Thursday 29 November 2012

The Christmas Paradox

I found myself in an historical argument yesterday - a rare event for someone who lives in a city of only 200,000 on the far side of the world. But an argument it was, and an argument was had. Naturally it was an old chestnut - historical fact versus Christian tradition. And this is where the paradox came in. Generally historians eschew the Bible as an accurate dating tool - while true Christian beliefs tends to eschew anything those historians have to say - after all, to the believer the Bible is the word of God. However there is one place in the Bible where a keen-eyed historian can point to dating evidence, while traditional Christian belief chooses to glance over this particular "word of God". What is it? Well, it's a biggie, it's the birth date for Jesus.

And this was my argument - through his mention of an Imperial census and 'shepherds watching their flocks by night' the Gospel of Luke gives us some strong hints to the year, and the time of year Jesus was born. We known an imperial census was conducted during the summer of 8 BC - which corresponds with the time of year shepherds would be out in the pastures with their sheep. As such, just like it is used to date Easter, the Bible says the date for Christ's birth is during June, July or August.

Yet, unlike the Bible's dating for Easter, I found Christian belief makes Luke's word entirely contestable. As the argument went on, I was told repeatedly that, "You can't say that, Jesus was born on December 25th. You'll offend a lot of people if you say he wasn't."

"But Luke says he wasn't born in December, how is that offensive?" I said.

"It doesn't matter, people believe Jesus was born on December 25th...and no one will convince them he wasn't born on Christmas day."

Point taken, his birthday is the whole point of Christmas - but that doesn't mean it is the exact day he was born. In Australia we have a 'Queens Birthday' public holiday several months after the Queen's birth date. And what's more, while western Europe celebrates Christ's birth on December 25th, in eastern Europe it's the 6th of January. Okay, so the 25th of December isn't as hard and fast as we'd like to why do we use it to celebrate Christ's birth?

Well, it appears Christ's birth was not celebrated at all until the 4th-century AD - prior to this many early Bishops believed it was a pagan act to celebrate Christ's birth in the same manner as the Romans celebrated the birth dates of the Imperial deities. And even then, the date of his birth was still open to conjecture. Around 200AD, Clement of Alexandria wrote that scholars were arguing Christ's birth was either April 20th/21st or May 20th. He made no mention at all of December 25th. However one hundred years later when Christmas became acceptable practice - the dates of December 25th and January 6th were quickly adopted by the various churches.

There's three theories why.

1. December 25th and January 6th correspond with the two week Saturnalia festival held by the Romans for centuries. In Gaul, a similar time for feasting centred around December 21st.

2. December 25th was chosen by the Emperor Aurelian in 274AD to celebrate the cult of Invictus Sol (the invincible sun), later to be replaced by Christmas when the Emperor Constantine elevated Christianity to that of Rome's state religion.

3. And the theory preferred by the current Pope, has December 25th falling 9-months after March 25th (the Feast of Annunciation) the day of Christ' immaculate conception, which is connected to the belief Christ was conceived and executed on the same day.      
I guess in the end, as our argument ended, it's up to the individual to decide what they're more comfortable with. We can choose to believe the Gospel of Luke or we can choose to believe church tradition. Is either side wrong? I don't think so. Christmas is what we make it.

Find out if Calvus has an opinion

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