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Behind the numbers of Christmas

Updated on November 2, 2010

Stories behind the numbers of Christmas

The New Testament gospels paint a pictures of the Christmas story that warms the hearts of many throughout the world. Have you ever thought about the math of this story? There are stories behind the numbers of Christmas that you're probably not be aware of. Here's a look look at Christmas by the numbers.

Five--5 B.C., the year Jesus was born. While it seems contradictory to say Jesus Christ was born 5 years "Before Christ," but most historians believe this to be the case. Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth century monk who created our modern system of numbering the years, tried to set the system up so that it was divided based on the time of Jesus birth. Given the limited resources he had available, he did a great job and came very close to setting the year 1 AD as the time of Jesus's birth, but it generally believed he missed by about 5 years.

Ninety six--The 96 miles Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census mentioned in the story. Today, it's about a two hour drive. In those days, think days for this trip, not hours. No one would have described it as a vacation, especially a teenage girl about to give birth, making the trip on a donkey.

Five hundred--500 was the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus's birth. Truthfully, the exact population of Bethlehem in those days is unknown, but it probably was somewhere between 300 and 1000, meaning it truly was the "Little Town of Bethlehem," even by the standards of the times.

Fourteen and forty--As in Mary and Joseph ages, respectively. There is definitely a huge amount of speculation in those numbers since the bible explicitly state their ages. Contextual clues would lead us to stake a best guess that Mary was in her early teens. Joseph's age involves even more guesswork, but a good guess is that he was in his early 40's because as a successful carpenter it would be common to marry a much younger woman. Although this would be scandalous today, it was common in theirs.

Three--The 3 wise men. Actually, we don't know if there were three wise men, despite songs and nativity scenes portraying them that way. The Gospel of Matthew doesn't make any claims about their numbers. Many times, it is assumed that there were three because they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were gifts for a king, which is how these magi interpreted the sign of the Christmas star.

Ten--December, the tenth month. No wait, December is the twelfth month. And yet, December does come from the Latin "decimus," meaning tenth, just as decimeter (one tenth of a meter) and decimate (to lose one tenth of a military force) do. And come to think of it, based on their prefixes, shouldn't September be the seventh month, October the eight, and November, the ninth. What's going on with these names? They actually come from the original Roman calendar, which had ten months, followed by about 60 days that didn't fit into any month, and were eventually divided into January and February as the calendar came to resemble our own.

Twenty five--December 25, Christmas Day. Though the 25th day of December commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, it's not really known when he was born. There are varied theories about why early Christians chose December 25 to celebrate Christ's birthday. Some theories center around the fact that December 25 was the Winter Solstice on the Roman calendar or that there were other ancient festivals going on that day, so the Christians were trying to redeem a pagan holiday by making it into a holy one in accordance with their beliefs. Others say it is because it is about nine months after the day early believers thought his immaculate conception occurred. Don't forget, though, that shepherds in the story were "watching their flocks by night," something that only happened in the warmer times of year. And no, Bethlehem is not warm in December, so this is probably not when Jesus was born.

Christmas is about much more than numbers. Take some time to remember that first Christmas this December.

I am no historian, but I do enjoy scouring the internet for interesting facts and statistics. I am the webmaster of Tech Powered Math, a site that reviews math education technologies, where I have written an article about fun Christmas math gifts.


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