“Scriptor Syrus”, the scholiast on Dionysius bar Salibi: oft-quoted, but from where?

Something that comes around every year at this time is a quotation from a certain “Scriptor Syrus,” supposedly about the origins of Christmas.  Often it is supposed to be 4th century. This is the usual wording.

It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity …Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.

There is an excellent post at Andrew McGowan’s blog here about this “quote”, and the many errors and falsehoods involved, and a mention by Tom Holland.  It is, in fact, a marginal note by an unknown Syrian writer (= “scriptor syrus”) in a manuscript of the works of Dionysius bar Salibi, a 12th century Syriac author.

There is a somewhat fuller translation by Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale (1997), p.155:

A twelfth-century Syrian bishop explained,

“The reason, then, why the fathers of the church moved the January 6th celebration [of Epiphany] to December 25th was this, they say: it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same December 25th the birthday of the Sun, and they lit lights then to exalt the day, and invited and admitted the Christians to these rites. When, therefore, the teachers of the church saw that Christians inclined to this custom, figuring out a strategy, they set the celebration of the true Sunrise on this day, and ordered Epiphany to be celebrated on January 6th; and this usage they maintain to the present day along with the lighting of lights.”[8]

p.244, 8.  Dionysius Bar-Salibi, bishop of Amida, whom I quote from the Latin of G. S. Assemani, Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae 2 (Rome 1721) 164; and compare such other festivals as that of the Natale Petri of February, particularly in Fevrier (1977) 515, who protests against apologetic arguments to insulate the choice of date from any pagan antecedents or competition.

The overt polemical purpose of the modern author needs no discussion. But the reference is a useful entry-point to try to find the actual source.

What work are we talking about?  What manuscript?

Assemani was an Eastern Christian who published a whole series of extracts from eastern authors, in the original language, in his Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae, with commentary and translation in Latin.  These are now online, and volume 2, page 164 may be found at Google books here.  The text is in two columns.  The original language is given, a text in italics is the translation, and Assemani’s own words are in normal text.

Page 164 from Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae, vol. 2 (1721)

Assemani introduces our scholiast thus (Google translate follows):

Hunc tamen Armenorum ritum, quem hic rejicit Bar-Salibaeus, anonymus nescio quis Syrus probare contendit in margine apud eundem Bar-Salibaeum fol. 43. a tergo, his verbis:

However an anonymous Syrian, I don’t know who, tries to prove this Armenian rite, which Bar-Salibaeus here rejects, in the margin in the same Bar-Salibaeus fol. 43. on the back, in these words:

Then follows the Syriac text, and then the Latin translation prepared by Assemani:

Mense Januario natus est Dominus eodem die quo Epiphaniam celebramus, quia veteres uno eodemque die festum Nativitatis & Epiphaniae peragebaret, quoniam eadem die natus & baptizatus est. Quare hodie etiam ab Armenis uno dic ambae festivitates celebrantur. Quibus adstipulantur Doctores, qui de utroque festo simul loquuntur. Causam porro, cur a Patribus praedicta solemnitas a die 6. Januarii ad 25. Decembris translata fuit, hanc fuisse ferunt. Solemne erat ethnicis hac ipsa die 25. Decembris festum ortus solis celebrare; ad augendam porro diei celebritatem, ignes accendere solebant: ad quos ritus populum etiam Christianum invitare & admittere consueverant. Quum ergo animadverterent Doctores ad eum morem Christianos propendere, excogitato consilio eo die festum veri Ortus constituerunt; die vero 6. Januarii Epiphaniam celebrari jussere. Hunc itaque morem ad hodiernum usque diem cum ritu accendendi ignis retinuerunt. Et quoniam sol duodecim gradus ascendit Dominus natus est hac die tertiadecima, & sicut S. Ephram docet, Solis justitiae & duodecim Apostolorum ejus mysteria repraesentat. Numerus, inquit S. Doctor, denarius perfectus est. Die decima Martii uterum intravit. Numerus item senarius perfectus est. Die 6. Januarii utramque partem nativitas ejus reconciliavit.

In the month of January, the Lord was born on the same day on which we celebrate the Epiphany, because in the olden days the festival of Nativity and Epiphany was held on the same day, since he was born and baptized on the same day. Therefore, even today, both festivals are celebrated by the Armenians. The Doctors [of the Church] support this, who speak of both festivals at the same time. Furthermore, the reason why the aforesaid solemnity was transferred by the Fathers from the 6th of January to the 25th of December, they say was this. It was traditional for the pagans to celebrate the birth of the sun on this very day, the 25th of December; to further enhance the celebration of the day, they used to light fires: to which rites they were accustomed to invite and admit even Christian people. When, therefore, the Doctors noticed that the Christians were inclined to that custom, they devised a plan and established on that day the feast of the true Resurrection; but on the 6th of January they ordered that the Epiphany be celebrated. So they have kept this custom to this day with the ritual of lighting fires. And since the sun has risen twelve degrees, the Lord was born on this thirteenth day, and as St. Ephraim teaches, he represents the mysteries of the sun of justice and his twelve apostles. The number, says the Holy Doctor, is a perfect denarius. On the tenth of March he entered the womb. The same number is perfect. On the 6th of January his birth reconciled both parties.

I don’t understand the bit about “denarius”; is it a typo for “senarius,” which seems to mean “a multiple of six”?  But it doesn’t matter for our purposes.  Assemani then continues his work by introducing a different extract from fol. 125 concerning Caiaphas, of no relevance here.

So these words, by the anonymous “syrian writer”, are on folio 43v of the manuscript used by Assemani.

But what is this a manuscript *of*?  What text?

Looking up to page 161, I see that Assemani is quoting material from folio 37v of this manuscript of a work by Dionysius bar Salibi, about the “progenitores” of Christ, from Luke’s gospel:

Quos Lucas refert Christi progenitores, eos ex Africano, Eusebio, Nazianzeno,Sarugensi, Graecisque & Syriacis Codicibus sic enumerat fol.37. a tergo:

He enumerates those whom Luke gives as progenitors of Christ, from Africanus, Eusebius, Nazianzen, [Jacob of] Sarug, from Greek and Syriac manuscripts, on fol. 37v:

He then continues with a passage from folio 161, on the nativity of Christ, before adding the material above from the scholiast.  It’s odd that this jumps about like this.

On pp.157-8, it all becomes clear.  Assemani is giving extracts from the Commentary on the Four Gospels by Dionysius bar Salibi, and he is extracting this material from a Vatican manuscript:

Commentaria in Testamentum Vetus & Novum. Et quidem expositio in quatuor Evangelia exstat in Cod. Syr. Vatic. 11. & in Cod. Syr. Clem. Vat. 16. a fol. 27. usque ad fol. 263. ejusque duo exemplaria in Bibliotheca Colbertina haberi testatur Renaudotius tom. 2. Liturg. Orient. pag. 454.

Commentaries on the Old and New Testaments. And a certain exposition on the four Gospels exists in Cod. Syr. Vatic 11. And in Cod. Syr. Clem. Vat. 16, from fol. 27. up to fol. 263. Renaudius testifies, Liturg. Orient. vol. 2, page 454 that two copies of this are held in the Bibliotheca Colbertina [i.e. now in the French National Library].

So… let’s take it further.  A lot of Vatican manuscripts are online.  But when I use the excellent Wiglaf guide to Vatican mss, and look at Vatican. Syr. 11, and Vaticanus Syr. 16, – I don’t think there is a “Clementine” subdivision of Syriac manuscripts – I find that neither has scholia on fol. 43v.  Someone has messed up the numbering of the manuscripts since!  It turns out that Assemani and his son did so, later in life, in the 1750s.  The marvellous Syri.ac website tells me of a concordance by Hyvernat, “Vatican Syriac Mss Old And New Press Marks” (1903), online here.

But this too is useless.  The old “Vat. Syr. 1” became Vat. Syr. 19, online here, but there is still no marginal note on folio 43v.  Hyvernat does not explain the “Clem.” collection at all.

