The Bible On Birthdays

Today is my thirtieth birthday. I was born in the town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania at around 2:30 in the morning on July 16th, 1981. It is customary and polite for those of us in the West to wish our friends and family members happy birthday when their date of birth comes yearly. It is also customary for people to throw parties on their birthday in the west. I do not know how people celebrate birthdays here, but it is common for people to ask others how old they are, and so I imagine birthdays are at least somewhat important here as well. Nonetheless, when we look at the Bible, we do not find very much material on birthdays. Why is that so? Today I would like to look first at what little the Bible says about birthdays, and explain a little bit about why the Bible says so little about the subject, based on its own view of time.

A Birthday Party

The most notable time in the Bible birthdays are mentioned is not a happy birthday party for the people of God. The story is mentioned in both Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29. We will look today at the account in Mark, so let us turn now to Mark 6:14-29. Mark 6:14-29 reads as follows: “Now King Herod heard of Him [that is, Jesus the Christ], for His name had become well known. And he said, “John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.” Others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets.” But when Herod heard, he said, “This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and godly man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. Then an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” He also swore to her, “Whatever you ask of me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” So she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist!” Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought the head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When the disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.”

Now, this is a very unpleasant story. And yet this is almost the only time [1] that a birthday is mentioned in the Bible. Like birthdays today, there was a party, there was a feast, and there was “fun.” But instead of receiving presents, Herod Antipas, the “birthday boy,” gave the horrid present of the head of a righteous man to his adulterous wife at the request of his stepdaughter because of her alluring dance. This is a disgusting picture of debauchery and decadence and corruption, not the sort of example we should ourselves emulate. For Herod Antipas, like the rest of his family, were heavily influenced by the Roman Empire, and had probably adopted its calendar along with its culture of parties and bloodthirsty games. Likewise, the people invited to Herod Antipas’ party were similarly corrupt and decadent aristocrats, selfish elites, who themselves copied corrupt Roman ways of life. After all, John the Baptist was right that Antipas was forbidden from marrying his brother’s wife. Leviticus 18:16 prohibits a man from “uncovering the nakedness” of—that is, having sex with—his brother’s wife. And yet Herod Antipas (and his wife Herodias, we should note) were not interested in obeying God’s law, but rather in having whoever and whatever they wanted, without rules or laws or annoying prophets who told unpleasant truths getting in the way. At the very least this story ought to make us pause and reflect on what sort of celebrating practices we have with our own parties—if our parties are the sort of debauched and corrupt scenes we see here in Mark 6, as Christians we ought not to behave so.

Why No Other Birthdays In The Bible?

Why are there almost no birthdays in the rest of the Bible that we know of? A simple reason is because of calendars. According to the Roman solar calendar, which we use today, every year has 365 days, except for leap years which have 366 days. Since almost every year has the same amount of days, though, it is very easy for people to celebrate once per year when their birthday comes along. Only those who were born on February 29th during a leap year have to celebrate on a day other than their birthday, which makes it easy and straightforward to keep yearly celebrations on days like birthdays.

However, God’s calendar does not work like that. God did not design a solar calendar for mankind to use. Instead, he designed a lunar calendar where months last either 29 or 30 days. For example, the day I was born, July 16th, 1981, was 14 Tammuz, 5741 according to the Hebrew calendar. By chance, it happens that today is 14 Tammuz 5771. That is a very rare coincidence, actually, since the Hebrew date varies widely. Last year, for example, the 16th of July of 2010 was the 5th of Av, the month after Tammuz in the Hebrew calendar. So, according to the Hebrew calendar, one’s “birthday” could vary in time about a month within the Hebrew calendar.

Why does the Hebrew calendar vary so widely from year to year? Since God’s calendar uses lunar months rather than solar months, the year is less than 365 days, 354 days in fact. In order to keep the lunar calendar close to the solar calendar, 7 years out of every 19-year cycle there is an extra month of 29 days that is added as a thirteenth month to the year. When this month is added other months change between 30 and 29 days. As one could imagine, though, adding an extra month on occasion and changing the number of days that several months in a year have makes celebrating birthdays very difficult, if not impossible. What is one to do on the 12 years out of every 19 that there are only 12 months in a year if you were born in the 13th month of the year? Do you celebrate your birthday a month early, or a month late? This is a much more serious and common problem than one extra day out of every four years to deal with as far as birthday celebrations are concerned.

