“Sell Your Cloak & Buy a Sword!” Was Jesus an Armed Revolutionary? (Part 2 of 2)

Jesus Revolt

SELL YOUR CLOAK, BUY A SWORD – LUKE 22

He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36-38)

 

(Picking up right where we left off in PART ONE…)

Similar to Matthew 10:34, when we look at the second “sword” passage in isolation it appears Jesus is in favor of using weapons. Yet, upon digging deeper, it appears highly unlikely. Luke’s Gospel includes the same peaceful teachings as we find in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, so what are we to make of Jesus telling his disciples to get swords?  

As Luke’s Gospel draws near to the grand climax – Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection – Jesus addresses his disciples, making reference to when he sent them out earlier (the same event connected to the first sword passage in Matthew 10). He says to his disciples,

“When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. (Luke 22:35–36)

Then, Jesus makes reference to his impending execution, which fulfills scripture no less:

For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:37)

After, we’re told:

And they [the disciples] said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:38)

First, we have to once again take into account all of Jesus’ other teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks. Nowhere do we see Jesus encourage any sort of armed uprising or violence towards anyone. Let’s also keep in mind, no writer of the New Testament nor did any of the early church fathers, all of whom were obviously closer to Jesus than we are, ever understood Jesus’ teachings as anything but nonviolent and aggressively peaceful.

Secondly, if Jesus were telling his disciples to buy swords for an armed revolt, would two swords be enough? Maybe if your “armed revolt” was robbing a first century 7-11. So, no, two swords are certainly not enough to take on the mighty Roman Empire.

But this verse has often been used in another way, one less fantastical than Reza Aslan’s creative writing project Zealot. Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to revolt (with – I just have to say it again – two swords), but he’s telling them to defend themselves. This passage is often used by Christians as evidence that Jesus was OK with using violence for self-defense.

This is much more plausible, but this still isn’t the main point Jesus is making here. Jesus’ enemies are about to make their big move; Jesus will soon be arrested and executed. Things are about to get intense. The followers of Jesus are about to enter into a new period of hardship and opposition. Could Jesus be telling them to get swords to defend themselves? It’s possible. But, on the other hand, if Jesus were telling them to get swords to defend themselves – once again – would only two swords be enough for twelve men?

Like in Matthew 10:34, it seems Jesus doesn’t expect to be taken completely literally. He’s communicating to his disciples that hardship and hostility are coming. But I don’t think his disciples get his point. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples constantly misunderstand him, especially when it comes to his mission.

They know he’s the Messiah, and they’re expecting him to start a revolution and drive out the Romans, but Jesus keeps telling them: My mission is to die to fulfill scripture. And in this passage, the disciples totally overlook his reference to his coming death and instead zoom in on his mention of swords (not unlike us today). Even if Jesus is suggesting swords for self-defense, it’s not the thing he wants his disciples to focus on. (Moreover, even if Jesus is telling his disciples to get swords for self-defense, it certainly doesn’t suggest armed revolt.)

What makes more sense?

               Jesus: Things are about to get intense; you may want to buy a sword. I’m about to be arrested and executed to fulfill scripture.

               Disciples: Hey, we have two swords!

               Jesus: That’s enough swords. Sounds like the twelve of you are ready for battle.

OR

               Jesus: Things are about to get intense; you may want to buy a sword. I’m about to be arrested and executed to fulfill scripture.

               Disciples: Hey, we have two swords!

               Jesus: Enough about swords. You’re still not getting it.

Written in a time where scholars clearly valued bluntness over tactfulness, John Calvin calls the disciples “stupid” for thinking Jesus was telling them to take up arms [1]. If you have any doubt about this nonviolent understanding of this passage, you only have to keep reading in Luke’s Gospel – and not even very far.

Only several verses later, Jesus is arrested on the Mount of Olives and his disciples literally ask him, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” Then, one of his disciples, Peter, cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s bondservant. Jesus’ response? “No more of this!” Matthew includes in his Gospel that Jesus tells Peter, “Put your sword back into its place.” Then, Jesus famously says, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

No, I don’t think Jesus was the first century Jewish Che Guevara.

