Monday, 12 December 2016

Wired to Worship: Origins of Christmas

Here we are, at the close of another year. School has finished. Some will be beginning to take holidays. And of course, Christmas with its symbology, liturgy, and doxology are all around us. Santa is available for photos in the shops, carols are on the radio, and trees and lights fill the city. And it fascinates me the amount of energy and money are invested into what is considered traditionally to be a religious holiday, even by secular society. Currently I am reading Mark Sayers’ book, ‘The Road Trip that Changed the World’, and in it he discusses how the emergence of a secular society has marginalised the transcendent, choosing to focus more on the immanent. Choosing to find ultimate meaning and purpose in the here and now in things like work, science, and pleasure. Yet, within all of us is a yearning for the transcendent. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” And perhaps this is the reason why the atheist enjoys Christmas. Maybe, as much as they may reject Christianity, the themes of hope, love, giving, and togetherness which are found in the story of the birth of Jesus, even if in their mind is based on a fairy-tale, is touching a deep longing within them. And this yearning after transcendent is rooted in the desire to worship God, an ‘impulse’ wired into our DNA by our creator, albeit twisted by sin. And this desire truly comes alive and is straightened when one comes to faith in Christ. And this, it seems, is the fuel for the origins of Christmas.

Last year, (exactly a year by coincidence) I wrote about the history of Christmas (here), to discover its origins and ask, is it a pagan holiday and should Christians celebrate it? And what I found was that, although there are some parallels between the Roman Saturnalia and the Scandinavian Yule, the relationship in iconography is quite weak and most likely coincidental/accidental, and any claim that Christmas is a contextualised pagan holiday is speculation. This year, I want to consider why the Church established Christmas from another perspective.

As part of my post on Christmas last year, I looked at the development of dates and how there appears to be no calculations for dating the birth of Jesus until the late second century, and December 25th does not appear until the fourth century. However, since then I have found evidence that suggests a December date was proposed by Hippolytus around the early third century (the originality of this is debated). Nonetheless, the truth is the early church did not know and relied on philosophical reasoning to calculate the birth of Christ. Within these Christians was a desire to honour Jesus by celebrating his birth. And this was quite unique as Jews, the early church's predecessor generally “did not celebrate their birthdays. Indeed, while the dates of passing (yahrtzeit) of the great figures of Jewish history are recorded and commemorated, their dates of birth are mostly unknown.” (Tauber)
It is possible, as Tyler Rosenquist suggests, that they were looking for an alternative to the Caesar’s Birthday, a holy day where no work was to be done and public prayers were made to Vesta and sacrifices made to the Emperor. An inscription from Halicarnassus from the time of Caesar Augustus is quite telling:
Providence has sent Augustus as a saviour for us… to make war to cease, and to create order everywhere… when he was made manifest, [Caesar] has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times… and the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the good news (euaggelion [Gospel]) that has come to men through him” (in Thompson, p 62n24).
The authors of the New Testament indeed took back this language to describe Jesus, the one who alone rightly deserves these descriptions. But why wait until the late second century to take on the birthday celebration? Quite possibly, because the number of Roman followers was growing, they were looking for a way to honour the true and living saviour of the world, the true manifestation of the true God, in a culturally meaningful way. This could have been subversive as an outright rejection and rebellion against the Imperial cult, or as a way to appear acceptable during a time of growing persecution, or as a way of contextualising mission. And all three could have been going on. History is quite complicated and things typically have multiple causes, so this is perhaps only one part of many to the story.