Thankfully Hyvernat tells us about a catalogue composed by Assemani and son, and Syri.ac gives links to text-searchable PDF’s!

Looking at these, if we do a text search for “Salib”, we find that manuscript 156 contains Dionysius bar Salibi.  But… no scholion on fol. 43v.  In fact the manuscript has been divided into two parts, and part 2 is also online here.

The catalogue for Vat. Syr 156 says the Luke portion begins on fol. 188, which doesn’t sound right.  But at the end it says “see ms 155, fol. 161v”  And when I look at the catalogue entry for Vat. Syr. 155 – it too contains Dionysius bar Salibi!  The text search had missed it.   Are these two, perhaps, the two manuscripts that Assemani used, now placed side by side?  Hyvernat says look at the start of the catalogue entry, there may be the old shelfmark there.  And…

CLV. Codex in fol. bombycinus, foliis constans 294. Syriacis recentioribus literis exaratus, inter Syriacos Codices, a nobis in Vaticanam Bibliothecam inlatos, olim Decimus sextus: quo continentur:

150.  Folio manuscript on cotton-paper, consisting of 294 leaves, written in modern Syriac letters, one of the Syriac manuscripts brought by us into the Vatican Library, once the Sixteenth: which contains:

So this is indeed the one-time manuscript Vat. Syr. 16!   Hyvernat expresses himself bitterly toward the authors of the catalogue – “of no practical use” -, and, after more than two hours working on this, I too am less than chuffed with them.  The manuscript was never simply “Vat. Syr. 16”; prior to the reorganisation it was, in fact, Vat. Syr. Assemani 16; and the other manuscript, 156, was Vat Syr. Assemani 46.  Aaargh!

But … viewing Vat. Syr. 155 on folio 43v – there is a long scholion!  We’re there!  It matches!

Vatican Syr. 155, folio 43v – the scholion on Dionysius bar Salibi, Commentary on Luke, discussing the date of Christmas

One last wrinkle.  The catalogue (part 3, p.297) tells us that Luke is on fol.160v onwards.  That’s is item 23 in this manuscript, which contains various texts.  So what is fol. 43v part of?  Well, item 21 is the commentary on Matthew, starting on folio 32, and continuing to fol. 148v.  Not Luke, as anyone would infer from the original in the Bibliotheca Orientalis, unless they were very careful.

So this passage by “Scriptor Syrus” is, in fact, a scholion by some unknown person, on a passage in the Vatican Syr. 155 copy of Dionysius bar Salibi’s Commentary on Matthew.

It would be most useful to know exactly which passage of Dionysius bar Salibi is so annotated.  But there we must leave this.

Update: 24 Dec. 2023.  A useful comment from Syriacist Grigory Kessel is that Dionysius bar Salibi’s commentary on the gospels was printed in the CSCO series, with a Latin translation; and that the annotation above is against Dionysius’ comments on Matthew 2:1 (“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,…”), and the relevant passage is here.  I imagine it relates to the paragraph on p.67, l.12 onwards, where 25 December is specified.  Thank you!


“De solstitiis et aequinoctiis” (CPL 2277) – now online in English!

I’ve written before about this interesting 4th century text, De solstitiis et aequinoctiis (On the solstices and equinoxes), here and on posts linked here, including creating an electronic text.  The author is unknown, but the work is one of the few ancient texts that labels the 25 December as the “birthday of the sun”.  It also explains why Christmas is on the 25 December – it demonstrates from a calculation that the solstices and equinoxes are the days of the birth and death of John the Baptist and Jesus.  It is the fundamental text for the “calculation theory” of why 25 December is the birthday of Christ.  But for all that it has never really been edited properly – Botte did print a text as an appendix -, and it has never been translated into any modern language.

Last year Dr Isabella Image came across my posts and very kindly offered to translate the text into English.  This she has now done, and here it is!  She has also kindly made the result public domain, so please copy it freely and use it for any purpose.

These are also accessible at Archive.org here.

It is wonderful to have this online!  Thank you, Dr Image, for generously doing this for us all!


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.

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

March 25 – the date of the annunciation, the crucifixion, and the origin of December 25 as the date of Christmas?

Today is March 25, Lady Day.  According to various online sources, it is celebrated as the the day that the angel Gabriel announced the incarnation to the virgin Mary, the Annunciation.  This is also the day of Jesus’ conception.  I have read that some ancient sources also considered it to be the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, in line with an ancient belief that a prophet came into the world and left it on the same date.  Finally there is the idea that the date of Christmas, 25 December, probably came about because it was 9 months after the conception of Jesus.

There’s a lot in that to verify.  But I thought that I would post the ancient testimonies that give 25 March as the day of the crucifixion.  For this sounds odd to us.  We know that Easter is the day of the resurrection, the third day after the crucifixion; but Easter moves on the lunar calendar.  So where does 25 March come from?

There is an obvious witness, which no doubt influenced all subsequent writers – St Augustine, De Trinitate book 4, chapter 5:

He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.  But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.  (NPNF translation here.)

This was written early in the 5th century. He repeats this claim in the City of God, book 18, chapter 54 (here):

Now Christ died when the Gemini were consuls, on the eighth day before the kalends of April. He rose the third day, as the apostles have proved by the evidence of their own senses.

But where did he get this idea from, that the crucifixion was on the 8th day before the kalends of April, March 25?

There is a lunar calendar on the statue of Hippolytus in the Vatican Library.[1]  Apparently a note within this indicates the “Passion of Christ” was on Friday March 25.

Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos 8:18: (English)

[18] Quae passio Christi [huius exterminium] intra tempora LXX ebdomadarum perfecta est sub Tiberio Caesare, consulibus Rubellio Gemino et Rufio Gemino mense Martio temporibus paschae, die octavo Kalendarum Aprilium, die primo azymorum quo agnum occiderunt ad vesperam, sicut a Moyse fuerat praeceptum.

And the suffering of this “extermination” was perfected within the times of the lxx hebdomads, under Tiberius Caesar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses.

The Liberian Catalogue of bishops of Rome of 354 AD, part 13 of the Chronography of 354 (here):



An obscure author, Q. Julius Hilarianus, ca. 397, in his Expositum de die Paschae et Mensis, c.15 (PL 13, 1105-14; 1114B):

Eo quippe anno, ut supputationis fides ostendit, et ratio ipsa persuadet, passus est idem Dominus Christus luna xiv, viii kal. April, feria sexta.

In the East there were various dates,[2].  The Acts of Pilate seem to contain the date in at least one version (here):

In the fifteenth year of the government of Tiberius Caesar, emperor of the Romans, and Herod being king of Galilee, in the nineteenth year of his rule, on the eighth day before the Kalends of April, which is the twenty-fifth of March, in the consulship of Rufus and Rubellio, in the fourth year of the two hundred and second Olympiad, Joseph Caiaphas being high priest of the Jews.

There are various versions of the Acts of Pilate, at least two in Greek, plus a Latin version, and it is probably fairly late, at least as we have it.  But Tertullian refers twice to apocryphal material by Pilate, in the Apologeticum, in c.5 and in cc. 21 and 24, which suggests that the Acts of Pilate, or some precursor to them, was already circulating in the second century.[3]

The evidence would suggest therefore that the Acts of Pilate are probably responsible for the Latin tradition that the crucifixion was on 25 March.  This was adopted by Tertullian, and read by Augustine, and then disseminated to the world.  From it, again in the west, the calculation of 25 December arises.

  1. [1]Schmidt, T. C. (2015). “Calculating December 25 as the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’ Canon and Chronicon,” Vigiliae Christianae 69, p.542–563. doi:10.1163/15700720-12341243
  2. [2]See https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=POoWAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA395&dq=crucifixion+march+25&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiBz_zmz8vvAhUDSBUIHWFEDf4QuwUwAHoECAQQBg#v=onepage&q=crucifixion%20march%2025&f=false
  3. [3]A compilation of some information about this text may be found here.

