Christmas comes round every year, and every year somebody will tell us that Pope Julius I (337-352 AD) in 350, or 352, or 320 – the supposed date varies – decided that Jesus was born on 25 December. Julius lived under the Arian emperor Constantius II, and was an ally of Athanasius, but is otherwise obscure.
I don’t want to enter into the larger question of why we celebrate Christmas on 25 December. But the association with Pope Julius I seems worth probing.
Here are some samples of the claims made:
In 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date and in 529 AD Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday.
By the fourth century, however, many Christian groups had begun to observe Christ’s birthday, though the day chosen for the celebration differed from place to place. Christians in the East generally celebrated on January 6; those in the West on December 25. Others set dates in March, April, or May. About 350 AD, Pope Julius set December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. This corresponded with the Roman feast of Saturnalia, the festival of the Unconquered Sun.
In the late 330s AD, Pope Julius 1 declared: “December 25th, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea.” … 
Pretty confident sounding! But … no references in any case.
But it doesn’t sound right anyway. This is the 4th century. A Pope doesn’t have the authority to set anything for the whole of Christendom. He’s just one of the patriarchs. He can make a decision for his area of the world, but why would that be definitive? How could be it “the official date”?
A more significant problem is the lack of reference. We only know about what people in the ancient world did if they left behind some document which was copied down the years; or else an inscription, or something. But I was quite unable to locate any reference to such an item.
Fortunately in 2015 Glen L. Thompson edited and translated the correspondence of Pope Julius I. This consists of 2 letters from Pope Julius I, and 4 letters to him. None have any mention of the birthday of Christ. They are all concerned with the Arian dispute.
But I learn from Dr T.’s introduction that there are a further 26 (!) pieces that have the name of Pope Julius I on them, and every one of them wrongly. In fact, in almost every case, the name is attached fraudulently! This is unusual in antiquity. Some were Apollinarist works, from the late 4th century, which being banned, were circulated under other names. Some are from the medieval period, the Forged Decretals. 25 of them do not mention the birthday of Christ.
The 26th item (given the letter Z by Dr T.) is different – it does! It’s a letter, supposedly from Cyril of Jerusalem to Pope Julius I, and quoted in two versions, the first by an obscure medieval bishop, John of Nicaea; and the other anonymous, but probably of the same era or later.
In the letter, Cyril tells us that his clergy celebrate the birthday of Christ and the baptism of Christ together, on 6th January. But, he adds, they find this a pain, because they have to start in Bethlehem, do the service for the birth, and then travel down to the Jordan to do the baptism service. This, he says, they found burdensome, and they had to rush the services. So he is writing to Pope Julius to ask if the Pope would consult the archives of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. These, he says, were seized by the Romans under Titus when the city fell in 70 AD and transported to Rome. Underneath the letter, the 9th century author then adds that the pope did so, and identified 25 December as the birthday of Jesus.
The item in question is listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum under the spuria of Cyril of Jerusalem as CPG 3598. The text can be found in Greek with modern Latin translation in the Patrologia Graeca vol. 33 columns 1208-9, together with a page of introduction (online here). There is also a discussion of it in the old Dictionary of Christian Antiquities here.
Let’s see what it says.
There are in fact two versions given in the PG. (I’m not going to type up the Greek, but I find that Abbyy Finereader 12 reads the Latin side very well, so I append it).
The first item is by John of Nicaea, from a letter to Zacharias, Catholicos of Greater Armenia, titled De Christi Nativitate. (I’m not sure who John of Nicaea is, but the PG says 11-12th c.; Thompson says 9th). The works of John of Nicaea as a whole are in the PG 96, and our letter is col. 1441f. (Update: see my post here for “John of Nicaea” who turns out to be 9th century) Here is the excerpt as given in the PG 33, however.
Once upon a time, Cyril – [not he] who sent a letter to Constantine, but he who succeeded him in his see – wrote to Julius, bishop of Rome, in these words: “Great labour and expense is caused at great and solemn festivals which are celebrated together on one day. For the readings and order of service of both festivities end up incomplete, such that the nativity and the baptism of Christ cannot be celebrated [together]. So, seeing that we cannot on one day be both [in Bethlehem, and] in the place of the baptizism, (for Bethlehem is three miles south of Jerusalem, and the Jordan is fifteen miles to the east), may we appoint your sanctity to search out all the commentaries (συγγράμματα, i.e. writings) of the Jews, which Titus Caesar looted and carried off to Rome from Jerusalem. Possibly you will discover for a fact the day of the nativity of Christ and our God.”
Then Julius the Roman carefully enquired into this question. When he had collected all the writings of the Jews, which were captured and taken to Rome, he discovered a certain commentary of the time of the historian Josephus, written by himself: in which he said that, in the seventh month, on the feast of Scenopegia [or Tabernacles], on the day of expiation, the angel of the Lord appeared, and the dumb priest was restored, who had remained without voice until that time when his wife Elizabeth in old age gave birth.
