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Sermon No: 787-Should Christians celebrate Christmas



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SERMON TOPIC: Should Christians celebrate Christmas

Speaker: Gavin Paynter

Language: ENGLISH

Date: 11 December 2011

Topic Groups: CHRISTMAS, SOUND DOCTRINE, HERESY

Sermon synopsis: Some feel that it is unimportant (or even sinful) to celebrate Christ’s birthday at all.
The arguments used by anti-Christmas proponents are normally:
- The Bible is silent on the date of Jesus birth.
- The December 25th date of Christmas and the many associated customs all come from pagan sources.
All Christmas celebrations are therefore pagan.
- Christians never observed Christmas until the 4th century.
Therefore it must have been the emperor Constantine or 'some pope' who introduced the festival as a form of honour to the sun god.
There is no instruction or precedent in the Bible to celebrate Jesus' birth.
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SHOULD

CHRISTIANS

CELEBRATE

CHRISTMAS?

Some feel that it is unimportant (or even sinful) to celebrate Christ’s birthday at all. The arguments used by anti-Christmas proponents are normally:

The Bible is silent on the date of Jesus birth. The December 25th date of Christmas and the many associated customs all come from pagan sources. All Christmas celebrations are therefore pagan.

Christians never observed Christmas until the 4th century. Therefore it must have been the emperor Constantine or “some pope” who introduced the festival as a form of honour to the sun god.

There is no instruction or precedent in the Bible to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS?

LEGAL

EVIDENCE

In most legal systems today:

The quantum of evidence is the amount of evidence needed; the quality of proof is how reliable such evidence should be considered. This includes such concepts as hearsay, authentication, admissibility, reasonable doubt, and clear and convincing evidence. There are several types of evidence, depending on the form or source. Evidence governs the use of testimony (e.g., oral or written statements, such as an affidavit), exhibits (e.g., physical objects), documentary material, or demonstrative evidence, which are admissible (i.e., allowed to be considered by the trier of fact, such as jury) in a judicial or administrative proceeding (e.g., a court of law). 1

1 Wikipedia - Evidence (law) "http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Evidence_%28law%29">http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Evidence_%28law%29

LEGAL EVIDENCE

We have concepts like “burden of proof”. This principle also known as the presumption of innocence, is summed up with the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”.

In order for a successful conviction a crime must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

Motive should also be established and the defence may use “character witnesses” for the accused.

Indirect evidence: Circumstantial evidence might point to the possibility of guilt but it is only when a significant amount of this type of evidence is presented that the likelihood of guilt is assumed.

Hearsay is never admissible.

LEGAL EVIDENCE

If eye witnesses are available then it must be established if they are reliable. The Bible gives cases when false witness brought about a wrongful conviction of the likes of the righteous Naboth (1 Kings 21:10), Stephen (Acts 6:13) and even Jesus (Matt 26:60-61).

The Bible itself indicates that there should be at least 2 or more witnesses in order for a conviction.

Deut 17:6 On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.

1 Tim 5:19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.

DIRECT EVIDENCE

Now if we use these principles of ‘fairness’ in a secular court, surely they should apply to allegations made concerning events in church history.

Yet many of the evidences offered by anti-Christmas lobbyists are based on hearsay, assumptions loosely based on circumstantial evidence, or even arguments from silence.

FAIR EVIDENCE

DEC 25 -

PAGAN

ORIGIN?

Let’s look at the first objection:

Pagan origin

The Bible is silent on the date of Jesus birth.

Therefore the December 25th date for Christmas and the many associated customs must all come from pagan sources.

Hence all Christmas celebrations are pagan.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

THE BIBLE IS SILENT ON JESUS’ BIRTH DATE.

It is true that the exact year of Jesus’ birth is unknown, although historians place it some time between 7 BC and 2 BC. The day and month is also unknown.

Narratives of Jesus’ birth are included in two of the gospels (Matthew & Luke), but the Bible is silent on the issue of Jesus’ birth date. If it was really important, God would have told us in His Word.

But you cannot make a conclusive argument either way, based on the silence of Scripture.

