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Does God Disapprove of Birthdays?

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Does God Disapprove of Birthdays?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #23
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that God strongly disapproves of birthday celebrations (and nearly all annual holidays). It claims that these annual observances are pagan and contrary to biblical principles. A closer examination shows that there is nothing inherently pagan about birthday celebrations and that there is no basis in Scripture for condemning the practice.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches about Birthdays

Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably best known not for what they believe, or even for what they do (other than street proselytization), but for what they don’t do. The Watchtower Society through its publications prohibits Jehovah’s Witnesses from giving or receiving blood transfusions;1 wearing or in any way using the cross as a religious symbol;2 participating in government or civic affairs by serving in the military, joining a political party, holding political office, using a flag, or even voting; or observing a long list of holidays or celebrations such as birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve or Day, Valentine’s Day, or any state or national holiday (such as Independence Day in the United States).3

The Watchtower Society has admitted that the observance of such holidays might seem relatively unimportant compared to other matters such as loving others, learning God’s word in the Bible, and so forth. However, it warns that “Jehovah’s people may not ignore the seemingly little things. These also must be taken seriously.”4 It then explains what some of these things are:

Included in them is keeping free from all customs that are either directly or indirectly condemned in the Scriptures as being rooted in false religion or that are part of Satan’s system of things, such as the celebration of holidays, political and religious. While not celebrating these may, to some persons, seem to be a little thing, that does not make it less important in the sight of God, and mature Christians appreciate that fact.5

In this article, we will examine the Watchtower’s arguments against birthdays, the secular celebration that it has criticized most often in its publications. The issues that arise in connection with birthdays are often the same issues that apply to other secular celebrations. In a subsequent article, we will consider Jehovah’s Witnesses’ objections to specifically Christian observances, especially Christmas and Easter.

The Watchtower defines the term birthday as “the anniversary of one’s birth, especially that of a child, is celebrated with a party and the giving of gifts.” It then comments, “Not a Biblical practice.”6 Jehovah’s Witnesses give three main reasons for considering birthday celebrations to be unacceptable to God. The first is that birthday celebrations are rooted in ancient pagan religion: “Although considered to be a harmless secular custom today, birthday celebrations are actually rooted in paganism.”7 The Society has repeatedly expressed this criticism of birthday celebrations being rooted in pagan religion.8 Apparently, everything associated with birthday celebrations in modern Western culture, including birthday parties, cakes, candles, and gifts, all have “pagan roots.”

Second, the Watchtower argues that the Bible presents birthday celebrations in a bad light because it reports only two birthday celebrations, both in honor of pagan kings, both of whom had men killed on their birthdays. One Watchtower article explained the argument as follows:

The only birthday celebrations mentioned in the Bible are of two pagan rulers and each of these events was marred by an execution. Pharaoh’s was marred by the execution of his chief baker, and King Herod’s by the execution of John the Baptist. (Gen. 40:20-22; Mark 6:21-29)9

The Society has repeated this argument numerous times. Commenting on the references to Pharaoh’s and Herod’s birthdays, the 1992 book Reasoning from the Scriptures stated:

Everything that is in the Bible is there for a reason. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) Jehovah’s Witnesses take note that God’s Word reports unfavorably about birthday celebrations and so shun these.10

This argument continues to be used up to the present, as in a book published in 2015: “Should Christians celebrate birthdays? The only birthday celebrations mentioned in the Bible were held by those who did not worship Jehovah. (Genesis 40:20; Mark 6:21)”11

Third, Jehovah’s Witnesses point out that “neither the ancient Jews nor Christians early in the Common Era celebrated birthdays.”12 They point out, for example, that the third-century Christian theologian Origen considered birthday celebrations objectionable. Origen cited the examples of Pharaoh and Herod Antipas in support of his objection, much as Jehovah’s Witnesses do today.13

Are Birthday Celebrations Pagan, and Does It Matter?

The Watchtower Society teaches Jehovah’s Witnesses to associate birthdays (as well as most other annual holidays or celebrations) with paganism. A search of the Watchtower Online Library of the words pagan and birthday (and related forms) yielded 127 articles or book chapters from the past seventy years with the two words, usually in the same immediate context. Typically, the Watchtower makes such assertions as that birthday celebrations are “of pagan origin” or that they are “rooted in paganism.”

The main problem with this objection to birthday celebrations is that it commits the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is a misstep in reasoning, an illogical form of argument, in which something is said to be bad or wrong because of the circumstances of its origins. This type of argument is fallacious (that is, of an illogical, unreliable form) because the origins of a particular belief or practice cannot be used to predict with any reliability whether the belief is true or the practice is good.