When to take down the Christmas decorations? A canon of the 2nd Council of Tours (567)

When should we take down the Christmas tree?  A google search reveals confusion.  The general idea is that we do so on Twelfth Night, but not when that is.  However it seems pretty clear that it should be on the evening of the 5th January, because 6th January is the festival of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men are commemorated.  Naturally other customs exist.   I have read that this custom of taking down the tree on Twelfth Night is Victorian,[1] but I was unable to find any source for it.

What is not easily found online is any indication of what custom originates when, where and why.  Instead there is a mass of lazy journalism, repeating hearsay.

Very commonly found is some variant of the following:

In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English called Christmastide. [2]

The old Catholic Encyclopedia article adds:

The Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the “twelve days” from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast;…

Naturally such claims deserve verification.

The acts and canons of the second council of Tours may be found online in J. Hardouin, Acta Counciliorum…, volume 3 (1714), column 355, here.

A quick look at the list of the canons reveals that canon 11 has nothing to do with the matter, despite what the Catholic Encyclopedia says.  The title of canon 17 however is as follows:

XVII. De observatione jejuniorum monachis obeunda.

17.  On the observation of fasts that must be attended to by the monks.

The text of the canon is as follows.  Usefully Hefele’s summary of the canon (found here) is in fact nearly a  literal translation of it, so I will give that.

XVII.  De jejuniis vero antiqua a monachis instituta serventur, ut de Pascha usque ad quinquagesimam, exceptis Rogationibus, omni die fratribus prandium praeparetur: post quinquagesimam tota hebdomade ex asse jejunent. Postea usque ad Kalendas Augusti ter in septimana jejunent, secunda, quarta & sexta die, exceptis his qui aliqua infirmitate constricti sunt. In Augusto, quia quotidie missae sanctorum sunt, prandium habeant. In Septembri toto, & Octobri, & Novembri, sicut prius dictum est, ter in septimana. De Decembri usque ad natale Domini, omni die jejunent. Et quia inter natale Domini & epiphania omni die festivitates sunt, itemque prandebunt. Excipitur triduum illud, quo ad calcandam gentilium consuetudinem, patres nostri statuerunt privatas in Kalendis Januarii fieri litanias, ut in ecclesiis psallatur, & hora octava in ipsis Kalendis Circumcisionis missa Deo propitio celebretur. Post epiphania vero usque ad quadragesimam ter in septimana jejunent.

17. In regard to the fasts of monks the old ordinance shall continue. From Easter to Pentecost (Quinquagesima = Πεντεκοστή), with the exception of the Rogation Days, a prandium (breakfast or luncheon, before the cœna, about midday) shall be prepared daily for the monks. After Pentecost they shall fast for a week, and thenceforward, until the 1st of August, they shall fast three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, except the sick. In August there shall be prandium daily, because there are daily Missæ Sanctorum (not de feria). In September, October, and November, again, the fasts must be three times a week, as before; but in December, until Christmas, daily. From Christmas to Epiphany there shall be daily prandium, because every day is a festival. Excepted are only the three days in the beginning of January, in which the fathers, in order to oppose the heathen usages, ordered private litanies. On the 1st of January, the festival of the Circumcision, Mass shall be sung at eight o’clock. From the Epiphany until Lent there must be three fasts in the week.

This is plainly some way short of justifying the more exaggerated claims that we hear.  It’s a regulation of when monks are to fast, rather than a “proclamation” for the people at large.  But it is still very interesting.

My own Christmas tree will be taken down tomorrow on January 5th, during the day before Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany.  But I have attempted to discover the basis for the claim that doing so is a Victorian tradition by using a Google Books search.

Certainly the requirement to take down the tree and decorations before January 6th is made very firmly in this 1892 volume, Mary Sherwood, The Art of Entertaining, page 379, although the author confuses Twelfth Night with Epiphany.

The Christmas green was once the home of the peace-loving wood-sprite. Christmas evergreens and red berries make the most effective interior decorations, their delightful fragrance, their splendid colour renders the palace more beautiful, and the humble house attractive. Before Twelfth Night, January 6, they must all be taken down. The festivities of this great day were much celebrated in mediaeval times, and the picture by Rubens, “ The King Drinks,” recalls the splendour of these feasts. It is called Kings’ Day to commemorate the three kings of Orient, who paid their visit to the humble manger, bringing those first Christmas gifts of which we have any account.

In British Popular Customs, Present and Past (1891), on page 53 here I find a quotation from an 1847 book, George Soane, New Curiosities of Literature, vol. 1 (1847), p. 51 here, discussing Candlemas (2nd Feb):

The rosemary, the bay, the ivy, the holly, and the mistletoe, the Christmas decorations of hall and cottage, were now pulled down, when according to the popular superstition not a branch, nor even a leaf, should be allowed to remain,… In their place, however, the ‘greener box was upraised,” and Christmas now was positively at an end. Some, indeed, considered this to have been the case on Twelfth Night; and old Tusser, in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry,” strongly contends for it; but then his head was more full of the cart and plough than of regard for old customs: and, like any other master, he was naturally anxious that the holidays should be ended, and the labourers should get to work again as soon as possible; and certes, merry-making, however agreeable it may be, will not help to dig the land or sow the grain. But in spite of these wise saws, the truth of which nobody would contest, human feelings are stronger than human reason, and customs, when they tend to pleasure, will maintain their ground, till they are superseded—not by privations, but by other forms of amusement. Having therefore tolerated the rites of Candlemas Eve, we may as well put up with those of Candlemas Day.

This Thomas Tusser published his didactic poem, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry as long ago as 1557.  In the 1812 edition by William Mavor, on page 270 here, he is talking about “Plough Monday”, the first after Twelfthtide.  The annotator of this reprint notes:

Till after Twelfth-day, very little country business of any kind used to be carried on. Feasting and visiting filled up the period between Christmas and that day, which was always observed with due solemnities. Plough Monday, which speedily followed, was to remind the cultivators of the earth of their proper business; and a spring was given to the activity of domestics, by some peculiar observances. The men and maid servants strove to outvie each other in early rising, on Plough Monday. If the ploughman could get any of the implements of his vocation by the fireside, before the maid could put on her kettle, she forfeited her Shrovetide cock. The evening concluded with a good supper.

This rather suggests that Twelfth day, January 5th, was the last day of the Christmas season even then.  But of course no Christmas tree was known in that day.

I was unable to find anything useful before 1800.  The Google Books search is very poor in many respects.  So the matter must therefore be left open for now.

  1. [1]Such as this.
  2. [2]E.g. the Wikipedia article on Twelfth Night here.

Some notes on “De solstitiis et aequinoctiis” (CPL 2277)

There are very few sources for a Roman festival of the sun on 25th December.  The main one is the entry in the Chronography of 354, in the Philocalian Calendar, labelling the day as “Natalis Invicti”, the birthday of Sol Invictus, the state sun-god.[1]  Next to it is a 13th century scholiast on Dionysius bar-Salibi.  But the third is an obscure homily generally referred to as De solstitiis et aequinoctiis, (or De solstitia et aequinoctia) which contains, towards the end, the following aside:

Sed et dominus noster nascitur mense decembris . . . VIII Kal. Ian. . . . Sed et invicti natalem apellant.  Quis utique tam invictus nisi dominus noster qui mortem subactam devicit?  Vel quod dicant solis esse natalem, ipse est sol iustitiae de quo malachias propheta dixit: “orietur vobis timentibus nomen ipsius sol iustitiae et sanitas est in pennis eius.”

But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eighth before the calends of January [25 December] . . . But they also call it the “Birthday of the invincible one” (Invictus). But who then is as invincible as our lord who defeated the death he suffered?  Or if they say that this is the birthday of the sun, well He Himself is the Sun of Justice of whom the prophet Malachi said (4:2), “But for you who fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health is in his wings.”[2]

The implication of this is that Christ as Sol Justitiae is a deliberate replacement for the pagan Sol Invictus.  It is a key piece of evidence in the “Calculation” theory of the origins of Dec. 25 as Christmas.[3]

So it’s an interesting passage.  Yet there is a remarkable vagueness in most articles which reference this text, as to what it is and where it may be found.

