It seems that the shrill screams of Christians trying to prove their points get louder by the day. This is especially true among American evangelicals who are so sure that their Lord is about to return with judgment and the end of the world as we know it that they, as I have observed, will literally say ANYTHING, no matter how ludicrous, to try to prove themselves and their points to be correct. And the ignorant feed on this slop as if they had not eaten for, well, forty days or so.
So, when I came across the article “Yes, Jesus Really Existed and He Was Born on December 25” by Fr. Dwight Longenecker (published in Patheos, Dec. 20, 2018), I knew that it was more of the same even if not written by an evangelical Christian (the article in question was written by a Roman Catholic priest, for those whom this is not obvious).
The article begins with, perhaps, a heartfelt sigh concerning the yearly attempts by atheists to, as he put it, prove that Jesus never existed. I do sympathize with this to some degree because even I get tired of the atheist line that Jesus, as a human being, never even existed and the atheist’s attempts to prove this. They engage, first of all, in a logical fallacy – attempting to prove a negative. This is considered a logical fallacy mainly because it is simply an argument from ignorance – “because I have no evidence that it is so, then it must not be so”. One simply cannot argue from a position of ignorance and prove anything thereby. That said, we, as scholars, historians, and theologians, are expected to adhere to whatever evidence may exist as closely as we can because, frankly, it’s all we have to go by. Supposition, when employed, should always be defined as such and not labeled as “truth” or “proof”. So, again, I do sympathize with him here as I get tired of the straw arguments too.
Be that as it may, the author actually begins his argument by laying out that which seems to bother him the most about those who claim that Jesus never existed when he states that they argue that Jesus was never actually born, and certainly not on December 25th because that date was simply one on which Sol Invictus was said to have been born and the Roman celebration of Saturnalia took place. He has trouble with the idea that the early Christians supposedly took over this holyday as the birth date of their Lord because, well, the early Christians were actually Jews and, therefore, they would NEVER have even contemplated doing such a thing as it would have been anathema to their religious sensibilities. He claims to employ “common sense” when making this statement. But, as most of us know, “common sense” is hardly common. But I digress.
Then he goes on to state “It’s true that later missionary efforts “baptized” pagan sites and customs, but not during the early days.” Sadly, the good Father is engaging in a common historical fallacy here in that he is positing that the earliest church was somehow monolithic and similar, if not identical, throughout in belief and practice. This is certainly the picture that the church has drawn for us throughout the ages and that many still even to this day, contrary to historical and archaeological evidence, believe and propagate. But, it is simply not true. and I DO mean the earliest church when I make this statement. One only has to read my book “Apocalypse and Armageddon” (or even the book of Acts) to see this. The picture of the pristine, monolithic, perfect bride of Christ simply does not hold up to historical scrutiny.
From here he encourages us to “look at the evidence we do have. It’s called the New Testament, and far from the New Testament being a collection of far out fairy tales, it is rooted in something called “facts” and those facts can be put together to bring us to a conclusion which is true.” Really, the New testament is “rooted” in “facts”? Well, let’s see what “facts” the good Father will bring out, then.
- “We know that John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah was a priest who served in the temple at Jerusalem.” OK, perhaps. Given that the NT gospels are our only source for this (and I don’t think that any scholar would state that these gospels were written by actual historians) I would say that it is possible, but not actually “proven”. But, fine, I will give him this one.
- “While he was serving an angel appeared announcing that his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant and the boy’s name would be John.” Well, OK, Zechariah may well have had such a vision, so I will even give the good Father this one even though I, for one, do not for one minute believe that an actual angel appeared before Zechariah.
- “The Jewish priests were on a schedule according to their family lineage because the priesthood was hereditary. Zechariah was a priest of the class of Abijah. This is recorded in Luke 1:5. The class of Abijah was the eighth class of priests. This is recorded in Nehemiah 12:17. Each class served one week in the temple twice a year. The Abijah class took their turn during the second week of the Jewish month of Tishri. On our calendar that would fall between 22 and 30 September. Count ahead nine months. We celebrate the birth of John the Baptist on 24 June.” Finally, a bit of actual historical fact! That is, if we accept that the books of Luke and Nehemiah can be trusted on these two points. I will give the good Father this entire layout – with the caveat that even here he provides us with the one piece of information that will completely debunk his thesis (and he know this, so he quickly makes his statement and moves on). We will get back to that because we must continue with his analysis first (tantalizing, I know, but necessary).
