dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts

Sunday 7 December 2014

Which came first, the magi visit or the temple visit? Some Christmas chronology

(Note: for a short history of Christmas, and my view on whether the church should celebrate it, see here).

Popular Christmas folklore depicts the magi arriving at the manger in Bethlehem to pay homage and offer gifts to the newborn king, Jesus. This heartwarming story is reenacted countless times every year in Christmas plays. In contrast, another story from the Gospels' infancy narratives, namely the story of baby Jesus' encounter with the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna in the temple in Jerusalem, seems to receive little attention in Christmas observance.

The interesting thing is that an examination of the Gospel accounts makes it apparent that the visit of the magi occurred after the trip to the temple - perhaps even several months later!

The visit of the magi is recorded only in Matthew, while the trip to the temple for purification is found only in Luke, which makes it difficult to determine which occurred first. However, there are a number of clues that can assist us.

Firstly, Matthew does not say that the magi came to a manger or even to an inn, but to a house (Matthew 2:11). This suggests that by this time Mary and Joseph were no longer at the inn, which would rule out the magi having come on the very night of Jesus' birth.

Secondly, based on Herod's discussions with the wise men, he seems to have reckoned that Jesus might have been as old as two years by the time he gave the order to massacre the baby boys of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). While Herod in his cruelty might well have estimated conservatively to maximize his chances of killing the young king, his estimate of two years still makes it likely that Jesus was at least a few months old by this time. This would place the visit of the magi after the visit to the temple, which can be dated precisely to 41 days after Jesus' birth (eight days until circumcision and an additional 33 days for Mary's purification as prescribed in Leviticus 12:1-7). We cannot assume that they traveled exactly on the 41st day, but being faithful Jews they would surely not have delayed the trip more than a day or two beyond that.

Thirdly, the Law stated that the mother should bring a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove to offer. If she was unable to afford a lamb she could bring two pigeons or two turtledoves (Leviticus 12:8). Mary brought two turtledoves, indicating that she and Joseph were too poor to afford a lamb. However, if the magi had already come with their expensive gifts of gold, incense and myrrh, surely Mary and Joseph would have been able to afford a lamb.

Fourthly, Matthew's account tells us that "when they had gone", an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take the family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14). That they left during the night suggests that their departure was immediate. Theoretically there could have been time for a trip to the temple between the departure of the magi and Joseph's dream; however it seems unlikely that God would have allowed this trip knowing that Herod sought the child's life. It is certainly inconceivable that a trip to the temple could have taken place after Joseph's dream since this would entail blatant disregard for the angel's instructions to take flight.

In summary, there is ample evidence to support the conclusion that the trip to the temple took place about six weeks after Jesus' birth, and that the visit of the magi and consequent flight into Egypt took place at some point thereafter, perhaps as late as the second year of Jesus' life.

The one significant difficulty with this chronology is that Luke reports that "When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth" (Luke 2:39). If the visit of the magi in Bethlehem was still in the future at this point, why does Luke have the family returning to Nazareth?

Like Matthew, Luke was aware that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth. Unlike Matthew, however, Luke seems not to have been aware of the visit of the magi or the flight into Egypt. Since Luke had no other events to place between the temple purification and Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth, it was only natural to transition the narrative by having the family return from the temple to Nazareth.

Luke has not made any statement that should cause us to doubt his historical credibility or indeed his divine inspiration. He has simply omitted information that was not available to him, and joined together as smoothly as possible the material that was available to him.

The conclusion we have reached has implications for the celebration of Christmas. If the visit of the magi is close enough in time to Jesus' birth to be celebrated at Christmas (and I certainly have no objection to this), then the visit of the holy family to the temple ought also to be celebrated at Christmas. In particular, the canticle of Simeon, the so-called Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-35) is theologically rich and contains a veiled link between the Christmas story and the greater story of the cross. I would love to see this passage gain a more prominent place in the church's observance of Christmas.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Christmas in July: Where did this holiday come from, and should it be celebrated?

For many Christians, Christmas is the highlight of the liturgical calendar. Indeed, for some nominal Christians it is practically the only event in the liturgical calendar. Other Christians, however, reject this holiday in view of its lack of biblical warrant, alleged pagan roots, or contemporary commercialization. How did Christmas come about, and should it be observed today?

By 336 A.D., Christmas, held on December 25, marked the beginning of the festal year in Rome.1It is difficult to determine how much earlier than this the observance originated, with most scholars opting for a date in the late third century or early fourth century. A couple of earlier Christian writers speculated about the date of Christ's birth but gave no indication of a festival associated with it. In fact, the early third century Christian writer Origen decried the practice of celebrating birthdays and observed that it was something that sinners, not saints, got involved with.
“The whole discussion communicates a general attitude held by some early Christians that birthdays were something only ‘pagans’ (non-Christians) celebrated, not good Christians.”2
What can be said with certainty is that there was no observance of Christmas in the apostolic age or for several generations thereafter. This absence is important for anyone with a restorationist vision of Christianity:
“Restorationism, or Christian primitivism, is an ideology that identifies early Christianity (variously defined) as the timeless norm for Christian doctrine and practice. Restorationism’s adherents seek to replicate this normative ‘early Christianity’ in their own times.”3
For anyone who views the doctrine and practice of the apostolic age as normative to the exclusion of later developments in the patristic church, Christmas will likely appear as an unwelcome innovation. This probably explains, at least in part, why some restorationist groups either reject Christmas (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses) or view it with some ambivalence (Christadelphians).