In the article quoted above, the author tells us that the full title of the work is De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis Domini Nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae (“On the solstice and equinox of the conception and birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ and John the Baptist”).

The work is in fact listed in the Clavis Patrum Latinorum as CPL 2277.   The date of composition is  uncertain.  The bible citations suggest an African origin, but there are also two terms which are Syriac.[4]

It is actually part of a collection of 38 sermons in Latin, all attributed to John Chrysostom, whose existence was documented for the first time by Dom André Wilmart in 1918.[5]  It is the 17th item in that collection.  Wilmart gives the following details:

Title: Iterum de natiuitate domini et Iohannis Baptistae et conceptionis de solistitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et natiuitatis domini nostri Iesu Christi et Johannis Baptistae.
Opening words: Nescio an quisquam ausus sit arcanum, fratres, ante Christi natiuitatem intellegere uel terminasse cursum horarum dierum ac noctium per quos solistitia et aequinoctia cognoscere possit.
Closing words:  ….Migrauerat enim gratia et ueritas a Iudaeis quia “lex per Moysen data est, nam gratia et ueritas per Iesum Christum facta est”. In Christo Iesu domino nostro qui uiuit et regnat cum patre et spiritu sancto per immortalia saecula saeculorum amen

Wilmart (p.306) gives a list of 25 copies of this collection of homilies, all with the same content in the same order, beginning in the 9th century.  Among the 9th century copies is Saint-Gall 103, which is online here.  Our text is pp. 176-191.  It begins on p. 176:

St Gall 103, p.176.

Note how the title is singular, but has been corrected to plural by another hand.  Our passage is on page 190, and the work ends on page 191:

St Gall 103, p.191

There are still other copies in existence.  One of these, transmitted independently, attributes the work to an otherwise unknown author – Pontius Maximus. This is  given in a 12th century manuscript, today Troyes 523, fol.205v-210v, originally from Clairvaux as the colophon on fol. 210v makes clear.  It is online here.  The text is the last work in the manuscript, which also contains 15 treatises in Latin by Eusebius of Emesa , followed by 5 by Tertullian.

Ms. Troyes 523, folio 205v. Incipit of De Solstitia.

The red text tells us that, after the explicit for Tertullian, de paenitentia, the author is Pontius Maximus, and the title is de solstitiis et aequinoctiis…, i.e. plural.  I have also found an article that claims the work is “sometimes attributed to one Pontius Maximus or Pontius Maximianus, conjectured to be an African, but thought by others to be of anonymous Syrian origin.”[6]

There are only two editions of the text.

It was first printed in Divi Ioannis Chrysostomi Archiepiscopi Constantinopolitani opera, quae hactenus versa sunt, omnia, ed. Desiderius Erasmus (Vol. 2). Basel: Frobenius (1530), p. 336-342. (Online at Google Books).  No doubt this was printed from whatever manuscript happened to come to hand.  There are reprints of this, including a 1547 (col. 1285-1294) and a 1588 edition.  I’m not sure how late this was reprinted.

The only other edition is B. Botte, Les origines de la noël et de l’épiphanie (Series: Textes et études liturgiques 1). Louvain: Abbaye du Mont César (1932) who appended a version of the text on p. 93-105.  Hijmans states that this is not a critical edition, but is based on a collation of  a few manuscripts – somewhere I read that this was just three of the oldest.  The Botte edition text was also reprinted in the Patrologiae Latinae Supplementum vol. 1 (1959), pp.557-567.

I’ve tried to OCR the 1530 text, but it involves correcting every word!  So I’ve placed an interlibrary loan for the 1932 book, and I hope that we can at least get the Latin text online.

This is the sort of exercise that reminds us how much there is to do!


  • The 9th century Oxford Laud Misc. 452, originally at Lorsch, is also online here.  Our text is on f.77r-83r.
  • The 9-10th century Paris BNF lat. 12140 is online here, although in monochrome.  Our homily is on f.87v-98r.
  • An English translation is now online.
  1. [1]Natalis may also mean the date of the founding of a temple, and other deities than Sol Invictus were called “invictus”, but this probably does refer to Sol Invictus.
  2. [2]Steven Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the winter solstice, and the origins of Christmas,” in: Mouseion III.3 (2003), 377-398, esp. 379-80; also the Catholic Encyclopedia version.
  3. [3]See S. K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas, p.97.
  4. [4]S. K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas, p.97. “The text is generally thought to date from after the earliest notation of Christmas on the calendar, but before a feast was widely celebrated on that date, probably the early fourth century. The Latin text betrays certain African turns of phrase, but also two specifically Syriac terms.[173]” and “173. Botte, Origines, 91, and Engberding, “Der 25. Dezember,” 36, both explore these in some detail.” – H. Engberding, “Der 25. Dezember als Tag der Feier der Geburt des Herrn,” Archiv fur Liturgiewissenschaft 2 (1952), 25-43.  Unfortunately neither is accessible to me.
  5. [5]A. Wilmart, “La collection des 38 homélies latines de saint Jean Chrysostome,” in: Journal of Theological Studies 19 (1918), 305-327.  There is also a study that I have not seen in German: W. Wenk, Zur Sammlung der 38 Homilien des Chrysostomus Latinus (mit Edition der Nr. 6, 8, 27, 32 und 33), Wiener Studien Beiheft 10, Wien 1988.
  6. [6]R. Love, “Bede and John Chrysostom”, Journal of Medieval Latin 17 (2007) 72-87, p.77, identifying a quote from our work in Bede.

Was there no festival of Sol on 25 December before 324 AD?

Most of us are aware that the 25th December is labelled as the “Natalis [solis] Invicti” in the Chronography of 354; specifically in the 6th part, which contains the so-called “Calendar of Philocalus” (online here), listing the state holidays.  Sol Invictus was introduced into Rome by Aurelian in 274 AD as a state cult, and it seems reasonable to suppose that this state holiday was introduced at the same time.   The Chronography also lists the saints’ days, in another calendar dating from 336 (online here), including Christmas on 25 December.  It is often supposed, therefore, that the date of Christmas was selected precisely to coincide with this solar holiday.  This theory was advanced by H. Usener in his book Das Weihnachstfest (1889, rep. 1911) with a follow-up in his posthumous article on Sol Invictus in 1905.[1]

However I have lately seen claims that, far from Christmas being located on the date of a pagan holiday, the truth is that Julian the Apostate (or someone) established a solar festival on the pre-existing date of Christmas!  These claims seem to derive from an interesting article by Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas”.[2]  Hijman is a revisionist, so it is necessary to be wary, but I thought that it might be useful to review some of the evidence.

In the Chronography of 354, in the “Filocalian calendar”, some holidays – all associated with emperors or gods – are marked by chariot races (circenses missus).  These are also in multiples of 12 races, with one exception.  The sole exception is the entry for 25 December:


Which is the natalis of Invictus (rather than Sol) and 30 races, rather than a multiple of 12.  It is, therefore, an anomalous entry.

Hijmans makes some very interesting points about this.

  • Firstly, he argues that celebrating festivals with chariot races rather than sacrifices was an innovation of Constantine, introduced after Constantine defeated Licinius in 324.  It’s not an ancient thing.  So all these chariot races were introduced then.
  • Secondly, since all the ancient festivals were multiples of 12, it is clear that no festival of Sol existed on 25 December at that time.  If it had, it too would be a multiple of 12.  Therefore it is a later addition; as the irregular naming also indicates.
  • Thirdly he speculates that this entry may not even have been present in the original copy made in 354, but added later.
  • This leaves the first definite mention of a solar festival on this date to Julian the Apostate’s Hymn to King Helios, in December 362.

This is an interesting argument indeed.  What do we make of it?

