Christmas is NOT based on the feast of Sol Invictus

In another in his series on the historical roots of Christmas (see our post on why he says it takes place on December 25), Pastor Joseph Abrahamson explodes the scholarly myth that Christmas was a Christian attempt to co-opt the pagan feast of the sun god known as Sol Invictus.

The claim is that Sol Invictus “Invincible Sun” is a more ancient pagan holiday in Rome celebrated on December 25th. The claim assumes that this pagan holiday was so popular and dangerous that the Christian Church sought to suppress it by establishing the celebration of Christ’s Nativity on December 25th. By doing this, the claim continues, the Christians adopted the pagan day and some of the practices of that pagan festival to make the celebration of Christmas more appealing to pagans. . . .

While pagan worship of the sun certainly existed in Rome before the spread of the fulfillment of that promise in Christ came to the city; the celebration of Sol Invictus as a god in Rome actually came as pagans attempted to suppress Christianity. This early attempt as suppressing Christianity by means of the pagan worship of Sol is found in the Historia Augusta, a pagan history of Rome compiled in the fourth century AD.

The Historia Augusta in The Life of Elagabalus (1.3) relates events from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, a particularly twisted man, who reigned from 218-222 AD. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus came to be called Elagabalus after the name of the Syrian sun god, and was himself initiated as a priest of that false god. He viewed himself as the personal manifestation of the Syrian sun god. After coming to Rome and being established as emperor at the age of 14, the Historia states:

4 Elagabalus [established himself] as a god on the Palatine Hill close to the imperial palace; and he built him a temple, to which he desired to transfer the emblem of the Great Mother, the fire of Vesta, the Palladium, the shields of the Salii, and all that the Romans held sacred, purposing that no god might be worshipped at Rome save only Elagabalus. 5 He declared, furthermore, that the religions of the Jews and the Samaritans and the rites of the Christians must also be transferred to this place, in order that the priesthood of Elagabalus might include the mysteries of every form of worship. [Latin]

And, coincidentally, very shortly after Elagabalus tried to establish worship of the Syrian sun god, Sol Invictus, he was thought to be too licentious and was assassinated by his own people, pagan Romans, at the age of 18 years old.

From that time there is no mention of the celebration of Sol Invictus in Roman history until the rule of Aurelian (A.D. 270-275). Aurelian did try to re-introduce the worship of Sol Invictus by decree in the year 274. But there is no record of this festival being held on December 25th. “The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8th and/or August 9th, possibly August 28th, and December 11th.”(Hijmans, p. 588 )

Aurelian did declare games to Sol every four years. But there is no record from the period or early historiographers that these games were associated with December 25th in any way. The best evidence suggest that the games were held October 19-22 of their calendar. Anyway, on another coincidence, a year after Aurelian declared these games in honor of Sol Invictus, he was assassinated by his own pagan Roman officers out of fear he would execute them based on false charges.

The earliest calendar to mention that Invictus as a specified date for Roman religious life comes from a text of the Philocalian Calendar, VIII Kal recorded in an illuminated 4th Century manuscript called The Chronography of 354. In this late manuscript the date is listed in Mensis December (The Month of December) as N·INVICTI·CM·XXX.

Many scholars through the years have assumed that INVICTI in this calendar must mean “Sol Invictus.” This is possible. However, elsewhere the calendar does not hesitate to make explicit mention of festivals to Sol, for example: on SOLIS·ET·LVNAE·CM·XXIIII (August 28th) and LVDI·SOLIS (October 19-22).

Even if INVICTI does refer to Sol Invictus on December 25th of this calendar, all this shows is that the celebration of Sol Invictus was placed on December 25th after Christianity had already widely accepted and celebrated December 25th as the Nativity of Christ.

There are many historians and people following them who will still assert that December 25th is Sol Invictus in ancient Rome. Some will even claim that another religion, Mithraism, has close connection to this December 25th celebration. In actual fact there is no ancient documentation tying Mithraism to December 25th or Sol Invictus. The Christian celebration of the Nativity of Christ as December 25th predates anything in the earliest actual documentation for Sol Invictus on December 25th.

via Steadfast Lutherans » Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Christmas and Sol Invictus.

Keeping Santa in Christmas but dropping Jesus

Christians typically every year take up the cause of keeping Christ in Christmas.  The American Atheists organization has taking up the cause of keeping Santa in Christmas and dropping Jesus.  Here is a sign they put up in Times Square:

atheist christmas billboard

Steadfast Lutherans » Keep the Merry…and the Myth.

