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 Northern European and 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 (Israel has somewhat similar rain patterns as the Bay though), we need to see the weather in Israel as far more like Florida or San Francisco. The weather is mild. 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.” Nicholas Raphael notes “Winters in North America and Europe are cold and cool whereas summers are hot and or warm … it would be more appropriate to consider seasonality in terms of wet and dry seasons [in Israel]” (“Geography and The Bible (Palestine),” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2: D-G, p.970).

The Gezer Calendar dates to the time of Rehoboam. It reports when farmers planted and harvested during the times of Ruth, David, Solomon, etc. Translations are available on the net or see Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, ed. John H. Walton vol.2, p.251.

The land of the Bible has a long warm summer (season) and short wetter and cooler winter (season). So different from our North American experience that we unconsciously impose upon the biblical text we often do not realize that what we call “winter” is when farmers plant their crops in Palestine/Israel. This is true throughout the Bible and has been attested to even outside the Bible from 925 BC. In 1908 the “Gezer Calendar” was discovered. It is one of the oldest examples of Hebrew known (Paleo-Hebrew). The rains begin in what we call October and last through our January. According to the Gezer Calendar (and the biblical text) ancient farmers began to plough and sow seed for wheat and barley in early November. Vegetables were planted in January to March. In North America the fall is for harvesting and winter the land is often bare. But our seasons and Israel’s seasons are not the same.

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 when this brief article was written, the temperature in Bethlehem (according to the internet) 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, planting their crops and doing most any daily activity that they have done for thousands of years.

Appendix from J. W. McGarvey’s Lands of the Bible published in 1880. The Appendix incorporates several years of weather data from Nazareth. Please note the month of December.

Those who grew up in Churches of Christ could have been saved from these kinds of errors by reading J. W. McGarvey’s Lands of the Bible. McGarvey devotes many pages to the climate of Palestine. He notes that Israel does not have winter as Americans experience but “two seasons, a dry summer of seven months and wet winter of five months” (p.46). He discusses the planting season in what we Americans call “winter.” Planting “commences in November” (p. 92). McGarvey included, in an Appendix, the weather conditions of all the months of the year recording the high and low for every month for years (pp. 617-618). McGarvey even states there is no evidence that weather patterns have undergone any significant changes “during the lapse of the ages” (p.46). The old saw that shepherds would not be in the field in December because it is “winter” is completely unfounded.

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.

Below is a look at Mediterranean Climate zones.


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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