Hijmans does not detail his first point, merely referring to M. Wallraff, Christus Verus Sol (2001), p.132, “citing Eusebius”. Unfortunately the Wallraff volume is inaccessible to me.   So we have to leave this point unchecked.

The second point relies on the accurate transmission of numerals in copies of the Chronography.  I am not clear whether this is actually reliable, or whether the text printed by Mommsen – which is the basis for the online version – is a critical text or not.   The Dec. 25 date could really have read “XXXVI” for all we know.

Obviously speculation, as in the third point, is not evidence.  I would suggest that we should not infer interpolation without need.

All the same this is a very interesting point.  Is it really possible that this was the case?

Update (5th August 2023): In August 2020 Dr Hijmans kindly responded to this article, and gave me permission to post his comments.  I am slightly ashamed that it took me so long to do so.  He wrote:

I have a few comments to supplement my arguments which you summarize so clearly in that blog.

1. Irrespective of whether we take the calendar (354) or Julian (362) as the first mention of a solar festival, it is interesting to note that there is no evidence before the mid 4th c. AD for a solar festival on December 25th or indeed on any of the astronomically significant days (if we take Dec. 25 to be the winter solstice). All traditional feast days for Sol are on astronomically random days. Thus there was no latent expectation, in antiquity, that the winter Solstice should be celebrated in honour of Sol. In other words the evidence we have for the celebration of Christmas (330s) is about a generation earlier than the evidence for a festival for Sol on that day.

2. The calendar mentions every celebrated emperor or deity explicitly by name, including Sol for the multi-day festival in October. Why is December 25 the sole exception?

3. Julian clearly states that there were two separate festivals of Sol in 362. One was the “newish” multi-day festival held every four years, and the other was an ancient one-day festival celebrated around the time of the winter solstice, established by Numa. If the newish, four-year festival is not the one founded by Aurelian, which is it then? If it is the one founded by Aurelian (as it surely must be), then on the evidence of Julian it was not celebrated on or around December 25, as that was the date of the annual one-day festival. The entry in the Calendar of 354 for a multi day ludi Solis on October 19-22 confirms this (which ludi were these, if not the ones of Aurelian). As the ludi were first celebrated in 274, they would also have been held in 254 (calendar, 20th games) and 262 (Julian, 22nd games). I really do not see any other way to read this evidence.

4. I think that the fact that Julian attributes the annual winter solstice Sol-festival to Numa is simply to give it pedigree. There is no evidence for such a festival, even in the late Republican and early imperial fasti (in which Sol is well-represented: 8/9 August, 29 August, also 11 December (if we accept Lydus).

To this I replied:

I do like your theory, and it would be convenient for me personally in arguing with the bat-witted “Christmas is really pagan” element among us. But for the same reasons I’m on my guard against it.

I like your argument that Julian knew that the October multi-day festival was newer; that would fit with Aurelian. But what, then, is the Natalis Invicti on 25 Dec? It works as the supposed anniversary of the dedication of the temple of Sol Invictus by Aurelian. But can we say that Aurelian created two festivals, and that Julian knew only of one and supposed the other to be from the days of Numa, i.e. traditional (I wouldn’t see this wording as anything but a rhetorical flourish meaning “very ancient”)? Do we see it as some form of dressing up of the solstice that ordinary people celebrated anyway, (was it with torches?)? If so, any 3rd century emperor could have created it. Maybe even a 4th century emperor. Does it have to have a deeper significance? You make a good point about the absence of mention of either emperor or deity – is that why?

Your point about the Roman failure to mark astronomical events is fascinating. Hmm!

I can also see Julian creating a fake festival, to undermine a Christian one. He was an intelligent persecutor,and his methods have been adopted ever since. But I don’t know how much time he even spent in Rome. And … would he care? It would only affect Rome, after all. I’ve never looked at the data for Christmas in the 4th century – was it widespread? If not, why would he bother? I think of him as mainly interested in the Greek east.

But at root, I don’t much like hypothesising an interpolation of this stuff into the Philocalian calendar. The Chronography was, after all, a physical book – a splendid artwork. It could well have had something added into it at an early stage, before any copies were made. Just as Jerome added material into the empty spaces in Eusebius’ Chronicon, someone could have added in the material about DNSI. It’s true. But I don’t like it. It feels way too much like the lazy German scholarship of the 19th century – I almost wrote “the last century”! – which treated inconvenient data as something to be excused. There’s no evidence of this. We have so little evidence, that we can not afford to discard any of it.

So … I am hesitant.

Dr H. kindly responded:

I am hesitant too to conclude with certainty hat Christmas preceded a pagan winter celebration of Sol. I (try to) state simply that there is no evidence for it. The evidence against it is essentially an argumentum e silentio.

Julian states unequivocally that the multi-day, quadrennial festival that he did not celebrate around the time of the winter solstice was “newish” and that the one-day festival which is at the heart of his hymn to Helios goes back to Numa. He does not say when the multi-day festival was celebrated, but I think the October date given by the Calendar makes that quite clear.

I would qualify that as “established Roman religion connected with Sol” did not show particular interest in astronomy (which – given the state of the Roman calendar up to the Julians, should not really surprise us, in hindsight.) But even Roman imperial religion shows no real sign of this, at leas as fat a Sol is concerned. To the best of my knowledge even Mithraism had not particular festival on the winter Solstice. I would have to check, but I thought the Tienen evidence placed the major Mithraic celebrations (as established by buried remnants of feasts) in the Spring? That they celebrated December 25 is not, I believe, supported by any actual primary sources…

Julian’s hymn to Helios sounds to me like a work written specifically to promote the solar celebration of December 25. I don’t think that necessarily means he ‘invented’ it. There are various ways in which one can imagine such a festival to have arisen in the fourth century, with collective “memory” being a very likely one. I think it is very well possible that Julian believed the convenient “fact” of a solar festival on the 25th. His insistence on the importance of that festival is striking.

As for interpolation. We need to explain the major anomalies of this entry (number of chariot races, wording of the entry). The calendar gives no hint of what those reasons were. I would hazard that a later interpolation is the most likely interpretation – not in the Calendar of Filocalus himself, but in the “mother calendar” which it copied. An entirely pagan official calendar Rome would not be unthinkable in the 350s, but may have prompted somebody to pencil in – say – the birthday of Christ (in Rome around the 320s, much late in most other cases we can identify)

Very useful points indeed.  Thank you!

  1. [1]H. Usener, “Sol Invictus”, RhM 60 (1905) pp. 465-491.
  2. [2]Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas: A contribution to the modern construct of late antique solar syncretism”, in: M. Espagne & P. Rabault-Feuerhahn (edd.), Hermann Usener und die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2011. 139-152.  Online here, although the online version appears to be a draft.  However Hijmans’ full thesis, with extensive plates, is online here.

Dubious claims: Pope Julius I decided that Jesus was born on 25 December?

Christmas comes round every year, and every year somebody will tell us that Pope Julius I (337-352 AD) in 350, or 352, or 320 – the supposed date varies – decided that Jesus was born on 25 December.  Julius lived under the Arian emperor Constantius II, and was an ally of Athanasius, but is otherwise obscure.

I don’t want to enter into the larger question of why we celebrate Christmas on 25 December.  But the association with Pope Julius I seems worth probing.

Here are some samples of the claims made:

In 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date and in 529 AD Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday.[1]

By the fourth century, however, many Christian groups had begun to observe Christ’s birthday, though the day chosen for the celebration differed from place to place. Christians in the East generally celebrated on January 6; those in the West on December 25. Others set dates in March, April, or May. About 350 AD, Pope Julius set December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. This corresponded with the Roman feast of Saturnalia, the festival of the Unconquered Sun.[2]

In the late 330s AD, Pope Julius 1 declared: “December 25th, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea.” … [3]

Pretty confident sounding!  But … no references in any case.