By the late second century, in the fallout of the Bar Kochba revolt, the ‘Gentiles’ had significantly distanced themselves from ‘the Jews’, disdaining anything that looks Jewish because of an anger towards them rooted in a blame for increased persecution. Thus, we find Early Church Fathers in this period writing things like:
Now, then, incline thine ear to me, and hear my words, and give heed, thou Jew. Many a time dost thou boast thyself, in that thou didst condemn Jesus of Nazareth to death, and didst give Him vinegar and gall to drink; and thou dost vaunt thyself because of this. (Hippolytus. Against Jews. 1).
There was also a wanting to distinguish themselves from the Jews in they eyes of the Romans. Therefore, observing things like food laws and feast days were condemned. Consequently, we find Justin Martyr writing things like:
For we too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you,--namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. (Trypho. 18)
And so, with a desire to celebrate the works of God but no precedent on how to do so because they had cut themselves off from their Hebraic heritage, the early Church invented Christmas. And eventually by the end of the fourth century, Rome would outlaw what they defined as ‘Judaizing’ with threat of excommunication, declaring Easter and Christmas as the only legitimate Festivals. Perhaps this, more than supposed link to paganism should be the cause of questioning Christmas. As Tyler Rosenquist reflects:
To me, knowing the history of the fourth century CE – that Rome forcibly legislated the removal of Christians out of the synagogues and Torah keepers out of the assemblies of Messiah – Christians celebrating Christmas and Easter seem very much like children celebrating the consequences of having a broken home. Without the Christians, the Jews lost their Messiah and without the Jews, the Christians lost their inheritance. It’s like a child celebrating the absence of a parent who wasn’t even a bad parent. Christmas and Easter happened because of a broken home, and that grieves me – it doesn’t make me want to celebrate. At one point all believers in Yeshua were called Nazarene Jews, for hundreds of years – Rome robbed us of a stable home life. 

Not only does secular society investing so much into Christmas baffle me, but seeing how much energy Christians put into a man-made tradition does too. Although certain methods of celebrating Christmas could arguably be unbiblical, the concept of Christmas is merely extra-biblical. And celebrating the birth of Christ is good and worthy point of thanksgiving, but this is where the inconsistency comes in. Some would argue, ‘I don’t need a Sabbath, I can Sabbath any day.’ Yet, you won’t find them saying ‘I don’t need Christmas, I can celebrate the birth of Jesus any day.’ The one, commanded in scripture is minimised, while the man-made tradition is elevated. Does this sound familiar? Is this not what Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for in Mark 7? “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9).
Is there anything wrong with traditions? No. Note that in Mark 7 Jesus had washed his hands prior to eating. It’s when traditions supersede Scripture that they become a problem, and it for this that Jesus often rebuked them.
The early church did not need to invent new holidays, God in His word had already provided His people with 7 feast days to celebrate, all reflecting the person and work of Christ, thus making them worthy of Christian observance and celebration. But because of their anti-semitism, the ‘Gentile church’ turned their back on ‘Jewish’ things, thus abolishing the instructions of God.

Now you may be thinking: 
“Didn’t Paul say the feast days were done away with? In Colossians 2:16-17 he wrote: Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Yes, Paul wrote that, but he didn’t mean that. There are two things about this passage that will help us understand what Paul is saying. First, is that this passage says that it is wrong to judge, think less of, condemn (kreno, Jn 3:17-18), and disqualify Christians from the faith with the feast days as a measure. So this should give us perspective on how Paul is defining the importance of the feast days, i.e. they aren’t salvation critical. The second thing, however, reveals that Paul was not talking to those who reject the feast days. Looking at the broader context, note that Paul is warning his readers not to allow someone to take them “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ… These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion…” (Col 2:8, 23). Now the feast days are not ‘Jewish’, they are God’s feast days: “These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts (Lev 23:2). They are among His commandments and statutes. If Paul is rebuking people for insisting on observing the Lord’s feast days, then he is describing the commandments of God: empty, human tradition, having the appearance of wisdom, and self-made religion. Moreover, he is equating God with the ‘elemental spirits of the world.’ Note too that these false teachers are insisting on “asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind… and severity to the body” as a way to overcome our sinful nature and evil spirits (Col 2:8, 14, 18, 23). So Paul is in fact rebuking false teachers for condemning Christians either because they were keeping the feasts, or the manner in which they kept them. Insisting on aestheticism could mean that celebrating anything was wrong, or perhaps the feasting and revelry of the feasts should be exchanged for fasting. Thus, Paul is saying:
“Therefore let no one pass judgement on you because you keep the feasts or the way you keep the feasts. Why? For one, celebrating doesn’t promote sin. And secondly, because they are all about Jesus. So, of course you should celebrate them. And they haven’t passed away yet because they are ‘a shadow of the things to come [fut. Tense].”
So no, the feast days have not been done away with. Why would our creator take away occasions for celebrating? Yet, because of the inherited thinking from the likes of Justin Martyr, the church sees them as something that needed to be done away with at the cross. And because of the inherited interpretation of Colossians 2, most look upon them indifferently.

