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.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Jolly Old St. Nicholas: The Man behind the Legend

For the last two years, I have done blog posts on the date of Christmas and the origins ofthe Christmas tree, debunking some popular ideas about each of these. This year, in honor of St. Nicholas Day (December 6), I thought I’d write about who he was historically. How he got transformed into Santa Clause is a story for another day.

Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in Patara (in modern Turkey, then a Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire) somewhere between 260 and 280 AD. His parents died of an epidemic, and so he was raised by an uncle, also named Nicholas, who was bishop of Patara.

 Not much is known for certain about his life. Apparently, his uncle began preparing him to become a priest, but he was elected bishop of Myra prior to his ordination as a priest. This was very unusual—only two other examples are known—which makes the story believable. If the biography were being invented, this kind of embellishment would have been unlikely.

Under the Great Persecution begun by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was thrown into prison with many other members of the clergy. When Christianity was decriminalized, he was released and returned to Myra.

Nicholas was known for his charity. For example, one story tells of him giving gold anonymously to three sisters from a poor family to provide dowries for them so they wouldn’t be forced into a life of prostitution. Although this story exists in a variety of forms, it too is likely to be based on an actual event. Other saints’ lives do not contain similar stories, so it is unlikely to have been made up here. This incident is the origin of the idea that St. Nicholas comes to give gifts to children at Christmas.

Another story tells of rioting that broke out in Myra’s port city of Andriaki. Nicholas hurried there to see if he could help, and was told that three innocent men had been taken by the authorities and were about to be executed. Nicholas ran to the place of execution and grabbed the executioner’s sword just as he was about to behead the first of the men. Nicholas threw the sword down, and the three men went free while Nicholas worked to clear them of the charges.

A number of miracles were attributed to Nicholas both in life and after death, so many in fact that Nicholas has been titled “Thaumaturge” (the Miracle Worker). I’m not going to go into these except to mention Nicholas’s “manna,” a clear liquid that began appearing in his tomb and according to my sources continues to do so. It is believed to have healing properties.

But all of this fades before my favorite story of St. Nicholas, which involves the Council of Nicaea. The Council was called by the recently converted emperor Constantine to settle a theological conflict in the church. The issue was how we understand Jesus. Everyone recognized that he was a man, but the question was, what else is he? The theologian Athanasius argued that he is fully God; Arius argued that he isn’t God but the firstborn and highest of the angels. This conflict threatened to split the church, so Constantine invited bishops from around the Empire to meet in Nicaea and settle the matter. More than 300 bishops attended, including Nicholas.

At the Council, Nicholas sided very firmly with Athanasius, insisting on the deity of Christ. After one of Arius’s speeches, Nicholas was so upset that he walked across the room and gave him a hard slap across the face.

That’s right. Jolly Old St. Nicholas punched out Arius.

The bishops were shocked by Nicholas’s behavior, and he was mortified himself by his loss of self-control. Since it was illegal to strike another person in the presence of the Emperor, he was stripped of his episcopal robes and thrown in prison. Stories vary about his release, but once he had done his penance, he was allowed to return to Myra.

So there you have some tidbits about the life of St. Nicholas. The main conclusion I would draw from it is that heresy puts you on his naughty list, and if you’re on it he’s very likely to give you something more than a lump of coal.