But it doesn’t sound right anyway.  This is the 4th century.  A Pope doesn’t have the authority to set anything for the whole of Christendom.  He’s just one of the patriarchs.  He can make a decision for his area of the world, but why would that be definitive?  How could be it “the official date”?

A more significant problem is the lack of reference.  We only know about what people in the ancient world did if they left behind some document which was copied down the years; or else an inscription, or something.  But I was quite unable to locate any reference to such an item.

Fortunately in 2015 Glen L. Thompson edited and translated the correspondence of Pope Julius I.[4]  This consists of 2 letters from Pope Julius I, and 4 letters to him.  None have any mention of the birthday of Christ.  They are all concerned with the Arian dispute.

But I learn from Dr T.’s introduction that there are a further 26 (!) pieces that have the name of Pope Julius I on them, and every one of them wrongly.  In fact, in almost every case, the name is attached fraudulently!  This is unusual in antiquity.  Some were Apollinarist works, from the late 4th century, which being banned, were circulated under other names.  Some are from the medieval period, the Forged Decretals.  25 of them do not mention the birthday of Christ.

The 26th item (given the letter Z by Dr T.) is different – it does!  It’s a letter, supposedly from Cyril of Jerusalem to Pope Julius I, and quoted in two versions, the first by an obscure medieval bishop, John of Nicaea; and the other anonymous, but probably of the same era or later.

In the letter, Cyril tells us that his clergy celebrate the birthday of Christ and the baptism of Christ together, on 6th January.  But, he adds, they find this a pain, because they have to start in Bethlehem, do the service for the birth, and then travel down to the Jordan to do the baptism service.  This, he says, they found burdensome, and they had to rush the services.  So he is writing to Pope Julius to ask if the Pope would consult the archives of the Jewish church in Jerusalem.  These, he says, were seized by the Romans under Titus when the city fell in 70 AD and transported to Rome.  Underneath the letter, the 9th century author then adds that the pope did so, and identified 25 December as the birthday of Jesus.

The item in question is listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum under the spuria of Cyril of Jerusalem as CPG 3598.  The text can be found in Greek with modern Latin translation in the Patrologia Graeca vol. 33 columns 1208-9, together with a page of introduction (online here).  There is also a discussion of it in the old Dictionary of Christian Antiquities here.

Let’s see what it says.

There are in fact two versions given in the PG.  (I’m not going to type up the Greek, but I find that Abbyy Finereader 12 reads the Latin side very well, so I append it).

The first item is by John of Nicaea, from a letter to Zacharias, Catholicos of Greater Armenia, titled De Christi Nativitate.  (I’m not sure who John of Nicaea is, but the PG says 11-12th c.; Thompson says 9th).[5]  The works of John of Nicaea as a whole are in the PG 96, and our letter is col. 1441f.  (Update: see my post here for “John of Nicaea” who turns out to be 9th century) Here is the excerpt as given in the PG 33, however.

Once upon a time, Cyril – [not he] who sent a letter to Constantine, but he who succeeded him in his see – wrote to Julius, bishop of Rome, in these words: “Great labour and expense is caused at great and solemn festivals which are celebrated together on one day.  For the readings and order of service of both festivities end up incomplete, such that the nativity and the baptism of Christ cannot be celebrated [together].  So, seeing that we cannot on one day be both [in Bethlehem, and] in the place of the baptizism, (for Bethlehem is three miles south of Jerusalem, and the Jordan is fifteen miles to the east), may we appoint your sanctity to search out all the commentaries (συγγράμματα, i.e. writings) of the Jews, which Titus Caesar looted and carried off to Rome from Jerusalem.  Possibly you will discover for a fact the day of the nativity of Christ and our God.”

Then Julius the Roman carefully enquired into this question.  When he had collected all the writings of the Jews, which were captured and taken to Rome, he discovered a certain commentary of the time of the historian Josephus, written by himself: in which he said that, in the seventh month, on the feast of Scenopegia [or Tabernacles], on the day of expiation, the angel of the Lord appeared, and the dumb priest was restored, who had remained without voice until that time when his wife Elizabeth in old age gave birth.

Scripsit aliquando Cyrillus[non is],qui epistolam ad Constantinum [leg. Constantium] dedit sed is qui post ipsum in ejus sede successit, ad Julium Romanum episcopum in haec verba: «Magnus labor ac dispendium magnis ac solemnibus festivitatibus contingit, quod una  die celebrantur. Nam ambarum festivitatum lectiones et ordo [officii] imperfecta manent, eo quod nativitas et baptisma Christi [simul] celebrari nequeant. Quoniam itaque non possumus in una die [in Bethlehem, et] in locum baptismatis occurrere (nam Bethlehem tribus millibus ad meridiem ab Hierusalem distat, et Jordanis quindecim millibus ad orientem), jubeat sanctitas tua omnia Judaeorum commentaria investigari, quae praedatus Caesar Titus Romam Hierosolymis advexit. Fortassis certo reperies diem nativitatis Christi et Dei nostri. »

Tunc Julius Romanus studiose de hac rogatione quaesivit. Cumque omnia Judaeorum scripta, quae capta et Romam deportata fuerant, collegisset, quoddam Josephi temporum historici commentarium deprehendit ab ipso conscriptum: in quo habebatur, quod mense septimo, in festo Scenopegiae [seu Tabernaculorum]. Expiationis die, Dei angelus apparuit, sacerdosque mutus redditus, sine voce mansit ad illud usque tempus, quo Elisabet uxor ejus in senectute peperit.

That is not all that helpful, really.  Cyril of Jerusalem wrote to Constantine about a fiery cross that appeared over Jerusalem; but this is a later Cyril, mentioned by Epiphanius (Panarion 66.20).

But a second version of the story exists, in which the letter is attributed not to Cyril but to Juvenalis, under the title Ἀναγκαία διήγησις.  This is in the BNF in Paris; the old royal library shelfmark was Bibi. Reg. Cod. 2428, fol. 120.[6] Here it is:

However Juvenalis, patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote to Julius, patriarch of Rome, this about the matter: “On one day I cannot be both at Bethlehem and at the Jordan.  In fact the Jordan is 25 miles east of Jerusalem, while holy Bethlehem is 6 miles to the south of the city; nor can I in one day complete both celebrations.  So I ask your sanctity, Father, that you would scrutinise the commentaries, and give us, from an accurate examination, information on this matter, written by yourself, venerable one: on what day Christ the Lord was born, and on what day baptised.  For we understand correctly that books of commentaries from the early days were transferred from Jerusalem to Rome by Titus and Vespasian.”

Having received these letters, Julius patriarch of Rome investigated the commentaries, and he found that our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December, and after 30 years from his nativity was baptised by John in the river Jordan, on the 6th January.  Well, when the fathers were dividing up the festival based on this investigation, among many a murmuring arose… etc.

Scripsit autem patriarcha Hierosolymitanus Juvenalis ad patriarcham Romanum Julium ea de re: « Non possum una die conferre me ad Bethlehem et ad Jordanem. Etenim Jordanis distat ab urbe Hierusalem ad orientem milliaribus 25, sancta vero Bethlehem ad austrum civitatis milliaribus sex; nec possum una die ambo festa peragere. Rogo itaque sanctitatem tuam, Pater, ut scruteris commentaria, et des nobis ex accurata disquisitione, per tuum scriptum, venerande, ejus rei notitiam: qua die natus sit Christus Dominus, et qua die baptizatus. Probe enim scimus commentarios ab initio libros e Hierosolymis Romam delatos fuisse per Titum et Vespasianum.»

His litteris acceptis Julius Romae patriarcha investigavit commentarios, invenitque quod 25 Decembris natus est Dominus noster Jesus Christus, et post annos 30 a nativitate sua baptizatus est a Joanne in Jordane fluvio, sexta mensis Januarii. Secundum ergo hanc investigationem cum Patres festum divisissent, inter multos ortum est murmur. Etc.

That’s clear enough.  It’s the same story, with different details.  But there are obvious difficulties.

