Jesus' birth occurred in September or perhaps early October. This could not have taken place in December because shepherds would not have been out in the fields at night then. In Palestine, the rainy season transpires between the end of October and early April, with the most inclement weather occurring between December and February. In fact, around Jerusalem, much of the region's 24 inches of annual rain falls during this winter period. Shepherds did not want to keep the sheep in the rain and cold anymore than they wanted to be there themselves.
Most translations tone verse 9 down a bit from its intended sudden majesty. It should read, "And BOOM! an angel of the Lord stood before them." The angel's appearance was instantaneous and shocking! One second they were peacefully minding their sheep, eyelids half-shut, and the next, right in their midst, perhaps hovering just over their heads, stood an angel in all the brilliance of angelic glory!
Luke writes that "they were greatly afraid." What understatement! Today, we might say they were terrified out of their skulls! Occasionally, we hear of a person's supposed abduction by aliens suddenly in the night. Television and movies have visualized this for us—but what if an angel actually did appear abruptly before our eyes, radiating light like a huge spotlight and looking directly at us? Most people would be on their faces in an instant, probably holding their heads, wondering if a thunderbolt was about to strike!
The angel says to them, "Do not be afraid" (verse 10), trying to shush their fears a bit, although it is hard to say what success he had. At least he was able to communicate to them what he needed to say. Evidently, they were calm enough to listen to his announcement, despite their terror.
What he says is quite interesting: "I bring you good tidings of great joy." The Greek word for "I bring good tidings" is evangelízomai, literally, "I evangelize you," and his good news is a matter "of great joy." In a way, this is the beginning of the preaching of the gospel, as this is the sense of the Greek term. He is informing the shepherds that God had sent him as an evangelist to let them know that the way of salvation was beginning to open to all people. This was great news indeed for the common folk, as these shepherds were, who have rarely been considered among the worthies of society.
That God sent the first announcement of His Son's birth to shepherds among their sheep has an appealing, symbolic connotation. Recall that these shepherds were in the field watching over sheep at night when the angel, a messenger from God, illuminated them with the good news of salvation. Shepherds are biblical symbols of spiritual leaders or ministers, and sheep are well known to represent God's elect. Jesus' parables often employ the image of a field to signify the world, and the darkness of night stands for the condition of being cut off from God. This scene is a beautiful foreshadowing of the pattern God uses to evangelize through the gospel message.
Another intriguing fact, hidden in the English translation, appears in the last phrase of verse 10: "to all people." In the Greek text, a definite article appears before "people," so it should read, "all the people." When the Bible reads "the people," it usually refers to the people of Israel. The birth of the Savior was to be great joy for all people, of course, but especially for Israel. If we understand this spiritually, His coming has its greatest effect on the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), the church. Certainly, the church, to which God has revealed His way most fully, has both the fullest appreciation as well as the deepest understanding of Christ's coming in the flesh.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Birth of Jesus Christ (Part Two): Nativity
Since the shepherds were still in the fields with their flocks (verse 8), Jesus' birth could not have occurred during the cold-weather months of winter. Sheep were normally brought into centrally located pens or corrals as the weather turned colder and the rainy season began, especially at night. If this were not significant, it begs the question, "Why would Luke have mentioned it in such detail if not to convey a time reference?"
Notice what commentator Adam Clarke writes regarding this:
It was a custom among the Jews to send out their sheep to the deserts [wilderness], about the passover [sic], and bring them home at the commencement of the first rain: during the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As the passover [sic] occurred in the spring, and the first rain began early in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to part of our October and November, we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole of the summer. And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light on this disputed point. (Clarke's Commentary, vol. V, p. 370)
John O. Reid (1930-2016)
When Was Jesus Born?
Jesus was not born in the winter season! When the Christ-child was born "there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). This could never have occurred in Judea in the month of December. The shepherds always brought their flocks from the mountainsides and fields and corralled them not later than October 15, to protect them from the cold, rainy season that followed that date. Notice that the Bible itself proves, in Song of Solomon 2:11 and Ezra 10:9, 13, that winter was a rainy season not permitting shepherds to abide in open fields at night.
"It was ancient custom among Jews of those days to send out their sheep to the fields and deserts about the Passover (early spring), and bring them home at commencement of the first rain," says the Adam Clarke Commentary (vol. 5, p. 370, New York ed.).
Continuing, this authority states: "During the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As . . . the first rain began early in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to part of our October and November [begins sometime in October], we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole summer. And, as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground, the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact."
Any encyclopedia, or any other authority, will tell you that Christ was not born on December 25. The Catholic Encyclopedia frankly states this fact.
The exact date of Jesus' birth is entirely unknown, as all authorities acknowledge—though there are indications that it was in the early fall—probably September—approximately six months after Passover.
If God had wished us to observe and celebrate Christ's birthday, He would not have so completely hidden the exact date.
Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986)
The Plain Truth About Christmas
It is evident this could not have been in late December! December nights, even in Israel, can be cold and wet with occasional snowfall. Shepherds in that area were known to have brought their sheep from the fields into the folds in the fall of the year. The evidence currently available indicates that Jesus was born in the autumn of the year 4 BC—perhaps on the Feast of Trumpets!
'Tis the Season: Help for Our Young People
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Luke 2:8: