By Spencer Gear PhD
Some of these details were published in my article, Make-believe and celebrations: Christmas message ignored, (On Line Opinion, 24 December 2018).
This is a delightful season for summer fruit from the tropics and temperate climes. I purchased a pawpaw that looked just right. I struck a problem when I cut it open.
It wasn’t seen from the outside, but around the stem, there was a small bad spot that had developed mould on some of the seeds inside. Once the bad section had been removed, the remainder of the pawpaw was delicious. I would never have written off the entire pawpaw because of some contaminated seeds.
But that’s what some people want to do with Christmas. The season has been commercialised with festivities that disguise the true message of Christmas.
1. Paddling in the Christmas shallows
Let’s clear away some debris. December 25 is not the birth date for Jesus’ birth. There is no biblical mention of the exact day of Jesus’ birth. A few hints in the text indicate it was not in the middle of the northern winter. Shepherds were in the fields overnight guarding their flock (Luke 2:8). This suggests a time of more temperate weather.
There were early discussions about the date of Jesus’ birth in early church leader in northern Africa, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215). He wrote: ‘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 twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of [the Egyptian month of] Pachon. This is 20 May according to our calendar (The Stromata 1.21).
For the first 300 years of the church’s existence, it did not celebrate Christmas. December 25 was adopted in AD 336 when Constantine was emperor. In 354 a list of Roman bishops was compiled. The words that appeared in 336 were, ’25 Dec: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae’, i.e. 25 December, Christ born in Bethlehem Judea.
Around that time there were pagan festivals honouring the Roman god of agriculture, liberation and time – Saturn. Mithra (Mithras) was worshipped by the Persians (Iran, Iraq and vicinity) as the god of light. Could this have been a tactical decision by a christianised Emperor, Constantine, to encourage people to consider the new faith of Christianity?
2. The Santa sham
I well remember the deceitful fun my parents had with us kids at Christmas with the gifts under the tree. The jolly old Santa was part of my family’s tradition. We children knew no other way to celebrate Christmas. Now we know its pretense, but who wants to spoil the fun for kids?
This legend has been traced back to the monk, St. Nicholas, born around AD 280 in Patara, modern Turkey. He was esteemed for his godliness and kindness. Many legends have sprung up around his story.
As for the name, Santa Claus, it emerged from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas. As for the chubby, bearded fellow in the red suit, those features originated in 1822 when Clement Clarke Moore, a USA Episcopal minister, wrote a lengthy poem for his three daughters, ‘An account of a visit from St. Nicholas’.
He was cautious about publishing it because of its petty subject. However, that poem seems to have been responsible for the contemporary image of Santa – the tubby old man in red who could climb up a chimney (history.com).
This year, I visited a major department store in the Brisbane region to purchase a nativity scene for my house. When I asked the person at the front door to direct me to where I might find such a scene, she naively responded: ‘What do you mean?’ She had no idea of the true meaning of Christmas and where a nativity scene fits into the picture. To her knowledge there were none in this very large store. She was correct.
However, she knew lots about Santa, tinsel, lights and Christmas trees.
3. The contaminating myths
At this time of the year, the doubters, protagonists and atheists are out in force in the mass media. They try to show that the decline and contamination of Christmas indicate that the celebration is phoney. It demonstrates the ‘Christ-myth’ (Bruno Bauer, Arthur Drews). It’s really not a celebration of the Son of God but is a festivity for the god of sun.
Some focus on the supposed connection between the Egyptian religion and Christianity, particularly the Horus-Jesus relationship. Horus was the Sun of God.
4. How are myths created?
Jane Yolen, in her Myth Writing Workshop defines myth as ‘a made-up story that explains the existence of a natural phenomenon – such as where thunder comes from or why snow falls from the sky. Myths – which often include gods and goddesses and other supernatural characters who have the power to make extraordinary things happen — are popular even when people know the actual reasons for natural phenomena’.
