Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Santa Claus – Christian Saint or Pagan Satan?

 

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Santa Claus is “the dominate fictional character in our world. Neither Micky Mouse nor Sherlock Holmes, Ronald McDonald nor Harry Potter wields a fraction of the influence that Santa does… His image is recognized and loved all around the planet,” Dr. Gerry Bowler, history professor at the University of Manitoba, writes in his book Santa Claus: A Biography.

In our last GFTM article, Keeping the Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of the Battle Over December 25th, we looked at what Dr. Bowler documents so well in another one of his books, Christmas in the Crosshairs. As we saw, many of the modern debates about Christmas have been going on since the beginning, including whether the celebration of Christ’s birth has been too heavily influenced by pagan folk customs. 

Of course, one can’t enter into these debates without the jolly fat man being considered either.

Where it’s difficult to trace when exactly and to what extent many of these pagan folk traditions entered the Christian celebration of Christmas, historic evidence shows us this happened after 300 AD over a period of centuries and varied from place to place as Christianity spread far and wide. (For more details, see the previous article.)

Gift-giving goes way back to the pagan festivals Christmas eventually replaced, and there is a “long association between Christmas and gift-giving” that was “long criticized by the church” for materialism and “lingering paganism.” But the popularity of these customs among the everyday people won out, and eventually the church Christianized them. Gift-giving for Christmas was linked by the church with charity to the poor and the bringing of gifts to the newborn Jesus.

Yet, the gift-giving Saint Nicholas didn’t appear until the 12th Century.

SAINT NICHOLAS, SUPER HERO SAINT

Traditions existed of gifts being delivered to children by various miraculous saints on the eves of their holy days: Saint Barbara, Saint Martin, Saint Lucia, the Wise Men, and others.

But Saint Nicholas, by far, was the most popular.

By 1,100 AD, Saint Nicholas’ popularity was rivaled only by the Virgin Mary. Saint Nicholas was “the most powerful male saint on the Church calendar: the patron of sailors, Vikings, Russians, Normans, barrel-makers, thieves, perfumers, picklers, florists, haberdashers, and many more – but especially of children.”

Little, if anything, can be said with any historical certainty about St. Nicholas. He was the bishop of Myra on the coast of modern Turkey in the early 4th Century. He allegedly died on December 6, 343 AD.

In the 12th Century, he was believed to be a magical deliverer of small gifts to kids on the eve of his day, December 6. Children prayed to him and left out their shoes to be filled with treats. But legend says he did much more than that.

He was a wonder worker of miracles; in fact, he was a darn super hero long before the first comic book was ever imagined. He rescued sailors, soldiers, children, starving people, and slaves.

He once saved three daughters from being sold into a life of prostitution by secretly delivering bags of gold to their poor father at night. Perhaps this has some truth to it as any non-super human could perform such a heroic act, but he also brought three murdered young men back from the dead after they were dismembered, shoved into barrels, and pickled! Apparently, he flew long before Superman entered the scene. He also was able to do what can only be called teleportation of both himself and others.

Clearly, he was a nurturing, passionate (super) man, but he was no wimp or pushover either. He often was portrayed as carrying a whip or rod. Children both loved and feared him. He expected children and others to keep up with their church lessons and to be moral.

My mother-in-law, who grew up in Germany, said when she was a child someone dressed as St. Nicholas visited their home. He asked her and her siblings if they had been behaving. Her father replied, “Not all of the time.” St. Nicholas then gave each of their hands a stern smack with his rod.

PROTESTING PROTESTANTS vs. ST. NICK

After the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the tradition of Saint Nicholas, along with devotion to other saints of the Catholic Church, came under fire and were banned in areas controlled by Protestants. In England, Elizabeth I in 1558 ended all Saint Nicholas related activities. In England and Scotland, gift-giving moved to New Year’s Day.

Saint Nicholas survived in eastern Europe, where the influence of the Reformation was weaker. He also survived in Holland, where there were both Catholic and Protestant areas. (It was the Dutch who would eventually bring Saint Nicolas to North America.)

Both German Catholics and Protestants replaced Saint Nicholas with a figure that was much more Bible-based: the Christ Child (das Christkindl). Thus, this moved the gift-giving from December 6 to Christmas Eve, December 24. (To read why Christmas is celebrated on December 25, see our previous article.)

But Baby Jesus just wasn’t menacing enough for parents. Parents wanted a figure that would instill some fear into their kids to help keep them in line. Saint Nicholas was benevolent but also a disciplinarian. After all, the dude carried a rod for beating children.

So, new figures started to appear who accompanied the Christ Child to substitute for Saint Nicolas’ rod. But these characters brought menacing to a whole new level! Many were downright horrifying: Aschenklaus (Nicholas in Ashes), Pelznickel or Belsnickel (Nicholas in Furs) and Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas), along with an “assortment of devils, witches with iron teeth, female disembowers, monstrous goats, or monks armed with switches” and Krampus, Hans Trapp, and Klabauf, who carried whips, chains, and sacks to steal away children.

Meanwhile, Catholics kids in southern Europe got the better end of the deal. They received gifts on Epiphany (January 6) from the Three Kings or the kindly good witch Befana or a “pooping log” (!?!).

THE MODERN MAKEOVER

It was not until the 1800s that our modern version of Santa Claus emerged.

In 1809, Washington Irving published a mock history called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. This satire introduced Saint Nicholas, who the Dutch loved and still celebrated on December 6. For those outside NY, this was the first time many heard of “any flying, supernatural, nocturnal Christmas Gift-Bringer.”

One year later in 1810, John Pintard, a prominent merchant and founder of the New-York Historical Society, gave out a picture of Saint Nicholas accompanied by a poem. St. Nick was pictured as a stern-looking man in a bishop’s robe with a rod and a halo over his head. (See below.)

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More poems soon followed by others, one calling him “Sancte Claus.” In the next few years, variations of the Dutch name for Saint Nicolas, Sinterklaas, appeared in American print: Santa-claw, Santeclaus, Sandy Claw, Santiclaw, Sanctus Klaas. All were based on oral, folk traditions with slightly different takes on the gift-giving wonder worker.

In 1821, the first lithographed work in the U.S. was also the first to publish a picture of “Santeclaus.” It was titled The Children’s Friend, a poem complete with the essential modern staples for Santa Claus: gifts on Christmas Eve, a team of reindeer, snowy chimney tops. Bowler writes, “The Children’s Friend wrench[ed] Santa Clause out of his Dutch context and plac[ed] him in a winter setting appropriate to North America in December.”

A year later, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a series of poetry for his daughters and published them anonymously in the newspaper the following year, titled “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This would become the Christmas classic familiar to many today:

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly…
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Moore ignited an explosion of interest in this Saint Nicolas. Writers and illustrators competed to add to the story. “For decades there was no one standard version of the nocturnal visitor nor even agreement as to his name,” Bowler writes.  Some names included Kriss Kringle, Belsnickel, or some variation of “Santa Claus.”

Even his size was debated. Was he a small elf, even thumb-sized, to fit down chimneys? Was he a bearded grandfatherly-type or a smooth-faced youth? Sometimes he was dressed like a Dutch peddler; at other times he was dressed like George Washington.

By 1850, his home was securely set in the Arctic where he lived with his minions, a horde of elves. In the 1860s, German American cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s solidified what Santa looks like today.

In Europe, most continued to hold on to their own versions of a magical figure delivering Christmas goodies, but the harsher holdouts from the Middle Ages — Perchta the Disemboweler in central Europe; Père Fouettard and his whip in France; the demonic Krampus, who stole children in Austria; the cannibal giant Gryla in Iceland; the horrifying goat-beast Joulopukki of Scandinavia — were replaced by a considerably more kinder, gentler version of “Santa.” Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Bobbo Natale, Samiclaus, and others emerged. They all were variations of the Santa Claus theme, but all were big-hearted, grandfatherly gift-givers.

Bowler writes, “By midcentury the American Santa Claus was not only a fixture in the stories told in American homes, he was a positive boon to merchants.” Whatever else he was, this Christmas gift-bringer ended up being a business man’s dream.

READ:

Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of December 25th

Me & My Wife VS. My Kid & St. Nick: Breaking It to a 5-Year-Old Santa Isn’t Real

 

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Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of December 25th.

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Last Christmas season, I wrote a blog about how my wife and I decided that we would not be doing “the Santa thing” with our children. Ironically, of all the stuff I’ve posted on this blog, this turned out to be the most controversial.

The other thing that struck me with mild amusement is no one even bothered engaging with our reasons, leading me to suspect that many giving me pushback only read the title and didn’t actually read the article. Among some of the debate, the weatherbeaten topic of whether Christmas has a pagan origin arose. Again, this has nothing to do with my wife and I deciding not to perpetuate the Santa tradition with our children, but since it’s a topic of debate that often comes up, I decided it was something worth looking more deeply in to.

I recently read Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday by Gerry Bowler, who received his Ph.D. in history from King’s College in London. He’s a professor at the University of Manitoba and founding director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Contemporary Culture at Calgary’s Nazarene University College.

What Dr. Bowler’s book lays out so well is that the same debates that surround Christmas today have pretty much been going on since the beginning:

How should people celebrate the birth of Christ? Debated.

On what date was Jesus born? Debated.

Is December 25th really a pagan holiday? Debated.

Should Christians even celebrate the birth of Christ at all? Debated.

THE FIRST 3 CENTURIES

Christmas, as we celebrate it in the United States today, is a mixture of Christian and non-Christian elements. After all, the holiday is named after Christ and, regardless of when he was born, it marks the event of his birth as special. Are many of the traditions practiced during modern Christmas not based in a biblical Christian faith but instead in folk traditions from numerous cultures? Certainly. Do some of these folk traditions have pagan religious roots? It seems very likely.

If we go back to the first century to the New Testament, the earliest Christian documents we have, they never say whether Christians should celebrate the birth of Christ or not. Based on the New Testament and other historical evidence, we know what year Jesus was born, but nothing is said in the Bible about the specific month or day.

Interestingly, historic evidence tells us that several centuries passed before Christians even started celebrating the birth of Christ. The early church focused instead on the death and resurrection and imminent return of Christ. It should be noted only two of the four Gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) even included anything about Jesus’ birth in their narratives.

In the 2nd century, pagan critics like Celsus, a Greek philosopher, targeted Christianity and began mocking the virgin birth. The 2nd century also saw the rise of Gnosticism, a heresy which combined Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy. Gnostics denied that Christ truly took on flesh; it was only an illusion; he had remained spirit because the material world is, according to them, evil. At this time, Christian writers started focusing more on the birth of Christ.

By the third century, Christian writers had started speculating about when specifically Jesus was born but not particularly to celebrate it. Some favored dates in May or April, but December 25 and January 6 were dates also proposed. Though some opposed celebrating the birthday of Christ as a holy day, other evidence shows Christians started to take more interest in Christ’s day of birth.

In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and Christians now had the freedom to partake in holy days publicly. Christ’s birth was soon being celebrated. The exact year it became widely celebrated throughout the church is not known, but a document from 354 AD called Philocalian Chronograph, a sort-of almanac, lists it as a holy day on December 25.

THE BATTLE OVER DECEMBER 25th

Why December 25th?

Here are some often-repeated theories:

THEORY #1 – As the Roman Empire transitioned from paganism to Christianity, Constantine or some other Roman or Christian leaders chose to replace a pagan holiday on December 25th with a Christian holiday.

Or

THEORY #2 – Before Christianity was legalized in 312 AD, Christians would hold their own festivities at the same time as pagan holidays to camouflage their own gatherings. This would certainly make sense during the times Christians came under severe persecution by the Roman government.

Some of the usual suspects of the original pagan holiday for December 25 are:

  • The feast of Saturnalia.
  • Brumalia, dedicated to Saturn and Bacchus.
  • The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).
  • The birthday of the Iranian deity Mithra.
  • Some other winter solstice celebration.

PROBLEM #1 – Now, the big problem with both Theories #1 and #2 is simply this: there’s no evidence for them. Not that there’s no evidence for pagan festivals around the same time as December 25, but there’s nothing anywhere saying that Christians started celebrating Christmas during this time for one of these reasons.

Further, one telltale sign of a theory without evidence is a lack of specificity; in other words, it’s common to claim that Christmas is on December 25th because of a pagan holiday, yet (as the list above shows) no one seems able to say which holiday. In fact, the earliest evidence of anyone making this sort of argument dates from the twelve century!

PROBLEM #2 – Moreover, there’s other issues with the pagan-replacement theory. Modern scholarship says it’s quite possible that some of these pagan festivals, especially the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, were started after Christians began marking December 25 as a special day. On top of this, claims of similarities between the Iranian deity Mithra and Christ are complete fabrications, including the December 25th virgin birth of Mithra.

PROBLEM #3 – The mindset of the early church has to be taken into account. To the irk of their pagan neighbors, Christians and Jews have always been stubbornly exclusivists; they believe in only one true God and one true faith. Historical evidence tells us that “countless sermons and books by preachers and leaders of the young Church stressed the need to avoid any association with the world of idols and state cults.”

Though it appears pagan folk customs eventually intertwined with Christmas tradition over the centuries after Christianity became widely practiced, it’s highly doubtful the devout, often-persecuted early church would adopt pagan practices, especially when it was often persecuted by the surrounding pagans for not adopting their practices!

PROBLEM #4 – With this, no records from that time explaining the dating for Christmas use any of the above theories.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #1 – Instead, one explanation (which seems odd to us modern folks) is the ancient idea that great men were born and died on the same date. Thus, since Jesus was crucified in late March, he may have been born around that time too. But if we start calculating at conception, the correct beginning of a life, that would put Jesus’ birth in late December.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #2 – Another explanation was based on another ancient idea that the first day God created the earth was springtime, and since Jesus’ birth was comparable to the creation of the universe, the angel must have appeared to Mary to tell her she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit on March 25. Then, nine months later, Jesus was born in December.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #3 – Some calculations for Jesus’ birth resulting in the December 25th date start with the account in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception. His conception took place when John’s father, Zechariah, was serving in the Temple at their tribe’s appointed time. By examining the tribal duty roster found in the Old Testament, it was concluded John was born on June 25th. Luke records Mary, Jesus’ mother, visited John’s mother, Elizabeth, in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. So, December 25th fits once again.

At the same time, other Christian churches adopted January 6th to mark Christmas or “Epiphany,” including Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch. This date may have been chosen because they used a different dating system and/or calculated the date of Easter differently than the West. Eventually, some of these churches adopted the December date as well, but some Eastern churches still adhere to January 6th today.

