Millions all over the world are in the throes of preparing for Christmas and the holiday festivities.
Christ told His followers, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The irony is that this most popular of festivals, ostensibly kept in His honor, has little to do with truth. Christmas in December has a lot to do with tradition. The Catholic Encyclopedia states plainly that Christmas “was not among the earliest festivals of the Church.” Rather, this Catholic source cites the festival as an example of a doctrine or custom “transmitted from one generation to another as a tradition.”
Early Beginnings - Why Winter and Why December 25?
Nowhere in Scripture does it suggest that Jesus was born in winter.
Some historians speculate that the Roman winter festivals were incorporated into Christianity as they realized Non-Christians were not likely to relinquish their celebrations. It was against this political and cultural backdrop that pagan Roman celebrations became mixed in with the customs of traditional Christianity.
Why Gift Giving?
This tradition is another carry-over from a Roman festival–Saturnalia. This festival is also related to the first day of winter and the “return of the sun” and was the merriest feast of the year for the Romans. America has embraced this idea and the commercialism that starts on Black Friday runs unabated through December 24th.
Is Doing Good The Same As Doing Right?
While it might seem as though Christmas is a harmless holiday about spreading a little happiness and doing something good for family, friends and needy strangers, there is a more serious side to this issue: doing the “good” thing doesn’t necessarily equate to doing the “right” thing.
Perhaps it’s time to dream of a right Christmas. Special Report: Ghosts of Christmas Past
Iranians celebrate Yalda
The Iranian Republic News Agency reports that the Iranians are celebrating ‘Yalda” tonight as the longest night of the year or solstice. Its interesting to see how many elements that are normally thought of as Christian are included in the Iranian celebration. Students of early church history would understand how they came to be established in the church.
The IRNA states:
Tehran, Dec 20, IRNA
`Yalda' is a Syriac word meaning birth and according to Mithraism, a faith that initially originated from Persia and later spread out throughout the ancient civilized world, the first day of winter which falls on December 21 this year, was celebrated as the birthday of Mithra, the angel of light.
Ancient Iranians believed that two groups of angels -- good and bad -- were in constant fight on the earth with each other and that on the dawn of the first day of the month of `Dey', beginning December 21, and with the victory of the rising sun as the symbol of 'Ahuramazda', the Zoroastrian god, over the evil of darkness the fight would come to an end.
People had developed the idea that the longest night of the year, when the evil of darkness found an opportunity to stay longer, was an inauspicious occasion and, therefore, they would gather together and stay awake the whole night by holding celebrations and lighting fire in order to leave behind the ominous night.
They would try to keep the fire lit all through the night and the person in charge of the task was called 'Atropat' or the 'guardian of fire' who used to have a religious rank in ancient Persia.
Ancient Iranians believed that the beginning of the year marked with the re-emergence or rebirth of the sun which coincided with the first day of the month of `Dey' when sun was salvaged from the claws of the devil of darkness and gradually spread its domination over the world.
However, apart from its religious and traditional characteristics, 'Yalda' has long been observed in the Iranian culture as the longest night of the year.
On this night, all members of the family stay together, narrate old stories, play traditional games and eat dried fruits and candies.
The fruits that are specially served at this night are sweet melon, water melon, grapes and pomegranates.
Fruits are symbol of spring and a summer loaded with agricultural bounties.
Pomegranates, placed on top of a fruit basket, are reminders of the cycle of life -- the rebirth and revival of generations. The purple outer covering of a pomegranate symbolizes "birth" or "dawn" and their bright red seeds the "glow of life."
Another tradition that is massively observed on the night of Yalda is reading poems of the highly revered Iranian poet 'Hafez'.
H/T to Jim Davilla of PaleoJudaica for the link.
Test your knowledge of the Gospels against art
Medieval art highlights the problems of public perception.
If you saw some credit in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments in my previous post on the view of the nativity, then try yourself out. See how many elements in this piece of fifteenth century art byDomenico Ghirlandaio are either not from the Gospel accounts or represent the influence of Ghirlandaio’s time and environment. For the Biblical elements establish from which Gospel they are drawn. His Nativity was painted for the Sassetti chapel in Santa Trinita, Florence and today is on display in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.
