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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (4): How Did Christmas Begin?

Imagine you are leading a church in the third or fourth century A.D. The Gnostic heresy is gaining ground. This heresy, rooted in Greek philosophy, maintains that Jesus is not the only begotten Son of God. In fact, they believe that God, who is spirit, was too pure ever to have anything to do with flesh, which they believe is inherently evil.

However, you know that the eternal Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. As an educated person with access to the rare copies of the Bible, you know the story of the birth of Jesus as told in Matthew and Luke. You know that He is the Son of God conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary where He also became the Son of Man of the line of Abraham and David.

How do you convey these great truths to your congregations? Most of them are illiterate or, if they can read, do not have easy access to the Bible. You know you need to teach in a dramatic and imaginative way to overcome the power of the sophisticated arguments of the Gnostic, Marcion, whose influence is rapidly spreading. What can you do to help stem the progress of this heresy?

This is the situation that confronted the bishops of the Church all across the Roman Empire in the 200’s and 300’s.

The church had begun to celebrate annual feast days. This made it easy for them to think of a festival to focus on the birth of Jesus emphasizing that God became Man for our salvation.

Long before any specific remembrance of His birth, the church celebrated His anointing by the Holy Spirit at His baptism. This was also the time God audibly announced, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The name of this festival was (and still is) Epiphany.

This word, in Greek, “signifies an apparition of a divine being” (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Epiphany,” (11th Edition, New York, 1910). The first mention of Epiphany was by Clement of Alexandria, writing in A.D. 194. He indicated this celebration was on January 6 or 10, and only a small group in Egypt was observing it at that time. By A.D. 400, this observance had become quite general throughout the church, with January 6 being the generally accepted date. The Birth of Jesus was one of several events remembered in the Epiphany, the chief emphasis being on His baptism.

Late in this same period, the church began to celebrate the birth of Jesus as an independent festival. The Encyclopedia Britannica, “Christmas,” (11th edition, New York, 1910) Vol. 7, pp. 293-4 explains it this way:

The grounds on which the Church introduced so late as 350-400 a Christmas feast till then unknown, or, if known, precariously linked with the baptism [as part of Epiphany – JS], seem in the main to have been the following.

1)      The transition from adult to infant baptism was proceeding rapidly in the East, and in the West was well nigh completed. Its natural complement was a festal recognition of the fact that the divine element was present in Christ from the first, and was no new stage of spiritual promotion coeval only with the descent of the Spirit upon him at baptism….

2)     The 4th century witnessed a rapid diffusion of Marcionite, or, as it was now called, Manichaean propaganda, the chief tenet of which was that Jesus either was not born at all, was a mere phantasm, or anyhow did not take flesh of the Virgin Mary. Against this view, the new Christmas was a protest, since it was peculiarly the feast of his birth in the flesh, or as a man, and is constantly spoken of as such by the fathers who witnessed its institution. [emphasis added – JS]

In other words, the motivation was doctrinal. It stressed that Jesus is God in the flesh, especially against the Marcionite version of Gnosticism. Celebration of the birth of Jesus began contemporaneously with the spread of infant baptism, which perhaps also stirred interest in the infant Jesus. The chief purpose for the introduction of the festival of His birth, though, was to underline the fact of the incarnation, that Jesus is Immanuel, or “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23).

Some today object to celebrating Christmas because it was, they say, formed by Christianizing some Pagan holidays. No doubt, that was a factor. Rather than try to ban the old celebrations, the church leaders sought rather to change the character of those celebrations. To do this while also striking a blow against one of the major heresies of the early church was a stroke of genius.

Those who first introduced this birth festival are not responsible for the legends, myths, and excesses that have grown up around it.

Should we blame them for innovation by adding something God had not specified?

Perhaps – but probably no more than we should blame the Jewish leaders who added the festival of Hanukah. This festival remembers the rededication of the Temple following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the inter-testament period. Jesus participated in this festival (see John 10:22), though it was not a part of God’s revelation to Israel in the Old Testament.

While we should never demand that someone celebrate the birth of Jesus on any particular day (or at all), Romans 14:5 certainly suggests that we should not forbid such a celebration either.

The origin of Christmas had a spiritual purpose: exalt Jesus as God in the flesh. Today, the secular, commercial spirit of our age has captured Christmas. It is so big in our American culture that it is impossible to ignore. That leaves us with a choice of exalting Jesus as God come in the flesh, or falling into the consumer Christmas of the secular world around us, or becoming “nay-sayers” who reject Christmas altogether.

Personally, I choose to exalt Jesus by any means possible.

NEXT (5): When Was Jesus Born?

PREVIOUS (3): No Room At the Inn (Communion Meditation)

Note: Yesterday, after I had prepared this item, Jay Guin posted this excellent article in which he deals with some of the same issues I discuss above. Check it out.


[Note: When I was a student at Harding under James D. Bales, he observed in class once that the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was a classic edition. This was the last complete edition before the University of Chicago took the editorial oversight of this encyclopedia. He said to us that if we ever came across a set of these to be sure to get it if possible. When I was living in Wellington, New Zealand more than 45 years ago, I found a set in a used bookstore in fair condition and purchased it, as I remember, for £15.

It has been a valuable addition to my library, as it has articles by many classical scholars. Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare was the author of both articles cited above. When I was in Graduate School at Cincinnati Christian Seminary, this set of books proved invaluable in giving background information on virtually all classical sources as well as for early church history. I still consult it for information such as is in this post, even though this encyclopedia will have its 100th anniversary next year.]


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