Saturday, November 30, 2013
It is Christmas Time Again, and the Story is an Old One
An article on the origin of Christmas
Written by: Brian LeCompte
I am writing this article so that all who read it might understand the meaning of Christmas and its’ origin. It will become evident if it hasn’t been already that I am writing this article from a Christian perspective. I will document the story of the birth of Christ as it is recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament and explain various aspects and historical context of the story which are often misinterpreted or overlooked. I will then explain that how the holiday celebration arose for different purposes but during the same time out of an earlier pagan tradition and explain how this in no way harms the truthfulness of the Biblical account. My hope is that all who read this will learn the true scholarly Christian viewpoint of the history and significance of Christmas and will benefit from this knowledge in the same manner that I have after learning it.
The purpose for traditional holiday of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of a man named Jesus Christ. According to the Old Testament the world would one day receive a savior to come and rid the world of all injustice and He would be the Lord of all the people, establish a kingdom that is nothing but eternal peace and love, sorrow, pain, and death would be no more. In some of the Old Testament prophetic accounts the man is spoken of as a servant that is beaten and crushed for the sins that are committed by others and in essence takes the penalty for that sin (cf. Isaiah 53:5). In other scriptures he is spoken of as an Anointed one that would free the people from oppression (cf. Psalm 2). This word anointed is referencing a king because it was understood by the audience that the Old Testament was written for, the Hebrew people, or Jews of Israel, that the Spirit of God anointed men that He would make king over this nation of people. At the time of Jesus’ birth the Jewish people had been under the oppression of Roman rule for centuries and the prophetic Spirit of God had not been among the people for 400 years (This is also known as the Intertestamental Period.) The Israelites were” groaning” for their savior to come and free them from this oppression and set them up as His priestly nation once more. However, the Jewish people were looking for a warrior king to lead an army against their earthly oppressors not the defeated servant spoken of in Isaiah.
The New Testament scriptures affirm for us what was meant by those Old Testament prophecies. According to the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus was both of these iconic figures spoken of in the Old Testament. Matthew’s Gospel is primarily focused on the kingdom that Jesus spent his life preaching about and initiating, Mark’s Gospel is the most concise of the 4 and has a pivotal moment in the center of the text when the apostle Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ sent from God to save mankind, Luke’s Gospel is primarily focused on the blessing of salvation, and John’s Gospel seeks to prove that Jesus was not a mere man but was also God who took on the form of man and performed “signs” or miracles, to prove his identity then paid the price for all of mankind that would lead all of those who believe in what he did to glory. Most of this study will be in the book of Luke, as this book contains the most elaborate narrative of the birth of Christ, and is where the nativity scene, which has become the most popular Christmas decoration and theme for many Christmas plays and traditions, originated.
The Bible asserts that Jesus’ mother was betrothed (engaged to be married,) to a man named Joseph. Many have interpreted this to mean that they were already married which would indicate that the Bible is wrong when it records that Mary was a virgin. However, word used in the original text simply means that they were “to be married” or close to engagement in our culture. The difference between the two is that engagement is a public statement that you intend to be married with someone and focusing on the planning of the wedding while a betrothal, which is what this couple had entered into, is a public statement that you are preparing for marriage. In this case the couple focuses on a commitment to each other, God, and the community without a physical commitment of sex for each which is to be saved until after the marriage. This correct understanding of the word gives credence to the Bible’s message that Mary was in fact a virgin when Christ was born. The purpose for mentioning her virginity is to highlight her purity and also to give no credence to any argument that could be made that Christ was the son of any man. Rather the text affirms that Jesus is the “Son of God.” In an OT context this would have been recognition of his Kingship because to be called a “Son of God” in that context would insinuate that you were a King. However, in the context of the birth narrative it literally means that Jesus was not born by the seed of Man in the manner that all people alive today are, but that he was born directly from God. This is important to understand because the apostle Paul informs us in Romans 5:12 that death entered the world and was passed to all men because the sin of the first man Adam spread into the nature of all men by birth. It is easier to understand sin as a gene in this instance that is passed down from the father of any given child. I am not at all trying to say that sin is literally genetic but it is a way to understand what the scripture is communicating, and that is this sin is passed to all men and therefore every person in the world sins. The significance of Christ’s divine birth is that he is not from that same line of sin, Christ still took on the flesh of man and so was forced to undergo the same temptations as you and I, but he did not descend from that same sinful line as humanity. This is a brand new chance for a man to accomplish his original purpose to rule over God’s creation rightly and bear God’s image to the world for all to see and praise. This new gift of the offering of atonement from sin repairs what went wrong and was given to Man by God and it was done by God as he took on the form of a mere man!