Similarly, Christians regularly decry the commercialization of Christmas.  Ayn Rand,  conservatives’ favorite atheist, says commercialization is the best thing about it.  From Michael Schmitz:

 

“The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only ‘commercial greed’ could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.”

-Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Calendar, December 1976

The date of Christ’s “genesis”

Pastor Joseph Abrahamson has started a fascinating series on why the church celebrates Christmas on December 25 and when this started.  He includes a number of links and references, and he critiques the notion that Christians co-opted a pagan holiday.

I was fascinated by the evidence he offers about the Feast of the Annunciation (when the angel appeared to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit), which was celebrated on March 25, a date established before  200 A.D.  The church added nine months from that date, which gives us the Baby so conceived being born on December 25.

I have heard it said that the date of Christ’s birth was once considered to be March 25, but that claim is based on a mistranslation and misunderstanding of “genesis.”  Rev. Abrahamson quotes Clement of Alexandria, in his “Stromata,” dated between 193 and 215 A.D.:

And there are those who have determined our Savior’s genesis
not only the year, but even the day, which they say took place
in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus on the 25th of Pachon.

Rev. Abrahamson comments:

The important line is “our Savior’s genesis.” The month of Pachon in the Egyptian calendar at that time corresponded to March in the Julian Calendar.

Christ’s genesis, or conception on the 25th of Pachon was in what our calendar would equate with March 25th. The celebration of Christ’s birth would be nine months later: December 25th, in our calendar. ANF 2:333 translates “birth” rather than “conception”. The translation of “genesis” as conception is consistent with Clement’s usage of this word in other contexts, for example:

“It is not therefore frequent intercourse by the parents, but the reception of it [the seed] in the womb which corresponds with genesis.” (Clement of Alexandria Stromata 3.12.83.2)

via Steadfast Lutherans » Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Christmas.

So the early church believed that a person’s “genesis” begins with conception and not with birth.  That’s an important point for the pro-life cause today.

Forgive us our debts

University of Chicago theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite says that when Jesus told us to pray (in some translations) “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he was calling for the forgiveness of economic debts.  She also says how Occupy Wall Street is “operationalizing” Jesus’s economic teachings:

The folks who brought you Occupy Wall Street have launched what they call “Rolling Jubilee.” By donating to Rolling Jubilee, individuals can give money to buy up distressed consumer debt that is normally sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. But instead of acting like debt collectors, hounding folks for the full payment, you are giving to cancel the debt, that is, forgive it.

What Jesus taught as a prayer about forgiving debt (Matthew 6:12) has just been operationalized by Occupy.

Through prayer and deed, Jesus pursued an economic plan called the “Jubilee,” as I write in ‘#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power,’ my new book on how what Jesus really said about money, and what he did about economic issues in his own time that is just now launching as an e-book, and then in print.

It is critical that American Christians learn that Jesus really meant it when he asked us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Conservative Christians would like you to forget that Jesus really meant debt forgiveness. The Religious Right would like you to focus only on specific, individual “sins” like homosexuality (something that Jesus actually never mentions), and ignore that Jesus was really concerned about structured economic inequality in his own time. To Jesus, systemic economic inequality was the “Kingdom of Caesar,” not the “Kingdom of God.”

Jesus starts his ministry (Luke 4:16-19) by standing up in the synagogue and reading from one of the key texts of his Hebrew scriptures on the biblical “Jubilee.” The biblical “Jubilee” is a time of debt forgiveness.

Rolling Jubilee is exactly what Jesus was talking about and doing something about throughout his whole ministry.

According to the Jewish tradition in which Jesus stands, and from which he preached, the Jubilee is a special year of “liberty” where every 50 years there was a kind of “reboot” of Jewish economics and social relations. As described in Leviticus, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return every one of you to your property and every one of you to your family” (25:10). This 50th-year (or 49th-year) Jubilee followed seven “sabbatical cycles” where every seven years male slaves were released without debt, and land was allowed to lie fallow.

But that was millennia ago, some will say. How could the biblical Jubilee possibly be an economic plan in today’s economy, one that is far more complicated than in the first century CE?

It has never been more important to raise the issue of debt forgiveness and do something about it in concrete ways than it is in 21st century America.

via Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’: Occupy Operationalizes the Lord’s Prayer on Debt.

