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Friday, December 9, 2011

Ancient Christmas

When Was Christ Born?

According to I. Howard Marshall, “The life of a traveling preacher in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire was not likely to find its way into the writings of Roman historians, who had (as they thought) more important things to occupy their attention.” Therefore, what historical evidence can there be found to support the events around the birth of Christ? Tacitus refers very briefly to Jesus, and Jewish historians offer a 1st century history by Josephus, which describes Christ as a miracle-worker put to death by Pilate. Other Jewish traditions have been preserved in the writings of the rabbis. For all practical purposes, our knowledge of Jesus comes from the New Testament alone. According to Marshall, however, Luke must have interviewed Mary, Jesus’ mother, in order to have obtained the detailed information that he did.

In 525 C.E., Pope John I told scholar Dionysius Exiguus to create a Church feast calendar. The scholar duly estimated the year of Jesus’ birth, but it appears he made some mistakes. It seems likely, then, that Jesus was not born in 0 C.E. The best information we have to date his birth is by the date of the Roman censuses. There were Roman censuses in 28 B.C.E, 8 B.C.E, and 14 C.E. However, these censuses were apparently for Roman citizens only, and Joseph was not a Roman citizen. There are various records of provincial censuses under Augustus for non-citizens, for the purposes of taxation. In 6 C.E., ten years after the death of Herod the Great, Josephus refers to a census in Judea administered by Quirinus, the governor of Syria. This, however, does not seem to fit the story[1].

So, perhaps the census was not for taxation purposes, but as a census of allegiance? Taxation is not mentioned in the Greek manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel. From the context of the two accounts of Orosius and Josephus, one of these censuses took place in the year before the death of Herod the Great. Ergo, the evidence seems to agree with the date of 5 C.E. As the Gospel of Luke tells of shepherds out in the fields, it was most likely lambing season—ie, in the spring.

Early Christians, when forming their festival calendar, proposed two dates for the celebration of Christ’s birth: January 6th, because it was the date upon which the Egyptians observed the festival of the goddess Kore and/or the birth of Osiris; and March 25th, the spring equinox according to the Roman calendar. By the 3rd century, December 25th was the recognized date of the birth of Mithras, Persian god of the Sun. Like Jesus, Mithras was born in a cave (according to the Protoevangelium of James and Justin Martyr, from the 2nd century, the typical location of stables in classical Palestine were caves). In 350 C.E., Pope Julius I made that date official. In 354, a Feast of the Nativity takes place on December 25th in a document known as the Philocalian calendars.

The Star

From Matthew we can deduce it was a star that had newly appeared. Also, it travelled slowly across the sky against the star background. The Magi first saw the star in the east, then came to Jerusalem where Herod sent them to Bethlehem, then they went on their way and “the star that they had seen in the east went ahead of them” (2:7). Since Bethlehem is almost due south of Jerusalem (by 6 miles), the star must have moved slowly through the sky from east to south in around 2 months’ time. Popular tradition has the star pointing out the very stable in which Christ was born, but according to Matthew, viewed from Jerusalem the star stood over the place where the child was born, ie Bethlehem. There is only one astronomical object which satisfies all this criteria: a comet with a long tail. The Chinese kept records on interesting stars, and in 5 C.E. there was a comet with a long tail that was visible for over 70 days. This is the only long-tailed comet recorded by the Chinese between 20 B.C.E. and 10 C.E.

The Magi

Matthew described them as “wise men”; some sources call them Magi, which means astrologers/astronomers/religious sages, identified with Zoroastrian religion. There were at least two, maybe more. Eastern tradition claims there were 12. The figure of 3 was not settled by the Church until the 6th century. As they were recorded as bringing the child 3 gifts, understandably this was taken to mean that each individual brought one gift. Psalm 72 reinforces the idea of 3, as in that text kings from Tarshish, Sheba and Seba brought tribute to King Solomon. It is from Isaiah Chapter 60 from which we get the gifts of gold and frankincense, as well as mention of camels and kings.

Frankincense is a type of incense from the Boswellia tree introduced to Europe by Frankish Crusaders. Myrrh, commiphora myrrha, is a thorny shrub native to Somalia, difficult to obtain in ancient times. The smoke it produces is bitter, sweet, and tarry—associated with mortality and resurrection because of its use in embalming. Gold likewise connotes kingship, frankincense purity and prayer. To collect myrrh, incisions have to be made into the bark of the shrub. Sap forms tears which are collected a fortnight later, then stored for up to 12 weeks. Myrrh was so highly prized that in ancient Rome it cost 5 times the price of frankincense. (As per the Gospel of Mark, myrrh mixed with wine was also offered to Jesus as he hung from the cross. Myrrh was also reputed to flow from the relics of St Nicholas. In 1998, two Russian icons associated with Tsar Nicholas II were found streaming myrrh and were kept in a church dedicated to St Nicholas.)

