I hadn’t thought a lot about birthdays and the Bible. I had heard some vague rumblings that birthdays were a pagan custom that was imported to the faith at a relatively late date and I uncritically accepted that and moved on. Imagine my surprise when I got to John Calvin’s eleventh sermon on Job and he spoke AT LENGTH about the Scriptural, spiritual value of… birthdays?
The origin of celebrating birthdays was the fact that the ancient fathers knew that it was right to give thanks to God and that this day was a solemn time every year for blessing God openly. Yes, for if we have lived some years of our lives, even though we are to remember God’s benefits incessantly, it is nonetheless good that, on the day we entered the world, there be a perpetual reminder to say, ‘A year has passed. God has brought me this far. I have offended him in many ways, and I must now ask him for forgiveness. But especially has he granted me great grace. He has always assured me of the hope of the salvation he has provided, and he has delivered me from many dangers. So I have to remember that, and now that I have entered upon another year, it is fitting that I prepare myself for God’s service, for the bad periods I have gone through have shown me how much I need his help and how I would have been a hundred thousand times lost without him.’John Calvin. Sermons on Job – Volume 1: Chapters 1-14 (Kindle Locations 2362-2369). The Banner of Truth Trust. Kindle Edition.
All of this comes in reference to the third chapter of Job when Job cries out, “May the day of my birth perish!” To be clear, Calvin isn’t suggesting that’s an explicit reference to a birthday celebration. In context, it’s obviously a reference to the original day of Job’s birth. Calvin is arguing that the day of our birth is a sacred gift. On that day, God imprinted his image on us and honored us with the gift of life. From then onwards, he nurtured us with sustenance and care. We should hold the memory of such a day as holy and never speak ill of that event. Honoring its anniversary is a tradition passed down from ancient times that has sacred value. He admits that pagans twisted birthday celebrations to be something primarily about self-indulgence and that all too often, that’s what birthdays end up being. But the core of the tradition is beautiful because it’s about honoring God and acknowledging what he has given.
So John Calvin thought there was a biblical aspect to birthdays. I was shocked! But even if he’s dealing with an indirect reference in this case, Job 1:4 says that Job’s children feasted together on their birthdays in the NIV translation. Not the translation I was most familiar with, but certainly one that holds a fair amount of weight. Even beyond that, a solid chunk of commentators agree that the best understanding of this passage is that Job’s children were celebrating birthdays (John Hartley’s commentary, Pulpit Commentary, Elicott’s Commentary, etc.). Clearly, this isn’t a wild minority viewpoint. A chunk of legitimate theologians believe that birthday celebrations are biblical!
So are there other references to faithful people having birthdays in the Bible? Well, first off, let’s take care of the obvious references. In Genesis 40, Pharaoh has a (somewhat infamous) birthday that involved executions. To give some background, Joseph had previously met Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and told the cupbearer that he’d be restored to his previous standing and the baker that he would be executed. The prophecy comes to pass on Pharaoh’s birthday. Unfortunately, the exonerated cupbearer doesn’t remember that Joseph’s prophecy and so Joe ends up stuck in jail for a few more years. The other obvious example of a birthday isn’t much better. Matthew 14 and Mark 6 both refer to King Herod’s birthday, on which he allows a beautiful young girl to wish for anything. She wants John the Baptist’s head, and he reluctantly delivers. You can definitely see why birthdays have negative cultural connotations for some readers. But there are a few more references worth delving into.
In the Jewish Encyclopedia (archived online here), Adler and Roubin argue for a few other passages being indicative of birthday celebrations. Hosea 7:5 has a festival called “the festival of our king,” or “the day of our king.” The king gets really drunk that day. They argue that a remembrance of the day of his coronation would be a more somber affair (judging from the notes Josephus left in Antiquities), but a birthday would fit the description reasonably well. They also point to Jeremiah 20:14 in which Jeremiah cries out, “Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” On one hand, this is an obvious example of Hebraic parallelism (saying the same thing twice for poetic effect), but asking that the day of his birth “not be blessed” does suggest that doing something to bless that day was a custom, which would line up very clearly with Calvin’s argument for a day of remembrance and prayer. Genesis 24 also refers to Isaac’s day of weaning, which was cause for a great feast. Rashi, perhaps the most famous Jewish commentator of all time, holds that children were weaned at 24 months and references Talmud tractate Gitten 75b as proof. This establishes that, at absolute minimum, there was a customary celebration of the second birthday, which may well have led to future remembrances as well.
There does seem to be a reasonable amount of weight against birthdays as well. First off, let’s acknowledge the bad arguments. A lot of the arguments against birthdays in that you’ll find across the internet comes from bizarre speculation. Weird websites argue that all birthdays come from this cult or that cult and gift-giving is representative of making sacrifices to false gods. There’s a mysterious lack of citations in all this, which makes sense. Birthdays aren’t really “from” any particular place, as far as I can tell. A handful of cultures all developed some form of commemorating the day of their birth, and there’s even certain eras where such celebrations gain popularity and others where they lose it depending on cultural trends. For example, Professor Howard Chudacoff argues that the modern American birthday rituals took shape in the 19th century when standardized education made age a more important factor in a young person’s life (which helps explain why there’s still an active copyright on the shockingly young song, “Happy Birthday”). All of that to say, it’s more complicated than some of the poor arguments make it out to be.
But let’s evaluate the good anti-birthday arguments. If we look to that ancient Hebrew historian, Josephus, in Against Apion book 2 chapter 26, he argues that Jews do not celebrate birthdays because they don’t want to drink to excess and want to live sober lives. Early Christians also appear nervous about birthdays. Origen definitively comes down as anti-birthday, saying in his Homily on Leviticus:
Not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, (Gen 40:20) and in the New Testament, Herod (Mark 6:21). However, both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood. For the Pharaoh killed “the chief baker,” (Gen 40:22) Herod, the holy prophet John “in prison.” (Mark 6:27) But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birthdays, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day.Homily on Leviticus VIII, trans. Barkley
It does seem likely that early Christians carried the same discomfort towards birthdays that Jews of their time did. Judging from a handful of secondary sources I got my hands on, some of that Christian discomfort tended to uniquely focus on Roman and Greek religious practices that were incompatible with Christianity (the act of honoring birthday spirits and the like). As time went on, those associations dimmed and birthdays didn’t seem as threatening as they once were.
So were birthdays an alarming heathen practice throughout the entirety of Bible that the people of Israel had to resist? Or is Calvin right? Was some memorial of the day of one’s birth both reasonable and respectful and twisted only by heathen influences? I think the attitude towards birthdays likely depends on the era you’re looking at. There were a lot of groups in that region throughout history that celebrated birthdays in some way, shape, or form (Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Arabs, etc.) It would be odd for that to have been permanently and absolutely resisted as evil, especially when we take some of Adler and Roubin’s references into account. While far from airtight, they establish that there’s precedent for the idea of something like birthdays in Israel, depending on the timeframe you’re looking at. Were Job’s kids celebrating birthdays? They very well may have been, especially when you consider that Job and his family did not live in Israel and were probably used to different cultural norms. That being said, by the time you get to the New Testament era, it seems clear that the dominant Greco-Roman understanding of birthdays (along with some historical bad influences) left a distaste for them among devout Jews and Christians that wore off over the coming centuries. Ultimately, I think Calvin has a leg to stand on when he’s talking about the potential scriptural value of birthdays. Which is just a delight. Next time you have a birthday, you can rest easy knowing that you’re not secretly engaging in wild pagan idolatry.