Last week, after discussing the non-Pagan roots of Christmas, I got this comment on that blog entry:
There is no evidence that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 nor in the winter for that matter.
I could only think of one thing to say: well, duh. Everyone knows that. And no one cares. Did “anonymous” think that this would be some terrible blow to my self-esteem? (John Gram, friend and fellow blogger, gave this anonymous contributor a proper response in his own comment.) Here’s the facts about December 25th:
Dating events from antiquity is very difficult. In fact, for a very long time in mankind’s history no even cared about chronology. It’s surprising to us, but even the intelligent Greeks didn’t know when the battle of Troy took place, for example. Eratosthenes would attempt to place events like that one in a timeline, but he was unusual for doing so. The Greeks were happy to remember the lessons of the event and ignore the details. (George Feeney has written a book called Caesar’s Calendar that discusses man’s apathy toward calendar dating until recent times, if you are interested in reading more about this.)
As a result, it’s no surprise that we don’t know when when Jesus was born. The Bible doesn’t give us much in the way of dates; in fact, the most specific dates we can discern come from passages like “In the year that king Uzziah died…” which is how ancient historians kept records. No years, just landmark events to provide some context. This sort of thing tells us approximately when something happened, and only more modern historians would later try to work out the exact dates.
The early church probably had no idea when Jesus was born (their big holiday was Easter, anyway), and since they were facing persecution they didn’t really have the time to figure it out while running for their lives from Roman troops. The Romans also burned the Christian documents and buildings, so if these records ever did exist then we would have lost them.
Because these early people did not concern themselves greatly with exact chronology, the arbitrary choosing of December 25th as Christmas Day is not a serious issue. Christmas is not a superstitious festival for Believers who think that they must celebrate Jesus’ birth only on a specific date. It’s a time for reflection on Jesus’ birth and the implications of His birth. Any date on the calendar will do.
People like to say that December 25th was chosen because it was a Pagan holiday, but there is no documentation to support this. Early church records indicate that church leaders were not interested in copying local polytheistic customs. And, as I’ve said before, this is sort of an unfair thing to say. Every day on the calendar was a holiday for some religion, so if the church had gone with a different date we would be hearing the same argument.
But, going back to the original complaint, I hear it said often that December 25th is a stupid time to celebrate Christmas. I read an article at Relevant.com recently that explained the tired old adage about shepherds watching their flocks by night:
According to biblical scholars, it’s unlikely that the Christ child arrived on the day we celebrate Christmas—or even during the winter season. For one thing, we’re told of shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Decembers in Bethlehem are cold and regularly drop below freezing once it gets dark…
(You know what bugs me? I write original things on the site each week, but real journalists who are paid to write just rehash old conversations that everyone has heard before. But I digress.)
According to Weather.com, the average low temperature in Bethlehem is 42 degrees (F) – not below freezing. I know people who camp out in freezing weather for fun, so this old argument is not very good. Also, climates change over time, and unless you are an expert in late antique middle-eastern climate then you aren’t qualified to know the temperature in Israel 2,000 years ago. Plenty of winter nights in December are warm enough to watch sheep by a fire. (By the way, Relevant.com writers, you are supposed to quote your sources instead of just saying “According to biblical scholars…” Wikipedia even has higher standards than that.)
But it doesn’t matter, because everyone in the church is aware that the date is arbitrary. For those of you who think that nitpicking this date is a form of attacking the church, you should know that we Believers are well aware of our history and are only interested in remembering Christmas, not scrutinizing a calendar.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)