SILENCE

The early church had opinions about the birth date of Jesus, but were by no means in total agreement. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) recorded that “there are those who have determined not only the year of our Saviour’s genesis, but even the day, which they say took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus on the 25th of Pachon… Indeed, others say that he came to be on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi.” 1

He gives 2 possibilities, both on the 25th day of a Coptic (Egyptian) calendar month. Pachon was the ninth month of the Coptic calendar (9 May to 7 June on the Gregorian calendar). Pharmuthi was the eighth month of the Coptic calendar (9 April to 8 May on the Gregorian calendar).

1 Stromata, 1.21.145-146

THE EARLY CHURCH

Origen (184/ 5–253/ 4) pointed out 1 that in the Scriptures only sinners celebrated their birthdays. As such he claimed that Christians should not celebrate birthdays.

Ex 40:20 Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials…

Mark 6:21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.

This idea of not celebrating birthdays has been adapted by the Jehovah’s Witness cult.

1 Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495

THE EARLY CHURCH

Some attempt to make an argument from Scripture that the census of Augustus would have been impossible in winter (i.e. December to February in the Northern hemisphere).

But others counter by saying that it must have been in winter, because it was only then that field labour was suspended. Also the Romans were not known for their consideration towards their subjects; the coldness of winter would have been a non-issue to them when calling a census.

WINTER OR SUMMER

Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD)

Some further argue from Scripture that Jesus’ birth could not have been in winter because the shepherds would not have been out in the fields as seen in Luke 2.

WINTER OR SUMMER

But according to Richard P. Myers, “… it is very possible that this scene could have taken place in winter in Israel. Israel has a very moderate climate, and mild winters, much like southern California. In fact, our family made a trip to Israel in December 1989. The weather was mild; we wore short sleeves and no coats some of the time. We personally passed by several fields in which shepherds were out in the fields, watching over the sheep as they were grazing.” 1

1 "http:// www.tbclacey.org/ resources/ PDF%20%0BArticles/ Should%20We%20Celebrate%20%0BChristmas%20-%20Richard%20Myers.pdf">http:// www.tbclacey.org/ resources/ PDF%20 Articles/ Should%20We%20Celebrate%20 Christmas%20-%20Richard%20Myers.pdf

WINTER OR SUMMER

BECAUSE THE BIBLE IS SILENT, THE DEC 25TH DATE MUST COME FROM PAGAN SOURCES.

Examining the actual documentary evidence: While there are peripheral customs linked to current Christmas celebrations which have pagan origins, the only documented arguments for the December 25th date actually come from Christian sources.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

The tradition of December 25th as Jesus’ birthday is actually quite old, dating from the 2nd century and not the 4th as many claim. The earliest known testimony is Theophilus, Bishop of Caesarea (AD 115-181):

We ought to celebrate the birth-day of our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen. 1

1 Magdeburgenses, Cent. 2. c. 6. Hospinian, de orign Festorum Chirstianorum

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Around 202-211 AD Hippolytus of Rome also argued that this was the date. In his Commentary on Daniel he states:

For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year… 1

Hippolytus (170-235)

1 Some scholars claim that the Dec 25th date must have been added into this document at a later stage. Tom Schmidt of Chronicon.net investigated the matter and published findings defending the Dec 25th date online at: "http:// chronicon.net/ blog/ chronology%0B/ hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas/ ">http:// chronicon.net/ blog/ chronology / hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas/

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Sextus Julius Africanus 1 wrote a history of the world (Chronographiai 2) from creation to the year 221 AD and calculated that the world was created on March 25th. He believed that Jesus’ conception marked the start of the new creation and that it was fitting that it would be on exactly the same date. If the conception of Jesus was indeed on March 25th, accordingly his birth would be nine months later on December 25th.

While we may question Julius’ rationale and calculations, it is clear that his reason for choosing Dec 25th was not based on any association with a pagan festival.

1 A Christian historian of the late 2nd and early 3rd century AD who influenced Eusebius and other Christian historians. 2 The 5-book work is no longer extant, but copious extracts from it are found in the Chronicon of Eusebius.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Hippolytus in his own Chronicon makes similar claims to Julius Africanus:

“… Hippolytus indicates that Jesus was in fact born on December 25 because he claims that Jesus was born nine months from the anniversary of the creation of the world. Because the Chronicon indicates that the world was created on March 25, the vernal equinox, nine months from this date is of course December 25. From this we can safely say that, sometime between 202 and 211 AD, Hippolytus marked December 25th as the birthday of Jesus. This clearly had nothing to do with Pagan festivals, but was derived from the idea that Jesus was conceived on the Passover.” 1

1 "http:// chronicon.net/ blog/ chronology/ hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas/ ">http:// chronicon.net/ blog/ chronology/ hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas/

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Another reason why some early Christians chose Dec 25th as Jesus birth date is as follows.

