Christians around the world celebrate December 25th as “Christmas.” We identify it with the time of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Songs are sung, carols are played, and stories are told about Mary and her baby boy. But what are the chances that Jesus was born on December 25th?
Well, to put a number to it. The chance that Jesus of Nazareth was born on December 25th is 1/365 or to be slightly more accurate 1/365.24. Obviously the calendar we use today didn’t exist then, and our calendar corresponds to the solar year not the lunar. Jesus had to be born on a day that corresponds to our calendar one way or another, but we can’t be certain of the day of his birth because there is no identifiable date recorded in the texts.
That may sound strange to us who celebrate birthdays every year and who have birth certificates. Often our birthdays identify us. Recently, I went to the doctor and before they wanted my name, they asked my birthday. When the receptionist keyed in my birthday, my name came up. So, for us living in the 21st century, our birthdays identify us. You’ve probably had a similar experience.
The fact is most human beings born thousands of years ago didn’t know their birthdays. They didn’t have a reliable and stable calendar as we do today. This was especially true of people of “lower class” or the “worker class.” I’m using the terms here sociologically not pejoratively. Joseph and Mary were ordinary people. Joseph was by trade a tekton. Some have translated the word “carpenter” but it may be better to translate it “stone mason” since most construction in those days in the land of Israel was of stone. But they weren’t well off. And there is no record of the day of Jesus’ birth.
I won’t go into the reasons why December 25th was chosen as the “day” we celebrate Christmas. Many people have written on that on the Internet. My point is more simple. As Christians we do not celebrate the “day” Jesus was born, we celebrate the fact he was born at all. December 25th just happens to be the day we celebrate it. In Jesus we see the coming of God into the world in a unique and powerful way. Theologians call it the Incarnation, literally the enfleshing of God or embodiment of God. For us Jesus is the embodiment of the God of Israel who has come into our world to save and to give us an example of how to live.
Let me illustrate this using a more recent example. I know a man, let’s call him Claude. Today, at the time of my writing, he is 92 years old. He was born in a little town in Mississippi in 1926. The exact date of his birth “day” is unknown. The country doctor who delivered him wrote down one date in the county register where Claude was born. But he recorded it several days later after he had delivered other babies. Then there is the record of Claude’s birthday in the family Bible, which 92 years ago was the family record of birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and death days of beloved family members. Then there is the day he was told by family members that he was born. Now the dates do not correspond, they are off by a significant amount. Which one is true and accurate? We don’t know, and in important ways it doesn’t matter.
Claude celebrates his birthday now on a day late in September. Essentially, because of American law, he had to choose one of those days and call it his birthday not knowing exactly the “day” he was born. He gets cards, presents and phone calls on that day congratulating him on making it another year. He has a social security card and a driver’s license that display his chosen day. So, that day was chosen to recognize the fact of his birth, not the day of his birth. Essentially we celebrate the person not the day. The same is true in ways for Jesus.
December 25th–Christmas, Navidad, Weinacht, whatever name by which you know it–is not a celebration of the day Jesus was born, it’s a celebrate of the fact he was born, that in him God became flesh and dwelt among us. It is a unique day in the Christian calendar to recognize a singular great event in history, the Incarnation. In Jesus of Nazareth we recognize that God has come into the world and that is worth stopping and thinking about.
Dr. Amy Peeler joined me recently on the “Exegetically Speaking” podcast at Wheaton College. She did a good job explaining the value of inclusive language in places like the NIV, but also argued for a more masculine reading of a passage in Hebrew 2. It’s worth hearing.
Here is a link:
Or you can click here.
First appeared in print in Christianity Today, December 2018, under the Title “Prepare for the ‘Day of the Lord'” (p. 76)
Matthew Aernie & Donald Hartley. The Righteous & Merciful Judge: The Day of the Lord in the Life and Theology of Paul. Studies in Scripture & Biblical Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.
These days it is out of fashion to talk about judging and judgment. Ours is a much more “tolerant” day—or so we’re told. But as our authors, Aernie & Hartley, correctly describe, throughout the counsel of Scripture the idea of God coming in judgment to right all wrongs and settle all scores is at the heart of God’s revelation. Yet the specter of Marcionism is still with us in the church especially when we divide the Scriptures into parts and imagine that the first is dominated by justice and wrath, the second by mercy and grace. As our writers point out, such mischaracterizations undermine the unity of Scripture and subverts the true story of God in the world. Some of the most wonderful passages of forgiveness, restoration, and grace are found in the Old; some of the most unsettling about justice, wrath, and judgment are found in the New.
The project Aernie and Hartley pursue in this book is to consider the theme of “the day of the Lord” in Paul’s letters. They argue that it is not some subsidiary crater to Paul’s theology, but it stands as a major motif in his thinking. They stop short of calling it the center, but they do make it central by arguing that “every aspect of his theology was in some way affected by the concept” (p. 5) So their book examines the theme of “the day of the Lord: in scholarship, the Old Testament, extracanonical Jewish literature, Paul’s call/conversion on the Damascus Road, and the language of the day of the Lord and associated themes in Paul’s letters. As a result, they shed much needed light on an ignored and marginalized feature of Paul’s theology.
