The Christmas Controversy (Pt. 1)
1,065 words 4 min 15 sec
"Hallelujah" Praise or "Bah Humbug" Paganism?
I specifically chose this title to lighten up a very volatile and emotional subject within the Hebraic Renewal Community—one rife with charges and countercharges, and in some cases, downright nonsense.
For example, I read one report on pagan influences behind Christmas, claiming that when you sing “Noel” you actually are declaring that there is “No El” (no Elohim or God)! Noel, of course, is simply the French word for the Nativity of God. Further, the author claimed that when you say “Santa” it actually is the word “Satan” with the letters transposed!
One aspect of this debate, however, strikes me as humorous. On the one hand, there are those we might call the “Rigorous Rooters” (people who are very serious about the Jewish roots of their faith) who decry Christmas because it is too pagan. On the other hand, what we might term the “Serious Secularists” in our society decry Christmas because it is too religious!
So these two opposite camps are in agreement: we should do away with Christmas. The religious see it as too secular, and the secular see it as too religious!
In our study, I want to remove the emotion by addressing this issue in three categories. First, I want to give you some Relevant Facts. Second, I will mention some related factors and Interpretations of the Facts. And third, I will close with three Applications and Recommendations for your prayerful consideration.
I. RELEVANT FACTS
Fact 1: The date of Messiah's birth is not mentioned in the Bible.
Fact 2: The date of Messiah's birth is unknown. Even today, scholars cannot prove when Jesus of Nazareth was born. They agree about one thing: that he was not born at the beginning of the present era. Most likely he was born sometime between the years 6-4 BC. King Herod the Great was alive when Jesus was born, and he died in 4 BC.
It also is likely that Jesus was born in the springtime. We know from ancient Jewish literature that shepherds in ancient Judea brought their flocks in from the fields in early November and did not take them back out into the pastures until early spring, probably March or April.
The view promulgated by some, that Christ’s birth occurred in a Rosh HaShanah or Feast of Tabernacles context, is not supportable by Scripture.
Fact 3: The earliest written records in Christian tradition that speculate about the date of Messiah’s birth do not appear until the first part of the third century (i.e., two centuries after Jesus).
Fact 4: Around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria argued that Jesus was born on Pachon 25 in the Egyptian calendar, which corresponds to May 20 in our calendar.
Fact 5: Clement was responding to a view circulated by Basilides, a Gnostic theologian in Alexandria, who claimed that Messiah’s epiphany (appearance or manifestation) occurred on 6 January. The Gnostics held that Christ was not fully human. Spirit and matter do not interact; Spirit is pure, matter is corrupt. So Christ took on only the appearance of a man, and this manifestation of deity, according to Basilides, occurred on 6 January. This date for Epiphany (a term still used today but with different associations) is early and important.
Fact 6: Another significant date is March 25. Some leaders in the early church came to the conclusion that Jesus was crucified on this date, corresponding to the spring equinox in the Roman calendar. It was not uncommon in antiquity to believe that great men died on the same day as their birth. In Jesus’ case, the conviction arose that the Messiah was both conceived and crucified on March 25. If that were the case, then going forward nine months to his birth, you would get the date of December 25.
Fact 7: The first recorded mention of December 25 as the Nativity of Christ is not found until the year 336 in what is called the Philocalian calendar. (We are now three hundred years out from Jesus’ death and resurrection.)
Fact 8: The December 25 date corresponded in the Roman calendar to the festive pagan celebration of the winter solstice, on which citizens throughout the Roman empire celebrated Natalis Solis Invicti—the (re)Birth of the Invincible Sun. In the ancient pagan view the Sun (god) seemed to be perishing or diminishing through the autumn, coming to its lowest point on 25 December, and then in effect was born again and continued to strengthen throughout the spring and summer. So the Invincible or Unconquerable Sun was celebrated with gala and raucous Roman festivities on this date.
Fact 9: Under the influence of the Church at Rome, the Nativity celebration on December 25 became commonplace in the West at the end of the fourth century. In other words, nearly four hundred years after the actual event in Judea, the celebration of Messiah’s birth on 25 December became widespread in the Western church.
Fact 10: The Nativity festival on December 25 spread to the East only gradually. The festival of Epiphany on January 6 remained far more important. Over time Epiphany became associated with a number of things, including the baptism and the birth of Christ, and even the date of the Magi’s visit.
Fact 11: It was only by the middle of the fifth century that most Eastern Churches replaced January 6 with December 25 as the date of the Nativity. The Jerusalem Church was the last holdout. Not until the mid-sixth century (549) did the original church shift to the December festival. Some Eastern communities to this day still celebrate the birth of Christ on January 6th.
Fact 12: Our final fact: Christmas (from the old English for Christ's Mass, a term first used in 1038) is not a biblical festival. The Nativity is biblical; the festival celebrating the Nativity is post-biblical. Matthew and Luke both speak of the Nativity of the Messiah. But the festival commemorating the Nativity is much later—essentially fourth century—and therefore post-biblical.
To say that a festival is post-biblical is not to say necessarily that it is anti-biblical. This is an important distinction. The problem it seems to me is not so much that we celebrate Christmas, but that we don't celebrate it well. In other words, the problem is not that we celebrate, but how we celebrate.
In The Christmas Controversy, (Pt. 2) Dwight continues with
important thoughts and interpretations related to these twelve facts.