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About David Roach

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press in Nashville, Tennessee, and a contributor to both BibleMesh and Kairos Journal. He holds a philosophy degree from Vanderbilt University and earned his PhD in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His writings have appeared in academic journals and various Southern Baptist denominational publications.

Was Jesus Born on December 25?

It has been common since at least the time of the Puritans to claim Christians began celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25 in an effort to change the emphasis of a day associated with a pagan festival—much like some Christians today hold “fall festivals” in lieu of Halloween. American Puritan Increase Mather, for instance, said “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born that month but because the heathen’s Saturnalia was at that time kept MaryJospehin Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian.”[1] But a group of contemporary scholars, drawing on ancient writings from as early as the second century, suggests that December 25 is well within the realm of possibility as the real date.

Holding a pagan festival December 25 may have originated with the Roman emperor Aurelian, who in AD 274, built a temple and established games every four years to honor the pagan sun god to whom he attributed military victories. An ancient calendar for the year AD 354 notes such games on December 25 in celebration of the “birthday of the inconquerable sun” (Sol Invictus). [2] The timing made good sense, for, with the winter solstice, the sun had just hit its “low water mark” in the northern hemisphere. The days were short, the weather cold, the leaves fallen, the crops idle—a perfect time for superstitious people to schedule a hopeful rally for the return of summer.

This sort of thing had been going in Rome since centuries-ago BC in the form of winter-solstice parties for Saturn, the god associated with agriculture and light, parties characterized by candles and gift giving. Some suggest other pagans throughout Europe employed evergreens and yule logs in their own December observances, hoping to stimulate the restoration of greenery and warmth. But all these similarities could be coincidental. Or, to put it otherwise, December might have been both the real birth month for Jesus and the time of traditional solstice observances, supplanted by Christmas, albeit with some of the accoutrements retained. (Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection could have been in the spring, happening to coincide with fertility festivals—hence, the tradition of Easter eggs.)

The same codex (book) containing the aforementioned calendar also marks Christ’s birthday on December 25 in a section likely dating to AD 336—the earliest undisputed evidence Christians commemorated the nativity on that date. Some have concluded from the notation of both holidays in the same codex that the celebration of Christ’s birth on that date derived from the celebration of Sol Invictus’s birth as an effort to Christianize the pagan holiday.[3] But if Roman Christians were seeking to supplant the festival of Sol Invictus with Christmas, it’s fair to ask why they would have continued to note the former. It seems reasonable to say that an effort to change the significance of December 25 would have dropped the reference to the pagan observance.

Further, writings of church fathers before AD 274 mention the celebration of Christmas on December 25. Most manuscripts of a commentary on Daniel likely written between AD 202 and 211 by Hippolytus of Rome state, “The first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25, a Wednesday.” The Greek scholar who translated Hipploytus’ commentary into English believes the reference to December 25 was part of the original rendering.[4] Similarly, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) seemed to situate Christ’s birth in late fall or early winter in his Stromata.[5] Two centuries later, Augustine and Jerome both reported tradition placed Christ’s birth on December 25.[6]

Finally, a Christian tradition likely dating to at least the second century held Jesus died on the same date He was conceived, March 25. Adding nine months to that date would place His birth around December 25. Among the church fathers to advocate a March 25 conception date were Julius Africanus (160-240) and Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-270).[7]

Of course, we cannot know the date of Jesus’ birth with certainty, and it’s not critical that we do as we follow the discussion through the years. Some have argued shepherds would not have kept watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8) during the winter months, and therefore Jesus could not have been born on December 25. But that argument is inconclusive.[8] And claims to know the date of Jesus’ conception seem dubious. And again, some Christian holidays did, in fact, assume dates previously reserved for pagan festivals.[9] Still, the evidence gives ample reason to question the common claim that the exact date of December 25 was devoted to a pagan festival before it marked a Christian holiday.

