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 A)nagkai/a dih/ghsij.  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.

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the workhouse…

It is now Christmas Eve.  A minority of people will be sat at home, in a traditional Dickensian family circle, waiting for Christmas.  In rather more households there will be excited children rushing around, and all blessing to them and their harried parents.

But for a great many people, including most people who spend their lives online, this evening will be spent on their own, as will tomorrow and many more days.  We need not be surprised.  In our age this is normal.  Let us never regret that we do not enjoy the kind of Christmas that the TV advertisers tell us that we all should.  The reality of this world in these days is that a great number of people will be on their own.

It is traditional for bloggers to wish their readers a happy Christmas, and I shall not omit this courtesy.  I wish everyone reading these words a merry Christmas, and every blessing.

I include in these words those who I count as my friends, and those who have worked with me during the year.

I include in these words those who have written to me, those who have encouraged me, those who have shared in this work of education and learning.

I include everyone who intends to do good to his fellow man; and I include those who are simply trying to get by.

I include those who disagree with me.  I hope that disagreement may be generous, at least on our own side.

I also include, this Christmas time, one poor unhappy soul far away.  I don’t know his name, for he has taken pains to be anonymous.  I include him because I believe that this poor soul has little to enjoy at Christmas, and is an unhappy man.  I infer this because last year he had nothing better to do on Christmas day, the best of days, than to go online and attempt to cause me an injury.  Pathetically, he failed, in that I did not even learn of his deed until months later, and didn’t care even then.  I suspect that he reads this blog occasionally.  If so, I wish him a happy Christmas, and a prosperous New Year.

This Christmas I will be blogging away, and will try to provide something for people to read.  I’m still busy with the Mithras pages, which are beginning to assume a form which is not altogether horrible.  I hope to have a couple of Hymns by St. Ephraim the Syrian, newly translated into English, for you tomorrow.

Merry Christmas to you all!

More on the “birth of the sun” at Chronicon blog

Tom Schmidt is still excerpting material from ancient sources on this mysterious “birth of the sun” on 25 Dec.  And he’s translating some untranslated material himself!  He’s got a bit from Hephaistio of Thebes on Antiochus of Athens.  Read it here.

The sun as a child at the winter solstice

I’ve been reading the article in which Franz Boll published the calendar of Antiochus of Athens, with special reference to the entry on 25th December.

It is good to have a publication of the calendar, although the lack of a translation for the Greek is irksome.  But I haven’t read many articles which are less satisfactory when it came to discussing this particular entry.  It waffles.  It wanders.  It suggests.  But the logic is tenuous.

Boll is keen to suggest that the calendar is Egyptian in origin.  This he fails to show adequately, as far as I can make out.  The most I can find is an assertion that the dates given to various astronomical phenomena require that it was composed in Alexandria.  He also asserts that there are commonalities with the calendar of Ptolemy; but of course any astrological calendar is likely to have certain similarities — they all deal with the stars, after all.

Let’s look at an extract of the calendar for December:

κβ’. τροπὲ χειμερινὴ.
κγ’. Προκύων ἑῷος δύνει.
κε’. Ἡλίου γενέθλιον · αὔξει φῶς.

The first entry (for the 22nd) tells us that it is the winter solstice.  The 23rd relates to the star Procyon, and the last entry for the 25th reads “Birthday of the sun: the light increases”.  The solstice entry is apparently also found in the calendar of Ptolemy, but not the birthday of the sun. 

Why are there two entries?  I.e. why is the day of the sun later than the solstice?  This is explained by Julian the Apostate, in his Oration 4, whom I quoted at more length here:

 And that our forefathers, because they comprehended this correctly, thus established the beginning of the year, one may perceive from the following. For it was not, I think, the time when the god turns, but the time when he becomes visible to all men, as he travels from south to north,that they appointed for the festival. For still unknown to them was the nicety of those laws which the Chaldaeans and Egyptians discovered, and which Hipparchus and Ptolemy perfected : but they judged simply by sense-perception, and were limited to what they could actually see. 

The idea that 25 Dec. is the “new sun” is found in Latin sources as we have seen in the past.  Boll references

Pliny NH 18, 221; Columella I, 9; Servius, Aen. 7, 720.  (Proprie sol novus est VIII. Kal. Jan.)

But he also mentions something which is new to me:

Greek and Roman writers tell us about something called the Egyptian doctrine, according to which the sun appears on the Winter solstice like a child, at the spring equinox as a youth, at the summer solstice as a man and in the autumn the same as an old man. The well-known witness, already cited by Th. Gale in Iamblichos de mysteriis p. 289, is Macrobius in his solar theology, in Saturnalia I 1 &, 9:

item Liberi patris simulacra partim puerili aetate partim iuvenis fingunt.  praeterea barbata specie, seniIi quoque . . . hae autem aetatum diversitates ad Solem referuntur, ut parvulus qualem Aegyptii proferunf ex adyto die certa, quod tunc brevissimo die veluti parvus et infans videatur. exinde autem procedentibus augmentis (vgl.  αὔξει φῶς here in Antiochus and in Catal. codd. astr. I 144, 13) aequinoctio vernali similiter atque adulescentis adipiscitur vires figuraque iuvenis ornatur. postea statuitur eius aetas plenissima effigie barbae solstitio aestivo quo tempore summum sui consequitur augmentum. exinde per diminutiones veluti senescentis quarta formum deus figuratur.

The “solar theology” is a speech by Praetextatus in book 1.  I wish I had the English translation of Macrobius to hand, so I could give a translation here.  But he is making the point that when the days are shortest, the sun seems small and like an infant; likewise at the spring equinox like a youth, at the summer solstice as a grown man.  Then by dimunition it becomes an old man.

Boll would like us to associate this with his calendar entry.

But is Macrobius telling us about the same thing?  There is also the issue that Macrobius writes very late indeed, after the fall of paganism at the end of the 4th century.  His paganism would seem to be influenced by the prevailing monotheism of Christianity, when he asserts that all the gods are merely aspects of a single deity, the sun god.  Considering the Christian polemic against the multitude of provincial gods, such a rationalisation was inevitable.  But it can’t be used as evidence of earlier pagan views, I would have thought.

He then writes at some length speculative material about the possibility that Antiochus is basing his entry for 25 Dec. on an ancient Egyptian source.  From the idea that “birth of the sun”, he goes on to say:

Brugsch, who follows Jablonski Panth. Aegypt. lib. II cap. VI, p. 254 on the first place, suggests that these ideas are really Egyptian in origin, and, the monuments of the latest periods of Egyptian history at least very clearly represent the sun at the time of the winter solstice under the name of the child sun, at the Spring time as a “boy” or “youth”, during the summer solstice as “the great (adult) Sun” and at sunset as “the old man.” In an inscription (22) the “new born Sun” is mentioned, and in two others (23) as the “little sun”. (24)

The tenuous connection of this with the calendar will be immediately apparent!  But the idea is interesting, and I spent some time trying to work out what the references were, and looking at them.  One advantage of Boll’s work is that it is so old that his references are all online.

Brugsch, thus, is H. Brugsch, Die Ägyptologie  (p.327), who writes:

Den 12 Sonnenbildern in den 12 Stunden des Tages verlieh man in der ptolemäisch-römischen Epoche eigenthumliche Bildersymbole in Gestalten von Göttern oder heiligen Thieren (s. Thes. S. 57). wobei die Sonne in der Frühe der ersten Stunde als neugeborenes Kind (Harphrad) in einer Scheibe erscheint. Die den einzelnen Verzeichnissen beigeschriebenen Namen (s. Thes. 58) benennen die Sonne der ersten Tagesstunde das Kind (nhn), der 3. den Knaben, Jüngling (hwn), der 12. den Greis (nhh wer). Die Vergleichung der zunehmenden und abnehmenden Sonne mit den Lebensaltern des Menschen tritt auch inschriftlich gelegentlich hervor.  In einem der Texte von Dendera (Thes. 55) heisst es von dem Sonnengotte: „ein Kind in der Frühe, ein Jungling zur Mittagszeit … ist er Gott ‚Atum am Abend“.  Statt des ‚Atum-Names findet sich als Variante eines der agyptischen Wörter zur Bezeichnung eines greisen Mannes (Thes. S. 511).

The 12 solar images in the 12 hours of the day in the Ptolemaic and Roman era became special symbols in depictions of gods or sacred animals (see Thes. p. 57), where the sun appears in the morning of the first hour as a newborn child (Harphrad) on a disk. The various lists (see Thes. 58) name the sun at the first hour of the day the “child” (nhn), in the 3rd “boy, young man” (hwn), in the 12th “old man” (nhh wer).  The comparison of increasing and decreasing sun with the ages of man also occurs occasionally in earlier inscriptions. In one of the texts of Dendera (Thes. 55) it is said of the sun god: “a child in the morning, a young man for lunch … he is god, Atum in the evening “. Instead of the ‘Atum-name found as a variant of the Egyptian words for the description of an old man (Thes. p. 511).

‘Thes.’ is his own Thesaurus, a publication of inscriptions, for Brugsch was one of the early genuine Egyptologists.  So we’re dealing with some real sources here.

Boll also mentions:

The famous oracle of the Clarian Apollo that Macrobius cites Sat. I 18, 20 from Cornelius Labeos’ book de Oraculo Apollinis Clarii, mentions four names of gods that seem to befrom the the same association of ideas out for the four figures of Helios set in the season when it also is contrary to the Jewish God.

Jablonski Pantheon Aegyptiorum lib. II cap. VI, p. 254 (p.254 in the PDF) is also online, in Latin, and dates to the 18th century!  It is in Latin.  Fortunately there is a lengthy translation into English of a chunk of it in John William Colenso, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua (1865). p.305.  Appendix III, translated and abridged.  The p.319 has a translation of the Pantheon Aeg. p.254.  P.305 of Colenso gives us the Oracle and a translation.  The Oracle of Apollo at Claros was asked who the god Iao was.  It replied:

It was right that those knowing should hide the ineffable orgies ; for in a little deceit there is prudence and an adroit mind. Explain that IAO is the Most High God of all,in winter Aides, and Zeus in commencing spring, and Helios in summer, and at the end of autumn tender Iao.

The name appears in Gnostic texts, and in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, book 1.  There is speculation that it really represents the Jewish YHWH.

Using Colenso’s translation, we find that Jablonski treated this oracle as derived from gnostic sources, and “reconstructed” what he believed the “original” text of the gnostic oracle was.    This Brugsch treated in his next paragraph as if it was actually an ancient source — there are perils to writing in Latin! — and made the association with Harpocrates.  But this is just a misunderstanding.

What are we left with, that is solid and real, in all this sea of factoids strung together without much connection?

We learn that the calendar contains “birth of the new sun” on Dec. 25.  We learn that the four stages of the sun during the day was compared in Ancient Egyptian, and more commonly in Ptolemaic and Roman sources, to the four ages of man, one of which was the sun-as-child at dawn.  We are invited by Boll to presume the latter has some connection with the former. 

But the fallacy of “this looks like that, therefore this is connected to that, or even this is derived from that” is one we encounter all the time.  We must regard the connection as unevidenced.

The calendar of Antiochus and the new birth of the sun

Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun, Oxford University Press, 2006, makes the following interesting remark on p.209-10:

… the nominal solstice on 25 December, becomes the Sun’s birthday, the ‘Natalis Invicti’, as the Calendar of Filocalus famously notes—to which phrase in Greek (heliou genethlion) the less well-known Calendar of Antiochus appends ‘light increases’ (auxei phos).[16]  According to Macrobius (Sat. 1.18.10), not only was the Sun’s birthday celebrated at the winter solstice but he was also displayed as a baby on that day: 

These diverences in age [in the representations of various gods] relate to the Sun, who is made to appear very small (parvulus) at the winter solstice. In this form the Egyptians bring him forth from the shrine on the set date to appear like a tiny infant (veluti parvus et infans) on the shortest day of the year.

16. Calendar of Filocalus, Salzman 1990: 149–53; Calendar of Antiochus, Boll 1910: 16, 40–4.

Boll, F. 1910. Griechische Kalender: 1. Das Kalendarium des Antiochos, Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, philos.-hist. Klasse, Jahrgang 1910, 16. Abhandlung (Heidelberg). 

The “Calendar of Filocalus” is our familiar Chronography of 354, part 6, which I placed online long ago here.  As we all know, for 25 Dec. it has “Natalis Invicti” against the day.  But the Calendar of Antiochus is not known to me.  I wonder if it is online?  Beck also tells us that this is Antiochus of Athens, an astrologer, whose works must exist — Beck references them as CCAG 4, etc, which turns out to be Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum.  The CCAG turns out to be an old work, and some of it is online at Archive.org.

The only real reference to the calendar that I could find online was in D.M.Murdock (Acharya S), Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus connection, p.89, online in preview here (and I know we all wince at the standards of this source, but this new book is much better referenced).  This tells me that the calendar was published indeed by Boll in 1910; that it records the solstice on 22nd December, and dates to ca. 200 AD.

Gifts at Christmas, “strenae” on 1st January

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the Romans gave gifts on 1st January (the Kalends of January), called strenae

Pagan customs centering round the January calends gravitated to Christmas. Tiele (Yule and Christmas, London, 1899) has collected many interesting examples. The strenae (étrennes) of the Roman 1 January (bitterly condemned by Tertullian, de Idol., xiv and x, and by Maximus of Turin, Hom. ciii, de Kal. gentil., in P.L., LVII, 492, etc.) survive as Christmas presents, cards, boxes.

Tertullian says:

By us, to whom Sabbaths are strange, and the new moons and festivals formerly beloved by God, the Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented — presents come and go — New-year’s gifts (strenae) — games join their noise-banquets join their din! (ch. 14) … New-year’s gifts likewise must be caught at, and the Septimontium kept (ch. 10).

A google search reveals that “Tiele” is Tille, and on Google books here.  I will have to read this, as it seems copiously referenced.  Not sure whether the text is quite sensible, but it does contain interesting snippets.

But I can see at once, on p.84 n.3, a reference to Plautus, Stichus, iii. 2, 6; v. 2. 24; Ovid, Fasti, i. 187; Martial, viii.33, xiii.37; Seneca, Letters, 87.  There are two unreferenced claims; that money took the place of New Year’s gifts under Augustus, and that the custom persisted to the time of Honorius and Arcadius.

There is a reference to the Kalends and the celebration of Janus in the Acts of the Council of Turin in 567 AD. (p.87 n.1), which calls him a king, not a god.  In the capitula of Martin of Braga, chapter 73, we read:

Non liceat iniquas observationes agere Kalendarum, et otiis vacare gentilibus, neque lauro aut viridate arborum cingere domos.

Hanging up green boughs seems to be the custom.  It would be interesting to know more about this.