Christmas is thought to originate as a festive season from a number of converging festivals, including:
- Saturnalia – the Roman celebration of Saturn, characterised by holidays and bosses being nice to slaves
- Modraniht and Yule – the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples’ festival of gift giving and cook-ups to get them through the long dark winter, and their celebration of Modraniht, celebrating female deities Matres and Matronae (and isn’t that an interesting connection with the (virgin) birth of Christ? But that is a topic for another blog post!)
- Winter Solstice – similar to Yule, a time to celebrate the half way point of winter in Europe
- Chanukah – the Jewish festival to mark the historical re-dedication of the Temple in the second century BC
Historians estimate that Jesus was actually born around 4 BC in the rural province of Galilee. He was born at the same time as “King of the Jews” Herod the Great died at the age of seventy.
Herod was the client-king who ruled Judea under Roman aegis. In 37 BC, Herod had re-taken Jerusalem on behalf of Rome from Antigonus and his Parthian allies. Rome named him “King of the Jews” as a reward for his loyalty.
Herod’s rule was marked by excess and ruthlessness. Herod replaced the Temple priests with his own supporters and massacred anyone who hinted at rebellion. According to Roman historian Josephus, at the time there were an estimated 24 Jewish sects in and around Jerusalem. Three main sects dominated:
- The Sadducees, who made up the wealthier class of landholding Jews, and generally collaborated with the Romans and accepted the state of affairs
- The Essenes, a largely priestly movement that withdrew into communes on the Qumran hilltop in the Dead Sea valley
- The Pharisees, mostly lower and middle class rabbis and scholars who tried to assiduously uphold the Law of Moses as set out in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Torah and the Bible)
The fourth segment of the population is known as the Zealots, and covers the various resistance movements which were eventually crushed in 60-70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Temple and massacred Jewish rebels.
I hypothesise that there was probably a fifth group, making up most of the common peasantry: those who kept their heads down, paid their taxes, did the rituals they were supposed to do as “good Jews,” and generally tried to get by.
Herod imposed severe taxes to pay for major infrastructure projects including Hellenistic and Roman institutions such as gymnasia, baths and amphitheatres. At the same time he commenced a massive project to rebuild and expand the Temple of Jerusalem.
After Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC, there was a period of bloodshed and chaos as Jews rebelled against their new rulers from Rome. Upon Herod’s death, Caesar Augustus split his empire amongst his three sons. He gave Judea, Samaria and Idumea to Archelaus; Galilee and Peraea to Herod Antipas; and Gaulanitis and the lands north-east of the Sea of Galilee to Philip. In response, the people rioted. Caesar Augustus sent in Roman troops to end the uprising. By 6 BC, he had placed Jerusalem under a Roman governor and Judea became a province ruled directly by Rome. Jesus would have been a two-year old toddler at the time.
The historical context of the Gospels
The Gospels represent a combination of memory and testimony. There are four Gospels included in the Christian Bible, and they include a collection of stories about the words and deeds of Jesus. Most of the Gospels say little about Jesus’ childhood and youth, and are largely concerned with his actions as an adult in the few short years before his execution. The Gospel of Luke includes a birth story which places Jesus in Bethlehem for his birth. This is unlikely to have been historically accurate – there was no Census at the time the writers of the Gospel of Luke described, and when Rome did conduct censuses, it did so based on place of residence rather than place of birth.
Reza Aslan (2013) explains that this story (and several others in the Gospels) were intended as a “revealed truth” rather than an “historical fact;” a way to express that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. Aslan reminds us that the Gospels were not intended as historical record but as stories which represented spiritual truth. Like any tales of gods and heroes, the details are not expected to be factual but the underlying message is true.
Similarly, the story of Herod’s massacre of the Jewish firstborn sons which forced Jesus and his family into exile in Egypt is probably not historically accurate: there is no other record of such an event in the historical annals. But the Gospel writers of Matthew’s Gospel, like the writers of Luke’s Gospel, were saying that Jesus was the messiah as prophesied who would come out of Egypt. The story of Jesus’ resurrection and the virgin birth are possibly (probably) also stories of spiritual truth rather than factual events.
Jesus taught compassion. He reminded the Jews that God loved them. He gently but firmly opposed the Pharisee emphasis on the rituals of the Temple because he saw in this emphasis a literal rather than spiritual alignment with God’s will, and one which was adding to the financial burden and oppression of the common people. His views were a challenge to the Jewish priests’ power base and eventually led to Jesus’ arrest and execution.
800 odd years later, Muhammad almost attracted the same fate. He taught egalitarianism and compassion and he too angered the powerful Arab tribal leaders, who garnered considerable income from the 300 plus shrines which people paid tribute to in Mecca. The Meccans hunted and tried to assassinate Muhammad, but unlike Jesus, he managed to escape through the desert to Yathrib (later renamed Medina, the City of the Prophet).
Jesus was also a miracle worker, or what we might call these days a faith healer. At the time of Jesus, it was not unknown for men to enter this magical profession, travelling from village to village and conducting wonders. I don’t know if he really had magical powers; but I do know that the placebo effect is a scientifically proven phenomenon, and I can imagine a world in which placebo plus (let’s call it) the energy field of an extremely calm and enlightened person like Jesus could lead to a healing experience.
There is not a lot known about Jesus in the years between his childhood and when he burst upon the miracle working circuit when he was nearing the age of 30. We can assume that he was not literate, given hardly anyone was, but that he was a deep thinker and influenced by his cousin John the Baptist and other evangelical revolutionary teachers of the times.