  • Juvenal of Jerusalem held the see from 422-458; Julius I held his see from 337-352.  So clearly Juvenal wrote no letter to Rome.
  • Cyril of Jerusalem held his see from 350, but the letter states that a later Cyril is involved.  Julius died in 352.
  • The DCB tells us that in Palestine the practice of combining the celebration of Christmas and the baptism of Christ continued well after these times. (p.359 n.c).  The PG introduction informs us that Chrysostom’s homily on the nativity says the same, but this I have not checked.  It also says that Basil of Seleucia (ca. 448) states in the Laudatio S. Stephani that the innovation of celebrating the nativity separately began with that Juvenal.
  • Josephus does not specify the date of the birth of Christ in any extant work.  But it seems questionable whether any such Jewish archives really existed, or at least, not by the middle of the 4th century; and how would a medieval figure know of this, other than through apocryphal works like the “letter of Pilate” cycle?

To conclude, this is a letter with no claim to authenticity.  This leaves us where we started; there is no evidence that Pope Julius I ever set the nativity of Christ to 25 December.

UPDATE: I was curious about John of Nicaea, so I went to look in the PG 96.  He wrote only this single work. Our snippet fails to clarify why this relates to December 25; but the passage is actually introduced with these words:

Caeterum quod spectat ad Salvatoris Natale, ut celebrandum constituerint 25 Decembr., in hunc modum invenimus.

The other thing to consider for the nativity of the Saviour, as ordained that to be celebrated on 25 December, we discovered in this way.

Our snippet ended with “Then Julius the Roman carefully enquired into this question.  When he had collected all the writings of the Jews, which were captured and taken to Rome, he discovered a certain commentary of the time of the historian Josephus, written by himself: in which he said that, in the seventh month, on the feast of Scenopegia [or Tabernacles], on the day of expiation, the angel of the Lord appeared, and the dumb priest was restored, who had remained without voice until that time when his wife Elizabeth in old age gave birth.”

John then continues:

Well, according to the months of the Hebrews, the first month is Nesan.  This is numbered, and from that to the seventh month proceeds in this way: Nesan, Iar, Siban, Tamous, Aph, Eloul, Tesirin. This [Tesirin] is month 7, within which the annunciation of Zachariah happened; and 6 months are counted from Nesan, i.e. March, until the annunciation of the Mother of God; in this way, Mersan, Chasili, Tapet, Sipat, Atar, Nesan, which is 6 months from Mersan until Nesan, just as it was written, “In the sixth month was the archangel Gabriel sent to Mary”; and from the month of Nesan, in which was the annunciation, nine months are counted until the nativity of the Lord, in this way: Iar, Siban, Tamus, Aph, Eloul, Mersan, Tesirin, Chasili, Tapet.  Therefore the first lunary month Tesirin happens in the month of September: and from the conception of John to the annunciation of the God-bearer we count thus: October, Novemberm December, January, February, March.  There are equally 6 months.  But from the annunciation until the nativity are numbered thus: April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.  Again in month 7, on day 10 of the month, was the day of expiation; 15 however was the observance of the Scenopegia.  In that month Elizabeth conceived, on the 10th day of Tesirin, on the day of expiation, and the 23 September was the conception of John; but 4th Nesan, March 25 was the annunciation of the holy Mother of God Mary; and 5th Tamnis, 25 June, was the birthday of the Forerunner [=John], and however 9th Sapet, December 25 is the nativity of Christ our great God, and Word incarnate.  In this way did Julius Romanus the patriarch arrange the months of the Hebrews and the Romans: from which time the Roman church began with outbursts (?) of joy to celebrate the nativity of the Saviour on 25 December, and bequeathed the obligation to the whole church.

Jam ergo juxta menses Hebraeorum, primus mensium Nesan. Hic numeratur, atque ab eo ad 7 mensem proceditur, hoc modo : Nesan, Iar, Siban, Tamous, Aph, Eloul, Tesirin. Hic est mensis 7, in quo facta est annuntiatio Zachariae; ac numeratur usque ad Annuntiationem Dei Genitricis, mensis hic sextus Nesan, id est, Martius; in hunc modum, Mersan, Chasili, Tapet, Sipat, Atar, Nesan, qui est sextus mensis a Mersan usque ad Nesan, sicut scriptum est : In mense sexto missus est Gabriel archangelus ad Mariam; atque a mense Nesan, quo facta est Annuntiatio, numerantur menses novem, usque ad Domini Nativitatem, hoc modo: Iar, Siban, Tamus, Aph, Eloul, Mersan, Tesirin, Chasili, Tapet. Prima igitur luna mensis Tesirin, occurrit in mensem Septembrem: atque a Joannis conceptione usque ad Deiparae Annuntiationem sic numeramus: October, November, December, Januarius, Februarius, Martius. Fiunt simul sex menses. Ab Annuntiatione autem usque ad Nativitatem sic numerantur: Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Julius, Augustus, September, October, November, December. Porro, mense 7, die mensis 10, erat Expiationis dies; 15 autem erat solemnitas Scenopegiae. Ipso mense concepit Elisabeth, 10 die mensis Tesirim, in die Expiationis, fuitque 23 Septembris conceptio Joannis, quarta autem mensis Nesan, Martii 25 fuit Annuntiatio Dei Genitricis sanctae Mariae; quinta vero mensis Tamnis, 25 Junii, fuit Praecursoris nativitas; ac tandem 9 mensis Sapet, Decembris 25, Nativitas Christi magni Dei nostri, ac Verbi incarnati. Inque hunc modum Julius Romanus patriarcha menses Hebraeorum atque Romanorum composuit: a quo tempore, coepit Romana Ecclesia laetis gaudii celebrare Natalem Salvatoris diem 25 Decembris, tradiditque celebrandum universis Ecclesiis.

That makes more sense of the snippet given by John of Nicaea (about whom, as yet, I can find no information).  Both versions, then, give the story that Pope Julius I ordered that Christmas should be on 25 December.

UPDATE2: I had meant to look for the snippets in the Pinakes database of Greek manuscripts, but that work is not indexed.  John of Nicaea, or Johannes Nikenus, or Iohannes Nicaenus mtr., on the other hand, is indeed listed, as author 1501, together with his work De festo die natali Domini., which they number as work 2657.  Ten manuscripts are listed, from the 12th to the 17th century.

  1. [1]http://www.lnstar.com/mall/main-areas/xmas-not-first-choice.htm
  2. [2]https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/celebrate-christmas-but-when-and-how-11629663.html
  3. [3]https://thenewdaily.com.au/religion/2017/12/14/12-days-of-christmas-day-three/
  4. [4]Glen L. Thompson, The correspondence of Pope Julius I, CUA (2015).  The important pages are p.xlii, 200-201.  Google Books Preview here.
  5. [5]DCB says published by Combefis, Haeresis Monothelit., p.298 ff.
  6. [6]According to the DCB it was printed by Cotelier, Patres Apostolici, i.316 (1724).

When did Christmas Day become a public holiday?

In the legal code of Justinian, issued in 534 AD, we find the following entry, in book 3, title 12, law 6, Omnes dies:

3.12.6 (7). Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius to Albinus, City Prefect.  We order that all days shall be court days.

1.Only those days shall remain as days of vacation which each year, for a period of two months, indulgently gives to rest from labor, in order to mitigate the summer heat, and to gather the autumnal fruits.

2.  We also give over to leisure the usual days at the beginning of each year.

3. We add to these the natal days of the great cities of Rome and Constantinople, during which the legal proceedings, which own their origin to them, should be deferred. We also add the holy pascal days, seven preceding and seven succeeding Easter, also the natal day of Christ and the day of Epiphany and the time during which the suffering of the apostles, the teachers of all Christianity, is rightly commemorated; and these holy days shall not be open to shows.

4. Sundays, too, which the ancients rightly named the Lord’s days and which return at regular intervals, shall be put in this class.

