We’ve already looked at a silly reason often given to abandon Christmas — that it is the Roman Catholic Mass, the “Christ-Mass.” A second argument (it is better to say “flawed” instead of “silly” for this one) is the most common argument against Christmas. It appears more substantive at first, but it won’t bear historical or doctrinal scrutiny, either. Because this is so prevalent, this article is longer than the last. (I WILL get to substantive concerns about aspects of Christmas before I’m done).
“It is Pagan / Roman Catholic Syncretism”
The argument (with variations) is as follows. Christmas was a pseudo-Christian adaptation of a popular pagan/Roman idolatrous celebration — perhaps Saturnalia, which began 17 December in honour of the god Saturn, maybe the Winter Solstice (21 December), or a celebration of the Sun’s birthday on 25 December begun in 274 AD by Emperor Aurelian.
Allegedly, one of these was adopted and “Christianised” by Emperor Constantine after he converted from paganism to something like Christianity in 312 AD. Historical records suggest he was very involved in what is known as syncretism.
The Problem of Syncretism
Syncretism is combining differing beliefs or practices, so the result becomes neither fish nor fowl. In politics, our current coalition government is an example. The Tories and Lib Dems stand for far different things (if they really stand for anything 🙂 ). The government, as constituted, is fine for those who want power but completely unsatisfactory to anyone who supports either party on principle. When you merge two opposites to try to please everyone, you please no one.
Syncretism in politics is one thing, but combining false worship of idols with the worship of the one true God is abhorrent to Him.
I Corinthians 10:19-21
19 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?
20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.
21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.
Combining idolatry with the worship of God goes back at least to Exodus 32, when Israel chose idolatry and called it worship to the Lord, bringing God’s judgment:
4 And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
5 And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD.
Syncretism in worship is condemned by Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church has often used syncretism, adopting and “Christianising” the idolatrous practices of different cultures to make their religion more acceptable to people. But the power of Biblical Christianity lies not in becoming acceptable to people, but in changing people to be acceptable to God.
Thus, at first glance, the argument against Christmas as something that should be rejected as Christian / idolatrous syncretism seems compelling.
The first set of problems with this argument is historical. To make this argument, you have to give historical proof of the syncretism — but here, it gets a little murky.
A Suspicious Agenda
Read religious literature or news and you’ll soon encounter people who see syncretism everywhere. They call the Flood a Mesopotamian myth that Israel adopted — syncretism. You soon “learn” from them that a god returning from death is originally a pagan belief. So is the virgin birth, etc. Our beliefs couldn’t be true, they couldn’t have been revealed by God (and often counterfeited by false religions), they have to be syncretism. It is a favourite argument of the skeptics.
They say the same of Christmas. It couldn’t be that early Christians, out of pure motives, commemorated Christ’s birth. It couldn’t be that Aurelian, out of concern over a rapidly growing religion, counterfeited one of its observances with his new holiday in 274 AD to give people an alternative. It has to be “Christian” syncretism. They know this, because this is the way they view all of Christian history.
Colour me skeptical. I’ve read enough things attributing other Christian beliefs and practices to syncretism to doubt the claims in this case. Those who hate Christ want to either banish Christmas or strip it of Christian significance, not because they care about paganism but because they hate Christ. The syncretist approach to Christian history leaves me cold. Hearing it applied to Christmas doesn’t feel warmer, it just makes me think, “Haven’t I heard this song somewhere before?” Many singing the song aren’t skeptics, but they are singing from a sheet written by skeptics.
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
Paul said, in II Timothy 3:5, “From such turn away.” We shouldn’t sing the syncretic song lightly. Belief that Christmas was syncretic in origin requires hard evidence, not of mere similarities in date or practice, but evidence that the similarities came because Christians adopted them intentionally to mirror pagan practice.
No “Smoking Gun” / Uncharitable Assumptions
Which early Christians say they started this holiday to make Christianity tolerable to pagans? What is the evidence that Christians borrowed ideas from paganism, rather than the other way around? How can we assume that motives were syncretic?
Yesterday, I posted about “invented significances,” things we invent about other people. As I mentioned, it violates love, as defined in I Corinthians 13, to draw negative conclusions about other people without hard facts. It is a general point, but I posted it yesterday to lead up to this — we do wrong to uncharitably “invent a significance” which accuses early believers of ungodly syncretic motives. Those who want to bind you with this argument need to bring real proof, or stop inventing significances, especially inventing motives.
Christians under severe persecution by pagans wouldn’t adopt a pagan holiday. So the syncretic argument requires a timeline — Christmas can’t have started before Constantine, or the argument runs into trouble. But here, we run into difficulty.
Biblical Archaeology Review is no friend of Biblical Christianity or Christian / religious traditions, and even they ran an article questioning this historical timeline:
Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.
…The persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays.
A more reliable source (from a Biblical Christianity perspective) finds evidence not long after 200 AD that some Christians were looking at 25 December:
Some of the sources, Hippolytus and Julius Africanus, were born around the middle of the second century and made apparent references to the December 25 date in the early third century.
We don’t know the reasoning behind the apparent acceptance of the date by the Donatists, but the reasons Hippolytus and Julius Africanus give have nothing to do with borrowing from paganism.