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

Read PART ONE: “I Have Not Come to Bring Peace, But a Sword!” Was Jesus an Armed Revolutionary? (Part 1 of 2)

[1] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Complete), trans. John King, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), paragraph 71192.

“I Have Not Come to Bring Peace, But a Sword!” Was Jesus an Armed Revolutionary? (Part 1 of 2)

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Che Jesus

JESUS, THE ARMED REVOLUTIONARY?

Jesus has always been considered a teacher of peace and nonviolence. Yet, the intensely saucy Reza Aslan (a man who ate human brains on TV and, ironically, shares his last name with the Christ figure in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels), doesn’t think Jesus was such a peaceful guy. His whole 2013 book Zealot – which was largely ignored by Christian apologists and scholars due to its weak thesis, but widely read by those who don’t know better – is built on the idea that Jesus was crucified because he was promoting armed revolution against the Romans. (And Reza isn’t the only one to attempt to repaint Jesus in this way; I’ve witnessed angry internet atheists do their best to comb the Gospels to find a reason to condemn Jesus as anything but the traditional understanding.)

Those like Reza undoubtedly bring up two times Jesus mentions swords in the Gospels (Matthew 10:34 & Luke 22:36-38) to prove that Jesus wasn’t a peaceful man (and conveniently ignore everything else he says). Reza in Zealot calls the idea of Jesus being a peaceful man a “complete fabrication.” As we’ll see, the Jesus of Zealot is the fabrication.

 

CONTEXT IS KING

Hey, remember that thing called context? It means reading all the stuff around a passage to understand what the passage means. For instance, let’s imagine that someone told you Jesus claimed to be a door. Your friend says, “I kid you not, Jesus thinks he’s a door! He literally believes he’s a door! What a nut! Why does anyone listen to this guy?” Well, Jesus did call himself a door (John 10:9-16). But when you read the passage in context, you see Jesus wasn’t being literal; he was being metaphorical. Context is important. Not just important, but essential. Context is king! And if we want to understand what Jesus means by calling himself a door, we need to understand the context.

What guys like Reza do is grab an isolated quote from Jesus and ignore the context. They ignore the context not just of the big picture of the Gospels, the New Testament, and the Bible, but even the context of the tiny section of scripture it appears in, as you’ll see. So, let’s look at these verses about swords.

 

NOT PEACE, BUT A SWORD – MATTHEW 10

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Well, there you have it. Jesus must’ve been armed to the teeth and ready to go Rambo on anyone in his way, right? Oh wait: context! What’s the context? In Matthew 10, Jesus is about to send his disciples throughout the land to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He even gives them a way to prove the authority he has given them. How? Through a display of power with weapons? No, through a display of power through healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons.

The sword comment comes towards the end of his instructions, after he explains to his disciples that persecution will come against them. He says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He warns that they will be arrested, interrogated, beaten, and hated. Does he tell them to respond with violence? No, he tells them to flee if they have to. But he also tells them not to be fearful because God is with them. He tells them not to fear “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” So far, none of this sounds much like war-mongering.

Now, understanding the context brings things much more into clear focus when he says,

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matthew 10:34–36)

The parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel helps us understand his meaning:

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)

So, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says he came to bring a sword. In Luke’s Gospel, he says he came to bring division. Before continuing, why the different wording between the two Gospels? Easy. There’s two possibilities.

First, Jesus gave this teaching several times and he worded it differently at different times. There’s nothing odd about that. He couldn’t just make a Youtube video, so Jesus traveled around and would’ve taught the same things again and again, and like all teachers who teach the same lesson again and again, he would phrase things differently for different audiences.

The second explanation is that one Gospel writer is giving a direct quote and the other is giving a paraphrase. Despite your modern, English Bible using quotation marks, quotation marks didn’t exist back then in the ancient manuscripts in the original Greek. So, when we read Jesus’ words in the Gospels, we can’t know for sure if it’s a word-for-word quote or a paraphrase or summary. Again, nothing odd here. For example, preachers often paraphrase passages from the Bible while teaching, and the New Testament writers themselves often paraphrase the Old Testament rather than give a word-for-word quote.

