St Athanasius the Great — May 2nd

April 27, 2012

Several priests tell the story of the  life of St Athanasius the Great (feasts May 2nd and January 18th):

For further reading:

St Athanasius’ classic work On the Incarnation, translated by C. S. Lewis.

Fr. John Behr: The Shocking Truth About Christian Orthodoxy

April 8, 2012

We’re constantly hearing about reconstructions of the life of Christ or of early Christianity — where we are told “the real truth” about Jesus and the early Church. Fr. John Behr, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary delivers an incisive critique of these views in a lecture given at Augustine College last month:

Seeds of Doubt for Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Name Jehovah # 2

March 24, 2012

Recently, a very good friend, knowing my background, asked me this question:

What would be a good thing to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses when they come to the door?  I don’t want to engage them, but I don’t want to offend them either . . .

I replied along these lines:

I guess that depends on what your goal is. If you don’t want to engage
them, then a polite and kind “no thank you” is sufficient.

However, if you want to plant a seed of doubt but don’t really want to get into discussions with them, you could ask something along this line:

“I really don’t have much time to discuss now. But, I do have a question that I’d like to ask. Perhaps we could discuss it briefly now or we could discus it at another time. My question, however, relates to your name: Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I understand that you guys believe that Christians are identified by using the name “Jehovah.”

[They might give a simple agreement to this statement or a more elaborate answer. It is imperative that you don’t allow the conversation to get side-tracked here. You still need to ask your question.]

“I’ve read the New Testament and I’m curious: I’ve never seen the name “Jehovah” in it. I understand that your translation has the name “Jehovah” in the New Testament but from what I’ve read there are no Greek manuscripts of the New Testament which have the name “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” in them.”

[Here is where you can ask your question. It is essential that you don’t go down other rabbit trails in discussing this topic. Stick to the question as it’s one that there really is no satisfactory answer for:]

Romans chapter 14 from the Kingdom Interlinear Translation (published by Jehovah's Witnesses)

“My question is: Is that true? Does the name “Jehovah” appear in any of the New Testament Greek manuscripts?”

[Now, it’s possible the conversation could take a few turns here. You’ll want to stay focused on your question and come back to it if the conversation strays. Some background: Witness leaders realize the liability of admitting that the name “Jehovah” does not appear in any of the Greek manuscripts. So, they have developed an elaborate theory that the name “Jehovah” was originally in the Greek New Testament but was removed. Did they find early New Testament Greek manuscripts with the name “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” to prove their claim? No, they did not. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and not one contains “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” This is your main line of evidence. Keep coming back to the New Testament Greek manuscript evidence. All the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have either “Lord” or “God” where the Witnesses’ Bible has inserted “Jehovah.”]

[If the Witness at your door declines to discuss this further, let them go and let them ponder your question. If they continue the discussion or return later with some answer, always come to the New Testament Greek manuscript evidence that shows there was no use of “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” in the Greek New Testament. They may show you photocopies of Greek Old Testament (from the Septuagint version) with the name “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” That doesn’t answer your question about the Greek New Testament. Yes, there are a few Old Testament fragments of the Greek Septuagint which have “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (YHWH) in them. The name “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” occurs thousands of times in the Old Testament. That’s not related to the question you asked. You are asking about the Greek New Testament. The Greek New Testament, with over 5,000 manuscripts to establish its text, has no record of “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” in it.]

[If you’ve decided to continue discussions on this subject: ask the Witness if they have an interlinear Greek-English New Testament. Most of them do and you can use it to your advantage. A sample page from their Interlinear is shown above. On the left is a standard Greek New Testament text with a word-for-word English translation underneath. On the right is their Bible version with the name “Jehovah” inserted. You can ask them:]

“What does the Greek text say? Does it say “Jehovah” or “Lord”?”

[Clearly it says “Lord.” Ask them if the name “Jehovah” appears anywhere in the Greek text of their Interlinear. It doesn’t. It only appears in the right hand column, which is their Bible version which has replaced “Lord” with “Jehovah.” They may possibly try to cite some later Hebrew versions of the New Testament for support of using “Jehovah” in the New Testament. You can see them listed in the footnotes of the page above, with the letter J. These are translations into Hebrew from the Greek New Testament and are only a few hundred years old. These Hebrew translations have no antiquity that compares with the Greek New Testament. Again, keep your topic narrowly focused to discussing the Greek New Testament and the Witness will have no substantial answer they can give. Many of them probably have never realized the liability or the implications of this. Additional questions you can ask:]

“So, we’re agreed that of the over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts we have available there are none that contain the name “Jehovah”?”

“If we accept the evidence as it exists, then don’t we have to admit that the early Christians did not emphasize the name “Jehovah” since it does not appear in any Greek New Testament manuscript?”

If you claim the name “Jehovah” was removed from the New Testament, do you have any evidence of New Testament Greek manuscripts that contain the name “Jehovah”?

“Which New Testament version would be more accurate: one which follows the Greek New Testament manuscripts or one that doesn’t?”

“How essential is it that Christians use the name “Jehovah”? If it doesn’t appear in the Greek New Testament manuscripts and since there are no early manuscripts of the New Testament with the name “Jehovah” in them, then is it really that important?”

If you refuse to get side-tracked onto other issues you will succeed in establishing an important contradiction to the Witness at your door. There are few issues more central to their belief system as emphasizing the name “Jehovah.” You will have shown that there is absolutely no New Testament Greek manuscript evidence that supports their contention that the early Christians used the name “Jehovah.” Instead, their explanations to counter this rely on a hoped for new manuscript find, a veritable “missing link,” which will finally vindicate their theory the name “Jehovah” was there in the New Testament, but was later removed.

Don’t expect the Witness to admit defeat in your presence. Instead, be content to have planted a seed of doubt about one of their most basic and distinguishing doctrines. If you want to continue discussions with them, there are some links below to suggest other similar contradictions you can point out in their teachings. But, having made your point that the early Christians did not emphasize the name “Jehovah,” you can stop there and pray that the seed you’ve planted may come to fruition someday.

For further reading:

Seeds of Doubt for Jehovah’s Witnesses — The Name Jehovah # 1

Jesus/Yahweh: The Name Above Every Name

Seeds of Doubt for Jehovah’s Witnesses — The 144,000 — Part One

Seeds of Doubt for Jehovah’s Witnesses — The 144,000 — Part Two

What’s Wrong With the Witnesses

A Memorial to a False Prophecy

Reading Recommendations re: Jehovah’s Witnesses

Some Lectures from the 2012 Winter Pastoral Conference of the Diocese of the South

February 18, 2012

Some outstanding lectures from the 2012 Winter Pastoral Conference of the Diocese of the South have just been posted online. More info on the conference can be seen in  this pdf flyer.

Speakers included Fr. Thomas Hopko and Dr. Albert Rossi, both of St. Vladimir’s Seminary — Fr. Hopko was dean of St. Vladimir’s up until 2002. In the last lecture, Fr. Hopko was a guest speaker at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Role of Gender and Sexuality in the Christian life

Purity: Youth, Family, Parish

The Power of Weakness: Reflections on Salvation, the Meaning of the Cross, and the Necessity of the Crucifixion

Florovsky on St. Ignatius of Antioch

November 11, 2011

Fr Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a prominent Orthodox theologian, also taught at Harvard and Princeton

From the chapter, “The Earliest Christian Writers” in The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century by Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky:

The commonly accepted seven letters of St. Ignatius in their shorter form are exceedingly important documents in the history of Christian theology. They were written before 107, the commonly accepted time of his martyrdom in Rome. His letters are therefore an undisputed witness to the faith of the early Church. Those who find the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils difficult to accept will encounter difficulty with the thought of St. Ignatius. Again, it must be noted that these are not theological treatises but rather letters written by St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, on his way to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts. They are in a very real sense existential letters written by one about to die, existential letters, which just happen to touch on theological subjects as well as moral ones. Indeed, it was the so-called “developed doctrine” contained in St. Ignatius’ letters, which caused some Protestant theologians to question their authenticity until Lightfoot and Harnack established the authenticity of the seven epistles. It was especially the 1885 edition by Lightfoot, which established permanently the authenticity of the seven letters in their Greek shorter versions.

