Q: #512. Does the Bible talk about birthdays? Is it wrong for Christians to celebrate birthdays?
A: The Bible uses the word “birthday” (Heb: yom hulledet / Gr: ta genesia) three times: (Gen 40:20)(Mt 14:6)(Mk 6:21). In both of these instances, a ruler had a giant feast to celebrate his birthday: Pharaoh in (Gen 40:20-23) and Herod in (Mt 14:6-12)(Mk 6:21-28). Unfortunately, in conjunction with each feast, both of these rulers ordered that a man be killed: Pharaoh / “the baker” and Herod / “John the Baptist.” Because the Bible only “clearly” mentions the birthday celebrations of these two ungodly men, and no others, especially by God’s people, it is believed by some that birthdays should not be celebrated by Christians or Jews. In fact, some even believe it is “sin” to celebrate them. Let’s look at this more.
***Note: Some believe (me included) that (Job 1:4-5) is speaking about the children of Job celebrating their birthdays (“every one his day”), however, this is not totally certain. It is worth noting though that whatever it was they were celebrating, it does not appear that Job attended the celebrations. Instead, when his children were done “feasting,” Job “sanctified them,” and offered a burnt offering for each of them in case they had “sinned or cursed God in their hearts.”
In addition to what we said above, several other reasons are also given as to why Christians / Jews should not celebrate birthdays.
1. Celebrating birthdays was a pagan custom. In particular, pagan rulers, who often considered themselves like gods (Dan 6:6-9)(Acts 12:21-23)(Dan Ch.3), were well-known to celebrate their birthdays. In the apocryphal book of (2 Maccabees 6:7)(GNT), it says, “Each month when the king’s birthday was celebrated, the Jews were compelled by brute force to eat the intestines of sacrificial animals.” In addition, most of the traditions that we use today to celebrate birthdays like cakes, candles, singing songs, making a wish, giving presents (offering a sacrifice), appear to have pagan roots. These were often used in conjunction with the “birthday” celebrations of idols (i.e. see Jer 7:18).
2. Both history and tradition tell us that in Bible times (Old and New Testament), the Jews did not celebrate birthdays. For example, Jewish scholar Josephus said in his writing (Against Apion, book II, Chapter 26) “Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children…” In fact, it appears that the day certain people died was celebrated rather than the day they were born. Unger’s Bible Dictionary says, “The later Jews regarded the celebration of birthdays as part of idolatrous worship. In the early church the term birthdays was applied to festivals of martyrs, the days on which they suffered death in this world and were born in glory and life of heaven.” This is based in part on (Ecc 7:1).
***Note: For Christians, while the birth of Jesus is certainly worthy of honor, His death and resurrection is the key to the Christian faith. We are told to commemorate this (i.e. the Lord’s Supper), and Christians now worship on Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, rather than on Saturday, the Sabbath).
3. Not one time in the Bible are we ever told the specific day a person was born, including Jesus. There is certainly a good reason for this.
***Note: Having a desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the early church set aside the day of Dec 25th, however, there is controversy about this date).
So, are these valid reasons for Christians to avoid celebrating birthdays? Yes, I believe they are. BUT, does they mean that Christians “shouldn’t” celebrate birthdays? Not necessarily.
Let’s look at this a different way. The Bible also does not tell us avoid celebrating birthdays, nor does it say that celebrating birthdays is “sin.” (The Bible doesn’t even say that it was wrong for Pharaoh or Herod to celebrate their birthdays.) Celebrating birthdays could fall under the category of “Christian liberty” (verses in next paragraph). In other words, when the Bible doesn’t “clearly,” and “specifically” tell us something is sin, it is up to each individual Christian to determine what they believe is right for them in eyes of God, according to their interpretation of the Bible. Some other examples of this are things like: getting a tattoo, smoking, gambling or playing the lottery, etc…
Having said this, if you read my studies on things like tattoos, smoking, gambling, drinking, etc…, I urge Christians to avoid using their “liberty” to do these things because of the possibility that doing them might harm their witness to others, and could possibly cause a weaker Christian to “stumble.” (Paul speaks of this in places like: Rom 14:1-23, 1 Cor 8:1-13, 1 Cor 10:23-33.) Will celebrating our birthday cause these things? I don’t really see this as much of a possibility. Therefore, I don’t see much of a problem with celebrating birthdays.
However, while there may not be much of a problem with celebrating them, perhaps the Christian should consider several things in regards to this.
1. Will the WAY you celebrate harm your witness, or cause others to “stumble?”
2. The Bible tells us to do ALL things to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31)(Col 3:17,23). Is God getting the glory in your celebration?
3. Are you looking to be the center of attention? Do you want to be “special?” Are you expecting to be showered with gifts? Perhaps Biblical concepts like “dying to ourselves” (Gal 5:24)(Col 3:5)(Eph 4:22), or “humbling ourselves” (Mt 23:12)(1 Pet 5:6-7)(Col 3:12)(James 4:6,10) might be worth considering. I love the words of the words of John the Baptist in (Jn 3:30), “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease.”
If I am honest, I admit that I enjoy being recognized on my birthday, and I do appreciate those who take the time to wish me a “Happy Birthday.” However, I am also noticing that as I get older, and as I grow in my faith, I find myself less and less interested in celebrating my birthday. Perhaps part of this is that I don’t want to think about how old I am getting 🙂 , but as I grow nearer and nearer to the time of my departure from this planet, I find myself more and more thankful for the day of my “rebirth” (Oct. 27, 1994) rather than my birth. The day that I was forgiven of all my sins through Jesus Christ. THIS is the birthday that truly deserves a celebration. This is the birthday where God gets the glory!
P.S. In relation to the Jews, it should be noted that many Jews today do not forgo the celebration birthdays. In fact, the mar mitzvah / bat mitzvah is celebrated when boys reach 13 years old, and girls 12 years old.
P.S.S. One more thing worth mentioning is that while birthdays might not have been “celebrated” by God’s people in the Bible, it is clear that the day a person was born was not “forgotten” since we see the ages of people being mentioned over and over (Gen 17:1)(Gen 23:1)(Ex 30:14)(Num 8:24-25)(Josh 14:10)(2 Kin 22:1)(Lk 2:42 – Jesus was 12).