I like the Lord’s Prayer, but I have never liked the music that accompanies the lyrics. So, I decided to write my own new music. In the process of writing my new music, I had to decide whether to rewrite the lyrics. I did, and I hope you like my new lyrics.
The Lord’s Prayer focuses on right living, not about believing any correct doctrine regarding unknowable things. Except for the Embolism, which was added much later, it is completely non-denominational. A Christian, a Jew, a Moslem, a Hindu, or even an agnostic could pray it in good conscience.
The Lord’s Prayer was originally prayed in Hebrew or Aramaic. It was transmitted orally before it was written down in Hebrew or Aramaic. Later the Lord’s Prayer was translated into Greek and transmitted orally before it was written down in Greek.
Thus, there were possibilities, even certainties, that errors were made in translation and transmission. The proof is in the fact that there are least four versions of the Lord’s Prayer.
Luke 11:2-4, the shortest version;
Matthew 6:9-15 which is longer;
Didache 9:5, which is the longest and the only one to add “for thine is the power, and the glory”, although it omits “the kingdom” in the Doxology; and
The version found at Luke 11:2-4, the shortest version, says:
Father, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread;
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us;
and lead us not into temptation.
A longer version found at Matthew 6:9-15 reads thus:
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or evil), for Yours is the power and the glory for ever.
Thrice in the day thus pray.
The Byzantine version of Matthew 6: 9-13, or the Textus Receptus, as found in the King James Version, adds “the kingdom” and says:
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done
in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.
Next, I have added one line to the song, one which I suggest was originally present but which was deleted through errors in translation and oral transmission. In the third doublet I have added the line in bold caps:
Give us this day our daily bread, AS WE SHARE WITH THOSE IN NEED.
Although this line is missing from all known versions of the prayer, there is reason to believe that this line or something similar to it was originally part of the prayer. First, Hebrew prayers generally were written in doublets. Either the same idea is repeated with different wording or there is a paring of linked thoughts. There is frequent alliteration in Hebrew poetry, but little or no rhyming.
The 23rd Psalm is a good example: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want …”. Theologians call it Hebrew parallelism. It was the way the Hebrews did poetry.
So, from a structural point of view, without “as we share with those in need”, there is no parallelism to follow the “give us this day our daily bread” line.
Second, from a logical point of view, it would have been unlikely for one to ask God for daily bread without saying something about our sharing our bread with others. On this point James had this to say in James 2:15:
If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
Next, I rewrote or reinterpreted the following doublet:
Lead us not into temptation But deliver us from evil.
I propose that this was a bad translation from Aramaic into Greek. My reasoning derives from the book of James, in my opinion actually written by Jesus’ brother, who survived Jesus by 30 years and was the leader of the Jerusalem Essene disciples of Jesus.
The book of James focuses not on theology but on right living. The book of James may represent the closest we can come to the teachings of Jesus himself. James may have heard the incorrectly translated doublet in Greek asking God not to lead us into temptation. James may have been responding to the mistranslation when he wrote the following remarks found at James 1:12-13:
Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
So I have rewritten this doublet to reflect James’ criticism:
May we not be tested; But if we are, may we survive the test.
On December 8, 2016, Pope Francis was quoted by the New York Times as saying that the common rendering of one line in the prayer — “lead us not into temptation” — was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” you suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.
What I do not agree with is those who refer to Jesus as an illiterate peasant fisherman. If Jesus teachings resembled those of James, he would have not been illiterate. Nor do I agree with those who say that the book of James could not have been written by James, the brother of Jesus, because the Greek is the most polished of any book in the New Testament.
A better theory is that James himself did write the book of James, that he was an educated man, a polyglot as many Jews were and are today. It would be reasonable that James would speak Greek because Greek had been the language of rulers since the time of Alexander the Great.
Moreover, if James’ Greek was not good enough, he might have had help from from Greek speaking Judeo-Christian Essene Therapeutae from Alexandria. The Therapeutae were vegetarians as were the Essenes, and as were Jesus and his apostles.
Most scholars believe that the Epistle of James was written by someone other than James the brother of Jesus. The book appeared late in church history. However, it is important to note that it was first championed by Origen, who is connected with the church in Alexandria, where the Therapeutae may have preserved it.
I would contend that all of the Epistle of James was written by Jesus’ brother, except perhaps for James 2:10-11, which appears to be a probable Pauline interpolation and an incorrect disparagement of Jewish law:
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
Regarding the final lines of the prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Amen”, I would add the following speculation on my part:
It is possible that Jesus and his followers were students of the mystical and secret kabbalah, which in my opinion is a description of the mind of God, and because we are made in the image of God, a description of the human mind.
The Essenes, the vegetarian sect into which Jesus was probably born, the church before Jesus, studied a “twofold philosophy of ” … “the contemplation of God’s being and the origin of the universe.” (Philo, Quod Omnis Probus Liber, xii.; “Gnosticism,” “Cabala,” www.JewishEncyclopedia.com.)