That behind us, it’s clear from the context (including taking into account all of Jesus’ teachings) that Jesus isn’t speaking of a literal sword, but a metaphorical one. The sword represents division. Yes, he’s a peaceful man, but his teachings will cause division, even within families. Just before this, when speaking about the persecution his disciples will face, he says, “ Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” Jesus’ ministry even brought division within his own family (Matthew 13:53-58; John 7:3-5).  

Not everyone will be a part of the Kingdom of God, and though Jesus’ mission is nonviolent, the response to Jesus’ ministry won’t always be, and though he preaches peace, his teachings will cause turmoil. He teaches elsewhere that the world will give his followers trouble and grief (John 14:27, 16:33). They should expect it. If the world hates you, he says, know that it hated me first (John 15:18-27).

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

NEXT: Sell Your Cloak, Buy a Sword! Luke 22:36-38.

7 Apologetics Podcasts Worth Giving a Listen + 1

Radio2

Other than thought-provoking entertainment, especially when you’re stuck in a car, there are three big benefits to listening to the right Christian podcasts:

(1)  The right podcasts give you access to topnotch Christian scholars and thinkers, and these people have a wealth of experience and knowledge.

(2)  Even as a former seminary student and an avid reader, I’ve come to realize the knowledge I’ve gained from my podcast listening is substantial (and the effort is minimal). Plus, podcasts often point me to books and other resources for going deeper.

(3)  Podcasts are up-to-date, addressing current events and topics of importance to Christians right now.

So, even if you don’t have a long commute, pick a podcast to listen to while you’re folding laundry or mowing the lawn or eating breakfast.  If you can’t listen to a whole show in one sitting, so what? — Listen to it in parts, even if it’s just for 10 minutes at a time.

Way back in 2013, I wrote a blog recommending Christian podcasts, so I figured it was time to update that article. (Plus, I’ve been busy with other projects and ministries, so I’ve been neglecting GFTM!)

The first three podcasts listed below also appeared on my 2013 list. Clearly, these three have been staples of my listening for years. So, where all of these podcasts are recommended, the first three have stood the test of time.

 

(1) UNBELIEVABLE?

Unbelievable-

This British radio show is primarily civil debates/discussions between people of opposing views on various topics, whether it’s Christians debating atheists or other non-Christians or Christians debating Christians about issues within the church.

Justin Brierley, the host, does a great job of fairly mediating the debates/discussions, making sure both sides have time to flesh out their views and that the listener doesn’t get lost if it gets too academic.

Unbelievable? gives you a good introduction at controversial issues and exposes you to opposing views on that issue. The subject matter varies from current cultural topics (transgenderism, social justice, etc.) to topics concerning the existence of God and the trustworthiness of the Bible to other philosophical and theological questions.

Also, check out Justin Brierley’s Youtube series The Big Conversation.

 

(2) STAND TO REASON

STR

Host Greg Koukl has been challenged and tested for the over 27 years he’s been doing this show. He opens most episodes by sharing some thoughts concerning Christianity or a cultural topic, and then he answers callers’ questions on any number of topics encompassing Christianity — from personal application of biblical teachings to interpreting scripture to philosophical issues and apologetics.

Koukl’s ability to confidently, satisfactorily, and evenhandedly answer the vast diversity of questions he receives is testimony to his wealth of experience and what a valuable resource he is. Part of the fun of listening to Stand to Reason is thinking, “Wow, that’s a tough question! How will Greg possibly answer this?” and then listening to Greg’s response.

Also, check out Koukl’s two books, Tactics and The Story of Reality, and Stand to Reason’s website as a resource.

 

(3) THE BRIEFING

breifing

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the largest seminary in the U.S., examines current world news from a Christian perspective.  New episodes are posted every Monday through Friday. In each 20-minutes episode, Dr. Mohler gives an overview of current events, and then he analyzes them from a biblical worldview.

