It’s that time of year again; shopping, eating and awkward family visits. For the Hebrew Roots folks, it’s even more awkward. Christmas is generally frowned upon as a pagan celebration and roundly condemned as something believers should not be taking part of. This was my position for several years. Rejection of Christmas is part and parcel of the Torah Observant communities.
Generally Deuteronomy 18 is quoted “do not learn the ways of the nations or worship me in their way.” I admit this is a powerful motivator that gets one thinking about what “the church” has gotten wrong over the years.
Christmas and Easter are usually touted as Christians adopting pagan holidays to make conversion easier for the pagan. If we have the same holidays and customs, we’ll be more attractive right? I was convinced for a while. We hear it over and over again that Constantine changed everything in the fourth century and instituted these new holidays. One only has to search Youtube for Constantine and Christmas to get a myriad of condemning videos. Here’s where I got into trouble. I started studying the history myself and just doing a little thinking.
Christmas was around way before Constantine. In fact, it is mentioned off hand in a work by Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 1.21.145) in the second century and we can ascertain from Saint Augustine’s writings the same thing.
So here’s where the Jewish element comes in. The Christians believed (and still do) that they are in some way Israel. In the early years, they thought of themselves as part of the Jewish religion and are characterized as such in Acts of the Apostles 24:14. They obviously shared many things in common with the various strands of Judaism in the second temple period. Many of these beliefs can be found in the literature of the time and from the Talmud. Although the Talmud was written and codified much later, it does preserve some early material. One of these beliefs is the concept of integral age. The Patriarchs and prophets were born and died in at least the same month, and usually on the same day. This idea can be found in Tractate Rosh Hashana of the Talmud: “R. Jehoshua, says: In Nissan the world was created, and in the same month the patriarchs were born, and in Nissan they also died; Isaac was born on the Passover; on New Year’s Day Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were visited, Joseph was released from prison, and the bondage of our fathers in Egypt ceased. In Nissan our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, and in the same month we shall again be redeemed.” If this is true of the prophets, would it not be acceptable for the messiah? That is what the early Christians thought.
The back drop of the second century is that the Gnostic heresy was in full swing. The Gnostics believed that Jesus/Yeshua was only an apparition or that God only descended upon him at baptism and left him before the crucifixion. The main point being that the flesh was evil and God was saving us from this fleshly existence. So when you have a group of Gnostics saying “Hey the Word didn’t come in the flesh, ’cause that’s bad” you’ve got an issue.
What happened, I believe, is that Christians took this belief in integral age and the advent of messiah to calculate his birth at least partially in response to Gnosticism. We know that messiah died on Passover so he must have been born then right? But wait! In the beginning the word became flesh. So messiah became flesh well before birth, certainly not at baptism as some the heretics taught. So if he died on the same day he was made flesh, that would be the date of his conception, not birth. His birth would be nine months later (as the ancients believed). So all we have to do is puzzle out what day Passover was when he was crucified and then add nine months to it. Here’s how we got the dates on the Julian and later Gregorian calendar.
Most Hebrew Roots people I know insist on using the biblical calendar. However, when I ask them when they are celebrating Passover or what have you, they give me the Gregorian date. The same thing was going on in the Diaspora and the early Christian communities. They took what dates they thought were correct for the new year, rosh chodesh etc. and reconciled it to the local Julian calendar, exactly as my friends do today. No one in Spain or Rome was waiting around for months for a messenger to come from the Sanhedrin to tell them the new year was here and Passover is in two weeks. It was just impossible to rely on that, and there is plenty of evidence the Diaspora didn’t always recognize the Sanhedrin’s authority anyway (just read Philo of Alexandria).
All this is to say that in the west the early Christians thought that Christ was crucified on March 25 (probably not the right date, but, oh well, sorry). In the east, April 6th was the day they thought Passover fell that year. So if you add nine months to either of these two dates, you get the two dates for Christmas, December 25th in the west and January 6th in the east. This idea came from a belief they held in common with Jews of the second temple period of integral age and does not seem to have pagan origins.
During the second century Christians were not in the habit of adopting pagan customs. They were trying to be distinct from their pagan persecutors and the rabbinic Jews that they had mutually cut ties with. So to say that Christians were adopting this day to make conversion easier for pagans denies the character of the faith in the early centuries. Further, we see no evidence from any ancient source that encourages such behavior, but the complete opposite.
This belief that everything Christian was once pagan mainly comes from the higher criticism and radical Protestantism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Higher criticism claimed (with scant evidence) that Christmas as well as many other Christian customs were adopted by the faith for attracting pagans. This is called the History of Religions Hypothesis (what I have been arguing for is called the Calculation Hypothesis). The radical Protestants thought it was a “pope-ish” custom and of course, Rome was the Harlot from Revelation. Since the 19th century this idea has been picked up by Seventh Day Adventists and others and made its way into Hebrew Roots, which is basically predicated on the premise that the church lied to us and is trying to lead us into false worship.
I abandoned this belief of the church lying to us on further inspection of the history of Christianity and an examination of the arguments that are put forth by Hebrew Roots. It started with this article by Andrew McGowan, a scholar of early Christian beliefs and practices
From here I read everything in the bibliography, especially the primary sources, to recreate his research and see it for myself. I then began reading widely on the first six centuries of Christianity, both primary and secondary sources, and could not find any evidence for adoption of pagan customs for Christmas. Needless to say, I was floored. I had spent the last few years telling my family we’re not going to celebrating a pagan holiday, based on watching a few video on Youtube and listening to self proclaimed “Torah teachers”. I read another scholarly source that argued that Christmas grew out of Hanukkah. As Hanukkah was the re-dedication of the temple, the advent of messiah is a re-dedication of the temple of our bodies. The image of God in man is being redeemed by God becoming man. So the idea is thoroughly second temple Jewish/biblical.
I concluded most of my research last January, after Christmas. So this year will be the first year in half a decade that I’m open to the idea of celebrating the holiday. How does that look? I’m not sure. Maybe some pagan influence has come in over the centuries and folk ways have taken root (and certainly Coca-Cola). So I still want to be careful. My main goal is to honor God. Growing up Protestant, the only Christian holidays were Christmas and Easter, there was no greater calendar of events or seasons besides a reluctant Valentine’s day. Advent, Lent, even Pentecost wasn’t on the radar. From my study of the liturgy and church calendar I’ve come to realize that these two holidays were part of an entire cycle that lasted the entire year and suffused it with contemplation of the messiah, much of it based on the biblical holidays found in Leviticus 23. My understanding of early Christianity has grown in leaps and bounds and I must say, I haven’t found the conspiracy that Hebrew Roots had taught me. I don’t mean to beat up on them, they are mostly well meaning people and teach this as a given. In fact, many Christians just readily admit that Christmas is pagan because it’s repeated so much most people think it actually is, but it’s not! Hardly anyone has bothered to check these assumed positions, Christian or Hebrew Roots.
My challenge to you, instead of taking my word for it, go do the research yourself. Read Thomas Talley’s Origins of the Liturgical Calendar and Bradshaw’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity. These are scholarly sources that are not propaganda from someone who has a dog in the fight. And of course, read the primary sources of early Christianity. I think what you will find is that Christmas fits neatly into accepted beliefs of second temple Judaism from which Christianity came. It was a holiday to commemorate the redeeming of our flesh, the true temple (Hanukkah) and to combat the Gnostic heresy that messiah did not come in the flesh.
I think after this I’ll do one more reflection on Christmas and then I’ll tackle the issue of Constantine. I’m sure that won’t be controversial at all!
God bless, and may we all walk in His Truth.