Dec 252015
 

Was Jesus born on dec 25Happy Christmas to all my readers, I hope you’re having a great day.

Last week we looked at some of the traditions we have become used to at Christmas time, which are probably only myths. Events such as; Jesus being born in a stable, Mary riding on a donkey while she is 9 months pregnant and 3 kings arriving for the birth. These things are not necessarily false, but they are certainly not mentioned in the bible.

Today I’m going to explore the age old question of whether Jesus was actually born on this day or not. I don’t want it to spoil your celebrations, the fact is He was born and it really doesn’t matter when it happened. I just thought it would be interesting to compare the assertions of those who say “yes it was December 25th” and those who think it must have been some other time.

It wasn’t December 25th

Let’s start with those who don’t believe it was this day;

They say It would be unusual to see Shepherds “abiding in the field” in December at a very cold time of the year when fields were unproductive. The normal practice was to keep the flocks in the fields from Spring to Autumn. Also, winter would be an unlikely time to hold a Census as fewer people would be able to make the journey. The weather was cold and the roads would have been in poor condition. To have a Census at that time would have been self-defeating.

A more probable time would be late September, at the time of the annual Feast of Tabernacles. when such travel was commonly accepted. This would coincide with an event widely celebrated in the Christian calendar of ‘Michaelmas’ named after the angel Michael the archangel who proclaimed to the shepherds that Christ was born. Michaelmas is celebrated on September 29th.

If September 29th was the date that Jesus was born, December the 25th(almost exactly 9 months earlier) was actually when Jesus was conceived. When you think about it, the darkest time of the year, the pagan celebration of ‘Saturnalia’ when the son is furthest away from the Holy Land, would be an appropriate time for God to give us the ‘light of the world’.

The original significance of December 25th is that it was a well-known festival day celebrating the annual return of the sun. December 21 is the winter solstice (shortest day of the year and thus a key date on the calendar), and December 25th is the first day that ancients could clearly note that the days were definitely getting longer and the sunlight was returning.

Since no one knows the day of His birth (the early church never celebrated it), the Roman Catholic Church felt free to choose this date, hoping to replace the pagan festival with a Christian holy day (holiday). They obviously came to the conclusion that rather than replace an established celebration day they would just compromise dates and change its focus so that the people would not be upset.

The bible itself points to an autumn date based on the conception and birth of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Stay with me on this one because it is a bit complicated. Since Elizabeth (John’s mother) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:24-36), we can determine the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born. John’s father, Zacharias, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple during the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Historical calculations indicate this division of service corresponded to June 13-19 in that year (The Companion Bible, 1974, Appendix 179, p. 200). It was during this time of temple service that Zacharias learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and travelled home, Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:23-24). Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time for John’s birth. Adding another six months (the difference in ages between John and Jesus (Luke 1:35-36)) brings us to the end of September as the likely time of Jesus’ birth.

Although it is difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated December 25th as Christmas Day, historians are in general agreement that it was sometime during the fourth century. This is an amazingly late date. Christmas was not observed in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, until about 300 years after Christ’s death. Its origins cannot be traced back to either the teachings or practices of the earliest Christians.

It was December 25th

There are a few arguments that people use to support December 25thas the date of Jesus’ birth.

Firstly, the earliest Christian tradition dating back to the 3rd Century when an early church father, Hyppolytus (ca. 170-236) stated the date as 25th December. The earliest mention of some sort of observance on that date is in the Philoclian Calendar, a Roman Calendar dated around 336 ad. Another early church father John Chrysostom (349 to 407ad) also favoured December 25thas did Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) who had access to the original Roman birth census, which also documented that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. These early church ‘heavyweights’ should not be ignored according to those who subscribe to the date we use today. They were after all, a lot nearer to the event than we are.

The second argument really disputes the assertion that Shepherds couldn’t have been outside in the fields in December because it was too cold. There is strong historical evidence that unblemished lambs for the Temple sacrifice were in fact kept in the fields near Bethlehem during the winter months. December is not the coldest month in Bethlehem, January is. Even then the temperature rarely goes below freezing. In fact the average temperature is 8 degrees (a couple of degrees warmer in December), which although cold, would not be beyond the possibility of hardy shepherds being out in the fields, with shelter and fire etc. Even in the bible there is evidence of someone looking after sheep outside in the cold. When Jacob wanted to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel, he had to work 20 years in total, tending the sheep. This was in Paddan-aram which was more northerly and therefore colder than Bethlehem. Jacob said;

These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks.What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. (Genesis 31: 38-40)

Thirdly, the issue of the timing of the census was not an issue. The census could still have been in the Autumn. Mary and Joseph could have completed the Census but not wanted to travel back whilst Mary was heavily pregnant, so they stayed in Bethlehem until after Jesus was born. This is quite a simple solution and fits perfectly into the biblical record, although slightly troublesome is the fact that there was still no room for them months later.

Fourthly, if the Romans had wanted to overtake a pagan ritual, why didn’t they choose December 21stwhen the winter solstice was celebrated?

