About this time of year the media is awash with fundamentalists screaming about the so-called “War on Christmas.” Slogans like, “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus is the reason for the season,” are chanted by the faithful, ad nauseam. On top of all the prostrations from Church leaders and run of the mill preachers, FOX news presenters and other pugnacious and petulant media pundits are doing their best to keep reason out of the season. But what is the reason for the season? Let’s take one of the above mentioned slogans and really look at the evidence in a bid to establish the real reason for the season.
Jesus Is the Reason For the Season?
Is Jesus the reason for the season? To answer this question we must dissect it using all of the available evidence, for no reason exists beyond reasonable evidence. Who was Jesus Christ? What is the season? Once we have answered these two questions, we may be able to ascertain with sufficient certainty, whether or not Jesus is the reason for the season.
1. Who was Jesus Christ?
Who was Jesus Christ? The question seems simple enough, but the devil or truth, one might say, is in the details. To the devout Christian, he was the Jewish son of the creator of the entire universe and everything in it; the Messiah, the saviour of humanity and the light of the world; the redeemer, the sacrificial Lamb of God, born to be slaughtered for the world’s sins and the founder, next to Paul, of Christian religion. His words and deeds, Christians believe, are recorded in the four official Gospels of the New Testament; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, four faithful and accurate testimonies that have been inscribed with the names of the actual eyewitnesses to this miraculous earthborn god incarnate. According to these Gospels, he was the son of a Jewish virgin named Mary and foster son of Joseph, a descendent of King David (see Matthew 1 & Luke 3), born in Bethlehem toward the end of Herod the Great’s reign, which the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, helps us date to around four BCE, although some scholars are of the opinion that Herod died in 1 BCE,(1) which would cause problems for the present consensus with regards to the year of Jesus’ birth, but I suppose such is the dilemma of dating the birth of a legendary/mythical god-man. (2) To sketch out a very brief and rough account of his alleged existence, we must conflate the four separate and conflicting records of his life contained within the aforementioned Gospels, however, in so doing, we run into a myriad of historical problems.
Did his parents live in Galilee before he was born (Luke 2:4), or did they live in Bethlehem (Matthew 1)? Where exactly was he born? In a stable/manger (Luke 2:7) or in a house (Matthew 2:11)? Who visited the baby Jesus? Was it some unknown number of astrologers from the East (Matthew 2:1-11), or a bunch of local shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)? Was the baby Jesus in danger from the tyrant, King Herod? According to Matthew he was, but according to Luke, he wasn’t. Did Joseph take the baby Jesus to Egypt? Again, Luke says no and Matthew says, yes. I could go on like this for pages, but alas, time and space are not on my side. There are so many contradictions in these four brief “biographies” that it is virtually impossible to ascertain with any clarity, what Jesus did and who he was alleged to have been.
The Gospels aren’t only riddled with contradictions, but they are also plagued with forgeries or interpolations, as textual scholars more politely call them. The story of the woman taken in adultery,(3) the final twelve verses of Mark,(4) Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus,(5) and on and on I could go. In fact, there are so many problems and variations between the manuscripts which make up the New Testament, that a number of textual scholars have thrown up their hands and conceded that there is no way of knowing what any of the original manuscripts actually contained.(6)
To add to this historical disaster, these biographies fail the historical test of contemporaneity, meaning, they weren’t written until well after the events they describe, thus bringing into question their historical reliability. The earliest Gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until an entire generation after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus (7) and Mark forms the foundation of the second Gospel, Matthew, of which, 612 of the 662 verses are nearly identical with regards to sentence structure, narrative order and language, meaning, the author of Matthew probably copied from the author of Mark.(8)
This leads us to the next dilemma; none of the Gospels were written by the authors whose names and traditions tell us they were written by. The tradition of ascribing the Gospel of “Mark” to an associate of Saint Peter, comes to us from Eusebius’ dubious translation of Papias’ work, in which, Eusebius alleged that Papias alleged, that he had a friend who knew a guy, who knew another guy, who knew a friend of Mark, who had told him that he had acted as Peter’s interpreter and spent an extended period of time with him.(9) We do have to wonder, if Mark spent a long time with Peter, why did he only pen two hours’ worth of biography on the man he believed to be the one and only son of the one and only God? Anyway, leaving aside that hearsay saturated tradition, we move onto Matthew. From the same dubious source we learn that the Gospel of Matthew was a book of Hebrew sayings,(10) like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, but wait a minute! The Gospel we know as Matthew isn’t a book of sayings written in Hebrew, it is a narrative, originally written in Greek with no signs of having been translated from Hebrew, so that can’t be the same book Papias was allegedly referring to.(11) Next, we have Luke & John. Both these books were written close to the second century (12) and they tell us that the authors were not eyewitnesses, but had either taken their accounts from older manuscripts or else, heard hearsay stories (See Luke 1:1-4 & John 21:24). Further, the traditions ascribing authorship of these biographies to these two characters are just as dubious as the other two.(13)
