The First Christmas: It Was Later Than You May Think!

describe the imageHistorians and theologians have for many years sought to link the birth of Jesus Christ with December 25th. The internal evidence from the Gospel accounts indicates a timing of the fall or autumn of the year for the birth of Jesus, so scholars have probed the literature written by the church fathers to establish the exact date and determine when it was first associated with December 25th. All efforts to find conclusive evidence linking His birth to that date have failed. 

Of recent date, a classical scholar, who is the Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, has made an observation that transforms the understanding of the relationship of December 25 to Jesus Christ.

Timothy Barnes has studied the Patristic period, from the 2nd through 5th centuries, specializing in one individual in particular, Constantine the Great. Barnes is considered a foremost authority on Constantine and his accomplishments. He has noted that December 25th first appears as a Christian event in Rome linked to the events of 312, the year that Constantine fought his battle at Milvian Bridge, conquering the city and thus becoming supreme Emperor.

In his 2011 book, Constantine, Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire, Barnes writes: “In the winter of 312/313 Constantine began to grant fiscal privileges to Christian clergy and to raise the status of the Christian church within Roman society." Barnes notes that Constantine remained in Rome until January 6, 313, traditionally known as Epiphany day. By the end of his reign, Roman Christians were dating the nativity of Christ to December 25. So Christmas began in Rome with a newly ‘converted’ Roman emperor. Barnes questions whether it is “rash to suggest that it was Constantine who introduced this synchronism in 312, thereby in some way equating the traditional pagan god with his new Christian God” (Barnes 85).describe the image

It remained over half a century more before John Chrysostomas began to associate December 25th with the date of the birth of Jesus. But Chrysostom's misunderstanding of Scripture is a story for another day.



Tags: Christmas, Constantine, birth of Jesus, December 25, Timothy Barnes

Jewish New Testament Studies: revisited

Just in case you thought that the Jewish Annotated New Testament reported in a previous blog was unusual, I have just received two other recent titles that speak to a growing field of Jewish New Testament studies. 

Zev Garber is the editor of The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, while Herbert Basser has produced The Mind Behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew 1-14. Both Garber and Basser are notable and well published Jewish authors. 

As editor of his volume, Garber has assembled a cast of 19 scholars, mostly Jewish or if not Jewish, then involved in Jewish Christian dialogue, to address the subject of Jesus. The chapters, each by a different author, are divided into three sections namely: Reflections on the Jewish Jesus; Responding to the Jewish Jesus; and finally, Teaching, Dialogue, Reclamation: Contemporary Views on the Jewish Jesus. Shofar SupplementsGarber dedicates his book as follows: 

To the courageous and devoted essayists of this tome. Jews, who practice the faith of Jesus, and Christians, who believe by faith in Jesus. By the authority of Torah and Testament, they merge as one in proclaiming the Jewish Jesus and restoring his pivotal role in the history of Second Temple Judaism and beyond. The rest is commentary and controversy. Read and see why. 

The essays cover the historical time frame from the first century to the present. Most are focused on the time of the Second Temple, with contributions examining the Byzantine period, the pre-modern as well as current responses. They also examine documentary evidence outside of the Gospel accounts such as Rivka Ulmer’s Psalm 22 in Pesiqta Rabbati: The suffering of the Jewish Messiah and Jesus. In that essay, Ulmer challenges the ideas that the Messianic expectation of Jesus was something imposed later and that the idea of a suffering servant as a messiah was not part of Jewish thinking. Such approaches have been used to create a sense of distance between Christians and the Jewish ideas of his day. Israel Knohl of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has also written on the fact that such an idea was current in Jewish expectations at the time of Jesus. Such essays help relocate Jesus as a Jewish reformer within a Judean matrix rather than the founder of a new religious movement. 

Herbert Basser is a noted Talmudic and midrashic scholar at Queens University, Ontario, Canada. It may seem strange to find a Jewish Talmudist preparing a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, but Amy-Jill Levine sums up his contribution by commenting: 

Herbert Basser’s commentary on Matthew 1-14 both offers fresh insights into the composition of the First Gospel and makes a major contribution to the understanding of the Jewish roots of Christian origins. Employing later compilations of Jewish literature along with the expected Tannaitic, Targumic, and Qumran materials, he is able to construct an interpretive model of how Jews read Scripture, discerned orthopraxy, and maintained community. His approach does not artificially force Judaism into a predetermined model; instead it recognizes that within the diversity of that thought there exist particular interpretive strategies and rhetorical modes of argumentation. Confirming many of his connections are both Septuagintal readings and Syriac translations of both Hebrew biblical material and early (Greek) Christian literature.

ISBN 978 1 934843 33 8 The volume covers half of the Gospel account. Basser leaves the reader in suspense as to whether another volume will address the remaining chapters (13). He does provide a listing of articles that he has already published which could or will form the basis for the second volume. For the benefit of a reader who does not have access to the sources of his articles, we hope that he is able to deliver that second volume.

Both books are part of larger series. Zev Garber’s volume is part of the Shofar Supplements in Jewish Studies, published by Purdue University Press, while Herbert Basser’s volume is part of the Reference Library of Jewish Intellectual History, published by Academic Studies Press of Boston.




Tags: Jesus, Judaism, First Century, Second Temple, Gospel of Matthew, Basser, Garber

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