The latest episode of the Naked Bible Podcast just uploaded. The topic is on whether Christians should consider Christmas a pagan holiday. I hope you’ll give it a listen. I broke down the topic into two areas: the traditional date of Christmas (December 25) and what people do to celebrate Christmas. I thought I’d write a few thoughts today on Christmas in light of that episode.
As far as the first area goes, I’d blogged about that a short time ago. Contrary to what you’ll read all over the internet, Christians did not steal December 25 from pagans as the day to celebrate Christmas. Ancient data show it was the other way around. Listen and find out why. Here’s a hint: you have to understand that the effort to calculate the birth of Jesus spun off the early church obsession with calculating the days of the crucifixion and resurrection. That all took place long before the time of Aurelian, who is the reference point for the argument that the date is pagan. It also pre-dates the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Early Christians really didn’t care too much about that initially, though there was a lot of discussion about when it happened. The issue is that two dates (December 25 and January 6) were the two major candidates, and there is evidence of both being discussed by early Christians long before Aurelian’s time. (Note: both of those dates derive from trying to date the crucifixion, as well as a fairly strange belief in earl Judaism adopted by Christians; neither is astronomically coherent, much less in concert with a lot of other imagery that I discuss here and in Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers, and the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ).
With respect to the second part, questions about celebrations (trees, Santa, etc.), those things certainly have pagan roots. But, as we discuss on the episode, theologically orthodox Israelite religion utilized pagan objects (e.g., cherubim, standing stones [maṣṣebot]) and that was permissible (and in the case of the cherubim, commanded by Yahweh). In the episode we touch on some of these things where the “pagan” element didn’t violate truth or result in blasphemy, and at least one time where it did (Yahweh was disrespected as part of the imagery). The contrast is informative. The issue for the use of any object is what’s going on in one’s heart and mind and not blaspheming God. If an object displaces Jesus, or the God of the Bible as the central point of remembrance of the day of Christ’s birth, that’s idolatry. Israelites could use objects familiar to pagans, but they were forbidden to bow down to them or have them replace the true God. We ought to be mindful of the same. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s relevant.
At times I get questions about holidays that Christians observe (or not). Usually those questions concern things like observing the Sabbath, observing holidays like Christmas or Easter, or preferring the festival-holiday calendar of Israel over traditional Christian observances. In my view, neither choice is wrong. These are conscience issues. Unfortunately, they are taken out of the realm of the personal — one’s own conscience and its relationship to one’s own walk with the Lord — and used for the basis for creating the impression that someone else’s spiritual walk is of lesser holiness. Permissions to eat XYZ or not observe XYZ day are not permissions to denigrate another believer whose conscience is weak or who is really blessed by observing a day or abstaining from a food. These permissions are not tools for defining spirituality or comparing ourselves with other believers. But that’s often what they turn into. In like manner, the abstainer or the observer isn’t given the permission to criticize the believer who makes the opposite choices to exalt their own spirituality, either. All such things are about conscience and deference. Paul made it clear in his letter to the Corinthians that he could eat the meat they were arguing about, but would gladly not do so for the sake of another believer. It wasn’t about him.
Consequently, if you would rather observe the Jewish feast days than the Christian calendar, please do so and enjoy them. The early church didn’t celebrate the birth of the messiah for centuries, though (per the episode above) they talked about the date. The New Testament never tells us to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Consequently, there is no basis for saying a refusal to observe Christmas is a moral wrong. I also see no exegetical basis for calling the alternative decision morally amiss. There was also no command to not celebrate the birth of the messiah. So if you want to remember the day of the Lord’s birth with celebration (even if you don’t get the right date!) that’s not a bad thing.
Paul, a converted Pharisee, relegated observing religious calendar or esteeming one day above another to the category of “doubtful disputations” (Rom 14:1, KJV; “opinions,” ESV). He wrote in that chapter (including the issue of disputed food with day observances ):
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.