This agrees with the Collins’ Dictionary definition that a myth is ‘a story about superhuman beings of an earlier age, usually of how natural phenomena or social customs came into existence’. It is fiction, an invention and promotes historical, mystical and supernatural falsehoods – for creative reading, film and performance.
5. Jesus’ birth as truth or fiction
How do we know Jesus birth and life are rooted in history and not fiction? His forerunner, John the Baptist, was born at the time when Herod was king of Judea (Luke 1:5-7). Herod the Great lived 73-4 BC and was appointed King of Judea by the Romans from 37-4 BC. Jesus was born ca. 6-4 BC under Herod’s late reign (see Matt 2:16).
(image courtesy Clipart Library)
The awful details of Herod’s death are recorded in graphic detail by the Jewish historian, Josephus (Antiquities 17.6.5). Josephus regarded this kind of death as ‘God’s judgment upon him for his sins’. He was brutal in his treatment of opponents.
6. Is Herod’s massacre of young children a myth?
Matthew 2:16 records, ‘When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi’.
A writer on historical topics, Michael Grant, considered these details not to be historical but myth or folk-lore. The massacre of the children was invented, although he conceded it was likely related to the historical fact that Jesus probably was born in one of the last years of Herod’s reign (in Gordon Franz 2009).
In my research, I found no record of this massacre in secular literature outside the Bible. However, it is consistent with the brutality of Herod. He slaughtered friends, enemies and relatives (see Josephus Antiquities, 15:5-10). He even killed his second wife, Mariamme I, out of jealousy (Antiquities, 15.3.5). He had some of his sons killed (Josephus War 1.27.6).
Archaeology and other research have discovered much evidence to support the trustworthiness of Bible records.
‘Now for the first time, one hundred and ten 2,500 year old Babylonian tablets have been discovered in Iraq which provide a glimpse of Jewish life in Babylonian exile’. It corroborates the biblical story mentioned in Ezekiel 1:1. The Huffington Post, Australia (6 December 2017), hardly a Christian publication, concluded: ‘This discovery is a remarkable confirmation of the historical reliability of the Biblical text’.
Something that may have caused embarrassment or created difficulty for the early church is more likely to be authentic. Why? Because it is improbable that the writers of the Gospels would deliberately set out to write false, embarrassing or contradictory material that would weaken the position of the church.
Josephus stated: ‘But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex’ (Antiquities, 4.8.15).
What happened on resurrection morning? ‘The Sabbath day was now over. It was dawn on the first day of the week. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb’ (Matt 28:1). Imagine it! Women who weren’t worthy to be witnesses in that Jewish culture were the first to the tomb to find it empty.
(image courtesy Medical Xpress)
This is, therefore, more likely to be a credible witness to what happened historically because of the embarrassment factor.
Similarly with Herod! It would be embarrassing for the Gospel writer to record something as history if it did not happen. That record has been here for people to consult for 2,000 years and the Christian church worldwide has grown to be the largest religious group in 2015, ‘making up nearly a third (31%) of Earth’s 7.3 billion people, according to a new Pew Research Center demographic analysis’. That’s about 2.26 billion followers. Surely a myth wouldn’t engineer such a following!
Herod was a brutal king. As indicated, one of the leading criteria ancient historians use to determine the authenticity of an historical document is embarrassment. This applies to the investigation of what happened in 1770 when Captain James Cook sailed along the eastern coast of Australia, the terrorism on September 11 2001 in New York City, or whether Herod massacred the boys under 2 years’ of age in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matt 2:16-18).
For a further discussion of these criteria, see Robert H Stein, The “Criteria” of Authenticity.
8. That questionable census
The incarnation at the first Christmas when the pre-existent Son of God became a human being was accompanied by historical events and a human being with attributes of a person.