If that last quote is true, it destroys the syncretism argument. At best, the argument is historically unproven. No one knows exactly what people did 1700 years ago, and why. The evidence is insufficient to accuse early Christians in this case. The “pagan / Catholic syncretism” argument fails historically — but has even greater doctrinal problems.
Doctrine by Speculative History
II Timothy 3:16-17
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
Yes, I keep coming back to that verse. It says Scripture has everything we need to be completely equipped for righteousness.
Scripture tells us to pursue righteousness and avoid evil, to be alert to spiritual danger and Satan’s tricks. God warned Israel about the gods of people near them. But He never said to use ancient history to discern right and wrong. It doesn’t take expertise on events of 284 AD, or 312, or 397 to please God. This “syncretism” argument violates the sufficiency of Scripture by demanding ancient historical knowledge which is not in Scripture.
Millions of believers, through the centuries, read their Bibles. They had no way to research ancient Roman history. The Scriptures didn’t tell of Roman syncretism. Did the Scriptures fail them, when in ignorance they observed Christmas? Is Scripture insufficient, leaving all those believers in error, or is doctrine by speculative history the problem?
No Scripture even hints that knowing ancient extra-Biblical history is necessary to discern right and wrong. Yet, this argument is based entirely on allegedly precise knowledge of events 1700 years ago.
Doctrine of Discernment by Origins
Those who forbid a holiday because of its origins practice an unbiblical doctrine of discernment of good and evil by origins.
Violates the Sufficiency of Scripture
You can probably guess which Scripture I have in mind again — II Timothy 3:16-17. The Bible simply doesn’t tell us to find past origins of a thing or practice to assess right or wrong. Doctrine based on origins (pagan or otherwise) violates the sufficiency of Scripture.
Contrary to Specific Scriptural Examples
Jerusalem, a place of idolatry, became a place of true worship. God appeared, and Jacob named the place “Beth-el” (“house of God”), but the time came when God said, “Come to Bethel and transgress” (Amos 4:4). Samuel, a true prophet, sacrificed in a high place (I Samuel 9:12-14), but the high places became places of idol worship. Things which had a bad history or origin became good, and things which had a good origin became bad.
Idolatrous Origins are Irrelevant
I Corinthians 10:25-29
25 Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:
26 For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.
27 If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
28 But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:
29 Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?
In this passage, Paul talks of meat sacrificed to idols. Believers did not have to worry about the origin of the meat — they could eat freely. They weren’t even to ask! The “asking no question” statement entirely discredits the importance of pagan origins. Pagan / idolatrous origins simply isn’t something we need to know. They might abstain, if a host at a feast knew they wouldn’t want to take part in idolatry and warned them, but only for his sake, not because there was anything wrong with the meat.
Whether a particular date, or meat, or anything else, used to have an idolatrous connection is irrelevant. The meat was still good, and the day is still good. There is nothing wrong with 25 December! It belongs to the Lord, and there is nothing wrong with remembering any of His benefits (including the birth of the Saviour) on that day.
The doctrine of discernment by origins contradicts Biblical teaching. God wants us to look at what is, not what was. We should assess the way we spend 25 December, and every other day, by what is, not by what someone might or might not have done 1700 years ago.
Most Christians, even those who argue against commemorating Christ’s birth by referring to pagan / Roman Catholic syncretism, are inconsistent in avoiding pagan origins. They think nothing of meeting to worship on the day of the Sun, and calling it Sunday. No one seems concerned about mid-week church meetings on Woden’s Day (Wednesday) or Thor’s Day. Many churches will announce annual meetings for the sixth, or thirteenth, of January — the month of the god Janus.
No one lives by a doctrine of discernment by origins. We shouldn’t. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” The month of January is the Lord’s, no matter what it is called, or what pagan observations took place around its naming. If you want January to be a special month of prayer and fasting for your family, you aren’t honouring Janus or pagan origins, even if you say you are fasting in January.
Resurrecting Dead gods
Idols such as Janus, Woden, and Saturn are dead. Their only power came in the worship of people who were demonically influenced to follow them — they no longer even have that. No one worships Saturn. Even if we knew Christmas was an attempt to “Christianise” Saturnalia, Saturn died and Christ won. (My uncle wrote on this years ago.) Some may think Christmas used to be about Saturn, but no one thinks it is now. No one worships Saturn and calls him “the reason for the season.” Even Wikipedia (!) says it is “an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ.” Saturn is a silly, dead legend. RIP.
Doctrine by speculative history and doctrine of discernment by origin resurrects dead gods. The sun is still there, but Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, is dead. His birthday means nothing to anyone. If 25 December was his date, he lost it, and the birth of the day’s true Owner is now remembered on that date. Even if early Christians chose it to try to pacify pagans, their bad motives are gone, too. No one, Christians or modern secularist pagans, or anyone else, celebrates to honour Saturn or old Sol, or to appease ancient Roman pagans.
Christmas isn’t about paganism and syncretism now, if it ever was. There is nothing in Scripture that says you have to celebrate Christmas, but if you choose to, you don’t have to listen to anyone who says you can’t because it is a pagan holiday, or an example of Roman Catholic syncretism. That argument is broken, both historically and doctrinally. Be thankful for their desire to do right and help you do right, but remind them that it is Scripture that has authority, not doctrine by speculative history or discernment by origins.