Greeting cards depict Joseph along with Mary on the back of a donkey making their way to Bethlehem in the wintery snow. The natural questions arises: could Jesus have been born during that time of the year, perhaps with snow on the ground? It is possible, as 3 to 4 days a year snow can fall in Palestine. In January of 1950 for example there was 20 inches on the ground in Israel. It is usually pointed out that shepherds don’t have sheep on the hillsides during the winter, though the Nativity story reports “…shepherds watched their flocks by night…” But there were flocks of special sheep, those who were designated for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem who were kept all year round near Bethlehem at Beit Sahur, the “Tower of the Flock”.
In point of fact, we don’t know with certainty what time of the year the Nativity occurred. It was rare two millennia ago to track the specific date of birth. Neither the gospel of Matthew nor Luke mention either a specific year, nor time of year. Matthew ties it to King Herod, who we know died in 4 B.C., while Luke associates it with the census of Emperor Augustus when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was governor of Syria, around the same time.
While Christmas was celebrated on December 25th as early as A.D. 330 in the Western Church, the Eastern Church celebrated their holiday on January 6th, known as Theophany or Epiphany with the visit of the Wise Men. We’ll look at the History of Epiphany in January.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time