Scripsit aliquando Cyrillus[non is],qui epistolam ad Constantinum [leg. Constantium] dedit sed is qui post ipsum in ejus sede successit, ad Julium Romanum episcopum in haec verba: «Magnus labor ac dispendium magnis ac solemnibus festivitatibus contingit, quod una die celebrantur. Nam ambarum festivitatum lectiones et ordo [officii] imperfecta manent, eo quod nativitas et baptisma Christi [simul] celebrari nequeant. Quoniam itaque non possumus in una die [in Bethlehem, et] in locum baptismatis occurrere (nam Bethlehem tribus millibus ad meridiem ab Hierusalem distat, et Jordanis quindecim millibus ad orientem), jubeat sanctitas tua omnia Judaeorum commentaria investigari, quae praedatus Caesar Titus Romam Hierosolymis advexit. Fortassis certo reperies diem nativitatis Christi et Dei nostri. »
Tunc Julius Romanus studiose de hac rogatione quaesivit. Cumque omnia Judaeorum scripta, quae capta et Romam deportata fuerant, collegisset, quoddam Josephi temporum historici commentarium deprehendit ab ipso conscriptum: in quo habebatur, quod mense septimo, in festo Scenopegiae [seu Tabernaculorum]. Expiationis die, Dei angelus apparuit, sacerdosque mutus redditus, sine voce mansit ad illud usque tempus, quo Elisabet uxor ejus in senectute peperit.
That is not all that helpful, really. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote to Constantine about a fiery cross that appeared over Jerusalem; but this is a later Cyril, mentioned by Epiphanius (Panarion 66.20).
But a second version of the story exists, in which the letter is attributed not to Cyril but to Juvenalis, under the title Ἀναγκαία διήγησις. This is in the BNF in Paris; the old royal library shelfmark was Bibi. Reg. Cod. 2428, fol. 120. Here it is:
However Juvenalis, patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote to Julius, patriarch of Rome, this about the matter: “On one day I cannot be both at Bethlehem and at the Jordan. In fact the Jordan is 25 miles east of Jerusalem, while holy Bethlehem is 6 miles to the south of the city; nor can I in one day complete both celebrations. So I ask your sanctity, Father, that you would scrutinise the commentaries, and give us, from an accurate examination, information on this matter, written by yourself, venerable one: on what day Christ the Lord was born, and on what day baptised. For we understand correctly that books of commentaries from the early days were transferred from Jerusalem to Rome by Titus and Vespasian.”
Having received these letters, Julius patriarch of Rome investigated the commentaries, and he found that our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December, and after 30 years from his nativity was baptised by John in the river Jordan, on the 6th January. Well, when the fathers were dividing up the festival based on this investigation, among many a murmuring arose… etc.
Scripsit autem patriarcha Hierosolymitanus Juvenalis ad patriarcham Romanum Julium ea de re: « Non possum una die conferre me ad Bethlehem et ad Jordanem. Etenim Jordanis distat ab urbe Hierusalem ad orientem milliaribus 25, sancta vero Bethlehem ad austrum civitatis milliaribus sex; nec possum una die ambo festa peragere. Rogo itaque sanctitatem tuam, Pater, ut scruteris commentaria, et des nobis ex accurata disquisitione, per tuum scriptum, venerande, ejus rei notitiam: qua die natus sit Christus Dominus, et qua die baptizatus. Probe enim scimus commentarios ab initio libros e Hierosolymis Romam delatos fuisse per Titum et Vespasianum.»
His litteris acceptis Julius Romae patriarcha investigavit commentarios, invenitque quod 25 Decembris natus est Dominus noster Jesus Christus, et post annos 30 a nativitate sua baptizatus est a Joanne in Jordane fluvio, sexta mensis Januarii. Secundum ergo hanc investigationem cum Patres festum divisissent, inter multos ortum est murmur. Etc.
That’s clear enough. It’s the same story, with different details. But there are obvious difficulties.
- Juvenal of Jerusalem held the see from 422-458; Julius I held his see from 337-352. So clearly Juvenal wrote no letter to Rome.
- Cyril of Jerusalem held his see from 350, but the letter states that a later Cyril is involved. Julius died in 352.
- The DCB tells us that in Palestine the practice of combining the celebration of Christmas and the baptism of Christ continued well after these times. (p.359 n.c). The PG introduction informs us that Chrysostom’s homily on the nativity says the same, but this I have not checked. It also says that Basil of Seleucia (ca. 448) states in the Laudatio S. Stephani that the innovation of celebrating the nativity separately began with that Juvenal.
- Josephus does not specify the date of the birth of Christ in any extant work. But it seems questionable whether any such Jewish archives really existed, or at least, not by the middle of the 4th century; and how would a medieval figure know of this, other than through apocryphal works like the “letter of Pilate” cycle?
To conclude, this is a letter with no claim to authenticity. This leaves us where we started; there is no evidence that Pope Julius I ever set the nativity of Christ to 25 December.
UPDATE: I was curious about John of Nicaea, so I went to look in the PG 96. He wrote only this single work. Our snippet fails to clarify why this relates to December 25; but the passage is actually introduced with these words:
Caeterum quod spectat ad Salvatoris Natale, ut celebrandum constituerint 25 Decembr., in hunc modum invenimus.