Around 200 AD Tertullian noted Nisan 14 (March 25th) as the day Christ died.

Based on the Jewish concept of the “integral age” i.e. that great prophets were conceived on the same date as their death, some early Christians then concluded that Jesus was also conceived on that same date.

Nine months later takes us to Dec 25th as the birth date for Jesus.

Again this line of reasoning is based on assumptions that may be wrong – but this is a far cry from choosing a date rivalling a birthday for a pagan god.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

An anonymous writing apparently from 4th century North Africa expresses this idea of the association of conception and death dates:

Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered. 1

Augustine (354–430) was also familiar with this idea:

For he is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March... But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. 2

1 On Solstices and Eqinoxes 2 On the Trinity (c. 399–419)

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

The Chronography of 354 was a manuscript produced for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentinus. It lists the various martyrs’ feasts for the year and records that Jesus’ birth was observed in Rome on December 25th. The document is also known as “The Philocalian Calendar” and although copied in 354 AD, it represented Roman practice in 336 AD.

An anonymous Christian treatise from North Africa in the 4th century states:

But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December... the eight before the calends of January [25 December]... 1

1 del Solst. Et Æquin (II, p. 118, ed. 1588)

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

The Apostolic Constitutions mandate the celebration of Christ’s birth on Dec 25th. The dating of this document varies widely from the 2nd to 4th century.

Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month; after which let the Epiphany be to you the most honoured, in which the Lord made to you a display of His own Godhead, and let it take place on the sixth of the tenth month.

Some argue for an ancient date for the Constitutions based on the fact that its authors were still using the Jewish calendar. The “ninth month” in this calendar is Casleu, corresponding to December in our own.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Some claim that Christmas was taken from ‘Saturnalia’. The claim is based not on any recorded documentary evidence, but on circumstantial evidence – the dates are supposedly the same. And so a typical article claims:

Just a little research reveals that Christmas was actually adapted from a Roman celebration called Saturnalia. The Encyclopedia Romana explains that “at the time of the winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian calendar), Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored with a festival.”

In reality the Roman feast of Saturnalia was from 17th to the 23rd December. In other words it was a week-long festival ending two days before December 25th. (See "http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Saturnalia">http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Saturnalia.)

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Others have claimed that Christmas was borrowed from the “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” which means “the birthday of the unconquered sun” which was on the Dec 25th.

Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) was the official sun god of the later Roman empire. In 274 Aurelian made it an official cult alongside the traditional Roman cults… A festival on 25 December is sometimes thought to be responsible for the date of Christmas. 1

And so this theory states that the Roman Church chose Dec 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth in order to have a substitute feast for the sun-god feast. Others see in this some more sinister form of syncretism where the feast was a combination “pagan-Christian” feast.

1 "http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Christmas">http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Christmas

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Although Dies Natalis Solis Invicti has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly speculation, the only ancient source for it is a single mention in the Chronography of 354, and modern Sol scholar Steven Hijmans argues that there is no evidence that the celebration precedes that of Christmas: 1 & 2

“While the winter solstice on or around the 25th of December was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas, and none that indicates that Aurelian had a hand in its institution.” 2

1 S.E. Hijmans, Sol, the sun in the art and religions of Rome, 2009, pp. 587–588. 2 "http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Christmas">http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Christmas

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

One document, sometimes misquoted to support the notion of Dec 25th being chosen as Christmas because it was the ‘birthday’ of the sun god, states “O! The splendid and divine Providence of the Lord, that on that day, even at the very day, on which the Sun was made… Christ should be born.” 1

However the full quotation shows that the author believed the sun god’s birthday to be March 28th, not Dec 25th.