Yet another historical hurdle these biographies stumble upon is bias, meaning, they are not impartial accounts of history, written for the sole purpose of documenting events of the past, but they are religious texts, written to inspire conversions to the faith propagated within their pages. Bias, according to historians, is one of the factors that negatively impacts upon the reliability of a given account.(14) In his, ‘The Philosophy of History,’ Georg W.F. Hegel eloquently excluded such legends and traditional tales from being counted as original history, saying:
“Legends, Ballad−stories, Traditions must be excluded from such original history. These are but dim and hazy forms of historical apprehension, and therefore belong to nations whose intelligence is but half awakened. Here, on the contrary, we have to do with people fully conscious of what they were and what they were about. The domain of reality actually seen, or capable of being so affords a very different basis in point of firmness from that fugitive and shadowy element, in which were engendered those legends and poetic dreams whose historical prestige vanishes, as soon as nations have attained a mature individuality.” (15)
Now, one would have a very hard time if they wanted to argue that the Gospels were neither affected by bias or qualify for exclusion from the criteria described by Hegel.
These historical biographies are also hampered by arguments of similarity. This simply means that we can find earlier biographies of other historical and legendary characters, whose tales appear to have been drawn from to produce these biographies of Jesus Christ, as well as more ancient myths, in which we find a wealth of parallels to the later Christ myth. In Dennis McDonald’s ‘The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark,’ he discusses the plethora of parallels between Mark’s Gospel and the earlier works of Homer. He also relates how scribes of the first century were required to read and re-write Homer’s works, which seems to be a valid explanation as to how Mark’s Gospel mimics Homer’s earlier writings.(16) Over and above this, we have various motifs that existed in more ancient Hellenistic, Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian and even Indian myths.(17) From Christ’s epithets to his nativity, to his death and resurrection, all can be accounted for in the myths of earlier works and all were proximate to the lands in which the Gospels were first produced.
OK, so before moving on to look briefly at the extra-biblical/secular sources for an historical Jesus Christ, let’s take stock of where we are with the primary historical sources for Jesus Christ. We have four brief and conflicting pseudonymous biographies, none of which were eyewitness accounts; they are riddled with forgeries, plagued with bias and were not written within a reliable time span from the events they purport to relay. In short, they are not valid history and do not help us ascertain the earthly presence of their central character, or “reason for the season.”
What do find when we go looking for Jesus Christ beyond the aforementioned molluscs of myth? Well, we have two brief references to Jesus Christ within the first century work of the Jewish historian, Josephus. The first and most popular reference is commonly referred to as the ‘Testamonium Flavium’ and this has been roundly demonstrated to be a Christian forgery.(18) The second reference to Jesus Christ, also appears to contain a forgery and when this forgery is subtracted from Josephus’ narrative, the Jesus he appears to have been referring to was Jesus the son of Damneus, who is the central character of the part the narrative in question,(19) and is one of over 20 Jesus’ referred to in his ‘Antiquities of the Jews,’ some of which included; Jesus the son of Sapphias, Jesus the son of Gamala, Jesus the son of Phabet, Jesus the son of Sie, Jesus the son of Fabus, Jesus the son of Thias, Jesus the son of Gamaliel, Jesus the son of Damneus, Jesus the brother of Onias, Jesus the brother of John…
OK, so the first century is a bust, but just maybe if we travel beyond contemporaneous sources, in other words, if we investigate historically unreliable sources for Jesus Christ, perhaps we might find something, as fruitless as such a quest happens to be.
Bingo! If we move into the second century, we find passing references to Jesus Christ within the works of Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger.
Suetonius, in his The Lives of the 12 Caesars,’ made mention of a “Chrestus,” who resided in Rome and instigated the Jews in Rome to riot, but Jesus Christ was never believed to have lived in Rome, so that’s no help.(20)
Pliny the Younger, a pro-consul in Rome, who served under the emperor Trajan, mentioned the Christians in a letter he wrote to the emperor, but he only demonstrates a knowledge of the presence of the religion of Christianity in the second century,(21) which in no way constitutes an historical source for Jesus Christ, in the same way Herodotus’ reference to the followers of the Egyptian God Osiris fails to prove that god’s historicity.