In 529 AD, Emperor Justinian made December 25th a national holiday. As centuries past, December 25 to January 6 became the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Advent season also developed.

Bowler observes astutely, “For whatever reason the Roman church chose December 25 as the date on which to celebrate the Nativity, it was a momentous decisions that would cause centuries of controversy and conflict.”

GROWTH INTO A SPECTACLE

Bowler writes, “From the 300s on, the observance surrounding the celebration of the Nativity became more laden with rituals, art, and music, until it grew into the second holiest day on the Christian calendar.”

Just as the debate about December 25th continues until this day, the debate about how to celebrate the birth of Christ (as well as the role of pagan traditions in celebrating) stretch from ancient times until now.

For whatever reason December 25th was chosen, it has proven to be troublesome.

For one, preventing a co-mingling of the traditions proved difficult with Christmas being celebrated around the same time as the pagan midwinter celebrations, especially if you consider that after Emperor Constantine, Christianity went from a small group of devout followers to a very large group with many nominal followers.

Arguments were made that Christians should not celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior as the pagans celebrate. This didn’t just mean not adopting pagan folk traditions, like decorating with greenery; this meant not doing things to excess – excessive eating, excessive gift-giving (or excessive expectations of gifts), excessive drinking. Times haven’t changed all that much. Some argued Christians should mark this holy day not by greed but by fasting and charity.

Eventually, many church leaders recognized they couldn’t stop the masses from practicing the customs they loved so. Thus, instead of banning them, they Christianized them. Certain pagan and folk traditions, as long as they didn’t conflict with Scripture, were claimed for Christ. They were re-branded and given new meaning connected to the Christian message.

But, as you’re well aware, the debate never ended.

Where much of the Christian/pagan debate about Christmas today has to do with grumpy atheists and non-Christians using the pagan argument to discredit Christmas, most of the arguing back then was Christians against Christians, pretty much making the same exact arguments. Likewise, some Christians in the early church protested against the materialism surrounding Christmas, imploring people to essentially “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

Jump to much later in history: by 1500 AD, Christmas celebrations were “solidly entrenched in western European cultures” with much variety and many of the familiar traditions and attitudes we associate with Christmas today, as well as many of the same troublesome excesses.

Yet, over time, Christmas became so marked by drunken chaos that Christmas in some places was all-out banned.

For a period, Christmas became much like St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. today; the celebration had nothing to do with the holy person it was honoring; it was simply an excuse to act like drunken idiots. This banning of Christmas happened primarily after the Protestant Reformation (1517 AD) when there was no separation of church and state, such as by the Puritans and other Calvinists. No surprise there. The Enlightenment didn’t help either.

Christmas became thought of as a time of debauchery celebrated only by the lower classes. Any notion of holiness or religion vanished for the most part. No one was keeping the “Christ” is Christmas.

But Christmas would survive near-extinction and become the most celebrated holiday of all time that we know today.

Not surprising, this re-branding started in the United States. In the 1800s, a group of New York poets, illustrators, and writers helped make Christmas into what Americans know it as today: a domestic, child-friendly holiday.

One of these writers was Washington Irving, who introduced his readers to Saint Nicholas. In 1821, William Gilley published The Children’s Friend, the first to print a picture of our modern idea of Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote those famous words, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house…”

Around this same time in England, old carols were being rediscovered and new ones were being written. Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (one of my all-time favorite stories) in 1843, which “helped turn Victorian Christmas into a crusade against selfishness and greed” and “reunited the English Christmas with Christianity.” Christmas cards were invented in London in that same year. The royal family had a big influence too. Prince Albert, who had a German background, and Queen Victoria modeled Christmas as a family-oriented celebration with Christmas trees and roasted turkey.

Eventually, Christmas wiggled itself back into those stuffy Protestant churches because the common folk wanted it: “Christmas returned to Protestant church life because the rank and file of membership wanted it. It made its way against official opposition in many denominations until there was so many local groups celebrating December twenty-fifth as the birthday of Jesus that opposition was futile and indifference impossible.”

All this conflict has been over the birthday of the Prince of Peace. If nothing else, that should cause us pause. And we didn’t even touch on Santa yet.

NEXT: The History of Santa: Christian Saint or Pagan Satan?

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Who Jesus Ain’t: Learn more HERE.

 

3 New Important Apologetic Books (And All By Women) on Science, the Body & New Testament

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I don’t do many book reviews, so think of this more as book recommendations.

Recently, three books were release (two in 2018, one in 2017), which I have found extremely helpful for defending the Christian worldview. One focuses on science, one focuses on the big cultural issues of the day (like sexuality, abortion, etc.), and one focuses on the New Testament.