In his Letter to the Ephesians (7), St. Ignatius writes, “There is only one physician — of flesh yet spiritual, born yet uncreated God become man, true life in death, sprung from both Mary and from God first subject to suffering and then incapable of it — Jesus Christ our Lord.” He is God Incarnate. In the same letter, he writes (18-20): “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary, in God’s plan being sprung forth from both the seed of David and from the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized that by His Passion he might sanctify water for God was revealing himself as a man to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Therefore, everything was in confusion because the destruction of death was being executed.” “The New Man Jesus Christ is Son of man and Son of God.” In his Letter to the Romans he writes that Jesus Christ is the “only Son of the Father” and he is the Father’s thought — γνώμη.

In his Letter to the Magnesians, St. Ignatius writes of the co-eternality of Jesus Christ (6): “…Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from all eternity and in these last days has been made manifest.” The union of the Father and Son is explicitly stated (1): “I desire that they confess the union of Jesus with the Father.” “The Lord was completely one with the Father and never acted independently of him” (7). “Make speed, all of you, to one temple of God, to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from the one and only Father, is eternally with that One, and to that One is now returned” (7). “God is one he has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ, who is his Logos issuing from the silence” (8).

In his Letter to the Trallians, he poignantly describes the reality of the humanity of Jesus: “Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary, he was truly — άληθΰς- — born, ate, and drank. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate. He was truly crucified and died in the sight of heaven and earth and of the powers of the nether world. He was truly raised from the dead, the Father having raised him, who in like manner will raise us also who believe in him — his Father, I say, will raise us in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have no true life” (9).

He writes more forcefully in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, “I extol Jesus Christ, the God who has granted you such wisdom… Regarding our Lord, you are absolutely convinced that on the human side he was actually sprung from David’s line, Son of God according to God’s will and power, actually born of a virgin, baptized by John and actually crucified for us in the flesh, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch. We are part of his fruit, which grew out of his most blessed Passion. And thus, by his resurrection, he raised a standard to rally his saints and faithful forever, whether Jews or Gentiles, in one body of his Church. He truly suffered, just as he truly raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. Those are they, who are a sham! For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, Take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless phantom.’ And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason, they despised death itself, and proved its victors. Moreover, after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as a real human being, though even then he and the Father were spiritually — πνευματικώς — one.” In this same letter he writes that Jesus Christ is Perfect Man — τέλειος.

In his Letter to Polycarp, St. Ignatius writes, “You must not be panic-stricken by those who have an air of credibility but who teach heresy. Stand your ground like an anvil under the hammer.” He refers to Jesus Christ as the “Timeless, the Unseen, the One who became visible for our sakes, who was beyond touch and passion, yet who for our sakes became subject to suffering, and endured everything for us” (3). These are indeed a collection of powerful and explicit statements on the reality of the full humanity and the full Divinity of Jesus Christ. It is, as it was, a preamble to Chalcedon already at the turn of the first century. It is not an exaggeration to claim that his expressions foreshadow the later doctrine of άντίδοσις των ιδιωμάτων.

Such are some of St. Ignatius’ explicit comments on Christology. If one looks carefully at what he writes about the Eucharist, the hierarchy of the Church, the unity of the Church and the Church’s unity with the unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, a deeper and even more vital Christology obtains. Everything, for example, that he writes about the Eucharist becomes meaningless without his belief in the Divinity of Christ. The Church is the “place of sacrifice” — θυσιαστήριοι — and the Eucharist is θυσία. He writes in his Letter to the Ephesians (19-20): “Meet together in common — every single one of you — in grace, in one faith and on Jesus Christ (who was of David’s line in his human nature, son of man and son of God) that you may obey the bishop and presbytery with undistracted mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, our antidote to ensure that we shall not die but live in Jesus Christ forever.” In his Letter to the Philadelphians (3) he writes, “Take great care to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to unite us by his blood; one sanctuary, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons.” And in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he writes (8), “All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father and the presbytery as the Apostles. Respect the deacons as the ordinance of God. Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist, which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the Catholic Church.”

This is the first written use, which has come down to us of the term “Catholic” Church. The word “catholic” means in Greek “universal” but the conception of catholicity cannot be measured by its world-wide expansion — “universality” does not express the Greek meaning exactly. Καθολική comes from καθ’ ολου, which first of all means the inner wholeness, not only of communion and in any case not of a simple empirical communion. Καθ’ ολου is not the same as κατά παντός. It belongs not to the phenomenal and empirical, but to the nominal and ontological plane. It describes the very essence and not the external manifestations. If “catholic” also means “universal,” it certainly is not an empirical universality but rather an ideal one: the communion of ideas, not of facts, is what is meant. St. Ignatius’ use of the word is precisely this. This word gives prominence to the orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the Church in contrast with the spirit of sectarian separatism and particularism. He is expressing the idea of integrity and purity.

Grillmeier correctly observes that St. Ignatius foreshadows the later definitions of the Ecumenical Councils. Grillmeier writes that from “Christ’s Godhead and manhood there arises the antithetic, two-member formula, so well loved in the later history of the dogma of Christ,” which emphasizes the distinction between the Divine and human nature in the one Lord. σαρκικός και πνευματικός; γεννητός και άγγένητος; εν άνθρωπω θeoς; εν θανάτω ζωή αληθινή; και εκ Μαρίας και εκ θeov; πρώτον παθητός και ποτε απαθής εστίν Ίησοΰς Χριστός ό Κύριος ημών.

Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch — fresco detail from a church in North Africa

There is a tendency among some scholars to assume that if something is not mentioned in a text, the author had no knowledge of it. This is a fundamentally erroneous presupposition and hence an erroneous methodology. The assumption of this methodological approach or perspective misses the prime reality — a living Church was already in existence since Pentecost and that living Church knew the deposit about, which they preached, knew the tradition, which they had received and continued to impart in their missionary activity. Again, the statement by Karl Adam is significant: “Even if the Bible [the New Testament] did not exist, a Christian religious movement would be conceivable.” Indeed, not only conceivable but it actually existed without the New Testament as we know it for decades. And during that time, the Apostolic and Sub-Apostolic Church flourished with and in the fullness of faith. St. Ignatius is an excellent example of this precisely because his seven occasional letters were written so early and especially because of what he has to say about the “documents,” “the archives.” In his Letter to the Philadelphians, St. Ignatius writes (8): “When I heard some people saying, ‘If I do not find it in the original documents, I do not believe it.’” Here, the essence of the dispute was that the Old Testament, the Bible for the early Christians in its Greek Septuagint version, was the reference point of validity. The New Testament is not the criterion, precisely because it was still in process in the days of the early Church and it was certainly not used as a canonical authority in the earlier days of the life of St. Ignatius. It is the reality of the living Church, which gives rise to the New Testament and it is the Church, which determines the “canon” of the New Testament — there were numerous writings circulating, which claimed apostolic authorship and it was the Church, which determined, which of those were authentic. St. Ignatius then makes a statement, which confirms how the early Church understood its reality, its faith, its tradition, its authority: “To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his Cross and Death and his Resurrection and the faith that came by him.” St. Ignatius needs no written “documents,” needs no written “archives.” The historical, existential, and ontological reality of the God-Man Jesus Christ and his redemptive work is the truth of the faith — he is oral “document” of the living God. He knows of this through the tradition, through that which was delivered, through the deposit, which was preserved and handed down in its original purity of content and fullness.

It is historically interesting to take even a casual look at St. Ignatius’ occasional, ad hoc, non-systematic, hastily written letters, for in these seven brief letters St. Ignatius just happens to touch on many of the basic principles of the faith of the living Church, a faith not recorded in a “document” but a faith that has been preserved and delivered faithfully from Christ to the Apostles to the episcopate. The main purpose of all seven letters is two-fold: it is to urge unity and also to convince the churches to which he writes not to interfere with his desire for martyrdom, his desire to “imitate the Passion of Christ God.” And yet we find in these brief pages a rather broad Christian theology in skeletal form. The reality of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is mentioned (in “Son, Father, and Spirit;” “to Christ, to the Father, and to the Spirit;” the Spirit “comes from God;” “the most High Father and Jesus Christ, his only Son”). He has no hesitation to speak of grace and deeds, of a justification by grace and one of deeds, implying an existential understanding of the synergistic relationship between grace and spiritual freedom, between grace and “works.” And from the totality of his seven brief letters, it is clear that everything is a gift from God. It is also clear that man participates in this gift, in his salvation. St. Ignatius also has no hesitation in speaking about predestination, election, and freedom. They all cohere for him in one theological vision. For him there is no tension between predestination and freedom. This is not a result of his inability to see a potential theological problem. Rather it is natural, instinctive, intuitive, and apostolic understanding of the vision of salvation, a salvation which comes from God and in which man participates, a salvation which is a gift but one, which must be received.