Next is the focus on the location of Jesus’ birth. The prophet Micah foretold approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ that he would be born in the town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Luke’s Gospel explains that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census of the known world should be taken for a myriad of reasons, the most likely probably for taxation purposes. Joseph was the son of a man named Heli and was born in Bethlehem and so according to Caesar’s decree he had to return to his homeland to be properly registered and so he traveled to Bethlehem with Mary and his unborn “step-son.” The Gospel account reads as follows concerning the birth, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2:6 & 7 ESV. In the next few sections I will perform a thorough exegesis of this scripture.
The text is clear that the baby was laid in a manger because they had nowhere else to go. The place that rejected them is translated as “the inn” for most English versions of the Bible. However, the word that is being translated is a Koine (meaning common) Greek word kataluma. The Bible was originally written in Koine Greek, which was a form of Greek that was used by the common people at the time. This word kataluma has until recently best understood as an inn, but it has for some time been ambiguous. After newly uncovered Greek texts and letters furthered our understanding of the language, this word would be best interpreted to mean “guest room.” So with this understanding it would be better to say that there was no room for them in the guest room, but which guest room? Joseph was returning to Bethlehem because it was where he was born and so he would have had family living in Bethlehem most likely, and would have chosen to stay with them. This would have been very common because the Jewish culture has always been a very collectivistic culture, in which the primary focus is on the family as opposed to the needs and desires of the individual that comprises the culture of America today. Also it would be peculiar if there were an inn inside the city because in the first century most inns were found on the road between cities because showing hospitality to guests was extremely important in that setting. So with this understanding it is appropriate to assume that Joseph would seek to stay with his family but was not allowed to. Also, it is understandable that probably in their culture, his family would not allow them to stay because Mary was pregnant with a child and the couple was not married yet. To them the child was illegitimate, and in the 1st century context it was a very shameful thing. We read already that Jesus is being rejected by his own family before he is born, but rejection was an ordained part of Christ’s life, and was necessary to fulfill the prophecy made in Daniel 9:24-26. Every detail of prophecy is fulfilled many times in the New Testament, and the academic, or scientific sturdy of God’s Word reveals the validity of its’ message.
After the baby has been rejected and so born outside of appropriate shelter the text says that Mary wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger. A manger is simply a feeding trough for an animal cut out of stone and typically found in small caves called sukkah. The geography surrounding Bethlehem is riddled even today with these small caves that the ancient Jewish people living in that area would have used to shelter their livestock during times of harsh weather. Swaddling cloths were the same type of cloth that was used to wrap the bodies of the deceased in the Jewish burial tradition. So the picture is quite clear; the baby is born in a shallow cave structure similar in appearance to the type of tomb he was to be buried in at his death on the cross, wrapped up in swaddling cloth the same as he would be at his death, and laid in stone feeding trough which also resembles the tomb his body would have been placed in.
This is an image of a garden tomb. One side of the tomb has been cut away for display purposes.
Seen above is first a picture of a manger and below it a 1st century tomb that is most likely the kind of tomb Jesus was buried in. It is not mere coincidence that these two look similar and that the description given for the scene of Jesus’ birth is similar to that of his death. After all Jesus himself said to his disciples that his purpose while he was here on Earth was to die (Matthew 16:21). It seems that even at his birth God is showing the World his plan.
If the words before these haven’t already upset someone by changing their entire nativity scene already, then I hope that they do not get angry after this section. So far if our nativity scene were to be accurate then we would have to ditch the wooden lean to shack and replace it with a shallow cave, then get rid of the nice wooden cot that is coated with hay and replace it with a cold stone box where the baby Jesus would have been placed after being wrapped in cloth giving him the appearance of a corpse lying in a tomb. However, even more must be done to the nativity scene in order to be accurate.
