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.

Jerome, Commentary on Jeremiah, on Matthew 27:25

The next patristic work to refer to Matthew 27:25 is in Jerome’s Commentary on Jeremiah.  BiblIndex gives the following information:

Jerome, In Hieremiam prophetam libri VI. REITER S., CCL 74 (1960). § 2 (p.71, l.18) & § 3 (p.162, l.20 & § 3 (p.181, l.14)

Which is fine if you have the Corpus Christianorum Latina at your elbow.  As we all do, yes?  Ahem.  No, we don’t.  So we must seek for alternatives.

The text is in Migne, of course, in the Patrologia Latina 24, cols. 679-900 (here).  But it would be a bit weary looking through that for the three references.

Fortunately there is an English translation.  It’s another of those useful translations by IVP Academic, which are so rarely bought by libraries in the UK for some unknown reason.[1]  There’s even a Google Books preview, here.  That means we can search in it; and a search for “27:25” gives three locations, as of course it should.

The first is on page 46:

6:19b: “I am bringing evil on this people, the fruit of their thoughts,”—or “apostasy”— “because they have not given heed to thy words and as for thy law, they have rejected it.”

He calls “evil” the punishments and penalties that he is bringing, not on the nations who are called to the truth of the gospel but on this people who said, “We will not give heed.” The people will receive the “fruit” of their “thoughts” or “apostasies,” as blessed David says: “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands. And the reason for all of this is clear: they did not heed the words of the Lord, and they rejected his law.

6:20: “To what purpose does frankincense come to me from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing to me.”

That frankincense comes from Sheba no one doubts; thus the Virgilian phrase “And its hundred altars steam with Sabacan incense.” Moreover, “sweet cane,” which in Hebrew is cane, and which the LXX and Theodotion translated as “cinnamon,” is shown by the prophetic word to come from a faraway land, which we understand to be India, from where many perfumes come through the Red Sea. This particular kind of spice physicians call quill-cassia. And this is the sense: “It is in vain that you offer to me your sweet-smelling spices and your burnt offerings, even though you have performed acts of anointing that were commanded in the law; for you have not done my will in the law.” This is what was said above: “They have not given heed to my words; and as for my law, they have rejected it ” This may rightly be applied to those who offer sacrifices from what has been taken by violence and from the plundering of the destitute and then suppose that by this money taken from iniquity they are ransoming their sins. Scripture says, “The ransom of a mans soul is his wealth”—yet, not wealth derived from iniquity but wealth gathered by hard work and righteousness.

6:21: “Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will lay before this people devastations, and they shall be devastated by them,’ — or ‘weakness, and they shall become weak by them’—’fathers and sons together, neighbor and friend shall perish.'”

We see that everything the Lord threatened against this people has been fulfilled. For daily they are devastated by their blasphemies; there is nothing of strength in them, but every one among them is weak. Sons follow the blasphemies of their fathers, and every day they receive this curse: “His blood be on us and on our children!” And not only they but also their “neighbors and friends”—all who follow the law and the prophets according to the letter that kills and not according to the Spirit that gives life—all of them perish equally, because all have sinned equally.

On page 105 there is a reference, but this is not in the preview, sadly.  It must be on Jeremiah 17:1-6, or something like that.  A look at the PL reveals that it is on 17:1, col.786 (p.54 in the PDF linked above).  Let me translate bits of this myself.  (The poor quality printing rather impedes my understanding of the last bit, since I can’t work out what the words are!)

17:1. The sin of Judah is inscribed with an iron pen with an adamant point, written on the tablet of their hearts and on the horns of their altars.

Of the gentiles who were converted to God, it was written earlier, “Therefore, behold, I will make them know, this once I will make them know my power and my might” (Jer.16:21): now, concerning the Jews who were thrown down, it is said, “the sin of Judah is inscribed with an iron pen with an adamant point” etc.  I do not know why in the Septuagint … [text critical remarks omitted]  The sins of the gentles are erased, because converted to the Lord from the ends of the earth they hear this, “Praise the Lord, all you nations…”.  But the indelible sin of Judah, which, as I might say, has no reason to be abolished, is written with an iron pen with an adamant point, which in Hebrew is called … and it lasts because it is inscribed, for eternity.  For they themselves said, “His blood be upon us and upon our children”.  Which is why it is written or inscribed on the horns of the altars, or their altars, so that the sacrilegious work should be held in memory for ever.  But if this is so, …

On page 116, there is a final reference:

18:17: “Like a scorching wind I will scatter them before the enemy”—or “enemies—”I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.

Even today the judgment of God remains against the Jews. Throughout the entire world they are scattered before their enemy, the devil—or their enemies, the demons. Although they invoke the name of God day and night in their synagogues of Satan, God shows them his back and not his face, so that they may understand that he is always departing and never coming to them. Moreover, the day of the calamity of the Jews is the whole period from the passion of the Savior to the consummation of the age, so that, after the fullness of the Gentiles has entered in, then all Israel will be saved.

18:18: Then they said, “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah, for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not heed any of his words.”

This is the plot, at that time of the Jews against Jeremiah or against the Lord Savior, and today of the heresies against the Lord’s servants. They make up false charges and preempt holy people with accusations, as they plan not what truth they will speak but what falsehoods they will invent. For they boast that God’s law, counsel and speech will remain with their priests, wise men and pseudoprophets, although Scripture says, “Wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul.”

18:19-22a: Give heed to me, O Lord, and hear the voice of my adversaries! Shall evil be rendered for good, since they have dug a pit for my life? Remember how I stood before you to speak good for them, to turn away your wrath from them. Therefore deliver up their children to famine; give them over to the power of the sword; let their wives become childless and widowed. May their men be struck with death, their youths slain by the sword in battle. May a cry be heard from their houses!

It was as a type of the Savior that Jeremiah endured all of this at the hands of the Jewish people, who later were destroyed when the Babylonians came. But it was fulfilled more fully and more perfectly in Christ, when the city was overthrown and the people were massacred by the Roman sword, not because of idolatry (which was not a problem at that time), but because they killed the Son of God, when all the people cried out together: “Away, away with such a one! We have no king but Caesar!” And the curse of eternal damnation against them was fulfilled: “His blood be on us and on our children!” For they had dug a pit for Christ and said, “Let us remove him from the land of the living!” But Christ had such great compassion toward them that he stood before the Father to speak good for them and to tum away the Father’s wrath from them. so that even on the cross he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”’ We are only touching briefly on what is clear so that we can spend more time on obscure matters. We will not offer the absurd interpretations of some and talk about the captivity of the heavenly Jerusalem. Instead, we follow the clear historia and the most obvious prophecy with complete confidence in the words and the meaning.

 It’s unfortunate that I can’t access one of the three references in the IVP translation, but the general approach is clear.  Jerome is treating the Old Testament text as a prediction or foreshadowing of the events of the life of Christ; and all those cases where Jeremiah was threatened by the hate of others, he relates to the Jews’ hostility to Christ and, no doubt, the Christian message.  This seems to be an exegetical principle, probably deriving from Origen and his approach to the OT.

Which of course leads us to wonder whether Origen’s exegesis of Jeremiah is extant, and, if so, what he says on these passages.

  1. [1]Jerome, Commentary on Jeremiah, ed. Michael Graves.  IVP Academic, 2012.