When We Walked In Lewdness

Apart from the fact that God’s calendar makes it difficult to keep birthday celebrations if one is following His view of time, God condemns drunkenness and wild parties consistently throughout scripture—such as in 1 Peter 4:1-5, for example. Let us turn there. 1 Peter 4:1-5 reads as follows: “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he should no longer live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”

Let us understand this passage well. Whether it is a birthday party or some kind of “bachelor” party before a wedding, we are not to travel to strange cities so that we can get drunk and have hangovers and wild revelries of lewdness and other abominations. We are to behave soberly and in a godly fashion. Needless to say, if we have behaved in that way in the past, before we were converted to God’s ways, people will speak evil of us if we do not party as they do and as we once did. Nonetheless, as we are called by God we should guard ourselves against the evils that occur when we let drinking or partying cloud our minds. For God will hold all people accountable, and those who speak evil of what is good and proper will be held accountable for their slander.

Conclusion

Therefore, having examined what the Bible says about birthdays, let us first realize that if we follow God’s calendar, keeping birthdays will be a very difficult task. That is one reason, perhaps, why birthday celebrations are so rare in the scriptures, and why we do not read in the Bible of any birthday celebrations by godly or righteous individuals. However, more importantly, we need to be careful about how we celebrate birthdays or any other event, so that we do not engage in the sort of partying behavior that God strictly forbids and harshly judges. For even on those celebrations that God commands us to follow, such as the Feast of Tabernacles, we are not to behave in a drunken or lewd fashion or engage in revelry or other decadent and immoral behavior. Rather, we are to be sober in mind and body, and to live our lives for the will of God, rather than live for the lusts of the flesh as the wicked behave. Whether we celebrate birthdays then, by following the Roman calendar, or do not celebrate birthdays, we therefore ought to behave in a godly fashion in whatever we do. Let us remember to do so.

[1] Birthdays are also mentioned in Genesis 40:20, where the Pharaoh of Egypt throws a birthday party and puts his baker to death. Perhaps coincidentally, the birthday accounts in both Genesis and Matthew/Mark involve parties and death. Not coincidentally, the Egyptians also used a solar calendar that had 12 30-day months as well as 5 additional days to make a 365 day year that started and ended in the summer, based on the Dog Star, Sirius. This is the only other time birthdays are mentioned specifically in scripture. The only other possible reference is in Job 1:4-5, where Job’s children host parties on their appointed days (whatever those are) and Job sacrifices on their behalf. Of course, this account also involves the death of Job’s children, so it does not break the pattern of birthdays and deaths that occurs in scripture, if it indeed is talking about birthdays (and that is not certain).

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to The Bible On Birthdays

  1. Cathy Martin says:

    Happy Birthday, Nathan! I just sent you an e-card… We the ancients documented their age, they probably used their date of birth according to the calendar of the time. Mixing and matching calendars are like comparing apples and oranges; they don’t measure time the same way. However, it is HIGHLY unusual that today, exactly 30 years later, your birthday is the same for both the Hebrew and western calendars. Very interesting indeed…

    • That is certainly true–though many Muslims also celebrate birthdays (since their lunar calendar is a “pure” one without the annoying intercalinary months that the Hebrew calendar has, but there is no connection with the seasons). As far as the Hebrew dates being the same 30 years apart, I find that very interesting as well, especially since the days are only supposed to be the same every 19 years or a multiple thereof. My point in commenting on birthdays was that the only birthday celebrations we have recorded for certain in scripture are in societies that used solar calendars like our own. I did not want to get into the vexing question of nonaccession years and how the authors of the books of Kings and Chronicles kept time, as I figured my message was complicated enough as it was.

  2. Joy Beau says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. I grew up in a church that did not celebrate birthdays but now I love celebrating them. I no longer see anything wrong with celebrating a birthday. I’ve learned over the years that there is a balance. I just enjoy celebrating the birth of someone & letting them know, “Hey I’m glad you were born, and here is a special gift for you- to show you how much you mean to me!”. I’m glad that I don’t have legalism hanging over my head anymore and that I can find the balance in life. Balance is a good thing!

    • If we walk down the path of life, there are two ditches on either side. One ditch is what you define as legalism (or what I would define as aseticism), the belief in the efficacy of man-made rules and punishing the body and banning pleasure so that one can earn salvation by one’s righteous conduct and escape the prison of the body. Many churches have fallen into this ditch. The ditch on the other side is antinomianism, the belief that we an do whatever feels right in our own eyes without having to worry about obedience to God’s law, because Christ did it all for us anyway. Even more churches and individuals have fallen into this ditch. Neither ditch is the right way. So long as you walk your life seeking to develop God’s character within you and not follow your own ways or be guided by your own thoughts, you may avoid the pitfalls of either ditch.

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