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The Date of Jesus' Birth: How December 25th Became Jesus' Birthday

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Although December 25th is the date on which most Christians celebrate Jesus' birth, no one knows either the day or the year in which Jesus was born. Establishing the date of Jesus' birth was a work in progress for nearly four centuries, during which various dates were proposed. It appears most likely that the December 25th date resulted from the borrowing of a then-popular pagan mid-winter celebration.
The Date of Jesus' Birth
How December 25th Became Jesus' Birthday
William S. Abruzzi
Although December 25th is the date on which most Christians celebrate Jesus' birth, no
one knows either the day or the year in which Jesus was born. The December 25th date
was established during the late 4th century, nearly 400 years after Jesus died, and
continues to be rejected by some 200-300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians who
celebrate the event on January 6th. Establishing the date of Jesus' birth was a work in
progress for nearly four centuries, during which various dates were proposed. It appears
most likely that the December 25th date resulted from the borrowing of a then-popular
pagan mid-winter celebration.
Early Christians did not celebrate Jesus' birth. The birth of Jesus did not acquire the same
importance in early Christianity as did Easter (Brown 1977: 28), which was celebrated
shortly after Jesus' death.1 There is no mention of its celebration in Acts. There is also no
mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c.
130-200) or Tertullian (c. 160-225). Near the end of the second century, Clement of
Alexandria (150-215) (Stromata I, 21,145.5) ridiculed those who tried to establish the birth
date of Jesus. Indeed, birth celebrations were rejected as unchristian. As late as the third
century, Origen of Alexandria (184-253) (Commentary on Matthew XIV, 6) objected to the
celebration of any birthday as being a pagan custom, pointing out that in the Bible only
the "heathen and the godless" (such as Pharaoh and Herod) celebrated their birthdays.
Origen goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, a strong
indication that Jesus' birth was not marked with similar festivities at that time.
Jesus' birth also had no theological significance. For Christians, it was Jesus' death and
resurrection that mattered, not his birth. Every Lord's Day (later called Sunday) was
celebrated as a "day of resurrection." From the very beginning of Christianity, the feast of
Easter and the holy days associated with it --which specifically celebrated Jesus' death
and resurrection-- constituted the foundation of Christian worship. Likewise, all festivals
honoring his apostles and later Christian martyrs were associated with their deaths, not
their births. As Cullmann (1956: 21) notes,
Our Christmas festival of December 25th was unknown to the Christians of the first
three centuries. Down to the beginning of the fourth century this day, subsequently
to become a central date in the Christian Church, was allowed by the Christians to
pass by unhonoured and unsung, without any assembling together for worship,
and without Christ's birth being so much as mentioned.
And, of course, there is no mention of snow or cold temperatures in either Matthew's or
Luke's infancy narrative, which effectively rules out a December birth.2 As Jenkins (2011:
47) points out, "No sane Judean shepherd would have been out on the hills watching his
flocks in December." Having shepherds "tending their flocks in the field" in December
(Luke 2: 8) demonstrates an ignorance of Palestinian climate and sheepherding ecology
in which animals are more likely to be corralled and protected in the winter and pastured
primarily during the warmer months when the fields are covered with grass.
Christmas did not become a significant Christian holiday until the 4th century CE. One
indication of the late date for the origin of Christmas is the fact that it recurs on a fixed
calendar date every year. This is a result of its being based on the later Roman solar
calendar rather than on the earlier Jewish lunar calendar, as is Easter, the celebration of
which occurs on a different calendar date each year. In addition, according to Kraabel
(1982: 275), Jesus is not presented as an infant in the earliest Christian art and literature,
but rather is portrayed sometimes as a youthful figure similar to Dionysius and Apollo, but
more often as an older, ageless figure. The earliest painting of the Virgin and Child, with
Balaam holding a scroll and pointing to a star (see Numbers 24: 17), is dated to at least
the third century and possibly later.
". . . a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel "
(Numbers 24: 17)
Virgin and Child
(Catacombs of St. Priscilla, Rome)
It was only a matter of time, however, that Jesus' birth (Incarnation) would take on
soteriological importance.
Once faith in the crucified and exalted Lord had been taken as the starting-point of
theological reflection on the question of Christ's person and work, his incarnation
was bound to become more and more central in devout speculation. (Cullmann
1956: 24)
Given initial ecclesiastical indifference with respect to Jesus' birth date, numerous
proposed dates circulated during the earliest Christian centuries (see Cullmann 1942;
Strittmatter 1956; Kraabel 1982). At the beginning of the third century, Clement of
Alexandria noted that Christian groups had proposed several different days as the date
of Jesus' birth. According to Clement,
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]. . . . Further,
others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].
(Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145; quoted in McGowan 2012; see also Winter
Significantly, while Clement discussed several proposed dates, he did not mention
December 25th as one of the dates claimed at the time. Clement himself (Stromata 1:21)
thought that Jesus was born on November 18th and wrote,
From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred
and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days. [This calculates to be November
Several spring dates were proposed as the birth dates of Jesus, including April 2nd, April
19th, March 25th, March 28th and May 20th (see Cullmann 1956: 21-23; Kraabel 1982:
274-275). The preference for a spring date was based on the belief that the world was
created in the spring. According to Genesis (1: 4-5), it was on the first day of creation that
"God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness
he called Night." The belief was that on the first day of creation light and darkness were
divided into two equal parts. The first day of creation must, therefore, have occurred on
the vernal equinox, the date when night and day are of equal length. While the vernal
equinox falls on March 21st in our modern calendar, it occurred on March 25th in the
Roman calendar. Because Jesus represented the "new creation," it was believed that his
birth would have coincided with the date of the original creation. This would have been
consistent with the gospels claim that Jesus was crucified in the spring. Since Jesus, as
a perfect divine being, would have lived complete (not partial) years, it follows that his
crucifixion would have occurred on March 25th.4
Based on a slight modification of the above argument, De Pascha Computus, dated 243
CE (see Cullman 1956: 22; Talley 2000: 269), calculated that Jesus' birth occurred on
March 28th. Many early Christians associated Jesus with the sun (see below), following
Malachi's (4: 2) reference to the messiah as the "sun of righteousness." Genesis (1: 14-
19) states that the sun was created on the fourth day of creation. Following the belief that
the first day of creation was March 25th, the sun --and by extension Jesus' birth-- would
have occurred on March 28th.
But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, (Malachi 4:2)
A similar theological arithmetic was also used to argue for a December 25th birth date.
During the third century, Julius Africanus claimed that December 25th would have been
Jesus' birth date, based on his belief that Jesus would have been conceived (the real
beginning of his life) on March 25th and would have gestated a perfect 9 months in the
womb. Africanus similarly assumed that Jesus would have lived in perfect whole years
and would, therefore, have been crucified on March 25th. In about 400 CE, Augustine of
Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists,5 who kept Christmas
festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding
it as an innovation (McGowan 2012).6 The use of the March 25th death date to justify the
December 25th birth date clearly illustrates the popularity of the former with regard to
dating Jesus' birth. Basing the latter date on the former date would have given it greater
legitimacy and, thus, would have facilitated the Roman Church's attempt to establish the
orthodoxy of the December 25th date.
Egyptian Gnostic followers of Basilides in the 2nd century celebrated Jesus' birthday on
January 6th. According to Ray (2000: 116-129), celebrations of the nativity in Palestine
initially took place in the middle of May. These celebrations were later moved to January,
and then finally to December during the 4th century. The Feast of the Nativity continues
to be celebrated on January 6th by the Armenian Orthodox Church. A tradition is also
found in Epiphanius (Panarion [c. 374-377] LI, MPG tome XLI, col. 928 ff.), bishop of
Salamis in Cyprus, according to which Jesus was born in the 42nd year of Augustus' reign
(29 years after the Jews had become subject to the Romans) on the 13th Tebeth in
Jewish, the 11th Tybi in Egyptian, or the 8th Audyneos in Syrian cylindrical reckoning,
which corresponds to the night linking the 5th and 6th of January in the Julian calendar
(743 years ab urbe condita)7 (Winter 1955:234).
According to Roll (2000: 274-275), the earliest "hard evidence" that December 25th was
celebrated as Jesus' birthday comes from the Chronograph or almanac of Furius
Dionysius Philocalus (354 CE). This almanac contains three lists of dates, which "taken
together serve to indicate that by the year 336 the nativity of Jesus stood at the start of
the new year." (see also McGowan 2012). However:
One list, the Fasti consulares, a chronological listing of the consuls of Rome,
includes the statement, "Christ is born during the consulate of C. Caesar
Augustus and L. Aemilianus Paulus on 25 December, a Friday, the 15th day
of the new moon." According to Roll (2000: 275), this statement was
awkwardly inserted into a secular list of Roman consuls containing several
factual errors, raising questions regarding its authenticity.
A second list, Depositio episcoporum, contains the names of Roman
bishops who lived from 255 to 352 CE. The entries are arranged in order of
their death dates beginning on December 26. The first date listed,
December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: "Christ was
born in Bethlehem of Judea" (McGowan 2012). However, the last two
entries --Marcus, who died in 336 and Julius who died in 352-- are out of
order, suggesting a later insertion (Roll 2000: 275). Since Sylvester, the
most recent of the popes listed in correct order, died in December 335, Roll
believes the source material can be reliably dated to the year 336. He thus
concludes, "the fact that it is arranged as if December 25 is the beginning
of the year . . . suggests that the nativity feast had by then acquired its
position as the start of the Christian year" (ibid.) Significantly, a civil calendar
included as part of the same Chronograph notes December 25 as N(atalis)
Invicti, a Roman civil holiday honoring the birth of the invincible sun (ibid.),
with no mention of the nativity of Jesus (ibid.).
Equally problematic, according to Roll, is a note contained in the third
document Depositio martyrum, which begins: "Christ is born on the eighth
of the calendar of January, in Bethlehem of Judea" (ibid.). The problem here
is that the source in which this date is found is a list of martyrs who died in
Rome and who were buried in or near the city. The belief at that time was
that a Martyr's death date was their birthday into heaven, and that this was
the day that should be celebrated. However, Jesus' death date is not
indicated, making the inclusion of Jesus' birth date (as the day he was
physically born) among the list of birthdates (i.e., death dates) of martyrs
highly problematic. Roll (ibid.) suggests that Jesus' birth date may have
been a later insertion into this document.