Edward Damer, in his respected textbook on logic, provides an explanation of the genetic fallacy that is quite relevant here:

Those who use the genetic fallacy attempt to reduce the significance of an idea, person, practice, or institution merely to an account of its origin or genesis, thereby overlooking the development, regression, or difference to be found in it in the present situation. One who commits this fallacy typically transfers the positive or negative esteem that he or she has for the thing in its original context or earlier form to the thing in its present form. The genetic fallacy is sometimes committed by religious leaders and others who forbid certain practices on the basis of their supposed origins. Some religious groups, for example, have argued that their members should not dance because dancing was originally used in pagan mystery cults as a way of worshipping pagan gods. Even if this were the way dancing originated and if pagans used to carry on in this way, it is doubtful that that fact would have any relevance to the merit of attending one’s high school prom today.14

Several times over the years, the Watchtower has addressed an issue that exposes its inconsistency on this issue of eschewing practices that have pagan origins. As thoughtful Jehovah’s Witnesses realized—and apparently some had the courage to ask about it—this criticism might be leveled against certain customs associated with weddings, especially the wearing of wedding rings. In a Watchtower article published in 1956, the Society emphasized that wedding rings were optional in marriage ceremonies and commented that “some may conscientiously object to featuring a ring in the ceremony, having in mind the pagan origin of the customary wedding ring in Christendom.”15 About a decade later, the Watchtower left the matter even more open, stating that “the claims are many, the facts muddled” concerning “the origin and meaning of the wedding ring.” It concluded that a Jehovah’s Witness couple were free to make their own choice in the matter.16 A few years later, the Society elaborated on its uncertainty, citing four different books with four different theories as to the origins of wedding rings. Here they made a fascinating and rather important admission:

Even if it were a fact that pagans first used wedding rings, would that rule such out for Christians? Not necessarily. Many of today’s articles of clothing and aspects of life originated in pagan lands. The present time divisions of hours, minutes and seconds are based on an early Babylonian system. Yet, there is no objection to a Christian’s using these time divisions, for one’s doing so does not involve carrying on false religious practices.17

The relevance of the above-stated principle to the matter of birthday celebrations is obvious. Even if the practice “originated in pagan lands,” if doing it today “does not involve carrying on false religious practices” there should be “no objection” to Christians engaging in the practice. The same point was made two decades later in an article that attempted to explain why the Watchtower Society prohibited birthday celebrations but not wedding rings. They state that in matters such as wedding rings, “what generally is influential is whether a practice is now linked to false religion.” Yet, in the very next sentence, the Society again emphasizes “the superstitious and religious antecedents of celebrating birthdays,” elaborating on this point for three full paragraphs.18 In the end, the article attempts to salvage the “pagan origin” objection by combining it with the supposedly “unfavorable light in which” the Bible presents birthday celebrations: “Given the known origin of celebrating birthdays, and more important, the unfavorable light in which they are presented in the Bible, Jehovah’s Witnesses have ample reason to abstain from the practice.”19 We will turn next to the claim that the Bible puts birthday celebrations in an “unfavorable light,” but the point to be understood here is that the Watchtower’s own reasoning about wedding rings illustrates why the “pagan in origin” argument is fallacious.

The Bible and Birthday Celebrations

The Watchtower’s only objection to celebrating birthdays that appeals directly to the Bible is that in the two explicit references to birthday celebrations, the men celebrating their birthdays were evil kings who had someone wrongly executed on that day. If we were to try to express this argument formally, it would look something like this: 

  • The Bible reports two kings celebrating their birthdays and having someone executed.
  • The Bible contains no other accounts of birthday celebrations.
  • Therefore, the Bible considers birthday celebrations to be bad.

It may be intuitively obvious that something is amiss in this argument, but the problem may be objectively explained. The conclusion (the third statement above) does not follow logically from the premises (the first two statements) on which it is supposedly based. The above argument draws a generalized conclusion based on just two instances, which is not enough to warrant that conclusion. In addition, the argument appeals to the lack of an explicit statement of approval of birthdays in the Bible to support the claim that the Bible disapproves of birthdays. There are two fallacies or missteps in reasoning here. The first is called a hasty generalization and the second is called an argument from silence. Combining these two fallacies does not make the argument stronger.

The hasty generalization is the mistake of reasoning that because something is the case in some observed instances, it will always be the case. In popular language, this fallacy is often described as “jumping to a conclusion.”20 From two accounts of birthday celebrations in which the honored person committed an evil act, one simply cannot conclude that birthday celebrations are bad in and of themselves.

The problem with arguments from silence is usually recognized quite easily. From the fact that the Bible does not command birthday celebrations or express approval of them, it does not follow that the Bible teaches that birthday celebrations are bad. Lack of mention does not mean lack of approval. For example, it so happens that the Bible never mentions cats (although there are plenty of references to lions). The lack of references to cats in the Bible tells us nothing good or bad about cats.