In the second century, the Roman official, Tacitus, in reflecting on Nero’s persecution of the Christians in the first century, did say that the Christians derive their name from a figure known as Christ, but again, such knowledge is not in dispute and as with Pliny’s testimony, does nothing to locate a Jesus Christ in history, but rather, it merely establishes that Christianity was a religion in the first century. Further, Tacitus’ reference has been the subject of debate, with many scholars arguing that it was interpolated into his works by later Christian forgers.(22)
Aside from a few Jewish polemics written centuries after the fact, that is all we have to support the idea of an historical Jesus. Our reason for the season has disappeared into the obscurity of ill-gotten religious belief and rears its head nowhere in reliable and actual history. Without our reason, we are only left with a season and what can be said of that? Let us now, for the moment at least, ignore all that we have discovered about our absent saviour, and keep him alive long enough to show that even if he was an historical magician, he was not the reason for the season, however, before we move on, let’s hear from John Remsburg, who, in his book, ‘The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidences of His Existence,’ sums up both the lack of secular sources for Jesus and the unwarranted historical weight that has been placed upon these four dubious biographies of Jesus Christ:
"With these four brief biographies, the Four Gospels, Christianity must stand or fall. These four documents, it is admitted, contain practically all the evidence which can be adduced in proof of the existence and divinity of Jesus Christ. Profane history, as we have seen, affords no proof of this. The so-called apocryphal literature of the early church has been discarded by the church itself. Even the remaining canonical books of the New Testament are of little consequence if the testimony of the Four Evangelists be successfully impeached. Disprove the authenticity and credibility of these documents and this Christian deity is removed to the mythical realm of Apollo, Odin, and Osiris."(23)
2. The Real Reason for the Season
Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who was born on December 25th in the zero year, -1 BCE. That is why we call this year, the year 2013, because it is 2013 years from the birth of Jesus Christ. Oops, I appear to have made a mistake. Jesus is no longer believed to have been born in that zero year, but around -4 to -6 BCE, as the historical data indicating Herod’s reign and death has caused problems for that initial birthday. No problem, what’s a year or six, here and there? Still, we know that the Bible teaches us that Jesus was born on December 25th. Sorry, I appear to have made another mistake. I really should be more careful! The Bible says nothing about his birthday being on December 25th, in the depths of winter, when the shepherds were outside tending their flocks in the bitter cold. Ok, so the Bible doesn’t say anything about the reason for the season, so where and when, did Jesus’ birthday first become the reason for the season? To answer this question we will need to travel hundreds of years and hundreds of miles from the alleged birth place and time of Jesus.
The first Christmas celebrated on December 25th occurred in the fourth century, in Rome, close to four hundred years after the alleged life of Christ and this date appears to have been chosen to spite, or take over, the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ ‘diesnatalis solis invicti,’ the birthday of the invincible “pagan” sun god, established in 274.(24) As with the very basis of Christianity’s god-man, their season seems to have been inspired by pre-Christian religions, religions that the Christians were attempting to usurp by accosting their themes, celebrations, places of worship and even their more ancient rights and rituals.
Regarding the origins of Christmas, ‘The Cambridge History of Christianity’ says:
“The only conclusion is that the season had its origins in the fourth century in pre-Christmas themes that differed from place to place.”(25)
What “pre-Christian themes” are the scholars at Cambridge referring to? I mentioned above that the initial Christmas was probably celebrated on the birthday of the former sun god to usurp that widely celebrated and well established pre-Christian holiday, but we will need to look a little more closely at this issue if we wish to establish the real reason for the season.
