Most Gentile Christians wouldn’t bother to speculate about the time when Jesus was born. They celebrate it on December 25th even though they may suspect that there is no Biblical basis for choosing that date. However, there are many Messianic Believers who, from a Jewish perspective, are convinced that the time of year when Jesus was really born was at the Feast of Tabernacles.
It should be noted that Tabernacles occurs in the Autumn, or during the September or October time-frame, but it varies from year to year because the Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon and doesn’t track with the Gregorian calendar.
The calculation of the time of Jesus’ birth begins with Zacharias, 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 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 (March/April), 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 Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
The family of Abijah was eighth in line, so Zacharias would have had his first period of duty during the Jewish month of Sivan (about June) and his second period during the month of 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 it is surmised that it is the first period we get some very interesting results.
Zacharias finished his first period of duty about the middle of Sivan. Because of his unbelief, God struck him dumb. Nevertheless, 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 festivals of Passover, unleavened bread and First Fruits, which are all occur in the spring. This raises the distinct possibility that John the Baptist was born at Passover, which coincides with the Jewish expectation that Elijah would come at Passover. It has always been the Jewish custom to put an extra cup of wine on the table at Passover, in the hope that Elijah will come and drink it.
If John the Baptist was born at Passover, Jesus must have been born six months later during the autumn feasts Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles, and most probably at Tabernacles. In Luke 1:26 and 36 we are told that Jesus 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 the Day of Atonement, which is two weeks before Tabernacles.
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. Tabernacles is known as “The Season of our Joy”, and it is also known as the “Festival of the Nations (or Gentiles)”. The angel was actually giving them a greeting for the Festival of Tabernacles. This is the only festival where the nations are positively encouraged to participate with negative results if they do not. (Zechariah 14:16-19).
Likewise, during Tabernacles (Succot), Jewish families today in Israel construct a flimsy shelter called a “Succah”, made of loosely assembled walls and a leafy overhead covering. In the Succah, we eat or sleep. This is a reminder to us that we were completely dependent on God as we wandered for forty years in the desert after departing from Egypt and were led by “a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.” Because of this experience, we recall that “God is with us” (Emmanuel).
In this same narrative in Luke 2 regarding the Shepherds to whom an angel of the Lord appears, note that the text says that they were “watching over their flocks, AT NIGHT.” The angel brings them a message that their Messiah was born in the town of David, during that day which had just passed to night. This message was accompanied by the appearance of a great heavenly host, praising God. When we consider the seasons in Israel, and the weather patterns, one might ask “What is the latest time of year in which shepherds would still be outside with their flocks in the Judean hills, AT NIGHT?” November through February are far too cold in Israel to be doing this kind of activity. The answer of course points to the end of October, at the latest, for temperature reasons alone. Depending of the Hebrew calendar in any given year, as mentioned above, Tabernacles always falls in the September-October time frame, when the weather is still warm and pleasant outside, especially AT NIGHT. For these reasons, and many others not documented here, we think Jesus is very likely to have been born at Tabernacles.
And so, the birth of Jesus at Succot fulfils another prophecy: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel – which means, “God is with us”. (Matt. 1:23, quoting from Isaiah 7:14) and note the wording of John 1:14. ‘He dwelt (literally tabernacled) among us.’
If this is not enough, we also have to consider the type of dwelling in which Jesus 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 type of Succah where servants of a household slept, or where they kept sheep and cattle. Luke uses the Greek word for “manger” but because Jesus was Jewish, and it was most likely the festival of Succot, the text probably describes a Succah. This would make sense since we know that Jesus would fulfil every aspect of Torah from his birth until his death. The link here is directly to commandment in Leviticus Chapter 23, verse 42, “Live in booths (Succot) for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in Succot so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in Succot when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
Eight days later, according to Luke 2:21, Jesus was circumcised. Mary would still have been ceremonially unclean for 33 days after the Jesus’ birth, in accordance with Leviticus 12. Owing to her requirement to present a purification offering at the Temple in Jerusalem after this period, she would most likely have remained in Bethlehem, just a short distance from Jerusalem.
If the day of Jesus’ birth was the first day of Succot, then the day of his circumcision would be the eighth day after Succot which, in accordance with Torah is also day of sacred assembly. Leviticus 23:39. On this day, called “Simchat Torah” or “Rejoicing in Torah,” we complete our annual cycle of Torah readings and start again from Genesis. It is considered to be a time of “fulfilment” of the Torah and also a new beginning for it, in our lives, since Torah is never abandoned. This indeed would seem to be a fitting holiday for Jesus’ circumcision and dedication before God, since He came to set the Torah on a firm foundation by correctly interpreting it and fulfilling it (i.e., becoming the goal to which the Law and the Prophets pointed), thereby making a way to renew the Torah in our lives. (Matt. 5:17-19).
When the days of Mary’s purification were over, they would have then returned back to Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39). But each year, and in accordance with the required pilgrimage commandments in Torah, Joseph and Mary went up to Jerusalem for Passover. (Luke 2:41). During one of these visits, probably when Jesus was about two years old, they went to Bethlehem and stayed, not in a succah or stable this time, but in a house. (Matt. 2:11). They were visited there 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.
And so, by starting from Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, and his first period of duty in the Temple, and doing a few simple calculations, we discover that the Jewishness of the Gospel becomes profoundly evident, giving new import to many passages of Scripture previously misunderstood.
What then should we do now? Should Christians continue observing Christmas on December 25th (which incidentally is entirely pagan in its origins), or are we going to begin recognizing our Hebraic roots and understanding the purpose of the feasts which the Father in His wisdom gave the Jews in Old Testament times.
Some may believe that it does not matter when we celebrate the birth of the Messiah; it can be any of the twelve months of the year! No, fact is we are not anywhere told to celebrate it!
But we must recognise the importance of Messianic prophecy and fulfilment! The birth of Jesus at the Festival of Tabernacles was for prophetic reasons foreshadowing in effect the coming of Christ to reign. These are important pictures to treasure in our hearts! If it is important enough to God that He would cause Jesus’ birth AND coronation as King to takes place at an appointed season on the Jewish Calendar, then it should be important to us, regardless of the world’s traditions.
If we do this (and we don’t have to become Jewish to do it) we will be true to Scripture and not compromising with a degraded world that uses any excuse, even an unbiblical religious festival, as an excuse for revelling and excess. We worship the One who tabernacled among us.