The Jewish Origins of Christmas

editor - 23 December 2019

Increasing numbers of Christians who value their Jewish spiritual heritage are turning away from Christmas, believing it to have been derived from a winter solstice festival established on 25 December in AD 274 by the pagan Roman emperor Aurelian as natalis solis invicti, the birth of the Unconquerable Sun. This is the time when the days start to become longer, and the sun god supposedly proves his strength. The argument about pagan origins for Christmas was first made by a mid- eighteenth-century Protestant theologian, who wanted to prove that Christ-mass was a degenerate Catholic superstition that should be rejected. A century earlier, Puritans had similarly banned Christmas as too boisterous and too Catholic.

Nowadays the supposed pagan derivation of Christmas has been taken up eagerly by atheists and pagans who want to take credit for the popular winter festival. But does history bear out their claim?

It is true that the (in)famous emperor Constantine, who converted the Roman empire to Christianity from AD 312 onwards, had earlier been a keen worshipper of Sol Invictus. No doubt this influenced his observation of 25 December as the birthday of his unconquerable god Jesus Christ. But Christmas apparently had good Jewish-Christian roots, long before its association with sun-worship.[1]

Rabbis in the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashana 11a; b. Kiddushin 38a) observed that Moses apparently died on the day of his birth (Deuteronomy 31:2, 32:48-50), concluding that this perfect numerical fulfilment is granted to all truly righteous people (Exodus 23:26). Early Christians were influenced by Jewish traditions, but in Luke 1–2 they also saw God’s emphasis on the conceptions of John the Baptist and of Jesus six months later, both following angelic visitations. They recognised that God actually treats conception rather than birth as the start of life, since John the Baptist rejoiced in Jesus’ presence even before birth. In that case, they decided that the accepted date of Jesus’ crucifixion on 14 Nisan must have been His conception date too, since He was the righteous ‘prophet like Moses’ (Deuteronomy 18:15-19).

Eastern (Greek-speaking) and Western (Latin-speaking) Christians differed over the date of the crucifixion in the Roman calendar, settling on 6 April and 25 March respectively. With this date for both His death and His conception, birth would happen exactly nine months later.

For Western Christians, 25 December became the official birthday of Jesus, but even so, we also acknowledge 6 January (Christmas Eve for Eastern Orthodoxy) as the Feast of Epiphany, resulting in the familiar ‘twelve days of Christmas’. The conception of Jesus is likewise celebrated on 25 March as the Feast of the Annunciation (to Mary).

Evidence for Christian belief that Jesus was born on 25 December goes back at least as early as the Commentary on Daniel (4.23.3) by Hippolytus of Rome in AD 202: ‘He was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January [December 25th]… He suffered in the thirty third year, 8 days before the kalends of April [March 25th].’ In that case, emperor Aurelian was not the first to choose this date, seven decades after Hippolytus. Earlier Roman sun worshippers had celebrated a couple of dates in August, but they seem to have had no interest in either solstices or equinoxes at all.

As for the other older Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, this ran from 17 to 23 December, so a Christian holy day on 25 December could hardly have been intended as its replacement.

Presumably it was Christians who first noted the solar significance of the date of Christ’s birth, calculated independently but coincidentally falling on the winter equinox in the Julian calendar. Jesus was truly the ‘sun of righteousness’ who had risen with healing in His wings (Malachi 4:2). Aurelian was hostile to Christianity, since its success was damaging worship of the Roman Empire’s traditional gods.

So what better way to re-unite the various pagan cults around one annual festival, and at the same time recapture the winter equinox from the ‘heretical’ Christians, than to celebrate the sun-god on 25 December as a picture of Rome’s unconquerable paganism? Less than forty years later, Rome itself submitted to Christ.

So when was Jesus actually born? The date is not given in the Bible, and would sheep really have been out in the fields near Bethlehem in mid-winter? John 1:14 says that ‘the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’, which many take as a hint towards Sukkot. However, Messianic rabbi Jonathan Cahn has recently noted that one (uncensored?) manuscript of Hippolytus’ commentary in the Vatican Library also preserves a contradictory observation that Jesus was born in the springtime. He points out that there is another biblical ‘tabernacle’ date at that time of year. The ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ is actually about ‘booths’, whereas the true Tabernacle (mishkan) was constructed by Moses on 1 Nisan (Exodus 40:2, 17), having been ‘conceived’ by God about nine months earlier on Mount Sinai. Jesus Himself compared His body to God’s sacred dwelling (John 2:18- 21). Nisan also happens to be lambing season, when shepherds keep watch for new births in the fields even at night; so those near Bethlehem were ready to welcome the Lamb of God.

Whenever Jesus was actually born, we do not need to worry that celebrating His birth at Christmas makes us complicit with paganism. Whether on 25 December or 1 Nisan, we can rejoice that the Light of the World and Lamb of God truly came into the world to be our Tabernacle/Temple and make atonement for our sins – Yeshua our ‘salvation’.

[1] See the article by William Tighe. derived from Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991): 88-99. Also watch on YouTube:  When Was Jesus REALLY born?? and also WND Films Teaching Series: The Mishkan Clue

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