Let’s start with the date, December 25th. It just so happens that this is around the end of the winter solstice. For those who are unfamiliar with this astronomical event, the solstice refers to the sun’s apparent standstill for three days after its slow decline from fall/autumn. After this three day pause, it slowly begins its ascent back to the spring equinox (March 21st) and onto summer. To many ancient religions, particularly those whose god was the anthropomorphised sun, this period was looked upon as his death, rest or sojourn, in the underworld. In classical myth, this three day rest can be witnessed when Zeus persuaded the sun god, Helios, not to rise for three days so that he (Zeus) might enjoy Hercules’ mother, the virgin, Alcmene, for as long as possible.(26)
Commenting on the significance of not only the winter solstice, but the epiphany (Jan. 6th) and Easter, the famous 20th century Christian theologian, Williston Walker said:
“These elaborations of the yearly cycle determined by Easter and Pentecost went hand in hand with the appearance of a new annual cycle of celebration associated with the Incarnation and focused on the feasts of Christmas (December 25th) and Epiphany (January 6th). Each of these dates was also associated with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. In Rome, December 25th had, since the time of the emperor Aurelian, been marked as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun; and in the East, January 6th had long had associations with the birth of the god Dionysus. Influenced by these circumstances, and by the need to lend Christian meaning to established popular feasts, the churches adapted these days to celebration of the birth and manifestation in history of the divine Logos, the Sun of Righteousness…”(27)
In addition, Historian Roger Beck informs us that:
“As the Sun inscribes his celestial journey on the earth in the waxing and waning of the seasons, so the ancients inscribed the story of a human life on that same annual journey as the god’s own biography, from birth and the weakness of the newborn at the winter solstice on December 25, through growth and waxing vigor to a height of strength and power at the summer solstice, and then into decline, senescence, and a sort of death. Speaking of the differences in age of the representation of various gods, the fourth-century (ce) polymath Macrobius said that these all ‘‘relate to the Sun, who is made to appear very small at the winter solstice’’ (Saturnalia 1.18.10). ‘‘In this form,’’ he continues, ‘‘the Egyptians bring him forth from the shrine on the set date to appear like a tiny infant on the shortest day of the year.’’ By the same metaphorical logic, the Calendar of Antiochus of Athens named December 25 the ‘‘Sun’s birthday…”(28)
Finally, although I could continue to quote reliable sources ad infinitum, let’s hear from a brilliant scholar, Isaac Asimov, who discusses the reason for the season in the following words:
“Why, then, December 25th? The answer might be found in astronomy and in Roman history. The noonday Sun is at varying heights in the sky at different seasons of the year because the Earth's axis is tipped by 23 degrees to the plane of Earth's revolution about the Sun. Without going into the astronomy of this in detail, it is sufficient to say that the noonday Sun climbs steadily higher in the sky from December to June, and falls steadily lower from June to December. The steady rise is easily associated with a lengthening day, an eventually waning temperature and quickening of life; the steady decline with a shortening day, an eventually cooling temperature and fading of life. In primitive times, when the reason for the cycle was not understood in terms of modem astronomy, there was never any certainty that the sinking Sun would ever turn and begin to rise again. Why should it do so, after all, except by the favor of the gods? And that favor might depend entirely upon the proper conduct of a complicated ritual known only to the priests. It must have been occasion for great gladness each year, then, to observe the decline of the noonday Sun gradually slowing, then coming to a halt and beginning to rise again. The point at which the Sun comes to a halt is the winter solstice" (from Latin words meaning "sun halt”). The time of the winter solstice was the occasion for a great feast in honor of what one might call the "birth of the Sun!” In Roman times, a three-day period, later extended to seven days, was devoted to the celebration of the winter solstice.”(29)
Based on the available evidence, can we assert, with any degree of certainty, that Jesus is the reason for the season? We have no real secular record of his earthly existence, no reliable evidence at all, in fact. Further, we have even less reason to believe that he was a magical demi-god, for in the words of Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and sadly for the believer, we are not even graced with ordinary evidence for such claims. Being that we cannot say whether or not an earthly Jesus existed, let alone the divine David Blaine of the Gospels, how can we attribute the cause or reason for the Christmas season to him? In short, we cannot. Even if we could conjure up non-existent evidence to establish the former proposition, i.e., that Jesus was historical and the Son of God, we are in possession of vast tomes of historical evidence that demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt, that Jesus had nothing to do with this pre-Christian season until at least the fourth century.
I do apologize, but it appears that you may no longer continue to claim that Jesus is the reason for the season, unless you wish to stand against reason occasioned by mountains of evidence, mountains, my dear Christian, that your faith simply cannot move.
1. W. E. Filmer. ‘Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great.’ Journal of Theological Studies. Ns. 17 (1966). pp. 283–298; Paul Keresztes. ‘Imperial Rome and the Christians: From Herod the Great to About 200 AD.’ University Press of America. (1989). pp.1–43.
2. Josephus, ‘Antiquities of the Jews,’ 17.6.4; Emil Schurer. D.D, M.A, ‘A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ.’ Vol. 1. (1891). p. 465; John Barton and John Muddiman. ‘The Oxford Bible Commentary.’ Oxford University Press. (2001). p. 622.
