This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas, Saturnalia, and other Nonsense

When talking about the date of Christmas, people routinely will tell you that we don’t know when Jesus was born, but we celebrate Christmas in December because it’s the church’s response to the popular pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. The “Jesus Myth” theory, which says that Jesus never actually lived but that his story was stolen from paganism, takes this one step further and argues that along with Saturnalia, the birth of Mithras, Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) and a host of other dying and rising solar deities were all celebrated on or near December 25; the church ripped off these stories as it invented the life of Jesus.

This is all nonsense if you actually look at the historical evidence.

The early church didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth, and until the third century there was no real interest in the date. (This by itself should put the lie to the idea that Jesus is nothing more than a borrowed sun deity—if he was, you’d expect the date to be established very early.) In the third century, some church leaders began trying to figure out the date of his birth, with May 20 being a popular choice. In the mid-fourth century, either December 25 in the West or January 6 in the East emerged as the consensus dates for celebrating Jesus’ birth.

So how did they come up with those dates?

Although a few early Christian writers noted a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth, none make any connection to pagan myths, which is rather surprising if that was the point of the date. In fact, the idea that our date for Christmas was influenced by pagan festivals only appears in the twelfth century, 800 years or so after the event. No contemporary evidence suggests that Saturnalia or the birth of sun gods had anything to do with Jesus’ birth.

In actuality, the date of Christmas is connected to the date of Good Friday. Jesus died on 14 Nisan in the Jewish lunar calendar; this got translated to March 25 in the Roman solar calendar. An anonymous fourth century treatise argues that Jesus entered the world (i.e. was conceived) on the same day that he died; the feast of the Annunciation was thus set to March 25, which made the date for his birth December 25.

In the East, the Crucifixion was dated to April 6—which is nine months from January 6, their date for Christmas.

The idea that there is a connection between Jesus’ conception and death probably came from Jewish thought. Jewish rabbis believed that the world was created in the month of Nisan, the patriarchs were born in Nisan, Passover occurred in Nisan, and the redemption of the Jews at the end of the era would also occur in Nisan. This thinking seems to have informed early Christian theologians as they pondered the relationship between Jesus’ birth and death.

Correlation does not mean causation: just because Jesus’ birth was celebrated at the same date as pagan festivals does not mean that there is a connection between the two, especially since there is no evidence of such a connection in the sources. The Jewish background to Christianity and the connection with the Crucifixion is a much better explanation for both of the dates when Christmas was celebrated than any supposed connection to paganism.