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