St. Ignatius speaks equally of the spiritual nature and the external structure of the Church — the bishops, presbytery, deacons (the “bishops reflect the mind of Jesus Christ;” the Church has a unique “intimacy” with Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ has with the Father; the Church is “a choir, so that in perfect harmony and with a pitch taken from God,” it “may sing in unison and with one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ”). Jesus Christ is our inseparable life — το αδιάκριτον ημών ζήν, without whom we have no true life — το αληθινόν ζήν ουκ εχομεν.

St. Ignatius’ stress on the “imitation of Christ” is a theme that will be repeated often in the history of Christian spirituality. His specific idea of the “imitation of the Passion of Jesus Christ” is expressed in vivid, fervid terms (“Let me be fodder for wild beasts — that is how I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ;” “Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil — only let me get to Jesus Christ!”). This has struck many as an exaggerated form of spirituality, as one of arrogance. Yet St. Ignatius is quite humble in this respect. For him the process of salvation is dynamic and he in no sense sees his desire as a superior spirituality (“I am only beginning to be a disciple;” — “I am going through the pangs of being born Do not stand in the way of my coming to life”).

He is ever conscious of the importance, the necessity of a spiritual solidarity among Christians (“I needed your coaching in faith, encouragement.” — “Do not try to convince yourselves that anything done on your own is commendable. Only what you do together is right. Hence, you must have one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope, dominated by love and unsullied joy — that means you must have Jesus Christ!”). He knows the pain he is to face, yet he is ever mentioning the God-given joy and the overflowing mercy of God. He is on guard against pride and boasting: “I keep my limits, lest boasting should be my undoing. For what I need most at this point is to be on my guard and not to heed flatterers. Those are my scourge.” He is fully aware that his desire is an “impetuous ambition” and this causes “all the more a struggle” within him. He exclaims that what he needs is “gentleness.” For those who think his desire is extreme, it must be admitted that his attitude towards it is spiritually balanced: “I endure all things because he gives me the power who is Perfect Man.”

The relics of St. Ignatius of Antioch were transferred to the church of St Clement in Rome in 637 AD

St. Ignatius stresses that we must “not only be called Christians but we must be Christians.” For him the Christian life was Christocentric, for through the God-Man all things come from the Father and return to the Father. The Christocentric emphasis of the Christian life is a constant motif in his letters — the constant mention of “the blood of Christ;” “love” as a hymn to Jesus Christ; the “mind of Christ” is “the Father’s mind;” “Jesus Christ is God’s knowledge;” the “Name” of Jesus is sacred; the Cross, the Passion, the Death, the Resurrection of Christ are the foundations of our “Hope,” creating, through the Incarnation, the path to our redemption; “if we live in union with him now, we shall gain eternal life,” we shall rise with him. Through “initiation” into the mysteries [sacraments], through faith, love, continual prayer, and fasting, we can have Christ “within us.” And, through union with Christ, “in faith and love in the Son and Father and Spirit” we shall have “increasing insight” and we shall rise with him, for true freedom is only in union with the Risen Christ.

St. Ignatius highlights a basic theology of worship and sacramental, liturgical life. The Eucharist is for him “the medicine of immortality.” He has, as is apparent, a developed theology of the unity of the Church. Conversely, he has a theological attitude towards heresy: “He who fails to join in your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic… If then, those who act carnally suffer death, how much more shall those who by wicked teaching corrupt God’s faith for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a vile creature will go to the unquenchable fire along with anyone who listens to him.”

A theology of faith and love weaves its way through his letters: “Your faith is what lifts you up; while love is the way you ascend to God Faith is the beginning, and love is the end.” The dynamism in the process of salvation is constantly emphasized: “For what matters is not a momentary act of professing, but being persistently motivated by faith.”

St. Ignatius has an interesting theological insight into the spiritual importance of silence: “It is better to keep quiet and be real than to chatter and be unreal… He who has really grasped what Jesus said can appreciate his silence. Thus, he will be perfect: his words will mean action and his very silence will reveal his character.”

The great exclamatory Easter hymn in the Byzantine liturgy Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρων, θανάτω θάνατον πάτησας — is adumbrated by St. Ignatius: Christ’s death is described as “the destruction of death.” This realism carries over to the sanctification of the material world in the theology of St. Ignatius: Christ’s baptism “sanctifies water” and the pouring of ointment on the Lord’s head passes on “the aroma of incorruption to the Church.”

The deepest parts of the interior life of a person are not neglected in his thought: “all secrets are known and will be revealed.” But repentance and forgiveness by the overflowing mercy of the grace of God are not neglected either: “The Lord forgives all who repent.”

It is clear that the Church already at the time of St. Ignatius believed that marriage must be approved and blessed by the Church: “it is right for men and women who marry to be united with the bishop’s approval.” Already there is implicit here the sacramental nature of marriage.

Simultaneous with his theology of the active Christian spiritual life of continual prayer, humility, love, faith, constant participation in the sacramental life of the Church, simultaneous with his theology of the “imitation of the Passion of Christ God” is a theology of the “social gospel.” He places great stress on concern and care for widows, orphans, the oppressed, those in prison, those released from prison who are in need of help and guidance, those who are hungry and thirsty. His social concern extends to slaves who must not be treated “contemptuously.” He even emphasizes the spiritual importance of “taking an interest in those to whom you talk.”

This sketch of some of the subjects St. Ignatius just happens to address in his seven occasional letters reveals that he certainly had a grasp of the fullness of the Christian life and faith. The early date of these letters and their spontaneous, occasional nature cannot be overstressed. They are vital “documents” of a faith that was not rooted in “documents” or “archives” but rather rooted in the delivered tradition about the living person of Jesus Christ, divine and human, yet One Lord and One Eternally with the Father. It is not an exaggeration to point out that the definition of the Council of Chalcedon can is foreshadowed in general idea in the brief, occasional letters of St. Ignatius, letters, which predate 107.


Resources on St. Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch (Wikipedia)

Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Lake translation — parallel Greek/English)

Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Lightfoot/Harmer translation)

Audio recordings of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Lightfoot translation)

St Ignatius of Antioch — audio lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Macdonald

Ignatius of Antioch’s View of the Trinity

The Eucharist in the Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part Four

January 8, 2011

By James Hannam

Editor’s Note: The first part in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, the second part discussed the allegation that the Jesus story is assembled from bits and pieces of pagan mythology, and the third part considered what evidence can be gleaned from the letters of Paul. The present installment employs the rhetorical strategies of the Jesus Mythologists to ‘prove’ that Hannibal never existed.

In the first three parts of this series, I have discussed the evidence for Jesus in non-Christian sources, the flimsiness of alleged pagan parallels with Jesus’ life, and the evidence for the historical Jesus in the letters of Paul. In this last post, I want to consider how it would look if we used the kind of logic that Christ Mythologists employ to examine another figure in ancient history.

When I published this spoof a few years ago on the Secular Web’s discussion board it was taken seriously even though, with hindsight, it seems absurd. The comments in italics are annotations to bring out points of similarity with the various Christ Myth theses in currency. I would invite any Christ Mythologist to explain to me the substantial differences between their theory and the spurious one below.

Did Hannibal Really Exist?

To ask whether or not the great Carthaginian general Hannibal ever actually existed might seem rather pointless. It might be an exercise for a student learning about the nature of historical evidence, but not something any serious scholar would waste time on. But maybe we should not be too hasty in acquiescing with the opinion of establishment historians (in other words, there’s a plot by academics stifling debate).

