What’s coming up? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
History throughout time has presented a share of villains for us. Right now, we’re seeing several political statements indicating that Trump is Hitler, and there’s even a law on the internet that the first one to bring up Hitler in a debate loses. For many of us, if you want to say someone is a wicked individual, Hitler is the go-to person to compare them to.
Church history also has a villain. That is Constantine. Constantine was the Roman Emperor who supposedly became a Christian and made Christianity legal, but he’s said to have dominated the Council of Nicea, controlled the process, put together the NT by his arbitrary command, and murdered his family. In many cases, when people talk about matters going wrong in church history. It’s Constantine. He’s even accused of inventing the deity of Christ from the pagan religions and forcing it to be the belief at Nicea.
Perhaps we are looking back from too far ahead. Maybe Constantine wasn’t the villain that he seems to be portrayed as. That’s not to say that we are going to go around and start talking about Saint Constantine, but could we have got Constantine wrong in history? Could it be the king while flawed, wasn’t the villain that we make him out to be?
My guest says that is indeed the case. He is so sure about it, he wrote a book in defense of Constantine. That book is aptly titled Defending Constantine. The author’s name is Peter Leithart. Who is he?
According to his bio:
Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute, a study center and leadership training institute in Birmingham, Alabama. An ordained minister, he serves as Teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He is the author of several books, including Defending Constantine and, most recently, the End of Protestantism. He and his wife Noel have ten children and nine grandchildren.
We’ll be talking about who Constantine was. He didn’t exist in a vacuum. What was going on in his time? How did he come to power and what was the Roman world like before him?
What impact did Constantine have on Christianity? Did he radically change everything? Is there reason to believe that he was a Christian himself or was this something that he did that we could say was just somehow politically advantageous?
Then, what about the charges against him. Did Constantine really murder his own family? Was he really involved in the worship of Sol Invictus? What really did happen at the Council of Nicea. There is so much to cover in looking at this figure in ancient Christian history that we need to understand.
I hope you’ll be looking forward to listening to this new episode. There are a lot of myths built up around Constantine and hopefully we can clear away some of the cobwebs that have come about over his history. Please also consider going to ITunes and leaving a positive review of the Deeper Waters Podcast. I love to see them!
Is Christmas based on paganism? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Ah yes. Christmastime. A time for love and joy and celebration and for people to come out and suddenly start taking an interest in history by declaring that everything is pagan once again. Yeah. The pagan copycat thesis died a long time ago for Jesus, and that doesn’t stop many from writing about that on the internet, but many still like to say it for Christmas. Many Christians in fact like to say that Christmas is based on pagan traditions that we just happened to steal and use for ourselves. It’s understandable. It’s also in much of pop culture. My wife and I enjoy watching The Big Bang Theory (A show about four ordinary normal guys), yet as much as I can delight in the antics of Sheldon Cooper, he’s just wrong on this count.
The article today I plan to respond to is written by Philip Greywolf Shallcrass. Let’s see what he has to say.
Pagans have deeper links with the season though. Virtually every part of Christmas has its origin in Pagan celebrations of Midwinter. Christmas Day is on December 25th because that’s when pre-Christian folk throughout the Roman Empire celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. In 274 CE, Emperor Aurelian promoted Sol Invictus as a god that all citizens of the Empire could worship alongside their own deities. He combines aspects of other pagan gods, including Mithras, a Middle Eastern deity born to a virgin mother on December 25th. The birth of Christ was first celebrated on this day in 336 CE.
Okay. Sol Invictus. Lets’s start it out. Is any primary source given that says Sol Invictus was celebrated on this day? Nope. Not a one. There’s a reason for that. You won’t find one. In fact, this kind of thing is so ludicrous even Cracked has an article on this. Last I checked, they’re not hardline defenders of evangelical Christianity. They refer to this article in fact. The point is rightly made that Saturnalia lasted from December 17th to the 23rd and that there would not be another holiday celebrated since most people would still be hungover and then preparing for the New Year. In fact, they contend that Aurelian, who was not a fan of Christianity, set up the date to challenge the birth of Christ.
Now does this mean that Jesus was born on December 25th? Not really, though we can be open to the date and I would say there is more evidence for that than for the other figures in history. At least with the case of Jesus you have people from the past actually making such claims.