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Endnotes

[1] Lenny Esposito, “No, Christmas Is Not Based on a Pagan Holiday,” Come Reason Ministries Website, December 16, 2015, http://apologetics-notes.comereason.org/2015/12/no-christmas-is-not-based-on-pagan.html (accessed December 19, 2015).

[2] Kurt M. Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58/2 (2015): 301.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Schmidt, “Hippolytus and the Original Date of Christmas,” Chronicon Blog, November 21, 2010, http://web.archive.org/web/20130303163053/http:/chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas (accessed December 19, 2015). Schmidt notes that “most scholars believe that the date of December 25 was added by a later scribe and that Hippolytus did not record it himself.”

[5] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.21.145-146.

[6] Augustine, Sermon 202; Jerome, Homily 88: On the Nativity of Christ, as cited in Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” 310n26.

[7] Ibid., 303-310.

[8] Andras Kostenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 146.

[9] Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” 301.

Is Art Appreciation Part of the Christian Worldview?

The subject of artwork has caused its fair share of controversy among followers of Jesus. From opposition to religious images by Byzantines in the eighth and ninth centuries to debate among the Reformers over what forms of art were acceptable, StainGlassCHistoryChristians have long differed over the role of artwork in a Christian worldview. But amid the debate, believers have almost always agreed that art appreciation is part of a Christian worldview. That belief stems from the Bible itself, which says much related to aesthetics, artwork, and creativity. Consider the following:

God is the ultimate artist. There can never be a creative act more magnificent that God’s fashioning of the universe. Genesis 1-2 provides details related to color and light and notes that the trees God created were not present merely for food but as objects “pleasant to the sight” (Genesis 2:9). Imaging God, Christians have contended, surely includes imitating His creativity through artwork.

In the Old Testament, God assumed there would be visual artists among His people. At the construction of the Tabernacle, He appointed Bezalel and Oholiab “to devise artistic designs” (Exodus 31:4). Again at the building of the Temple, artists were required to fashion the intricate particulars of the design, from carving 15-foot cherabim of olivewood (1 Kings 6:23) to engraving “all the walls of the house” (1 Kings 6:29). When God commanded Moses in the wilderness to fashion “a fiery serpent and set it on a pole” (Numbers 21:8), He presumed there was a metalworker to craft the bronze serpent.

Scripture celebrates all five senses as means of experiencing God’s good creation. Song of Solomon 1:1-5 illustrates this well, with the Shulamite woman extoling the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight of her lover. The God who created all five senses intended for His people to use them all, including the viewing of artwork, to appreciate His handiwork.

— Although the New Testament isn’t as explicit in its commendation of artwork, Paul commanded the Philippians to set their minds on “whatever is lovely” (Philippians 4:8). Surely that command includes the appreciation of artistic beauty.

Revelation’s descriptions of heaven assume God’s people have cultivated a taste for things that are aesthetically beautiful. Foundations “adorned with every kind of jewel” (Revelation 21:19) and the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal” (Revelation 22:1) clearly appeal to mankind’s desire for artistic beauty.

Of course, the Bible warns against using artwork for idolatrous purposes. That is made explicit in the Second Commandment (Exodus 21:4), and the harmful effects of ungodly artwork are illustrated in the account of Israel’s making a golden calf (Exodus 32). Further, Scripture’s emphasis on the word as God’s primary means of communicating with humans (e.g., Romans 10:17) precludes using art as the only expression of our faith.

Still, Augustine of Hippo was right when he argued that the good, the beautiful, and the true are really one in the same—and they are all of God. Christians have taken that reality to heart through creating artistic expressions as diverse as Sistine Chapel frescoes painted by the Roman Catholic Michelangelo, the Reformation’s simple Bible illustrations and depictions of “secular” life, and the countless paintings, ceramics, and sculptures created by believers today. So the next time you take brush, pencil, chalk, clay, or any other artistic tool in hand, remember that you’re participating in a rich Christian tradition.

