17 Dec 2019

“Winter” Weather in Israel and Christmas

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Exegesis, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke
Shepherd in Israel’s Negev

I have often (repeatedly) said in sermons, Bible classes, writings that there are two fundamental rules for reading the Bible: Context and Context. These rules are regularly ignored especially during sectarian polemics – the worst culprits are preachers. Let me illustrate with “winter” and “Christmas.”

Many conservative Christians have heard (and repeat) that December 25 could not have been when Jesus was born because it would be to cold for shepherds to have their flocks out in fields.

This opinion is rooted in a violation of the rule of context and context. What it does is impose North American experiences with “winter” onto the biblical text. It is assumed that December is freezing cold because it is freezing cold in New York, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Abilene, TX, etc. I have written on the dangers of assumptions here: Assumptions: What We Simply Assume often Hides the Truth.

It is easy but very dangerous to simply ignore the Grand Canyon that separates modern American disciples from the biblical text. See also Evel Knievel, the Grand Canyon & Us: The Strange and Deep Gulf to the Bible.

A little bit of research on the historical setting (geography and climate certainly are part of the historical setting of Scripture) reveals that Israel has a Mediterranean climate. Except for the amount of rain, we need to see the weather in Israel as far more like Florida. Snow is very rare in Israel, just like in San Francisco. It happens once in a blue moon (Jerusalem gets snow every three to four years and will receive “flurries” about twice a “winter.”)

Israel does not have “four seasons” as North American Christians think of “winter, spring, summer and fall.” It has a long warm summer and short wetter and cooler winter. The average temperature in Bethlehem in the “winter” is 56 degrees in the day and dips down to an average of 47 at night. These numbers are almost uniform for January thru February. The classic Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith puts it this way.

[T]he cold of winter seldom falls to freezing-point; February is the coldest month, with a mean temperature of 46 [for a low, BV] degrees … After the rains there is a fall in November to about 60 degrees, and in December to 52” (p. 67).

Other resources to examine are Dennis Baly’s outstanding work Geography of the Bible, Revised and Expanded, which devotes chapters 4 and 5 (pp. 43-68 to the “seasons” and climate of Israel).

Today, December 17, 2019, the temperature in Bethlehem is 51 degrees, 68% humidity, with a barely noticeable breeze of 3 mph. This is hardly cold critics imagine.

After having lived in Milwaukee and Gunnison, Colorado such “winter” temps are nothing at all. In Milwaukee and Gunnison they are still in their flip flops, shorts and even tank tops at 50 degrees. Certainly not difficult for pasturing sheep.

This does not show Jesus was born on December 25. What it does show is that the objection based on weather is rooted in shaping the biblical narrative into a mirror of our experience rather than keeping it in its historical context/setting. It also highlights the fact that we need to read the Bible in its historical setting.

Blessings.

One Response to ““Winter” Weather in Israel and Christmas”

  1. Dwight Says:

    Bobby, Ironically the same argument is used n regards to wine and keeping it from fermenting by placing it in cold water in the Levant region, but this is very hard to do unless it is in the coldest of the months in the Northern regions. We attempt to force a concept when it wasn’t reality so we can advance a narrative.

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