Sunday, December 20, 2015

So this is Christmas

Jesus, or Yeshua bar Yosif, was born. Just when or where is still open for debate. In fact, the story of the Christmas holiday is a perfect example of the adaptation of the gospel to the various social cultures to which it was taken.

The traditional story of Christmas loosely combines two narratives in the canonical gospels of Matthew (1:18-2:23) and Luke (1:5-2:39). Mark has no nativity story; John offers a poem, believed to draw on an early Christian hymn, concerning the presence of Christ at creation and the enfleshment, or incarnation, into the person of Jesus, but not a birth story.

These two narratives contain some similarities and some contradictions.

Matthew and Luke both say Jesus was born in Judea, in the town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David. In both accounts, Jesus’ mother is Mary, a virgin who becomes pregnant by divine agency while betrothed to a man named Joseph, who married her despite her being pregnant after getting the green light from an angel in a dream.

Matthew opens with a patrilineal genealogy of Jesus, an odd choice since the story makes it clear that Joseph did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born. Then he presents the traveling astrologers or men of wisdom who are being guided to Judea to a “child born king of the Jews”; they go to King Herod for help locating the new king.

Herod learns from his court scholars that prophecies point to a birthplace in Bethlehem, and he asks the wise men to let him know when they find the new king so he may go pay homage. After the wise men find Jesus, an angel warns them against telling Herod and tells Joseph to flee; when the wise men fail to report back, Herod orders the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem two years and under, just as Joseph, Mary and Jesus are fleeing to Egypt. After Herod’s death they return, not to Judea but to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth.

Luke has a very different story, which begins in Nazareth with the parents of the future John the Baptist, whose mother, Elizabeth, is Mary’s cousin. He eases into the announcement of Jesus’ coming to Mary, who is perplexed and recites the well-known Magnificat hymn, which borrows heavily from the Hebrew Bible and bears a remarkable resemblance to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem as required by a census order of Emperor Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Shepherds appear at the birth. Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem on the eighth day, to be circumcised. Then they return to Nazareth.

Matthew does not mention a census. Luke has no wise men, no Herod, no slaughter, no Egypt. Both present problems to the dispassionate historian.

One of the principal independent contemporary sources, the Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 CE), makes no mention of Herod’s slaughter, an oddity for someone who is keen to record gruesome suffering of the Jews of that period. However, he does cite a census, around the year 6 CE. This would mesh with the governorship of Quirinius, which began that year; however, Herod died in 4 BCE, or 10 years earlier.

The Quirinius problem may be disposed of by some problematic claims that he had been governor for another term earlier, conceivably while Herod was alive. Even then, if Luke is correct, scholars propose that Jesus may have been born around the year 6 BCE.

These are just a few of many potential holes in the two narratives.

Matthew was probably written in Antioch by scribes working on the testimony of the apostle of the same name around the year 50 or 60. Luke, a disciple of Paul’s, was a physician and highly literate in Greek; he could write and research his own material, which he penned between 60 and 80, probably in Greece.

Neither was an eyewitness to the birth. Matthew met Jesus as an adult, and Luke never met Jesus, although he may have met Mary in Ephesus, where she reputedly lived under the care of John before he was exiled. More than likely, their narratives are a literary device, one very common in the Greco-Roman world, in which an important figure had to be born under portentous auspices.

The first writer to approach the early Christian story as a historian was Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who was present at the Nicene Council and authored his well-known Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius attributed to early tradition the account that Jesus was born in the summer, possibly in June or July.

Christmas was not celebrated at all by the apostles or their early followers. Until Nicea, there is no evidence of any religious feast days other than Easter, from which came the Sunday Eucharist, Pentecost and the occasional commemorations of local martyrs’ birth to new life at the hands of the Romans.

Yet barely a few years after the Church became legal, suddenly there appeared in Rome the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus on December 25. Why that date?

The 25th of December was the pagan festival of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the Unconquered Sun”), a festival inaugurated by the Roman emperor Aurelian (270–75) to celebrate the sun god at the winter solstice. This was the occasion of riotous orgies and drunken revelry. It was also the reputed birthday of the Zoroastrian god Mithra, also revered by the Romans.

The date was a way of Christianizing or “baptizing” a pagan feast. This kind of supplantation is part of a pattern that would repeat itself in the history of the process known as the inculturation of the gospel, or adaptation by evangelizers of the gospel story and Christian ritual practice to suit the customs of various social cultures.

Indeed, the ceiling mosaic seen above, from a tomb in the necropolis under mid-3rd century Vatican grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, depicts Christ as the Sun (Christus Sol Invictus), which supplants the pagan mythology.

The image is believed to represent the ideas of that period that St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology cites as a favorite of early Christians awaiting the return of the Lord: Psalm 19:5-6, which speaks of “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber who rejoices as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.”