The truth is we simply don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth. In fact, we don’t even know for sure what year He was born. Scholars believe it was somewhere between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. One thing is clear, if God felt it was important for us to know the exact date of the Jesus’ birth, He would certainly have told us in His Word. The Gospel of Luke gives very specific details about the event, even down to what the baby was wearing, where he was laid, a bit of a guest list etc but not the date.
The fact is that He was born, that He came into the world to save us from our sins and to bring us into a relationship with Him. That’s the true meaning and reason to celebrate the incarnation. Enjoy the rest of your day!

 December 25, 2015  Posted by at 10:00 am Christmas 2 Responses »
Dec 182015
 

Christmas mythsI’ve decided to have a break from the sermon on the mount for a couple of weeks as I usually like to write a seasonal blog at this time of year.

I’ve always been interested in how we arrive at the Christmas scene we see year after year, especially as quite a lot of our traditions and what we think happened isn’t even in the bible.

The Christmas scene we have arrived at is usually set in snow. Mary is on a donkey and Joseph is standing by, leading the donkey with a staff in his hand. They arrive at Bethlehem on 24thDecember (year 0) the night before Mary gives birth and are frantically going round town trying to find a room in an inn. Talk about ‘last minute dot com’. Eventually they manage to find a stable, clear out the trough, put some straw in, just in time for Mary to give birth and lay the baby in the trough. To make the night even stranger they are visited by some smelly shepherds who look like they have seen a ghost and 3 rather regal looking chaps with big beards, bringing gifts, muttering something about following a star. They have been rather busy to go star gazing though.

The problem with that scene is it is probably quite a long way from what actually happened. Let’s look at the clues and use our imagination a bit;

There is nothing in the bible to say Mary was on a donkey. Their journey was 90 miles and it was unlikely she would have made that Journey ‘full term’ In Luke 2:6 it says “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” That sounds like they had arrived well in time. The census would have been known about in advance given the logistics of getting everyone to their ‘home’ town. They were very poor and riding a donkey was the cheapest option (besides walking) so it is possible, but not guaranteed. They may well have travelled with other family members because they were all in the same situation and they repeated this journey every year after this to get to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2:41). Bethlehem is only 5 miles from Jerusalem.

Because of the census including family members, they probably stayed with relatives. The bible doesn’t mention Inn’s and innkeepers (the word inn is better translated guest room). The family rooms were all taken (likely by older relatives who would have had priority) so their likely resting place was a part of the house where animals would have been kept. Usually people stayed on an upper level and animals were kept on a lower level. Animals were kept inside for a variety of reasons;

· To keep the house warm on cold nights

· To stop them getting stolen

· Their dung was often used for fuel

· The milk they produced would be easily accessible.

Imagine today having a house full of people and the only place someone can stay is the garage, that sort of idea. The bible doesn’t say Jesus was born in a stable, just that he was placed in a manger. It would be very difficult to be born in a manger as Mary would have had to have been an extremely talented gymnast! A manger was a sort of feeding trough, but with a bit of creativity could have easily been converted into a cot.

The shepherds arriving would have ensured that it wouldn’t have been a ‘still’ night and I doubt very much that Jesus didn’t cry (the phrase in the carol “no crying he makes” has always bothered me). Imagine the scene; a house full of guests, a mother giving birth, unexpected smelly shepherds arriving unannounced and clearly quite excited. This was a stressful night and I imagine Jesus did a fair bit of hollering. To make the picture complete a drummer boy appears banging his drum! Nah, that almost certainly didn’t happen.

At least it was extremely unlikely that the 3 kings arrived on that night. For starters they were not kings but wise men (magi) and there is no indication how many there were. It is assumed 3, because 3 gifts were presented, but the number is never actually stated.

It is actually quite likely, given the circumstances that when the wise men arrived, Jesus was anything up to two years old. The bible calls Him a child and not a baby. If it was a long period of time after Jesus’ birth, they would have visited Him in Nazareth, as Mary and Joseph left Bethlehem for Nazareth soon after Jesus’ birth. The main account of this is in Matthew 2 which states that Herod had ascertained from the religious leaders that the child would be born in Bethlehem. Herod had assumed that He was still there. Even though Mary and Joseph were in Nazareth, it was still a good idea to escape to Egypt, because they could quite easily be traced from Bethlehem back to Nazareth.

Next week we will continue this theme and ask if Jesus really was born on December 25th or not.

 December 18, 2015  Posted by at 12:00 pm Christmas No Responses »
Dec 112015
 

Do not murderYou have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ (Matthew 5:21)

Jesus is here quoting from commandment number 6 of the 10 commandments in the Old Testament. These are in two places; Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17

On the surface this may seem like a pretty obvious statement but there are underlying questions such as; is the taking of human life always wrong? What about capital punishment? What about God commanding people to be killed? What about God killing people Himself, is He being hypocritical?