As I spoke about here and here God has already given us a perfect opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus: the Feast of Tabernacles. Not only is it a highly probable date for Jesus’ birth, but it is a week of celebrations designed to help God’s people remember that He dwells among them. A time to reflect on Immanuel. If people want to celebrate Christmas, then that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with traditions. There’s nothing in scripture explicitly forbidding it, nor for celebrating it more than once. Scripture doesn’t give a date for the event, so we should not be dogmatic about when we celebrate it. But it is important that we keep Christmas in correct perspective: it was a tradition established to replace the days of celebration given by God in scripture, because the early church needed an outlet to honour their true saviour. Let’s give both tradition and scripture the attention and energy they deserve.


Rosenquist, Tyler. "So What about Christmas and Easter"

Tauber, Yanki. "What Happened on your Birthday" 

Thompson, Alan J. One Lord, One People the Unity of the Church in Acts in Its Literary Setting / Alan J. Thompson. Library of New Testament Studies ; 359. London: T & T Clark, 2008.

Friday, 9 December 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 4: Paul's Letters

At an ancient meat market, a couple is offended when they observe a fellow Christian buying meatFor most theologians, scholars, preachers, pastors, and laity that the food laws no longer apply to us is taken as a ‘simple and obvious’ fact. This is not too dissimilar to how much of society considers it a simple and obvious fact that dinosaurs never lived with humans. Because of years of being told that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans through books, films, and education, the idea of creationism is mocked as nonsense. That Genesis describes humans and all animals (which would include dinosaurs) being created on the same day is ridiculous and obviously wrong. Similarly, when you might suggest that perhaps the food laws weren’t done away with, because of centuries of an inherited doctrine that the law was done away with, you’re obviously wrong. And just as the atheist will interpret the evidence through the lens of naturalism to defend their position that dinosaurs never lived with humans, most Christians will read Scripture through the lens of the inherited idea that the Law is bad and just for the Jews, despite the Bible saying otherwise, and as we have seen in our previous posts, read things into the text that aren’t even there. Commentator William J. Larkin Jr. brings the arguments that this post series have covered together quite succinctly in his discussion of Peter’s vision in Acts 10,

The voice comes again, this time providing the rationale: God has declared all foods clean. Peter is not to go on declaring some foods profane or "common." Jesus' teaching and behavior had certainly prepared the way for such a declaration (Mk 7:14-23; Lk 11:39-41), and the cross was the salvific basis for it (Eph 2:14-15; Col 2:14). The sheet from heaven and the voice both bear witness that all God's creatures are now to be viewed as clean and good, not to be refused (Gen 1:31; 1 Tim 4:3).
But as we have seen, Jesus did not bring an end to the supposed ‘ceremonial’ law (here), nor did he declare all foods clean to the Pharisees and the disciples, (here) nor specifically to Peter in Acts 10 via the Holy Spirit (here). In the latter two, the dispute was about the man-made purity category of common, which is distinct from unclean. A fact that is ignored (intentionally or not) when interpreting these passages.