It was not until the late 4th century that December 25th became established as the official
date of the nativity in the West, and, even then, had to be promoted among the general
populace by offering a theological justification. Gregory of Nazianzen had preached
sermons on the feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany in 379-380. In his sermon for the
Epiphany, he claimed to have been the exarchos (originator) of the Christmas feast, not
in 379, but apparently shortly before (ibid.). John Chrysostom (349-407), Archbishop of
Constantinople, preached his sermon In diem natalem, on the date of the Nativity in 386,
with the goal of justifying the introduction/imposition of this feast in the Eastern Church
less than ten years before (Roll 2000: 276). Chrysostom used several arguments to
support December 25th as Jesus' birth date.
Citing the words of Gamaliel: "If it be of men, it will come to naught; but if it
be of God you cannot overthrow it, lest perhaps you be found even to fight
against God" (Acts V, 38-39). Chrysostom argued that the validity of the
December 25th date is confirmed by its widespread acceptance by the
Christian community within a comparatively short period of time (Strittmatter
1942: 601-602). This justification is both factually incorrect and illogical. It
took over 300 years for the majority of the Christian community to accept
December 25th as the birth date of Jesus. There was widespread resistance
to this date, and it only succeeded in becoming established as a result of its
imposition by the Roman Church. Also, a whole variety of false beliefs have
been rather quickly accepted by large numbers of people. Gamaliel's quote
(assuming it is authentic) could just as easily be used to justify the beliefs
of other religions, including Muslims, Hindus and Mormons.
In his sermon In diem natalem of 386, Chrysostom supported this position
by appealing to the records of the census of Quirinius mentioned in Lk 2:1-
7 (Kraabel 1982: 278). He claimed that the December 25th feast originated
at Rome, where the records of the census of Quirinius were preserved,
though those records were never produced. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that
they even existed or would in any way have confirmed a December 25th
Chrysostom further argued that, according to Luke (1: 8-13), Zechariah, the
father of John the Baptist, received the message of the archangel Gabriel
six months before the tidings were brought to Mary while performing his
priestly rituals in the Holy of Holies in the temple.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division
was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him
by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the
whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of
incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing
on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechari′ah was troubled
when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him,
"Do not be afraid, Zechari′ah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife
Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John."
(Luke 1: 8-13)
Only on one day of the year, Chrysostom argued, was the high priest permitted to enter
the Holy of Holies; this was on the tenth day of the seventh month. Calculating that Jesus'
conception occurred 6 months later and that his birth occurred 9 months after that,
Chrysostom determined that Jesus was born in the month of Appelaios (December in the
Roman calendar). There is, however, no historical foundation for this; at no time was
anyone named Zechariah ever a High Priest, and the altar of incense was not located
inside the Holy of Holies (Winter 1955: 234). Furthermore, Luke's description of the birth
of John is so directly modeled on the birth of Samuel (1Samuel:1-2; see Freed 2001:87-
89; Abruzzi When Was Jesus Born?, note 34) that it cannot be considered an accurate
historical account upon which to determine the date of Jesus' birth.
Constantine and the Celebration of Christmas
Some have associated the origin of the celebration of Christmas with the conversion of
Constantine to Christianity. Indeed, many have placed significant emphasis on the
personal role of Constantine and his program to recognize Christianity. Other scholars,
however, point to Constantine's decree in 321 limiting labor on Sunday as evidence of his
continuing devotion to Sol Invictus, the Roman Sun God, at least as much as to the day
of the resurrection of Christ (Talley 2000: 265).
While Constantine was committed to making Constantinople the new Rome, several
factors contradict the argument that he introduced December 25th as the day to celebrate
Jesus' birth. One objection concerns the fact that no recognition was given to Jesus'
nativity on the day of the natalis invicti at Constantinople throughout Constantine's lifetime
(Talley 2000: 267). Indeed, Roll (2000: 288), notes that while Constantine resided in
Constantinople from 324 until his death in 337, and while Constantinople had been
deliberately designed to include houses of Christian worship, the city did not mark the
Christmas feast until almost 380 (as represented in the sermons of Chrysostom and
Gregory Nazianzen), nearly half a century after Constantine's death. Talley (2000: 271)
emphasizes the same point.
Surely the majority of scholars today understand the sermon of Gregory
Nazianzen, preached at Constantinople on the Feast of Lights (January 6) in 381,
as indicating the introduction of the December nativity festival at Constantinople
by Gregory himself twelve days earlier. In that sermon, Gregory refers to the
celebration of the nativity on the preceding December 25, describing himself as
the exarchos of the feast, an expression that most have understood to mean
"institutor." Such an understanding of the institution of Christmas at the eastern
capital would be consistent with Chrysostom's assertion in a Christmas sermon
preached at Antioch in 386 that this date for Christ's nativity had been known in
the area for less than ten years. If, with Cullmann and Auf der Maur and others
who have urged a personal role for Constantine, we accept December 380 as date
of the introduction of Christmas at Constantinople, and also suppose that the
establishment of the festival of Christ's nativity on the Dies natalis solis invicti at
Rome was under the influence of Constantine, how are we to account for the
absence of that festival at Constantinople during Constantine's lifetime? His
limitation of labor on Sunday seems to have continued in Constantinople, but
neither there nor elsewhere in the East do we encounter any attempt by
Constantine to give Christian expression to the Dies natalis Solis Invicti. This
suggests that the frequently asserted association of the two festivals was lost on
As already indicated, evidence exists that Christ's nativity was being celebrated in North
Africa prior to the accession of Constantine (Talley 2000: 265). Furthermore, Christmas
was observed in Rome in 336, the year in which Constantine celebrated his tricennalia
[30th anniversary] at Constantinople, in contrast to his journey to Rome for the vicennalia
ten years earlier (Talley 2000:270). As Talley (ibid.) notes,
If Constantine had any interest in the coincidence of the nativity of Christ and the
natales of Christ and Sol Invictus at Rome, there is no sign that such an interest
followed him to Constantinople. The absence of a nativity festival on December 25
is inexplicable at Constantinople, and even more so at Bethlehem, if Constantine
himself had any role in the establishment of such a festival at Rome. (Talley
Constantine was not baptized a Christian until shortly before he died. He also never
renounced his devotion to the Sun. In 321 CE he designated Sunday, the traditional
Roman day dedicated to the sun, as the Christian "Lord's Day," making it an officially
sanctioned Roman holy day and weekly day of rest. This act of giving the Christian
Sunday legal status would have been consistent with his attempt to integrate traditional
Roman sun worship into Christianity which, because it was widely dispersed throughout
the empire and organized into a central hierarchical church organization, served his goal
of uniting the empire. As Cullmann (1956: 31) clearly notes,
Constantine was not so much a Christian as a conscious syncretist: he strove after
a synthesis of Christianity and the valuable elements in paganism. Christianity was
the religion he most favored simply because its organization made it the best able
to unite the empire . . . But Constantine may well have thought that the multifarious
religions of the empire could somehow be carried on within the single framework
of Christianity. We hear nothing of any deliberate attack on paganism cults. All his
life, however, he promoted the worship of the sun. He allowed himself to be
represented in two statues as the sun god with shining rays, and permitted the
following inscription to be placed on the pedestal: 'To Constantine, who brings light
like the sun'.
Several other sources indicate Constantine's continuing devotion to the sun. One of these
sources involves the coins minted during Constantine's reign (see Alfoldi 1932; Bruun
1962; Schweich 1984; Kiernan 2001; Dunning 2003; Clark 2009; Constantine the Great
Coins; Christian Symbols on Roman Coins). Images of Sol Invictus and other pagan
symbols abound on Roman coins throughout Constantine's reign. By contrast, "of the
approximately 1,363 coins of Constantine . . . roughly one percent might be classified as
having Christian symbols" (Constantine the Great Coins). The most common symbols
that can be interpreted as Christian include the chi-rho and other variations on the cross.
However, the use of these symbols pre-dates Christianity; consequently, they cannot be
assumed to be Christian symbols when they appear on Constantinian coins (see Bruun
1962; Dunning 2003). The chi-rho, for example, appeared for the first time in the third
century BCE on a Greek bronze coin during Ptolemy's reign (ibid.; Dunning 2003: 7).
Significantly, the first overtly Christian legend on a Roman coin does not appear until 350
(Christian Symbols on Roman Coins), a full 13 years after Constantine died. The coin
contains a small chi-rho held by the emperor while he is being crowned by Victory. The
accompanying legend consists of the famous words reportedly said by God to
Constantine in his vision before his victory in the battle of Milvian Bridge: HOC SIGNO
VICTOR ERIS ("With the sign, you will be victorious"). The Christian interpretation of this
vision derives largely from Eusebius (260-339), the bishop of Caesarea and a Christian
polemicist who promoted Constantine as the first "Christian" emperor in his History of the
Church and The Life of Constantine. It is not clear whether Constantine saw such a vision
or, if he believed he had, that the god in question was the Christian god (see Dunning
2003; Wallraff 2001).
Coin with Constantine and Sol
Commemorative coin with She-Wolf
NursingRomulus and Remus, Mythical
Founders of Rome
(330 CE)
Medallion with Constantine wearing a Helmet
containing the Chi Rho symbol.
(315 CE)
Also, while several images of Sol appear on the Arch of Constantine, no images of Jesus
or any symbols that can be considered Christian appear anywhere on the arch (see
Wallraff 2001; Marlowe 2006).
Sol on the east facade of Constantine's Arch
In describing Constantine's Arch, Wallraff (2001: 256) states rather clearly,
Constantine won his victory over Maxentius instinctu divinitatis, as the famous
inscription on his triumphal arch reads. It has been debated as to what deity this is
referring; in any case there is no iconographic evidence whatsoever to support a
Christian interpretation. On the other hand, the arch is full of solar symbols. There
can be no doubt that at this stage Sol invictus was at least as important to
Constantine as Jesus Christ.
It is likely, therefore, that the inscription instinctu divinitatis ("inspired by the divine")
displayed prominently on the arch refers to Sol rather than to Jesus.
"To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed
Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind,
has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time,
with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have
dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs."
