The birth of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most iconic events in the Bible and an essential date on church calendars. Christians love the story of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, staying in a manger, and having shepherds visit them. Most people think of the setting of the story as the month of December. Yet, an important detail in the Gospel of Luke gives some readers pause.
Some scholars believe Jesus may have been born in April, not December, because Luke says that the shepherds were keeping watch of their sheep at night. Furthermore, some speculate that the sheep were for people to sacrifice in the temple, perhaps for the Springtime Passover festival.
Why do some people believe that Jesus was born in the Spring? Did shepherds guard their sheep at night time during winter? Did Luke intend to imply a certain month? Do most scholars question the December date? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see How Old Was Joseph When He Married Mary? to learn more.
Why do some people believe that Jesus was born in the Spring?
The two Gospels that include stories of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke, don’t mention the month or season it occurred. Some scholars are persuaded that Luke’s comments about the shepherds reveal the time of year, but others aren’t convinced. Luke 2:8 records the debated details.
|ESV||And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.|
|KJV||And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.|
|NASB||In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.|
|NIV||And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.|
|NLT||That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.|
Did shepherds guard their sheep at night time during winter? This question is the source of the debate. Some argue that it would be too cold in the region of Bethlehem to be out in a field in the middle of the night in December. Others say that, despite the temperature, shepherds had to protect their flocks all day, all year-round, though they worked in shifts.
Did Luke intend to imply a certain month? Most scholars don’t believe he did. New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall explains that shepherds commonly kept flocks outside from Spring to Fall. Nevertheless, the text doesn’t rule out a December date. “Flocks were kept outside in this way from April to November and occasionally in suitable locations during the winter.”
According to Marshall, readers can’t rule out either month. “The traditional scene of the revelation to the shepherds near Bethlehem is sheltered and could perhaps have been used in winter for flocks, but there is nothing in the narrative to indicate the time of year, and the celebration of Christmas in winter in the northern hemisphere finds no support here although it is not rendered impossible.” 
Commentator and theologian Leon Morris agrees that readers can’t infer the month of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2:8. “Since flocks might thus be in the fields in winter the traditional date for the birth of Jesus is not ruled out. Luke says nothing about the actual date and it remains quite unknown.” 
Also see How Old Was Joseph When Jesus Was Born? to learn more.
Do most conservative scholars question the December date?
First, the majority of liberal scholars reject Jesus’ birth stories as authentic historical narratives, a December or April date makes little difference to their conclusions.
Second, among conservative scholars, a minority are convinced of the April date. Many others, like those cited above, conclude that the biblical text doesn’t reveal the month. Yet other conservative scholars hold firmly to the December date, as illustrated in this example:
“The shepherds on that wintry night were naturally huddled close to their fire, while icy constellations swept by overhead. Suddenly, as if a star had burst, glorious light overpowered the night, and an honored angel stepped forth as the shepherds recoiled in great fear despite his reassuring words.” 
Also see How Old Was Mary When She Gave Birth to Jesus? to learn more.
The location and use of a manger for Jesus’ birth
Scholars suggest two possible locations for the manger. Based on historical records from the time, some believe the manger may have belonged to the inn. Yet others citing a tradition in the church think it may have been in a nearby cave.
Was the manger near the inn? Some scholars suggest that the manger was attached to the inn or its courtyard. An adjacent dwelling place for animals was a typical setup for an inn in the first century because visitors needed a place to keep the ones they traveled with, like a donkey.
Though Luke doesn’t mention that the manger belonged to the inn, the suggestion is consistent with the fact that Mary’s delivery of Jesus was imminent.
Was the manger in a cave? Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D) is known for defending the Christian faith against heretical and skeptical attacks. In his book, Dialogue with Trypho, which scholars date to 155-160 A.D., he mentions that the location of the manger was in a cave in (or perhaps just outside of) Bethlehem. He writes:
“But when the child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him” (Ch. 78). 
Some Bible scholars argue that Justin’s description of the manger being in a cave is credible for a few reasons. First, people at the time placed mangers in caves carved out of rocky hillsides because it protected animals from the elements. Second, Justin only lived 40 miles (about 77 kilometers) from Bethlehem, suggesting he may have been familiar with the area.
Historian and theologian Craig Keener writes, “By the early second century A.D. even pagans in the area were reportedly widely aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave used as a livestock shelter behind someone’s home, and they reported the site of this cave to the emperor Hadrian.” 
Does the manger suggest an April or December date? Most scholars don’t believe it does. People like shepherds needed shelters to protect animals from the elements no matter the time of year. People can make arguments for either date.
Also see What Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? to learn more.
 The Gospel of Luke by I Howard Marshall. NIGTC. p. 108.
 Luke by Leon Morris. TNTC. p. 100.
 Luke by R Kent Hughes. PTW. p. 89.
 The IVP Bible Background Commentary by Craig Keener. p. 184.
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