To conclude this series on the food laws, we will continue looking at the apostolic period, this time considering Paul’s words on the matter. One of Paul’s key teachings on the matter is found in Romans 14, where Paul is dealing with disputes between ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’ in regards to food. In verse 14, Paul states:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
So, there you have it. Nothing is unclean except for those who think it is. Food laws are now a matter of conscience, right? Would you be surprised (probably not) to learn that that is not what the Greek says. Let’s revisit an old friend to see what Paul really said:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is common (koinen) in itself, but it is common for anyone who thinks it common.
Therefore, what Romans 14:14 should really say is, food is not polluted by coming into contact with something unclean. In Acts 10, Peter was talking about Gentiles being common. Here, like Jesus, Paul is talking about food becoming common. What is interesting is that prior to 1611, virtually every English translation such as the Coverdale and Tyndale version all say ‘common.’ Even Luther’s translation of 1545 uses common (gemein) instead of unclean (unreines). But for some reason, since the publication of the KJV, we begin to see unclean being used instead of common. Could it be because older, more reliable manuscripts use ‘unclean’ instead? No. The oldest complete manuscript, Codex Sinaticus from the 4th century uses common (koinen) instead of unclean (akathartos), which agrees with many other later manuscripts such as the Textus Receptus and the Stephanus New Testament. The fact that translators can use common in Acts 10, but not in Romans 14 makes the process quite questionable. Perhaps they were ignorant of the fact that, as we see in Peter’s declaration, that common and unclean are actually different. As Colin House explains, “Even though Peter consistently differentiated between ‘common’ and ‘unclean,’ it seems reasonable to assume that the various translators of the English Scriptures believed this distinction to be defunct.” Or perhaps it was more convenient to create a proof-text out of Romans 14:14 to reinforce either their freedom to eat whatever they want, or maintain a differentiation between us Christians, and those Jews. Either way, the translators knowingly mistranslated a word which is misleading to its readers. Therefore, Paul’s argument is all about the category of common, and not the abolishment of the food laws of Leviticus. And this is how we should define the ‘weak’ follower of Christ in Romans 14:2-3 about whom Paul writes:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
The weak here are often assumed to be legalists. Those who have not yet grasped the concept of justification by grace, and that the food laws are done away with. For example, Calvin describes the weak as those who could not let go of the law, and “they would have thought otherwise, had they possessed a certain and a clear knowledge of Christian liberty." Similarly, Douglas Moo describes the weak as those who are unable to “accept… the truth that their faith in Christ implies liberation from certain OT/Jewish ritual requirements." And this is interesting because the Apostles at Jerusalem council in Acts 15 promoted the law's 'ritual requirements' of abstaining from blood etc…, and Paul underwent a Nazarite Vow in Acts 20. Therefore, according to Douglas Moo’s definition, the Apostles were weak Christians. The Augsburg Confession suggests that “they forbade it for a time, to avoid offense” (28.65), however that is assumed since Scripture makes no mention of that.  But notice in verse 2 Paul provides the explanation of those who are weak: the ones who "eat only vegetables." This means that the weak are those abstaining from all meats, not merely unclean meats. Moo suggests that the reason they do is because they cannot guarantee the kosher quality of meat in the marketplace, however, considering the discussion about common in verse 14, it is more than likely that the weak are those avoiding food sacrificed to idols from the marketplace since they believed this was a significant source of food pollution. Consider Paul’s similar wording in 1Cor 8:7, "…not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled…"
Also compare Paul’s advice given in both chapters
Rom 14:21 “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
1Cor 8:11,13 “…by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died… Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat.”
The weak, therefore, are those who would not buy meat from the market (1Cor 10:25) because they believed that meat offered to idols became ‘common’ and would therefore eat only vegetables as these were not offered to idols and sold in a different area. 

But didn’t Paul say that “Everything is indeed clean” (v20). Doesn’t this mean that clean and unclean divisions are done away with, meaning that all meat is clean now? Not necessarily. ‘All’, or pas (Gk) does not necessarily mean absolutely everything. For example, in speaking about John the Baptist, Matthew writes “all (pas) Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him.” Does this mean each and every citizen came out to see John? Perhaps, but not likely. In Romans Paul says that “all (pas) Israel shall be saved” (Rom 11:26). But we know that not every single Israelite ever will be saved. And later he writes “your obedience is known to all (pas)” (Rom 16:19). Did every single person know about the obedience of the Romans? To the Ephesians, Paul says that “Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all (pas) things” (Eph 6:21). Tychicus is going to tell them absolutely everything there is to know, including the laws of thermodynamics? And to the church in Colossae, Paul tells “Bondservants [to] obey in everything (pas) those who are your earthly masters” (Col 3:22). What if their masters tell them to sin by worshipping an idol? Because that part would be included in everything? So, while pas can mean absolutely all, this is not always the case. In fact, a clause is typically offered, “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity” (Eph 6:24). If indeed all things are now clean (katharos), does this mean that the unclean (akatharos) spirits (Matt 10:1) and all unclean people (Eph 5:5) are now clean? Does that mean the defiled conscience of the unbeliever (Tit 1:15) is now clean? Because these are a part of all things. Or should we recognise that all can have limitations. When we consider the context of verse 20, we realise why Paul says that everything is clean; “because, as with the parenthetical comment of Mark 7:19, nothing within the parameters of ‘clean’ food should be thought of as being made ‘common’” (House, 153). In short, Paul is not saying ‘eating a ham sandwich is fine.’ This becomes particularly evident through Paul’s instruction not to “quarrel over opinions”, as food laws were not opinions. That pigs and prawns were unclean was not a matter of interpretation. God had laid out in Leviticus c.1500 years earlier what his people could and couldn’t eat. He is saying that the believers in Rome (and Corinth) need not worry that the meat they buy in the marketplace being polluted by idols, something scripture is silent on, thus requiring discernment and opinion.