It’s important to realize (and any comparison of the two will show this to be obvious) that Romans 14 covers the same subject matter as 1 Cor 8-11, the classic “weaker brother” passage. Paul wants Christians to make choices of such things on the basis of personal conscience and love for the weaker brother — the one who cannot eat, or who “must” keep a day, or whose conscience would be troubled by keeping it or missing it. In 1 Cor 8 Paul doesn’t care about eating the meat sacrificed to idols because, for believers in Christ, the gods behind the idols are not being worshiped (“for us there is one god, and one lord”; cf. 1 Cor 8:4-6, 8). We get a little more of the context for this thinking in 1 Cor 10:25 — Paul offers the notion that if the meat is sold in the marketplace (i.e., it is removed from the altar or ritual context), that should help with one’s conscience. Apparently, the association with the altar and ritual was why he forbade the eating of the sacrificed meat in 1 Cor 10:19-22. He isn’t contradicting himself. Context mattered, and conscience, if the controversial item or act was removed from worship, was to be the arbiter. Paul concluded with the premise that one’s conscience should not be violated (“whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”; Rom 14:23). Ultimately, though, decisions of conscience are not the reason we are in Christ. Choice A does not result in merit with God for eternal life, while Choice B results in damnation. Salvation is solely a gift of God. There is no merit. Believing loyalty of the true God in Christ was paramount.
Paul got into a related thought in Colossians 2:16-19, where he discussed having deference to fellow believers — but remaining loyal in one’s spiritual allegiance — in relationship to disagreements about food, drink, and observance of days:
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
Paul hits directly on the Sabbath in the first part of the passage (and “new month” is a reference to following the lunar calendar — the Israelite calendar — and, by extension, religious events tied to that calendar). Paul tells his readers — primarily Gentiles (it’s the Colossian church) that they are under no obligation to do these things. But he never tells them it’s wrong to do so. He’s actually tougher in the verses that follow about worshipping angels (a particular Colossian problem) and taking instruction from someone’s visions (now there’s a lesson for today’s church). As readers of The Unseen Realm will know, parts of Galatians 4 hit on Jewish stoicheia (“first principles” – i.e., the law) while others have pagan stoicheia in the cross-hairs (astrology in particular):
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. Gal 4:8–11.1
Paul was concerned about simple, but profound things, on these matters: that the gospel wasn’t altered or lost, that no other gods were worshiped, and that believers loved one another. It shouldn’t be more complicated. If you want to observe Sabbath, and Passover, and any other Jewish celebration, bless you. If not, bless you, too. You don’t have to. But to be honest, as a guy who thinks the OT is regularly neglected, you might learn some OT by doing those things from time to time. You might see some new detail about the covenants, or the messiah, or salvation history. Hey, you might even like it. But the caveat is still the same — none of this brings us merit before God.
Sometimes our decisions on such matters will have to do with being a good testimony to those to whom we want to win to the faith. That was also part of the “Christian liberty” context of the “doubtful disputations” Paul dealt with in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-11 (1 Cor 10:27-33). For example, Jesus participated in synagogue services on the Sabbath and observed Passover. He also reminded his disciples and adversaries that the Sabbath was created for man, not the other way around (Mark 2:27), and that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8). Paul went to the synagogue every Sabbath to tell people about Christ. Paul’s Judaizing enemies accused him of many things, but they never accused him specifically of violating the Sabbath. But did Paul not know that Jesus was our Sabbath rest? In the Naked Bible podcast episode on Hebrews 4:1-13 we get into that concept a lot. The real Sabbath rest is salvation apart from works — “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb 4:9–10). Of course Paul knew what the gospel was — and what it wasn’t. But he never told people to reject the Sabbath. It wasn’t part of the gospel, and so had nothing to do with the gospel (there is no personal merit before God). But he did not forbid it. We should take the same position. Observe the Sabbath as a blessing, not an obligation or spiritual merit badge — and don’t follow that by insisting everyone must make the same choice. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us — long before we had any thought about what we should do about the Sabbath, or any care for what happened on the cross.