Also, Shallcrass claims Mithras was a Middle Eastern deity born to a virgin mother. Again, what is the source of this claim? Good luck finding one. We have no Mithraic writings out there and most of what we know of Mithras comes from artwork and in fact from the early church fathers. The viewpoint now is that in fact Mithras was born out of a rock carrying a dagger and wearing a cap. I suppose you could try to make a case that the rock was female and I’m pretty sure that rocks don’t have sex so the rock would be a virgin, but other than that, there really isn’t a case there. Shallcrass may be an authority on modern pagan rituals, but that does not equate to ancient pagan rituals.
The original significance of the date is that, in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day on which the sun’s rising position on the horizon begins to move northward following the winter solstice. Our ancestors took the sun’s renewed movement as a welcome sign that there would be an end to winter and a return of warmth and growth. Hence they celebrated the rebirth of light, personified as a divine child.
Did they? Well it would be nice to see some evidence of that. It’s also important to note that if that was the case, it should be known that December 25th does not fall in the winter solstice. Now surely if the Christians were co-opting a date to show the birth of their divine child, they would know enough to put it on the right date back then. To put it on the wrong date would just be more embarrassing for the Christians. (And no Shallcrass, a link to wikipedia does not convince me you’ve done real historical research.)
Midwinter celebrations represented a metaphorical shaft of light in the depths of winter, when sources of food were limited and when cold, snow and frost ended many lives, particularly those of the frail, elderly and very young. Celebration lifted the spirits, and feasting was a reminder of good times promised by the sun’s return, as were the exchange of gifts and the decorating of homes and temples with evergreen foliage.
Okay. Any primary sources for this? No. Again, I’ll gladly state that Shallcrass would know more about modern pagan rituals than I do, but why should I think he has a clue on ancient pagan rituals? That would be like claiming your average churchgoer must know more about the church fathers than Bart Ehrman simply by the fact of the churchgoer being a Christian. Unfortunately today, most Christians don’t have a clue about the early church fathers. You’d frankly be lucky to find many who know history past the Reformation. Many of our ideas of church history would go more like this:
Let’s consider something however. What about evergreen foliage being used? Well there’s a simple reason for that. If you want to decorate your home in the winter and you want to use something that’s a plant, you pretty much have one choice. You have to go with an evergreen because nothing else is really alive at that time of year. This kind of idea did not really catch on until around the time of the Reformation so if the church was copying something, it’s ludicrous to think they would go back 1,000+ years and get an idea. While we do not know for sure the origins of the Christmas tree, it’s a stretch to think people reach back 1,000 years for a tradition.
From here, Shallcrass has some writings on how pagans celebrated the solstice that really have as much to do with Christmas as the price of tea in China. Even still, it looks like Shallcrass did all of his research online entirely. Where are the books on the topic?
You won’t find any.
While the ending might be interesting, this is not at all a true historical investigation. Shallcrass has just made some assertions and then linked to wikipedia and then said he should be considered an authority on the topic. Well he’s not.
Does this mean Jesus was born on December 25th? No. Could a case be made, yes. It’s inconsequential however. Just celebrate the birth of Jesus. Don’t let the ones who oppose it steal your joy. If you know you are not worshiping pagan deities and not honoring pagan deities at all, you have nothing to worry about.
What’s coming up this Saturday on the Deeper Waters Podcast? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
This will be the last show before Christmas comes, a time that I hope we’re all looking forward to. For my part, I look forward more to the time of getting to give the gifts more than getting. I have several gifts that are being given to me and my wife says “Do you wonder about what you got?” “No.” It seems shocking, but I can get curious at times, but really, there isn’t much I want for Christmas so most anything I get is a blessing. Maybe it’s an age milestone.
But yet, this is a joyous time of year still and my wife and I enjoy decorating the house (And yes, I did insist on hanging up mistletoe. Maybe I should keep that up perpetually…) and driving down the road looking for Christmas music on the radio. (And local radio stations, why is it a week before Christmas I have a hard time finding Christmas music?)
A lot of us also have Christmas traditions, but where did they come from? We tell our children about Santa Claus normally, but where did the idea of Santa Claus even come from? We have Christmas trees, but where did the tradition of Christmas trees start? Do some of these instead have roots in paganism? For this kind of question, you need someone with the scholarly authority to speak on the issue.
That’s why Anthony McRoy is my guest. Dr. McRoy is a visiting lecturer at the Wales University dealing with topics on Islam, but he has also dealt with questions about the nature of Christmas and other holidays. For those who don’t know, he was a guest on a special episode of Unbelievable? devoted to answering questions about Christmas. The link to that can be found here.