In fact, although there is plenty of writing about Hannibal, none of it is contemporary and there is no archaeological evidence for him at all (not surprising given the Romans razed the city from whence he came). Furthermore he is not mentioned in any Carthaginian sources, which is incredible, given he was supposed to be their greatest leader (there are no Carthaginian sources as the Romans burnt their city down)! We find when we actually try to pin him down he tends to recede further into the mists of time. His exploits, such as leading elephants over the Alps, are clearly legendary (the skeptic pretends to be incredulous but seems happy to buy his own amazing theory) and it is not hard to find a motive for the creation of this colorful character by Roman writers (as long we can invent a motive for fabrication we can assume that fabrication exists).

Rome and Carthage were great trading rivals in the Western Mediterranean and it did not take them long to come to blows. Rome signed a peace treaty but, under the leadership of the elder Cato, desperately wanted to rid itself permanently of the competition (this is actually true and so helps to conceal the moment when we slip into fantasy). The Romans needed an excuse and the idea they developed was brilliant. Like many ancient civilizations, the Romans rewrote history as it suited them to exhibit their own prowess (a useful and exaggerated generalization). Consequently we should not be surprised to find that they invented a great enemy from Carthage to demonstrate the threat still existed and justify a further war to wipe them out.

The author of the fiction was Cato himself (we need someone to point the finger at; note also how there is no distinction made between the background material above and theorizing here), as Cato wrote the earliest Roman History (true as well, as it happens). But it was intended simply as a justification for a further war with Carthage. It contained the details of Hannibal’s alleged campaigns against the Romans, including his victories on Italian soil (Cato’s history has conveniently not survived so we can speculate freely about what it contained). Cato brilliantly combined the truth with his own anti-Carthaginian propaganda with the intention of goading Rome into another wholly unjustified war with the old enemy (give the fabricator lots of credit for his invention). Once the war was over and Carthage was razed to the ground, the Romans were able to ensure that only their version of history survived (this is important as it enables all other sources to be declared forgeries).

Therefore the myth of the great Carthaginian war leader became an accepted fact. Later Roman historians like the notoriously unreliable Livy (we have to denigrate counter sources) simply assumed Cato’s fabrications were true (because the ancients were stupid and simply could not do any research themselves).


In history there is little that is certain, but there is also a level of skepticism that makes the task of the historian impossible. With such skepticism, we could happily reject the existence of almost anyone we like, including such influential figures as Hannibal. Furthermore, the thesis that Jesus never existed requires selective skepticism about which sources are reliable and how others are interpreted. In the end, if Jesus did not exist, the rise of Christianity is even more incredible and all but impossible to explain.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part Three

January 4, 2011

By James Hannam

Editor’s Note: The first installment in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, and the second part discussed the allegation that the Jesus story is assembled from bits and pieces of pagan mythology. The present installment considers what the letters of the apostle Paul attest about the life of Jesus.

The Non-Silence of Paul

The theory that Jesus never existed started life in pseudo-scholarly circles with the fact that Paul does not say very much about Jesus’ life or ministry. The earliest Pauline letters are generally believed to have been written within twenty years of Jesus’ death. So, it is instructive to find out what Paul actually did say. With that in mind, here is a list of what Paul had to say about Jesus in his letters, together with the scriptural reference.

  • Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galatians 4:4)
  • Jesus was referred to as “Son of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:9)
  • Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. (Romans 1:3)
  • Jesus prayed to God using the term “Abba.” (Galatians 4:6)
  • Jesus expressly forbade divorce. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
  • Jesus taught that “preachers” should be paid for their preaching. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
  • Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
  • Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Corinthians 3:22)
  • Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians 1:19)
  • Jesus initiated the Lord’s Supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
  • Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord’s Supper. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
  • Jesus’ death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Corinthians 5:7)
  • The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Corinthians 2:8)
  • Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)
  • Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus’ death. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
  • Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Corinthians 13:4, et. al.)
  • Jesus was physically buried. (1 Corinthians 15:4)

It turns out that careful analysis of his letters shows that Paul was not actually all that silent about the historical Jesus at all. The first reaction to all this from the Christ Mythologist is to dispute that Paul wrote very many of these letters. But seven of the Pauline letters are completely undisputed, and all of the facts about Jesus’ life listed above come from these seven. It is ironic that the pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which many scholars insist are late (and date from after the synoptic Gospels), contain practically no details about the life of Jesus at all.

As there are still rather a lot of details about the historical Jesus in the undisputed letters, the Christ Mythologist will use special pleading to try and explain them away, as though Paul himself were constructing the Jesus myth. But as we can see, Paul is not attempting to tell Jesus’ life story, he is just using the odd snippet about Jesus where it is helpful to illustrate his point. He knows that his readers are aware of what happened because all of his letters are addressed to people who are already Christians. He is not trying to convert them and he is not engaged in apologetics.

If we look at the letters of the early Christian fathers, they rarely have details about the life of Jesus except in passing because they know their readers are familiar with the Gospels. What we today call the Gospels had not, of course, been written down at the time that Paul was preaching. However, oral communication was considered to be more reliable than the written word at the time. The people to whom Paul wrote had heard about Jesus already. They did not need a revision primer but specific advice about problems and controversies. Of course, none of this will convince the Christ Mythologist who just cannot understand why Paul does not just repeat verbatim to his correspondents what he has already told them in person.

In short, the silence of Paul about Jesus is something of a myth in itself.

The fourth part in this series, which uses the methods of the Jesus Mythologists to ‘prove’ that Hannibal never existed, will be published soon.  Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part Two

January 2, 2011

By James Hannam

Editor’s Note: The first installment in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, and discussed the allegation that there is no independent (non-Christian) verification of the existence of Jesus. The second part examines the claim—an increasingly common claim amongst atheists today—that the Jesus story is actually a pastiche composed of bits and pieces of ancient pagan myths.

Pagan similarities
Allegations that Christianity is an adaptation of a pagan cult date from the 19th century. In 1875, Kersey Graves wrote The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours, a book so poor that even the Internet Infidels admit (in rather more diplomatic language) that it is a load of old cobblers. The idea that myths can be fitted into an overall pattern was given rather more credibility by Sir James Frazer in the early 20th century, but his work is now also disregarded by anthropologists. In 1936, Lord Raglan published The Hero: A Study in Myth, Tradition and Dreams, which included a list of attributes that heroic figures of legend are supposed to share. The list often turns up on the internet with claims that Jesus fits the pattern very well. The only problem is that he does not fit the pattern at all, and the case of Raglan’s list has been thoroughly debunked.

More recently, the tradition was carried on in The Jesus Mysteries (1999) by Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, and Tom Harpur in The Pagan Christ (2004). These amateur historians play fast and loose with the facts, using carefully pruned quotations, mistranslation, and anachronism to produce a woefully inaccurate picture. But only by doing this can they maintain their thesis that Jesus is based on pagan antecedents.

The usual method of writers such as these is to read (or, more accurately, misread) some fragment of ancient mythology and claim that there are parallels to be found with the life of Jesus. With this in mind I present James Hannam’s Guide to the Production of a Bestseller that Undermines the Roots of Christianity. With this guide, I guarantee that you will be able to find all the parallels you like between paganism and Christianity—or indeed, properly adapted, between any other two unrelated subjects that you care to name.

1)   The first thing to do is ensure you that you cast your net as widely as possible. So, within Christianity you should include every cult, heresy, and sect you can get your hands on. Gnosticism will be particularly helpful as gnostics did indeed borrow large chunks of pagan thought, which is partly why they were considered heretics in the first place. As for paganism, this can include just about everything. Freke and Gandy comb not only Greek cults (Oedipus) but also Egyptian (Horus and Osiris), Roman (Bacchus), and Persian (Mithras). Elsewhere you will find Celtic deities, Norse berserkers, and Indian mystics pulled into the fray. Tom Harpur is a particular fan of Egyptian myth. Now, with this vast body of writing, provided you are willing to wade through it all, finding parallels will not prove too challenging.

