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...when Hebrew shepherds historically tended their flocks in open fields and according to the biblical account of Mary and Elizabeth's pregnancies.
As we look at the story of when Jesus was born we often think of the shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks. What can this evidence tell us about the date of Jesus’ birth? Were the flocks in the fields around the time of our modern-day Christmas, December 25?
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Let’s look at what the Bible says in Luke 2:8-9. “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.”
According to Bible commentator Adam Clarke, it was customary for the Jews to send their sheep to pasture from the spring until early October. As the cold winter months began, the flocks would return from the fields for shelter and warmth. Since the shepherds were still tending their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem it can be concluded that the angels announced the news of Jesus’ birth no later than October.
We can find some additional clues to answer the question of “when was Jesus really born” by looking at the birth of John the Baptist. Luke 1 tells of Zacharias, who was from the priestly order of Abijah, and his barren wife, Elizabeth, becoming pregnant with John the Baptist after his days of service in the temple. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited Mary with the news that she would give birth to Jesus. The approximate month of Jesus’ birth can thus be determined by counting from the date of Zacharias’ priestly service until the birth of Jesus.
Jewish priests were divided into 24 courses which ministered throughout the year in the temple. The order of Abijah was the eighth priestly course (1 Chronicles 24:6-19) which served in the temple during the 10th week of the priestly cycle. The start of the 10th week coincided with the second Sabbath in the month of Sivan, which runs approximately from mid-May to mid-June. Soon after Zechariah returned from his priestly duties Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist.
Luke 1:24-28, 31 records these events, “Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.’ Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!’...And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.”
Therefore, according to the texts above we can approximate the month of Jesus’ birth to be around the time of Tishri (mid to late September). To arrive at this date, start at the conception of John the Baptist, Sivan (June), count forward six months to arrive at Gabriel’s announcement of the conception of Jesus, Kislev (December), then count forward nine more months, the time it takes for human gestation, to reach Tishri (September), when Jesus was born.
The exact date of Jesus’ birth may not be known, but we can rest assured that Jesus died for our sins (Galatians 3:13), rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3-6), and that He will one day come back to take us to heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Imagine such a sacrifice. Imagine leaving the glory of heaven to save humanity? This year, think upon Jesus, His sacrifice, and His mercy. Ask yourself how can I live like He lived? How can I share His message with those around me?