Magi or “Wise men” were educated scholars of the day who were from the lands East of Canaan. Many respected their wisdom and intellect and so one of their main contributions was to council the people about their next King. Magi were effectively king makers because in that day they would judge the abilities of those eligible for the throne and make a decision as to which man would be the better leader. The Magi traveled in packs of 20, 50, or even 100 people since the threat of bandits was ever present. Being from the East their steed of choice was a horse as opposed to the popular imagery of a camel. They are typically depicted as being three men (because there are three gifts) who were led by a star in the night sky and were present on the night of Christ’s birth. However, the text makes no assertion that this is true.
The text says that the Magi came looking for the King of the Jews and asked Herod, the Roman appointed King of the Jews at the time, where he was because they had seen His “star.” The word that is used here in the original Greek for star is astera. Generally speaking nativity scenes depict the Northern Star, the brightest star in our sky, as being the star that the Magi are speaking of, but this interpretation places our modern scientific understanding of a star in the minds of the ancients and this is simply not appropriate. When we see a star in our sky we understand it to be a giant ball of flaming gas somewhere in the universe that is big enough that we can see it but due to our scientific understanding we can tell the difference between a nearby planet and a star or a comet and a star. However, the ancients only knew stars to be lights and so any bright light in the sky to them would have been called astera. So the next question is can a star in the sky really lead you to a specific location on the Earth? If you were to point yourself towards a star in the sky and start walking would you ever reach a destination? No, of course not you would only walk forever or until you decided it was time to quit because you could never reach the star; but then why does the text assert that “the Magi followed this light until it rested over the house that Mary and the boy Jesus were in” (paraphrased from Matthew 2:10 & 11)? Well, let me present another hypothesis to you. One of the names that was given to Jesus was Immanuel which means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). To the ancient Israelites when God’s presence was among the people he would manifest himself in the form of a bright light called the Shekinah. The Shekinah hovered above the Ark of the Covenant (seen below) in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred room of the temple where God manifested his presence on the Earth.
If we are to understand that the Shekinah rested over the location where God dwelt on Earth and that Christ is the Son of the Living God and therefore also God himself and is called Immanuel which means “God with us” then it is reasonable to assume that the astera or bright light the Magi witnessed resting over the house Jesus was in was actually the Shekinah of God. This would explain how the Magi were able to follow the star directly to the location that Jesus was at.
Next is the timing of the Magi’s arrival. If you remember the text from earlier concerning how the Magi found Jesus then you know that the text says they found him in a house with his mother. We already know that Jesus was born in a cave with the livestock so if the Magi actually found Jesus on the night he was born then how did they find him in a house? Also, the word that is translated as child in Matthew 2:11 is a word that is actually used to describe a baby not a newborn. We also know that Herod, fearing that his throne might be in danger, sent men to kill all the young boys in the town that were two years of age or younger, but if the Magi had arrived on the night of Christ’s birth then why would he need to kill babies that were 2 years of age? With this information it is more likely then that the Magi arrived maybe as late as a year after the birth of Jesus and gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the young King. These gifts would soon be an example of God’s provision because the family was forced to flee to Egypt after an angel warns them of Herod’s plot to kill all the boys in an attempt to kill Jesus.
The Purpose of Christmas
We now know that Jesus was born for the purpose of dying and that God illustrated this to the world even in the scene of His birth. So you might be thinking to yourself that it sounds awful to celebrate the birth of a King when the message conveyed by his birth was the message of death, and that this King would die in one of the most shameful manners by which to die, crucifiction. However, the Christian understands that the birth of Christ signifies that the promise of God made to his people was kept and that salvation from the death that is brought on by sin that we all experience has come through Jesus Christ. So it is not His death that we are celebrating for we know that the grave could not hold Him and He is risen, but it is the fact that God had mercy enough that he would save us from our sin. He keeps His promises and shows that He is a father to the fatherless and a leader to the lost.
Why December 25?