… divine Providence of the Lord, that on that day, even at the very day, on which the Sun was made, 28 March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born. For this reason Malachi the prophet, speaking about him to the people, fittingly said: “Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings.” [Malachi 4:2]

1 “De pasch. Comp.”, xix - wrongly attributed to 3rd century church father Cyprian

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

By the 4th century, Dec 25th was considered to be the sun god’s birthday. An anonymous Christian treatise from North Africa titled “On Solstices and Equinoxes”, states:

But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December... the eight before the calends of January [25 December]... But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord...? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.

However this excerpt clearly shows that this was not reason the date was chosen as a Christian celebration. The writer merely notes that the date Jesus was born was the same as the current day for the sun god’s birthday and he attributes this to Providence.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

John Chrysostom believed the date to be Dec 25th based on calculations around Zechariah’s priestly service from Luke’s gospel – not because he was trying to choose a substitute celebration to the sun god’s birthday.

John Chrysostom preached a sermon in Antioch c. 386 which established the date of Christmas as December 25 on the Julian calendar since the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:26) had been announced during the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist (Luke 1:10-13) as dated from the duties Zacharias performed on the Day of Atonement during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar Ethanim or Tishri (Lev. 16:29, 1 Kings 8:2) which falls in September-October. 1

1 "http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Christmas">http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Christmas

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Chrysostom’s basis for observing the December 25th was as follows:

Zacharias entered the temple on the Day of Atonement.

He thus received announcement of John's conception in September.

In Elizabeth’s sixth month Jesus’ birth was announced (Luke 1:24-31) i.e. 6 months later, in March, Christ was conceived.

Jesus was thus born 9 months later in December.

Incidentally the line of reasoning is fairly sound except than an assumption is made that Zacharias was serving on the Day of Atonement. This would necessitate that Zacharias was the high priest, 1 but Luke doesn’t say this. Luke calls Zacharias a priest and indicates that he was a member of one of the 24 priestly divisions listed in 1 Chron 24, while the high priest was not. In fact Zacharias was chosen by lot amongst other priests to burn incense (Luke 1:8-9), while the high-priest’s duties on the Day of Atonement day were prescribed by the law (Lev 16), and not given him by lot.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

1 In addition we know the high priests around the time of Jesus’ birth were Simon ben Boethus (23-5 BC), Matthias ben Theophilus (5-4 BC), Joazar ben Boethus (4 BC), Eleazar ben Boethus (4-3 BC), Joshua ben Sie (3 BC - ?) and Joazar ben Boethus (?-6 AD) - SOURCE: "http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ List_of_High_Priests_of_Israel">http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ List_of_High_Priests_of_Israel

However the fact remains that Chrysostom was not choosing Dec 25th because of any links to pagan festivals. He did it on that basis - mistaken or not – of calculations based on a Biblical passage.

His MOTIVE is clear from the documents we have today – i.e. a genuine attempt to calculate the actual time of Jesus’ birth based on the Scriptural record.

Chrysostom further argued that the celebration was no novelty in his day; because Dec 25th was being observed as a feast celebrating Christ’s birth from Thrace to Cadiz.

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

John Chrysostom (c. 347-407 AD)

BECAUSE THE DATE WAS ORIGINALLY THE DATE OF A PAGAN HOLIDAY, THEREFORE ALL CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS ARE PAGAN.

As mentioned, there is no direct evidence that the date was derived from a pagan holiday. And the circumstantial evidence based on similarities of dates is also very shaky.

Using this same circumstantial logic we could say that we shouldn’t go to church on Sunday (because the sun was honoured by pagans on that day) or Saturday (because the pagans honoured Saturn on that day) or on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday (because pagans honoured the Moon, Tyr, Wodin, Thor and Frija respectively even naming the week days after them).

1) PAGAN ORIGIN

Even if Christmas was chosen as a substitute Christian celebration to replace an existing pagan celebration – it doesn’t follow that Christmas is now a pagan celebration.

The relationship between early Christianity and the Greco-Roman world is extremely complex. Christianity was born into that world and it is true, that at times, there was some form of integration with the culture around it. Sometimes this integration may have been conscious and intentional. At other times it may have been unconscious. When it was deliberate, it was sometimes a compromise with the cultures, language and rituals in order to give them new (Christian) meaning.

A PAGAN DAY?

Q: So is Dec 25th evil?

A: Day are morally neutral and cannot be ‘evil’ or ‘good’. The same day can be used for either good or evil.