Constantine's Column Today
How and Why December 25th Became Jesus' Birthday
Once it is understood that December 25th was not the original day on which Christians
believed Jesus was born and that this specific date was not established by the Roman
Church until the late fourth century, the question becomes how and why did December
25th become the official date for celebrating the nativity of Jesus throughout Western
(though not Eastern) Christianity.8 Two explanations have dominated modern discussions
of the issue: one liturgical, the other historical.9 Thomas J. Talley, an American Anglican
liturgist and a proponent of the liturgical explanation [a.k.a., the Calculation Hypothesis]
supports the explanation initially presented by Louis Duchesne (1843-1922) that
the nativity date of December 25 was arrived at by computation from the date
already established for the passion in the West early in the third century, March
25. The primitive pascha celebrated the entire mystery of Christ, including the
incarnation, and christological development early identified the point of incarnation
as the conception at the annunciation to Mary. This would put Christ's nativity nine
months after the March 25 date assigned to the passion and conception, on
December 25. (Talley 2000: 266)
In other words, a March 25th conception was followed by a perfect nine-month pregnancy,
resulting in a December 25th birth date. The conception date would, thus, have been
identical to Jesus' death date. Duchesne theorized that the December 25th date was
reached by taking the traditional date of Jesus' death, March 25, and concluding that it
was also the date of his conception, following the numerological belief that Jesus would
have lived an exact number of years. His birth would, therefore, have occurred on
December 25th, exactly nine months after his conception. Talley (ibid.) supports this
hypothesis by claiming that these dates of conception and death were accepted by
Augustine10 in an early North African tractate, and were contained in traditions referred to
by both John Chrysostom and Epiphanius.11 Duchesne's thesis is, of course, simply a
rehash of the kind of arguments used by early Christians to justify a whole variety of
different birth dates; indeed, his explanation is essentially a modern retelling of Julius
Africanus' thesis in the early third century (see above). The Catholic Encyclopedia,
however, notes that "there is no contemporary evidence for the celebration in the fourth
century of Christ's conception on 25 March,"12 rendering Duchesne's theory moot.13
According to Cullmann (1956: 22), the January 6th birth date for Jesus in the East was
rationalized in a manner similar to that of December 25th in the West. January 6th is 9
months after April 6th, which was regarded there as the date of Jesus' conception and
crucifixion. A liturgical explanation for this date is, therefore, equally problematic.
Inasmuch as beliefs evolve over time and change from place to place, it is necessary to
examine the time and place that the institutionalization of Jesus' birth date occurred in
order to understand both why a date was established at all, as well as why a particular
day was chosen. In addition, since various dates were proposed and accepted, it is
necessary to understand the process through which one date became canonical and all
others declared heretical. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to focus on the political
conflict that existed among competing Church factions and the role that the
institutionalization of one date to the exclusion of all others played in the consolidation of
the Roman Church's power. More specifically, if we are to understand why Jesus' birth
date became celebrated on December 25th in the West, we need to explain it
systematically; i.e., we must consistently explain: (1) why the celebration of Jesus' birth
emerged at all; (2) why it was celebrated on December 25th initially only in the west; and
(3) why it was originally celebrated on January 6th in the east. We also need to
understand why these two dates became significant theological issues in the ongoing
conflict between eastern and western Christianity. In order to achieve such an
explanation, we need to examine the context in which the celebration of Christmas
emerged; it did not occur in a vacuum. To this end, the promotion and eventual supremacy
of the December 25th date for Jesus' birth must be understood as part of the ecclesiastical
politics of the day.
. . . mainline or orthodox (Nicene) Christians undertook to defend their beliefs
against, on one hand non-Christians of whatever belief system, and on the other
hand fellow Christians in various splinter groups who supported beliefs and
practices condemned by the mainline Church as "heresy." It was in this
atmosphere of polemics and fear for the unity of the Christian movement in the
fourth century that the new feast of Christmas came to be used as a means of
promulgating Nicene doctrine concerning the nature of the incarnation and the
equality of the Son with the Father, while castigating, explicitly or implicitly, both
non-Christian festivals and sun-worship practices, and the threat posed to the
Church from various Christian factions. . . . by the fifth century bishops were
making use of the feast to counter non-mainline teachings, a process strikingly
visible in the ten consecutive Christmas sermons of Leo I. (Roll 2000:278-279)14
Numerous competing Christian sects existed throughout the Roman Empire. Eventually,
it was the church in Rome, with imperial support, that came to dominate the faith and to
define authoritative Christian beliefs and practices. In the process of Christianity
becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and of the Roman church becoming
the official Christian authority within the empire, Western Christianity incorporated into its
theology and structure several beliefs, images and institutions that it borrowed from pagan
Roman religious practice.15 Included among these were the establishment of "holy
places", a belief in saints (i.e., spirits of departed individual who, because of their divine
status, could assist those still living), a college of religious officials, and the establishment
of a centrally-controlled calendar of holy days that organized religious worship throughout
the empire (see Helgeland 1980: 1292-1298; Kraabel 1982: 276; Markus 1994). Indeed,
as McGowan (2012) points out, "many early elements of Christian worship --including
eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs, and much early Christian funerary art-- would
have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers." Kraabel (1982: 276) similarly
comments on the ease with which the beliefs and rituals associated with "holy places"
and religious worship directed by the imperial Roman calendar passed "smoothly and
almost unnoticed into a new Roman religion" (i.e. Christianity). Indeed, the celebration of
Christmas and Easter, which together incorporate a belief in a virgin birth, the incarnate
union of a male god and a human female, and a divine salvic death and resurrection, all
have precedence in pagan beliefs and practices.16
Roman belief in the deification of individuals is illustrated in the base of a column currently
located in the Vatican courtyard, which presents the Apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and
Faustina. One of the iconographic features adopted by Christianity from Greco-Roman
paganism was the portrayal of winged divine beings.
Apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina
pedestal of the Column of Antoninus Pius
(c. 161 CE, - Rome)
Iris the Heavenly Messenger in Greek Mythology
Winged Victory of Samothrace
(190 BC)
Greek Goddess of Victory
The Christian image of a winged angel (below) follows very closely on that of Greek and
Roman images of divine beings.
Oldest Representation of a Winged Angel
Prince's Sarcophagus
(Istanbul, 4th century)
Images of Jesus as the "Good Shepherd" also have precedence in earlier Greek and
Roman portrayals.
Jesus as Good Shepherd
(Catacombs of Priscilla-Rome-3rd century)
The Good Shepherd
(Domitilla Catacombs - Rome)
The Moschophoros (Calf-bearer),
(Acropolis Museum, Athens),
ca. 470 BC
Hermes crioforo
Hermes crioforo
Similarly, a divine birth was attributed to many gods in the ancient world.
Scenes depicting the divine birth of Amenhotep III
(c. 1390-c. 1352 BCE)
Miraculous Birth of the Buddha
from the side of his mother
Conception of Alexander the Great 17
Birth of Romulus and Remus through the God Mars
impregnating the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia 18
The newly instituted Christian calendar performed the same social and political function
as the pagan Roman calendar it replaced: the promotion of imperial unity. In pagan Rome,
December 25th was an important annual festival celebrated in honor of the rising sun, the
supreme deity established by Aurelean and promoted by Constantine, who pursued a
deliberate policy of uniting the worship of the sun with the worship of Jesus. To this end,
the official establishment of Christmas on December 25th followed logically from the
previous imposition by the Roman Church (also under Constantine's direction) of Sunday
as both the "Lord's Day" and the day for the celebration of Easter.19
The uniformity imposed on the celebration of Easter went along with the uniformity
imposed on the celebration of "the most honorable day of the sun," which
Constantine had set aside four years earlier as the weekly day of rest (C. Just.
III.12). This also contributed towards unifying the empire --under a monotheistic
sun-religion. While the movement was in the direction of Christianity, the
formulation did not exclude the cult of Sol Invictus. . . . This process, begun by
Constantine, was continued and expanded by later emperors. In 386 explicitly
religious reasons were given for reiterating Sunday as a day free of all business
(C. Theod. II.8.18). Finally in 425 the "Church Year" is legally in place: each
Sunday, plus Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost are to be solemn free
from circus, theater and other spectacles (C. Theod. XV.15.5). Even pagans in
their "stupidity" and Jews in their "madness" must conform. . . . As the empire
moved in a Christian direction, so also did the calendar, including with Christmas.
(Kraabel 1982: 279)
In the newly established Church calendar, Christmas functioned originally as a counter to
the Natalis Solis lnvicti. ("Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun'') on December 25, which
had been inserted into the Roman calendar by the emperor Aurelean in 274 following his
defeat of Palmyra the previous year (Strittmatter 1942: 613). Under Aurelean, Sol Invictus
became the supreme deity in the Roman pantheon, and the traditional day of the winter
solstice, bruma (December 25), became the Natalis Solis lnvicti, the paramount feast in
the calendar of the Empire (the sun, "born" on that day, "grew" every day thereafter). At
the same time, Aurelean dedicated a magnificent temple to the newly established
supreme god in the Campus Agrippae and formed a priestly college of senatorial rank
(perhaps a model for the College of Cardinals in the Roman Church) charged with the
responsibility of serving this new supreme deity (Strittmatter 1942: 613). Numerous
Roman gods had been associated with the sun at one time or another. Macrobius
(Saturnalia 1 17-23, c. 400) argued that Apollo, Bacchus, Mars, Mercury, Asclepius,
Hercules, Adonis, Osiris, Saturn and Jupiter had all at one time or another been identified
with the sun. However, under Aurelean, Sol Invictus became the supreme deity.
Ultimately, the emperor Julian even wrote a lengthy Hymn to King Helios during his brief
reign (361-363) (Kraabel 1982; 278).
One by one, a whole series of divinities -Apollo, whose numerous epithets are
carefully reviewed; Liber or Bacchus, Mars, Mercury, Aesculapius, Hercules,
Adonis, Osiris, Saturn, Jupiter-are identified as one deity, the Sun. It is not
insignificant that the last Pagan emperor of Rome should have left us an elaborate
panegyric on this divinity, whose spiritual offspring he believed himself to be.
(Strittmatter 1942: 613-614)
Worship of the sun eventually passed to Mithras, the new rising god who, while initially
considered Sol Invictus' ally, eventually replaced him as the paramount Roman solar
deity. As Christianity arose and competed with Mithraism for both adherents and influence
during the third and fourth centuries (with Jesus serving as Rome's most recent
incarnation of sun worship), Mithraism became a particular focus of Christian hostility.
Jesus and the Rising Sun
As Christianity spread from its Palestinian homeland into the wider Roman Empire, it
encountered numerous other religions with which it had to compete and whose beliefs it
would have had to confront or accommodate, if it was to succeed. First and foremost was
the official religion of the empire, which had shifted towards the primary worship of the
Sun at the head of a pantheon of gods, especially, as indicated above, after the emperor
Aurelian (270-275) promoted Sol Invictus to the position of a monotheistic state god and
established December 25th as the day to celebrate Sol Invictus' birth (McGowan 2012).