2)   Don’t restrict yourselves to pagan religions from before the time of Christ. Remember, you can claim that Christians copied pagans, and not the other way around, even when the Christian writing is more ancient than the pagan. This is useful because you can now point to similarities between paganism and Christianity after the latter was already widespread. For instance, there is a poem with a line about the Norse god Odin being attached to the world tree (“I know that I hung on a windy tree, nine long nights, wounded with a spear”). Sounds like Jesus being nailed to the cross? Well, not really, and in any case the Norse myth was written down well after the Vikings converted to Christianity. Don’t let that stop you.

3)   Language is important. Christian terms such as ‘salvation’, ‘Eucharist’, ‘word made flesh,’ and ‘lamb of god’ are common currency today. Therefore, when translating or paraphrasing pagan sources, always use familiar Christian language. Never mind that the ancient pagans would not have known what you were going on about; you are not talking to them. In this way, you can call a woman being raped by various kinds of wildlife a ‘virgin birth’ (such as Europa being raped by Zeus in the form of a bull); you can call the reassembly of body parts a ‘resurrection’ (such as Osiris being pieced back together by Isis); and you can call just about every Greek hero a ‘son of god’ (because, let’s face it, the Greek gods were a lecherous bunch and so had a good few kids). Also, it is helpful to use King James Bible phrases and style when quoting pagan texts. It gives them some more gravitas.

4)   Do try to confuse liturgy and cult practice with history. For instance, the mystery religions and Christianity were both underground movements, so they had to operate in similar sorts of ways. This doesn’t make them similar in other ways, but pretend that it does. Sacred meals and ritual washing are as old as religion itself so the fact that Christianity employed them as well as pagans (not to mention Jews) is not surprising at all. Make it sound like a complete revelation. For instance, if Mithraists shared a ritual meal with bread and wine (and meat too, but never mind that), make it sound astronomically unlikely that Christians should have done the same unless they were borrowing from Mithraism.

5)   Assert that totally different things are in fact closely related. For instance, Mithras was sometimes represented by a bull. Say this is the same as Jesus being called the Lamb of God (one is a symbol of sexuality and strength, the other of innocence and humility, but never let facts get in the way of a good theory). Compare the Mithraic ritual of taking a shower in the warm blood of the aforementioned bull with Christian baptism with water. Mithras was born as a fully-grown man from solid rock; call this a “virgin birth.” Claim that the thieves crucified with Jesus are the same as a pair of torchbearers that appear on some illustrations of Bacchus.

6)   For goodness sake, do not mention the things that really made the pagan mysteries interesting. After all, in your work of showing that Jesus and Bacchus are one and the same, you will lose everything if you let on that Bacchus was the god of drunkenness and his worship involved getting plastered and having sex with anything in sight (goats being a particular favourite). In fact, keep sex out of it altogether. Yes, sex was the central feature of an awful lot of these pagan rituals but that is not the point you are trying to make.

7)   Avoid up-to-date scholarship that will probably pour cold water over your vaunted theories. One particular problem to ignore is that the Persian Mithras was much earlier and had almost nothing to do with the Roman god of the same name. Worse still, the Roman god only became widely worshiped after the birth of Christ, so cannot have been a model for Jesus at all. Also, take Sir James Frazer and Francis Cumont seriously, even if today’s scholars do not. You will find plenty of other 19th-century and early-20th-century writers with a bone to pick who can support your wildest speculations. Finally, don’t worry if some of the evidence, like the picture of a crucified Bacchus on the cover of your book The Jesus Mysteries, turns out to be fake. It is not your problem, even if you knew about it in advance.

8)   Do not worry if not everyone agrees with you; you can always dismiss the dissenters as Christian apologists or as those unable to cope with your earth-shattering ideas. And don’t panic if someone turns up arguing about primary sources, dating evidence, footnotes, and boring stuff like that. They are probably in the pay of the pope. Using this guide, you should be able to produce as many parallels as you require in order to convince even the most blinkered of readers that Jesus was actually a pagan god-man.

As you can tell, I am not impressed by the pagan myth hypothesis. It is telling that in spite of their vast amount of learning, their hostility to orthodox Christianity, and their willingness to allege that much of the New Testament is fictional, not even John Dominic Crossan or Bart Ehrman have any time for the idea that Jesus was made up of pagan motifs. Nor indeed do the vast majority of liberal scholars. The pagan myth hypothesis is firmly outside the pale of modern scholarship. That’s also the reason why refuting authors like Tom Harpur tends to be left to Christian writers. Academic historians just don’t think it is worth wasting time on anything so obviously wrong.

Editor’s Note: For other online sources of information on the pagan parallels theories, see this detailed examination of various pagan deities and whether their stories coincide with that of Jesus, this note from William Lane Craig, or (as a more specific example) this response to the Jesus-as-Mithras claim, or this article from Ronald Nash. For book-length responses, consult R. T. France’s The Evidence for Jesus or Nash’s The Gospel and the Greeks.

The third part of this series will turn to the claim that Jesus is probably mythological because there is very little about him in the writings of Paul.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part One

January 2, 2011

By James Hannam


Picture of Christ from Roman Catacomb (4th century)

The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind.

A huge amount has been written on the internet and elsewhere about the “Christ Myth.” The only in-depth refutation in print is Shattering the Christ Myth (2008), which goes into great detail. However, some academic historians have taken the time to rubbish the idea that Jesus never existed and a few other books on the subject have appeared over the years.

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references, which I cover in this installment; 2) the alleged similarities to paganism, which I deal with next; and 3) the silence of St. Paul. Finally, in the fourth part, I will bring all these arguments together to show how ideas similar to those that deny Jesus’ existence can be used on practically any ancient historical figure. With this in mind I set out to “prove” that Hannibal never existed.

Secular Historians

People ask why there is no record of Jesus in Roman records. The answer is that there are no surviving Roman records. All we have are highly parochial Roman historians who had little interest in the comings and goings of minor cults and were far more concerned about emperors and kings. Jesus made a very small splash while he was alive and there was no reason for Roman historians to notice him.

Christianity is mentioned by the historian Tacitus in the early 2nd century. But he talks about the religion only because Christians were unfortunate enough to be made scapegoats by the Emperor Nero for the great fire of Rome. Tacitus is interested in the Emperor, not his victims. He only gives us very limited information about Christians and Christ. Still, he does tell us that Jesus existed and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Christ Mythologists counter the evidence of Tacitus by claiming that he could have got his information from Christians and so is not an independent source. This puts the Christ Mythologists, who seek a non-partisan source, in a very convenient situation. Until Christianity had spread widely, no one except Christians would have taken interest in Jesus. But all later records are ruled out of court insofar as they might have been influenced by Christians. This sort of special pleading is one of the reasons that modern historians have no time for the theory that Jesus was not a real person: the Christ Myth is set up to be impossible to disprove.

In fact, Christian evidence for a human Jesus who was crucified is trustworthy because it runs counter to the myths of the time and suggests that he had suffered a humiliating death. If they had fabricated the mythology, and then suppressed the truth with clinical efficiency, why did they come up with a story that even the Christian apologist Tertullian admitted was absurd? It seems far more likely that they had a large number of historical facts that they had to harmonize into a religion, rather than creating all these difficulties for themselves.

Sometimes Christ Mythologists will produce long lists of writers who make no mention of Jesus—yet none of whom would have had the slightest reason to mention an obscure Jewish miracle worker—and somehow believe this strengthens their point. In fact, it has all the relevance of picking fifty books off your local library shelf and finding that none of them mention Carl Sagan. Does that mean he did not exist? Jesus was not even a failed military leader of the kind that Romans might have noticed, especially if he had been defeated by someone famous.


The only historian whom we might expect to mention Jesus is Josephus, a Jew who wrote a history of his people up to 66 A.D., which is called Jewish Antiquities. In fact, Josephus does mention Jesus twice, and so Christ Mythologists have to devote a lot of attention to attacking the relevant passages. Their job is made easier because Josephus, a Pharisee, probably felt nothing but contempt for Jesus. This meant later Christians tried to “correct” his negative phrasing.