Casting the net even more widely, there are other days we may honor (or not). Scripture gives no command about observing birthdays or political holidays (e.g., July 4). The principle should be the same — let nothing displace or alter the gospel. Let nothing replace or deflect one’s believing loyalty in, and to, Christ (e.g., he outranks the State — all States, governments, and political authorities). And don’t let such things hinder love for each other:
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34–35
It seems simple, but there are those who will want to use such things to tweak fellow believers, to create agitation, to win an argument (I hope never to promote the State as the dispenser of truth and love — because it isn’t, nor can it be). In a pagan culture, biblical characters like Daniel and his three friends, had life and death decisions to make in that regard. So did the disciples. Specifically, they refused to be forced to sin (i.e., to disobey the clear command of God, the true King and Savior). That’s quite a bit different than “resisting” a law we don’t like as though there is some point of theology that requires doing so. Compulsion to sin isn’t the same as compulsion to do something that evildoers will capitalize on.2 The former demands that we swap in a new king for the rightful thing. The latter irritates or degrades us as citizens. Jesus and Paul told us to obey civil authority — and the context was the oppressive Roman state — and so we “render to Caesar.” When we have freedom to make one choice or the other, we seek first the kingdom of God (i.e., to obey clear commands in Scripture) and then default to conscience, love for the brethren, and a testimony that will win someone to Christ.
So let’s not use such things as food, day observances, holidays, etc. to vaunt our choices. Let’s not act as though our choices in “doubtful disputations” prompts God to feel warmer toward us than he does to some other brother and sister. When we do that, we fail to comprehend the love of God. Instead, let’s extend grace, have friendly (not confrontational) conversations about why you make (or don’t make) certain choices. If you are on the “weak conscience” side, another brother might be moved to show deference. And perhaps those of you on the “strong conscience” side can show love by surrendering some liberty. The truth is, we’re all on both sides somewhere. The goal should be to build each other up and be glad that our salvation doesn’t depend on such things.
- I wrote in a footnote on p. 327: “There is no consensus among scholars on Paul’s use of the term (Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20). The question is whether Paul is using the term of spiritual entities/star deities in Gal 4:3, 9 and Col 2:8, 20. Three of these four instances append the word to “of the world” (kosmos; i.e., “stoicheia of the world”), but this doesn’t provide much clarity. Paul’s discussion in Gal 4 and Col 2 includes spiritual forces (angels, principalities and powers, false gods) in the context, which suggests stoicheia may refer to divine beings. He is contrasting stoicheia to salvation in Christ in some way. Since Paul is speaking to both Jews and Gentiles, he might also be using the term in different ways with respect to each audience. Stoicheia as law would make little sense to Gentiles, though it would strike a chord with Jews. My view is that in Gal 4:3 Paul’s use of stoicheia likely refers to the law and religious teaching with a Jewish audience in view (cf. Gal 4:1–7). The audience shifts to Gentiles in 4:8–11, and so it seems coherent to see stoicheia in Gal 4:9 as referring to divine beings, probably astral deities (the “Fates”). Gal 4:8 transitions to pagans, since the Jews would have known about the true God. The reference to “times and seasons and years” (4:10) would therefore point to astrological beliefs, not the Jewish calendar. Paul is therefore denying the idea that the celestial objects (sun, moon, stars) are deities. His Gentile readers should not be enslaved by the idea that these objects controlled their destiny. As a related issue, Paul’s wording here cannot therefore be taken as a denial of the existence of other gods. Paul does not deny their existence in 1 Cor 8:4–6, which must not be interpreted against the context of 1 Cor 10:20–21, as it relates to the same subject matter. Paul is just denying that celestial bodies are gods that control one’s fate. This approach is also useful with respect to Col 2:8, 20, where the contexts seem to be pagan angel worship (i.e., worship of divine beings thought to have power over basic elements of the material world) and pagan asceticism. See E. Schweizer, “Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal 4:3, 9 and Col 2:8, 18, 20,” Journal of Biblical Literature 107 (1988): 455–68; Clinton E. Arnold, “Returning to the Domain of the Powers: ‘Stoicheia’ as Evil Spirits in Galatians 4:3, 9,” Novum Testamentum 38.1 (January 1996): 55–76. ↩
- This distinction is clear, though muddled by circumstances –e.g., how the government spends our tax money. We must remember that Rome spent the tax money of the disciples any way it wanted to, for all sorts of horrible things, and Jesus and Paul endorsed paying taxes (Matt 22:17-21; Rom 13:6-7). God didn’t require omniscience or omnipotence on the part of the taxpayer (i.e., the ability to control circumstances). We must trust God to ultimately judge those who had the power to do evil and did, or who had the power to avert evil and who did not. ↩