Argumentum ex Ovem

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Looong quote

Long ago, I accepted the idea that December 25 was probably not the actual date of Christ’s birth, that the real date was unknown but probably in the spring. Knowing the exact date doesn’t really impact the liturgical celebration, after all. It was just one more sad thing about being an adult, one more little bit of wonder gone from life.

Since then, I’ve become well acquainted with the historical evidence in favor of a date of December 25. The date can be derived historically from the dating of Zechariah’s entry into the temple to burn incense. It can also be derived theologically from the ancient tradition that a great prophet entered and left the world on the same calendar day. Thus, the Annunciation was determined to have occurred on the same day as the crucifixion, March 25. December 25 naturally follows nine months later. They are good arguments, held to strict standards of historical research and logic, within their own fields.

But neither ever quite satisfied my desire for something really concrete. One continual objection was that the shepherds in the fields at night were presumed to be attending to the dropping of lambs. And lambs didn’t drop in December. Lambs dropped in the spring, not the winter.

So, when yet another person asked “Why do we celebrate Christmas in December if lambs are born in the spring?” instead of explaining the significance of March 25, I suddenly wondered: ARE lambs actually born in the spring in Israel? Can I find out?

Spoiler for the second question:
yes, yes you can.

And there’s a solid answer, and a lovely bit of symbolism: those lambs are the Passover Lambs.


(title is from the author’s personal blog, ‘On the Care and Feeding of Geeks.’  I smiled, so thought I’d share.)

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  1. Neat article. Except now the author has the “problem” that the Crucifixion happened on April 3, not March 25.

  2. Now figure out how the Saturnalia factors into the calendar switch!

    Also, does this mean the Orthodox Church calendar is Julian?


  3. Sometimes we overthink these things. We know from scripture that St. John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus and that St. John was born in the spring, on or around Passover. That would make the birth of Jesus sometime in September or October – most likely during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. I expect the second coming of Christ to occur during that time frame, as well. Merry Christmas to all!

  4. The Annunciation happened in the 6 month, when Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. So a better question is, does the year begin in March or January?

  5. And Luke is writing to a Roman. So, is he going off the Roman calendar, or is he repeating what he learned from his (probably) Jewish source?

  6. Ernst– yes, but six months before when?
    I found a few arguments for specific dates based on when Zechariah would’ve finished serving in the temple, then looking 6 months from that for when Mary would’ve been visited, but amusingly enough the dates go from 6-2BC. (Which is not even the full range.)

    There were also some calculations based on him having the same birthday as Elijah, on the theory that folks claimed he was Elijah returned, so….

    It’s quite likely that Luke’s “Jewish source” was Mary, what with all the “held this in her heart” talk.

    Obviously, I find this stuff really fun.^.^

  7. Good catch m’lady. I read it as “In the sixth month [of the year],” When it’s In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy].”

    I think you’re correct about Mary being the ultimate source, but I’m not sure if Luke got his information from her directly or through one or more intermediaries. I don’t think we have enough information to think one way or the other.

  8. Don’t get me started on breaks. I bowed out of an unpleasant row over a paragraph(!) break in Ephesians last week. Anyway, all chapters and verses are later editions –13th century if I remember, but I don’t care enough to look it up again.

  9. “Why do we celebrate Christmas in December if lambs are born in the spring?” instead of explaining the significance of March 25, I suddenly wondered: ARE lambs actually born in the spring in Israel? Can I find out?”
    If my memory serves me correctly, the seasons are opposite for us and for Israel. When we are having Spring, Israel is having Fall.

  10. It might help to know that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year starts around October. This year is 5779
    Counting from October would make Elizabeth’s pregnancy at six months in March, John’s birth in June 24th and Christmas in December 25th.

  11. Donald R McClarey wrote, “However at the time of Christ the Roman calendar observed New Years on January 1.”

    The consuls entered office on 1 January and the official Roman method of dating was by the names of the consuls “X an Y being consuls) so, in that sense, the year began on 1st January.

    However, the agricultural year began in March, hence September (7th month) October (8th month) Indeed, July and August used to be Quinilis (5th month) and Sextilis (6th month) until the Senate renamed them in honour of Julius Caesar and Augustus. That is why we have a sequence of two 31 day months, for it would never have done for the new Emperor to have a shorter month than the deified Julius.

  12. If my memory serves me correctly, the seasons are opposite for us and for Israel. When we are having Spring, Israel is having Fall.
    Technically, no, but their April-May is the rainy season; supposedly it’s quite miserable, from the tourist reviews.

    While the new year aspect isn’t necessarily important (would I put it past God to cause, or Luke to report, Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy being the sixth month of the year? No, not on a dare!) that Rosh Hashanah is (simplified) a holy day of obligation figured into some of the discussions on dating– it would explain why there was a huge crowd to see Zachariah come out of the temple, mute.

  13. Just to confuse matters yet further, the Jews observed four New Years.

    The 1st of Nisan (The paschal new moon) – See Ex 12:2, “This month shall be the first of months…” This was the New Year for kings and festivals

    The 1st of Elul – the New Year for calculating animal tithes

    The 1st of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) – the New Year for for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing

    The 15th of Shevat (the full moon) the New Year for trees, for calcualating the prohibition on eeating the fruit of a tree during the first 3 years (Lev 19:23)

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