The first mention of Jesus is in book 18 of Jewish Antiquities. Historians are largely agreed that the passage in question has been tampered with by a later Christian scribe. However, at least part of the passage is widely believed to be authentic. The words in bold below are thought to be the additions of a Christian scribe trying to make Jesus appear in a better light than Josephus would have wished.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18, 3, 3)

To support the idea that the passage is partly authentic and partly interpolated, we can look at the works of a 3rd-century Christian father called Origen. He lived while Christianity was still a minor cult with no power or influence. Its adherents were generally ignored by the authorities as long as they kept their heads down. Therefore, there is no way that Christians this early could have secured every copy of Josephus so that no undoctored copies remained, or could have gotten away with quoting something from Josephus that was not there. So we can be sure that the copy of Josephus that Origen read and quoted from had not been amended by earlier Christians. We can be doubly sure of this because Origen flatly contradicts the modern version of Josephus where the Jewish historian is made to say Jesus was the Messiah. Origen makes clear he said no such thing.

What use would the early fathers have had for a passage in Josephus saying Jesus was not the Messiah? An educated Jew stating this would not be helpful, as it would demonstrate that the prophecies in the Old Testament were not nearly as clear-cut as early Christians would have liked to believe. And because no early skeptics or opponents of Christianity ever challenged Jesus’ existence, early Christians never had any reason to point to a critical Jewish source to prove that he was real. Hence Josephus was not quoted by earlier Christian writers.

So what exactly did Origen write? Here are two passages from his works. Both of them basically say the same thing and reinforce each other:

And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered such great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is that, although he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James. (Origen, Commentary on Matthew X, XVII)

For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless—being, although against his will, not far from the truth—that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ)—the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. (Origen, Against Celsus I, XLVII)

The second mention of Jesus by Josephus is a much briefer reference to “James, brother of Jesus called Christ.” We also know about James from the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. He was indeed Jesus’ brother and one of the early leaders of the Church. This second mention of Jesus certainly existed in Origen’s copy of Josephus because Origen uses the phrase “called Christ” twice. It cannot be a Christian interpolation into Josephus because Christian texts called James either “James the Just” or “James the Brother of the Lord.”

The reference to “James, brother of Jesus called Christ” is still found in book 20 of Jewish Antiquities, and this by itself torpedoes the idea that Jesus never existed. The idea that Christians were going around doctoring copies of Josephus while they were still a persecuted minority is ludicrous. Origen also says that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, so our present day passage on Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 18 cannot have existed in its current form. However, the authentic passing reference to Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 20 is good evidence that he had been mentioned previously by Josephus.

It should be pointed out that Origen himself reads too much into Josephus. Josephus does indeed say the people of Jerusalem thought the killing of James was wrong, but he does not go quite so far as to blame the entire Jewish War on the event.

It is clear that the existence of Jesus and the fact of his crucifixion are adequately attested by Josephus, even leaving aside the New Testament and other early Christian sources. To claim Jesus did not exist, in the face of the evidence from Josephus, is to indulge in special pleading. Historians should not ask for a higher standard of proof for the existence of Jesus than they do for any other ancient figure.

In the second part of this series, I will consider the alleged similarities between the story of Christ and the mythological stories of various pagan religions.

Part Two here.  Part Three here. Part Four here.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

The Pagan Origins of Christmas?

December 5, 2010
H/T: Pious Fabrications

By David P. Withun
I. Introduction

It’s that time of the year again: Christmas time! The trees, the lights, the stockings, the nativity scenes, and, of course, the giant inflatable Santas (really, what would Christmas be without them?) are going up all over the place. And, as every year, the same recycled and ridiculous historical inaccuracies are getting pushed on the unsuspecting masses. I’ve already seen the articles popping up online and being passed around by friends on Facebook; I’m sure that, as they always do, the National Geographic Channel and the History Channel have something “interesting” and uninformative in the works to deceive their viewers with as well. Search for “Christmas” in Google and immediately you are bombarded with the popular mythology about Christmas’ origins. The History Channel’s webpage on Christmas (the fourth on the list returned from my Google search), for example, erroneously claims, amongst other things, that Pope Julius I decided on a date of December 25 in order to replace the pagan festival of Saturnalia and that “the Greek and Russian orthodox [sic] churches” celebrate Christmas “13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day.”1

Before we begin looking at these trite claims in more detail, I want to point out explicitly that I am writing this post because of an interest in historical truth, not out of any desire to engage in apologetic. In spite of the claims of pseudo-Christian cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, even if the date for Christmas had been based upon a pagan holiday (though this is not an admission that it was) originally on that date this would not impede or deligitimize the Christian celebration of the holiday. The days of the week all have pagan names (Wednesday, for instance, refers to the Norse god Woden) and yet I doubt I can find many of those who refuse to celebrate Christmas who also refuse to use the names of the days.2 Similarly, whether the Christmas tree or any of the other holiday accessories is of pagan origin or not is immaterial to the use of them by modern Christians; the toothbrush and toilet paper also have pagan origins and again I doubt that I could find many who refuse to use these items.3 The modern use of a Christmas tree no more implies an adherence to any of the pagan cults which used trees in their worship than the eating of a meal implies a dedication to the god Mithras whose worship involved the eating of communal meals.4

With all of that said, the purpose of this post is to clear away the dross of popular mythology and propaganda from the origins of Christmas and the various ways it is celebrated. We will first look at the origins of a Christian feast celebrating the birth of Christ and how that feast came to be placed on December 25. We will then look at some of the particular ways in which that feast is celebrated by Christians today, such as the display of Christmas trees, mistletoe, and nativity scenes, and search for their respective origins. Along the way, I will attempt to clear up some of the other common misconceptions about Christmas both ancient and modern, such as the already-quoted misunderstanding of the date of the celebration of Christmas by Orthodox Christians.

Since the discussion of the dating of Christmas will involve referencing several different calendars, I’ve color-coded all dates I mention in that section in order to avoid confusion. Dates in black refer to the Gregorian calendar, instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and today the common calendar of the West; dates in red refer to the Jewish calendar; dates in blue refer to the Julian calendar, instituted by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE and still in use in the majority of the Orthodox churches today;5 and dates in green refer to the Revised Julian calendar, adopted beginning in 1923 by a number of Orthodox churches.6

II. The myth and its source
The common mythology of Christmas origins goes something like this:7 

Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ and even regarded the celebration of birthdays, including even that of their savior, as a superstitious pagan practice. For this reason, no one was even remotely interested in finding out the day of Christ’s birth.

In the early fourth century, Constantine the Great became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. As a result of his conversion, a number of innovations derived from paganism were introduced into Christian practice and belief, Christmas amongst them. The celebration of Christmas was introduced in order to make it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity as Christmas was intended as a Christianized version of the pagan feasts of Saturnalia and the birth celebrations of the pagan gods Sol Invictus and/or Mithras (which feast Christianity was intended to replace differs between individual myth-propagators). St. Julius I, who was Bishop (it is anachronistic to call him “Pope” although most myth-propagators do) of Rome in the years 337-352 CE, is most often named as the culprit in the crime of transplanting the December 25th holiday from paganism to Christianity.

Not only were the holiday and its date brought over from paganism, according to the myth-propagators, but so were most of the elements of the celebration surrounding it. Santa Claus is a Christianization of any number of pagan deities (again, it depends upon the preference of the individual myth-propagator), sometimes even of Satan — the evil one! — himself. The Christmas tree comes from Germanic winter celebrations. The gift-giving comes from Roman Saturnalia celebrations. And so on the myths go.

The problem with all of this is that it is, to be entirely frank, a big bag of worthless excrement.

If the popular conception that Christmas is of pagan origin is incorrect, some may ask, where did it come from and how did it become such a widespread belief? Like the myth of the so-called “Dark Ages,” the source of the mythology surrounding Christmas is the anti-Papist and, later, anti-Christian propaganda of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. There are in particular two individuals to blame for the invention of the myths.

In 1743, a German Protestant named Paul Ernst Jablonski, in an effort to discredit the Roman Catholic Church, claimed that the celebration of Christmas was one of the numerous “paganizations” of Christianity which had occurred in the fourth century.8 His grand thesis was that paganizations like the adoption of Christmas had degenerated Christianity from its original purity and led to the creation of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Dom Jean Hardouin, himself a Roman Catholic monk, in an attempt to counter the claims of Protestants that the Roman Catholic Church was the result of paganization of Christianity, unintentionally contributed to the myths about Christmas.9 He attempted, in his writings on the subject, to demonstrate that the Roman Church had adopted pagan festivals and Christianized them without corrupting the Christian gospel.

