Thursday, December 29, 2011

This much we know: Jesus was born, unlike Peter Frampton who just “comes alive.” We can, that is, cast aside those few scholars and others who would claim Jesus was a figment or creation of ancient imagination. His birth, however, just celebrated raises many questions, some of which might only be settled by faith. I think it would be impossible, for instance, to prove in any reasonable way that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary unless the claims of faith and tradition are given priority. It is here that believers and others who accept the birth of Jesus, but not the miraculous claims surrounding his conception and birth and his Incarnate being, would part ways. Jesus was born, we might all acknowledge, but the manner and means by which that birth came about divide believers from non-believers.

This is a reality when one practices biblical theology. Some of the claims of theology cannot be grounded in history or reason alone.  And yet, even those like me, who accept the theological claims of the Church and Tradition find the push to understand the claims of the Church apart from history and reason troubling. In fact, sometimes we are being asked to accept claims about the Bible and Tradition which the Church does not ask of us, pushing to accept as historical that which is ephemeral, and being asked to engage in a game of sacrificium intellectus to prove that we are genuinely Christians or Catholics. These sorts of claims engage in a biblical fundamentalism because they tacitly propose that the Church is correct about every claim it makes;  that all claims or propositions made by the Church are equally significant and must be believed; and that to be true a claim must be literally and factually true.

Here is an example from this Christmas season about the date of Christmas, that is, Jesus’ birthdate. As far as I am concerned, Jesus might have been born on December 25, but, and here my bias will be stated clearly, I do not care on what day he was born. I am happy to celebrate Jesus’ birth and if the day is off by a week, a month or a season, I do not see what matter it is. The significance is to celebrate the coming of the savior of the world.  Dr. Taylor Marshall cares, though, and dedicates three blog posts  to establishing that Jesus’ birthday must have been on December 25th. One is on the biblical evidence, another on the evidence of Mary and the apostolic tradition and another on the thoughts of Pope Benedict XVI.  The problem is not just that Dr. Marshall’s evidence is minimal or absent, but that it creates a sense that this is a weighty matter to which everyone must assent. After all, can the Bible, Mary, the Church Fathers and the Pope be wrong? We do not have to consider an answer to this question because, while the Pope and the Church Fathers consider this question, the Bible and Mary do not.

First of all, Dr. Marshall wants to establish that Jesus’ birthday was not created through alignment with the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. I think he is correct on this score.  Andrew McGowan writes,

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.

So if the date was not chosen by an attempt to supersede or draft in the wake of pagan festivals, at least not primarily, what was the evidence for December 25th?

Marshall wants to locate biblical evidence for Jesus’ birthday, which is difficult because none exists, that is, no evidence in the Bible that says, “Jesus was born in the month of December,” or “Jesus was born in the Jewish month of Kislev.” None of the Gospel authors or authors of the Epistles considered it significant enough to mention.  Indeed, only two of the Gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, describe the birth of Jesus and they do so in remarkably different fashion. Their purposes, apart from outlining the miraculous happenings associated with Jesus’ birth, were to place Jesus theologically in the chronology of salvation history, as the new Moses – Matthew – or the new Samuel – Luke, which is not to say this is all that Jesus was, but this was part of locating Jesus as the fulfillment of all the hopes and promises associated with the prophets of old.  Neither of the Infancy narratives is particularly concerned with historical matters and the only way Marshall can create a birthday for Jesus is to speculate on when John the Baptist was conceived and born, a process fraught with difficulties, and then date Jesus’ birth six months later. It is also biblical evidence much dependent upon the Protoevangelium of James,  a terrific 2nd century source, but not biblical or a source I would place much dependence upon historically.  This does not give us much solid, historical ground on which to stand.

In his second post, Marshall turns to Mary and asks,

Now ask yourself this: Would the Blessed Virgin Mary ever forget the birth of her Son Jesus Christ who was conceived without human seed, proclaimed by angels, born in a miraculous way, and visited by Magi? She knew from the moment of His divine Incarnation in her womb that He was the Son of God and Messiah. Would she ever forget that day?*

I suspect she would not forget that day, but clearly she did not note the calendar day on which it occurred or the biblical authors of the Infancy Narratives did not find it important enough to mention, since they do not mention it. Marshall then says,

Next, ask yourself this: Would the Apostles be interested in hearing Mary tell the story? Of course! Do you think the holy Apostle who wrote, "And the Word was made flesh" was not interested in the minute details of His birth? 

The final question is an intriguing one since the Apostle John, to whom the Gospel is attributed, might have been interested in the minute details of Jesus’ birth, as were the other apostles, which makes it all the more remarkable that he does not note them in any way, since his Gospel lacks an Infancy Narrative of any kind. From this lack of evidence, literally, there is no evidence from the apostles regarding Mary's claims of Jesus' date of birth, Marshall concludes:

So the exact birthday (Dec 25) and the time (midnight) would have been known in the first century. Moreover, the Apostles would have asked about it and would have, no doubt, commemorated the blessed event that both Matthew and Luke chronicle for us.

But, if it was known, why did they not mention the date? We have, it cannot be stressed enough, no 1st century evidence for this date, or for any other date. As Andrew McGowan says, tracing the development of the date of Jesus’ birthday:

Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar]...And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

It is possible that Hippolytus in the early 3rd century and Clement of Alexandria, in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, earlier claimed that Jesus’ birthday fell on December 25th, but we still are not dealing with historical records, and neither of these calculations point to biblical, Marian or apostolic evidence for the date. In addition, though, in the 3rd and 4th centuries there was no agreed upon date for Jesus' birthday.

Also note in the quote above the special significance of March 25, which marks the death of Christ (March 25 was seen to correspond to the Hebrew month Nisan 14 - the traditional date of crucifixion).

Christ, as the perfect man, was believed to have been conceived and died on the same day (March 25). In his Chronicon, Saint Hippolytus states that the earth was created on March 25, 5500 B.C.  Thus, March 25 was identified by the Church Fathers as:

  • the Creation date of the World
  • the date of the Annunciation and Incarnation of Christ
  • the date of the Death of Christ our Savior

In 2000, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy that a Jewish tradition holds that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah on March 25. Mount Moriah is Jerusalem (see 2 Chron 34:1), and March 25 is the date on which Christ was crucified on the solar calendar (Easter like the Mosaic Passover is calculated by a lunar phenomenon). I think that you can see that there is a geographical and temporal parallel here. We see that the Father willingly offers His only-begotten Son.

Cardinal Ratzinger also noted that March 25 was thought to be the first day of creation. Hence, March 25 has a cosmic significance. His Eminence also describes how the zodiac and Aries relates to this cosmic significance in the Spring, but that is a bit too much for our purposes. The important thing is that March 25 was the traditional date for the creation of the world, for the sacrifice of Abraham, and for the sacrifice of God the Son.

On pages 107-108, Cardinal Ratzinger makes the observation that the day of Christ's death was also reckoned as the day he was conceived by the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. March 25, then was the annunciation of Gabriel. Add nine months to that and you arrive at December 25 as His birthday.

None of these dates, though, need be historically reliable, but the proper calendrical date is not the point; the point is to establish theologically significant dates and dates upon which to celebrate these events. Putting too much historical or calendrical weight on any of these celebrations crashes the whole edifice to the ground.

Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born...and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.) Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own too.

Why is it necessary to create historical evidence where none exists? It is not necessary, unless one places too much credence in spiritual truth as equitable with historical veracity. This much I know: Jesus was born on some day and whether it was December 25th or some other day, I am happy to celebrate it.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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