3. Paul. J. Achtemeier. ‘Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary Revised Edition.’ Harper Collins, (1989). p. 535; Carl R. Holladay. ‘A Critical Introduction to the New Testament.’ Abingdon Press. (2005). p. 281; James M. Robinson. ‘The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News.’ Harper Collins, (2005) p. 65; Bart D Ehrman. ‘Misquoting Jesus.’ HarperSanFrancisco. (2005). p. 64.
4. Bruce Metzger, ‘A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.’ Stuttgart, (1971). pp. 122-126; Joel F. Williams. ‘Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel.’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 42.1 (1999).
5. Bart D Ehrman. ‘Jesus Interrupted.’ Harper Collins (2005). p. 164.
6. Bart D Ehrman. ‘Misquoting Jesus.’ HarperSanFrancisco. (2005). p. 58.
7. Paul. J. Achtemeier. ‘Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary Revised Edition.’ Harper Collins, (1989). p. 653; John Barton and John Muddiman. ‘The Oxford Bible Commentary.’ Oxford University Press. (2001). p. 886.
8. Graham N. Stanton. ‘The Gospels and Jesus.’ Oxford University Press (1989). pp. 63-64.
9. Phillip Schaff . Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers; 2-01; Eusebius ‘Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine.’ (1890). p. 253.
10. Ibid. p. 254.
11. Bart D Ehrman. ‘Jesus Interrupted.’ Harper Collins (2005). p. 109.
12. Rick Strelan. ‘Luke the Priest. The Authority of the Author of the Third Gospel.’ Ashgate (2008). Pg. 114; Bart D Ehrman. ‘Jesus Interrupted.’ Harper Collins (2005). p. 145; James D. G. Dunn. The Evidence for Jesus. The Westminster Press. (1985). p. 41.
13. Michael Sherlock. ‘I Am Christ Vol. 1: The Crucifixion-Painful Truths.’ Charles River Press. (2012). pp. 100-106.
14. McCullagh, C. Behan. “Bias in Historical Description, Interpretation, and Explanation. History & Theory’ 39.1 (2000): 39. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Aug. 2011.
15. G.W.F. Hegel. ‘The Philosophy of History.’ Blackmask Online. (2001). p. 1.
16. Dennis McDonald. ‘The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.’ Yale University Press. (2000). Ch. 1.
17. Rank, Otto. ‘The Myth of the Birth of the Hero.’ Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Co. (1914); T.W Doane. ‘Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions.’ The Commonwealth Company. (1882); Sir Edwin Arnold. ‘The Light of Asia’; cited in; Tom Harpur. ‘The Pagan Christ.’ Walker and Company. (2004); Acharya S. ‘Suns of God. Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled.’ Adventures Unlimited Press. (2004); Tim Callahan. ‘Secret Origins of the Bible.’ Millennium Press. (2002); Edwin F. Bryant and Laurie L. Patton. ‘The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History.’ Routledge (2005); Dr. Robert Price. ‘Pagan Parallels to Christ’ Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzOrc_kwcU4; Fredrick Cornwallis Conybeare. ‘The Life of Apollonius of Tyana: Philostratus, Vol. 1.’ The Macmillan Co. (1912)…
18. John E Remsburg. ‘The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidences of His Existence.’ The Truth Seeker Company. (1909) pp. 32-35.
19. Flavius Josephus. ‘Antiquities of the Jews.’ Book 20 Chapter 9.
20. Suetonius, Joseph Gavorse. ‘The Lives of the 12 Caesars.’ Random House. (1931). p. 226.
21. John E Remsburg. ‘The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidences of His Existence.’ The Truth Seeker Company. (1909) Pg. 43.
22. Ibid. pp. 40-41.
23. Ibid. pp. 50-51.
24. Augustine Casiday & Fredrick W. Norris. ‘The Cambridge History of Christianity. Constantine to 600 CE.’ Cambridge University Press. (2008). p. 615.
25. Ibid. p. 616.
26. Jenny March. ‘Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology.’ Cassell’s & Co. (1998). p. 75.
27. Williston Walker. ‘A History of the Christian Church.’ 4th Ed. Prentice Hall. (1918). pp. 187-189.
28. Roger Beck. ‘A Brief History of Ancient Astrology.’ Blackwell Publishing. (2007). pp. 56-57.
29. Isaac Asimov. ‘Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. Two Volumes in One. The Old and New Testaments.’ Wings Books. (1969). pp. 931-932.