Q: Even if Dec 25th was originally a day used to celebrate pagan gods would it be wrong to substitute it and celebrate Christ’s birth on the same day?

A: Consider the equivalent problem in the early church where some felt that food offered to idols shouldn’t be eaten by Christians. Paul shows that food (like days) are morally neutral and this remains a question of conscience. What if Dec 25th was a day “offered to idols”? Is it now off-limits to Christians who want to celebrate Jesus’ birth on that day?

A PAGAN DAY?

Rom 8:4-7 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.

A PAGAN DAY?

Paul shows that we have Christian liberty:

1 Cor 10:25-26 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

But he also encourages us to act in love towards those with weaker consciences in regards to disputable matters:

1 Cor 10:28 But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake - 29 the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

A PAGAN DAY?

C

O

N

S

T

A

N

T

I

N

E

?

Let’s look at the second objection:

Constantine or “the pope”

Christians never observed Christmas until the 4th century.

Therefore it must have been Constantine who introduced the festival as a form of honour to the sun-God.

If not Constantine, it must have been “some pope” who adapted the celebration.

Emperor Constantine I (272-337 AD)

CHRISTIANS NEVER OBSERVED CHRISTMAS UNTIL THE 4TH CENTURY.

We saw earlier how already in the 2nd century Theophilus refers to Dec 25th as being the date of Christ’s birth. And around 202-211 AD the famous scholar, Hippolytus of Rome, put the birth of Christ at 25th Dec, 2 BC.

This of course doesn’t mean that it was an official religious feast day. But around 386 AD John Chrysostom, an Eastern bishop argued that the church in Antioch, Syria should observe Dec 25th as Christ’s birthday. He reasons that the Western church (with Rome at its centre) was already doing this. 1 In general the Eastern church regarded 6 Jan (Epiphany) as the date of Jesus’ birth. 2

1 (Homil. Diem Natal., 2; PL, 49, 552ff) 2 Many Orthodox Christians still celebrate Christmas Day on or near 7 January.

2) CONSTANTINE

THEREFORE IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE EMPEROR CONSTANTINE WHO INTRODUCED THE FESTIVAL AS A FORM OF HONOUR TO THE SUN-GOD.

And we know that – how? Just because Constantine lived in the 4th century doesn’t mean that everything that happened in the century can be attributed to him.

Returning to our legal criteria that a man is innocent until proven guilty we may ask:

What documentary evidence is there?

Who were the eye witnesses?

In the absence of both, this cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and it falls into the class of hearsay.

2) CONSTANTINE

The unsubstantiated claim is that Constantine chose Dec 25th so that his pagan subjects could still have a holiday at Saturnalia. Constantine allegedly was a devotee of the sun cult (despite the fact that he was actually the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity).

We’ve already looked at the facts around Saturnalia and “the birthday of the unconquered sun”. Trying to involve Constantine in the debate is pure speculation and hearsay.

2) CONSTANTINE

Q: Is there any evidence that syncretism with the sun god cult was actively encouraged by the Roman church?

A: Actually Leo I, patriarch of Rome 440-461, discouraged his congregation from mixing Christianity with sun worship and rebuked those who paid reverence to the sun god on the steps of St. Peter’s before entering the basilica.

Those who claim Constantine was both Christian and pagan should more carefully examine the historical record. Constantine did not outlaw paganism and allowed religious freedom - but:

2) CONSTANTINE

… in the words of an early edict, he decreed that polytheists could “celebrate the rites of an outmoded illusion,: so long as they did not force Christians to join them.” 1 In a letter to the King of Persia, Constantine wrote how he shunned the “abominable blood and hateful odors” of pagan sacrifices, and instead worshiped the High God “on bended knee”,2 and in the new capital city he built, Constantine made sure that there were no pagan temples built.3 Sporadically, however, Constantine would prohibit public sacrifice and close pagan temples…4

1 Codex Theodosianius 9.16.2. 2 Eusebius, “Life of Constantine” 4.10. 3 R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds 4 Wikipedia

CONSTANTINE A PAGAN?

I further contest the unjust vilification of Constantine in the ministry "https:// agfbrakpan.com/ ministry-archives/ 5">https:// agfbrakpan.com/ ministry-archives/ 5 pages 31-48.