- “How does this connect with Jesus? When the angel comes to Mary to announce the conception of Jesus Christ after her assent, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother and wife of Zechariah) when Elizabeth was six months pregnant. This is recorded in Luke 1:36. If John the Baptist was conceived around 25 September, this means Jesus was conceived around March 25 –the date Christians celebrate the Annunciation–. Count forward nine more months and you get December 25 as the date for the birth of Jesus Christ.” It all seems completely cut and dry now, doesn’t it? Take Luke’s narrative as fact and, presto whammo, you have the complete picture wrapped up in a nice little Christmas bow. And the dates just happen to coincide with Roman Catholic observances – what a coincidence! He goes on to state that if the earliest Christians were simply trying to take over the celebration of Saturnalia or the birth of Sol Invictus they would have had to then go back and edit Luke to fit this narrative as well as falsifying the priestly schedule. Well, not quite, although it is interesting that he would even contemplate early Christians falsifying anything….
- Then the Father proceeds with the following “Oh yes, the other detail is that there are records that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 from the time of St Telephorus–the seventh pope who was born in 115 AD. The cult of the birth of Sol Invictus was not established until 274 AD, so if anybody was copying celebrations, it is more likely that the Roman Emperor Aurelian was copying the already existing feast of Christmas–the birthday of Christ the Unconquered Son of God–than the other way around.” Oh, goody! Some actual historical facts that we ought to be able to check! First, the first recorded celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25th was actually in 336 CE during the reign of Constantine, some 221 years after the date that the good Father proposes. Be that as it may, he may indeed have knowledge of some tradition that I am not aware of here, so I will give him that one too since it really doesn’t matter when the birth of Jesus was fist celebrated. What does matter is that, in fact, multiple dates were proposed by the earliest Christians and the date of December 25th was not settled on and fixed as the correct date until the reign of Constantine (that is historical fact that anyone can check). And, so that this does not escape the reader’s attention, even if it was first celebrated on December 25th as early as about 115 CE – that is 115 years after the supposed birth year of Jesus. One hundred and fifteen years is a rather long time. Second, the cult of Sol Invictus, along with its feast day, was around long before Aurelian chose it as his favorite. And, do I really have to enumerate the many religious associations that had long existed concerning the date of December 25th for us? Please, don’t make me engage in such a tedious task! Suffice it to say that December 25th was seen as significant to many deities, some of whom had it as their birth dates long before the time when Jesus would have been born. It was, in so many words, an already well-established date of religious importance throughout the Mediterranean world. So the suggestion that Aurelian might have copied some aspect of Christianity here is laughable beyond belief! it’s patently absurd on its face!
So, now I have answered and refuted all of the good Father’s points – well, except for that one gnawing thing that he stated early on that I alluded to but did not fully expound upon…. It is THE error that, in fact, completely sinks the good Father’s thesis – his insistence that he can prove that Jesus was born on December 25th. That error comes directly from the priestly calendar of service that the good Father mentions. Remember; he stated that the priests had to serve TWICE a year. Thus, if Zechariah was mandated to serve in his priestly duties toward the end of our modern month of September, he was also required to serve as such toward the end of our modern month of March. The good Father completely ignores modern scholarship by suggesting that the events written about in Luke MUST have happened in September rather than in March. Practically every scholar I have ever read has shown that shepherds would have been watching their flocks in the springtime (and they would have continued to do so throughout the summer too), NOT in the wintertime. That, by the way, is in Luke too. But the good Father ignores this for convenience sake. All of this, frankly, would mean that it was more likely that Jesus, not John the Baptizer, was born about June 24th.
But, there is still a flaw even in this scenario. See, the good Father, like many others, is assuming that Jesus was carried for the full nine months. It is indeed a reasonable conclusion to draw, but not a proven one by any stretch. In fact, there is absolutely nothing that indicates that Jesus was carried full-term. However, there are indications that Jesus, in fact, was only carried for seven months (I believe this is found in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, but my reference escapes me at the moment). Now, these were some EARLY Christians who wrote this, so it was an early tradition. Yet, over the centuries, Christians have come to assume that Jesus was carried full-term. Frankly, if he was carried only seven months the scenario falls apart without effort no matter when he was conceived.
Thus, far from proving anything, the good Father simply does what Christians have done from the very beginning – shuffled things around so that the narrative fits a cherished belief. The good Father has actually proven nothing whatsoever. He bases his entire argument on one gospel along with tradition and completely ignores scholarship that is in any way contrary to his cherished belief. The birth date of December 25th is simply erroneous just as the supposed birth year of Jesus is. Scholarship has actually dis-proven both already. Of course, his birth date only matters to the faithful. For the rest of us, not so much. Be that as it may, the modern celebration of Christmas has become a commercialized nightmare with little to no legitimacy as a religious observance in any case. So, again, only the faithful really care about its religious significance, or lack thereof, anyway.