Just as we have a lot of false traditions about the timeline surrounding the death of Christ, we have the same problem with the birth of Christ. News flash: it wasn’t December 25! The scriptures don’t give us enough detail to pin down exact dates, but we can determine the approximate months and then use the seven feasts incorporated into the Law of Moses as a guide. This timeline is more speculative than the timeline for the death of Christ, so feel free to take this with a few grains of salt. I have read other proposed timelines that support different dates and their arguments are possible. I currently think this one fits best with the scriptures.
Zechariah and Gabriel – Pentecost
Luke 1:5, 8-10
There was in the days of Herod, king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia, and his wife, being of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth…
And while he executed the priest’s office before God, in the order of his priesthood, according to the law (his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord), The whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
During the time of King David, the priests of the family of Aaron were divided up into twenty-four courses. (See 1 Chronicles 24:1-18). Each course would serve for eight days in the temple, overlapping on the sabbath so there were twice as many priests for sabbath services. The schedule started at the beginning of the year, about two weeks before Passover. During the three major feasts of the year (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) all the priests would work in the temple, pausing the normal rotation for that week. The course of Abia was the 8th course, which meant they began work on the ninth sabbath and worked through the tenth sabbath of the year (shifted back one week because of everyone working during Passover), and then repeated again ~24 weeks later (plus time for the fall feasts). These verses in Luke narrow down the range of time for the visit of Gabriel to two weeks during the year: Week 9 (~early June) or week 35 (~early December). Because of the lunar calendar, the exact dates would vary from year to year but this gets us close enough for now.
If you remember from the Passion Timeline, Pentecost is celebrated seven weeks and one day after the feast of Firstfruits, which is the day after the first sabbath after Passover. The Passover lamb is killed on the 14th day of the year, at the end of the second week. This appears to put Pentecost (one of the three feast mandating attendance in Jerusalem) either during Zechariah’s temple service schedule or right next to it, depending on the year. Because “the whole multitude of the people were praying without”, it’s possible that it was the day of Pentecost when Gabriel tells Zechariah about the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist. Nine months after this would place the birth of John the Baptist in the spring.
And as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days, his wife Elizabeth conceived and hid herself five months.
Mary and Gabriel – Hannukah
Luke 1:26-27, 36
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
Six months after the announcement to Zechariah, we have the announcement to Mary. Six months after Pentecost puts us into December, which is the time of Hannukah, or the festival of lights. If there ever were a symbolic time to announce the coming of the Light of the World into the world, the festival of lights would be it.
Mary and Elizabeth
Luke 1:39-40, 56
39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.
56 And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.
Mary would have stayed with Elizabeth during Mary’s first trimester and Elizabeth’s third trimester. This timeline would have her returning to Nazareth in the early spring just before Passover, with Elizabeth close to giving birth. Shortly after Mary’s return is probably when Joseph discovered that Mary was with child.
The Birth of John the Baptist – Passover
The tradition of the Jews at Passover is to set a place at the table for Elijah when he comes. The angel Gabriel said that John would go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah. The JST version of the Bible reveals an even stronger linkage between John the Baptist and Elijah. If you’re unfamiliar with this, read Searcher’s explanation here. While I can’t prove this with scripture, it seems probable that John was born on the night of Passover when all the Jews were waiting for the return of Elijah. Prophecy was fulfilled but missed by those who were going through the motions of watching for it.
The Birth of Jesus – The Feast of Tabernacles
Six months after this puts us into the fall. This is the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. During this feast, the Jews would spend a week living in a temporary shelter called a sukkah, or tabernacle. Here’s what the modern-day Feast of Tabernacles looks like:
The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the three annual feasts that all males were required to come up to Jerusalem for. It’s also in the fall, when farmers would have money from their harvest. This would be a logical time for the Romans to conduct their census and collect taxes.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now let’s look at the Greek. The word “inn” is κατάλυμα (kataluma). This doesn’t mean “Holiday Inn”, but guest room. This same word is used in Mark 14:14 to mean guestchamber, which was the room Jesus used for the Last Supper.
And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
Women, especially when pregnant, were not required to stay in the sukkah during the Feast of Tabernacles. But this time the guestchamber at their relatives’ house was already full, so Mary appears to have slept in the sukkah with Joseph, and that is where she gave birth to Jesus. (It’s possible that the Greek word translated into “manger” was actually an attempt to describe these tabernacles and time and tradition have turned it into a stable and feeding trough.) Symbolically, Jesus assumed a tabernacle of flesh in a tabernacle of wood during the Feast of the Tabernacles.
Interestingly, the first and eighth day of Feast of Tabernacles are days of rest. If Jesus was born on the first day of the Feast, he would have been circumcised on the eighth day of the feast, both days being holy days. I can’t prove it, but it would fit the pattern.
The fall feasts symbolize the coming of the Lord, both his first and second coming. While we can’t pin down an exact date for Christ’s birth, scripturally the Feast of Tabernacles in September/October seems to fit.
What about April 6?
Those of us raised in the LDS tradition have been taught that April 6 was the day that Christ was born. There are several problems with this theory. The first is that it wasn’t taught until the 1900s when James Talmage wrote about it. If this was a revealed truth, we should have a record of Joseph teaching it. We don’t.
Secondly, the basis for Talmage’s April 6 date is the opening line in D&C Section 20.
The rise of the Church of Christ in these last days, being one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh, it being regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country, by the will and commandments of God, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April—
Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers project, we now know a lot more about this phrase than Brother Talmage knew. We now know that John Whitmer, Joseph’s scribe at the time, wrote those first few lines as an introduction – they did not come from Joseph. Also, John Whitmer used that fancy date terminology several times in other writings, like this:
“It is now June the twelfth, one thousand eight hundred and thirty one years, since the coming of our Lord and Savior in the flesh.”
If we apply the same logic to this writing of John Whitmer as we apply to D&C 20:1, then Jesus must have been born on June 12 as well as on April 6! We can therefore assume the April 6 wording was used in the same manner as the June 12 wording, just a fancy 19th century way of stating the date. Trying to interpret that to identify the date of birth of Jesus is a stretch.
A final reason we can discount the April 6 date is that it does not line up with the scriptural record. If Jesus were born on April 6, and John the Baptist is 6 months older than Jesus, then Gabriel must have appeared to Zechariah about fifteen months earlier in January. But we know from the priestly courses that Zechariah didn’t work in the temple in January. We also know this doesn’t line up with the prophetic symbolism of the feasts of the Law of Moses. God instituted these feasts to point toward and symbolize Christ. We ignore them at our own peril.
In the grand scheme of things, knowing the date of Christ’s birth probably doesn’t matter much. Far more important is the process we use for accepting data. If we believe something simply because we’ve been taught it for a long time, or been told to respect those doing the teaching, and we never question it, we have a problem. But if we follow the example of the Bereans, we’ll be fine.
And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.