Touchstone has reposted its most popular article, the scholarly treatment by historian William J. Tighe from 2003 about why the birth of Jesus is celebrated on December 25. And, as he definitively shows, it has nothing to do with any pagan festival. [Read more…]
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.
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 184.108.40.206)
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.
Eastern Orthodox folks celebrate Christmas on a different day than we Western Christians do. They don’t go along with the change in the calendar that was orchestrated by Pope Gregory XIII back in 1582 in order to re-align our calendar with the motions of the solar system. The so-called Gregorian calendar was accepted throughout the European-heritage nations by 1752. But the Eastern nations remained under the old Julian calendar.
What I didn’t know is that some Protestants also kept using the Julian calendar. They could be found in Appalachia as late as the 20th century. From the Kairos Quarterly, a publication of an Orthodox monastery in West Virginia, via Trystan Bloom at First Thoughts:
As a Russian Orthodox monastery which observes the Julian, or “old”, calendar, we were surprised to learn about Appalachian “Old Christmas”, which is a most solemn and reverent time for families living in the mountains. The initial change-over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar by the British Empire and the American colonies in 1752 caused a difference of eleven days. Thus, the date of “new” Christmas on December 25th was eleven days ahead of “old” Christmas, which fell (at that time) on January 5th. Some Protestants refused to honor the new calendar because it was decreed by the Pope, so their celebration of Christmas remained on the Julian calendar – which now falls on January 7. In the Appalachian Mountains, the celebration of Old Christmas remained until about World War I. Though they might also observe ‘new’ Christmas on December 25th, the festivities were very different. December 25th was marked with revelry and parties and visiting, but January 6th was primarily a reverent family observance.
I’m fascinated by such living relics of past history. One of these days I intend to get on a boat and travel to Tangier Island here in Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay. This island was settled by British colonists in 1686, and the people have been so isolated that to this day they still speak the English dialect of that day. Which means they talk pretty much the way Shakespeare did.
As I keep posting about, Christmas on December 25 is NOT due to there being a pagan holiday on that day. Repeat: Christmas is NOT based on the Roman festival of Sol Invictus. Substantial scholarship has shot down that theory, but we keep hearing it–in the press, in books that try to debunk Christianity, in churches that oppose following the church year, and even in some comments on this blog.
Now the authoritative Biblical Archaeology Review weighs in, citing more evidence debunking the pagan origin of Christmas myth, showing how it got started, and–most interestingly–tracing how the December 25 date did get set aside as the date of Jesus’s birth.
To put it simply, the date is nine months after the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the appearance of the angel to the Virgin Mary announcing her conception by the Holy Spirit. That date is March 25. The reason for that date is the belief that great prophets died on the date of their conception. We do know historically the date when Jesus died, since it is tied to the Jewish passover. The church determined that date to be March 25, before Good Friday and Easter became floating holidays that always fall on the weekends. The article in BAR cites how widely the attested in Jewish and rabbinic literature is the association between conception date and death date, and how this was also well known in the early church.
Please join me in correcting the myth of the pagan origins of Christmas whenever you hear it.
HT: Joe Carter
Biblical Archaeology Review has a good scholarly discussion of why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. And it is evidently NOT because it was superimposed on a pagan holiday:
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly. . . .
There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. . . . In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. . . . .
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d
This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “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.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
The article goes on to document other ancient sources that associate the day of Jesus’s conception with the day of His death, going back to rabbinic Jewish texts that make similar connections.