The Briefing is a great, quick way to keep up on important news and issues that should interest Christians one way or another, some of which get lost in all of the noise of this media age. Dr. Mohler draws from a variety of established media sources, both left- and right-leaning, and he makes all the articles he refers to available on his website.

Dr. Mohler has a background in radio, so each episode is crisp, smooth, and professional. The historical background and insight Dr. Mohler often provides during his commentary is priceless.

Also, check out Dr. Mohler’s other occasional podcast Thinking in Public.

 

(4) THE JUDE 3 PROJECT

Jude3

The Jude 3 Project exists to help Christians “know what they believe and why they believe it” with a distinctive focus on the African American community.

Like most of the podcasts on this list, the Jude 3 Project does a great job of addressing theological, cultural, and apologetic topics concerning Christians, but it also does a great job showing how both historically and biblically Christianity is not just “the white man’s religion.”

The Jude 3 Project has introduced me to many Christian scholars addressing specific topics which concern the African American community (and should concern all Christians) that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. The Jude 3 Project is providing an important service (and becoming an important resource) to all Christians.

Also, check out their website for resources.

 

(5) THREE CHORDS AND THE TRUTH

3Chords

Three Chords and the Truth wins the prize for the best balance of being informative and fun.

Each 40-minute episode has three parts. The first part focuses on apologetics – arguments for the trustworthiness of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus. Part two is some brief  “geek talk,” where they discuss a “tough topic” in comic books, sci-fi, and fantasy. (Who would win in a fight: Gandalf or Yoda? What’s more powerful: the Infinity Gauntlet or the Elder’s Wand from Harry Potter?) Finally, they look at a classic rock song from a theological perspective.

Honestly, I’ve learned just as much about rock history as Christian apologetics listening to this podcast.

Also, Timothy Paul Jones, one of the hosts, is a wealth of information. Check out his books.

 

(6) THINK BIBLICALLY

thinkingbiblically

I just started listening to this weekly podcast, but it has two top-notch hosts, Sean McDowell and Scott Rae, professors at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, a key school in training Christian apologists. The format is easy: a 30-minute interview with a Christian author or thinker.

Looking through their backlog of interviews, I see nothing but names worth listening to on topics worth thinking about.

Also, Sean McDowell, though he’s the one doing the interviewing instead of being interviewed, is a great teacher. Be sure to seek out his other work.

 

(7) APOLOGIA RADIO

apologia

Apologia Radio wasn’t on my 2013 list of podcasts, but I’ve been listening to it regularly almost as long as my “Top 3.” If there’s a podcast on this list that’s going to ruffle a lot of feathers, it’s this one. Apologia doesn’t pull any punches (and they have fun while doing it).

They’re especially good with addressing atheism, abortion, and cults, like Mormonism. They hold strong stances on some theological views, such as Calvinism, presuppositional apologetics, and post-millennialism eschatology. (If you don’t know what those things are, you will if you listen to Apologia Radio long enough.)

Overall, even if you don’t agree with every stance the guys and gal of Apologia take, you will be challenged, and they do a great job of engaging the culture from a biblical worldview.

Also check out Joy of Apologia’s other podcast, Sheologians, and Apologia’s many Youtube videos.

 

(8) THIS AMERICAN LIFE

TAL

Though this wasn’t on my 2013 list, it certainly should’ve been. This American Life is not a Christian show, so it wasn’t on my last list and it shouldn’t be on this list, but I’m including it anyway. I’ve been listening to This American Life longer than every podcast on this list.

Each episode is an hour long and centers on a (loose) theme with (give or take) three true stories connected to that theme. The beauty of this show is that it often centers on people and things you would’ve never heard about anywhere else, and the stories surrounding them are engrossing, entertaining, and often quirky.

I love this show. No, it’s not a Christian show, but it’s professional journalism with master story-telling at its best.

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

 

stnicholas-painting-wmaster

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.)

StNick

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

 

St Nicolas
Santa

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

ChristmasChaos

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 homes 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” in 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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