Q: Was the early church around the 4th century AD ‘soft on paganism’? 1

A: The reality is that the early Christians distanced themselves from paganism. They refused to sacrifice to the emperor, would not attend the public games and spoke out against even the theatre. This is why they were persecuted by the pagans – they refused to accept the pagan gods and practices and insisted that there was only one true God.

1 This question is covered in more detail in the ministry "http:// agfbrakpan.co.za/ ministry-archives.aspx?mId=5">http:// agfbenoni.co.za/ ministry-archives.aspx?mId=5 pages 49-54

‘SOFT’ ON PAGANISM?

To mention but a few examples:

In 391 Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, had the temple of Serapis dismantled. In doing so, he was enforcing recent imperial legislation suppressing pagan temples. Having obtained the emperor Theodosius’ approval, Theophilus confiscated the Temple of Dionysius and started to convert it into a church. The statues were removed and the innermost shrines were opened.

There’s a case in 579 where Anatolios tried to conceal his paganism by ‘Christianising’ it. He however, was condemned to death when it was discovered that the portrait of Christ he commissioned was actually of Apollo.

‘SOFT’ ON PAGANISM?

In the 6th century the emperor Justinian and others started to persecute pagans, not embrace them.

So to suggest that early Christians chose Dec 25th to either appease pagans or as a form of syncretism is to ignore the historical evidence.

From the 1st to 3rd century the pagans persecuted the Christians. From the 4th century onwards the Christians were hostile to paganism.

Did pagan symbolism ever enter the Church?

It’s possible that later pressure on pagans to forcefully convert caused false conversions and many of these people held on to pagan symbolism which they simply Christianized.

‘SOFT’ ON PAGANISM?

THE "POPE" ?

IF NOT CONSTANTINE IT MUST HAVE BEEN “SOME POPE” WHO ADAPTED THE CELEBRATION.

Apparently Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386 AD) asked Julius (Roman “pope” 337-352 AD) to confirm Christ’s birth date “from census documents brought by Titus to Rome,” after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Julius then determined the date of Christ’s birth to be 25 Dec.

If this account is true, whether Julius was correct in arriving at this date is a separate issue. The motive seems apparent – they are trying to establish the date of Christ’s birthday from census records held in Rome (i.e. the census of Augustus mentioned in Luke’s gospel). They were not choosing the date based on a pagan festival.

2) THE POPE

However it is questionable whether the correspondence between Julius and Cyril of Jerusalem even took place. It was related by John of Nikiû (c. 900). 1 But Julius died in 352, and Cyril made no change to their January celebration. In about 411 Jerome still reproves Palestine for keeping Christ’s birthday on the Manifestation feast (6th Jan). 2

Another document 3 has Julius writing to Juvenal (the bishop of Jerusalem c. 422 to 458). But they were not even contemporaries as Julius had died 70 years earlier.

Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Greek traveller in the 6th century, noted that the church in Jerusalem still argued from Luke 3:23 that Christ’s baptism day (celebrated in January) was the anniversary of his birthday. 2

1 Ezech., P.L., XXV, 18 2 "http:// www.newadvent.org/ cathen/ 03724b.htm">http:// www.newadvent.org/ cathen/ 03724b.htm 3 Cotelier, Patr. Apost., I, 316, ed. 1724

2) THE POPE

YULE, CHRISTMAS

TREES & SANTA

Q: But what about other Dec 25th celebrations in Europe (like Yule) which have pagan origins?

A: About AD 730, the English Christian historian Bede wrote that Dec 25th had been celebrated by Anglo-Saxons. But again, while Bede notes that it was the same day as Christmas, there’s absolutely no indication that the one celebration inspired the other. He contrasts the ‘heathen’ celebration to the ‘sanctity’ of Christmas.