The other thing to consider for the nativity of the Saviour, as ordained that to be celebrated on 25 December, we discovered in this way.
Our snippet ended with “Then Julius the Roman carefully enquired into this question. When he had collected all the writings of the Jews, which were captured and taken to Rome, he discovered a certain commentary of the time of the historian Josephus, written by himself: in which he said that, in the seventh month, on the feast of Scenopegia [or Tabernacles], on the day of expiation, the angel of the Lord appeared, and the dumb priest was restored, who had remained without voice until that time when his wife Elizabeth in old age gave birth.”
John then continues:
Well, according to the months of the Hebrews, the first month is Nesan. This is numbered, and from that to the seventh month proceeds in this way: Nesan, Iar, Siban, Tamous, Aph, Eloul, Tesirin. This [Tesirin] is month 7, within which the annunciation of Zachariah happened; and 6 months are counted from Nesan, i.e. March, until the annunciation of the Mother of God; in this way, Mersan, Chasili, Tapet, Sipat, Atar, Nesan, which is 6 months from Mersan until Nesan, just as it was written, “In the sixth month was the archangel Gabriel sent to Mary”; and from the month of Nesan, in which was the annunciation, nine months are counted until the nativity of the Lord, in this way: Iar, Siban, Tamus, Aph, Eloul, Mersan, Tesirin, Chasili, Tapet. Therefore the first lunary month Tesirin happens in the month of September: and from the conception of John to the annunciation of the God-bearer we count thus: October, Novemberm December, January, February, March. There are equally 6 months. But from the annunciation until the nativity are numbered thus: April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December. Again in month 7, on day 10 of the month, was the day of expiation; 15 however was the observance of the Scenopegia. In that month Elizabeth conceived, on the 10th day of Tesirin, on the day of expiation, and the 23 September was the conception of John; but 4th Nesan, March 25 was the annunciation of the holy Mother of God Mary; and 5th Tamnis, 25 June, was the birthday of the Forerunner [=John], and however 9th Sapet, December 25 is the nativity of Christ our great God, and Word incarnate. In this way did Julius Romanus the patriarch arrange the months of the Hebrews and the Romans: from which time the Roman church began with outbursts (?) of joy to celebrate the nativity of the Saviour on 25 December, and bequeathed the obligation to the whole church.
Jam ergo juxta menses Hebraeorum, primus mensium Nesan. Hic numeratur, atque ab eo ad 7 mensem proceditur, hoc modo : Nesan, Iar, Siban, Tamous, Aph, Eloul, Tesirin. Hic est mensis 7, in quo facta est annuntiatio Zachariae; ac numeratur usque ad Annuntiationem Dei Genitricis, mensis hic sextus Nesan, id est, Martius; in hunc modum, Mersan, Chasili, Tapet, Sipat, Atar, Nesan, qui est sextus mensis a Mersan usque ad Nesan, sicut scriptum est : In mense sexto missus est Gabriel archangelus ad Mariam; atque a mense Nesan, quo facta est Annuntiatio, numerantur menses novem, usque ad Domini Nativitatem, hoc modo: Iar, Siban, Tamus, Aph, Eloul, Mersan, Tesirin, Chasili, Tapet. Prima igitur luna mensis Tesirin, occurrit in mensem Septembrem: atque a Joannis conceptione usque ad Deiparae Annuntiationem sic numeramus: October, November, December, Januarius, Februarius, Martius. Fiunt simul sex menses. Ab Annuntiatione autem usque ad Nativitatem sic numerantur: Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Julius, Augustus, September, October, November, December. Porro, mense 7, die mensis 10, erat Expiationis dies; 15 autem erat solemnitas Scenopegiae. Ipso mense concepit Elisabeth, 10 die mensis Tesirim, in die Expiationis, fuitque 23 Septembris conceptio Joannis, quarta autem mensis Nesan, Martii 25 fuit Annuntiatio Dei Genitricis sanctae Mariae; quinta vero mensis Tamnis, 25 Junii, fuit Praecursoris nativitas; ac tandem 9 mensis Sapet, Decembris 25, Nativitas Christi magni Dei nostri, ac Verbi incarnati. Inque hunc modum Julius Romanus patriarcha menses Hebraeorum atque Romanorum composuit: a quo tempore, coepit Romana Ecclesia laetis gaudii celebrare Natalem Salvatoris diem 25 Decembris, tradiditque celebrandum universis Ecclesiis.
That makes more sense of the snippet given by John of Nicaea (about whom, as yet, I can find no information). Both versions, then, give the story that Pope Julius I ordered that Christmas should be on 25 December.
UPDATE2: I had meant to look for the snippets in the Pinakes database of Greek manuscripts, but that work is not indexed. John of Nicaea, or Johannes Nikenus, or Iohannes Nicaenus mtr., on the other hand, is indeed listed, as author 1501, together with his work De festo die natali Domini., which they number as work 2657. Ten manuscripts are listed, from the 12th to the 17th century.