WAS JESUS BORN ON DECEMBER 25th?

 

See also: Was Christ born in a stable?  http://www.celticorthodoxchurch.com/stable.html

 

 

            Calculating Christmas

            William J. Tighe on the Story Behind December 25

 

            Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on

            December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a

            pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the

            fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this

            makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps

            interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result

            of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of

            Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to

            do with pagan festivals.

 

            Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son”

            instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was

            almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date

            that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the

            pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

 

            A Mistake

 

            The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two

            scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

            Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the

            celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many

            paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth

            century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed

            pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a

            Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted

            pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the                                

            Gospel. In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the

            winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed

            obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan

            significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date

            had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar

            before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent

            role in Rome before him.

 

            There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained

            by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its

            dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its

            dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell

            into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun,

            such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any

            case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with

            solstices or equinoxes.

 

            As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his

            assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to

            have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the

            Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the

            Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the

            sun. He led an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of

            internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and

            repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian

            Empire to the east.

 

            In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the

            lengthening of the daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of

            darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for

            rebirth,” or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting

            from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the

            Romans thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule. If it

            co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.

         

            A By-Product

 

            It is true that the first evidence of Christians celebrating

            December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome

            some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from

            both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to

            figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to

            celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries.

            The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of

            December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to

            celebrate his death and resurrection.

 

            How did this happen? There is a seeming contradiction between the

            date of the Lord’s death as given in the synoptic Gospels and in

            John’s Gospel. The synoptics would appear to place it on Passover

            Day (after the Lord had celebrated the Passover Meal on the

            preceding evening), and John on the Eve of Passover, just when the

            Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Jerusalem Temple for

            the feast that was to ensue after sunset on that day.

 

            Solving this problem involves answering the question of whether the

            Lord’s Last Supper was a Passover Meal, or a meal celebrated a day

            earlier, which we cannot enter into here. Suffice it to say that the

            early Church followed John rather than the synoptics, and thus

            believed that Christ’s death would have taken place on 14 Nisan,

            according to the Jewish lunar calendar. (Modern scholars agree, by

            the way, that the death of Christ could have taken place only in

            A.D. 30 or 33, as those two are the only years of that time when the

            eve of Passover could have fallen on a Friday, the possibilities

            being either 7 April 30 or 3 April 33.)

 

            However, as the early Church was forcibly separated from Judaism, it

            entered into a world with different calendars, and had to devise its

            own time to celebrate the Lord’s Passion, not least so as to be

            independent of the rabbinic calculations of the date of Passover.

            Also, since the Jewish calendar was a lunar calendar consisting of

            twelve months of thirty days each, every few years a thirteenth

            month had to be added by a decree of the Sanhedrin to keep the

            calendar in synchronization with the equinoxes and solstices, as

            well as to prevent the seasons from “straying” into inappropriate

            months.

 

            Apart from the difficulty Christians would have had in following—or

            perhaps even being accurately informed about—the dating of Passover

            in any given year, to follow a lunar calendar of their own devising

            would have set them at odds with both Jews and pagans, and very

            likely embroiled them in endless disputes among themselves. (The

            second century saw severe disputes about whether Pascha had always

            to fall on a Sunday or on whatever weekday followed two days after

            14 Artemision/Nisan, but to have followed a lunar calendar would

            have made such problems much worse.)

 

            These difficulties played out in different ways among the Greek

            Christians in the eastern part of the empire and the Latin

            Christians in the western part of it. Greek Christians seem to have

            wanted to find a date equivalent to 14 Nisan in their own solar

            calendar, and since Nisan was the month in which the spring equinox

            occurred, they chose the 14th day of Artemision, the month in which

            the spring equinox invariably fell in their own calendar. Around

            A.D. 300, the Greek calendar was superseded by the Roman calendar,

            and since the dates of the beginnings and endings of the months in

            these two systems did not coincide, 14 Artemision became April 6th.

            In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North

            Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on

            which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had

            concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will

            note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and

            Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on

            March 25th, or in March at all.)

 

            Integral Age

 

            So in the East we have April 6th, in the West, March 25th. At this

            point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been

            widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is

            nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the

            awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of

            the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died

            on the same dates as their birth or conception.

 

            This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early

            Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of

            Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so

            that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of

            Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is

            some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century

            Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of

            Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as

            the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.

 

            It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians

            as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought

            the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose

            acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of

            True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became

            incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months.

            Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to

            April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and

            January 6th is Epiphany.

 

            Christmas (December 25th) is a feast of Western Christian origin. In

            Constantinople it appears to have been introduced in 379 or 380.

            From a sermon of St. John Chrysostom, at the time a renowned ascetic

            and preacher in his native Antioch, it appears that the feast was

            first celebrated there on 25 December 386. From these centers it

            spread throughout the Christian East, being adopted in Alexandria

            around 432 and in Jerusalem a century or more later. The Armenians,

            alone among ancient Christian churches, have never adopted it, and

            to this day celebrate Christ’s birth, manifestation to the magi, and

            baptism on January 6th.

 

            Western churches, in turn, gradually adopted the January 6th

            Epiphany feast from the East, Rome doing so sometime between 366 and

            394. But in the West, the feast was generally presented as the

            commemoration of the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, and as

            such, it was an important feast, but not one of the most important

            ones—a striking contrast to its position in the East, where it

            remains the second most important festival of the church year,

            second only to Pascha (Easter).

 

            In the East, Epiphany far outstrips Christmas. The reason is that

            the feast celebrates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the occasion

            on which the Voice of the Father and the Descent of the Spirit both

            manifested for the first time to mortal men the divinity of the

            Incarnate Christ and the Trinity of the Persons in the One Godhead.

 

            A Christian Feast

 

            Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe

            nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the

            Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to

            have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely

            from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the

            historical date of Christ’s death.

 

            And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that

            date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter

            solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an

            attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance

            to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date

            re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on

            the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of

           

            William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg

            College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the

            Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian

            Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing

            editor for Touchstone.

_______________________________________________________________________________     

 

 The decision to celebrate Christmas on December 25 was made at Ephesus (Third Ecumenical) Church Council in the year 431.

 

A key role in implementing a separate Christmas celebration in the East was played by three Eastern Church Fathers: St. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. Under the influence of St. Gregory the Theologian this feast was introduced in Constantinople. In Jerusalem, Christmas was celebrated with Epiphany up to 634. In the fourth century Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built a church in Bethlehem.

 

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