Friday, December 18, 2020

Holydaze - the Origins of the Holiday Season Part 2

hol·i·day  /ˈhäləˌdā/
Origin: Old English hāligdæg ‘holy day'

Christian Vs. Roman Evangelism

What better place to delve deeper into the subject of purity vs harlotry than an examination of the Greek behind the word “gospel?” That is precisely what we will do since it will reveal the difference between Christian evangelism and Roman evangelism. Yes, there is a such thing as Roman evangelism, although very few seem to have heard of it.

In December of 2019 I was researching the word "gospel's" in Mark 8:35 when I ran across something particularly appropriate for the time of year. I wasn’t looking for it, but I stumbled on information that connected some of the pagan traditions I had heard of, but didn’t quite understand how they historically connected to Christmas. Let’s first read the verse for context.

For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?
Mark 8:35–36

I noticed the Greek word translated as “gospel’s” is the word "evangeliou" (εὐαγγελίου). This caught my attention, enough to look further into the meaning and history of evangelism. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says (translations and definitions added for clarity):

εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion or good news) in the imperial cult. This is the most important usage for our purpose. Note must be taken of what is said concerning the θεῖος ἄνθρωπος (Theos anthropos or God man → 712), τύχη (tyche or governing deity, usually Fortuna) and σωτηρία (soteria or salvation). The emperor unites all these in his own person. This is what gives εὐαγγέλιον (good news) its significance and power. The ruler is divine by nature. His power extends to men, to animals, to the earth and to the sea. Nature belongs to him; wind and waves are subject to him. He works miracles and heals men. He is the saviour of the world who also redeems individuals from their difficulties (→ σωτήρ or soter, meaning savior). Τύχη (Tyche) is linked up with his person; he is himself τύχη. He has appeared on earth as a deity in human form. He is the protective god of the state. His appearance is the cause of good fortune to the whole kingdom. Extraordinary signs accompany the course of his life. They proclaim the birth of the ruler of the world. A comet appears at his accession, and at his death signs in heaven declare his assumption into the ranks of the gods. Because the emperor is more than a common man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. What he says is a divine act and implies good and salvation for men. He proclaims εὐαγγέλια through his appearance, and these εὐαγγέλια treat of him (→ 713). The first evangelium is the news of his birth: ἦρξεν δὲ τῶι κόσμωι τῶν διʼ αὐτὸν εὐανγελι[ων ἡ γενέθλιος] τοῦ θεοῦ. “The birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the joyful messages which have gone forth because of him.” Other εὐαγγέλια follow, e.g., the news of his coming of age and esp. his accession: ἐπεὶ γν[ώ]στ[ης ἐγενόμην τοῦ] εὐαγγελ[ίο]υ περὶ τοῦ ἀνηγορεῦσθαι Καίσαρα τὸν τοῦ θεοφιλεστάτου κυρίον ἡμῶν … Joy and rejoicing come with the news. Humanity, sighing under a heaven burden of guilt, wistfully longs for peace. Doom is feared because the gods have withdrawn from earth. Then suddenly there rings out the news that the σωτήρ (savior) is born, that he has mounted the throne, that a new era dawns for the whole world. This εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion) is celebrated with offerings and yearly festivals. All cherished hopes are exceeded. The world has taken on a new appearance.

The imperial cult and the Bible share the view that accession to the throne, which introduces a new era and brings peace to the world, is a gospel for men. We can explain this only by supposing a common source. This is generally oriental. To the many messages, however, the NT opposes the one Gospel, to the many accessions the one proclamation of the → βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (Kingdom of God). The NT speaks the language of its day. It is a popular and realistic proclamation. It knows human waiting for and hope of the εὐαγγέλια, and it replies with the εὐαγγέλιον, but with an evangel of which some might be ashamed, since it is a σκάνδαλον (skandalon or stumbling block) (Mt. 11:5 f.; R. 1:16; 1 C. 1:17, 23; 2 Tm. 1:8; Mk. 8:35). The Gospel means for men σωτηρία (soteria or salvation), but σωτηρία through → μετάνοια (metanoia or repentance) and judgment (→ 728 f., 732). For many this Gospel may be ironical when they hear it (cf. Ac. 17:32). But it is real joy; for penitence brings joy, and judgment grace and salvation. Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross, confront one another. Both are evangel to men. They have much in common. But they belong to different worlds.