The error with the Watchtower argument actually runs deeper than these logical fallacies. The error is a fundamental mistake in how one reads texts (any texts, including the Bible). The Watchtower’s argument assumes that God wanted people to know that he disapproves of birthdays, but instead of simply commanding Moses or Jesus or Paul to say so, he buried this instruction in the narratives about Pharaoh and Herod Antipas. The passages about these men say nothing negative about birthday celebrations as such, but only report something extremely negative that happened on those birthdays. No conclusion about what we should think about birthday celebrations may legitimately be drawn from these accounts.

If we take a closer look at the passages, we will see why it is a mistake to infer from them that God disapproves generally of birthday celebrations. Here is the account about Pharaoh in Genesis:

On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. (Gen. 40:20-22)

In this account, Genesis briefly mentions that the day “was Pharaoh’s birthday” (ESV) in order to explain the occasion for the feast at which the chief cupbearer was restored to his position. Literally, the text says, “the day of the birth of Pharaoh,” meaning of course not the day he was born as an infant but (it seems) on his birthday. Modern readers may find this surprising, but it is possible that the text refers to Pharaoh’s accession as king of Egypt. This is because in the ancient Near East, when a man became a king, he was sometimes said to have been “born” as the son of the god he represented.21 The Egyptologist James Hoffmeier has argued that Genesis is referring to the celebration of Pharaoh’s accession, not his literal birthday.22 It is difficult to be certain in the matter, since pharaohs and other kings may have released prisoners both on their literal birthdays and on their accession days. For this reason, modern commentators often leave open the question of which sort of day this was, with several favoring the accession view.23

This information confirms that the reason Genesis mentions Pharaoh’s special day (whether a literal birthday or not) is because that was the sort of occasion at which Pharaoh was especially likely to have pardoned a prisoner such as the chief baker. Therefore, we may be assured that the Bible does not mention Pharaoh’s day here as a hint or signal that God disapproves of all birthday celebrations. Genesis also says nothing pejorative or critical about Pharaoh making a feast. Indeed, it states that he made the feast “for all his servants,” which would seem to be a commendable act on his part. By the way, we do not even know that the chief baker’s execution was unjust. All we are told is that he and the chief cupbearer had committed offenses against Pharaoh sufficiently grievous for him to be angry with them and put them in prison (Gen. 40:1-3). Of course, we know that Joseph was innocent of any crime despite his being imprisoned. Perhaps the chief baker was unjustly executed; we do not know. In any case, the “birthday” celebration is merely the occasion, not the cause or basis, for the execution of the chief baker. The problem is not the celebration itself, but the execution, assuming it was unjust.

We have two accounts of Herod Antipas (whom the Gospels simply call “Herod”), the son of Herod the Great and the tetrarch of Galilee during Jesus’ ministry (Matt. 14:1; Luke 3:1, 19), ordering the execution of John the Baptist on Herod’s birthday. Both Matthew and Mark mention that it was Herod’s birthday, but Mark gives the detail that “Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee” (Mark 14:21; cf. Matt. 14:6). Nothing more is said about the birthday itself. The essential facts of what happened at the banquet are the same in both Gospels; here is Matthew’s more abbreviated account:

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. (Matt. 14:6-9)

Here again, Matthew and Mark report that it was Herod’s birthday and that he had guests (at a banquet, as Mark makes explicit) as necessary narrative context to understand how it came about that Herod ordered John’s execution. Neither account implies any criticism or disapproval of the general practice of holding a banquet or party on someone’s birthday. There is, of course, strong disapproval of Herod Antipas and of what happened at his birthday banquet, but this specific disapproval cannot be generalized into a disapproval of all birthday celebrations.

Knowing something about Herod Antipas and his family does add some color to the Gospels’ accounts of this event. Harold Hoehner, the author of one of the most important academic biographies of Herod Antipas, in that study explained that the Herods were rather notorious for their extravagant birthday celebrations. (Hoehner treated the event as Herod’s literal birthday, as do most commentators today, though he noted that scholars were not unanimous on this point.) Apparently by the middle of the first century AD (and thus shortly before or during the time when the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were probably written), the Herods’ excesses on their “birthdays” had become so well-known that the Roman poet Persius used “days of Herod” as a proverbial expression referring to such extravaganzas.24 With this context in mind, we might well read between the lines a bit in the Gospels’ accounts and see some confirmation that the Gospel writers regarded Herod Antipas’s birthday celebration as excessive and worldly in an ungodly way. As traditionally interpreted, the dancing of Herodias’s daughter would confirm this impression. At the same time, this background information helps us understand that the problem was not the bare fact of celebrating a birthday, but the ungodly, excessive manner in which that celebration took place.