Does Christmas have pagan roots? There are two main hypotheses concerning how December 25 came to be the date on which Christ's birthday was celebrated: the History of Religions hypothesis and the Calculation hypothesis.4 The History of Religions hypothesis posits that Christians of the early fourth century, with their new-found legal backing under Constantine, hijacked an existing pagan holiday known as Natalis Solis Invicti. This holiday was a commemoration of the unconquered sun-god which coincided with the winter solstice. With biblical backing for the use of sun imagery in relation to Christ (Malachi 4:2), and a festal vacuum left by the increasing conversion of pagans to Christianity, it is argued that Christians appropriated Natalis Solis Invicti to mark Christ's birth.

The Calculation hypothesis holds that early Christians held a highly symbolic view of time in which God only worked in whole numbers and not fractions. Persons regarded as great in God's eyes would die on the same day as they were born. Christ was regarded to have died on March 25, based on calculations between the Jewish and Julian calendars. Thus his conception (i.e. the Annunciation, regarded as more theologically significant than his actual birth) was also dated to March 25, from which it was inferred that he was born on December 25.

These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive,5 so the symbolic calculations may have provided the impetus for the Christian takeover of Natalis Solis Invicti. Importantly, neither one lends any credibility to the view that Christ was actually born on December 25, which must be regarded as extremely unlikely. If the History of Religions hypothesis is correct, then Christmas does indeed have its roots in paganism. However, it represents a reaction against paganism. While it may also suggest a willingness to accommodate former pagans, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as “the early Christians had little choice but to adapt to the surrounding Hellenized-Roman culture if they had any pretensions to universality.”6

Neither of these hypotheses fully explains why the church began to celebrate Christmas. It is unlikely that the need to replace former pagan holidays in the calendar with some Christian analogue can entirely account for the invention of Christmas. Some scholars have tentatively suggested that the Arian controversy played a role in the spread of Christmas observance. Since Arians placed less emphasis on the incarnation than proponents of Nicene orthodoxy, Christmas may have been promoted in line with anti-Arian polemic.7. Kochenash has argued in an unpublished work that the origin of Christmas coincided with the development of a belief that certain spaces and times were inherently sacred, which had not been part of Christian belief in prior centuries in which house churches were the main place of worship.8

What is the significance of Christmas today? From a secular standpoint it has been heavily commercialized:
“The massive production, advertising and marketing essential to the stability and health of the retail sector of the economy in developed countries serves as the secular form of the feast, the content of which derives not only from the incarnation in the salvation history of Christian belief, but even beyond Christianity in a complex of folklore, custom, art, familial bonding, common values and personal and collective memories. The Gospel story of the birth of Christ secures the base, the original core, sometimes amounting to only a barely-detectible pretext, for the feast in its contemporary manifestation; yet the story is not in itself determinative of what Christmas is.”9
Forbes observes that many of the cultural features of Christmas observance in the contemporary West derive from pre-Christian winter solstice festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia or the Yule/Jul of northern Europe.10

Nevertheless, in Christian communities today which emphasize the religious aspect of Christmas observance, the liturgical context depends largely on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. In such situations, the historical event of Christ's birth, which is portrayed in Scripture as a joyous occasion, is the focal point of the celebration. For me this suggests that, although the origins of Christmas are somewhat dubious and although this holiday is heavily exploited by commercial interests today, there exists a potential to rehabilitate Christmas into an observance that glorifies God. This is my vision. However, I believe there is a warrant for freedom in Christ with respect to the observance or non-observance of Christmas. As Paul says, 
"5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God...13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer." (Romans 14:5-6, 13)
From a restorationist point of view, the observance of Christmas can be legitimately called an un-biblical corruption of the purity of apostolic worship. However, for those communities which allow for a sense of history within the church,11 Christmas can be viewed as a tradition which, in spite of its shaky origins, rightly encourages celebration of the birth of the Saviour.

1 Roll, S.K. (1995). Toward the Origins of Christmas. Peeters Publishers, p. 174.
2 Forbes, B.D. (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, p. 18.
3 Dunnavant, A.L. (2012). Restorationism. In B.J. & J.Y. Crainshaw (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States, Vol. 2. ABC-CLIO.
4 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 50.
5 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 108.
6 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 69.
7 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 174.
8 Kochenash, M. (n.d.) The Origin of Christmas in Early Christian Sacred Space. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5226888/The_Origin_of_Christmas_in_Early_Christian_Sacred_Space.
9 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 269.
10 Forbes, B.D. op. cit., pp. 3-11.
11 It has been said that one of the central themes of primitivism (a term roughly synonymous with restorationism) is “a rejection of any sense of history.” (Hughes, R.T. (1995). The Meaning of the Restoration Vision. In R.T. Hughes (Ed.), The Primitive Church in the Modern World (ix-xviii). University of Illinois Press, p. x).