Like most scholars Aernie and Hartley pursue their task systematically working through time, asking first: where this concept came from? But, of course, scholars don’t tend to agree on much and that includes how and where the notion of “the day of the Lord” entered into Jewish consciousness. Some think it came from the holy war tradition; others from enthronement ceremonies when YHWH is installed as King. Some think it came from within Israel itself; others imagine it was adopted and adapted from the Canaanites or the Babylonians. The starting point remains elusive. What is clear is that the OT is rich in associations around the notion that God will visit the nations, including Israel, in judgment, power, and restoration.
While the phrase “the day of the LORD” is not found in the Books of Moses, our authors claim the theme sits just beneath the surface in passages that portray YHWH as coming to visit his people in blessings and curses. The prophets developed the language of God’s visitation into the language we know, “the day of the LORD.” Only later, among the prophets does the phrase “the day of the LORD” become a technical term for a day of final judgment. As such, depending on how a people are currently situated toward YHWH—whether faithful to the covenant or not—it is a day that prompts fear or a day awaited with joy.
In the past, periods of famine, scarcity, war and ultimately exile could be construed as “days” of judgement in typological patterns of what is to come: the final, definitive, eschatological day of the Lord. When that day comes, God will make the world right. In the final assize of history anything wrong in Israel or the nations must be judged. All that is right is destined to be redeemed and restored. These patterns are found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but they are also present in later Jewish collections such as the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was the symbolic world that Paul inherited.
One of the more interesting features of the book is how Aernie and Hartley interpret Paul’s Damascus Christophany as “a proleptic day of the Lord.” In other words, Paul had his own day of judgment when he encountered the risen Lord. Instead of getting what he deserved, i.e., wrath, he found mercy. Instead of being marked out for destruction, he was transformed, converted, and called to a new mission. In this encounter the persecutor replaced the false identity of Jesus he had developed for the true identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Lord. Now that the moment of Paul’s own judgment had arrived and he had found grace, he began to think that the final judgment for all was closer than he ever imagined.
The last portion of the book goes deeply into Paul’s language associated with “the day of the Lord.” For Paul, “the day of the Lord (YHWH)” had become “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5.2) or more simply “the day of Christ” (Phil 1.10). Words of coming (Parousia), “revelation” (apocalypsis), and “appearing” or “manifestation” (epiphania) season his discourse as he likens the coming of Jesus to judge the living and dead to various manifestations of God in the Scripture. The final chapter offers the most detailed exegesis in the book.
The big idea Aernie and Hartley pursue offers an important corrective for the academy and the church. The current western mood is to avoid anything that smacks of judgment. We want a merciful, forgiving, anything-goes kind of god, not one who demands something of us and will ultimately judge us. We cannot adequately deal with Paul’s life, mission and theology until we grasp where he believed the telos toward which history was moving. The next thing we await is the final, definitive coming of Christ in glory, power, and judgment.
A few years ago I wrote an article for the E3 Foundation on what are the Gnostic Gospels? Gnosticism is hard to define and a challenge to describe. But there are certain things that characterize the various Gnostic movements that give rise to Gnostic Gospels.
Here is a link to that article:
Alternatively, you can read a version of it below. The E3 Foundation’s work is available now at http://www.exploregod.com
What are the Gnostic gospels?
If you turn on the History Channel, A&E, or National Geographic around Christmas or Easter, you’re likely to hear someone talk of conspiracies by Catholic popes and church councils to suppress the truth about Jesus. The agenda of these former bishops, they claim, is simple: they wanted to hold on to positions of power and influence.
Along the way, these scholars will probably appeal to lost Christianities and secret Gospels. Chief among them are the Gnostic Gospels. So what are the Gnostic Gospels, exactly?
What Is a Gospel?
Let’s first consider what a “Gospel” is. The word “gospel” (Greek, euaggelion) means simply “good news” or “favorable report.” It was a term with political overtones often used in the ancient world. The accession of a new leader could be “good news,” as could reports of a military victory.
Early Christians used the word to describe the essential message of and about Jesus—that is, the “good news” of Jesus. Later, “gospel” took on the more technical meaning of a book that gives an account of Jesus’ life. The New Testament has four such gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books belong to the genre of ancient biographies.1 Unlike modern biographies, they stress a person’s words and deeds and are often written to provide readers with an example of how they should live.
In 1945 a chance discovery yielded a treasure trove of ancient documents in Upper Egypt at a place called Nag Hammadi. The Nag Hammadi Library, as it is known today, contained papyrus codices of forty treatises written in Coptic (an old Egyptian language) dating from the third to fifth centuries CE.2 Most of the documents show Gnostic influences to one degree or another, and a number of the books found are Gnostic Gospels.