Origen, the third-century Christian theologian whom the Watchtower has cited repeatedly in support of their reading of the accounts about Pharaoh and Herod Antipas, was a brilliant scholar. However, with all due respect to Origen, his use of these accounts to make a generalized criticism of all birthday celebrations is unsound. In a civilization that was overwhelmingly pagan and in which birthday celebrations were almost entirely held in honor of powerful pagan rulers, it is understandable that Origen would condemn such celebrations. Modern birthday celebrations, for the most part, are innocent, humble events for families and friends, especially for children, and share none of the unsavory elements of the festivities that Origen was condemning.

The cultural differences between ancient birthday celebrations and those common in modern society are so vast that generalizing about the merits of all such celebrations is simply unwise. Jews and Christians in the first few centuries of the Common Era did not celebrate their birthdays, but then, most pagans did not celebrate their birthdays, either. In the ancient world, birthday celebrations were generally the province of the rich and powerful.

Conclusion: Why This Matters

Ultimately, it is not important whether people celebrate birthdays or not. The fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate their birthdays is not in and of itself a bad thing. What is troubling is the fixation of the Watchtower Society on this issue and its insistence on dictating to rank and file Jehovah’s Witnesses what they may or may not do in matters the Bible leaves entirely at the individual’s or family’s discretion. As documented above, the Watchtower publications have criticized the practice of birthday celebrations dozens of times, which gives some indication of the importance the organization places on this issue.

The main function of the Watchtower’s long list of taboos mentioned at the beginning of this article (no blood transfusions, no crosses, no flags, no voting, no birthday parties, and on and on) is to separate Jehovah’s Witnesses from the rest of society in a rather artificial manner. Christians should be different from the general culture, but in ways clearly taught in Scripture. They should be faithful in their marriages, free of bigotry and hate, sacrificial in their giving, loving to their enemies, and concerned more about pleasing God than pleasing themselves. Jehovah’s Witnesses do affirm these values, but their distinctive religious identity is constructed largely through the imposition of arbitrary rules that have no grounding in ethical values or biblical teaching. The result is a kind of religious pride rather than the cultivation of healthy, humble Christian character. The good news is that freedom from such man-made rules is available in a sound relationship with Jesus Christ (Col. 2:8-23).



1. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Does God Forbid Blood Transfusions?” Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #22 (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2020).

2. On the issue of the cross (its historical form as well as its use as a Christian symbol), see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Is the Cross a Pagan Symbol?” Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #13 (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2020).

3. See especially Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1989), 68–76, 89–93, 176–82, 269–76.

4. “The Seriousness of It,” Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1968, 570.

5. “The Seriousness of It,” 571.

6. “Birthday,” in Reasoning from the Scriptures, 68, emphasis in original.

7. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Education (Watchtower, 1995, 2002, 2015; 2019 printing), 15.

8. E.g., “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, Oct. 1, 1951, 607; “What about Celebrating Birthdays?” Awake! July 8, 1976, 28; The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life, rev. ed. (Watchtower, 1981), 146–47; What Does the Bible Really Teach? (Watchtower, 2005, 2014), 157.

9. “The Seriousness of It,” 571.

10. “Birthday,” in Reasoning from the Scriptures, 69.

11. What Can the Bible Teach Us? (Watchtower, 2015), 166.

12. “What about Celebrating Birthdays?” Awake! July 8, 1976, 28.

13. Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 10.22 (on Matt. 14:6-7), trans. John Patrick, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 9, ed. Allan Menzies (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896), rev. and ed. Kevin Knight,; and Origen, Homily 8.3.2 [on Lev. 12:2], in Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 1–16, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley, Fathers of the Church 83 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 156. For Watchtower quotations from Origen, see “The Seriousness of It,” 571; “What about Celebrating Birthdays,” 28; Insight on the Scriptures, 1:319; School and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 18; “Birthday,” in Reasoning from the Scriptures, 319; “Birthday Celebrations—How Did They Get Started,” 12; “Is Christmas God’s Gift to You,” 22.

14. T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009), 93.

15. “Marriage Ceremonies and Requirements,” Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1956, 571.

16. “Christian Weddings Should Reflect Reasonableness,” Watchtower, Jan. 15, 1969, 58–59.

17. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, Jan. 15, 1972, 63. See also “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, Oct. 1, 1951, 607.

18. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, Sept. 1, 1992, 30–31.

19. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, Sept. 1, 1992, 31.

20. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Practical Argument: A Text and Anthology (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011), 115–16; Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 172–74.

21. This cultural usage is probably behind the famous statement in Psalm 2:7, quoted in the New Testament in reference to Jesus Christ’s exaltation to the throne of God in heaven (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5).

22. James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 89–91.

23. J. Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary 2 (Dallas: Word, 1994), 384; Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary, with Cathi J. Fredricks (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 527; Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, New American Commentary 1B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 751–52.

24. Harold W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas: A Contemporary of Jesus Christ, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 17 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), reprint, Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 160–61.