5. An equal reverence shall be paid to the days which marked our birth and the beginning of our reign, and on these days no examination of disputes shall be made before referees, whether appointed by judges upon request or by the choice of the parties.

6. During the fifteen days of Easter, the exaction of all taxes in kind and of all public and private debts shall be deferred.

Given at Rome August 8 (389).  C. Th. 2.8.2.[1]

The law is copied from the Theodosian Code, and is apparently enacted in 389 under Valentinian.  Note that it is ordered that the Christian “holy days” do not have the games celebrated on them.

But comparison with the text of the Codex Theodosianus[2] shows that in fact Justinian, on reissuing it in 534 AD, has added some holidays; Christmas, Epiphany, and the festivals in commemoration of the apostles.  Sadly I don’t have the English translation in PDF, but the Latin can be followed easily enough.

CTh.2.8.19 [=brev.2.8.2]

Imppp. Valentinianus, Theodosius et Arcadius aaa. Albino pf. U. Omnes dies iubemus esse iuridicos. Illos tantum manere feriarum dies fas erit, quos geminis mensibus ad requiem laboris indulgentior annus accepit, aestivis fervoribus mitigandis et autumnis foetibus decerpendis.

1. Kalendarum quoque ianuariarum consuetos dies otio mancipamus.

2. His adiicimus natalitios dies urbium maximarum, Romae atque Constantinopolis, quibus debent iura deferre, quia et ab ipsis nata sunt.

3. Sacros quoque paschae dies, qui septeno vel praecedunt numero vel sequuntur, in eadem observatione numeramus, nec non et dies solis, qui repetito in se calculo revolvuntur.

4. Parem necesse est haberi reverentiam nostris etiam diebus, qui vel lucis auspicia vel ortus imperii protulerunt. Dat. vii. id. aug. Roma, Timasio et Promoto coss.

While the sacred days of Easter (Sacros paschae dies) plus seven days before and after are part of the Codex Theodosianus, the words “also the natal day of Christ” onwards were added later than the Theodosian code, itself published in 438 AD.

This interesting snippet came to me via a very old volume, E. V. Neale’s Feasts and Fasts from 1845, p.23.[3]

So it looks as if we may reasonably attribute the creation of Christmas as a public holiday, rather than merely a church festival, to Justinian.

  1. [1]Translation by F.H.Blume, via the Annotated Justinian Website, 2005.
  2. [2]Online in Latin here.
  3. [3]Online here.

Two Pannonian monuments connecting Mithras with 25 Dec.?

The Hungarian scholar Istvan Toth died this year.  I learn this from his page at Academia.edu, where may be found all his papers and books in electronic form.  This is no small thing, for many are quite inaccessible in the west, even in major research libraries.  Well done, Dr Toth, for making all this mass of information available.

Among the papers one caught my eye: 2004 Mithras kultusz és a Karácsony Poetovioban = Cult of Mithras and the Christmas in Poetovio.  This paper is in Hungarian, but very sensibly provided with an English translation at the back.  The translation is imperfect, but this is of small importance; the point is that the article is readable by the world.

We all know that Franz Cumont, in his rather slack way, supposed that there was a festival of Mithras on 25 Dec., by presuming that the cultists of Mithras ‘must’ have participated in the Natalis Solis Invicti, attested only after 354 AD.  No evidence of this exists, of course.  But this carelessness has created a modern myth, often expressed in the unpleasant jeer “Mithras is the reason for the season.”

So what does Toth say? (I shall correct the English, for readability)

It is a fact that, although scholarship connected the festival of natalis Invicti with one of Mithras (too) since F. Cumont(2), until now there was nothing to show this from epigraphical evidence collected for the Cult of Mithras (3). This situation changed because of the epigraph from Poetovio which was found in 1970, and this epigraphical evidence has since been published in several publications (4).

The epigraphical evidence was found at Poetovio (Ptuj, Slovenia) in the immediate vicinity of so-called Mithraeum IV (5), at the same place as the other epigraphical evidence listed for this sanctuary (6). The lead prong, on the top face of the undecorated marble base (7), shows that the object was originally the pedestal of a statue, probably a statue of a figure being born out of a rock. The first line of the inscription is lost. The remaining lines of the text are as follows:

[— ] | M Gong(ius) | Aquilei|ensis pro | salute | sua suor|umq(ue) om|nium v(otum)
s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) | d(e)d(icavit) VIIII K(alendas) Ian(uarias) | p(osuit) p(ater)
p(ientissimus) Florentiu[s]

The damaged first line, according to J. Sasel, should be read: [D(eo) i(nvicto) M(ithrae)] accounting this: “verisimiliter colligendum est, cum in vicinia vestigia quarti Mithraei reperta sint”(8), and this is all respects acceptable.

Unquestionably the most important element of the inscription is the date on the 9th readable line: 24th December, that is, vigil of natalis Invicti (the “Christmas Eve”), which appears here for the first time in epigraphical evidence related to the cult of Mithras.

The dating of relic can fairly certainly be given as the first half of the third century A.D., possibly about the middle of the third century. J. Sasel pointed that another bearer of this nomen was a certain Gongius Nestorianus who, between 198-211 was procurator of publicum portorium Illyrici and resided in Poetovio; then between 213-217 he was a praefectus classis Ravennatis(9). Considering that the nomen gentilicum of Gongius may be unique(10), it seems very likely that the person who dedicated the inscribed monument under discussion had some relationship to this man of high standing, for example he was his libertus.(11)

All this is interesting; but why a dedication of a monument on what is now 24 Dec. ‘must’ be connected to what is today Christmas Eve is not made clear.  The fact that, in 354 AD, there would be a festival of the sun on the following day is not necessarily relevant.  Any monument must be dedicated on some date; what the inscription does not show is that the date here was in any way significant.

The article then continues with material of no great relevance, until we reach this section:

It is absolutely certain, that every class of society was imbued with the need to have knowledge of the ceremonies and articles of the cult of Mithras. That social stratum was the one from which was descended Victorinus, the martyred bishop of Poetovio, the first exegete who wrote in Latin (22). However Victorinus of Poetovio – who was executed at the latest in the time of the great persecution of Christians under the reign of Diocletian – in the 260s would have been already adult, and meditating on religious matters as a young man.

The theological interest of Victorinus was exceptionally wide-ranging. He examined besides his exegesis, works on heterodoxies, the origin of world, apocalyptical doctrines(23) and there remains a fragment of his chronological work too(24). In this fragment he concluded the following inferences referring to document of a certain Alexander of Jerusalem: “VIII. Kal Ian. natus est Dominus noster Iesus Christus… etc.” (That is Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December) – The latest research places the origin of this fragment in the years after 260 (25).

Amongst the monuments of Mithras of Poetovio there are presented in remarkably great strength of those, that which relating to the birth of the god. … One of the representative stone monuments (30) of the Mithraeum founded by Flavius Aper and his officers represented the figure of Mithras being born out from a rock: in the background of the scene appears the figure of Saturn, wreathed by Victoria; to all intents and purposes showing, that in dedication named of god to D(eus) S(ol) i(nvictus) M(ithras) was born on 25 December, and the birth of god means that beginning of the new epoch of world.

We expect so: if we are not mistaken, that in this chronological fragment of Victorinus of Poetovio, indicating the date of natalis Invicti, we can recognise the inner history of the reference to the birth of Jesus and we recognize the events from the history of religion in the native town of the martyred bishop, which happened in his youth, and in our opinion that the Christian exegetist who wrote in Latin earliest and in all probability he was among the first (31) who connected the one of the central ideas of cult of Mithras of Poetovio with the articles of Christian faith.

I think something may have dropped out of the argument here.  For it is quite unclear to me just why the presence of Saturn in a Mithraic monument of the rock birth must connect the monument to 25 Dec. – Saturnalia, after all, finished on 23rd Dec.  Otherwise a monument of the rock birth is just nothing.

The material about Victorinus is likewise very loosely argued (allowing, always, for the translation difficulties).

It all falls apart, once you look closely, sadly.