The second passage of Paul and our final passage for consideration is found in Paul’s letter to Timothy:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1Tim 4:1-5)
Here, it is understood, that Paul is warning Timothy about people who will impose the food laws upon people. As John Macarthur explains, “Paul knew that Judaizers were trying to force dietary laws on Gentiles. Paul identifies them as false teachers because there were no more dietary laws.” However, a close examination of the text reveals that this is not the case. Firstly, note that the false teachers will devote themselves to “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” Now, if Paul is talking about the Old Testament food laws, or even more generally the laws about clean and unclean, he has just declared that the one who gave the Law to Moses, as a deceitful spirit and a demon. Which would be strange, because earlier in 1Tim 1 and Romans 7, Paul describes the Law as good and holy. So either Paul is unstable and divided in his mind about the Law, or he isn’t talking about the food laws at all. What the situation appears to be describing is false teachers telling Christians that they should not eat any meat at all. Why? Either because of a connection to idolatry, such as what we looked at in Romans 14, although we don’t see the same language being repeated here. Or, and this seems to be more likely, because of the gnostic idea that creation is evil because it is made by an evil intermediary, they are rejecting food created by God to be received as food with thanksgiving. As Paul explains, food is “made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1Tim 4:5). God’s word defines what is to be considered food. We see this articulated in Genesis where God distinguishes between clean and unclean (Gen 7:2,8; Lev 11) where, through Moses, God spells out what is to be eaten and not eaten. So while the ‘gnostic’ says ‘sheep are evil’, scripture says that lamb is clean. But nowhere does it say in scripture that prayer can make a pig clean. Now, yes, everything created by God is good. But should I drink bleach or eat a vacuum cleaner if I’m grateful? After all, “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” Or should I recognise the goodness of things according to their purpose? Because not everything was created by God to be food. The pig and the prawn are basically natures vacuum cleaner. Therefore, what Paul is saying, is that no food (as defined by scripture) is to be rejected based on the traditions of man and false teachings.

So, as we have explored, the proof-texts which supposedly say that the clean/unclean division between food is done away with, do not actually say that. Rather, they are dealing with the traditions of man and false teachings. And some might say, ‘well, that doesn’t matter. Food laws are not repeated in the New Testament and are therefore unbinding on the Christian.’ There are two problems with this. The first is that it doesn’t have to. Laws against bestiality and pre-marital sex are not expressed in the New Testament, yet we accept them as binding. Now, it could be argued that because Jesus, James, and Paul speak against the ‘sexual immorality’ (Mark 7:21, Acts 15:29, 1Cor 6:18) the sexual laws can be considered to be carried over. Which makes sense. However, if you looked up Ephesians 5:5 as mentioned above, you would have found Paul declaring 
“everyone who is sexually immoral or impure [akathartos], or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” 
Here, Paul has just described someone as unclean. Why, if clean and unclean were done away with, is Paul using this term? If the sexually immoral are those who have engaged with sexual immorality, it makes sense that those who consciously and wilfully engage with those things God has declared unclean become unclean. Therefore, we do in fact find ‘unclean’ repeated in the New Testament. Interestingly, the ESV here combines immoral and impure as categories of sexual sin, however the Greek shows a distinction with the disjunctive conjunction E, meaning it should be translated as “everyone who is sexually immoral, or impure, or…” Ignorance, or an attempted cover-up to hide the active use of unclean in the New Testament? I’ll let you be the judge.
The second is that passages like Jeremiah 31, and Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 show that the Law, the Torah, God’s Torah, would still be in effect in the New Covenant, and that not even the smallest part which includes the food laws, would be done away with. Instead, God’s Law would be written on the believer’s heart to be lived out. And those who act or teach otherwise, will be considered least in the Kingdom. So, if in our reading of Paul’s letters we interpret him as doing away with the commandments of God, something Jesus rebuked the Pharisee’s for, in Mark 7, then we either need to reject Paul because he is contradicting the teachings of Jesus and other parts of Scripture (1Cor 14:32), or we need to reconsider our interpretation of Paul. 

When we understand the cultural context of the New Testament and hear the other side of the conversation, we will discover that the New Testament does not give us permission to eat food God declared unclean.


Calvin, John. Romans. (Kindle)

Larkin, William. “Peter’s Vision.” IVP New Testament Commentaries

House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983. P 143-153

John Macarthur, “Salvation Reaches Out.”

Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids. 1996.

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