Much as the church in Rome did with the solstice on Dec. 25, the eastern churches celebrated the “coming of light,” or in Greek Epiphania, on Jan. 6. As Christianity moved north, it took the solstice holly and ivy from the pagan Celtic religion in Britain and the pagan Norse yule log from Scandinavia and Germany (where it later became the Weihnachtsbaum, or Christmas tree).

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

In Name Only

The expansion of Catholic Christianity north and west of the Mediterranean Basin through mass conversions of peoples as a result of the baptism of their king or chieftain had the net effect of generating mass nominalism. To put it simply, many of the new converts were Christian in name only.

Mass and indirect conversions were not unique to medieval Christian missions.

Recall that in the book of Acts (chapter 2) some 2,000 are said to have been converted to the faith as a result of Peter’s speech. In Acts chapters 10 and 11, Peter baptizes the first Gentile, a centurion named Cornelius who, as befit the Roman paterfamilias, had his whole household, wife, children, servants and slaves baptized as well.

Christians, even those who had known Jesus, were not instantly enlightened men and women of our time (although arguably our time is not so enlightened). They were people of theirs.

While the manner of conversion in some cases involved some peer pressure at a minimum, or even coercion of the sort we can only imagine at the hands of the average barbarian chieftain, it was based on a widely accepted principle, which was accepted long after the Middle Ages and even by leaders of the Protestant Reformation as late as the 17th century.

Cuius regio, eius religio is a Latin phrase that literally means “whose realm, his religion,” meaning that the religion of the ruler should dictate the religion of those ruled.

Of course, nominal European Christians would be very unlikely to march to martyrdom singing hymns of praise as had their predecessors under Roman persecution.

The new tepid faith was evident in the behavior of the Christian kings and chieftains—as we saw earlier in the words of Gregory Dix (see Enter the Barbarians)—but also in that of ordinary people in matters religious, in particular the Eucharist.

Faced with desecration of consecrated wine through drunkenness or coarse and clumsy manners leading to spillage, the Church experimented with a vast array of methods of dispensing wine. In despair, clerics in the West opted to withhold communion in both species, reserving the Blood of Christ for those in the sanctuary area surrounding the altar, mostly clerics or clerics in training. It was argued that the Body of Christ in the consecrated bread implicitly contained the Blood, as flesh and blood are as one.

Moreover, nominalism brought about a decline in the reception of communion, even in the bread species alone. This has been studied by reviewing the records of communion bread production by monasteries and purchases by dioceses.

In response to the lukewarm faith of an arguably ill-prepared laity, clerics began to devise a series of clever rules and devices to suffuse the ordinary lives of Catholic Christians in Europe with acts that might elicit the true inner disposition of conversion that was missing.

This is the source of rigorism, which eventually devolved into widespread mandatory fasting and church attendance at various times of the year. It is also what propelled the Church to combat the ignorance of the laity with artistic works, such as stained-glass windows, statues of saints and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals pointing upward, to God.

All of this did not occur at once, nor systematically, as we shall see.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Christianity spreads north and west

The early middle ages feature a second crop of missionary activity and conversions to Christianity. For the most part, these efforts followed a common pattern that spawned the beginnings of Western Christendom.

Where Rome had conquered, some initial Christian seedling churches had been planted. Then the barbarians came and the legions withdrew. A new effort had to be made to convert the chieftains, who in turn pretty much ordered all their tribespeople to convert. Let’s look at how this pattern played out in several of the key western European countries that influenced religion in what came to be called the New World.


Christianity in Spain began in the first century with the siete varones apostólicos (Seven Apostolic Men) ordained in Rome by Saints Peter and Paul: Saints Isicio, Cecilio, Tesifonte, Torcuato, Eufrasio, Hesiquio and Segundo. My namesake, St. Cecilio, is venerated as the patron saint of Granada (then known as Iliberis, later Elvira), where he became the first bishop, around the year 64; he was burned to death during the reign of Nero.

Still a very much a persecuted minority, Christians slowly gained a foothold in Seville, Cordoba and Toledo. Spanish Christianity under Rome was also marked by the Synod of Elvira in 305, attended by 19 bishops and 26 presbyters. After the edict of toleration, it was a Christian who hailed from the Iberian Peninsula, Emperor Theodosius I, who presided over the Council of Nicea.

In the years following 410, while Rome declined, Spain was overrun by the Visigoths. These barbarians had been converted to Christianity in 325 as a result of the missionary work among Gothic tribes by Bishop Ulfilas. However, Ulfilas had taught them the nontrinitarian variant of the faith condemned as the heresy of Arianism.

The Visigothic Kingdom ruled from Toledo led to the expansion of Arianism in Spain. However, in 587, King Reccared was converted to Chalcedonian Christianity, already known as Catholicism at that point, and he launched a movement to unify doctrine; in other words, his subjects were ordered to believe what he believed.


Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (Gaul is divided into three parts)” state the opening words of Julius Caesar’s Comentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), which recount the 58 BCE conquest of what is today France. The three parts were the lands of the Belgae, which comprise modern northern France and Belgium; the Aquitani, people south of the Loire River, and the Celtae or Celts, inhabiting what is now Normandy and Brittany.

The Romans conquered and held this territory until 486. Christianity flourished in Roman Gaul, mainly in Lyons, in a community established by missionaries from Asia Minor—notably St. Irenaeus, the first bishop, who came from Smyrna. Lyons was the site where 48 martyrs were executed in 177.

When Gaul fell to the Franks, who were a confederation of six tribes from east of the Rhine (in the original area the Romans called Francia), Clovis I established the Frankish Kingdom. The king converted to Catholicism at the suggestion of his wife, Clotilde, a Burgundian princess later revered as a saint for her role in the conversion. Clovis was baptized on Christmas Day 496 in a small church near the future site of the Abbey of Saint-Remi in Reims, with distinctive long-term effects on French Christianity.

St. Clotilde’s faith was distinctive among the barbarian invaders in its adherence to Catholicism, despite the Arian influence among the Goths. When Clovis rose to the Frankish crown, Arians dominated Christian Gaul and Catholics were the minority. Consolidation of dominion over all of Gaul in the hands of Clovis led to the massive conversion of Arians to Catholic orthodoxy.

Another consequence was a peculiar new relationship between religion and state power in France, based on variations of the divine right of kings. Although the theological teaching that monarchy was inherently blessed by the Christian faith was the work of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, bishop and theologian at the time of Louis XIV, since the middle ages, the story is told in France of a miraculous event concerning the first Louis (Clovis is a Germanic form of the name) that had a decisive effect on the popular understanding of the idea.

According to the pious legend, depicted in many stained-glass windows in French churches, a holy flask miraculously dropped from heaven, pouring anointing oil on Clovis’ head at his baptism, thus bestowing divine support for his kingship. This event was understood to endow kings with an authority at least on a par with that of medieval bishops.


Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BCE as part of his Gallic Wars and achieved full conquest by 43 BCE, a situation that ushered in Roman Britain until 410 CE. The originally Germanic Britons were culturally assimilated by other Celtic tribes, and their original religion was Druidism.

Under Roman rule, a secret and persecuted Christianity reached Albion, as evidenced by Tertullian’s and Origen’s mention in the third century of native British Christians. This would be the much-fabled but poorly attested church of St. Alban, held by some to be the first British Christian martyr, who died either in the year 209, 251 or 304. All vestiges of this Christianity disappeared with the Romans; whatever survived the Romans was swallowed up by successive invasions of the isles by pagan tribes.

It wasn’t until the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great that Christianity revived in Britain. Reportedly, Gregory’s interest in the Sceptred Isle was first sparked when, as a young man walking about Rome, he came across pale-skinned English children being sold at a slave market. He asked who they were and was told they were Angles.

Non Angli, sed angeli (They are not Angles, but angels),” he responded, adding that they were “well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.”

A few years after he became pope, he dispatched a Benedictine monk to head a mission to Britain. Augustine was the prior of a monastery in Rome when Gregory chose him in 595.

Augustine selected the Kingdom of Kent as his evangelization target upon learning that King Ethelbert had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I, king of Paris; he hoped the Christian woman would have some influence over her husband. After converting the king and winning his permission to preach freely in the land, Augustine was ordained a bishop and converted many of his subjects, including thousands during a mass baptism on Christmas Day in 597. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and is considered the “Apostle to the English” and founder of the English Church.

The site of the cathedral at Canterbury was reputedly chosen by Augustine because it had been a Druid place of worship. This was a practice followed broadly in Christian missions: to take artifacts of the existing pagan religion or social customs already in place and “baptize” them, as it were; indeed, this is how the holly and the ivy, both pagan ritual artifacts, were incorporated into English Christmas celebrations.


No story of the missions to the barbarians would be complete without St. Patrick, an English Christian. His confessional autobiography states that he was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16, taken to the Emerald Isle to be sold as a slave and escaped back to England six years later.

He returned to Ireland as an adult, already ordained a priest; later he was ordained bishop. Known as the “Apostle of Ireland,” he is the primary patron saint of Ireland, along with Saints Brigid and Columba. Little is actually known about where and when Patrick worked his mission. However, legends about Patrick abound.

The best known credits Patrick with teaching the Irish the doctrine of the Holy Trinity using the shamrock to illustrate the three persons in one God. Another attributes to Patrick the absence of snakes in Ireland; he reputedly chased them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast. He is also said to have carried with him an ash wood walking stick or staff, which he thrust into the ground wherever he was evangelizing and at the place now known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick).

Yet another tale has Patrick being met by two ancient warriors, Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, two former members of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s warrior bands, the fianna. The saint seeks to convert the warriors to Christianity, while they defend their pagan past; the tale contrasts the pagan warriors’ life of fighting and feasting and living close to nature with the peaceful, but unheroic and ascetic life of the Christian.