Most Gentile Christians wouldn’t bother to speculate about the time when Jesus was born. They celebrate it on December 25th even though they know there is no Biblical basis for choosing that date. However, there are some Messianic Jews who believe that they know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, the time of year when Yeshua (Jesus) was born. Taking into account certain Jewish customs and traditions, it’s not difficult to calculate it.
There is quite a wide consensus of opinion that Yeshua was born at some time during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), or at Succot (Tabernacles) which follows soon afterwards. These festivals normally occur in the Autumn, about September or October, but it varies from year to year because the Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon and doesn’t fit in with the Gregorian calendar.
The calculation of the time of Yeshua’s birth begins with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. According to Luke 1:5 he was a priest of the order of Abijah. He was performing his duties, burning incense in the Temple, when an angel appeared and said his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son, and he would be called Yochanan (John).
The order in which the priestly families performed their duties is given in 1 Chronicles 24:7-18. According to the Mishnah, the cycle begins on the first Shabbat (Sabbath) of Nisan, and each family of priests would minister in turn for one week. Since there are 24 families, each family would minister about twice a year. The cycle would be delayed slightly because all priests, regardless of their families, were required to be at the Temple for the three festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Succot (Tabernacles).
The family of Abijah was eighth in line, so Zechariah would have had his first period of duty during Sivan (about June) and his second period during Kislev about six months later. There is no way of knowing for sure which period of duty is referred to in Luke’s Gospel, but if we suppose it is the first period we get some very interesting results.
Zechariah finished his first period of duty about the middle of Sivan. Because of his unbelief, God struck him dumb, but his reproductive system was still working. He went home to his wife and she became pregnant. Count off 40 weeks, the usual period of gestation, and we get to the month of Nisan the following year. Beginning on the 14th of Nisan, and lasting for eight days, we have the festival of Pesach (Passover), which roughly coincides with Easter on the Christian calendar. This raises the distinct possibility that John the Baptist was born at Pesach, which coincides with the Jewish expectation that Elijah would come at Pesach. The Jews always put an extra cup of wine on the table at Pesach, in the hope that Elijah will come and drink it.
If John the Baptist was born at Pesach, Yeshua (Jesus) must have been born during the High Holy Days or at Succoth. In Luke 1:26 and 36 we are told that Yeshua was six months younger than John.
When the decree went out for everyone to go to their home town to be registered, Joseph and Mary set off for Bethlehem. They would have set out in good time, before Mary was fully 40 weeks pregnant, because she wouldn’t want to be jogged into childbirth while riding on a donkey. Besides, they would have wanted to complete the journey before Rosh Hashana.
We are given a clue about the time of the birth by the angel who appeared to the shepherds and said “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people”. (Luke 2:10). There are actually two clues here. Succot is a festival of joy, and it is also known as the “Festival of the Nations”. The angel was actually giving them a greeting for the Festival of Succot. This is the only festival where the nations are positively encouraged to participate. (Zechariah 14:16-19).
During Succot, the Jews contruct flimsy shelters called “Succah”, using wood and leaves, and eat or sleep in them. This is to remember how they were completely dependent on God as they wandered around for forty years in the desert when they came out of Egypt. They are celebrating “God with us”.
The birth of Yeshua at Succot fulfils another prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us”. (Matt. 1:23, a quotation from Isaiah 7:14).
If this is not enough, we also have to consider the type of dwelling in which Yeshua was born. Had it not been for the inconvenience caused by the census, he would have been born in a house like all other children. But he wasn’t, he was born in a stable, a flimsy dwelling where they kept sheep and cattle. So he was born in a Succah, to indicate that God had come to earth to dwell with humanity.
Eight days later, according to Luke 2:21, he was circumcised. NOT in the Temple as some suppose, but in Bethlehem, probably in the Succah where he was born. Mary would still be ceremonially unclean for 33 days after the circumcision according to Leviticus 12. Besides, she would be unlikely to travel to Jerusalem so soon after the birth even though it was not very far.
If the day of his birth was the first day of Succot, the day of his circumcision would be the eighth day of Succot which, like the first day, is a day of sacred assembly. (Leviticus 23:39). On this day, or traditionally the day after, the Jews complete their annual cycle of Torah readings and start again from Bereshit (Genesis). It is called Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law), and is considered to be a time of “fulfilment” of the Torah. The circumcision of Yeshua at this time indicates how he had come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17-18). Also in John 1:14 we read about how “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” – another obvious reference to Succot.
When the days of Mary’s purification were over (33 days after the circumcision), they would have made their way to Jerusalem to sacrifice a pair of doves or young pigeons. (Luke 2:22-24). Then they went back to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).
Every year they went to Jerusalem for Pesach. (Luke 2:41). During one of these visits, probably when Yeshua was two years old, they went to Bethlehem and stayed, not in a stable, but in a house. (Matt. 2:11). They were visited by the Magi, and then had to flee to Egypt to escape from Herod because he was killing all the male children two years old and under.
Starting from Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and his first period of duty in the Temple, and doing a few simple calculations, we arrive at a result which gives a new and profound meaning to many passages of Scripture, and for that reason, I think Yeshua is very likely to have been born at Succot.
So what are we going to do now? Are we going to continue observing Christmas on December 25th (which incidentally has pagan origins), or are we going to celebrate the birth of Yeshua at Succot? If we do (and we don’t have to become Jewish to do it) we will be creating the conditions in which Zechariah 14:16-19 can be fulfilled. People will say “Since we are celebrating Succot, why not do it in Jerusalem?”. Up to a point, this is already being fulfilled by large numbers of Christians who go to Jerusalem for a Succot celebration each year, but it could get bigger.
In Israel it’s impossible to miss these festivals, but for the benefit of those in the Diaspora the year 2005 dates are:
Rosh Hashana (New Year) Tues. 4 October
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Thurs. 13 October
1st Day of Succot (Tabernacles) Tues. 18 October
8th Day of Succot Tues. 25 October
Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law) Wed. 26 October
The Jewish day begins at sunset which means, for example, Rosh Hashana begins at sunset on Monday 3rd October.