Archbishop faults traditonal concepts of nativity
Horror of horrors and much handwringing at the Daily Telegraph in London. Not only can Britons not answer a simple quiz on Christmas, but now the Archbishop of Canterbury is denying the only ones they get right. Interviewed on BBC Radio 5 by Simon Mayo the result was headlines in the Telegraph, stating that the “Archbishop says nativity is ‘a legend’” and “We three kings of Orient aren’t”. In the interview, an edited version is also published by the Telegraph, the Archbishop is asked a prescient question asking about the validity, “historically and factually” of the current perception of the nativity. The Right Reverend Rowan Williams to his credit, pointed out how much of the nativity story has no basis in the Gospel accounts. The Archbishop’s view of the virgin birth was reported earlier in a Spectator questionnaire, so that should be no surprise to any. But he did make the point that Christmas was not the actual time of Christ’s birth. The reason for Christmas? In the Archbishops own words, “Christmas is the time it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.”
What the Archbishop was doing was useful in that we have been accustomed to what I believe Mark Goodacre described as the “mashed potato gospel” or nativity, in which both the accounts of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels together with the vivid imaginations of persons from subsequent centuries and places are squeezed into one scene.
Not to let the Archbishop off too lightly for upsetting the irreligious British, the Telegraph then included a scathing column from Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald. In his column headlined “Holy Smoke,” Thompson fulminated against Archbishop. Making a puerile comparison of the Archbishop to the Pope, Thompson asked: “Can you imagine Pope Benedict XVI going on Simon Mayo’s show to chip away at the naïve belief of millions of Christians?” Of course the answer is no Damian, because the Pope and the Catholic Church do not use the gospel accounts as the principal authority for church belief. While the Church of England may have problems with the use of Scripture, it has historically tried to use Scripture as an authority in a way the Catholic Church to this day does not.
Britons fail four-question test!
|Last week's Daily Telegraph (December 10th) highlights the British public's lack of understanding about the Gospel accounts relating to the birth of Jesus Christ. While the population is merrily going about preparing for Christmas—supposedly to honor His birth—many are ignorant of what the Gospels tell us about the occasion. Some 1000 people were asked four questions about the birth of Jesus and only 12% were able to answer all four correctly. Biblical trivia perhaps, but as the Telegraph notes, it is likely to raise the tempo of the debate over the secularization of Christmas.|
Brother of Jesus subject to study
James the brother of Jesus doesn’t have the celebrity status of the Apostle Paul or Apostle Peter within New Testament studies. Like the rest of the twelve he is largely ignored. Yet James is the one leader for whom we have historical details outside of the New Testament in that he is referred to by Josephus.
Matti Myllykoski of University of Helsinki, Finland is seeking to help turn that around. Over the past two years, Matti has published two lengthy articles entitled “James the Just in History and tradition: Perspectives of Past and Present Scholarship” in the journal, Currents in Biblical Research. Perhaps the end result of this extensive study would be another book on the subject. These articles will be useful reading material for some of the long flights I’m about to undertake!
Matt Jackson-McCabe of the University of Niagara also told me that he was hoping to develop some studies on James.
Encouraging signs all round.
Magazine asks leaders views on such an event
As its contribution on Christmas, the British weekly magazine, The Spectator, poses a question relating to the birth of Jesus Christ to a number of notables ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to Christopher Hitchens. Don’t assume that the answers to the questions are predictable!
One of the most interesting comments on the virgin birth of Jesus Christ that I have encountered came from an Israeli academic who commented to a web group that in Judaism, such an event would not be considered unusual in that the whole history of the nation of Israel is populated by individuals whose birth was brought about by divine intervention. Interestingly, Roger Scruton points to that overlooked aspect.
As always, the comments to the article make for interesting reading!
Rereading the story in the 21st century
James Tabor has announced that his Jesus Dynasty has been given pride of place in the latest edition of US News and World Report in a ‘Collector’s Edition’ headlined “Secrets of Christianity.” Within the pages a novel Christmas Story unfolds. Jesus’ birth was not miraculous in any way outside of that of every human birth -- and he was finally betrayed by his favorite disciple; he didn’t rise from the dead, was married to Mary Magdalene and established a very short lived dynasty--unless one accepts the argument of the runaway best seller, The Da Vinci Code. The church, for which no purpose really exists, was not founded by Jesus, but was led by Mary and the other women who with a man called Saul see virtue or opportunity in the life of a man who remains buried in Jerusalem, his bones by now placed in a stone box or ossuary, inscribed with his name. Such material is gleaned from The Jesus Dynasty, courtesy of James Tabor and the Gospel of Judas, the Discovery Channel’s documentary and also from their book entitled The Jesus Family Tomb, along with other populist books that have been published over the last few years relating to Gnostics and their gospels. The fact that these resources have been denounced and called into serious question by scholarship seems to escape the religious editor of the magazine.