None of the books are needlessly dense, but filled with useful information without beating the main points to death. They are assessable, easy to follow, and enjoyable to read. In other words, they’re informative and scholarly in a good way; they bring it down to the street-level without sacrificing content, and the authors know how to write to a general audience and write something worth reading.

These three books also all happen to be written by women. I didn’t purposely choose these books so I could blog about books by Christian women, but I picked these three books because I find them helpful apologetic tools. (“Apologetics” = To defend.) It’s a pleasant surprise that my three favorite books of 2017-2018 are all by women authors; it’s good to see women contributing to the field of Christian apologetics.

LOVE THY BODY

Nancy Pearcey

I’m try not to be hyperbolic in recommending books, but Love Thy Body may be the most important book written in, at least, the past fifteen years.

Pearcey, called “America’s preeminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual” by The Economist, is a master at clearly laying out how someone’s personal philosophy  – whether they realize it or not – effects how they think about the big questions of life. What’s so impressive about this book is that she shows how one big idea effects all the hot-button “culture war” issues of our day concerning human life, sexuality, and even family.

The big idea she addresses is this: whether the body is “separate from the authentic self.” In other words, is there is a divorce between the “person” and the body? According to some modern thinking, the “person” is the true self, where the body is an “expendable biological organism.”

Pearcey lays out why this idea that the “person” and body are detached from each other is not a biblically sound idea, nor a logically defensible position, nor beneficial to society or the individual. In fact, this popular “modern” notion has much more in common with the ancient paganism Christianity replaced in the West. Though Christians believe in an immaterial soul that can live on apart from the body, the biblical understanding is that God created us as whole beings – as embodied souls.

Pearcey walks us through how this unbiblical, post-modern (but also ancient) idea that the body is inconsequential effects how we think about all the big issues of our day: homosexuality, gender, the casual sex “hook up” culture, abortion, euthanasia, and even parenthood and the family.

HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW

Lydia McGrew

Lydia McGrew (along with her husband, Tim McGrew, who are both published philosophers) have reintroduced a forgotten argument for the reliability of the New Testament in podcast interviews, blog articles, and now a book. Originally used by William Paley in the 1790s and John James Blunt in the mid-1800s, the strategy has been labeled Undesigned Coincidences, a term coined by Blunt. Granted, “Undesigned Coincidences” doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it’s quite fascinating.

The argument is based on the idea that when we have multiple accounts of a true event by eyewitnesses, some accounts may contain details that others do not, yet those additional details will compliment the information in the accounts where the details are missing. To give an example, say, a witness to a murder describes the killer as having a French accent. Another witness may not mention the accent but describe the man wearing a brand of clothing unique to France.

Such a “coincidence” strongly suggests that the accounts are given by eyewitnesses and reliable. After explaining what undesigned coincidences are, McGrew’s book is pretty straight forward: She gives example after example of how we find these complimentary details between the four Gospels and between Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts.

(I wrote three blog articles about Undesigned Coincidences based on podcast interviews with Tim McGrew: Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3. If you find them interesting, reading Lydia’s book is the place to go to learn more.)

SCIENCE AND THE MIND OF THE MAKER

 Melissa Cain Travis

The goal of Travis’ book is quite easy to sum up: Despite the popular mantra of skeptics, science has not disproven God, nor is science and Christianity at odds.

Travis, professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, takes us for a walk through scientific history to show that the Christian worldview gave birth to modern science. The founders of science were men who believed in God and saw their work not only as a way of growing in knowledge of God but also a way of worshipping God. Moreover, with each new scientific discovery, many viewed these as more – not less – evidence that the universe was created by a rational, thinking mind.

Travis backs up this “Maker Thesis” by looking at the evidence we find in cosmology, DNA, physics, mathematics, and the human mind. She even covers how our world is just right for our logical human minds to study, comprehend, and benefit from it and how this – just like life in the cosmos – doesn’t appear to be just a happy accident (giving whole new insight into God saying in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”)

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ.

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Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Luke + Series Final Results)

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We decided to do this series to address the idea by some Christians that the Old Testament (OT) is irrelevant. So far, we’ve looked at three of the four Gospels to see what Jesus thought of the OT. I think the conclusions we can draw are clear, so we’ll quickly look at Luke in this blog and then conclude the series by looking at all the data.

To put it simply, if our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, took what we call today the Old Testament seriously, so should we. The evidence says he did.

With this, you cannot fully understand Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection without understanding the Old Testament. This is the opinion of both Jesus and the writers of the New Testament.

Since the first three articles have proven this (and I don’t want to get too redundant!), I’ll share some brief observations on Luke, and then we’ll look at the total count of OT references in all four Gospels to conclude this series.

THE GOSPEL OF LUKE

Like Matthew’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel starts with a birth narrative of Jesus. In both Gospels, we find many references to the OT in these opening chapters by the authors to show that these events are in line with the Jewish Scripture and Jesus is the promised Messiah, a descendant of Abraham and David. Yet, with both Gospels, once Jesus’ public ministry begins, the majority of OT references are made by Jesus himself.