In reading this one might feel like this perfectly justifies celebrating Christ's birth. After all He is the One who was born, proclaimed by men and miracles, brought the Good News, ushered in the foundation stone of His spiritual kingdom... I mean the description of how the Roman culture honored Caesar is spot on with the coming of Christ. Why not simply apply it to Christ and give credit where credit is due? Ah, but here is the line that brings it all into focus, the best line, saved for last:

"But they belong to different worlds."

This is the kicker of this entire exposition. The Christian gospel is not the same as the Roman gospel. In fact, it is polar opposite, even if it has similar concepts. It goes on to say:

"For many this Gospel may be ironical when they hear it (cf. Ac. 17:32). But it is real joy; for penitence brings joy, and judgment grace and salvation."

Why would good news be ironic? Because it doesn’t sound like good news to those who don’t like the message. Can you see how it would be easy for churches to syncretize with the Roman gospel seeing that there are so many similarities to the messaging found in Scripture? It would only be out of misunderstanding the Gospel that someone would do such a thing, though. That or a desire for the world above Christ.

Christ’s Birthday

Perhaps Yahshua's birthday was never recorded by the apostles for a good reason. We aren’t supposed to worship like the heathen do. In this case, the Roman traditions associated with the worship of the Caesar. Christ’s birth was not calculated (over-curiously, I might add) or, even celebrated until centuries after His death. Early apostolic fathers criticized bishops who were pushing so hard to make this a yearly celebration. There were several theories as to the day, but no consensus. Why? Because no one knew the day. Then by necessity they would have to make it up.

The earliest attempts to calculate Yahshua’s birthday were based on assumptions and superstitions. One common superstition used to calculate His birthday is that Jewish tradition teaches great men are born and die on the same day of the year. Another fallacy contrived by Hippolytus of Rome in the 3rd century is that Yahshua was conceived on March 25th so He must have been born on December 25th. Interestingly enough, Hippolytus also incorrectly calculated His second advent to 500AD. This certainly doesn’t lend him credibility in regard to Christ’s birthday. Besides, all reasonable evidence points to Christ being born in the Spring or Fall. I’d still like to know, though, why an unbiblical celebration would be such a priority to contrive anyway? Let’s look at some of the hoops people jump through to arrive at a date.

“There are those who have calculated not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day. They say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon [May 20] … Others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth day of Pharmuthi [April 19 or 20].”
Clement of Alexandria (c. 195)

In the fourth century, a tract falsely attributed to John Chrysostom called The solstices and equinoxes, the conception and birth of Jesus and John the Baptist (II), says:

"But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eight before the calends of January [25 December] . . ., But they call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice."

We can see here that the writer of this tract is attempting to detract away from the pagan association of the winter holiday and instead point towards Christ, using a metaphor from the Bible as support for his statement. Notice the implication is that pagans were first using this symbolism and the argument is a response to that. One such justification some Christians hold supporting the Christianization of The Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun is that the Bible uses the metaphor of the sun to refer to the Son of God:

But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. Malachi 4:2

I hardly see this as a justification for converting a pagan holiday to a Christian one. Just because a metaphor is used in the Bible doesn’t mean we have to go out of our way to use it in justifying our traditions.

Besides not having any evidence in Scripture of people celebrating birthdays annually, according to Origen, many early Christians appeared to have an aversion to celebrating birthdays because of the importance placed on the birthday of the Caesar in association with the birthdays of Roman gods.