Firstly we need to establish the exact interpretation of murder and what it means in this context. The confusion has largely stemmed from some versions of the bible which interpret the commandment as ‘do not kill’ which could be interpreted as any sort of killing, including animals. If it meant literally not to kill anything this would have major repercussions, even for Jesus who killed fish to give His disciples breakfast (see John 21). We know that Jesus never sinned, so obviously it was ok to kill fish, so at least we have established that this verse doesn’t mean not to kill anything. The difference between killing and murder is subtle but very important. Basically, murder could be defined as “The unlawful killing of one human being by another”. You could insert the word ‘premeditated’ after unlawful, because some killing is accidental and there were many regulations in the Old Testament about what could happen if somebody accidentally killed someone, such as the provision of cities of refuge (Numbers 35:6).

One factor that must be considered is the authority that God has given to governing authorities;

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Romans 13:1).

This could cover issues such as capital punishment or fighting in a war. These can be ‘grey areas’ which Christians have long debated over. More black and white for a Christian is the issue of Euthanasia and Abortion, which even when allowed by an authority, we would still consider as wrong. There are some issues, where the conscience is concerned, where we may need to disobey the authority structure we are under. God’s law always takes precedence over human authority and where that authority clearly contradicts God’s word we must make a stand.

The last issue I want to tackle today is where people point the finger at God and call Him a hypocrite for going against His own rules by killing people. This shows a gross misunderstanding about the nature of God. Let me set one thing straight, God is not morally answerable to any person. The bible states this in Isaiah 45:9

Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’

The power of life and death is in God’s hands and He does what is right and what He pleases. The fact is that He doesn’t owe us anything except destruction. It is only through His amazing grace and mercy that He keeps us alive, because we are all rebellious and deserving of death, every last one of us. When you think about it, every single person who has ever died has died through God’s hands;

See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39)

As I said earlier, this can seem like the most straightforward command but in reality it can be quite problematic, but I hope that I have made it a bit clearer. Next week we are going to look at Jesus’ radical definition of the 6th commandment where He classifies it even further.

 December 11, 2015  Posted by at 12:00 pm The sermon on the mount No Responses »
Dec 042015
 

Exceedingly righteousWe are now in the fourth week of a section of Jesus’ sermon which addressed the Old Testament and whether Jesus had come to abolish it or not. These 4 verses lead into the rest of the sermon and have been hotly debated as to their meaning. I have included the verses below with today’s verse in bold.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus here highlights to His worried listeners that He is not doing away with their history with God in the Old Testament, but He is fulfilling it. Everything that happened in the Old Testament pointed to Him. The prophecies were about Him, the sacrifices predicted His sacrifice and the regulations were a shadow of what He was going to achieve. The 10 commandments were written on stone, but these new commandments were going to be written on believer’s hearts. No longer a struggle to keep a whole host of rules and regulations but a new heart and desire to do what pleases Him.

It’s important we consider what I said last week about Christians having died to the law. Because we could be inclined to think that these new commands that Jesus is giving, which incidentally are even stronger than the Old Testament laws, are just replacing one set of laws for another. These commands that Jesus is giving are His standards for living and they are achievable precisely because we have a new heart.

What Jesus is saying in today’s passage is that our own righteousness is never enough. To say that their righteousness should exceed the Scribes and the Pharisee’s would have been truly shocking to His listeners because they were ‘super’ religious. Humanly speaking there isn’t anybody who could touch the piety of the Scribes and the Pharisee’s. They even tithed their spice rack for goodness sake! Can you imagine getting the dried herbs from your kitchen cupboards and measuring out 10%? The trouble was, they had created many extra laws than what God had decreed. God had said that you should not work on the Sabbath, but they had taken it to ridiculous extremes. Just for a laugh and actually it is really quite sad, here are some of the stipulations they put in place for the Sabbath:

  • They taught that you should not look in a mirror on the Sabbath because you might be tempted to pluck out a grey hair and that would be reaping.
  • They said that you could only eat an egg which had been laid on the Sabbath if you killed the chicken for Sabbath-breaking.
  • If the lights were on when the Sabbath came (Sabbath began at sundown), you could not blow them out. If they had not been lit in time, then you could not light them.
  • It was unlawful to wear any jewellery or ornaments on the Sabbath, since this might be construed as carrying a burden.
  • It was not permitted to wear false teeth on the Sabbath.
  • You were allowed to eat radishes on the Sabbath, but you were warned against dipping them into salt because you might leave them in the salt too long and pickle them and this was considered to be Sabbath-breaking. The Pharisees actually had discussions as to how long it took to pickle a radish.
  • It was fine to spit on a rock on the Sabbath, but you could not spit on the ground, because that made mud and mud was mortar, and that was work.

There are many, many more besides these. No wonder Jesus got cross with them as they had missed the idea completely. Their piety was external and superficial and Jesus is looking for an inner attitude that is all about pleasing Him.

We can only exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisee’s because we are trusting in His righteousness. Our righteousness is His righteousness and I for one am jolly pleased about that!

 December 4, 2015  Posted by at 12:00 pm Righteousness, The sermon on the mount No Responses »