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BIRTHDAY (יוֹם הֻלֶּ֣דֶת, day of birth; γενεσία, birthday celebration). The celebration of the anniversary of one’s birth is a universal practice, for in most human societies the privileges and responsibilities of life are attached to the attainment of a certain age. The surviving census documents, dating back to a.d. 48, carefully record the age of those described and enrolled according to the requirements of the Rom. census law, which implies an observance and counting of birthdays. The birth of a child, according to Leviticus 12, occasioned certain rites and ceremonies. Under the Mosaic law age was the chief qualification for authority and office. The blind man’s parents declared that their son was “of age” (John 9:21). There was significance in Jesus’ visit to the Temple at twelve years of age. In spite of the absence of documentary material, it seems obvious that birthdays held their annual importance.

Scripture speaks specifically of two birthdays only, both of them royal. It is recorded (Gen 40:20) that Pharaoh declared an amnesty on his birthday. References to this practice in Egypt can be traced back to the 13th cent. b.c., and to the Gr. successors of the pharaohs, e.g. Ptolemy V (205-182 b.c.). The Persians had a similar practice. Reference is made to the birthday of Herod Antipas (Matt 14:6; Mark 6:21). The king with his armed forces at the eastern fortress of Machaerus was involved, thanks to his liaison with Herodias, in a tribal border war. It was in the midst of the carnal revelry of this occasion that John the Baptist was murdered. Edersheim (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah I, 672 fn. 1) asserts without valid reason that the celebration was to mark the anniversary of Herod’s accession. “It is not likely,” he says, “that the Herodians would have celebrated their birthdays.” In point of fact, it is no more unlikely than that Pharaoh should have celebrated his.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


(1) The custom of observing birthdays of great men, especially of kings, was widespread in ancient times (see Ge 40:20 f, "the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday," etc.; compare 2 Macc 6:7; and Herod. ix.110; in the New Testament, Mt 14:6; Mr 6:21, "Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords," etc., i.e. Herod Antipas). Here we see the ancient custom reflected in two conspicuous instances centuries apart:

(a) Pharaoh, on his birthday "made a feast unto all his servants," etc., and

(b) Herod o n his birthday "made a supper to his lords, and the high captains," etc.

The King James Version (Mt 14:6) has it "when Herod’s birthday was kept," etc. The correct text here (Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort) has a very peculiar construction, but without material difference of meaning. The locative case gives the time of the principal action, "danced on Herod’s birthday, when it occurred." The construction is not unexampled (see Jelf, section 699). This need not be called "a case absolute," though it corresponds to the Latin ablative (locative) absolute; and the Greek genitive absolute is itself not really "absolute," i.e. it is not cut loose from the rest of the construction, but gives some event to which the principal action is referred, for the indication of its circumstances.

(2) The term "birthday" (ta genesia) was applied also to the anniversary of a king’s accession to the throne (Edersheim); but Wieseler’s argument that such is the case here is not conclusive. It is easy to suppose that when Herod’s birthday approached he was sojourning at the castle of Macherus, accompanied by leading military and civil officials of his dominions (Mr 6:21). Petty ruler as he was, not properly "king" at all, he affected kingly ways (compare Es 5:3,6; 7:2).

(3) Genesia, which in Attic Greek means the commemoration of the dead, in later Greek is interchangeable with genethlia = "birthday celebrations"; and there is no good reason why the rendering of the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) here, "birthday," should not be right (See Swete on Mr 6:21, and HDB, under the word) For date of Christ’s birth, etc., see Jesus Christ; Calendar, etc.

George B. Eager