The Book of Judges and Modern America

While every section of the Bible is relevant for people living in every period of history, sometimes a particular section of Scripture takes on special relevance for people in a specific place and time. Through studying Judges with a small group at my local church, I have come to wonder whether the final section of that book, chapters 17-21, may have Biblepagessuch special relevance for modern America. A postscript of sorts to the entire book, this section illustrates the extent to which Israel had come to resemble the pagan Canaanites around them. The parallel between some of Israel’s actions in Judges 17-21 and news headlines in modern America is striking. Consider the following:

1) In Judges 17-18, a man who called himself a priest of the Lord performed forbidden services for God’s people in order to gain money and, more importantly, social acceptance. An obvious comparison can be drawn to so-called Christian ministers today who perform same-sex weddings for the same reasons.

2) Judges 19 and 21 reveal an Israelite cultural milieu that contributed to sexual assault. Chapter 19 recounts the gang rape of a Levite’s concubine while drawing an implicit comparison between Israel’s city of Gibeah and ancient Sodom. Chapter 21 recounts the kidnapping and forced marriages of more than 400 women with the approval Israel’s leaders. Though the parallel is not exact, this calls to mind the situation on some US college campuses, where a culture awash in sexual immorality also seems to contribute to sexual assault. A National Institute of Justice report says as many as 18-20 percent of female college students may experience some form of sexual assault.

3) In Judges 19, a human being is dismembered with various body parts sent to different sections of the nation. It’s difficult not to relate this to the series of videos released by the Center for Medical Progress showing Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal body parts obtained through abortion. Apparently baby remains routinely are shipped across the country in the name of fostering scientific research. One unfortunate difference between ancient Israel and modern America though is that such violence sparked universal outrage among Israelites while too many Americans seem to yawn and move on.

The author of Judges was intent to illustrate that things previously thought to occur only among Canaanites were now occurring in Israel. Without too much imagination, one can see a parallel “Canaanization” occurring in America.

This bleak picture should, first of all, lead the Church to sound a call for national repentance. As the author of Judges notes more than once, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). Indeed, without godly leaders pointing a nation in the right direction, moral chaos will prevail. The present is an opportunity for Christians to provide such leadership—which brings us to a hopeful note, for Israel eventually turned back to God under Kings David and Solomon, with the author of 2 Samuel observing, “David administered justice and equity to all his people” (8:15). God’s people should take the present darkness as a call to action. Though America has descended into a striking parallel with Israel’s decline, we must pray and work for a parallel revival.

Evil in the Name of Good

Believers may imagine that all proponents of unrighteous causes set out to do evil. Yet, according to the Bible, that is often not how sin works. Many times, those who advocate and commit great evils believe they are advancing a righteous cause. That’s not to say all intentions are good. In some instances, people do set out to sin, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 50:20). Other times, motivations that seem positive or neutral on the surface are driven by deep-seated selfishness, idolatry or other vices. Still, the intentions of believers’ cultural opponents often are not purely evil. Scripture bears this out.

contradictoryConsider the Apostle Paul. Before his conversion to faith in Christ, he persecuted Christians, imprisoning them, attempting to make them blaspheme, and even holding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen. But he was not doing all this out of spite for the Lord. Rather, he thought he was serving God. “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” Paul told King Agrippa in Acts 26:9. Similarly, he told the Philippians his persecution of Christians was motivated by religious zeal (Philippians 3:6).

Sin still works this deceptive way. Indeed, with minimal Internet searching, it’s possible to find champions of gay marriage, abortion, and Islamic terrorism who believe they are advancing a righteous cause. Consider the following:

— When the Supreme Court announced its nationwide legalization of gay marriage, the Interfaith Alliance issued a statement calling same-sex unions consistent with Christianity: “This is a victory for marriage; this is a victory for families and children; this a victory for the love that is preached by the prophets and spiritual leaders of every faith tradition. Today’s decision is, without question, one of the most important civil rights decisions in a generation.”[1] The statement was reminiscent of a 2005 United Church of Christ resolution that “affirm[ed] equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender” based on the supposed fact that “the Bible affirms and celebrates human expressions of love and partnership.”[2]

— When news broke that Planned Parenthood may have sold the body parts of aborted children, former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson wrote an open letter to a current Planned Parenthood executive seen in an undercover video discussing the harvesting of fetal parts. Johnson, who is now a prolife advocate, recounted her own experience of harvesting fetal body parts and said she formally did not view it as evil.