Something interesting that is unique to Luke (Well, the wording is unique; the idea is found in all the Gospels) is:

16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John [the Baptist]; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. (Luke 16:16–17).

Here, Jesus is saying both that the time of the OT (“The Law and the Prophets,” “the Law”) is past, but at the same time it does not become void. This supports the idea we saw in the other Gospels about Jesus NOT doing away with the OT but fulfilling it, and this naturally leads us into the new revelation of God, the New Testament (which is not “new” in the sense of something different, but a continuation and “fleshing out” of God’s Law).

Another interesting thing to note is Jesus’ regular use of Isaiah, which Jesus finds significance in quoting in relation to his ministry. In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus reads from an Isaiah scroll, then states, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In 7:18-23, when John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” Jesus quotes Isaiah, citing his miracles as evidence that he is the Messiah. In 22:37, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53, saying that it will be fulfilled in him. Isaiah 53 is probably the most famous chapter in Isaiah among Christians because it speaks of the “suffering servant,” who will take the punishment of the peoples’ sin upon himself.

Lastly, Luke closes his Gospel with the resurrected Jesus clearly speaking of his death and resurrection fulfilling the OT:

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:24–27). 

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44–47).

Imagine if only Luke recorded these conversations in whole!

THE RESULTS

Here are the numbers for Luke’s Gospel…

THE GOSPEL OF LUKE

  • 24 Chapters

  • 57 References to OT

  • 38 References to OT made by Jesus

  • 67% of OT references are made by Jesus

SERIES WRAP UP

Below are the final results for our 4-Gospel study of Jesus’ use of the Old Testament.

In hindsight, it would’ve been useful to separate the total of OT references by those used by the Gospels’ authors, those made by other people appearing in the Gospels’ narratives (such as the 12 Disciples, other Jews, etc.), and Jesus. But since this informal study was to really see how Jesus talked about the OT, this serves our purposes.

The chart below shows some obvious things. The number of chapters (which, admittedly, are not inspired and simply give us a rough idea of the length of each Gospel) compared to the OT references shows discussion of the OT was an important part of Jewish life and a regular thing throughout the Gospels.  Moving to the right, we see clearly that Jesus spoke often about the OT and it was an important part of his ministry.

Keep in mind, where the chart below is interesting and helpful, the number of OT references by Jesus is not as important as what he actually says about it, which we looked at in each part of this series.

Gospel # of Chapters # OT References # of those OT refs made by Jesus % of OT refs belonging to Jesus
Mark 16 18 15 83%
Matthew 28 65 44 68%
John 21 52 24 46%
Luke 24 57 38 67%
TOTAL 89 192 121 63%

I’d like to hear any thoughts, insights, etc. below in the comments.

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Confidence in Christ v2

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of John)

Hebrew-Scripture-1

The point of this short blog series is simple. (Read Part 1: Mark and Part 2: Matthew.) Some Christians, whether they be theologically conservative or liberal, don’t see the Old Testament (OT) as important or relevant. So, we decided to see how Jesus thought of the OT.

If you read the first two parts of this series on Mark and Matthew, I think you’re beginning to see a pattern here: throughout the Gospels, the OT is referred to constantly, and much of those references are made by Jesus himself.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN: THE DATA

  • 21 Chapters

  • 52 References to OT

  • 24 References to OT made by Jesus

  • 46% of OT references are made by Jesus

Keep in mind this a quick count done in one reading of John’s Gospel and does not include the numerous times Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” which is an OT reference to Daniel 7 (which he does 12 times in John’s Gospel).

Compared to the other two Gospels we looked at so far, John has the smallest percentage of OT references made by Jesus of the OT references. In Mark, Jesus makes 83% of the OT references, and in Matthew, Jesus makes 68% of the OT references. Yet, Jesus’ 24 references compared to 21 chapters gives us a rough idea that Jesus made such references regularly in John’s Gospel. And, with this, as you’ll see below, quantity does not effect quality.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS

As most know, John includes a lot of material the other three Gospels do not. Yet, in John, we find more of the same that we found in Mark and Matthew. As in the other Gospels, in John there are many OT references made by both the writer of the Gospel (John) and Jesus himself (and even by other people who appear in the narratives).

And, as in the other Gospels, there are many statements about how the events recorded of in the Gospel fulfill OT Scripture. In John, these statements certainly increase in the later chapters surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, such as:

Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 20:8–9)

Some other interesting highlights where Jesus alludes to the OT include:

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life… There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”… 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 5:39–6:14). 

Here, Jesus plainly states that the OT bears witness about him and that Moses wrote of him. Some of the people listening to him understand Jesus to be “the Prophet who is to come,” which could only be a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-22, where God promises to Moses to rise up in Israel another prophet.

In 10:35, Jesus makes an interested argument based on one word in Psalm 82 and then states, “Scripture cannot be broken.”