As the Christian Church pursued religious leadership in the Empire, it would have been
in the Church's interest to make that transition as easy as possible in order to convert
Roman pagans. Linking Jesus' birth with that of the sun would have been central to that
process. Consequently, it would have been useful to link Jesus to the sun, as was done
for several previous Roman gods (see Macrobius Saturnalia 1 17-23, op cit.). Linking
Christ with the Sun did, in fact, occur early in the development of Christian thought.
Constituting a form of solar christology, Christ was frequently represented as the sun;
indeed, among his titles was Sol iustitiae, ["Sun of Justice"] (Roselaar (2014: 204). By the
middle of the second century the term 'Sunday' replaced the former 'Lord's Day',
indicating that in Christian thought the resurrection of Christ had already become
associated with the symbolism of the sun.
Those who argue for the derivation of Christmas from Aurelian's solar festival on
the winter solstice regularly appeal to that image of Christ as Helios, driving the
chariot of the Sun across the heavens, as evidence for the identification of the date
of Christ's birth with that of the Sun. (Talley 2000: 269)
Christian tradition eventually assigned the birthdays of John the Baptist and Jesus to the
summer and winter solstices (June 24th and December 25th) respectively, having John
born on the day from which the sun decreases and Jesus born on the day from which it
increases (see Winter 1955:235, note 15). This association of John and Jesus with the
changing position of the sun continued the increasing theological linkage and
subordination of John to Jesus initiated in and elaborated through the four canonical
gospels (see Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus). The Venerable Bede (673 AD - 735 AD) in his
De temporum ratione (725), an influential medieval source for calculating Easter and
other significant dates in biblical history, more precisely defined Christian beliefs
regarding the births of Jesus and John by placing them within ancient Roman calculations
for the solstices and equinoxes. In Bede's reckoning, Jesus was conceived and crucified
on the 8th kalends of April [March 25], at the spring equinox. and born on the 8th kalends
of January (December 25th) at the winter solstice, while the Baptist was conceived at the
autumn equinox on the 8th kalends of October [September 24] and born at the summer
solstice on the 8th kalends of July [June 24] (see Nothaft 2011: 507). Nothaft (ibid.) adds
that other sources existed which also applied the symbolism of increasing and decreasing
light associated with the births of Jesus and John respectively. One source, claiming to
have been written by John Chrysostom himself, maintained that this symbolism was
already suggested in the Gospel of John (3:30) where John the Baptist, referring to Jesus,
is quoted as saying, "He must increase; I must decrease."
According to Roll (2000: 289), several early patristic writings contained references to
Jesus as representing the light or the "new sun".
The oldest extant liturgical texts for Christmas are found in the Veronensis and
include nine sets of formularies which link the themes of light and the birth of Christ.
The opening prayer for Mass at midnight in the contemporary Roman Missal,
based on the Gelasian Sacramentary, echoes the theme of Christ as light, and
implicitly the "true sun" of the world. (Roll 2000: 289)
As mentioned previously, the author of De Pascha Computus writing in 243, attempted to
link Christ's birth with that of the Sun. Ambrose (c. 339-397), bishop of Milan, described
Christ as "the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order" (McGowan 2012),
and in a Christmas sermon stated,
Well do Christian people call this holy day, on which our Lord was born, the day of
the new sun; and they assert it so insistently that even Jews and pagans agree
with them in using that name for it. We are happy to accept and maintain this view,
because with the dayspring of the Saviour, not only is the salvation of mankind
renewed, but also the splendour of the sun. (quoted in Cullmann 1956: 36)
Pope Leo the Great (440-461) also employed analogies of Jesus with light and with the
sun in several of his Christmas sermons, contrasting him to the "darkness" represented
by one or another non-Christian religions and heretical Christian sects (Roll 2000: 289).
Augustine alluded to the pagan festival of December 25th in his summons to Christians
not to worship the sun on this day, like the pagans, but him who created the sun (Cullmann
1956: 31). Similarly, in his Christmas sermon in 386, John Chrysostom, archbishop of
Constantinople, preached,
"Let us rejoice, therefore, and exult, beloved. For if John in his mother's womb
leaped at Mary's coming to Elizabeth, much more ought we, who have seen not
Mary, but our Saviour born this day to leap and exult, to marvel and stand amazed
over the magnitude of God's dispensation, which exceeds all thought. For consider
how great a thing it would be to behold the sun descended from heaven and
running about the earth, emitting hence its rays to all. But if in the case of a visible
body of light this occurrence would strike all beholders, reflect with me and
consider what it is to see the Sun of Righteousness sending forth His rays from
our flesh and illuminating our souls. (quoted in Strittmatter 1942: 600)20
Talley (2000) points out that even Constantine, who himself converted to Christianity and,
in the process, became instrumental in Christianity becoming the official religion of the
empire, made an explicit connection between Jesus and the sun.
That the emperor . . . [Constantine] . . . intended the new capital to be a clearly
Christian city did not mean that he had renounced his devotion to the Sun. At
Constantinople, the principal forum was adorned with a porphyry column upon
which stood a figure of Constantine with the attributes of Apollo. The emperor's
solar piety was evidently alive and well, but did he there, as he is said to have
done at Rome, seek to associate the nativity of Jesus with that of Sol Invictus? .
. . It seems beyond dispute that in some sense or other Constantine associated
Christ with the Sun, as had many before him on the basis of Mal 4:2. Such
identification of Christ as "Sun of Righteousness" found iconographic expression
at Rome in a famous mosaic ceiling in the tomb of the Julii in the Vatican
necropolis (Talley 2000: 268-269).21
Jesus as Helios
(Tomb of Julii, Vatican Necropolis)22
Several scholars have further argued that the adoption by the Christian Church of pagan
Roman religious practices and institutions, most importantly those associated with the
worship of the sun, was not coincidental. Several early Christian authorities were well
aware that they were adopting a traditional Roman midwinter ceremony as Jesus' birthday
and encouraged their congregation in this regard. As Cullmann (1956: 31) points out, the
numerous statements made by early ecclesiastical authorities "show that the fixing of the
festival of Christ's birth on December 25th was not done in ignorance of the pagan
significance of the day."23 Indeed, in a sermon attributed to Maximus of Turin (c. 465), the
bishop called for the explicit adoption by Christians of the Roman celebration of the birth
of the sun.
The common people do well, indeed, to call this birthday of our Lord the 'new sun,'
and make the assertion with such emphasis that Jew and Gentile find themselves
in agreement in this terminology. Let us willingly make this custom our own, for
with the Saviour's rising not only the salvation of the human race, but also the
radiance of the sun itself is renewed. (quoted in Strittmatter 1942: 616-617)
It was also not a coincidence that Sunday, named for the sun and reserved in Roman
religion for the worship of the sun, was adopted by Roman Christianity as the day to
worship Jesus and to celebrate his resurrection. Jesus replaced all previous Roman solar
deities as the personification of the sun and the one god integral to the emergence of the
Christian calendar, which completely replaced the previously dominant Imperial calendar.
The Sun God was then the official supreme deity of the empire taken over by
Constantine. The Christmas festival was inaugurated with the ''triumph of
Christianity," to supplant this cult of the sun with another. From the Christian side,
this process was aided by prior developments in christology including the
application of the term ''Sun of Righteousness" (Mal. 4:2) to Christ. The earliest
instance is apparently in chap. XI of_ the Protreptikos of Clement of Alexandria,
who died ca. 215. It occurs in a passage from de Pascha Computus (AD 243)
quoted at the beginning of this essay. It is then frequently in Origen and later
writers. When these texts are put together with others which use sol or helios of
Christ without direct reference to the Malachi text, it becomes clear that a kind of
solar christology was developing which could be pointed in the same direction as
the cosmic piety represented by Sol Invictus. (see Strittmatter, pp. 614-617). . . .
What happened to December 25, however, is a good deal more than the
replacement of one sun-god or sun-festival with another. What was done was not
only to change a single holiday but rather to impose the essentials of an entire
Christian calendar on the Roman empire. (Kraabel 1982: 278)
At the same time, while several early Christian leaders actively borrowed the traditional
Roman mid-winter ceremony to serve as the celebration of the birth of Christ, some
expressed concern regarding the incomplete separation of the two festivals.
Admonitions like those of Augustine and Pope Leo had now clearly become
necessary, for this deeply-rooted pagan festival of the 'unconquered sun god' did
not, in fact, simply disappear, but persisted in many practices which passed over
into the Christian festival. So when Christmas was separated from another
Christian festival, that of Christ's baptism, it fell under the influence of a pagan one.
At first this influence was felt in Christian customs. We learn, for instance, from a
Syrian theologian that Christians also now began the practice of lighting bon fires
on this day. (Cullmann 1956: 32)24
Pagan Romans had also introduced the mid-winter holiday of Saturnalia into the annual
calendar, which was celebrated from December 17-25. Throughout this celebration,
Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished
for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The
festival began when Roman authorities chose "an enemy of the Roman people" to
represent the "Lord of Misrule." Each Roman community selected a victim whom
they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At
the festival's conclusion (December 25th), Roman authorities believed they were
destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or
woman. (Judaism Online).25
During the 4th century, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival in an effort to convert
the pagan masses. Christians had little success, however, in refining the practices of
Saturnalia. According to Nissenbaum (1997: 4),
In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior's birth
by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow
the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.26
The scholarly consensus today, then, is that the celebration of Jesus' birth was moved to
December 25th in order to both counteract and accommodate pagan beliefs and practices,
most notably the Roman celebration of the Dies natalis solis invicti, the annual ritual
celebrating the rebirth of the Sun (the winter solstice). By celebrating Jesus' birth on
December 25th, and placing it within its holy calendar, the Church effectively replaced
and co-opted a pre-existing pagan holiday that was embedded within the former Imperial
Roman calendar. In the process, the Church associated Jesus with a whole variety of
attributes (most notably his association with the sun, his representation of the victory of
light over darkness, and his purported miraculous birth) that had been attributed to
existing (and competing) pagan high gods, most notably Sol Invictus and Mithras, the
most recent personifications of Imperial Rome's paramount god. It is also clear that
Church leaders were well aware of the adaptations they were promoting.
