History of Nativity Season: snow in Bethlehem?

NATIVITY SEASON

Greeting cards depict Joseph along with Mary on the back of a donkey making their way to Bethlehem in the wintry snow. But could Jesus have been born during that time of the year, perhaps with snow on the ground? While it is uncommon it does snow in this part of Palestine sometimes as much as three to four days a year. At an elevation of 2,400 feet Bethlehem is in the desert. But desert means dry, not hot. Where I live in Colorado is officially the high desert, and we have snow all the time! In January of 2002 there were several inches of snow across parts of Palestine. Bethlehem got another snow fall in February of 2004, But the Biblical narrative doesn’t say there was snow on the ground.

It says “…shepherds watched their flocks by night…” It is usually pointed out that shepherds don’t have sheep on the hillsides during the winter. But there were flocks of a special kind of sheep, those designated for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem who were kept all year round near Bethlehem at Beit Sahur, the “Place of the Night Watch.” A more precise location is given in Micah 4:8 as Migdal Edar, or the “Tower of the Flock.”

In point of fact, as mentioned in our previous article, we don’t know with certainty what time of the year the Nativity occurred. Two millennia ago it was rare indeed 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 we have documentation that 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 Epiphany (or Theophany) with the visit of the Wise Men. We’ll look at the History of Epiphany in January.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

13 comments… add one
  • Beit Sahur, is interpreted as Bait – House , Sahur closed.

    It could be a specially covered – closed area by some material , similar to warm house we have for vegetables in cold area.
    It protected the sheep from cold penetrating winds of that time.

    End of December at night is very cold.

    Also we know that Zacharias father of John the Baptist was priest of the order of Abuah. As such it was 8th order in June July time. He after finishing his priestly service in the temple shortly returned and his wife conceived. WHen Mary came to visit Zecharias wife
    she was 6 moths pregnant we can calculate then when Mary conceived Jesus.
    It was late December, And Jesus was born 9 months after so it was around September. Many see it a feast Sukkoth celebrated in Tishri 15th.

    Reply
  • Thank you, this was most helpful

    Reply
  • I read the King James Bible; what I get from it. God would have had a prophet document Jesus birthday if he wanted us to know; the purpose is to give all year not just 1 day the purpose is giving and a King was born to save us Amen.

    Reply
    • Stacey,

      You have a good point there. Inevitably, people want to celebrated a birth date. The fact that we don’t have an historian recording the date of the birth of Jesus — or St. Paul, or John or Peter for that matter — doesn’t seem to stop people. We do have a better idea though of the date of Jesus’ crucifixion.

      -Bill

      Reply
      • I am grateful to know the date of His crucifixion.. That is HIS birthday., Well that weekend .

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        • James,

          Certainly “first born from the dead.”

          -Bill

          Reply
  • Please refer to BethlehemStar.net about Herod reign having incorrect years. This would put his reign at a time when Jesus would be born in 1 BC, being a year old in 1 AD.

    Let me know what you think after seeing this site.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  • I wish people would get it straight about the date of Christmas in the Eastern Church. Christmas Eve falls on December 24, by the Julian Calendar, which makes it January 5 by the Gregorian. We celebrate Epiphany or Theophany 12 days later. Theologically, it is the celebration of Christ’s baptism – which is why water is blessed that day. While we often also associate it with the visit of the Magi and called it Three Kings, it is not our Christmas celebration. We celebrate on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, like everyone else.

    Reply
    • BetteAnn,

      My article today on Epiphany might clear that up. When we say “Eastern Church” not all things are equal. The Russian Church celebrates on Jan 6, the Greek Orthodox church does not. The Julian/Gregorian Calendar confuses lots of people.

      -Bill

      Reply
  • The traditional Spanish Christmas made sense to me – and I loved it – (tho’ Jolly Santa ho ho ho! was fast appearing along with the influx of American architects, when I left in 1959) .
    Christmas day celebrated the Nativity, a normal day in which everyone went to church as usual – and there would be a traditional Nativity scene with figurines on display. But everyone looked forward to Epiphany, when the three kings – who had been following the star – arrived in magnificent jewelled robes, and rode through the the centre of Madrid on camelback! That night, children would crack the bedroom window open, and lay out a sack (a sack please note, not a little stocking) – knowing the three kings would leave a gift for every child – in case they missed the Christchild by mistake.

    Reply
  • Christmas, according to the western tradition occurs at roughly the same time as the Jewish celebration of Channukah. A theological understanding that Christianity presents Jesus as the LIGHT to the world, AND that Chanukah celebrates the supernatural provision of fuel for the lamps in the temple shows exactly why 25 December was chosen as the date to celebrate.

    In the last 120 years both feasts have occurred concurrently, an average of 115 times. Using a calculator and beginning with the number +2016 (the most recent occurrence of 25 December and 25 Kislev and subtracting 15, and continuing until reaching a negative number, you get to -6, close enough in reaching a conclusion that sometime between 10BCE and 1AD, the convergence of both 25 December and 25 Kislev occurred AT LEAST ONCE.

    According to http://www.bible-history.com/geography/seasons_months_israel.html it is entirely possible to have snow ON THE MOUNTAINS and a harvest of tropical fruits during an Israeli winter. If there are tropical fruits being harvested during winter, then logic dictates it is possible for the shepherds to be in their fields tending their flocksduring winter!

    Reply

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