The time of year that Jesus was born is a matter of some debate, but the exact timing of Jesus’ birth is nothing to be dogmatic about, given the Bible’s lack of detail on the subject. The traditional date of celebrating Jesus’ birth is December 25, but the Bible nowhere points to His being born in mid-winter. One alternative theory is that Jesus was born sometime in September.
Those who propose that Jesus was born in September make their case using the following points: first, at the time of Jesus’ birth, there were shepherds in the fields watching their flocks (Luke 2:8). According to some sources, shepherds were not normally in the fields during December, due to the cold and wet conditions in Judea during that time of year. Therefore, Luke’s account suggests that Jesus may have been born in late summer or early fall (i.e., in September). The problem with this argument is that the average low temperature in Bethlehem in December is in the low-to-mid-forties—the same as Jacksonville, Florida.
Second, the idea of a September birth of Jesus includes a consideration of the census affecting Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:1–4). Some argue that Roman censuses would not have been taken in winter, as cold temperatures and poor road conditions would have made participation in a census difficult. However, others point out that Roman officials were not all that concerned with the burdens they placed on the citizenry. It was either obey Caesar or else; ease and convenience did not factor into the law-making process.
Third, and most significant, the theory that Jesus was born in September depends on the timing of John the Baptist’s birth. These biblical facts lay the groundwork: John’s father, a priest named Zechariah, was taking his turn to serve in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, would conceive a son (Luke 1:8–13). After Zechariah returned home, his wife conceived, just as the angel had said (Luke 1:23–24). Gabriel then visited Mary to announce the miraculous conception of Jesus, and this visit came in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:26, 36). Another important detail: Zechariah “belonged to the priestly division of Abijah” (Luke 1:5).
Using the above information, these calculations are made: the priests in the Abijah division served from June 13—19. Assuming that Elizabeth conceived shortly after Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah, her sixth month—the month that Gabriel visits Mary—would be December or January. Assuming that Mary conceives shortly after Gabriel’s announcement to her, Jesus would have been born nine months later, i.e., August or September.
There is still one problem with using those calculations to arrive at a September birth of Jesus. We just aren’t sure exactly when the Abijah division of priests served. The priestly divisions were created by David and instituted during Solomon’s reign (1 Chronicles 24:7–18), but the Babylonian exile required a “reset” of the divisions and their rotation (Ezra 2). Zechariah’s division could have served in mid-June, but other sources calculate Abijah’s course to have ended on October 9 of that same year. An October conception of John would place Jesus’ birth in December or January.
In the final analysis, no one knows in what month Jesus was born. It could have been December. It could have been September or some other month. Usually, supporters of the September date are reacting against the fact that December 25 was an ancient pagan holiday. But it should be noted that the Christian observance of December 25 has nothing to do with paganism today. If anything, Christian practice has “redeemed” the date from paganism and given it a new meaning full of praise to the birth of the Christ.