But, it provides a salutary lesson.
The ideas that have been taught about Christmas and its relationship to the birth of Jesus Christ are built on a similar foundation. The fact that the ideas expressed above and in the USN&WR article could be espoused by people is an indication of how fragile is our Judeo-Christian heritage, built as it is upon syncretic ideas and traditions rather than an understanding what is expressed in the Bible. The first followers of Jesus Christ would be stunned by our attempts to create a 'credible' story.
The left overs from Thanksgiving dinner have only just been finished and the environment has changed. The pumpkin patch has given way to tree sales and the cornucopias in people’s front gardens replaced with lighted animals and angels. The supermarket shelves eggnog and other seasonal treats for those planning ahead. Musak everywhere has rediscovered Rudolph and his red nose. Christmas is coming!
Christmas is frequently criticized for its materialistic elements and self indulgent approaches, elements that are the antithesis of the standard of life of Jesus Christ, the person that Christmas is supposed to represent. Each year someone tries to reconcile the two opposites to salve the fevered brow of those who are concerned that the spirit of Christmas has been lost. But few venture to even consider the thought that the followers of Jesus Christ never celebrated his birthday for probably the first two hundred and fifty years. For one, observant Jews who were the majority of the first disciples always looked upon birthdays as something the pagans undertook. The exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ is not given in Scripture, and like so many elements that are considered essential to Christianity today was of no interest to the first followers.
Origen of Alexandria, writing over two centuries after the death of Jesus follows this same line when he recorded a diatribe against the memories of birthdays, indicating that at the time of his writing, a day to remember the birth of Jesus was not part of the church calendar. In his Homilies on Leviticus, speaking on the aspect of birth, Origen states:
In reality, the hedonism that is presently displayed in Christmas activity especially in the western world has a heritage much older than the birth of Jesus Christ in approximately 5 BCE. The date of December 25 or as it was known in the Roman world has a history of indulgence and excess in the pagan world for hundreds of years before Jesus. It was the date associated with the winter solstice under the Julian Calendar -- established by Julius Caesar -- and hence a time to rejoice in the rebirth of the sun. To make Christianity palatable to pagans, the date was co-opted by church leaders in the 3rd century. The result, people could continue to keep their own ways and claim to be christians as well.
So actually, the spirit of Christmas has never changed. We worship the self and our indulgence. Jesus Christ has never had a part in Christmas. It is not about him or for him that it is kept.
(Origen quote: Gary Wayne Barkley, Homilies on Leviticus: 1–16 / Origen (The Fathers of the Church; Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 156.)
Judas Iscariot is making waves on the web.
This past week saw an op-ed piece published in the New York Times faulting the translation and publishing of the Gospel of Judas. It has created a surfers paradise on the web for bloggers according to the NY Times Tailrank. April DeConick, of Rice University who wrote the critical article haspublished a book and presented papers on what she and others consider to be faults in the view of Judas as portrayed in the Gospel. Today, both one of the translators, Marvin Meyer and the National Geographic Society weighed in with responses to April.
Much of this material was covered at a recent Society of Biblical Literature Conference in San Diego, California. The nature of the problem comes down to the identity of which group produced the Gospel of Judas. April and others see this as clearly Sethian, a later group of Gnostics who elevated the Biblical character and son of Adam and Eve, Seth. Other scholars see the Gospel as being earlier than the Sethians, and hence the interpretations that April uses to reach her conclusions don’t necessarily hold.
The conclusion of the discussion in San Diego was some sage words from Emeritus Professor James Robinson, who suggested that the conclusion that this Gospel was Sethian in origin should not be assumed without more careful consideration. It appears that this is one of the problems that the original translation team overlooked. Once again a more careful consideration of the document, so that it was correctly placed in history would have saved a lot of acrimony now. But in the rush to get published, it appears that there was no time for such discussion.
Oh well. It creates some excitement
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