They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night…1

1 De Temporum Ratione

YULE & PAGAN FESTIVALS

But is similarity the same as dependence or derivation? In other words, just because we use similar customs does it mean in every case that these are directly derived from pagan religions? Cultures all over the world have used lights and trees, gift-giving and revelry for their celebrations. Why is it assumed that because Christians use these things at Christmas that they have taken them directly from paganism? If it is discovered that pagans drank milk or hugged their families at their pagan festivals, does that mean that if Christians do so, they are engaging in paganism? But this is the kind of logic used by the anti-Christmas crowd. 1

1 Christmas is Not Pagan - Part IV (By Dr. Richard P. Bucher) http:// www.orlutheran.com/ html/ chrmas_pagan4.html

YULE & PAGAN FESTIVALS

Is everything that was once used by paganism centuries ago, now off limits when Christians apply them to Christmas or other Christian festivals? Are we prepared to strictly apply that to everything we do? Why can't we use some of the same words, symbols or customs, which long ago ceased to be used in the worship of false gods? We need to remember that before pagans coopted them centuries ago, God had given many of the things used in custom, as good gifts to be enjoyed by his people. Why then can Christians not redeem these good gifts for their use as they celebrate Christmas? 1

1 Ibid

YULE & PAGAN FESTIVALS

Q: Aren’t Christmas trees forbidden in Jeremiah 10:3-4?

For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.

In context the Lord is talking about idols – note that the tree is shaped with a chisel – something not done on Christmas trees. The very next verse says:

Jer 10:5 Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.

So, unless you’re praying to your Christmas tree, this verse doesn’t apply to you.

CHRISTMAS TREES

Winifrid, who became known as Boniface became a missionary to the Germans for 40 years. As part of their pagan rituals, the native inhabitants worshipped an oak tree.

In 723, Boniface felled the holy oak tree dedicated to Thor near the present-day town of Fritzlar in northern Hesse. He did this with Elijah in mind. Boniface called upon Thor to strike him down if he cut the ‘holy’ tree… When Thor did not strike him down, the people converted to Christianity. 1

1 http:// orthodoxwiki.org/ Boniface

CHRISTMAS TREES

Boniface (680-754)

Legend credits Boniface with the start of the fir tree as the Christmas tree tradition. After he felled the ‘holy’ oak tree:

A fir tree 1 growing in the roots of the Oak was claimed by Boniface as a new symbol. “This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your Comfort and Guide”. 2

1 Tannenbaum is German for ‘fir tree’ 2 http:// wiki.tell.com/ index.php/ Christmas_tree

CHRISTMAS TREES

The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a ‘paradise tree,’ a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption), in a later tradition, the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, too, were often added as the symbol of Christ. In the same room, during the Christmas season, was the Christmas pyramid, a triangular construction of wood, with shelves to hold Christmas figurines, decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. 1

1 http:// www.britannica.com/ EBchecked/ topic/ 442528/ paradise-tree

CHRISTMAS TREES

Q: Where did the tradition of Santa Claus (Dutch Sinterklaas) or Father Christmas come from?

A: Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop… famous for his generous gifts to the poor… In Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. 1

1 http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Santa_Claus

SANTA CLAUS

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria

Fairly compelling circumstantial evidence has been presented regarding parallels between Santa and Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples prior to their Christianization.

Since many of these elements are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions… 1

1 Ibid

An 1886 depiction of the indigenous Norse God Odin by Georg von Rosen

Odin was sometimes recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky. Two books from Iceland… describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus’s reindeer. Further, Odin was referred to by many names in Skaldic poetry… Síðgrani, Síðskeggr, Langbarðr, (all meaning “long beard”) and Jólnir (“Yule figure”). According to some traditions, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice still survives in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands and became associated with Saint Nicholas since Christianization. 1

1 Ibid

SANTA CLAUS

Please ignore emails claiming that SANTA = SATAN (a false god) by juggling the words around. This is nonsensical to say the least.

Q: Doesn’t Santa take away the focus off Jesus at Christmas?

A: Yes – this is a valid objection. We remember our Lord’s birth, not semi-mythical figures of the past.

Q: Hasn’t Christmas been over commercialised?

A: This is a valid objection as well. As Christians we commemorate the occasion when God gave “the gift” of His Son to save a lost world. For the unsaved it’s just a time of drunken revelry and materialistic indulgence.

SANTA CLAUS

NO INSTRUCTION

Let’s look at the third objection:

It is also contended that there is no instruction or precedent in the Bible to celebrate Jesus’ birth. We are only instructed in Scripture to remember the Lord’s death (Luke 22:9) and not to celebrate his birthday.

It is true that we are commanded nowhere in Scripture to remember the Lord’s birth, so there is clearly no obligation to do so.