Scholars had known about Gnosticism and Gnostic accounts of Jesus for many years. Most of what was known came from the writings of early Christian leaders like Irenaeus of Lyon (130–200 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), and Tertullian of Carthage (160–225). These church fathers were convinced the Gnostic teachings were heretical, so they wrote against them, often quoting the Gnostic leaders or summarizing their positions in the process. But the church fathers only quoted fragments of these “heretics,” not full books. With the Nag Hammadi discovery, we suddenly had full books rather than just bits and pieces.
Although scholars are divided on the origin, meaning, and extent of Gnosticism in the ancient world, there are a few characteristics that are broadly accepted about who the Gnostics were and what they believed.
“Gnosticism” is a word used today to describe several complex religious–philosophical movements that flourished from the second to the fourth century AD. It is important to realize that Gnosticism is not a single movement; it is a term used to characterize a variety of movements with particular beliefs and practices led by influential leaders in this specific time period.
At the heart of the Gnostic worldview is the belief that the material world is evil and corrupt; in contrast, the spiritual world is good and pristine. This is easy to demonstrate. Take a nice, fresh apple and put it on a table. What happens to it over a few days, a few weeks, a few months? Before long the apple rots and becomes a smelly mess. Repeat the experiment with a piece of iron. Over time the iron rusts, corrodes, and eventually disintegrates. Try the experiment with a twenty-year-old. At twenty, a person is fit and trim; they feel and look well. Fast-forward fifty years and the same person is now old and tired; their once-firm body sags and hurts most of the time. Before long, they have died and their corpses have decomposed.
Graphic, yes, but it proves a point: Everything we can see and touch in this material world suffers the same fate. It corrodes, decays, and eventually disappears.
The Gnostics considered this material world inferior and evil because corruption was constantly at work in it—as anyone could observe. Since this world is so corrupt and transitory, Gnostics reasoned that the Supreme God—whom they considered to be utterly transcendent and unknowable—could not have made the present world. So they posited that creation was the work of a lower, inferior god called the Demiurge. The God recorded in the biblical book of Genesis, therefore, was not the Most High God but an inferior, second-class god.
According to Gnosticism, human beings are good spirits trapped inside of evil material bodies. The good spirit originated in the sublime spiritual realm above. The problem for all people is that in the journey from heaven to earth, people forgot their true origin and nature. The Supreme God answers by sending a Redeemer from the heavenly realm to the world below in order to reveal the truth to those who have fallen into a forgetful sleep.
Salvation, then, depends on receiving that knowledge and being awakened from slumber. It means that when people die, their spirits escape the bonds of this material world and ascend to the heavens to be reunited with the One above. According to Gnostic thinking, the Redeemer had to come to earth in order to reveal the truth to humans, but could not be truly incarnate—that is, enfleshed—because flesh is evil. So Christ just appeared to be human during his earthly sojourn; he was in fact only divine. This is a departure from tradition Christian belief, which states that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
The Gnostic Gospels
To one degree or another, the Gnostic Gospels reflect these teachings. Often they appear to rewrite familiar stories with a twist. In some cases they may contain early, independently attested traditions (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas). Here is a partial list of the Gnostic Gospels, along with an approximate date during which each was composed:
- The Gospel of Thomas (second century CE)
- The Gospel of Truth (second century CE)
- The Gospel of Judas (second century CE)
- The Gospel of Peter (second century CE)
- The Gospel of Mary (second century CE)
- The Gospel of Philip (second–third centuries CE)
- The Gospel of the Egyptians (second–third centuries CE)
In addition, there are other Gnostic texts that narrate aspects of Jesus’ life, though they are not known as gospels:
- Sophia of Jesus Christ (second century CE)
- Pistis Sophia (second century CE)
- Apocalypse of Peter (second–third centuries CE)
- Apocryphon of John (second–third centuries CE)
- Second Treatise of the Great Seth (third century CE)
- Hypostasis of the Archons (third century CE)
- Tripartite Tractate (third–fourth centuries CE)
The Gnostic Gospels were written and read in various Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor from the second to fifth centuries. Scholars debate whether they tell us anything true about Jesus. Where all agree, however, is that they tell us a great deal about the Christian communities who used them.
Recently, Wheaton College started a podcast called “Exegetically Speaking.” Each episode is about 7 minutes in length and its purpose is to promote the study of the biblical languages: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.
I contacted legendary guitarist, Phil Keaggy, to see if he would compose and record music for our introduction and conclusion. He did so gladly, out of the goodness of heart, and offered us about 14 different possibilities. I was amazed and grateful. We chose a classical snippet that lasts about 24 seconds. So now each podcast opens with the music of Phil Keaggy. It is bright, hopeful “snippet” that sets the table well for our podcasting efforts.
Take 25 seconds and listen in:
Thanks, Phil, for your gift.
We have a new podcast up, a special Christmas edition. It’s entitled: “Xmas–Is it taking Christ out of Christmas?” Here is a link to the website. Each podcast is about 7 minutes in length. Take a few minutes and catch up on other episodes while you are there.