It is not specifically stated in the Bible when Jesus was born. However, the indications from Scripture give us a pretty good guide of when He was born, and importantly, when He was not born. We are given clues in the details concerning the priestly service of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, and the fact that Jesus and John were cousins.
Zechariah, was of the priestly division of Abijah (Luke 1:5,8). Back in King David’s day, the priests had been separated into 24 turns or divisions. These turns began in the first month of the Jewish calendar (1 Chronicles 27:2), March or April of our modern calendar. According to Talmudic and Qumran sources, the turns rotated every week until they reached the end of the sixth month, when the cycle was repeated again until the end of the year. This would mean that Zechariah’s division served at the temple twice a year.
In 1 Chronicles 24:10 it states Abijah was of the eighth division of the priesthood. Thus, Zechariah’s service would be in the tenth week of the Jewish year, in the month of Sivan (June). Why the tenth week and not the eighth week? Because all divisions served during primary feast weeks of the Jewish year. So all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (the third week of the year). Likewise, all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (the ninth week). Thus, the eighth course of the priesthood would end up serving on the tenth week of the year (that’s the Hebrew year, which starts March/April of our calendar).
In Luke 1:23-24, we are told Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist just after the days of Zechariah’s priestly service in the Temple. This would have been in the Hebrew month of Sivan, approximately June in our calendar. Assuming Elizabeth had a normal pregnancy, we can say then the birth of John the Baptist would have taken place at the time of the Passover (in the month of Nisan, our March/April). The Jews always looked for Elijah to return on the day of Passover. Even in modern times there is an empty chair and a table setting for Elijah whenever Passover is celebrated. Little children also go to the door of the home and open it in anticipation of Elijah’s coming. The Old Testament prophets had said that God would send Elijah before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). According to these calculations John the Baptist was born at Passover. Remember the angel’s words to Zechariah? The angel said that John the Baptist was to come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Elijah came at Passover!
Luke tells us that Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel visited Mary to announce she would became pregnant with the Lord by the Holy Spirit. The beginning of Elizabeth’s sixth month would have been the celebration of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, which occurs in December of our modern calendar. Hanukkah is known as the “Feast of the Dedication” (John 10:22) because it is connected with the dedication of the second Jewish temple and the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean revolt. Jesus referred to His body as the Temple in John 2:18-21, and so this all indicates Jesus physical body was dedicated (conceived) in Mary’s womb at the same time as the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah).
Following Mary’s conception at Hanukkah, six months after Elizabeth conceived, it follows John the Baptist would have been born a further three months later at Passover. And assuming a normal length of pregnancy for Mary, Jesus would have been born six months later again in the autumn. This is also the time of the autumnal feasts. We know from history that God has set His feasts as the times of the year when the various aspects of His work of salvation are fulfilled. Therefore, it is safe to assume the birth of Jesus also fell on one of the feasts, and using the timings stated above, one of the autumnal feasts of the LORD.
John’s gospel describes Jesus’s incarnation as “the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us”. Jn 1:14. The Greek verb skenoo used by John means “to pitch tent, encamp, tabernacle, dwell in a tent.” The wording is clearly alluding to the Feast of Tabernacles when the whole Jewish nation dwelt in temporary booths, as a memorial of the exodus from Egypt and the wanderings through the wilderness. We can say then it is likely that He was born on the Feast of Tabernacles, which starts on 15th Tishrei (this year 16th October). Jesus Himself celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. In John 7 & 8, Jesus referred to Himself in terms wholly associated with the Feast of Tabernacles, light and water. The significance of Jesus being born at Tabernacles is clear: God became a Man and dwelt amongst men in a temporary abode (body) in fulfilment of the feasts imagery & symbolism.
As stated earlier, the implication of this of course is that Jesus was not born on 25th December! The timing of Christmas has its roots in pagan mid-winter celebrations, traditionally the birthday of the sun god. When the Roman Empire decided to adopt ‘Christianity’ as the state religion, the 25th December was chosen as the official birthday of Christ because it would be more acceptable to blend it with existing pagan religious festivals. Additionally, it was a way of distancing their new state religion from the Biblical roots of genuine Christianity. Jesus Himself celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Dedication/Hanukkah (John 7 & John 10:22-23), whereas Christmas, as a festival, does not even feature in the Bible.
However, for us today, I appreciate Christmas is very much part of our western culture. It would be very difficult for people to adjust to such a huge change of culture in not celebrating Christmas. Also it is a time in which many people will attend Carol services and be open to hear the good news of the Gospel. We should use every opportunity to share the Gospel. But I do think it’s very important we understand the difference between festivals that are originally rooted in paganism and those that are Biblical, those that God calls His feasts (Leviticus 23:1-2), because God is calling us to be more and more like Him. As we grow as Christians the Lord progressively reveals to us His ways and shows us the ways we should walk in. This correspondingly results in us gradually moving away from those things which are not of Him. Thank God He is gracious and understanding, and helps us in all this. As it says in Hebrews 4:14-16:
“Seeing then we have a Great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”