Friday, February 04, 2005

More fun with syncretic history

[The Salon article. The letters in response.] I quote:

It is a popular belief that Christians appropriated pagan festivals and traditions of the season, as a means of stamping them out. I don't believe this since early church fathers in all other accounts seemed loath to compromise their faith to pagans, but it is true that across Europe and Eurasia the celebrations were common to the solstice season. It is at least as probable that pagans choose to participate along with Christians and appropriate Christian beliefs into their own celebrations, eventually leading to accretions.


Early Christians faced severe penalties for their beliefs and practices, the martyrs of the early church were willing to face death rather than back down or compromise their beliefs, and I personally find it ridiculous to suggest that they had some plot to convert heathens by appropriating the pagan holidays, when they could barely even practice their religion.


An alternate theory suggests that the date of Christmas is based on the date of Good Friday, the day Jesus died. Since the exact date of Jesus' death is not stated in the Gospels, early Christians sought to calculate it, and arrived at either March 25 or April 6. To then calculate the date of Jesus' birth, they followed the ancient idea that Old Testament prophets died at an "integral age" -- either an anniversary of their birth or of their conception. They reasoned that Jesus died on an anniversary of the Incarnation (his conception), so the date of his birth would have been nine months after the date of Good Friday -- either Dec. 25 or Jan. 6.

[emphasis added by me]

Wow. I'm stunned that one could know so many things about the history of the early Church and still know so little. Let's take them in reverse order:

1. The exact date of Jesus' death is not stated in the Gospels. This is so wrong that I am stunned almost into silence. Has the letter writer never read the New Testament? Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22 all say that the Last Supper took place on the first day of Passover. Luckily, there are still people alive today who practice the same religion Jesus did, so we know with absolute certainty the exact day Jesus died every year. For instance, this year, Passover starts on on the evening of April 23, and by following the events laid out in the Gospels and assuming that the Gospel writers are not mistaken in their timeline, we can say that the anniversary of Jesus' death this year will fall on April 24. It moves around our calendar because the Jewish calendar and ours don't line up, but that's not to say that we can't say with certainty when it happened.

So, even though we know that Jesus was killed during Passover, most Christians will be observing Good Friday on March 25 this year. The reason why brings us to point number 2.

2. I personally find it ridiculous to suggest that they had some plot to convert heathens by appropriating the pagan holidays. If Christians don't celebrate Easter at Passover, when the Bible clearly states it took place, how do they calculate it? Here's an easy way to figure out when Easter will be every year. It's the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. This year Spring begins March 20, the first full moon after that is March 25, and--voila--Easter is March 27.

Hmm. Who celebrates the spring equinox? Who marks the passings of the full moons? Who has a goddess of the dawn with rites in spring named Eoster? Not the Christians.

If the Christian church wasn't appropriating pagan holidays, how did they end up naming the most sacred part of their calendar after an Anglo-Saxon goddess? How did they end up reckoning the date of the death of their Savior according to the arrival of spring instead of the celebration of Passover?

I'm not going to even get into the problems with this letter-writer's understanding of why there's a discrepancy between Christmas being on December 25 or January 6--since we also know with certainty that Jesus was born when shepherd were watching their flocks by night: when they were lambing, which doesn't take place in winter. Someone with a better understanding of the intricacies of switching calendars can take that up.

I'm only going to point out that there was already a lot of stuff going on at the end of December--the winter solstice, Yule, Zvaigznes Diena, Mithras' birthday, Saturnalia--in various pagan belief systems and it seems to be an awfully convenient coincidence that people who knew a lot about agriculture and who seemed to agonize a great deal over trying to figure out even the tiniest intricacies of dates and times would "mistakenly" place Jesus' birth among these holidays.

The dates of Easter and Christmas weren't firmly set until the 300s, (325 for Easter, 350 for Christmas). The Catholic Church was already well-established and Constantine was spreading Christianity as the state religion. To say that Christians could "barely practice their own religion" without threat of persecution only reveals that the letter writer has a shoddy grasp on history, which means that her understanding of whether Christians would have been willing or able to appropriate pagan holidays is flawed.

What seems to be going on in this letter-writer's understanding of religion is this: she's arguing for a bottom-up history, that Christianity comes bubbling out of the masses and the Truth of it causes it to spread around Europe, despite persecution by the pagans. Since, in her world-view, the Church is a loose collection of believers with only the Truth as their organizing principle, they are not subject to the same banal evilness that infects most top-down organizations.

Unfortunately for her, by the time that we get to the part of the history of the Church that she'd like to use as her argument for a bottom-up organization of true believers, we already see a firmly established leadership, the emergence of the Papal system, and the beginnings of the forced conversion of non-Christians.

And so, I recognize and appreciate her mental gymnastics. She's firmly invested in her belief in a persecuted group of people with only the Truth as their protection--that the early church was made up of "good" people--and "good" people brought together in shared belief, with their hearts in the right place, do the "right" thing, not the most pragmatic.

But here is this history that seems to show, instead, the Church's all-too-human capacity to do the most pragmatic thing. If you can't convince the heathens to join you, force them to. If you can't get them to give up their old holidays, just rename them. And she refuses to see it, cannot see it.

It infuriates me, but it's also deeply touching. That's faith, for you, folks, the ability to stare history in the face and believe otherwise.


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