Jesus’ birth was at the time when emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree for ‘all the world’ to ‘be registered’ (Luke 2:1). This was ‘the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria’ (Luke 2:2). Augustus was the greatest Roman emperor who reigned from 27 BC until his assassination in AD 14 (Ancient History Encyclopedia). Thus, Jesus’ birth was rooted in history and not myth.
(image courtesy Wikipedia: The Virgin and Saint Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic at the Chora Church, Constantinople 1315–20).
This historical information has some protagonists up in arms:
(1) ‘There is no record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that “all the world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1). The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events’ (N F Gier 1987).
(2) No records exist that Quirinius was governor of Syria when Luke wrote his Gospel. John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar stated, ‘The journey to and from Nazareth for census and tax registration is a pure fiction, a creation of Luke’s own imagination’ (Crossan 1994:20).
Even though there are questions about the accuracy of the biblical record, observe the association of Jesus’ birth with secular rulers – Herod, Caesar Augustus, and Quirinius. God’s purposes were worked out through unbelievers.
Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius didn’t begin to rule in Syria until AD 6. Jesus was born in 5-4 BC. Is Luke telling a whopper? How can we answer this apparent historical discrepancy (suggested by J. Hampton Keathley, III)?
An ancient census form from an official government order in Egypt, dated to AD 104, spoke of a house-to-house census for those who returned to their own homes. Archaeologist John McRay spoke of another papyrus from AD 48 indicating ‘the entire family was involved in the census’.
External evidence to the Bible states census registrations happened about every 14 years and that Quirinius could have been twice in charge of these registrations. Luke records in Acts 5:37 that he was aware of the later registration or census of Quirinius, the one reported by Josephus. Luke shows from Luke 2:1-2 and Acts 5:37 that there may have been two census’ registrations by Quirinius. Or, there could have been two Quiriniuses,
A distinguished archaeologist, Jerry Vardaman, found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, or what we call ‘micrographic’ letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod. ‘The census would have taken place under the reign of the earlier Quirinius. Given the cycle of a census every fourteen years, that would work out quite well’.
Sir William Ramsay, the late archaeologist and professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities gave a similar theory of one Quirinius who ruled Syria on two occasions. ‘He concluded from various inscriptions that while there was only one Quirinius, he ruled Syria on two separate occasions, which would cover the time period of the earlier census’.
9. Manipulation of evidence
Have I stage-managed the evidence to arrive at a conclusion that conforms to Christian orthodoxy? That’s not my motivation. I want to honestly examine the evidence since Luke has a reputation of being a reliable historian. All readers of this article can choose to close down further examination of the evidence and claim that Luke got it wrong because of presuppositional resistance to the birth of Jesus happening as described in the Gospels.
The other option is to pursue the evidence where it leads. That’s what I’ve attempted to do. As a researcher of the historical Jesus, like all historical evidence (that cannot be examined in the laboratory by repeatability), the conclusions reached can be only probable and not 100% certain.
I have found reasonable answers to the Christmas questions posed about the biblical text.
The season has become infected with profiteering and extra effects such as Santa, reindeers, tinsel, lights and Christmas trees.
Commercialisation of the Christian message or a bad experience should never testify against the real person and events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
Mouldy pawpaw seeds did not deter me from enjoying a special piece of summer fruit. Neither should a contaminated Christmas season stop us from remembering the Person who began this celebration ca. 4 BC, Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world.
The intrusion into the Christmas season of foreign symbols and signs detracts from the meaning of Christmas.
The history of the Western world turns on this event. The Christ child was prophesied in Micah 5:1-2 to be born in Bethlehem, 700 years before his birth. And it happened as predicted.
In the same era, Isaiah prophesied that he would be more than a baby in the manger. This child would be God the Son who would ultimately govern God’s kingdom. The baby of Bethlehem is the wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father and prince of peace.
He’s the One whom we celebrate every Christmas. The extravagance of the season should never blind us to the fact that Jesus is the reason for the season.
Copyright © 2018 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 December 2018.