Those modern myth-propagators who do actually reference sources (that there are so few who do should tell us something about their truthfulness and scholarly nature — or, more precisely, lack thereof) generally cite Jablonski and Hardouin prolifically.

III. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

The first question that we’ll look at is when celebrations of Christmas began. Was it really in the middle to late fourth century and are Constantine and Julius really the originators? The answer to these questions is no, no, and no.

While pinning down the earliest celebration of a holiday commemorating the birth of Christ is a difficult if not impossible task, it is undoubtedly clear that such a celebration came about very early.

Already by the end of the first century and beginning of the second, Christians had developed what appears to have been a near-obsession with the story of the birth and childhood of Christ. This concern is evident in such writings as the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, both written some time in the middle of the second century. These works and others like them seem to have been written with a focus on emphasizing the humanity of Christ against certain heretical groups, such as the docetists and, later, the Gnostics and the Marcionites, who denied the humanity of Christ and claimed instead that he was actually solely divine and only appeared to be human. To counter these heretical claims, the Orthodox placed a special emphasis on the human conception and birth of Christ from the Virgin Mary. There is, however, no explicit mention of a celebration of these events. Equally, there is also no condemnation of nor aversion to such a celebration.

Too much has been made by Christmas’ modern detractors of Origen of Alexandria’s rejection of the celebration of birthdays.10 Although he doesn’t mention the birth of Christ specifically, it is assumed that since he seems to have rejected the celebration of birthdays in general as a pagan practice he also would have rejected the celebration of a holiday commemorating Christ’s birth. This may or may not be true, but the reality is that Origen’s testimony doesn’t matter much to the issue. Origen espoused a number of heretical beliefs, due to his acceptance of Platonic influences, which ran contrary to traditional Christian teaching, including universal salvation, the pre-existence of souls, and a rejection of material creation as a by-product of the fall.11 For holding and teaching these and other heretical ideas, he was condemned by several Christian bishops in his own lifetime and afterward; these condemnations culminated in an official anathema against him by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Second Council of Constantinople) in 553 CE.12 In short, Origen cannot be counted on to accurately convey the consensus of Christians of his time or any other.

Turning to more accepted and accurate primary sources of Christianity’s early centuries, however, we find some decent indicators of the ancientness of an annual celebration of Christ’s birth, although the references are a bit patchwork and often lack details in content. A few examples:

  • The earliest mention of such a feast comes from St. Hippolytus of Rome’s Commentary on Daniel, written in about 202 CE; I will discuss this particular passage a bit more in depth in the next section.
  • St. John Chrysostom, in his homily delivered in Antioch in 386 CE, says that the celebration of a feast on the birth of Christ is an ancient tradition.13
  • The Philocalian Calendar, a calendar of Christian feasts compiled in Rome in 354 CE, lists Christmas as an established feast of the Church.14
  • The Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of earlier Christian canons, at least a portion of which probably date from the Apostles, compiled probably in the years 375-380 CE, demands that Christians celebrate Christmas and ostensibly attributes this demand to the Apostles.15
  • In 302 CE in Nicomedia, one of the regions hardest hit by the persecutions of Christians ordered by the Emperor Diocletian, a number of ancient sources record that a large group of Christians were shut inside their church and then burnt alive while celebrating Christmas services.16 The usual number listed is 20,000 but such a number seems exaggerated; it is more likely than 20,000 is the total number of Christians martyred in Nicomedia during the persecution and that a significant portion of those were killed in the massacre on Christmas.
  • The heretical sect from the Donatists broke from the Orthodox Church in about 312 CE; they zealously, even legalistically, clung to Christian faith and practice exactly as it had been at that moment in time in North Africa and they rejected any further development as innovation and heresy. Significantly, it was recorded by St. Augustine of Hippo in about 400 CE that the Donatists celebrated Christmas.17
  • In the middle of the fourth century, St. Ephraim of Syria wrote a series of lengthy liturgical hymns for use during a celebration of the birth of Christ.18
IV. Calculating Christmas, or How the Church got December from March and April
The common contention that December 25 was instituted in order to replace a pagan holiday already on that date falls apart very quickly in the light of the overwhelmingly evidence that there was no pagan holiday on that date. The contention relies upon the fallacy, still common in neo-pagan and pseudo-Christian circles, that anything pagan must necessarily precede anything Christian chronologically. On the contrary, already in its first two centuries of existence Christianity had exerted a powerful influence on contemporary pagan belief and practice.19 In the second through fifth centuries, there were a number of innovations in Greco-Roman pagan religion and philosophy that were inspired by contact with Christianity.

The earliest historical source that exists which places a pagan holiday on December 25 is the proclamation by Roman Emperor Aurelian of a celebration of Sol Invictus on that day in 274 CE.20 The earliest Christian reference to December 25 as the birth of Christ, however, dates from 202 CE. In that year, St. Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Commentary on Daniel: 

For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January [December 25th], the 4th day of the week [Wednesday], while Augustus was in his forty-second year, [2 or 3BC] but from Adam five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty third year, 8 days before the kalends of April [March 25th], the Day of Preparation, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar [29 or 30 AD], while Rufus and Roubellion and Gaius Caesar, for the 4th time, and Gaius Cestius Saturninus were Consuls.21

Given that Aurelian’s religious reforms, like those of Julian the Apostate a century later, seem largely to have been an attempt to undermine Christianity by introducing popular elements of it into paganism, thereby theoretically making paganism more attractive, it seems far more probable that Aurelian’s institution of a celebration of Sol Invictus on December 25 was an attempt to usurp a Christian holiday already established and widely celebrated on that date, rather than the reverse.

If they didn’t get the idea from the pagans, then how did Christians decide on December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ? Interestingly, the settling of that commemoration on December 25 actually had more to do with Christ’s death than with his birth!

A primary concern amongst early Christians was establishing an accurate and uniform date for the celebration of Pascha.22 Various formulas and historical sources were put forward by early Christians in their attempts to achieve this goal. By the third century, two dates had emerged as standard among Christians; in the West 25 March (you may have noted this date in the quote above from St. Hippolytus of Rome) became the standard date for Christ’s death and in the East Christians believed Christ to have died on 6 April.23

Drawing upon an ancient Jewish tradition that holds that a prophet enters life (that is, is conceived) and leaves it (that is, dies) on the same day, Christians concluded that Christ must have also been conceived on 25 March or 6 April (depending upon which date was held to).24 Exactly nine months (the duration of a “perfect” human pregnancy) after 25 March is 25 December; exactly nine months after 6 April is 6 January. As a result, Christians came to commemorate Christ’s birth on these two dates; in the West the former was celebrated and in the East the latter.

V. Conception, Birth, and Baptism then and now

During the fourth and fifth centuries, a gradual and natural compromise was reached between these two close but differing conclusions. 25 December became the nearly universally accepted date for the commemoration of Christ’s birth (in other words, Christmas) and 25 March was universally celebrated as the date of Christ’s conception. 6 January became identified, especially in the East, with Christ’s baptism, as St. Luke seems to indicate in his gospel that Christ was baptized on his 30th birthday.25

25 March, commonly referred to as “Annunciation,” is still celebrated by most Christians as the day that the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary and proclaimed that she had conceived by the Holy Spirit.26 6 January, usually called either “Epiphany” or “Theophany,” is celebrated by Orthodox Christians and other Eastern Christians as the day of Christ’s baptism and by Roman Catholics and some other Western Christians as the day the magi visited the Christ child.27 And, of course, 25 December is still celebrated by almost all Christians as the Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, commonly called “Christmas.” The only exception (aside, of course, from those pseudo-Christians who ignorantly reject Christmas altogether) is the Armenian Apostolic Church, the ancient Christian church of Armenia, which continues to celebrate both the birth and the baptism of Christ on 6 January (19 January on the Gregorian calendar).

