In December 2014 my esteemed and dear Friend, the late Ian Boyne, invited me to share my views on Christmas with him (on TVJ’s Religious Hard Talk show) in light of his Armstrongite Church view that Christmas is essentially pagan in origin. What’s below was my presentation.
At the outset you should know that I have advocated in print and in sermons for the removal of Christmas as a calendar event and public holiday. The fact that the New Testament nowhere assigns a specific date (year, month, date, or day of week) to the birthday of Jesus is suggestive of the lack of weight given to our Lord’s birthday but to say that a commemoration of his birthday is sinful or pagan in origin is excessive and bears a high burden of proof.
In the NT ‘that he came’ is important but secondary to ‘why he came’.
The Armstrongite allegation that the post-apostolic church later ‘borrowed’ a birthday from a rival figure (whether Mithras or Sol Invictus) is a smelly red herring.
First, let’s note that it is not at all certain that this borrowing actually occurred—there is some lack of clarity in the data.
The December 25 date of birth was as early as Hippolytus late 2nd– 3rd century (A.D. 165–235), a date also set by John Chrysostom (A.D. 345–407).
In 274 Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 as the celebration of the ‘Unconquerable Sun,” the first day in which there was a noticeable increase in light after the winter solstice. This is 39 years after the death of Hippolytus.
Whether this festival was celebrated earlier than the third century is unknown. Nor is it certain that December 25 was the birthday of Mithras as well as of Sol Invictus. This has not prevented many scholars from assuming that Mithraic influence upon Christianity was involved in the adoption of this date for Christmas.
The argument that Christmas is pagan in origin is philosophically juvenile and untenable, it commits what I call the source/product fallacy in logic (genetic fallacy the more formal name). OK, so the Christians either as a competitive strategy or whatever celebrated the birthday of Jesus on the same day that the pagans celebrated sol invictus so what? Did they celebrate Jesus’ birth the same way the pagans celebrated sol invictus? No! They adopted a day of popular celebration and loaded it with Christian content. What’s wrong with that?
A modern comparable event in Jamaica took place in the late 70s, if my sources are correct, when David Keane and the Sonshine Singers organized a music festival called SONsplash as an alternative to the popular Reggae SUNsplash, same time period, same kind of music event but radically different content.
Then as an aside, what do Armstrongites do about the days of the week, all named after pagan deities of the ancient world?
Sunday: Sun’s Day. The Sun gave people light and warmth every day. They decided to name the first (or last) day of the week after the Sun.
Monday: Moon’s Day. The Moon was thought to be very important in the lives of people and their crops.
Tuesday: Tiw’s Day. Tiw, or Tyr, was a Norse god known for his sense of justice.
Wednesday: Woden’s Day. Woden, or Odin, was a Norse god who was one of the most powerful of them all.
Thursday: Thor’s Day. Thor was a Norse god who wielded a giant hammer.
Friday: Frigg’s Day. Frigg was a Norse god equal in power to Odin.
Saturday: Seater’s Day or Saturn’s Day. Saturn was a Roman god.
We all call the days of the week without most of us knowing the pagan origin of the names thus the days are emptied of origination content through our ignorance, they are simply days of the week.
If it is factual that Nero wore an early version of eyeglasses then in all likelihood a pagan invented eyeglasses but as a very nearsighted person I couldn’t care less as long as they are available now for my visual disability. The product remains useful regardless of the source.
The Roman Empire, with the “conversion” of Constantine, knew quite clearly the difference between the Jesus of the Christians and the Sun God of the Roman elite or the Mithras of the military. There would be no confusion between the two. The fierce struggles “for the minds of men” between Christian thought and pagan thought in the 2nd and 3rd centuries kept the distinctions very, very clear.”Converting” a holiday from Sol/Mithras to Christ would not even make sense, given the early theology of the Church.