The text informs us that shepherds received news of the birth of Christ from an angel while they were out in the fields with their livestock and went to see Jesus on the night he was born (Luke 2:8-20). This has led scholars to believe that Jesus was not actually born on December 25 because it would have been wintertime and so the livestock would not have been in the fields but rather in shelter. The Bible is also unclear about the date of the birth and so there is currently no way to know exactly when Christ was born only that it would have been during one of the summer months when the shepherds would have actually had the sheep in the fields. If this is true then why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? The most logical reason is one that skeptics of the Christian faith usually use as evidence that the Bible is wrong. Before Christmas was started, pagans had a festival around the same time after the winter solstice, which is on December 21. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and is preceded by a string of short days. The ancients recognized this and attributed the phenomenon to the anger of the gods. Their belief was that if the gods were not appeased then their fury would be unleashed on the world and all would perish. So the pagans would make sacrifices in order to please the gods and if the next day were longer then it was a sign that the gods were giving them another year of life. Skeptics like to say that Christians simply stole the holiday and so the story of Christmas is therefore a lie. I still do not understand how the two ideas are even related, because even if Christians deliberately took the date of the holiday I don’t see how the facts of the story itself can no longer be validated. Nevertheless I like the skeptics explanation here for the date because it is logical and I believe it actually helps my argument.
Many of the new Christians after Jesus’ resurrection were Gentiles and so they would have been accustomed to celebrations around the time of the winter solstice and so after embracing their new faith celebrating the coming of their Savior around the same time would have been an easy transition. Also the fact that it would come to replace the pagan tradition would be perfectly expected from what we know to be the character of God in the scriptures. God is the ultimate Redeemer, he takes men who are fifthly and sinful and restores their heart so they can be a whole new creation who bears the image of God more fully. If God has such redemption power for man, then why can he not do the same for a tradition? It makes perfect sense to me that God could choose to take an earlier pagan tradition that worships false gods and redeem it to be a celebration of the One True God and therefor glorifying his name so that others may hear of his good news. It is no mystery as to why different civilizations have gods that they worship. Mankind can see plainly, until recently when science has become a new god, that there is a higher power that is responsible for all that he witnesses in nature. The Gospels record Jesus performing miracles of nature that in the Roman context would have been attributed to other gods, i.e. turning water into wine which would have been attributed to Dionysus, commanding the sea which would have been attributed to Poseidon, and calming a storm which would have been attributed to Zeus. It is as if man sees something in nature and assigns a god or gods to be the cause of that occurrence and then Jesus comes and proves that the cause man was looking for the entire time was Jesus himself. This seems like a logical explanation for the origin of Christmas to me. As the darkness of death was reigning over the Earth through sin and it appeared that God’s wrath had come against us, God sent his son to be the offering for us that met the requirement of sinless before Him, and so we were given new and eternal life.
The purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ the Savior of the world and the Lord of all. In the image of his birth it is evident that the reason for His first visit to Earth was to die so that the price for sin could be paid and the Way to the Lord God could be opened for those who would have faith and believe that the story of God is true. Even though there is evidence for the claims of the Bible there is still a necessity for faith. Not all things in the Bible can be proven with concrete evidence that can be seen with the naked eye. But then again not all of the claims made by science or any other religion can be either. Whether one believes in the Gospel’s accounts or in the Big Bang there are still going to be gaps where there is no supporting concrete evidence and so faith must fill those gaps. It is true that there is no way of proving here on Earth that Christ is risen and seated at the right hand of God in heaven and so as a Christian we exercise faith. However, let it never be said that the Naturalist who believes that creation can be explained by merely natural properties and was not influenced by a divine being has no faith, but rather let him realize that he cannot prove his hypothesis for creation and so must exercise faith if he is to believe that he is right. Let us never buy into this post-modern ideology either that states that truth is relative and so there is no absolute truth. If whatever is true for me states that what is true to you is right as well, then this method of thinking is folly. You and I cannot both be right, it is either one of us is right or neither of us is right. The real truth is that there is only one truth and so the Christian believes that God is the author of that one truth and so if one’s view of what is truth does not align accurately with God’s truth in the Bible then that person is wrong.
If you are a Christian and you read this article my hope and prayer for you is that Spirit of God has used this information to grow you and strengthen your faith. I hope that you can use it the next time you are witnessing to another person and that it will bear some fruit in your life. If you are not a Christian and you read this article my hope and prayer for you that you would know that there is a God who created that universe and that he loves and cares for you more than you can imagine. The story of Christmas would have never existed if God had chosen to keep Christ with him, but instead because he loved us so God came to Earth to do what we as humans could never do and then suffer our rejection of him until we killed him. I pray that you know that it is no coincidence that you are reading this today, but that God has drawn you to this article so that you can know that he is reaching out to you wishing that you would step out in faith and accept his gift of salvation.