This reminds me of a preacher I heard, back in my pre-Lutheran days when I belonged to a liberal denomination, who taught that because Jesus proclaimed “release to the captives,” we need to empty our prisons by letting all of the inmates go free, a gesture of grace that would surely reform them all.

What do you think of Dr. Thistlewhite’s exegesis?  If you disagree, how would you answer her?   OR, does she have a valid point somewhere in her teaching?  What is the principle behind the Jubilee year?

He comes to us

advent (n.)

“important arrival,” 1742, an extended sense of Advent “season before Christmas” (Old English), from L. adventus “a coming, approach, arrival,” in Church Latin “the coming of the Savior,” from pp. stem of advenire “arrive, come to,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + venire “to come”

via Online Etymology Dictionary.

We are now in the season of Advent.  The word derives from the Latin venire (“to come”) + ad (“to”).  So the word can be rendered “He comes to.”  Advent is about Christ coming to us.

Luther said that it isn’t enough to believe that Christ died.  We need to believe that Christ died for us, for me, for you.  Christ rose from the dead for you.  When we realize the “for you,” we have gone from historical information to saving faith.

Similarly, God became Man for you.  Christ came for you, and He still comes to you, and He will come again for you.

May you have a blessed Advent!

The widow and the End Times

Pastor Douthwaite’s sermon last Sunday was based on the assigned text for that day, about the widow’s mite (Mark 12: 38-44).  He began with a useful survey of what the Church Year means and shows what it means to live in light of the End Times:

With the Festival of the Reformation and the Feast of All Saints now in the rear view mirror of the Church Year, our thoughts are turned these last three Sundays to the end times, the return of Christ, the last days, judgment day . . . or, to use the fancy theological word for it: eschatology. Our Church Year takes us from the expectation and promises of a Messiah in Advent, to the days of His birth at Christmas, to the revealing of His divinity in Epiphany, to His suffering and death in Lent, the joy of the resurrection in the Easter season, the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and that same Spirit working now in the life of the Church through the Pentecost season. But now we are at the end, and we look forward to the end, and the return of our Saviour to raise the dead and take us, all who believe and are baptized into in Christ Jesus (Mk 16:16), home. To the rest and pure joy of heaven.

And so (you may be thinking) that focus must start next week, because this week we didn’t hear end times or eschatology readings – we heard about a widow and her two mites in the Holy Gospel. . . .

And so, it seems to me, there is more to this reading than meets the eye. Something more than just about how much she – and we – put into the offering box or the offering plate. It’s about eschatology. It’s about how we live this life with a view toward the end. For, we believe, ever since Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are living in the end times, the last days. Once Jesus ascended, He could return at any time, and we don’t know when. So how do we live in these days, these last days? It’s good to take stock of that and consider.

And there are two examples presented to us today: the scribes and the widow. Of the scribes, Jesus says, beware. Beware not (this time) of their teaching, but of how they are living. For their lives are all about the here and now. What honor they receive now, what glory is bestowed now, what advantages they get now. There seems to be no mercy or compassion in them, for they even devour widows’ houses. And their religion is a scam too, Jesus says. Their long prayers are a pretense – something they do to look holy, while going after the things of this world. . . .

But then there is the widow. How utterly different is she. For her the here and now is a hardship. Unlike the scribes, there is no honor for her now, no glory for her now, no advantages for her now. Maybe she still had her house because she was so poor and her house so humble that it wasn’t worth the scribes’ effort to devour it! And yet what little she had, those two small copper coins, she doesn’t keep, she doesn’t spend on food, she doesn’t hold on to for future needs – she drops them into the Temple treasury. They didn’t really make a difference. Her offering was like dumping a glass of water into the ocean. Or (to use my fiscal cliff example) like me sending in a dollar to the US Treasury – it’s not really going to make a difference in paying down the national debt!

But that’s not why she did it. She gave those two coins because she was living with a fundamentally different outlook than the scribes. Her “here and now” wasn’t even worth two small copper coins; but her future was. She did what she did because she was living her life with a view toward the end. Others may laugh at her for putting in so little, they might come and devour her house next, she might not have food the next day or the next week. But her life wasn’t in these things. These things were not her utmost concern. For, Jesus said, she put in everything she had, all her life. That’s what it really says: all her life. She put her life into the Temple that day; into the place where God dwells. [Read more...]


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