In a 6th century source, the Excerpta Latin Barbari, the Magi brought the child “gifts and venerated him. The Magi are called Bithisarea, Melchior and Gaspar.” Balthazar is maybe a corruption of Beltesshazzar, the name by which Daniel was known in the Babylonian court. It seems the name Melchior may come from the Hebrew Melek (king) + or (light). Gaspar may be Godiphar, a famous Indian king from an apocryphal text, the Act of Thomas. There is a further, later written, reference from the Collectanea, a source probably from Ireland of the 8th century. In 2004, the Synod of the Church of England consented to the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, agreeing “Magi” was the name for officials at the Persian court, meaning they were not kings, did not necessarily number 3, and could have been female.

St Nicholas

Nicholas was the first Bishop of Myra in 4th century Byzantine Anatolia (Turkey). His parents died when he was a young man, leaving him a considerable fortune. He joined the Church, giving away his earthly wealth. He is the patron saint of sailors and children, the latter due to the legend of the boys in the barrel (though it is true that the saint was generally good to children). A coterie of young boys were traveling to Athens, where they were to be educated, but had been told to stop off in Myra to receive the Bishop’s blessing. They stayed at a local inn where the innkeeper, an early Sweeney Todd, decided to rob them, murder them, cut them up into pieces, and pickle them in barrels of brine, intending to sell them as salted pork.

Nicholas was expecting the boys and when they didn’t show up, he came to look for them, tracing them as far as the inn. Then without too much trouble, he found the bodies in the barrels. The innkeeper, upon being confronted with this, then expressed such a genuine desire for repentance that Nicholas prayed for him and the boys, who then miraculously emerged intact (lucky for them) and resumed their journey to Athens. It seems likely that this story came about because of a pictographical error. Nicholas was often depicted in medieval illustration holding three money bags which looked like three golden balls, which in time must have resembled the disembodied heads of the boys being resurrected. The patron saint of the poor, unmarried girls, prostitutes, baker scholars, Greece, archers, bankers, Sicily, Naples, jurors, perfumes, brides, robbers, coopers, brewers and travelers died on December 6th in either 326, 345, or 352 C.E. In 842 C.E., the first written life of St Nicholas listing all his miracles was written by Methodius, Bishop of Constantinople.


Unfortunately, the entire tale of “Good King Wenceslas” seems to have been invented by lyricist J.M. Neale in 1853, who took the tune from a springtime carol, “Tempus adest floridum.” (This hasn’t stopped Britons, however, from deciding it is their 4th favorite carol, according to a 1996 Gallup poll.) Wenceslas did exist, though as a duke born c. 707 C.E. in Stochov near Prague, and his native name was Vaclav. As ruler of Bohemia, he was raised as a Christian by his grandmother, St Ludmilla. His mother Drahomira was a pagan who eventually had Ludmilla killed and ruled as her son’s regent until he came of age. Vaclav took a vow of virginity, and German missionary priests enjoyed his wholehearted support for Christianity. However, his zeal backfired by upsetting his people by 929, when he submitted to the German (Christian) king Henry I. Nobles saw it as the final straw and colluded with his brother Boleslav, who hacked him to death when he sought sanctuary in a church. Vaclav died at the age of 22. In 932, the superstitious (and perhaps regretful?) Boleslav became a Christian and had Vaclav’s remains reinterred at St Vitus in Prague. They are still there, the skull crowned on ceremonial occasions with a golden diadem, and Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. I also know his namesake as an amusing character in Cousin Bette.

And a (somewhat) appropriate recipe:

Sticky Cinnamon Figs
4 ripe figs
Knob of butter
2 T clear honey
2-3 T Armagnac or brandy
Small handful of shelled pistachio nuts or almonds
½ t ground cinnamon or mixed spice
Mascarpone or thick Greek
yogurt to serve
Preheat the grill to medium-high. Cut a deep cross in the top of each fig, then ease the top apart so it opens like a flower. Sit the figs in a small baking dish and drop a piece of butter in the center of each. Drizzle honey over then Armagnac or brandy. Scatter over the nuts and spice. Grill for 5 mins until the figs are softened and the honey and butter make a sticky sauce in the bottom of the dish.


Von Staufer.

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