Several sources have over the centuries acknowledged that the Roman celebration of the
birth of the sun served as the basis for choosing December 25th to commemorate the
birth of Jesus. A note inserted into a manuscript written by the Syrian, Dionysius Bar-
Salibi, in the late 12th century (apparently by someone other than Dionysius) offered the
following explanation for why the Nativity is celebrated on December 25th.
The Lord was born in the month of January, on the day on which we celebrate the
Epiphany; for the ancients observed the Nativity and the Epiphany on the same
day. . . . The reason for which the Fathers transferred the said solemnity from the
sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December is, it is said, the following: it was
the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same day of the twenty-fifth of
December the feast of the birth of the sun. To adorn the solemnity, they had the
custom of lighting fires and they invited even the Christian people to take part in
these rites. When, therefore, the Doctors noted that the Christians were won over
to this custom, they decided to celebrate the feast of the true birth on this same
day; the sixth of January they made to celebrate the Epiphany. They have kept this
custom until today with the rite of the lighted fire. (see Roll 2000: 280)
The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston offered a similar explanation in 1687.
The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so
thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens' Saturnalia
was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays
metamorphosed into Christian ones.27
In fact, it was its link to paganism, in particular the celebratory excesses associated with
the holiday, that resulted in strong Puritan opposition to the celebration of Christmas. In
his An Anatomie of Abuses (1583), Phillip Stubbes, an English Pamphleteer, wrote
That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what
masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is
committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what ban- quetting
and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour
of God and impoverishing of the realm. (Durston 1985: 8)
The observance of Christmas was generally banned by the Puritans and was even made
illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681, due to its perceived pagan origins (see
Kraabel 1982: 279; Nissenbaum 1987: 3). According to Kraabel (ibid.), classes were not
cancelled in Boston public schools on December 25th, and "any student staying home to
celebrate Christmas was severely punished."
A second and equally important basis for the deep-seated Puritan objection to the
celebration of Christmas was the holiday's association with the Roman Catholic Church.
In its First Book of Discipline, published in 1561, the newly founded Kirk ("Church") of
Scotland rejected those holidays not present in the Scriptures, which they considered
"Papist" inventions. It listed Christmas among the many
holy dayis of certane Sanctis commandit by man, suche as be all those that the
Papistis have invented . . . [and which] . . . becaus in Goddis Scripturis thai nather
have commandiment nor assurance, we juge thame utterlie to be abolischet from
this Realme. (Laing 1846-64: 185-186; quoted in Nothaft 2011: 504)
The prolific Pamphleteer, William Prynne (1633), also denounced Christmas as a Papist
repackaging of ancient Roman rites.
If any here demaund, by whom these Saturnalia, these disorderly Christmasses &
Stageplayes were first brought in among the Christians? I answer that the
paganizing Priests and Monks of popish (the same with the heathen Rome) were
the chiefe Agents of this worke. (quoted in Nothaft 2011: 521)
The Puritan "War on Christmas" (see Durston 1985, 1996) was inextricably connected to
the English Civil War (1642-1651), which pitted Protestants against Catholics. According
to Durston (ibid.: 8-9),
The celebration of Christmas thus became just one facet of a deep religious
cleavage within early seventeenth-century England which, by the middle of the
century, was to lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and
revolution. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they
made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw
the customs associated with it . . .
Western vs. Eastern Dates for the Nativity
Church leaders in the late 4th century had to employ considerable pressure throughout
the eastern empire to get Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.
Significant local opposition existed to the imposed date, due in large part to the fact that
the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, already held a traditional place in the eastern
liturgical calendar as the feast of the Incarnation (Roll 2000: 276). While John Chrysostom
succeeded in establishing the December 25th date in Constantinople in 379 CE, and
shortly thereafter in Cappadocia and Syria (Strittmatter 1942: 604), other churches
throughout the eastern empire resisted. Egypt (Alexandria) did not capitulate until 431
CE.28 The Church in Palestine held out even longer; it was not until the middle of the 6th
century that the Jerusalem Church abandoned its opposition to the December 25th date
(Cullmann 1956: 33; Kraabel 1982: 277). The Armenian Church completely refused to
adopt the new date and continues to celebrate both the Nativity and Baptism on January
6th.29 Significantly, the January 6th birth date was rationalized in the East using the same
theological arithmetic as was employed to justify the December 25th date in the West.
January 6th is 9 months after April 6th, which was in the East regarded as the date of
Jesus' conception and crucifixion (Cullmann 1956: 22).
The celebration of Jesus' birth on January 6th long pre-dated that of December 25th. The
January 6th date was celebrated throughout the eastern empire, including in Palestine,
the very land where Jesus lived. The Gnostic followers of Basilides were celebrating the
birth of Jesus on January 6th as early as the 2nd century, and likely before 160 (Kraabel
1982: 275). January 6th was still being celebrated as Jesus' birth date in the mid-4th
century in Gaul and in Spain, and there is no evidence for the celebration of the nativity
on December 25th in Gaul before 400 (Strittmatter 1942: 609). According to Cullmann
(1956: 25-26), an early 4th century Egyptian papyrus exists, which is "the oldest
Christmas liturgy we possess, and in it Christmas is still observed on the night of January
5th-6th." The papyrus contains the liturgical formula for a church choir celebrating the feast
of the Epiphany on January 5th-6th, the date when Jesus' baptism in the Jordan was
celebrated. However, a segment of the papyrus contains instructions for that part of the
festival celebrating Jesus' birth and includes an account of the birth in Bethlehem, the
flight to Egypt, and the return to Nazareth.
January 6th was, thus, celebrated quite differently in the eastern and western churches.
Whereas only the story of the star and the visitation of the Magi was observed on that
date by the Roman Church (Cullmann 1956: 26),30 Jesus' birth, his baptism, the visitation
of the magi, and the wedding feast of Cana were all celebrated on January 6th in the
eastern church. At the same time, in Gaul and Spain January 6th was the day to
commemorate the Nativity, the Baptism, and Miracle of Cana and even, at times, the
Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes (Kraabel 1982: 275). Furthermore, Strittmatter notes
that, while the Roman mass book for January 6th only celebrates the visitation of the
Magi, the Baptism and the Miracle of Cana are both mentioned in the Breviary, where
Stanzas 8, 9, 11, & 12 of Sedulius' hymn, A solis ortus cardine sung at Vespers concern
the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, and the miracle of Cana (Strittmatter
1942: 626, note 93).31
The feast of the Epiphany was celebrated with great splendor in Palestine. According to
Cullmann (1956: 27-28),
The well-known account by the noble pilgrim Aetheria (Egeria), who spent 3 years
in Palestine.* She could not find words adequate to describe the magnificence of
the of the festival. She tells how all, along with the bishop, repair in solemn
procession to Bethlehem on the night of January 5th-6th in order to hold a service
at night in the cave where Jesus was supposed to have been born. Before
daybreak, the whole procession moved off to Jerusalem. As January 6th dawns,
they reach Jerusalem and enter the Church of the Resurrection, whose interior is
illuminated with thousands of candles. They depart the church and reassemble by
* Etherie, , "Sources chretiennes," Journal de Voyage. Paris 1948, p. 203 ff.
Cullmann (1956: 27) also notes that the Syrian Church Father, Ephraem (306-373) called
the January 5-th-6th festival the most sublime of Christian festivals and stated that on the
eve of January 6th every house was decked with garlands. According to Cullmann (ibid.),
Ephraem rejoiced at the nocturnal festival.
"The night is here" he says, "the night which has given peace to the universe! Who
would sleep on this night when the whole world is awake!"
According to Ephraem, the evening festival celebrated the birth of Christ, including the
adoration of the shepherds and the appearance of the star, while the following day was
dedicated to the adoration of the magi and to the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. (ibid.)
The whole creation proclaims,
The Magi proclaim,
The star proclaims:
Behold, the king's son is here!
The heavens are opened,
The waters of Jordan sparkle,
The dove appears:
This is my beloved son!
An important element in the conflict over celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25th vs.
January 6th concerned the issue of when Christ became incarnate. The Orthodox
(Roman) view was that the human and the divine came together in Jesus at his birth.
Early Gnostics, on the other hand, believed that Christ first appeared on earth at Jesus'
baptism, which they celebrated as the Epiphany, from the Greek epihaneia ("appearing").
The feast originally had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus as told in the gospels of
Matthew and Luke, but rather relied on Mark's gospel in which the divine spirit first enters
Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1: 10-11).32
The notion that Christ "appeared" instead of being born was a widespread belief among
early Christians. Gnostic Christian texts virtually eliminate any belief in a human origin for
Jesus. For Gnostics, Christ was a spirit who inhabited a human body, not the body itself.
It is also significant that no birth story exists in the Gospel of John, which states simply,
"In the beginning was the Word . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us"
(see John 1: 1-14). Similarly, in the second-century Protevangelium of James, the infant
Jesus first appears in a bright cloud.
And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud
overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this
day, because mine eyes have seen strange things -- because salvation has been
brought forth to Israel. immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a
great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that
light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast
from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to
me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the
cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange
sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth -- a thing which her nature admits
not of. (Protevangelium of James: 19)33
Gnostic belief in the exclusive spirituality of Jesus' existence (Docetism) led many Gnostic
Christians to adopt the Egyptian god Osiris' birth as a model for the birth of Jesus. Osiris'
birth was celebrated on January 6 and was marked by a heavenly voice crying, "The Lord
of all comes forth into the light" (Plutarch. Os. 355 E.; quoted in Kraabel 1982: 275).
Hippolytus reported on Basilides' version of the Christmas story,
The light came down from the Seven upon Jesus the son of Mary, and he was
illuminated and set on fire by the light which shown upon him. (ibid.)
This belief stood in direct conflict with the Imperial Roman Church, which fought against
Arianism, Nestorianism, Gnosticism and all other forms of Docetism. At the Council of
Nicaea (325), the Church established Jesus' humanity as canonical, declared any form
of docetism as heretical, and expressly denounced any doctrine which denied that Jesus
became incarnate at his birth. The Council of Constantinople (381) reaffirmed the
declarations made at Nicaea and established as canonical the Trinitarian doctrine
proclaiming the equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, finalizing the Church's
doctrinal position on the humanity of Jesus.
The January 6th date had other precedents in pagan ritual. As previously discussed, early
Christians associated Jesus with the sun and with the bringing of light to the world (cf.