The bottom three sefirot of the kabbalistic tree in descending order are Yod, Yesod, and Malkuth, which in reverse order are “the kingdom, the power, and the glory” of the Lord’s Prayer. (Matthew 6:9-15.) Although these words are missing from the versions in Matthew and Luke, they are to be found in Didache 9:5 and in the Byzantine version.
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My new book, Disciples: How Jewish Christianity Shaped Jesus and Shattered the Church (Apocryphile Press, 2013) has now been published. You can order it on Amazon here. (I will not be selling it through my website.)
A book about the disciples of Jesus would typically start with Jesus himself: first there was Jesus, then he had disciples.Disciples suggests a fundamentally different story: first there was a movement, then Jesus emerged as its leader. This movement was markedly different from both rabbinic Judaism and gentile Christianity. It became known to history as “Jewish Christianity”— Jews who followed both Jesus (as they understood him) and the Jewish law (as they understood it).
These first disciples affirmed simple living, nonviolence, and vegetarianism, and rejected wealth, war, and animal sacrifices. Some two decades after Jesus was crucified, they split with their most famous missionary, Paul, over the issues of vegetarianism and eating meat from animal sacrifices. These events become clear through examination of the letters of Paul and the Jewish Christian literature: the Recognitions, the Homilies, and testimony about Jewish Christianity in the early church fathers. The history of Jewish Christianity takes our understanding of Christian origins into a completely new realm.
My interest in early Christianity was prompted in an unusual way — through my becoming vegetarian. I was raised Christian, but then adopted vegetarianism (and shortly thereafter, veganism) for straightforward ethical reasons; I didn’t want to cause suffering to innocent animals.
I did not become vegetarian because of Christianity, but in spite of Christianity, which seemed to be indifferent or even hostile to vegetarianism. Most Christians ate meat and could invoke the example of their savior in support. Within Judaism, there was actually considerable support for vegetarianism (Genesis 1:29, Isaiah 11:6-9, etc.), but it seemed that Jesus and the Christians had betrayed this wise tradition. “Does God care for oxen?” Paul asks rhetorically (I Corinthians 9:9). Of course not!
But then I discovered the book Jewish Christianity by Hans-Joachim Schoeps, the foremost twentieth-century historian of Jewish Christianity. Schoeps concludes that the heretical Jewish Christians were not only vegetarian, but represented the oldest tradition of the apostles themselves. Schoeps’ book implies that vegetarianism was not only present in early Christianity, but was part of the original gospel of Jesus.
Understanding “Jewish Christianity” has been a special project of mine for over 30 years. It became clear to me that the history of these early Christians was not just a vegetarian fantasy. Schoeps himself was neither a Christian nor a vegetarian, but an objective historian of religion with no axe to grind. Other nonvegetarian scholars, such as Walter Wink, also saw the truth of the vegetarianism in early Jewish Christianity (The Lost Religion of Jesus, p. xi).
I have been continually astounded that — with a few exceptions — modern Christians and modern scholars know virtually nothing of Jewish Christianity. Those who are at least aware that it exists typically dismiss Jewish Christianity with statements like “some of Jesus’ followers didn’t understand that Jesus was to liberate us from the confines of Jewish rituals.” This blindness of Christians to their own history is the deeper lesson which the history of Jewish Christianity holds for us today.
Why should people so casually dismiss the idea that the Prince of Peace might make compassion for animals a key part of his program? This idea of compassion is hardly foreign to the history of religion. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism take the idea of vegetarianism seriously. No orthodox Hindu will eat beef, and Buddhists honor as their very first precept “not to take the life of any sentient creature.” In the modern era, even atheists and humanists like Peter Singer understand the vital importance of compassion to animals. Do these people understand something that Jesus didn’t?
Even in the West this philosophy of compassion had a strong presence at the time of Jesus. Pythagoras, who coined the term “philosophy,” was a vegetarian, as well as his follower Plato and at least some sects of the neo-Pythagorean Essenes. The Jewish tradition held that God created the world vegetarian (Genesis 1:29) and would one day return the world to that state from which it had fallen (Hosea 2:18, Isaiah 11:6-9). A vegetarian Jesus would hardly be introducing a completely new idea out of the clear blue sky, and there are even hints of these ideas in the gospels, where Jesus declares sympathy for the “least of these,” and says that God will not forget even a single sparrow.
Any consideration for sparrows goes right over the heads of modern scholars and Christians generally. Christianity has rejected the very idea of compassion for which Jesus gave his life, when nearly two millennia ago he went into the temple and disrupted the animal sacrifice business there, an act which led to his arrest and crucifixion.
