of the Annunciation is fixed,” Tapiador writes.

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After nine months of normal pregnancy, Christ’s birth would lead us to Dec. 25, the official date of Christmas as determined by Pope Julius I in 337 AD.

This dogmatic pronouncement can be traced to St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s correspondence with Julius I who, during his term as bishop, declared the impossibility of having his clergy attend a double precession in Bethlehem and Jordan to celebrate the birth and baptism of Christ in a single day. St. Cyril asked Julius I to assign a true date of the Nativity based from census documents brought by Emperor Titus to Rome.

From March to December

In an interview with the New York Times, William Tighe, a church historian at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, cited that the pagan-first theory which holds that Christmas was meant to replace Roman Emperor Aurelian’s feast day in honor of the sun god to welcome the return of light in the Northern Hemisphere on Dec. 25, 275 AD, was conceived only three centuries ago in the writings of Protestant historian Paul Ernst Jablonski and Catholic monk Jean Hardouin.

Tighe noted that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection dates for the liturgical calendar long before the pagan festivals.

Following ancient Judaist belief, the “integral age” concept holds that Israel’s great prophets must have died the same day as their birth and conception. Since the New Testament says that the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season (that on March 25), Christians marked Jesus’ conception on that date. Add nine months to the conception period and we heve Dec. 25.

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In his book Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Jack Finegan, a professor of ancient history at University of Michigan, cites Hippolytus’ Chronicles, written three decades even before Aurelian launched his festival in 275 AD. According to Hippolytus, Jesus’ birth took place eight days before the kalends (first day of each month of the Roman calendar) of January, that is Dec. 25.

Rejecting claims of some Biblical scholars regarding Christ’s supposed summertime birthday, Tapiador said that shepherds, who visited Jesus from the fields of Beithsahur, cannot pasture in summer because sheep are winter animals and would instantly die of Middle Eastern heat, given its thick coating.

“In Israel, winters are not harsh. There is snow, sometimes there is none. And definitely, winter is a time when there is green pasture because there’s a little bit of rainfall,” he said. “During summer, shepherds cannot pasture because the weather is so dry and you don’t pasture in a desert in summer.”

Jesus’ birthplace

New York Archbishop Edward Cardinal Egan, in a Christmas Eve homily last year, spoke of Emperor Hadrian, who, from the year 117 to 138 AD, has ordered his imperial architects to surround the area near the Bethlehem cave where Christ was believed to be born by early Christians, with a grove of trees to build the temple of the pagan god Adonis.

Hadrian, who had to quell a number of bloody uprisings which stemmed from religious cults or sects, had thought of persecuting Christians by despoiling their sacred places, one of which was the birthplace of the Messiah. But the temple ironically served as a marker that made it easier for Christians to identify the place.

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In search of the Holy Cross where Jesus died, Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, found the grotto in 327 AD where Christian residents of Bethlehem confirmed to be the birthplace of Christ.

“For a child to be born in Israel, the delivery must be made in a remote place, because giving birth at that time is a dirty process,” Tapiador said.

Queen Helena found “birth stains” that marked the area of Jesus’ birth. Later on, she would draw a 14-pointed star on the holy spot to encourage pilgrims to venerate the stains of Jesus’ delivery.

“Beside the grotto is another area, where the manger was laid. That is the clean area where Jesus was placed and wrapped in swaddling clothes,” Tapiador said.

Queen Helena brought the manger to Rome. The relics of the manger can still be found in the crypt under the main altar of the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome, built by Pope Liberius I in 360 AD, because of the miraculous snow that fell in Rome when it was supposed to be summer in Italy.

Far from the skepticism that challenges the validity of Christ’s birthdate and birthplace, Tapiador is convinced that the Bible’s teachings are enough references to decipher the mystery of the Divine Incarnation.

“Contrary to what other scholars say, there is no conflict in the accounts that Matthew and Luke have presented in the Bible. Both are reliable sources of information that attest to the actual place and date of Christ’s birth. It is only a matter of believing in both their symbolic and historical senses.” Tapiador said. Anthony Andrew G. Divinagracia with reports from www.nctimes.com, www.cny.org and www.nisbett.com

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