Many of us learned that Christians set the date of Christmas to co-opt pagan holidays. Both the Roman Saturnalia festival and Sol Invictus, the Feast of the Unconquered Son, fell around Dec. 25. Christians could claim Christ was the unconquered son and draw people into their religion.
This theory really did not develop until the 12th century and only took off after the 18th century. The earliest records of the still developing church show two things. First, the early church did not celebrate Christ’s birth, but his death and resurrection. Second, when the church did start celebrating Christ’s birth, the church had its own reasoning completely unrelated to pagan holidays.
To understand why the church celebrates Christ’s birth on Dec. 25th you must first understand that to the early church it was Christ’s death and resurrection that were of gravest importance. According to Andrew McGowan of the Biblical Archaeology Society, “Around 200 A.D., Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan in the year Jesus died was the equivalent to March 25 in the Roman calendar.”
Christians and Jews at that time held as fact that a prophet died on the same date of his conception. In other words, if Christ died on March 25, he would have been conceived on March 25, too. Go nine months out and you would land on Dec. 25 as his date of birth.
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Concurrent to that theory was another one. Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, was in the priestly division of Abijah. Knowing the division of priest in the temple in Jerusalem when it fell to the Romans in 70 A.D. and assuming an unbroken chain, early church historians counted backwards and concluded Zacharias would have been in the temple in October. The Bible tells us that after Zacharias left the temple, his wife conceived John. Luke 1:25-26 notes that six months later Mary conceived Jesus.
That would put Mary conceiving Jesus around March 25, which other early church leaders had already established as his date of death. The two separate calculations confirmed each other to early church leaders who could then set Christ’s birthday as Dec. 25.
The earliest known records of setting Christ’s birthday come in 200 A.D., 1,000 years before any documented suggestions that Christians set his birthday to correspond to pagan holidays. By 300 A.D., Christians throughout the world were celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25th because it fell nine months after the date they had set for his crucifixion. Within 100 years it had become a formal church celebration.
Most scholars reject the idea that Zacharias was in the temple in October the year Gabriel appeared to him. Further, modern scholarship suggests Christ may have been born in the spring. One is able to conclude the early church got it wrong. But it is also important to note that they thought they had it right and they set the date of Christmas for reasons entirely unrelated to Roman pagan holidays.
The more significant point is not when Christ’s birthday actually is, but that Christ himself exists. Many atheists wish to write Christ’s existence entirely out of history. To do so requires an extraordinary number of other people to be written out of history too. For me, about the only thing fraudulent this Christmas season will be the words of “Silent Night.” Between a new born baby and the heavenly host singing, there was nothing silent about that first Christmas.
Erick Erickson is host of Atlanta’s Evening News on WSB Radio.