3) NO INSTRUCTION

There have been two approaches taken by Christians in these types of matters where Scripture is silent:

If Scripture doesn’t explicitly command us to do something, then it’s wrong to do it.

If Scripture doesn’t explicitly command us not to do something, then in the light of Christian liberty, we are free to do it or to refrain from doing it – but not to force our convictions about debatable matters on others.

3) NO INSTRUCTION

The first approach or “regulatory rule” of worship, as it came to be known, is described by Samuel Miller (1769-1850) in his book:

The Scriptures being the only infallible rule of faith and practice, no rite or ceremony ought to have a place in the public worship of God, which is not warranted in Scripture, either by direct precept or example, or by good and sufficient inference. 1

But this approach can get you into all sorts of legalistic bondage. The NT doesn’t explicitly talk about the use of musical instruments in worship as does the OT – so people of this mindset have sometimes gone so far as to prohibit any use of musical instruments in church.

1 “The Worship of the Presbyterian Church”

3) NO INSTRUCTION

But take it to it’s logical conclusion:

We shouldn’t use cars to church because Jesus walked or rode on a donkey.

Men shouldn’t wear pants or shoes because Jesus wore a robe and sandals.

We shouldn’t sit on chairs either or use PA systems or heaters and fans either – there’s no Scriptural directive for this.

We shouldn’t have tea and biscuits after the meeting either – where are we commanded to do this?

We should also start greeting each other by kissing, because the Bible mentions only this (Romans 16:16) and not shaking hands or hugging.

3) NO INSTRUCTION

Thus, while many Calvinist and Presbyterian reformers found fault with Christmas, Luther and other reformers, did not. Luther only discarded human traditions and teachings which directly contradict Scripture. The doctrines of men were only problematic for Luther when they made matters of conscience out of things that were not articles of faith, such as food, clothing, and days.

We do not condemn the doctrines of men just because they are the doctrines of men… But we condemn them because they are contrary to the gospel and the Scriptures. While the Scriptures liberate consciences and forbid that they be taken captive by the doctrines of men, these doctrines of men captivate the conscience anyhow. 1

1 A Reply to the Texts, LW 35:153; WA 10II:91

3) NO INSTRUCTION

While it is true that there is no instruction in the Bible to celebrate the Lord’s birthday, it is untrue that there is no Scriptural precedent.

The shepherds celebrated the Lord’s birth. In fact they were explicitly told by an angel the details of Jesus’ birthplace. If Jesus’ birth was unimportant why did the angel bother?

Luke 2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” … 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God…

The very angels celebrated the birth of our Lord with worship and song.

Luke 2:13-14 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Heb 1:6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”

If angels celebrated Jesus’ birth, why should it be sinful for us to do the same?

Matt 2:11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

Matt 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

The Magi travelled all the way from the east to celebrate the Lord’s birth with worship and to give presents to the child Jesus.

In his article “Christmas is Not Pagan” Dr. Bucher writes:

I have not written this essay to condemn the “Christmas is pagan” crowd. And I certainly haven’t written it to convince them that they must celebrate Christmas. Christians have never been commanded to celebrate Christ’s birth annually. Therefore they are free to do so or not do so. I have written this essay, however, to those dear Christians who have been falsely taught that celebrating Christmas is celebrating paganism, and they are wracked with guilt because of it. My message to them is: you are doing nothing wrong to celebrate the birth of God's Son; in fact, praising and thanking God for the gift of His Son is beautiful worship in the sight of God. 1

1 http:// www.orlutheran.com/ html/ chrmas_pagan4.html

CONCLUSION

Q: So in conclusion, should we celebrate Christmas?

A: Like the question that troubled the early church about meat offered to idols, it falls into the category of questions of conscience.

We are free to do so, provided we keep the focus on Jesus’ birth. We also shouldn’t condemn those who prefer to refrain based on their association (whether valid or not) of Christmas with pagan festivities.

Likewise those who refrain shouldn’t self-righteously judge the man who exercises his Christian liberty in this regard.

As the saying goes: “IN ESSENTIALS, UNITY; IN NON-ESSENTIALS, LIBERTY; IN ALL THINGS, CHARITY.”

CONCLUSION

COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV:

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB:

New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)




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