Was He Born in a Sukkah?

born_in_sukkahWhen was Yeshua born? The Gospel writers either did not know when the event happened or they did not feel the information was important enough to pass along. We can only speculate.

Two centuries after it happened, Clement of Alexandria discussed the dating of the Master’s birth, but he did not mention December 25 or January 6 at all. Instead, Clement reported one tradition corresponding to April 20 on our civil calendar and another tradition corresponding to May 20. By the middle of the fourth century, however, the Roman church had begun to honor December 25 while churches in the East, Asia Minor, and Egypt observed Jesus’ birth on January 6. Both are late developments and unsupported by early tradition or biblical evidence. No trace of a tradition from the early Jewish believers connects the birth of the Messiah with December 25 or January 6.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“The Birth of Yeshua at Sukkot: Evidence from an Old Source,” pg 21
Messiah Journal, issue 111 (Fall 2012)
Published by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

This is normally the sort of conversation you have in December when the vast majority of the Christian world prepares to celebrate the birth of Christ. One thing we can be certain of is that Jesus was born nowhere near December 25th. But it has been suggested that he might have been born on or near the festival of Sukkot. Could this be true?

I recently had a private request for any information I knew about this possibility. Alas, it’s not something I’ve written on before (although I’ve heard some commentaries on the topic). Fortunately, D. Thomas Lancaster has written on this in the above quoted article in Messiah Journal 111, which was published last year. Does Lancaster conclude that the Master was born during this season and if so, what is his evidence?

Other Sukkot-theory proponents claim, “Yeshua was born in a sukkah because the word ‘stable’ is sukkah in Hebrew.” These arguments are not at all convincing and fall apart under scrutiny. Is there any legitimate evidence of a Sukkot birth, or is the birth of Yeshua at Sukkot just more Hebrew roots movement apocrypha?

-Lancaster, pg 22

That doesn’t sound too encouraging. As much as the symbolism may attract us and fit into the theories and emotional dynamics of certain individuals and groups, is there any real evidence to establish the idea that Jesus was born during Sukkot? What line of reasoning and investigation could we use to support or refute this viewpoint?

Lancaster suggests that we could compare the birth narrative of John the Baptist to that of Jesus. We know, based on Luke 1:26 and 1:36 that the conception of Jesus came about six months after the conception of John, thus we can assume that Jesus was born about six months after John was. If we could determine when John was conceived and/or born, we could reasonably deduce when Jesus was born.

And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Luke 1:20 (NIV)

And now you will be dumb and unable to speak until the day when this has taken place; because you did not believe my words–words which will be fulfilled at their appointed time.”

Luke 1:20 (Weymouth New Testament)

zechariahThese are the only two translations of the New Testament where it specifically mentions “appointed time,” which is important because of the following:

“Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Genesis 18:14 (NASB)

But what’s “appointed time” got to do with it? Doesn’t it just mean some random date God selected for the birth of John the Baptist and Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah?

In the Torah, the biblical festivals are called “appointed times.” According to one Jewish interpretation, “the appointed time” at which Sarah gave birth to Isaac was the first day of Passover:

And how do we know that Isaac was born at Passover? Because it is written, “At the appointed time I will return to you […and Sarah will have a son].” (b.Rosh Hashanah 11a)

In the Gospels, John the Immerser comes in the role and spirit of Elijah. Jewish tradition maintains that Elijah will appear at Passover to announce the coming of Messiah. For that reason, we read Malachi’s prophecy about the coming of the Messiah on the Sabbath before Passover, and Jewish homes set a place at the Passover Seder table for Elijah.

-Lancaster, ibid

Lancaster covers two other traditions. One involving the Biblical record of Joseph and Mary traveling (supposedly) to Jerusalem to attend the festival of Sukkot, and they happened to be near Bethlehem when Mary went into labor. If Bethlehem were on the pilgrim trail to Jerusalem, the multitude of travelers going up to Jerusalem for the festival could account for all the “no vacancy” signs at the inns.

The other tradition has to do with assigning a double meaning to the phrase “the Eighth Day.” Of course, all Jewish boys were to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, but the last day of Sukkot, which is actually a separate festival, Shemini Atzeret, is also referred to as the “Eighth Day.” This would mean Jesus would have been born on the first day of Sukkot and circumcised on the eighth day of the festival. Pretty neat timing.

Admittedly, this is all speculative. The Gospels do not actually indicate that John was born on the first day of Passover, that Yeshua was born on the first day of Sukkot, or that he was circumcised on the eighth day of Sukkot.

-ibid, pg 23

Lancaster’s article goes on for another page or so where he quotes from a “medieval collection of anti-Christian Jewish folklore titled The story about Shim’on Kefa (Aggadta DeShim’on Kefa),” which may offer certain hints suggesting that the early Jewish believers could have commemorated the Master’s birth at Sukkot, but all in all, support for this perspective is very thin.

Sukkah in the rainI’m not saying it couldn’t work out this way and I suppose it would be very symbolic if it did work out that Jesus was born on Sukkot, but in fact, we just don’t know. Evidence from the Gospels and from various Christian and Jewish sources simply do not provide enough light on this matter to bring it to any sort of resolution. Thus, for Christians and other Gentile believers involved in the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements, we must find other reasons to celebrate Sukkot. Don’t worry, we have reasons enough, as one person said on my blog recently.