“I AM”

A much more subtle allusion to the OT that many may miss is Jesus’ constant use of the phrase “I am.” In Exodus 3, when God first appears to Moses (as a burning bush), Moses asks for God’s name. Scripture tells us, “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ”’I AM has sent me to you”” (Exodus 3:14).  So, “I AM” is God’s name, which is pronounced “Yahweh” in Hebrew (often pronounced incorrectly as “Jehovah.”). In the Greek of the New Testament, “I AM” is “Ego Eimi.”

Jesus makes “I AM” statements throughout John to subtly imply to those with ears to hear that he is God in the flesh, and John uses these to not-so-subtly show his readers of that exact idea:

John begins his Gospel with a prologue that tells us right away that Jesus is God (1:1) and became a man (1:14). After the prologue, John goes on to show this with the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. One way John does this is giving us many times Jesus refers to himself as “I AM.” Some of these in English are translated as “I am he” or even “it is I,” which are acceptable translations, but if you look at the original Greek, they are all written in the same way: “Ego Eimi” (“I AM”).

In 6:20, when the disciples are on a boat in the storm and see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says, “I AM. Do not be afraid.” In 13:19, Jesus says to his disciples, “I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I AM.”

But this is most clearly seen throughout John 8. Jesus states, “…unless you believe that I AM you will die in your sins” (8:24). He goes on to say that when he is “lifted up” (which may be a reference to him being lifted up on the cross, his ascension into heaven, or him being lifted up in glory, or all of them – which is how I understand it because they are all related) that his audience “will then know that I AM” (8:28).

And if you think I’m stretching it here to prove my point, the people listening to Jesus in his day don’t think so because in 8:58, Jesus makes the grammatically-odd statement “before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus’ listeners finally get it: This guy is calling himself the God who appeared to Moses! And that’s blasphemy! So, they pick up stones to stone him to death (8:59).

John brings this theme to its climax by concluding his Gospel in Chapter 20 with “doubting Thomas,” upon meeting the resurrected Jesus, declaring “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). (For those of you following closely, Chapter 21 is John’s epilogue. Just as he started with a prologue, he closes his Gospel with an epilogue.)

Thus, one of the ways Jesus communicated to his fellow Jews that he was God-in-the-flesh was by referring to their holy writings – what we call the OT.

TWO LAST (TRINITARIAN) PASSAGES WORTH NOTING

In the same vein – and in another subtle reference to the OT – Jesus says in John 7,

38 [Jesus said,] Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38–39).

It’s interesting that John tells us that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, here when he speaks from Scripture of “living water.” When we turn to Jeremiah 17:13, we read this:

“for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.”

So, John 1:1 establishes that the Father and Son are both God, and here we find that the Holy Spirit is also God. Thus, we find the Trinity – three unique personalities sharing one divine identity.

All of this is good stuff to point our to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the Trinity.

Let me point out one last interesting passage; though we are primarily concerned with the OT references made by Jesus himself in John’s Gospel, this last one – made by the author, John, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, is worth noting.

In John 12:37-40, John quotes from Isaiah twice to show that what is happening during Jesus’ ministry is fulfilling Scripture. He then states, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him (12:41).”

Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory? What an intriguing thing to say! So, we turn to Isaiah and search through it. Where could have Isaiah possibly seen Jesus’ glory? The only option is found in Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:1–5).

Thus, in this vision of God – Yahweh, I AM, the Lord of hosts – Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory.

NEXT: Final of the series: LUKE’S GOSPEL.

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Confidence in Christ v2

 

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Matthew)

 

hebrew-bible-scroll

The concept of this short blog series is simple: We’re simply asking, Is the Old Testament relevant to the Christian faith? and then reading through the Gospels and seeing what Jesus’ attitude towards the Old Testament tells us.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the Gospel of Mark, the shortest Gospel. We found…

THE GOSPEL OF MARK

  • 16 Chapters.

  • 18 References to the Old Testament (OT).

  • 15 of those references to OT were made by Jesus.

  • Thus, 83% of OT references in Mark are made by Jesus.

This time, with the Gospel of Matthew, again we read and counted OT references, excluding again many of the times Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, which is an OT reference.

Matthew has 28 chapters – noting that these chapters are not part of the original text but give us a rough idea of a Gospel’s length compared to the other Gospels. I counted 65 references to the OT. Matthew’s Gospel, the most Jewish of the Gospels, has the major theme of Jesus being the Jewish Messiah; thus, it’s not surprising that the author, Matthew, includes many references to the OT, especially in the first three chapters, to support this idea.

Yet, again, like Mark’s Gospel, we find the majority of OT quotes and references – 44 of them – belong to Jesus.

This means Jesus makes 68% of the OT references in the Gospel of Matthew.