Matt 5: 14; John 8: 12, 9: 5, 11: 9; 2 Corinthians 4: 4). This facilitated Jesus' replacement
of Sol/Mithras in the December 25th nativity celebration in Rome. The concept of light
played a central role in the celebration of Jesus' birth on January 6th as well. A feast of
Dionysus (son of Zeus), associated with the lengthening of the day was celebrated on
January 6th (Cullmann 1956: 25). January 6th was also the date on which the lengthening
of the days was celebrated by pagans in Alexandria at the birth of Aeon to the maiden,
Kore (Cullmann 1956: 28). Strittmatter (1942: 618-619) describes in detail an Egyptian
ceremony honoring the virgin birth of Aeon on this date and indicates that similar
celebrations took place elsewhere, including at Petra and Elousa.
In addition, on the night before January 6th the waters of the Nile were believed to possess
special miraculous powers (Cullmann 1956: 25). Strittmatter (1942: 621-623) states that
Pagans, Christians and Jews all celebrated January 6th with a ritual dedicated to its
"Magical Water." Plutarch linked this ritual to the cult of Osiris. Both Pliny the Elder, and
Pausanias describe a fountain in the temple of Dionysus on the island of Andros from
which wine gushed forth on the feast of the god on the Nones (the 5th of January).
Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis, Cyprus (365-403) and a native of Palestine, claimed
that the ritual celebrated the miracle of Cana in which Jesus changed water into wine.
John Chrysostom, on the other hand, asserted that it commemorated Jesus' baptism,
which by "His descent into the Jordan, Christ hallowed the waters." The fact that
Epiphanius and Chrysostom offered conflicting explanations of the same ritual suggests
the ritual pre-dated its Christian application. The ritual's pre-Christian origin is further
suggested by the fact that the blessing of the waters, which was to become such a
conspicuous feature of the liturgy of this feast, is not mentioned by any Christian writer
before the fourth century (ibid.).
By choosing January 6th to celebrate several significant events in the life of Jesus, most
notably his birth, the Egyptian Church gained the same result as that achieved by the
Roman Church through its celebration of Jesus' birth on December 25th. It co-opted and
replaced an important and deeply embedded pagan festival in order to promote Jesus as
the new universal god. The only difference is that, because the Roman and Alexandrian
churches had to accommodate distinct pre-existing pagan beliefs and practices in their
respective regions, the Roman Church celebrated Jesus' birth on December 25th, while
the Egyptian Church commemorated it on January 6th.
The celebration of different dates for the birth of Jesus became one of the doctrinal issues
that divided the early Church. The Roman Church had a theological need to separate the
Nativity from the Epiphany; by enforcing the December 25th date, the Roman Church not
only co-opted a Roman pagan festival, it also negated the legitimacy of the January 6th
celebrations and, by extension, the authority of the Alexandria Church. which led the
opposition to the Roman Church's quest for political and ecclesiastical hegemony (see
Baynes 1926; Hardy 1946). Many Christian communities fought the imposition of Roman
orthodoxy, causing major rifts within the Church, one part of which involved the
celebration of Jesus' birth.34 These rifts resulted in substantial, frequently violent conflicts
between competing Christian communities, especially during the fourth and fifth
centuries. Numerous sources examine the political conflict that raged among competing
factions in the early Church and the extent to which that competition resulted in violent
confrontations and the calling of ecumenical councils by opposing factions in order to
counter the rulings of councils called by their opponents. (see Baynes 1926; Bauer 1934;
Jones 1959; Betz 1965; Frend 1972; Grant 1975; Gregory 1979; Jenkins 2011; Palmer
2014). Several sources specifically examine the conflict between the Eastern Church (led
by Alexandria) and the Western Church, centered initially in Rome and later in
Constantinople (see Baynes 1926; Hardy 1946; Haas 1991; Jenkins 2011: passim). Bart
Ehrman (1993) provides a skillful analysis of how the theological controversies that
plagued the early Church resulted in the Roman (Orthodox) Church altering the original
meanings of several New Testament texts to more closely support its theology over that
of competing factions within the Church, "corruptions" that have survived to the present
day as canonical New Testament scripture.
As indicated, a significant focus of this conflict centered around the competition between
the patriarchates of Alexandria and Constantinople, which served as the principal
representatives for Eastern and Western Christianity respectively (Baynes 1926; Hardy
1946; MacCulloch 2009: 215-240).35 The Egyptian Church was the leader of the
monophysite faction in the monophysite-miaphysite controversy36 that divided the Church
into frequently violent, mutually opposing factions during the 5th century. Murder,
assassination and clergy-led mob violence were all part of the turbulence that
characterized the 5th century (see Frend 1972). In this ecclesiastical conflict,
monophysitism served as a fundamental ideological identifier of Egyptian opposition to
Roman rule. Conflict over competing dates for the birth of Christ would have been
subsumed within this larger theological debate, and as the Western (Roman) Church
defeated the Eastern Church for supremacy within the empire, its dating of Jesus' birth
won out over that promoted by the Egyptian Church. The Third Canon of the Council of
Constantinople (360) had raised the see at Constantinople to the second position in the
Church, after that of Rome, since Constantinople was now the "new Rome", i.e., the new
capital of the empire. The intensity of the conflict between the two competing patriarchs
(Chrysostom and Theophilus) reached such a peak that both attempted to have the other
declared a heretic.
The Council of Chalcedon (451), marked the final victory for the patriarch of
Constantinople over Alexandria, and thus the supremacy of the Western Church and its
theology. Dioscorus, the existing Patriarch of Alexandria, was deposed by the Council
and replaced by Proterius, chosen by Constantinople. This victory of Constantinople and
its theology produced a violent reaction in Alexandria.
Nothing could secure the real acceptance at Alexandria of a bishop imposed from
without after the deposition of their own Patriarch. The imperial emissaries found
the city in full revolt and lost two thousand men to the insurgents; only
reinforcements sent post haste from Constantinople were able to establish
Proterius uneasily on the patriarchal throne. (Hardy 1946: 92-93)
Proterius' tenure as the Patriarch of Alexandria did not last very long. He was lynched in
the baptistery of the Caesareum in 457 (Hardy 1946: 93), and his body torn to pieces by
an Alexandrian mob (Frend 1972: 26).
Gradually, however, the Roman Church's power and its Orthodox theology came to
dominate the empire, most notably following the Theodosius' edict in 381 proclaiming
(Roman) Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This put the full force
of the Empire behind the Roman Church in its battle to define and control Christian
orthodoxy (see Kraabel 1982:277-279). The Church's eventual hegemony within the
empire and its elimination of most competing Christian factions was thereafter assured
by the support it would receive from successive Roman (and later Byzantine) emperors
(cf. Luibheid 1965; Cleve 1988). The celebration of Jesus' birth on December 25, thus,
spread outwards from Rome until it replaced the January 6th celebration throughout most
of Christendom.
1. McGowan (2012) maintains that Easter was originally celebrated as a Jewish Christian
reinterpretation of Passover, becoming a distinctly Christian feast by the mid-second century
CE where an "apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his
disciples to 'make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.'"
2. Neither Matthew's nor Luke's birth narratives has any historical validity. They are theological,
not historical, documents (see Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus; When Was Jesus Born?)
3. Many contemporary Christians, including the late Joseph Fitzmyer SJ (former Professor of
Biblical Studies at the Catholic University, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and
president of the Catholic Biblical Association) have placed Jesus' birth on September 11, 3
BCE (cf. When Was Jesus Born. Bible Says Septembeer 11, 3 BC). Fitzmyer's comment on
the date of Jesus' birth is contained In the Catholic Church's official commentary on the New Testament.
4. Tertullian (Adversus ludaees c. 207 CE) is the earliest known author to assign March 25 as
the day of Christ's death (Cullmann 1942: 612, note 41).
5. The Donatists were a Christian sect that emerged in Rome's Africa Province (North Africa)
following the persecutions of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian (303-305 CE), and which
persisted for a little more than a century. The Donatists were followers of bishop Donatus
Magnus, who first appeared in Church records in 313 CE as Donatus of Casae Nigrae. At that
time, Pope Miltiades pronounced him guilty of re-baptizing clergy who had lapsed and of
forming a schism within the Church. The Donatists were highly critical of the Church for
readmitting Christians who renounced their faith during the Diocletian persecutions. The
Donatists contended that such traditores could not be reinstated without being re-baptized
and re-ordained. They also refused to accept the legitimacy of sacraments performed by
traditore priests and bishops readmitted into the Church until they had been both re-baptized
and re-ordained. The Catholic Church continues to refer to Donatism as a significant, if
somewhat short-lived, schism within the Church (see Catholic Encyclopedia).
6. Cullmann (1956: 29, note 13) argues that Augustine's criticism of the Donatists failure to
observe January 6th does not imply that they celebrated Christ's birthday on December 25th.
7. Ab Urbe Condita (AUC), "from the founding of the city" [Rome], 722 BCE in the modern
calendar. All Roman dates were calculated AUC. The year, 743 AUC, corresponded to 11
BCE in the modern calendar.
8. December 25th became the accepted date for the birth of Jesus in the western Roman Empire
only. January 6th was retained in the east for many years, where it was not originally
associated with the magi alone, but with the entire nativity story (see discussion below).
9. According to Roll (2000: 273), these two alternative explanations have persisted at least since
a debate on the topic was organized by the Abt-Herwegen-Institut in 1949, though with less
competitive and mutual exclusiveness than initially presented. The debate, according to Roll
(2000: 273-274) has demonstrated a somewhat nationalist orientation, with American and
Anglo-Saxon scholars tending to support the liturgical explanation and German and other
Continental scholars generally preferring the historical explanation.
10. According to McGowan (2012), Augustine in his sermon On the Trinity (Sermon 202, c. 399-
419) wrote,
For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day
also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of
mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was
never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon
December the 25th.
11. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, writing before he became Pope Benedict XVI, supported the
liturgical view in his Spirit of the Liturgy (Ratzinger 2000: 107-109).
12. The full text:
The Astronomical Theory
Duchesne (Les origines du culte chrŽtien, Paris, 1902, 262 sqq.) advances the
"astronomical" theory that, given 25 March as Christ's death-day [historically impossible,
but a tradition old as Tertullian (Adv. Jud., 8)], the popular instinct, demanding an exact
number of years in a Divine life, would place His conception on the same date, His birth 25
December. This theory is best supported by the fact that certain Montanists (Sozomen,
Church History VII.18) kept Easter on 6 April; both 25 December and 6 January are thus
simultaneously explained. The reckoning, moreover, is wholly in keeping with the
arguments based on number and astronomy and "convenience", then so popular.
