Biblical archaeology simply refers to archaeology within the context of the Bible, which spans several thousand years and covers the Middle East along with the Mediterranean coastline. Jewish and Christian scholars comprised the earliest teams of archaeologists, but many since have approached this discipline from less of a religious, and more of a scientific standpoint.
Christians often find this off-putting, as archaeologists may interpret the data in ways that conflict with the traditional biblical narrative. But there is a real difference between the actual data, and the interpretations that try to make sense of artifacts and ancient terrain. We do well to appreciate the record of antiquity carefully unearthed and conserved by archaeologists, and at least listen to their theories. We will learn quite a lot.
Still, in the end, we also need to be critical thinkers as we weigh physical evidence, artifacts, ancient ruins, grave goods, inscriptions, and all the rest against what we have already been given in the scriptures.
The contents of today’s post is taken from, and largely summarizes, a longer article written for the Biblical Archaeology Society—a great read, and I recommend it. Offered within the article are other, mostly free, resources. Why not benefit from the years of expertise and painstaking work of experts in the field! While at the same time, reserving our own interpretation.
Saturnalia or Mithras?
When I first researched the background behind the practice of an Advent season and Christmas Day, I came across two ancient Roman festivals that both occurred during the winter solstice and were later tied to December 25. Christian leaders also tied Jesus’ birth to December 25. Since several significant Christmas practices, such as
- Advent wreaths with candles (turning the wheel of the earth back towards the sun),
- Decking the halls with boughs of holly (evergreens representing the power of life overcoming the power of death),
- Celebrating for twelve days (following the Festival of Saturnalia), and
- Decorating with mistletoe
all stem from Saturnalia and the celebration of the birth of the sun god Mithras, it was logically extrapolated that Christmas itself also stems from these same festivals. But actually, it was not until the twelfth century that a written connection was made between the Roman festivals of antiquity and the Christian commemoration of Jesus’ birth.
Jesus’ Birth Not Observed
No early celebrations surrounding Jesus’ birth are even mentioned among the earliest Christian writers and historians. In fact, Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) apparently wrote disdainfully about the Roman practice of honoring birth anniversaries, naming it a “pagan” practice, seeming to indicate believers did not follow suit. Christians were much more concerned with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, and Jesus’ second Advent to come.
Then, early in the third century (200-299 A.D.) Christian writers became intent on piecing together the timeline of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Clement of Alexandria noted a number of different days had been submitted over time for Jesus’ birth—but none of them were December 25.
“[May 20] There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon
“[March 21] And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth
“[April 21] and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi
“[April 15] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi the Savior suffered.
“[April 20 or 21] Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi.”Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145.
From Passion to Conception
Then Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 200 A.D.) made the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died corresponded to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.
Have you ever played that game when someone tells you their birthday and you count three months forward to see what month they were conceived in? For example, I was born in December, which means I was conceived in March—when spring is in the air, and people’s hearts are light and merry! And it is a well-known fact that in those countries where Mardi Gras or Carnival is celebrated, the birthrate experiences a spike nine months later.
The ancient Christians thought through something of the same process. They established the time of Jesus’ crucifixion—March 25—which affixed the time of His conception, eventually commemorated as the Feast of the Annunciation.
Evidently, there is an anonymous fourth-century Christian treatise called On Solstices and Equinoxes, that states:
“Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”On Solstices and Equinoxes
It was believed that when the Holy Spirit had overshadowed the Virgin Mary, causing the conception of Christ, God prophetically foreshadowed Jesus’ crucifixion to come, on that very day thirty or so years forward.
Next time you look at artwork depicting that moment, you might notice the baby Jesus descending from the Father’s presence, holding a cross. Today, some nativity scenes subtly portray the shadow of a cross falling over the manger, or show the shape of the cross within the creche.
It was a simple matter to count forward nine months from March 25 to December 25. Augustine of Hippo corroborated this thinking when he wrote his own treatise On the Trinity (c. 399–419):
“For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”Augustine, Sermon 202
The earliest written record of this day as Jesus’ birth is found in a Roman almanac dating from the fourth century. In it are the dates of death for a number of Christian martyrs and bishops, but the very first date listed is December 25, when
natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: [“Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”]The Philocalian Calendar.
Feast of Epiphany
The Eastern Church also connected Jesus conception with His crucifixion, but instead of using the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, they used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar. So, instead of March 25, they ended up with April 6, which inevitably led to January 6, a tidy twelve days after December 25!
An Eastern Bishop, Epiphanius of Salamis associated April 6 with when
“The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”Epiphanius is quoted in Talley, Origins, p. 98.
Though some parts of the Church still observe Jesus’ birth on January 6 (for example, the Armenian church), most Christians worldwide celebrate December 25 as Christmas, and commemorate January 6 as the day the magi arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby king.
(all references are cited in the original article, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” written by Andrew McGowan, originally appearing in the Bible Review, December 2002, and reprinted for the Biblical Archaeology Society.