A common but erroneous claim is the one I cited earlier from the History Channel’s web page on Christmas that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas “13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day.” Most Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on 7 January (according to the Gregorian calendar); this is, however, 25 December on the Julian calendar. In 1582, the Roman Catholic Pope reformed the calendar used by Western Christians. This calendar, called the “Gregorian calendar,” became the standard calendar of the West and today is the common calendar of the world. The Julian calendar, used by most Orthodox Christians, is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. The Orthodox celebration of Christmas on 7 January has absolutely nothing to do with Epiphany or Three Kings (which falls on 6 January and so, for those Orthodox who use the Julian calendar, on 19 January according to the Gregorian). It should also be noted that a sizable minority of Orthodox Christians use what is called the Revised Julian calendar, which calendar is currently in sync with the Gregorian calendar, and so celebrate Christmas on 25 December right alongside Western Christians.

To summarize: Even though Western Christians celebrate Christmas on 25 December and most Orthodox Christians celebrate it on 7 January (which is also 25 December) and some Orthodox Christians celebrate it on 25 December, all Christians (except the Armenians!) celebrate Christmas on 25 December. Complicated stuff? Yeah, a little…

VI. Santa Claus is coming to town

Now that we’ve addressed and dismissed the mythology surrounding the celebration and dating of Christ’s birth, let’s briefly take a look at the origins of some other Christmas-related items:

  • Santa Claus. Contrary to the claims of some horribly misinformed (or uninformed) individuals,28 Santa Claus is real and is not a distraction from the real meaning of Christmas. Santa Claus, who real name is St. Nicholas of Myra, was an Orthodox Christian bishop in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century. He suffered for Christ under the persecution of Diocletian and is remembered even today by Orthodox Christians for his charitable, compassionate, and Christlike life. To read more about St. Nicholas, go here. And, if you’ve ever wondered why Santa Claus looks the way he does, take a look at some Orthodox bishops.
  • Gift-giving. The gift-giving on Christmas is done in imitation of St. Nicholas and of the gifts the magi presented to Christ; the practice dates to perhaps the fifth century.
  • Stockings. The hanging of stockings over the fireplace is derived from one of the stories of the activities of St. Nicholas in which he left several gold coins in the stockings, hung over the mantle to dry, of several poor young girls who were in desperate need of money.
  • Christmas trees. Contrary to popular belief, the origins of the Christmas tree are relatively modern and are unrelated to ancient pagan practices.29 The trees were originally used, decorated with hanging apples, in plays presented in Germany on Christmas eve in the late Middle Ages. The practice was brought to America by German immigrants in the 18th century and has remained a staple of American Christmas tradition since.
  • 12 days of Christmas. The often misunderstood 12 days of Christmas are the 12 days from the Nativity of Christ on 25 December to the baptism of Christ on 6 January. The 12 day period between these two feast days is a period in which Christians traditionally abstain from fasting (traditionally, Christians fast for four weeks [in the Western tradition] or 40 days [in the Eastern tradition] before Christmas) and instead feast and enjoy good times with family and friends.
  • Yule log. The burning of the yule log is another aspect of the modern Christian celebration which has falsely been lampooned as of ancient pagan origin but is actually of modern Christian origin.30 The burning of the yule log became popular beginning in the late 16th century in England.
  • Nativity scene. The display of a Nativity scene, commonly called a “creche,” was popularized by Francis of Assisi, a Roman Catholic saint, beginning in 1223.
  • Caroling. Caroling door-to-door began in the late Middle Ages as a development from the earlier Christian practice of singing hymns and performing liturgical dramas on Christmas eve.
  • Mistletoe. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is of unknown origin. The supposed link between the modern practice and the story of the pagan god Baldr is tenuous at best and entirely conjectural.

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him!

1 “Christmas — Articles, Video, Pictures and Facts” (2010) (Retrieved 3 December 2010).

2 “The Days of the Week” (2005) (Retrieved 3 December 2010). Interestingly, early Quakers did indeed refuse to use the names of the days of the week for this very reason. See David Yount, How the Quakers Invented America (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 11.

3 On the origins of the toothbrush see “Who invented the toothbrush and when was it? (Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress” (23 August 2010) (Retrieved 3 December 2010). On the origins of toilet paper see “History Of Toilet Paper” (2009) (Retrieved 3 December 2010).

4 Manfred Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries (New York: Routledge, 2001), 113.

5 For basic information on the Gregorian, Julian, and Jewish calendars as well as other calendars and an useful date converter see “Calendar Converter” (November 2009) (Retrieved 3 December 2010). Thanks to my brother Andrew Walker for tracking that great tool down for this essay.

6 For some basic information on the Revised Julian calendar see “Revised Julian Calendar — OrthodoxWiki” (21 April 2010) (Retrieved 3 December 2010).

7 The myths differ in some ways amongst their various propagators; I offer here a basic summary of the most popular elements. To read some of these myths in their most recent form as stated by their modern adherents, see, for example, the page from the History Channel’s website already cited; Kelly Wittmann, “Christmas’ pagans origins” (2002) (Retrieved 4 December 2010); “Take Your Stand for True Worship – Jehovah’s Witnesses Official Website” (2009) (Retrieved 4 December 2010); and David C. Pack, “The True Origin of Christmas” (2005) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

8 William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas” (December 2003) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

9 ibid.

10 Origen of Alexandria, Homily on Leviticus, 8.

11 F. Prat, “Origen and Origenism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). Retrieved 4 December 2010 from New Advent:

12 “5th Ecumenical Council (2nd Constantinople) – Anathemas against Origen” (553) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

13 Fr. John A. Peck, “The Ancient Feast of Christmas | Preachers Institute” (2 December 2010) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

14 Roger Pearse, “The Chronography of 354 AD. Part 6: the calendar of Philocalus. Inscriptiones Latinae Antiquissimae, Berlin (1893) pp.256-278” (2006) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

15 Apostolic Constitutions, Book V, Section III.

16 “20,000 Martyrs of Nicomedia” (2008) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

17 Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas” (2010) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

18 J.B. Morris and A. Edward Johnston, translators, “Nineteen Hymns on the Nativity of Christ in the Flesh” (13 July 2005) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

19 Arnaldo Momigliano, On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987).

20 Christian Körner, “Roman Emperors – DIR Aurelian” (2001) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

21 Tom C. Schmidt, “Hippolytus and December 25th, the birthday of Christ-Christmas” (8 December 2009) (Retrieved 4 December 2010). It should be noted that this portion of Hippolytus’ work was long thought interpolated, forged, or irreparably damaged due to apparent contradictions with other works of Hippolytus and a problematic manuscript tradition. Both issues have, however, been resolved. On the former, see Tom C. Schmidt, “Hippolytus and the Original Date of Christmas” (21 November 2010) (Retrieved 4 December 2010). On the latter, see Roger Pearse, “The text tradition of Hippolytus ‘Commentary on Daniel'” (12 January 2010) (Retrieved 4 December 2010).

22 Pascha, Greek for “Passover,” is the more ancient and appropriate name for the feast commonly called “Easter” amongst Western Christians; it is the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. The controversy concerning the date for celebrating Pascha was perhaps most explicitly played out in the Quartodeciman controversy of the second through fourth centuries in which Western Christians and the Christians of Asia Minor argued over whether Christ’s death should be marked on 14 Nisan (the date of Christ’s death on the Jewish calendar) or Christ’s death should be remember on the Friday following 14 Nisan so that Pascha should always fall on a Sunday. Eventually, it was decided that the Christian Church should renounce the use of the Jewish calendar altogether in order to avoid a reliance on rabbis who had rejected Christ and that Pascha should always be kept on a Sunday.

23 Tighe, “Calculating.”

24 McGowan, “How December.”

25 Luke 3:23 states that Christ had then began to be 30 years old. On what other day, early Christians asked, can someone begin to be a certain age but on their birthday?

26 “The Annunciation of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary” (2005) (Retrieved 5 December 2010).

27 “Feast of the Theophany of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2005) (Retrieved 5 December 2010).

28 For example, see “Why A Local Pastor Is On Santa’s Naughty List” (2 December 2010),0,1516784.story (Retrieved 5 December 2010).

29 Daniel Daly, “MYSTAGOGY: In Defense of the Christmas Tree” (20 December 2009) (Retrieved 5 December 2010).

30 “CNP Articles – Christmas (Part VI)” (1911) (Retrieved 5 December 2010).

For further reading:

Christmas and “Pagan Origins”