Unfortunately, there is no contemporary evidence for the celebration in the fourth century
of Christ's conception on 25 March.
13. Neville (2000: 7) also asks, "If we're numbering years according to the life of Jesus, why don't
we celebrate New Year's Eve with Christ's birth on December 25, or with the date of his
conception on March 25 (which also coincides with the arrival of Spring)? As it happened,
both of these dates were popular days for celebrating the beginning of the New Year
throughout the Middle Ages. January 1 only became universally recognized as New Year's
Day with the general adoption of the Gregorian calendar.
14. The 4th and 5th centuries were a period of intense and frequently violent conflict within the
Church regarding such fundamental Christian beliefs as the divinity of Jesus and the virginity
of Mary. Numerous ecclesiastical councils were called in which opposing factions alternately
established their beliefs as official Church doctrine. (see Jenkins 2011; Gregory 1979; Grant
1975, see Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus, note 6).
15. Numerous religions originating throughout the far-flung reaches of the empire were to have a
significant impact on Christian beliefs. As the capitol of the largest empire in the ancient world,
Rome became a magnet attracting large numbers of people from a diversity of regions and
cultures. As a result, many of the empire's religions competed with one other there for
followers. In the process, they frequently adopted each other’s beliefs and practices.
Rome was the hub of the empire, the natural centre for anyone with a message to spread
--which was of course why the Apostles Peter and Paul made their way there in the first
place. Early Christianity jostled for space cheek and jowl with the other blossoming new
religions of empire, a fact graphically illustrated by the presence of Mithraic shrines under
the ancient churches of San Clemente and Santa Prisca. (Duffy 1997: 11)
The centripetal pull of Rome for a wide variety of religious beliefs, including Christianity, was
disparaged at the time by Tacitus (Annals 15.44) in his discussion of Nero's persecution of
Christians for the burning of Rome in 64 CE.
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their
abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its
origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our
procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the
moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome,
where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and
become popular (emphasis added).
16. The belief in miraculous births was quite common in the ancient world (see Abruzzi, When
Was Jesus Born?). Many gods and heroes were believed to have been born either through a
divinely conceived virgin birth or as the result of the impregnation of a human female by a
male god. Such beliefs were attributed to Romulus, one of the mythical founders of Rome,
Mithras the ancient Persian god; Krishna, a supreme god in the Hindu pantheon, and Horus,
the patron god of ancient Egypt, to name but a few. The Egyptian sun god RA was believed
to have been born of a virgin, while Mutemua, the virgin queen of Egypt purportedly gave birth
to the Pharaoh Amenhotep III as a result of a god holding a cross to her mouth. Genghis
Khan, the founder of the Mongolian Empire, was also believed to have been born of a virgin,
while Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor during whose reign Jesus was born, was
believed to have been the offspring of a union between his mother and Apollo. Similarly, in
Greek mythology, while Perseus' mother, Danae, was locked away as a young girl to prevent
her from having children, Zeus appeared to her in the form of a shower of gold and
impregnated her.
Numerous biblical scholars have even commented on the extraordinary similarity of
circumstance and language surrounding the conceptions of Isaac to Sarah (Gen. 17: 15-19),
of Samson to Manoah's unnamed wife (Judges 13), of Jacob and Esau to Rebecca (Gen.
25:20), of Joseph to Rachel (Gen. 30:22-24) and of John the Baptist to Elizabeth (Luke 1:7)
to that of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). All of these births focused on women incapable of
conception due either to virginity or infertility, whose pregnancy resulted from divine action.
Similarly, a belief in Deities who, like Jesus, died and were resurrected was also quite
widespread in the ancient world, including: Tammuz and Ishtar in Sumerian and Akkadian
mythology; Bel in Babylonian mythology; Baal in Canaanite mythology; Horus, Osiris and
Amun in Egyptian mythology; Adonis, Cronus, Cybele, Dionysus, Orpheus and Persephone
in Greek mythology; Brahma, Vishnu and Siva in Hindu Mythology; Mithras in Persian
mythology; and Aeneas, Bacchus and Prosperina in Roman mythology.
If Jesus was to be accepted as a credible god in the ancient world, he would have to have
possessed at least the characteristics of the other gods and heroes with whom he had to
17. As with Jesus, Alexander the Great’s birth was accompanied by magical elements.
Alexander's father was Philip of Macedonia, and his mother was Olympias. According to
Plutarch, Philip was a descendant of Heracles, the son of Zeus. Alexander's mother was
Olympias. Philip and Olympias each had separate dreams the night before Alexander was
conceived. Olympias dreamed "that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunder-bolt fell
upon her womb." Philip dreamed that he placed "a seal upon his wife's womb; and the device
of the seal, as he thought, was the figure of a lion." However, Philip saw a divine serpent
sleeping with Olympias, which he interpreted as a sign that he should not sleep with his wife,
"because he feared that some spells and enchantments might be practised upon him by her,
or because he shrank for her embraces in the conviction that she was the partner of a superior
being." In other words, Olympias was not impregnated by Philip, but by a divine being.
18. Sibling rivalry is portrayed frequently in the myths of founding fathers and is a common motif
in epic literature. Romulus killed his brother Remus and became the first king and founder of
the city of Rome, just as as Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4: 1-16), and as Jacob stole the birthright
from Esau (Genesis 27).
19. No supreme authority existed in Christianity until the fourth century when Constantine and
later Theodosius I promoted the position of the Church in the empire. Prior to this, Christians
were divided into numerous competing sects, promoting many different and conflicting
gospels and beliefs about Jesus (cf. Bauer 1934; Pagels 1979; Bescov 1983; Robinson 1984;
Hedrick 2002 Hedrick 2002; Ehrman 2003a, 2003b; Carrier 2014). One issue of note that
divided early Christians was the date for the celebration of Easter. Churches in Asia Minor
celebrated Easter on the Jewish Passover (14th of Nissan), whether or not it fell on a Sunday.
Roman Christians, on the other hand, celebrated Easter every Sunday and had not yet
developed a separate annual commemoration. As Christians from Asia Minor settled in Rome,
they continued to observe Easter on Passover, setting themselves apart from Roman
Christians and from those in the West generally. Victor, the first Latin bishop of Rome (189-
198 CE), was determined to assert Roman authority and excommunicated all Christian
churches not celebrating Easter on the Sunday after Passover. Victor's actions may be seen
as early steps in the process of establishing Roman authority throughout Christianity. It was
not, however, until the Council of Nicaea (325) that the Asian churches abandoned the
celebration of Easter on 14 Nissan (see Frend 1982: 75-76; Duffy 1997: 9-16).
20. According to Strittmatter 1942: 616), the earliest application of the term, "Sun of
Righteousness" to Jesus was by Clement of Alexandria (c. 215-216). He adds that by the
beginning of the third century, sol iustitiae, (Sun of Justice - Latin) elios dikaiosynes, (Sun of
Justice - Greek) was used by Christian teachers and preachers as a formal designation of
21. While Talley acknowledges the connection made between Jesus and the sun in early
Christianity, as already mentioned, he is a strong proponent of a liturgical explanation for the
celebration of the Nativity on December 25th and is highly critical of the solar/pagan origin
theory of Christmas.
Those who argue for the derivation of Christmas from Aurelian's solar festival on the winter
solstice regularly appeal to that image of Christ as Helios, driving the chariot of the Sun
across the heavens, as evidence for the identification of the date of Christ's birth with that
of the Sun. In fact, although it clearly identifies Christ and the Sun, that mosaic has no more
connection with the winter solstice itself than does the very similar central rondel of the
zodiac floor mosaic at Beth Alpha. (Talley 2000: 269; see also pp. 271-272)
22. This particular mosaic, which is dated to the late 3rd or early 4th centuries, is located on the
ceiling in the Tomb of Julli (Mausoleum "M") in the necropolis beneath St. Peter's Basilica.
Disagreement exists regarding whether it represents the sun god Helios (Sol Invictus) riding
a chariot or Christ possessing the attributes of the sun god with an aureole riding his chariot
framed by rinceaux of vine leaves based on the Gospel of John (15:1): "I am the true vine,
and my Father is the vinedresser." The existence of other mosaics in the same tomb,
"depicting Jonah and the whale, the good shepherd carrying a lamb, . . . and fishermen have
encouraged its interpretation as a Christian tomb." (Wikipedia)
23. According to McGowan (2012), Christians were initially slow to adopt pagan practices,
especially during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian (303-312), but became more
open to embracing these practices during the 4th century. He even states that Pope Gregory
the Great "in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended
that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan
festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs." Indeed, many Mithraic temples were
either converted to Christian churches or served as the physical foundation upon which
Christian churches were built once Christianity replaced Mithraism as the official religion of
the Roman Empire.
24. See Wilkinson (1981), Egeria's Travels in the Holy land, p. 275.
25. Some of the more egregious customs of the Saturnalia carnival were revived by the Catholic
Church in 1466 when, for the amusement of the Roman populace, Pope Paul II forced Jews
to race naked through the streets of the city as part of the Carnival celebration that took place
to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. According to one contemporary account,
Races were run on each of the eight days of the Carnival by horses, asses and buffaloes,
old men, lads, children and Jews. Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as
to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for
spectators. They ran from the Arch of Domitian to the Church of St. Mark at the end of the
Corso at full tilt, amid Rome's taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father
stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily. (quoted in Kertzer 2001:74)
This specific treatment of Jews during Carnival continued for two centuries until they were
ended by Clement IX (1667-1669). However, other equally degrading practices were
continued. Rabbis of the ghetto in Rome "were forced to wear clownish outfits and march
through the city streets to the jeers of the crowd, pelted by a variety of missiles" (Kertzer 2001:
33, 74). Such practices were not limited to Rome. The carnival celebration In Pisa during the
18th century included the custom of students chasing after the fattest Jew in the city, capturing
him, weighing him, and forcing him to give them his weight in sugar-coated almonds (ibid: 74-
75). When in 1836 the Jewish community of Rome sent a formal request to Pope Gregory XVI
to end such rites, he responded, "It is not opportune to make any innovation" (ibid: 75).
26. Accordingly. the earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence,
singing naked in the streets [a precursor of modern caroling] ("The History of Christmas."
Judaism Online).
27. Increase Mather, A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now
Practiced by Some in New England (London, 1687), p. 35. (quoted in "The History of
Christmas," Judaism Online.)