“After a grueling abortion day, we would all go out for margaritas and Mexican food,” Johnson wrote. “We would talk about the day and specific abortion cases. It wasn’t gross to us. We honestly didn’t think anything about it. We would plainly talk about harvesting fetal parts as if we were talking about harvesting a field of corn. That was our normal . . . and we were proud to live in it.”[3]

— Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of the so-called Islamic State, said in a 2014 sermon that he viewed ISIS terrorism as a moral duty. “Allah commanded us to fight His enemies and to wage Jihad for His sake, in order to achieve this purpose and to establish His religion,” he said. “. . .  Oh people, the religion of Allah will not be established, and the purpose for which Allah created us will not be achieved, unless the law of Allah is instated and observed.”[4]

Evil acts are not justified because their perpetrators think they are doing good. And surely the LGBT activist, the abortionist, and the terrorist are driven by some evil intentions. But realizing the deceived mindset of many cultural and political opponents can help believers in several ways. First, it leads us to pray, because such individuals often need supernatural intervention to change their mindsets. Second, it leads us to argue rigorously and logically for Judeo-Christian principles, for only well-crafted arguments tend to sway minds entrenched in deception. Finally, it leads us to hope, because the greatest Christian missionary the world has ever known was also once deceived by evil.

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Endnotes

[1] Lauren Maroke, “Righteous or Repugnant? Religious Responses to the Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Decision,” June 26, 2015, Religion News Service, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/06/26/religious-responses-to-the-supreme-courts-gay-marriage-decision/ (accessed July 16, 2015).

[2] United Church of Christ, “Equal Marriage Rights for All,” July 4, 2005,  United Church of Christ Website, http://uccfiles.com/pdf/2005-EQUAL-MARRIAGE-RIGHTS-FOR-ALL.pdf (accessed July 16, 2015).

[3] Abby Johnson, “Dear Dr. Nucatola: I Used to Harvest Fetal Tissue for Planned Parenthood Just Like You,” July 14, 2015, LifeSiteNews, https://www.lifesitenews.com/blogs/dear-dr.-nucatola-i-used-to-harvest-fetal-tissue-for-planned-parenthood-too (accessed July 16, 2015).

[4] Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, “ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi Calls on Muslims to Wage Jihad, Says: Becoming a Caliph Is a Heavy Responsibility,” July 4, 2014, Middle East Media Research Institute Website, http://www.memritv.org/clip_transcript/en/4335.htm (accessed July 16, 2015).

God’s Counsel for Dark Days

WorryChristians experience sadness, burdensome circumstances, and even depression—a state of mind in which every aspect of life seems negative and dark. Though some may deny this reality, the Bible shows that seasons of difficulty have troubled God’s people since the Fall. Sadness and depression should never be embraced by Christians, since Scripture teaches that Jesus came to give life “abundantly” (John 10:10) and that the fruit of the Holy Spirit includes joy and peace (Galatians 5:22). Still, we’re not alone when we experience dark times. From Charles Spurgeon and John Bunyan to Martin Luther and Richard Baxter, great saints have endured great heaviness in their souls. Fortunately, the Bible contains abundant counsel on sadness, trying circumstances, and depression. Consider the following:

Difficult circumstances can be God’s tool to refine us. Believers only experience trials God has deemed necessary to our spiritual development (1 Peter 1:6-7). Keep believing God’s promises, and your trial eventually will yield to a season of joy—even if you have to wait for it until you reach heaven.

Troubling thoughts may stem from Satan’s attacks. After all, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but . . . against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Though the devil cannot control believers, he can suggest frightening, perverse, disturbing, or painful thoughts. When Christians sense that troubling thoughts have been thrust upon them by an unseen evil force, we should resist Satan with prayer and trust in Christ (James 4:7).