Considering all the problems the world faces, such as climate change, massive extinctions, environmental destruction, peak oil, resource depletion, nuclear proliferation, and financial collapse, some may question whether there are not more important topics on the planet than the history of early Christianity. But for those with an appreciation of how religion both shapes and is shaped by human existence, the story of the early disciples of Jesus has lessons for all of us.
It is those lessons which I hope that Disciples will impart. The message of Jesus and the first Christians was about simple living, nonviolence, and vegetarianism, three practices which the modern world desperately needs.
It is hard to imagine Christianity surviving and spreading on the basis of Jesus’ teaching alone. That’s why Paul boasts that everything hinges on the resurrection of Jesus. I wrote a generation ago that “It was Jesus’ death, not his life, that saved him from obscurity” (Jesus Outside the Gospels) but in fact it was Jesus’ death dehistoricized and religionized by Paul and the resurrection traditions that really did the trick.
Joseph Hoffmann has an interesting post up this morning that takes the “mythicists” to task titled “The Historically Inconvenient Jesus.” Broadly this term refers to those who deny that the Jesus behind the Gospels and Paul even existed as a historical figure. Given myth and tradition, and especially the “mythmaking” of Paul, one has to legitimately ask what might lie “behind” the stories and how can we reliably know anything about Yeshua bar Yehosef, the historical figure?
The Emperor Hadrian and the Savior God Serapis
I have often said that Christians ended up putting Jesus in place of God, but perhaps more important, Paul is put before Jesus. It is Paul who ultimately “wins the day” in terms of how we think about practically everything “Christian.” True, the “Sermon on the Mount,” or something more academically esoteric such as the hypothetical “Q” source of Jesus’ teachings/saying, exist, but really they does not define the new religion or cult called Christianity as it moved into the wide Roman world. That achievement belongs to Paul. I argue in my new book,Paul and Jesus, for a “Christianity before Paul,” but clearly, as I explain, this is partly a deliberate choice of incongruent language on my part just to make the point that the Jesus movement lived and moved and had its being under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus, along with Peter, and John decades before Paul began to play a more major role. After 70 CE this is very much a moot point, but in Paul’s own time he was a minor figure against the broader and thicker horizon of Jesus followers clustered in Jerusalem and Galilee waiting for the coming of the “Son of Man in the Clouds of Heaven,” a reference not so much to Jesus but to the consummation of the rule of the “beasts” of Gentile governments as imagined by Daniel. What they most expected to happen never came, and what they never dreamed of came about–as my teacher at Chicago, Norman Perrin, used to say. Rather than the “beast” of Rome being slain and the “people of the Most High” taking rule of the cosmos, Roman mightily triumphed and had its “Golden Imperial Age’ well into the 2nd century.
A blanket of snow covers the little town of Bethlehem, in Pieter Bruegel’s oil painting from 1566. Although Jesus’ birth is celebrated every year on December 25, Luke and the other gospel writers offer no hint about the specific time of year he was born. Scala/Art Resource, NY
On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday?
The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.
The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.
This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.a
Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”
Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus’ origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament. The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.b These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.
Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”2
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.
In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.
So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?
There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).4
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.
More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.
There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.
Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.
This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.
The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.7
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
The baby Jesus flies down from heaven on the back of a cross, in this detail from Master Bertram’s 14th-century Annunciation scene. Jesus’ conception carried with it the promise of salvation through his death. It may be no coincidence, then, that the early church celebrated Jesus’ conception and death on the same calendar day: March 25, exactly nine months before December 25. Kunsthalle, Hamburg/Bridgeman Art Library, NY
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d
This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”12
In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”13 Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.e
Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).
Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.
The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.15
In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.16
2. Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145. In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism—sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate “incarnation” story—on the same date (Stromateis 1.21.146). See further on this point Thomas J. Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 118–120, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923), pp. 81–134; and now especially Gabriele Winkler, “The Appearance of the Light at the Baptism of Jesus and the Origins of the Feast of the Epiphany,” in Maxwell Johnson, ed., Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 291–347.
4. Scholars of liturgical history in the English-speaking world are particularly skeptical of the “solstice” connection; see Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.
5. A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.
6. Prominent among these was Paul Ernst Jablonski; on the history of scholarship, see especially Roll, “The Origins of Christmas,” pp. 277–283.
7. For example, Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem.
8. Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte Chrétien, 5th ed. (Paris: Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), pp. 275–279; and Talley, Origins.
d. The ancients were familiar with the 9-month gestation period based on the observance of women’s menstrual cycles, pregnancies and miscarriages.
e. In the West (and eventually everywhere), the Easter celebration was later shifted from the actual day to the following Sunday. The insistence of the eastern Christians in keeping Easter on the actual 14th day caused a major debate within the church, with the easterners sometimes referred to as the Quartodecimans, or “Fourteenthers.”
Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Andrew McGowan’s work on early Christianity includes God in Early Christian Thought (Brill, 2009) and Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford, 1999).