As an adult, Jesus went with some of his mates to see John the Baptist. There it appears he had a transcendent experience of revelation; when he emerged from the Jordan River, he did not return to his carpentry business in Nazareth but went on the road, preaching and working wonders. Friends of friends, cousins of friends, friends of cousins started to follow him and he gradually developed a sizable following which included a number of wealthy benefactors who probably secretly subsidized their itinerant life. At no time was Jesus wealthy, and it appears he lived in the present, allowing others to deal with the alms which would pay for his and his followers’ work.
Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand and this got the attention of the Roman authorities, as it sounded like a clarion call to revolution. Gospel writers later placed a determinedly spiritual, lofty interpretation on these words, but at the time of Jesus, the Kingdom of God meant a free Zionist state and the end of Roman rule.
There were a number of “false messiahs” at the time of Jesus, pandering to the Jews’ desperation for hope, for relief from the yoke of Roman oppression, but Jesus never called himself the messiah. He always reminded people that they were the ones calling him that. He called God “my father,” his way of describing a supremely and primarily personal relationship which all Jews could entertain with God, rather than going through the priestly sacrifice (and cost) of the Temple powerbrokers.
My reflections on Christianity
Reading the gospels, it is pretty evident that Jesus was a great man. He was a clear thinker and saw through the bullshit of the Temple priests and power brokers, and for an unlettered man he seemed to have an instinctive relationship with the Torah. He was also a great orator, drawing crowds to listen to him wherever he travelled. And he seems to have exuded otherworldly calm, peace, wisdom and compassion: when you read the gospels, you are fairly lulled into a meditative state by the simple, plainly spoken words of a man who spoke his truth quietly but clearly. He was unruffled by the intellectual snares of the Pharisees and the Saduccees; he responded to the desperation of the common people with love and a empathy which had become rare in such an era of fear and scarcity. How an illiterate man, quite possibly the illegitimate child of a teenage girl, could emerge from his circumstances and speak of love and truth with such deep certainty was indeed a miracle.
Jesus the man
Jesus was, importantly, a man. The gospels report his cry of doubt just before he died: ‘My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?’ The gospels also give him other final words, including, ‘It is finished.’ Neither of these phrases appears to be designed to strike hope into the heart of a Christian. But they do show that Jesus was a human, and as doubtful of his fate as we all would be if we were facing the spectacular demise of all our dreams and certainties. It’s my favourite part of the gospel. I always was a morbid Christian, preferring Good Friday’s veneration services to Easter Saturday’s resurrection celebrations.
The resurrection. Some believe it literally, others believe it figuratively; either way, it is a symbol of hope and redemption. Jesus was a human, and died in the worst possible way. But God loved him and God saved him from death, raising him up three days after his death.
In the resurrected Jesus’ stories, the character of Jesus had a levity that he never displayed during his mortal life. Resurrected Jesus plays a little trick on doubting Thomas, telling him to poke the holes in Jesus’ hands. Resurrected Jesus pops up, appearing to the faithful as they go about their business with what I can only imagine as a smile of delight on his face. This may all be my fantasy of course. But the risen Jesus strikes me as a guy with no more troubles; a guy who, despite his doubt, was saved. And here is our hope. If Jesus could doubt right at the end of his life and still be resurrected, then so can we.
I find many of the Christian explanations of why Jesus had to die to be rather convoluted. Jesus had to die as the sacrificial lamb for our sins? I don’t think God is either that metaphorical or that literal. That said, the poetry of the Christian faith is to die for (sorry, puns, sorry). The Christian story is the most romantic one I know: a man who preached loving kindness, who refused to save himself, who forgave his betrayers and killers, who was ultimately killed in the most horrific way; this is the guy we call our saviour. This – loser. This – failed messiah. This guy is our hope. What better poetry than this? What more profound message than to lead a poetic life?
If the early Christians hadn’t raised Jesus from the dead, literally or metaphorically, I don’t think Christianity would have been quite so successful. People like a happy ending. A priest friend of mine once explained to me that the key characteristic of being a Christian is to believe that there is hope. If that is the case, I am still a Christian.
Some of my favourite passages from the Christian Bible
James 2: 14-26
My brothers, what good is it for someone to say that he has faith if his actions do not prove it?….as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without actions is dead.
I like James’ practical, applied version of Christianity. S/he provides really sound, practical advice about how to live in the world as a Christian. The idea of faith as a lived and acted experience really resonates with me. When I think about love, I think of it as a doing word: a conscious and daily decision to act in a particular way towards people. The same goes for faith: it’s an act in the world which is constantly creating and created.
James 4: 1-10
Where do all the fights and quarrels among you come from? They come from your desires for pleasure, which are constantly fighting within you. You want things, but you cannot have them, so you are ready to kill; you strongly desire things, but you cannot get them, so then you quarrel and fight.
This is also very practical and reminds me of the Buddhist wisdom that the core of human suffering comes from the constant push and pull between desire and aversion, both sides of the same coin of samsara.
1 John 4:7-8
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
The radical emphasis on God as love is what really sets Christianity apart for me. A benevolent universe, love as the fundamental creative energy.
1 Corinthians 13
I may be able to speak the languages of men and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains – but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give up my body to be burnt – but if I have no love, this does me no good.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope and patience never fail.
Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.
When I was a child, my speech, feelings and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am a [wo]man, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete – as complete as God’s knowledge of me.
Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.
I didn’t want to include this passage, but I had to. It is so clichéd to read this passage out at a wedding and yet I had to have it at mine, read by my dear sister who has since passed away. This passage is pure poetry. The rhythm and repetition has inspired orators throughout history. I love that the use of language and music (which is poetry) taps into something deeply human – like the vibrations of a chant or the harmonics of a hymn. And of course I love the message, which reminds us of the ineffability and unknowability of God except through love.
Aslan, Reza. (2013). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Out Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: Epub.