Feelings of weight or burden can be God’s discipline for sin (Hebrews 12:5-11). Non-believers may disobey God without feeling the stress of guilt, but the Lord loves His children too much to permit unchecked rebellion. If you have sinned, repent and God will “restore” to you “the joy of [His] salvation” (Psalm 51:12).

Depression can be the result of a medical or psychological problem. At times, physiological factors can cause life to seem overwhelmingly negative and dark. In such instances, medical help is the appropriate remedy. Indeed, Scripture speaks of taking medication for physical ailments (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:23).

Despair can stem from laziness and lethargy. Proverbs speaks of laziness’ leading to weariness and unsatisfied desires (Proverbs 21:25; 26:15), so be diligent in every aspect of life.

Material needs or stressful circumstances can produce deep anxiety. God’s prescription for these stresses is reasonable thinking, thankfulness for our blessings, and replacing worried brooding with prayer (Philippians 4:5-7).

Seasons of needless burden can be produced by a weak conscience that falsely condemns. If you feel the weight of guilt but believe you haven’t sinned, trust God’s promises of forgiveness and salvation over your finicky feelings. “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20).

Of course, these aren’t the only causes of dark seasons in life, but considering these penetrating diagnoses from Scripture often leads to relief for Christians who find themselves saying with the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” Whether the remedy comes from medicine, believing God’s promises, or gaining proper perspective on our trials, heeding the Bible’s advice can lead the burdened Christian to also say with the psalmist, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5).

Does Christ’s Resurrection Benefit Us Now?

Clouds and sunAs Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, much of our focus will be on the glorious reality that Christ’s resurrection from the dead was the precursor to the future bodily resurrection of all His followers. Indeed, Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). We must never forget or downplay this truth. But Christians also should not downplay the tandem truth that Christ’s resurrection brings numerous benefits during this life. Here are several:

Christ’s resurrection frees His people from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). This is a present benefit of the promise of future resurrection, allowing us to confess with Paul, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

The resurrection allows believers to experience Christ’s personal presence. After Jesus charged His followers to “make disciples of all nations,” He promised, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). There is a tangible friendship with Christ that only His followers know—a friendship not possible with a dead man. This personal fellowship is the subject of much Christian hymnody. For example, “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own.”

The resurrection enables believers to overcome the power of sin. We were “dead in trespasses and sins,” captives to our own selfish desires (Ephesians 2:1-3). But God “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4). As Paul writes elsewhere, we are “united with him in a resurrection like his … so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:5-6). The resurrection displays the magnitude of power available to Christians in their struggle against sin (Romans 8:11).

The resurrection motivates us to turn away from sin (Colossians 3:1). Because God regards Christians as united with Christ in His resurrection, we should act like people who are spiritually alive and “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5).

The resurrection inspires endurance amid persecution. Revelation 7 pictures the risen Lord as a shepherd to those who have endured persecution for their faith. “He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eye” (Revelation 7:17). This promise is for Christian martyrs in Iran and Nigeria as much as it is for the preacher in Indiana who is ridiculed for affirming traditional marriage and the student at a secular university who is belittled for challenging Darwinism.

The resurrection lends credibility to the entire New Testament. In order to be regarded as New Testament Scripture, the early church required that a book be written or endorsed by an apostle. One criterion of an apostle was that he had personally seen Jesus following the resurrection. Had these men lied about seeing Jesus, all of their moral teachings would have been compromised. But because they had truly seen Christ, they could pronounce, “Thus saith the risen Lord.”

In a similar vein, the resurrection lends credibility to Old Testament prophecy. As Peter said after quoting a prophecy of David, “He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:31).

This Easter don’t overlook the resurrection’s importance here and now. As John Stott wrote, “the new resurrection life of Christ … begins now and will be completed on the day of resurrection.” And life is worth the living just because He lives.