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

  • 28 Chapters

  • 65 References to OT

  • 44 References to OT made by Jesus

  • 68% of OT references are made by Jesus

In these references, Jesus speaks of Solomon, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Sodom and Gomorrah, Elijah, Jonah, Isaiah, the Ten Commandments, Abel, Zechariah, Daniel, and Noah and the Flood. He quotes from the books of the Psalms, Deuteronomy, Zechariah, and others.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS

Many of the highlights we looked at in the previous blog on Mark also appear in Matthew. Let’s look at some highlights we don’t find in Mark…

#1 – JESUS VS. SATAN: Matthew 4:1-11

We’ll start was a popular episode, which is also recorded in Luke but only briefly summarized in Mark: Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

We’re told of three ways the Devil tried to temp Jesus to sin, and all three times Jesus shuts Satan down by stating “It is written…” and then quoting from the OT book of Deuteronomy.

One thing particularly interesting to note is that Satan quotes the Psalms to Jesus to manipulate him, but Jesus counters Satan’s use of Scripture with more Scripture:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

This is something we see all the time: someone rips a quote from Scripture out of context for his own selfish gain. Jesus, thus, models for us how to respond: by properly using Scripture, by understanding and using it in its proper context!

Lastly, it’s interesting that Jesus rebukes Satan by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3:

“ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

For Christians today, “every word” from the mouth of God includes both the New and Old Testament.

#2 – I Came to FulFill the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

What Matthew has that the other Gospels do not is the amazing Sermon on the Mount (though some of the teachings are also found spread throughout Luke’s Gospel). Jesus concept of the OT is clearly seen within it, so we’ll briefly look at several passages from the Sermon. The first, perhaps being one of the most important quotes by Jesus for giving Christians insight into how they should understand the OT, states:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 

The phrase “The Law and the Prophets” is often how Jesus and others in his day referred to what we call the OT. If there is one big idea from this passage that can’t be ignored, it’s that Jesus is explicitly teaching that the OT is NOT irreverent – “not an iota, not a dot”! How much more clear can Jesus be?

But this leads us into a theological question (which we also addressed in other blogs): Why do Christians follow some of the OT commands and not other? Jesus gives us the answer above: became he came to fulfill the OT. How? Through his life in perfect obedience to it and his atoning death on the cross. Because of this, Christians no longer make sacrifices or follow other OT religious laws, which all point forward to the Christ’s atoning sacrifice, yet Christians still do follow the OT moral law, because morality is based in the nature of God and God’s nature doesn’t change.

#3 – The 6 Anti-Theses: Matthew 5:21-47

Immediately after the above quote, Jesus gives what is sometimes called “the six anti-theses,” where Jesus starts each section by saying, “You have heard… But I say to you…”

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’… 

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart…

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely… 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all… 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil….

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…

In each of these, Jesus is first referring to a passage in the OT (“You have heard..”) and then drawing out its deeper significance (“But I say to you…”) or citing a misunderstanding or abuse of an OT passage and correcting it. Take note, by saying “I say to you” Jesus is not speaking as a prophet speaking on behalf of God but as God himself. By doing this, Jesus is showing the importance of studying the OT and understanding it correctly.

#4 – The “Golden Rule” – Matthew 7:12

12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

This final verse we’ll look at from the Sermon on the Mount is a famous one. Often called “the Golden Rule,” it’s a personal philosophy of conduct many people – even non-Christians – are familiar with: Treat other like you want to be treated. But where many people – both Christians and non-Christians – know the first part of this verse, they don’t know the second part: “for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Interestingly, Jesus is summing up the whole of the OT (“the Law and the Prophets”) in a terse command. It’s interesting that many believe there is a disconnect between the “harshness” of the OT and the teachings of Jesus, yet Jesus himself affirms again and again that his teachings are simply a continuation (and fulfillment) of the OT.

#5 – From Abel to Zechariah: Matthew 23:35

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

This is one of those passages that I would’ve never picked up the significance of if someone hadn’t pointed it out to me. Here, Jesus condemns the religious hypocrites of his day with those hypocrites that came before them, who claimed to be godly people but persecuted and killed the prophets and other righteous men of God starting with Abel all the way to Zechariah.

The fact that Jesus says from Abel to Zechariah is profound. As many know, Abel was the first victim of murder in history. He was devoted to the LORD and a son of Adam and Eve, but his brother Cain, in jealousy and rage, murdered him (Genesis 4:8-11). Zechariah, too, was righteous and murdered (2 Chronicles 24:20-22).

Now, the ordering of our books in the modern Bible is not inspired by God or inerrant; they could just as easily be organized in another way. In the ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), Genesis is the first book and Chronicles is the last book. (And Chronicles is not split into two books like in the Christian Bible.)

Abel (in Genesis) is the first person murdered and Zechariah (in Chronicles) is the last person murdered within the Hebrew canon of Scripture. By saying from Abel to Zechariah, Jesus is basically saying from Genesis (first book) or Chronicles (last book) of the Jewish Scripture.

Thus, Jesus confirmed all the books of the OT – from the first book to the last.

 

READ PART ONE: The Gospel of Mark & the Old Testament

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Confidence in Christ v2