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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, December 09 2021

Christmas before Christ

Many ancient nations created their own midwinter festivals to honour the sun and other gods around the time of the winter solstice. These pagan celebrations later morphed into Christmas, but biblical scholars overwhelmingly admit that Jesus was born nowhere near Dec. 25.

by Jerold Aust

Christmas began long before the birth of Jesus Christ. Alexander Hislop's book The Two Babylons proves from many historical sources the holiday preceded Christ by at least 2,000 years (1957, pp. 97-98). A nativity celebration for pagan gods was observed near the winter solstice in both Syria and Egypt. Later, some 400 years before Christ, the Mithraic religion, which worshipped the Persian sun god Mithras, provided the foundation for the Christmas celebration.

The noted British anthropologist, historian and scholar Sir James Frazer wrote, “There can be no doubt that the Mithraic religion proved a formidable rival to Christianity ... An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival. In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the Nativity [birthday] of the Sun...The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant... " (The Golden Bough, 1993, p. 358).

The early Catholic theologian and writer Tertullian (A.D. 155-230) described how Christian converts were ignoring the biblical Sabbath day and annual festivals and flocking to the pagan Roman winter festivals, such as the Saturnalia, which honoured the god Saturn: “ ... the Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia and Matronalia, are now frequented; gifts are carried to and fro, new year's day presents are made with din, and sports and banquets are celebrated with uproar" (Tertullian, On Idolatry, chap. 14, quoted by Hislop, p. 93).

Man, Myth & Magic is an encyclopedia on mythology and religion, uncovering the origins of major Western religious holidays and exploring their histories. It documents when Christmas gained official recognition and when the name was substituted for the ancient heathen midwinter festival. "Once given a Christian basis the festival became fully established in Europe with many of its pagan elements undisturbed. It was only in the 4th century that 25 December was officially decreed to be the birthday of Christ, and it was another 500 years [the ninth century] before the term Midwinter Feast was abandoned in favour of the word Christmas" (Man, Myth & Magic, Richard Cavendish, ed., 1995, Vol. 3, p. 480).

James Hastings, Bible scholar, writer and editor of The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, confirms most churches absorbed and tolerated heathen customs: "Most of the Christmas customs now prevailing in Europe, or recorded from former times, are not genuine Christian customs, but heathen customs which have been absorbed or tolerated by the Church" (1910, Vol. 3, p. 608).

This change occurred despite God's direct warning against adopting pagan worship customs to honour Him (Deuteronomy 12:29-32). The fact is, Jesus neither observed Christmas nor taught others to do so. But He did speak out strongly against the traditions of men: "And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:7).

After Jesus Christ returns to earth God's annual festivals will once more be observed. The book of Zechariah reveals it will take a few years before all nations learn to do this with the autumn Feast of Tabernacles being a case in point. Zechariah 14 addresses the second coming of Christ, concluding with one particularly revealing insight into the observance of the autumn Feast of Tabernacles: "And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King [Jesus Christ], the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles" (Zechariah 14:16).

Christmas does not represent Christ and its observance should be avoided. God’s annual festivals and Holy Days, revealing God's wonderful plan and purpose for humankind were observed in both the Old and New Testaments, and Christians who understand God still commands us to observe these Holy Days continue to celebrate them today.




Herod had ruled the province of Judea, which encompassed most of the geographical areas of the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for almost 40 years at the time Jesus Christ was born, with secular history and archaeology confirming his reign (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8).




He was a great builder, initiating construction projects in at least 20 cities or towns in Israel and more than 10 in foreign cities: "Archaeological excavations have uncovered a surprisingly large amount of evidence pertaining to Herod the Great ....an Idumean who, in 41 B.C., was granted provisional rule of Galilee by Mark Antony [the friend of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra´s last lover] .... In 30 B.C. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) affirmed Herod's rule over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee .... Herod remained in power until his death in 4 B.C…." (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 91).




But Herod was not just known for his great building, political and military skills, but also for his great cruelty. The Bible records his utter disregard for human life by describing his reaction to the birth of Jesus. When his scheme to identify the newborn Messiah failed (verses 7-8, 12), Herod lashed out with great violence: "Then Herod … sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under [the approximate age of Jesus], according to the time which he had determined from the wise men" (verse 16).




This massacre in Bethlehem was not out of character for Herod, who also had many members of his family put to death: “Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne [his wife] (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus." (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer Software, 1997).




The New Testament description of Herod the Great is thus confirmed by what historians and archaeologists have found concerning his rulership, building projects, political strength and uncontrollable wrath toward anyone threatening his kingship.




The Census of Caesar Augustus




Luke, a meticulous historian, introduces other famous personages in his account of the birth of Christ. "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city" (Luke 2:1-3).




Ancient papyrus census decrees have been found for the years 20, 34, 48, 62 and 104. These show a wide-ranging census normally took place every 14 years, although local counts were, at times, taken more frequently. A papyrus in the British Museum describes a census similar to Luke's account, taken in 104, in which people were ordered to return to their birthplaces: "Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those ... to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments" (Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30).




Joseph's Occupation in Nazareth




Joseph was a skilled craftsman who worked not only with wood, but with stone masonry. The usual term translated as "carpenter" in the Bible (Mark 6:3) is from the Greek term ‘tekton’, which has the broader meaning of 'artisan,' referring to a skilled worker who works on hard material such as wood or stone or even horn or ivory. “In Jesus' day construction workers were not as highly specialized as in today's workforce. For example, the tasks performed by carpenters and masons could easily overlap" (Richard A. Batey, Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, p. 76).




Although Nazareth was a small village in Galilee of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, Joseph and Jesus likely found steady work in the city of Sepphoris four miles away, where huge construction projects were transforming the city into a large, regional centre.




Recent archaeological excavations in Sepphoris show it to have been a bustling, prosperous city during the years Jesus grew up in nearby Nazareth. Shirley Jackson Case, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, remarks “.... It requires no very daring flight of the imagination to picture the youthful Jesus seeking and finding employment in the neighboring city of Sepphoris. But whether or not he actually labored there, his presence in the city on various occasions can scarcely be doubted..." (Batey, pp. 70-71).




These historical records help us better understand the background of Christ's teachings, which included illustrations drawn not just from farming and animal husbandry, but also construction, rulers and nobility, the theater, government, finance and other aspects of city life.

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