"…of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below." (Origen, in Levit., Hom. VIII, in Migne P.G., XII, 495)

Let’s get this straight, birthdays aren't necessarily bad, yet I have heard it said that because Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” we are actually encouraged in the Bible to celebrate birthdays. That’s not really the case. Look at the context of the Psalm. It is about Yahweh’s anger and wrath, and the fear of Him. This same sentiment is echoed in Psalm 39:4 in the same context of the fear of the wrath of God:

Yahweh, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Psalm 39:4

This numbering of days is specifically to remind us of the majesty and glory of God through a heart of humble  repentance. This is the opposite of the Roman concept of life, which is to “eat, drink and be merry! For tomorrow we die!” Remember what Paul said in response to Christians of his day teaching there is no resurrection of the dead:

I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Yahshua our Lord, I die daily. If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me? If the dead do not rise, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” 1 Corinthians 15:31–32

Paul is telling us not to live for today, but for the resurrection to come. Our celebration is in taking up our cross and living in service to our Lord, Yahshua. I can see why Christians would want to be set apart from such elated celebrations as Roman birthdays. I can see why they wouldn't want their lives to be perceived as corrupted by pagan practices. This is what Spurgeon and Tertullian were getting at. The Roman midwinter festivals which gave rise to the Holiday Season as we know it are not in honor of Christ because they are in the manner of men.

Just to be clear, I don’t discourage anyone from being thankful of the years God has given them, nor to refrain from celebrating their birthday with friends and family, but just remember what you are celebrating. It is another day God has given you. Does it really matter if the day happens to be on the anniversary of your birth? My personal conviction is that I don’t care either way whether anyone remembers my birthday or not so long as they remember what Yahshua told them to remember, that is, the breaking of His body and the spilling of His blood for us. That is something we should do every day. Recall Spurgeon’s words, “Regarding not the day, let us give God thanks for the gift of His dear Son.” Yahshua never told us to remember the day He was born, nor any day in particular but the day of the Lord. We also count the number of our years, not for the sake of the flesh, but in thankfulness towards God for atoning for our sins and doing His good works in us. No ceremony, ritual or tradition will suffice for that, but what God has ordained. What He ordained is above days or seasons or years. Let us honor Him in like fashion.

If the emperor’s gospel is celebrated with yearly festivals does that mean Christ’s Gospel should too? If these two gospels belong to different worlds then why should those who are “little Christs,” that is, “Christians” mimic that of the world? As Paul says in Hebrews 11:13, we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

"The kingdom [domain] of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." Luke 17:20-22

This made no sense to most Romans because they were altogether focused on the tangible domain of this world, which they believed Caesar was the anointed ruler over. Tacitus describes why the Romans hated Christians.

"Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race." -Tacitus, The Annals (c. 116 CE)

It's interesting that some things never change. Those who proclaim the love of God and the rejection of the world are invariably labeled as "haters" by unbelievers, and even worse, by those who are believers. How much has humanism infiltrated and changed the Gospel so that it will avoid this label? Do you fear being called a hater because you proclaim FIRST the love of God? Is the love of God separable from His chastening if "He whom He loves He also chastens?" (Hebrews 12:6) So those who speak hard truths in exhortation are evil because they are not creating "peace and security." Is this not the mind of the Romans, who persecuted Christians for being haters of the human race?

The Romans took it to the extreme by framing Christians for crimes they likely did not commit (at least, not true Christians). So too is the present condition of humanity placing blame on Christianity for hatred of the human race and crimes against humanity. Perhaps it is rightly so, for many who call themselves Christians have given the title a bad rap by following the world first and Christ second.

The Christian Gospel is polar opposite of the Roman gospel, even if it contains similar symbolism. Why is it despised so by the world? Because the world's gospel is focused on the world. The Christian Gospel is focused on Christ. The two cannot be mixed and maintain purity. The Gospel tells us we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), citizens of a heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20). It is a rejection of the world (James 4:4), and so it is a rejection of humanism. Humanists would say that if you reject humanism then you must hate humans. This is the line of thinking that began with the Roman persecutions of Christians. Rome may have been sacked and the Empire felled, but the spirit lives on to this day.

The spirit of Rome (aka Babylon, aka Humanism) is alive and well, and it may have even found its way into your heart, believer or unbeliever. Christian writer, Joseph Herrin wrote, “Much of what Christians do today is the result of tradition and the influence of other professing believers around us. Yet if we only go as far as those whom we observe in our devotion to Christ, and we do not press on any further, then it is certain that we will fall short of Yahweh’s desire for us. We must all press in ourselves. We must demonstrate our love for God by manifesting initiative in our pursuit of Him. We must ask Him to reveal everything that is not pleasing to Him and to lead us in the path of righteousness.” Paul concurs with:

"Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith." 2 Corinthians 13:5

(Continued in the next post...)

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