That’s why I plan to put to him the same kinds of questions that I am regularly asked about Christmas. There are several people out there who worry that the celebration of Christmas is in fact a celebration that Christians should not participate in and that the whole of it came from pagan traditions or at least a sizable part thereof. Are they right?
Some of you don’t have that concern and I think you are right in not having it, but still, like me, you like to know things and you want to know the history behind the traditions. Where did the big man in the red suit come from? Does this have any historical root in it at all? Why is it that we celebrate this on December 25th? Is there any evil in having a Christmas tree in one’s house?
I hope you’ll be listening in on the show as we discuss these questions and call in, especially for parents who might be wondering about questions involving Santa Claus, and I do plan on asking how parents should approach this subject. The show time is 3-5 PM EST. The call in number is 714-242-5180. The link to listen to it live and when it is archived, which is shortly after the show ends, can be found here.
Are we honoring paganism when we celebrate Christmas? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Recently, my ministry partner, J.P. Holding of Tektonics, released a Kindle Ebook called “Christmas is Pagan and Other Myths.” One of the benefits of being the ministry partner is getting to get copies of a book like this so I can personally review them.
Holding does say up front he’s not much of a holiday person. I, on the other hand, happen to love the Christmas season, but I’m also a guy heavily into traditions. Still, my desires have changed over the years. Normally as children we look forward to all we’re getting. Now, I look forward to all that I’m giving. Frankly, I have no real idea of what I’m getting this year. My wife and I went to the mall and looked at several items and took pictures and of course, I have an Amazon wish list, but other than that, no idea. I’m fine with that.
What I’m not fine with is that there are several who wish to hold over the heads of others that Christmas is something pagan. Now I have a great resource that they can all use. That’s the book by Holding on this topic.
A benefit of this book for several of you is that it’s a short read. You might think that this is right before Christmas and you don’t have time to read something like this. You do. I started it one night and had it easily finished the next day and that was even with just reading a little bit here and there.
Holding easily dispenses with much of the hype and hysteria on this issue and one that needs to be addressed considering how many horrible sources I see being cited by the opponents of Christmas. (Alexander Hislop anyone?)
This includes dealing with passages like Jeremiah 10 supposedly being about Christmas trees, Santa being pagan, and when Jesus was born. (Would shepherds really not be in the fields if Jesus was born on December 25th? The answer might surprise you.) He also deals with supposed NT contradictions on the nativity. Now this last section is not exhaustive, but it does deal with important material.
There are a number of reasons why I think this is important for the church today.
First, if the church throws around ideas that are foolish based on a cursory examination even, we show ourselves to be making claims that indicate we have not done the historical homework that we’re supposed to. I’m not talking about something that’s just somewhat controversial as there are no doubt disagreements in history. I’m talking about something that has no historical basis whatsoever.
This includes our use of sources. If we consistently use sources that are not reliable, we show that we have no criteria whatsoever for choosing a source except to say that the source is one that agrees with us. (Personally, I enjoy going through books by non-Christian scholars about the historical Jesus and highlighting points of agreement. Nothing like enemy attestation!)
Second, when we do this, we leave ourselves wide open for the pagan copycat hypothesis. “So you think Christmas is stolen from pagans? It gets worse! The whole system is stolen from pagans? Haven’t you ever heard of Mithras?!” (Holding rightly points to his own work “Shattering the Christ Myth” here where these views get demolished.
Third, we keep having a fear of paganism over and over. Excuse me, but isn’t the church supposed to be spreading the Kingdom of God? Why are we afraid of the enemy? I have been told, as an example, that wedding rings are pagan. If I found out this was true, you know what I’d do? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because I don’t wear a ring to honor a pagan deity. I wear it to honor my wife and show my covenant with her to the world. The God who set about to redeem the world and redeem fallen sinners can just as much redeem pagan customs and such that we still use today. (Anyone stopped saying Wednesday because the days of the week come from paganism?)
Finally, enough Christians struggle with guilt trips from self-righteous types. Why take one of the most joyous times of the year and use it as an excuse to bring about another guilt trip? If someone does not want to celebrate Christmas, fine, but they need to give a good reason why I shouldn’t as well, and so far they haven’t.
I highly recommend this book then in preparation for the Christmas season in dealing with the “Christmas is pagan!” crowd.