Is Jesus really the reason for the season?
So for the world’s Christians, Jesus is the reason for the season, however how did this tradition start? A short delve into church history reveals much about how the Christian Church adopted Gnostic and pagan celebrations in order to sell Christianity to the masses. Let’s start at the beginning, did Jesus ever exist?
Was Jesus a Historic Figure?
Jesus was one of many ‘messiahs’ during the first century AD who walked Palestine claiming to be able to deliver Jerusalem from the Romans. This tradition goes back to the Maccabee period during the inter-testamental period (between the Old & New Testaments) when the Jews fought back against foreign invaders and were able to establish an independent kingdom with alliances to the major regional powers. For more information on this period I can recommend the excellent book by Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’. During the reign of Herod the Roman’s started to exercise more influence in the region and this made the Jews unhappy.
Jesus was born around 4BC during the reign of Herod. We can date his birth due to the census conducted at that time and his birth in Bethlehem. It is doubtful that he was born to a virgin (in fact this is a borrowed pagan belief that a similar god was born to a virgin). Jesus was born into a world of turmoil as the Roman’s attempted to exercise more power and influence in the region and a nation that was constantly uprising in what remains today to be a very unstable region.
Once Jesus became of age be became one of many people who said that they could save the Jews from both their earthly and heavenly hardships. Many of the messiahs took up arms against the Romans, whereas others such as Jesus advocated non-violent protest. In the end Jesus was executed and the start of the Jewish Cult of Christianity began.
While there is no specific reference to Jesus in historical texts outside of the bible, Josephus does mention a Jesus who was the Christ in his ‘The Antiquities of the Jews’ opus. Josephus wrote his chronicle about 20-30 years after the death of Jesus. He was a general in the Jewish army which was fighting for Jewish independence in the war of 60-66 AD. He was defeated but had his life spared if he joined the Roman cause as a translator. During the war he wrote the history of the Jews to at least preserve the culture that Rome was intent on destroying. In Book 18 chapter 3 he recites the gospel’s account of the trial and execution of Jesus and then gives a biography of the man Jesus:
‘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.’
So we have an independent witness that Jesus Christ did exist as a historical figure and was considered a revolutionary by the ruling regime (there is some conjecture to the Jospehus passage and whether it was a forgery as it is very similar to the Bible text - thanks AKA Winston).
Now let’s consider other elements from the Christmas story:
Was Jesus born on December 25?
No he wasn’t! The forecast for Bethlehem this Christmas day is about 10oC (49oF) with rain, which means that there definitely would not have been shepherds watching their flocks by night! The best guessimate for the birth date of Jesus is sometime during October when the nights are still warm enough for shepherds to be outdoors and not in shelter. It is not unusual for snow to appear in Israel during the Christmas period
December 25 was decided as the birth date of Jesus by the Early Church in the 3rd Century AD. This birth date coincides with the birth date of another god, Mithra.
Mithra is a god from the Zoroastriandivinity (yazata) of covenant and oath and was the god of Roman soldiers. While much has been made of the similarities between Christianity and Mithra worship (baptism, cleansing through a blood sacrifice, similar birth dates, etc) the fact is that Mithra worship was for initiatives only and was a secret cult, therefore it was not a popular Roman religion outside the military.
However, this shows the marketing power and foresight of the Early Church. They were able to adopt pagan festivals and celebrations to ensure that Christianity gained stickiness for new converts and future targets. Once Constantine made Christianity the official religion it was easier for the Church to use existing events to continue growth. In fact we see this today in the commercial world as marketers attempt to build stickiness and attraction to a brand.
So while Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, he was born in around 4BC during October.
Was Jesus born of a Virgin?
The answer is no. Many Roman and Middle Eastern cults and religions of this period used the concept of a virgin birth to show the power of their god and a reflection to the fertility rites of centuries past.
So Christianity wasn’t the first religion to adopt this philosophy. In essence it is the celebration of a fertility cult where an innocent is impregnate miraculously by a god to reproduce another god. These rites go back to Egyptian period and beyond. This is another example of the Early Church adopting similar stories and theology of other religions to increase the popularity of the new religion.
Was there a Census & did Herod Murder Children?
Yes there was, but it was after the birth of Jesus in 4 BC. Some scholars believe that Jesus could have been 8-10 years old at this time. AD or CE history starts with the birth of Christ. We know that there was a census during this 10 year period, most likely in 6 AD. A medieval monk sort of got the birth date wrong and this got accepted by history. So while a census might have been unlikely perhaps Joseph and Mary were travelling during her pregnancy and Jesus could have been born in a manger in Bethlehem – we will never know for sure (thanks AKA Wiston).
Herod was a maniac and as his reign was coming to an end he was getting more insane, some suggest he had syphilis. While there is no recorded history of an execution of Children around this period, there is a chance that he did murder people to protect his authority.
Why did this Christmas Story and Christianity get so popular?
Marketing! Jesus did pretty well getting Jews interested in his philosophies (not as much as he could have – they ended up executing him!) and had build a reasonable following until his death. Once Jesus died the sect maintained membership mainly within his disciples and the people he had touched during his life. It was known at this time as the Jewish Sect of Christianity.
To this end Christianity could have been confined to history like a number of the Gnostic sects of the same period but for one person. This person was a phenomenal marketer – the Apostle Paul.
Paul was able to take this foundling religion and to sell it to the world. Paul made the message of Jesus simple for people, started adopting similar elements from other religions and bought the message to a larger target market – the Gentiles (non Jews). Let’s think of Paul’s activities in the 4Ps marketing mix methodology:
Product – eternal salvation based upon the basic cultural philosophies and theology that existed in first century AD. A highly moralistic religion that offers a safe afterlife
Price – free* Conditions Apply (* one has to give up earthly desires and believe in Jesus Christ as their personal saviour)
Promotion – Paul spent years on the road selling his style of Christianity. This proselytizing of Christianity wasn’t always appreciated by the local authorities or other Apostles (Paul & Peter fought quite often) but it helped to build a solid following
Placement – in each town or city that Paul visited he set up a home Church, but the beauty of Christianity from a marketing sense is that Church can be anywhere; your body is a temple, so if you believe you can communicate with God.
So, Paul was the ultimate marketer of the brand of Christianity and of Jesus Christ. This was then adopted and morphed again by the Early Church Fathers to ensure that it became embedded within the Western culture and religion. In essence we can thank Paul for Christianity and our celebration of Christmas today.
When you break down the word Christmas it means Christ Mass – a mass to celebrate the birth of the saviour of the world (to Christians at least!) Today Christmas is a commercial activity of buying gifts, not really about celebrating the new born life of a person born 2000 years ago.
In our modern culture we might have lost the true meaning of Christmas, it not about gifts, it’s not even really about Jesus Christ as I have highlighted. I think that the real reason of Christmas is about family and friends and celebrating life – whether to you this could be the birth of a child in Bethlehem in 4BC or the specialness of the season, only you can determine this.
Thanks for reading, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and look forward to writing more hubs for you next year.
So, is Jesus the reason for the season...yes, among other reasons! Cheers Michael