It is appropriate, not only that you have built the family sukkah, but also that you should participate in its celebration, as an anticipation of the prophetic fulfillment in the Messianic Era when the nations will come up to Jerusalem to celebrate this feast (or suffer drought), as described by Zacharyah. Indeed, Jewish tradition perceives reflections of a sort of Yom Kippur repentance and redemption for the non-Jewish nations in the Sukkot celebration.

As for Messiah, he temporarily lived among people once in the fragile shelter of a human body. Some day, he will return and be with us forever.

I’ve been reviewing some of my past Sukkot related blog posts and thought you’d find these interesting:

Sukkot: Drawing Water from Siloam.

Plain Clothes Sukkah.

May you drink from springs of living water. Chag Sameach Sukkot!

Addendum: This conversation is continued in A Question of the Division of Abijah.

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13 thoughts on “Was He Born in a Sukkah?”

  1. I recall reading an article by an SDA that traced the date of the birth of John the Immerser via the dates that each family line of the Levites served in the temple. This author also comes to the Sukkot conclusion. He also draws upon the works of Josephus. We do know that historically, the Jewish people did not commemorate the birthdays of the sages, but the day of their deaths; their yartzeit. Ecc. 7:1 A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. I also read an article that claimed that instead of an inn, it was the spare room of family that was filled, drawing upon various historical resources.

    It seems that historically, celebration of birthdays was a pagan practice among rulers/elite. This appears to me to be humanistic, in drawing attention to oneself and the day one entered the world. To remember the day of the death of a tzaddik, allows one to survey that person’s life and works, and to acknowledge that despite the wisdom or righteousness of the person, they are no longer on this earth, and their body is now dust. It teaches us to number our days, and look to eternity, rather than life upon this earth.

  2. I think we can take a lesson from the Gospel writers who made a point of relating the timing of Messiah’s death in their writing, but not so the timing of his birth. It seems to fit with what you’re saying about A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

  3. If you do a serious study, The “Sukkah Fall season” fits the narrative for the Birth of Christ, Just on first look December birth is ridiculous. Good post
    Greg

  4. I agree that there is no validity is believing the Master was born in December, but the jury is still out on whether or not he was born around Sukkot. More importantly, it seems our attention is being drawn to his death and resurrection rather than his birth in the Gospels, Greg.

  5. I’m surprised you ignored the key aspect of Luke’s chronology that pegs Yohanan’s conception to his father Zacharyah’s service in the Temple as part of the “Aviyah” ma’amad, which occurs only at two points in the year. Miriam’s conception of Yeshua is described as six months later, projecting Yeshua’s birth approximately 16 months after Zacharyah’s vision (based on normal 40-week gestation periods each representing just a bit over 9 months). The “Aviyah” ma’amad is the eighth in the series of 24 that began at the beginning of Nisan, placing its first occurrence in the third month of the year just before Shavuot. Counting 16 months until Yeshua’s birth places it in the seventh month of the next year, which is when Sukkot occurs. Such a festival would handily explain two elements of Yeshua’s birth narrative. One is the overcrowding that left no room available at the inn in Bethlehem. The other is that the inn would have a sukkah available for the use of guests during the festival, which would provide nominal shelter in an emergency such as this birth. The narrative makes no actual mention of a stable, but only of a feeding trough, which would have been a common feature of the open space where animals might ordinarily be penned and fed, in which a sukkah could have been erected.

    Now, while the second instance of the “Aviyah” ma’amad would be six months later, delaying the calculation of Yeshua’s birth to the next Pesa’h festival when similar overcrowding might occur in Bethlehem, there would not be any ready-made shelter where the innkeeper could send the hapless couple for whom there was no other space available. Therefore I favor Sukkot over Pesa’h as the likely time for Yeshua’s birth.

  6. I’m not saying that it couldn’t have happened that way PL, just that the Lancaster article shed some serious doubt on the possibility (it’s available as a blog post if anyone wants to read it).

    Actually, earlier I came across another blog that I can no longer find (not showing up in my browser history for some reason) that offered support similar to yours. Based on a rather lengthy set of calculations of the service of the various priestly divisions that came to the same conclusions.

  7. Chag Succot Sameach, Jim! Mr. Avi ben Mordechai, in his book, “Signs in the Heavens” wrote a very detailed explanation supporting Y’shua’s birth on Succot, using logic similar to that of Mr. PL above. The only problem is, that book is long out of print and copies are very hard to come by…… but I have one! This book was one of the key reasons that got me going in this direction.

    Don’t forget to rejoice! {:^)

    Blessings to you and your family.

    Cliff

  8. Lancaster’s blog post that you cited did not examine the timing of Zacharyah’s Temple service and merely dismissed a reference to it without justification. I don’t consider that as shedding any serious doubt on it; and it is in fact the strongest time reference in the entire passage.

  9. I’ve also heard there are reasons to expect that the Lord’s return will also be around Sukkot – but I’ve never looked into those reasons to see how valid they are.

  10. I also heard that according to tradition, Sukkot is the time when the Messiah will be made known and this tradition is part of the background story of the following exchange:

    ..the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near. Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his own brothers did not believe in him.
    Therefore Jesus told them, ‘My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.’ (John 7)

    That tradition is possibly partly behind the idea of Jesus’ return coinciding with Sukkot.

  11. Actually, I listened to an audio CD of a sermon Lancaster delivered that provided a lot more detail about why he discounts the timing of the priests temple service. I don’t have time to listen to it again and take notes, but when I do, I’ll probably post a “part 2” of this article. Interestingly enough, he has a different and unlikely source which tends to support a Sukkot birth, but it’s a long shot.

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