Today I'm posting a Bible lesson my husband has written up on the debate surrounded a solid date for Jesus's birth. This lesson comes in two parts. Below is Part I:
So, when was the first Christmas? If you listen to many sermons on the subject of Christmas, you soon learn that no one really knows. If you listen a little longer you may hear that the early Christians adopted the pagan holiday of Sol Invictus, celebrated on December 25th to make Christianity more acceptable to the people of the Roman Empire.
This theory started to come into prominence in the 19th century (though Leo the Great preached against the notion in the 5th century, as we shall see a little later) and was initially popular with liberals who subscribed to an evolutionary theory of religion, and Christians who saw the Catholic church as a thinly veiled paganism. The liberals discounted early Christian tradition and began to deny all manner of facts handed down to us from the early church, like the authors of the Gospels, so they began perusing Roman documents looking for other sources of many Christian beliefs.
In the process, scholars began to say that the New Testament tells us nothing that can help us identify when Christ was born. But is it true?
Let's begin by examining the evidence that Christmas was used to displace the Feast of the Sol Invictus. The Romans began to worship the Sun very early in their history. Titus Tatius (died about 750), king of the Sabines, introduced the Sol god to the Romans following the Rape of the Sabines. As part of the treaty that ended the Sabine War, Tatius became co-ruler of the Romans with Romulus, and Tatius brought the local religion with him, Sol Indiges, the Native Sun. However, the cult of this god declined through the Kingdom and Republican periods. Tacitus tells us that there was a small temple in the Circus Maximus to this god and games were celebrated for the god on August 8 and 28, during the hottest part of the year.
Livy and Plutarch tell us that the cult of the Sol invictus came to Rome with some Cilician pirates brought back as slaves by Pompeii, but the religions of slaves were never very popular among the conquering Romans.
We next see the cult of Sol Invictus with the ascension of Elagabalus, a member of the Severan dynasty, in 219 A. D. Eglabaus was a Roman Syrian general named for the Syrian god, Elagabal the Sol Invictus. When he arrived in Rome, he had the head of Jupiter removed in the temple and replaced with what Dio calls the head of "a lesser God." Elagabalus then forced the Senate to worship this god and deny the traditional Roman gods.
When Elagabalus was assassinated in 222 A.D., in a plot engineered by his grandmother, the cult of the Sol Invictus was suppressed by his cousin, Alexander Severus, and by the Roman emperors who followed. The cult of Sol Invictus had lain dormant for 50 years when the emperor Aurelian brought the religion back with him from his campaign against Palmyra after 273 A.D., when he dedicated a new temple in the Campus Agrippae. Aurelian considered himself to be Sol Invictus incarnate and had "Deus et dominus natal," "God and born lord" stamped on his coins. It is hard to determine just how wide-spread this new cult became because Aurelian was assassinated 2 years later.
While the games for Sol were held in August, in the in the Philocalian Calendar from 354 A. D., we find that the "Natal Invictus" was celebrate on December 25th that year with 30 races in the Circus Maximus. The calendar also contains a reference to Jesus being born on December 25th.
With that background, we can ask what was the early church's attitude toward the Sol Invictus and its adoption as a Christian holiday. For that we will look at 2 sermons by Pope Leo the Great (pope from 440 - 461). Leo was one of the great preachers of the early church and the victor over Attila the Hun. I first found these sermons when I was developing the ideas for Patristic Witness (a ministry that I still haven't gotten off the ground. Its idea is to put the sermons of the great preachers of the ancient church into mp3 format so that they will be more widely available).
In Sermon VII Leo says, "When the sun rises at daybreak, there are some people so foolish as to worship it from the highest elevations; even some Christians think they are acting piously by following this practice, so that before entering the basilica of St. Peter the apostle, dedicated to the only living and true God, when they have gone up the steps leading to the porch at the main entrance, they turn around to face the rising sun and, inclining their heads, bow in honor of the brilliant disk. This behavior, partly due to the vice of ignorance and partly to the spirit of paganism, upsets and saddens us very much. Even if some of them do worship the creator of that beautiful light rather than the light itself, which is a creature, they should still abstain from giving the appearance of that worship, because if someone who has turned away from the cult of the gods notices the same custom among us, would that person not return to the old beliefs thinking that probably Christians and nonbelievers are doing the same thing?"
In this sermon, Leo is condemning members of his own congregation for their practice of honoring the sun as they come in to church. This does not sound like a man who would condone substituting a pagan holiday for a Christian Christmas.
In Sermon XXII, Leo specifically attacks the idea of the substitution: "Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the Faith in which you are built: lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honour, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun. Such men's hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honour to the luminaries that minister to the world. Let not Christian souls entertain any such wicked superstition and portentous lie."
This is a very exact refutation of the idea that the Christians adopted a pagan holiday to celebrate Christmas. Even the quickest skimming of early church literature will reveal that the early church had very strong opinions on the mixture of paganism and Christianity. Following the establishment of Christianity by Constantine, the church was much more active in fighting heresies and pagan influences than the modern church.
Now that we have a better understanding of the cult of Sol Invictus and the early church's attitude toward combining the worship of the sun and Christ, we will examine the New Testament evidence for a December date, in the next post.