28. According to Strittmatter (1942: 604-605), John Cassian, a close disciple of John Chrysostom,
spent ten years in Egypt between 385 and 400. He later wrote (between 420-428) that there
was at that time still only one feast celebrated in Egypt, claimed by some to be Jesus' birth
and by others to be his baptism. He was very explicit that there were not two distinct feasts,
as in the West. Ten years later, he noted that the situation had changed.
29. According to Kraabel (1982: 277), an Armenian lectionary which reflects the services in
Jerusalem during the first half of the fifth century, notes that December 25 is the
Commemoration of James and David, though it does state that "during this day in other cities
they keep the Birth of Christ." Kraabel (ibid.: 280, note 17) later indicates that "David" refers
to King David, and "James" originally to the patriarch Jacob and later to James the Just, the
first bishop of Jerusalem (referred to as "The Lord's Brother" by Paul). Kraabel believes that
December 25 was a major festival that served as a kind of "Founders' Day" for the Jerusalem
Church, In the Iectionary the Nativity and Epiphany are celebrated on January 6 with an
afternoon service at the Shepherds' Cave (Lk. 2:8-20) and a reading of Mt. 1 :18-25 at the
Cave of the Nativity (ibid.)
30. In a sermon preached during the reign of the emperor Julian (361 to 363), who sought to re-
impose Roman polytheism, Bishop Optatus of Milevis in Numidia [in present-day Algeria]
encouraged his congregation to persist in the face of persecution by citing the example of the
martyrdom of the Holy Innocents under Herod (Roll 2000: 276). According to Roll (ibid.), the
significance of this sermon for the introduction of the Christmas feast lies in its
linking of the key nativity narrative, the coming of the Magi (which had not yet been
separated out and assigned as the lection for the western feast of the Epiphany) and the
seldom-used story of the massacre of the innocents, together with the dating of the feast
in December in northern Africa.
31. In many regions of the West, January 6th was the day on which many catechumens were
publicly baptized (Strittmatter 1942: 624). Rome, however, eventually forbade the practice.
32. This is not the only instance in which the very meaning of a holy day associated with the
celebration of Jesus' birth changed over time. Inspired by the nativity story as told in the
second-century Protevangelium of James, the church of the Kathisma of the Theotokos ("Seat
of the God-Bearer") was constructed some three miles north of Bethlehem to mark the place
where Mary paused to give birth to Jesus during her trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The
interpretation of this church changed following the later construction of the Church of the
Nativity in Bethlehem built to mark the purported site of Jesus' birth in that town. Once the
official celebration of the nativity began at the Bethlehem Church, the interpretation of the
Kathisma Church changed from celebrating Jesus' birth to commemorating the holy
family's flight to Egypt (see Shoemaker 2001, 2003; Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus), even
though the church is situated several miles north of Bethlehem and, thus, not on an
expeditious route for a family fleeing to Egypt in order to escape the slaughter of
children by Herod's soldiers. The site of the Kathisma Church was still being visited in
the late 6th century (see discussion of the Piacenza Pilgrim, composed between 560-
570: Shoemaker 2003: 22; Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus.
In order to understand the evolution and diversity of Christmas beliefs and practices
in the early Church, it is important to note that, not just the celebration, but the very
meaning of Christmas has varied significantly as its has been imported into
significantly different social and cultural contexts. One need only look at the
contemporary celebration of Christmas around the world to see how its meaning and
form have changed in response to fundamental changes in the social and economic
foundations of various modern societies.
Just as December 25th, the celebration of the birth of the Sun (Sol Invictus/Mithras) became
transformed into Christmas, the birth date of Jesus as a result of changing social and
political conditions in ancient Rome, Christmas today has evolved into quite a different
phenomena in modern secular societies. It has become so strongly associated with
consumption in modern industrial societies that it is celebrated as a day associated with
the purchasing and giving of gifts, not just in the U.S. and other western "Christian"
societies, but also in Japan, China and elsewhere which are not Christian. (Kraabel 1982:
33. The Protevangelium of James is the earliest written document describing Jesus' birth in a
cave, though other contemporary accounts provide evidence that such a belief was
widespread (see Kraabel 1982: 276). Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, also
mentions such a cave in his Diologue 78. Origen (184-253) claimed that he both visited the
cave and saw the manger in which Jesus was placed during his visit to the Holy Land some
75 years later. So important was the cave story to early Christians that when Constantine
decided to build three churches in Palestine, he had them all built over pre-Christian "sacred
caves." (Eusebius I.C. 1X.17). In a letter to Paulinus of Nola, Jerome (Epistle 58: 3) stated
that the Bethlehem cave, dedicated by Constantine, had previously been part of a grove
dedicated to Tammuz, the Mesopotamian god of fertility, and Adonis, the mortal lover of
Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and procreation (Kraabel 1982: 276). Eusebius
claims that Constantine demolished the pagan cave and constructed a Christian shrine in its
The pious empress honored with rare memorial the scene of her travail who bore the
heavenly child, and beautified the sacred cave with all possible splendor. The emperor
himself soon after testified his reverence for the spot by princely offerings, and added to
his mother's magnificence by costly presents of silver and gold, and embroidered hangings.
(Eusebius, v.C III.43; quoted in Kraabel 1982: 276)
Belief in Jesus' birth in a cave persisted for several centuries. At least two reports exist of
pilgrims visiting the cave during the 4th century: an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux in 333,
and Egeria (Etheria), who visited the Holy Land between 381-384.
34. Some of the theological conflicts that plagued the early church included, not only the birth
date of Jesus, but also the humanity of Jesus, the nature of the relation of Jesus to God (the
Father) and the belief in Mary as Theotokos ("God-bearer"). The Nicene Creed was issued at
the Council of Nicaea (325), which was dominated by the Roman Church and supported by
Constantine, to establish its beliefs as authoritative and to delegitimize all competing Christian
beliefs as heretical. The Council established as Christian orthodoxy a belief in (1) the equality
of Jesus with the father, (2) Jesus as both human and divine (see note 36); (3) Jesus'
incarnation through birth by the Virgin Mary, (4) Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, and (5) a
belief in only one "catholic and apostolic Church" as the legitimate successor to Jesus and
interpreter of his mission (validated by the principle of "Apostolic Succession"). These various
conflicts tore at the very foundations of Christianity, resulting in numerous, frequently violent,
ecumenical councils held by opposing factions within the Church. They also produced several
schisms within the Church, culminating in the Schism of 1054 that led to the complete
separation of the Eastern and Western Churches.
35. Two different versions of the New Testament even existed, one associated with the Western
(Roman) church and the other with the Eastern (Alexandrian) Church (see Abruzzi, When
Was Jesus Born?, note 33).
36. Monophysites claimed that following Jesus' Incarnation, he had only a single "nature" which
was either divine or a synthesis of the divine and the human. Miaphysites, on the other hand,
claimed that Jesus retained two distinct natures after his Incarnation: one divine and one
human. This theological conflict involving the fundamental nature of Jesus' existence raged
for several centuries resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Christians on both sides of
the controversy. Jenkins (2010: xii) goes so far as to claim that
The intra-Christian violence of the fifth- and sixth-century debates was on a far larger and
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regions of the Empire, such as Syria, Palestine, and Egypt (see Jones 1963:17; Jenkins 2008;
MacCulloch 2009). They were ultimately defeated only after decades of bloody struggle. As
heirs of the very oldest Christian churches, the very churches with the most direct and
authentic ties to the apostolic age, they eventually found their interpretation of Christ ruled as
heretical (Jenkins 2010:xi), as did many other varieties of Christianity, including those such
as the Ebionites and Nazarenes, both of whom revered James (Jesus' brother) and claimed
a direct connection to Jesus and his apostles (see Abruzzi, The Birth of Jesus, note 10) The
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Full-text available
From time to time, stories of self-styled spiritual leaders make headlines in South Africa. Christians continue to witness strange, controversial and illegal activities by self-styled spiritual leaders done in the name of the Christian religion. Various people, including theologians, have expressed concern about the human rights abuse that ordinary South Africans suffer at the hands of such spiritual leaders. This study seeks to uncover incidents of human rights abuse that have happened in the name of Christianity. It endeavours to answer the research question “In what respect does the conduct of self-styled spiritual leaders perpetrate human rights abuse?” A case study method will be utilised to investigate cases of human rights abuse. The hypothesis is posed that conduct by such churches or religious circles runs counter to the generally accepted basic principles of Christian missions and points to a completely new form of religion masked as Christianity. Trends in world Christianity is employed as the theoretical framework of the study to understand this form of religion. The South African localised drug Nyaope is used metaphorically to describe this new form of religion and juxtaposes it to a form of religion that Karl Marx described as the opium of the people. Consequently, the term “Nyaope religion” is coined to refer to this form of religion.
How far does the great religious controversy of the fifth century centred on the mystery of the Incarnation reflect popular religious ideas of the east Roman world? It is well known that factors that had little to do with theological speculation, such as the rivalry for prestige and leadership between Constantinople and Alexandria, played a large part in bringing the controversy between rival concepts of christology to their climax in the twenty years that separate the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. More discussion, perhaps, is needed concerning the contribution of articulate public opinion to the course of events, and in particular, to the persistence of the opposition to the Chalcedonian definition after 451.
This article investigates references to Mithraism in early Christian works, dating from the second to fifth centuries AD. It argues that the way the Mithras cult was described and/or addressed transformed as the relative positions in society of Christianity and pagan cults changed. In the earliest period Christianity was only one religious group among many, and its later dominance could not be foreseen. This may have made Christian writers eager to distinguish themselves from other religious groups by a detailed explanation of the differences between their religion and others, and by a careful exposition of what their cult entailed and why other cults were wrong. In later periods, when the position of Christianity was much stronger, a systematic refutation of other religions was no longer necessary. Most references to the cult of Mithras in later periods therefore merely seem to emphasize the superiority felt by Christians over other religions. An Appendix collects all references to the Mithras cult in patristic literature from the second to fifth century AD.
Approaching the Arch of Constantine in fourth-century Rome, the northbound traveler beheld a spectacular tableau of monuments. The position of the arch negotiated the divergent orientations of the triumphal road and the monuments in the Colosseum Valley. It also framed the colossal Neronian statue of Sol through the arch's central passageway, in a highly scenographic display of the comity between the emperor and the sun god. This appropriation of the ancient colossus sheds light on the arch's overall program, on other acts of appropriation in Constantinian Rome, and on the emperor's religious tendencies.