The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jul 30, 2015

Maybe December 25th actually is the day of Jesus' birth? Some thoughts on the recent article by Kurt Simmons in JETS

One of the strengths of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (a peer-reviewed, academic journal second only to Tyndale Bulletin in evangelical circles) is its diversity of topics. Consequently, I was extremely interested to see, in the latest issue, an article by Kurt M. Simmons entitled "The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ's Birth," JETS 58 (June 2015): 299-334.

Most of us are familiar with the prevailing "conventional wisdom" that December 25th was an accommodation by the church to pagan practices--since nobody knew when the Christ was born, why not just take a pagan holiday and let Christians party? [ok, that's a bit of an unfair simplification] An article from Bibliotheca Sacra over 150 years ago takes this position (Joseph Thompson's "Christmas and Saturnalia," BibSac vol. 12, January 1845). For some Christians, this is enough to prevent them from any celebration on this date. Another theory advanced by scholars is that 12/25 or 1/6 (depending on if you're the Eastern or Western church) is connected to the date of Jesus' conception, which would have occurred at the same time of the year as his crucifixion (a recent Biblical Archaeological Review discussed this theory, I believe).

Simmons examines both of these theories (the "history of religions" theory and the "calculation" theory, respectively), and finds them wanting. He then provides a somewhat complicated yet interesting discussion of the chronology of Jesus' life.

One of the more significant points that Simmons' thesis hinges on is that Herod actually died not around the lunar eclipse of 4 BC, but rather around a lunar eclipse which occurred on January 10, 1 BC. (NASA records confirm that there was a lunar eclipse on that day; click here and remember to add a +1 to the 0). This, personally, would be a calculation that I would appreciate, and here's why: as argued elsewhere (click here), I believe that Jesus' death took place on Friday, April 3rd, 33 AD. (Friday afternoon is the first day, Friday night would be the second day, and Saturday night through Sunday would be the "third day"--this theory is hardly new with me). Nevertheless, Luke says that Jesus began his ministry when he was "about thirty years old" (Luke 3:23). If this were AD 30, and if Jesus was born 4 BC, then he would actually be 34, which would be stretching it a little (I took heart in the fact that 34 would be much more likely than 35 to be called "about thirty"!) However, if Jesus were actually born roughly BC 1, then suddenly Luke is not at all stretching the bounds of approximation to say that Jesus was "about 30"!

Now it's quite possible that Simmons is trying to cut things just a bit too fine with his chronology (I'm especially skeptical of page 317 and his discussion of Jesus' baptism). Nevertheless, this is a thesis that deserves consideration, and time will tell how other evangelical scholars interact with it. Also, Simmons' article passes the two big tests of original scholarship: good interaction with primary sources and citation of foreign-language sources.

Whether or not to celebrate Christmas is a personal matter that every Christian must deal with At the very least, caution must be taken not to forsake the Infant in the manger for the man in the red suit. The latter, in this day and age, calls us to glitz, glamour, and material possessions (the real Saint Nick is turning over in his grave). The former, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when He calls us, calls us to die. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that the old "Saturnalia" argument is historically inaccurate and thus insufficient as an excuse to exchange gifts, remember the poor, and sing "O Holy Night" every December 25th.

No comments:

Post a Comment