St Jerome on “Christmas Trees” in Jeremiah 10

There is an interesting claim that circulates online – one of many – that Jeremiah 10:2-5 condemns the use of Christmas trees.  Helpfully this site, “Watch Jerusalem” [1] gives the claim plainly:

The Book of Jeremiah (written around 600 B.C.E.) states the following:

“Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen …. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree ….” (10:1-5, King James Version)

Here we see a tradition during the time of Jeremiah of cutting down a tree out of the forest, bringing it home, fastening it upright, and covering it with various decorations. The tradition is quite clearly identified as a pagan one that should not be followed.

This website is operated by the followers of Herbert W. Armstrong, who created “The Worldwide Church of God”, a heretical American group, in the middle of the last century.  The claim perhaps originates with the Armstrongites, although a search is inconclusive, and apparently is popular with the “Hebrew Roots” groups that appeared in the 1980s.

The claim is present in this article from a KJV-Only website, “Christmas Trees” by a certain John Hinton.

Jeremiah 10:2 KJV Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 3* For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4* They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

… The Christmas tree is a blatant affront to God, but many, if not most, professed Christians put one up. Most that do not, do not because it is inconvenient, not because they are convicted by the Bible.

The modern perversions hide this warning by perverting this passage by disguising the adorned tree as an ordinary idol. I have seen many Christmas trees through the windows of churches all across America, even Baptist churches. This is as strong a statement that they could make about what kind of church they are, and should be a warning to all with any spiritual discernment at all.

Modern translations make it much clearer that what is in view here is an idol – possibly an Asherah pole – rather than a tree.  The cutting down of the tree is to obtain the wood in order to make it.  So it seems that this particular teaching is an instance where the old language of the KJV tends to mislead a modern reader.

I thought that it would be interesting to see what an older commentator on Jeremiah made of this passage.  Origen, in his Homilies on Jeremiah, does not discuss this section of Jeremiah 10.  But Jerome, writing in 414 AD, does!

Here is what he says.  We’re using the Michael Graves translation published by IVP, p.66:[2]

10: 1-3a: Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor he dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the people are false.”

Strictly speaking, he says this against those who worship celestial bodies and things that have been set as signs for years, times, calculations and days, and who suppose that the human race is governed by these celestial bodies and that earthly affairs are ordered according to celestial causes. And when he says “the customs (or statutes) of the people are false,” he shows all human wisdom to be futile and to have nothing useful within it.

10:3b-5: “A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not fall apart”—or “will not move.” “They have been fashioned in the likeness of a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”

This is a description of the idols that the nations worship. “A tree from the forest,” he says, “is cut down”—thus, the material out of which idols are made is cheap and perishable; “worked … by the hands of a craftsman”— since the craftsman is mortal, mortal also are the things that he fashions; “Men deck it with silver and gold,” so that by the glow of each of these materials the simple may be deceived. This same error has been passed down to us, in that we judge people’s religion by their wealth. “They fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not fall apart,” or “will not move.” How great can the power of idols be, if they are not capable of standing up unless they are fastened with hammer and nails? “They have been fashioned in the likeness of a palm tree*—they have the beauty of metalwork and have been decorated through the art of painting, but they do not possess usefulness, such as would provide some benefit to the craftsman. “And they cannot speak,” for there is nothing alive about them, as it is written: “They have mouths but do not speak . . . they have ears but do not hear.”232 “They have to be carried”—the one who does the carrying is stronger than the things that are carried; indeed, in the one there is the capacity to think, bur in the other there is a physical form without the capacity to think. “Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” For most of the nations regularly worship demons, in some cases to prevent them from doing harm and in other cases to entreat some favor. Whence also is the Virgilian phrase: “a black sheep to the storm god, a white to the favoring Zephyrs.”239

Whatever we have said about idols can also be applied to all teachings that are contrary to the truth. For false teachings promise great things and fabricate from within them an image for empty worship. They make grand claims, and they hamper the reasoning of the unskilled by their golden theories and their eloquence that glows with the splendor of silver. They are propped up by those who invent them, and they have no usefulness. The cultivation of such teachings belongs properly to the nations and to those who are ignorant of God.

The references are to Ps. 115:5-6 and Vergil, Aeneid 3.120 (in the Loeb text).

So we see that Jerome, like any sensible man, reads the text as referring to the process of manufacturing a wooden idol.

Christmas first appears in the historical record in 336 AD, in the Chronography of 354.  But there is no record, for more than a thousand years, that anybody ever celebrated Christmas with a tree, until 1521, when a register in the town hall in Séléstat in  German-speaking Alsace records the first appearance of the Christmas tree, decorated with communion wafers and red apples.  A few years later, a blight forced the use of artificial glass apples instead of real ones, and the Christmas tree “bauble” familiar to ourselves was born.

But in 414 AD, quite naturally, the Christmas tree is entirely unknown to St Jerome.

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  1. [1]Christopher Eames, “Christmas Trees – in the Hebrew Bible?”, December 24, 2020.
  2. [2]Jerome: Commentary on Jeremiah, tr. Michael Graves, IVP 2012.

4 thoughts on “St Jerome on “Christmas Trees” in Jeremiah 10

  1. This claim definitely did not originate with Herbert W. Armstrong. Christmas was rejected from the beginning of Reformation as a novelty introduced in the church, but unwarranted by God’s Word. Obviously since then quite a few have changed their mind, but among Presbyterians it is still quite common to reject Christmas.

  2. “This claim definitely did not originate with Herbert W. Armstrong. Christmas was rejected from the beginning of Reformation as a novelty introduced in the church, but unwarranted by God’s Word. Obviously since then quite a few have changed their mind, but among Presbyterians it is still quite common to reject Christmas.”

    This is a bit inaccurate. Some Protestant groups rejected Christmas, but others never did. I think Lutherans were the main ones to popularize the Christmas tree.

    As for the claim of where the exegesis of connecting Jeremiah 10:1-5 to Christmas, I assumed it was something that Alexander Hislop came up with in his book the Two Babylons (published in the mid-19th century), given it’s a source so many other inaccurate claims about Christmas or Easter being of pagan origin come from. But I looked again through his section on Christmas, and while he does try to claim Christmas trees have pagan origins (while apparently being unaware that, like Roger points out, Christmas trees first popped up in the 16th century, far too late for his thesis to make any sense), he doesn’t cite Jeremiah 10 that I see. If Presbyterians or Puritans had proposed this idea already as a justification for rejecting Christmas, I can’t imagine he wouldn’t make use of it.

    So I tried to search a bit to see the earliest reference. The earliest source I found so far for applying Jeremiah 10 to Christmas trees is a work from 1924 called “His Apocalypse” by John Quincy Adams (I have no idea if he had any relation to the 6th president). The work claims that the events of Revelation are about to occur and that the world will end in 1930, so probably not a book that’s worth paying too much attention to. However, there is a brief section on Christmas, where after repeating the claims Hislop made in The Two Babylons, adds the claim (page 324) that “The Christmas tree is described as a common thing in Jeremiah’s day–and condemned, long before Christ” and then cites Jeremiah 10.

    This book was probably not the one to first come up with the idea, but as it suggested it in 1924, that indicates that this does go back to before Armstrong. Well, Armstrong was alive at that point so he could have been making those claims by then, but he didn’t catch on in popularity until later so I doubt the book got the idea from him.

    All that said, it seems probable that Armstrong was the one who popularized the idea, even if he wasn’t the first to come up with it.

  3. Thank you – that’s useful research. Evidently the idea did occur to others before Armstrong, then, if not long before. Obviously a misreading of the text tho.

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