The Origins of Christmas?

Merry Christmas Eve–of course–but why? That is, why now? How did Christians come to celebrate Christmastime beginning on the evening of December 24? And why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25?

This might seem to be a question for early church history, and not New Testament studies (yet, are the two so separate?). It must be asserted, however, that any journey to understand the New Testament cannot be confined to the goings on of the first century alone, or the New Testament texts alone. Just as relevant historical contexts are a matter of the centuries leading up to the time of the New Testament, and the world around the time of the New Testament, they also extend after the time of the New Testament, and the early centuries (especially insofar as they involve the early reception and understanding of the New Testament). The time of the Nicene creed(s) (325, and 381) is probably a good end-marker for this early context, and in fact, it is not until this time that the feast of Christmas is clearly seen as being practised in a widespread way within the early Christian communities.

While the origins of the December 25 feast are thus late, it happens to be the case that the New Testament does feature into the history of scholarly discussion on the question. How so? And what is the history of this date and feast? I have no sure answers for you, because the data are inconclusive. However, below, I furnish you with three different readings of varying depth to help you understand this complex debate.

Andrew McGowan “How December 25 Became Christmas”

McGowan, Andrew. “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Bible Review 18, no. 6 (2002): 46–48, 57–58.

While this short article is inferior to the one below (as far as I can tell it is essentially a summary of that article with a couple “new” comments), I share it because it is at least useful to give a very general report of the state of the question for those who have not ever given it a second thought. McGowan is a well-known scholar of early Christianity, however, so his is not the summary of a neophyte by any means!

One note: McGowan makes an interesting comment that historical suppositions based off incidental details in the Gospels should not be made, because the focus of the narrative is “theological and not calendrical.” Must chronological information only be found in calendars? It’s an absurd statement, and the positive assertion (its “focus is theological”) is unqualified and highly questionable if it is meant to suggest “theology” makes a narrative exclusive of history. That aside, this is the sort of short report one might expect to find in a lay-level journal (because that’s where it appeared), and might be a nice short reading this Christmas eve.

Along the lines of more readable treatments of the subject, a lay-level book by scholar of religion, Joseph F. Kelly (The Origins of Christmas [Liturgical Press, 2003]) would be a very good choice for the interested layperson who wants a digestible read of a larger account of the issue. Much of it can be read online for free here.

Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question”

Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question.” 273–90 in Maxwell E. Johnson (ed.) Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year. Liturgical Press, 2000.

Susan Roll wrote the book on the origins of Christmas from an academic perspective, and her essay in the edited volume, Between Memory and Hope, is a very good summary of the history of the debate over the origins of Christmas. She writes well and details with full documentation the general arguments and contours of the two schools of thought on the question: the “history of religions hypothesis” (Religiongeschichtlichehypothese—gotta love agglutination) and the “calculation hypothesis” (Berechnungshypothese). The first is the general school of thought that wants to variously associate the rise of the Christmas feast with pagan antecedents; the second is more concerned to consider the rise of the feast as coming from within the church. Roll’s essay is probably the best concise treatment to get your bearings with what’s been said on the subject.

F.C. Conybeare, “The History of Christmas”

F. C. Conybeare, “The History of Christmas.” American Journal of Theology 3.1 (1899) 1–21.

F.C. Conybeare was an orientalist and theologian who wrote widely on the ancient world; he is well known for his book Myth, Magic, and Morals: A Study of Christian Origins. In the 1899 essay I share below, Conybeare essentially advances an argument that turns on an adoptionist Christology (that the human Jesus became the son of God at some point in his ministry, usually—and in Conybeare’s case—at his baptism). Conybeare’s own argument is that the feast of epiphany (celebrated on January 6th) was originally associated in the East with the baptism of Jesus (and not, for example, the revelation of the Christ-child to the Magi), and that this baptism marks the point when he was “born” spiritually, becoming the son of God. Christmas then originates around the spiritual birth of Christ, celebrated on January 6th. Read on to answer the questions rising in your mind; I’ll share a few thoughts.

One is that Conybeare adheres to Markan priority (that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest Gospel and that the other Synoptics depend to some degree on it) (p. 10). This is not a major point of his, yet I thought it worth pointing out because Markan priority was only becoming a consensus position around this time (see Neill, Interpretation, 116). For what it’s worth, Markan priority was not then (obviously) or now (less obviously but no less true) the only game in town; more on that in a future post.

Another consideration is that a kind of source criticism underlies Conybeare’s essay to the degree that it will seem strange that he outright ignores some features of the text he considers, while seeing others as very authoritative for his position. For example, the baptism narrative in Luke is apparently secure and authoritative, but the annunciation of Jesus at his birth as “Christ, Lord” in Luke 2 is apparently not relevant (nor are any other texts that would seem relevant to counter adoptionist theology–and it is not as if Conybeare did not consider other NT texts to make his own case).

Lastly, you’ll see in Conybeare’s final analysis the kind of rank speculation that is often found in critical scholarship in terms of reconstructing hypothetical information (I’m sure in some conservative scholarship as well). Conybeare, for example, asserts that the early creeds “must once have mentioned the baptism of the Lord,” and so he feels no shame in sharing that he suspects that the relevant section of Apostle’s Creed originally read as follows: “And in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born in the Jordan through baptism, suffered,” etc. Well, there it is.

This creates opportunity for the stating of a worthy principle: speculative reconstruction and imaginative creativity are not antithetical to scholarship, but a criterion of “space” should be applied (among other criteria). There should be evidential “space” to perform such acts of creativity, and the contents of that space should be suggested by the evidence such that there is an immediate “fit” which brings explanatory power and coherence. Conybeare’s supposition is interesting, but it does not at all deal with the fact that there’s no textual reason to pry open the relevant clauses as they stand; nor is there any historical evidence to suggest such a thing was ever done.

In any event, if you’d like a summary of his points, you could go to pages 19–21 to read Conybeare’s eleven propositions, and then backtrack through the essay to read his reasoning. I don’t agree with a lot of what Conybeare argues in this paper, yet the essay is helpful in some of its bringing together of primary sources, and if there is something positive to be said it, it is that at least it tries to deal with interpreting New Testament texts (issues notwithstanding) more than many studies of the history of Christmas.

Conybeare was an interesting figure; he was an Anglican, but an agnostic; he was eclectic in his interests; he apparently died suddenly and unexpectedly and relatively young. The essay above is rather critical of early orthodoxy, as was his work cited earlier (Myth, Magic, and Morals); as a point of interest, that work was also highly critical of “early” Jesus mythicism (and foreshadowed his 1914 book on the subject, The Historical Christ, which scrutinized the work of the mythicist scholarship of that day).

Conybeare’s daughter, Irene Helena Conybeare, claimed that her father regretted such aggression as was found in his book on Christian origins (Irene Conybeare, In Quest of Truth, pp. 8–9) —but she (a spiritualist who became an acolyte of Meher Baba) made that claim on the basis of a post-mortem appearance of her father’s spirit who told her such things, and others!

How’s that for a “Christmas” ghost?

I prefer mine to be Dickensian.

Merry Christmas!

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