Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pagan Christianity?-- Ask St. Nick

There has been a lot of loose talk of late about pagan Christianity. I want to say from the outset that most of this sort of rhetoric about pagan Christianity, and it is rhetoric, is either false, or based on half truths. One of the more frequent parts of this discussion has to do with the origins of some of our modern Christian celebrations such as Christmas.

It is sometimes said that this celebration, and its mythology is not based in the Bible or anything historical or particularly Christian. Some go even further in arguing that Christmas is just an adaptation of the pagan Saturnalia, the reversal festival of the Romans which climaxed on and just after the winter solstice on Dec. 21. This latter claim is false, since Christmas has always been celebrated after the Saturnalia was already over, and in the case of the Orthodox church, long after the Saturnalia was over. But my concern in this post is with the man himself-- jolly ole St. Nick.

Whether you call him St. Nick (short for Nickolas) or Santa Claus ( a barbarization and abbreviation of Saint Nik Claus) we are indeed talking about a real Christian person, Nicholas of Myra.

Notice in the icon above the dominant color of his garb--- a red suit, more particularly a red robe. Hmm, I wonder where the idea that St. Nick wore red came from? How about from ancient Christian tradition, which is probably right, knowing what we know about the early bishops of the church in the 3rd and 4th centuries in this region and what they wore.

The pictures on this blog post were taken at Priene where there is an 18th century Greek church ruin, and before that a much earlier church built in honor of the real St. Nick. But again, who was he?

Nicholas, while he died in Myra, was in fact born in the Turkish town of Patara, somewhere around 270 A.D. He died on Dec. 6th 343, and that date is his feast day, which is one reason he is connected with the celebration of Advent and Christmas. He was raised by his uncle, also known as Nicholas who was a bishop of the church, and he was raised to be a holy man, but most importantly he was known as a generous person, and more particularly a giver of secret or anonymous gifts to person. He was also known as a miracle worker. You can immediately see the relevance of all this for the celebration of Christmas. One more fast fact of relevance to the American celebration of Christmas. In 1809, the New York Historical Society convened and named Sancte Claus the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch name for New York.

The pictures in this blog post, as I said, are of the church in Priene which celebrated and honored Nicholas. What is really remarkable about this is that Nicholas was never formally canonized, never formally declared a saint of the church, but he was so popular with Christian lay persons, that he was not only honored with a feast day, but had churches built in his honor and named after him, such as this one.

One of its more interesting features of this particular Church of St. Nick is the charnel house, or as it is called on the sign the Osteofilak-- the place where the bones of the monks were placed after they died. For a church that has been derelict for 150 or so years, it is remarkable that its painted friezes and dome still show some original color, and the bell tower is still in tact.

Bottom line, yes Virginia there really was a Santa Claus who gave gifts to others in honor of the Christ child, make no bones about it :) The rumors of an amalgam of paganism and Christianity early on in church history are in fact largely false. Consider these pictures and this post my not so anonymous gift to you all, in his honor. Merry Christmas, half way through the year.


Banner Kidd said...

You are ignorant of history and the Scripture. The Feasts of Yahweh are what we are commanded to observe. The paganism of Christmas and Easter and the other feasts of the universal church are in opposition to HIS feasts. HIS Feasts are the MOEDIM, an appointment for HIM to meet with men to impart revelation of Messiah Yeshua. The feasts of man - universal church and protestantism, are an appointment with Satan the deceiver. Your love for the lie and lack of love for the Truth has caused you to accept this strong delusion. Repent and return to the Torah - Instruction of Yahweh!

A.M. Mallett said...

Thank you for a wonderful post!


Ben Witherington said...

Unfortunately Banner it is you who are ignorant of both Scripture and Christian history. In the first place Christians are not under the Old Covenant, and are not called to address God as Yahweh, but rather as Abba, or Father. The NT writers were perfectly clear about this. We are under the new covenant, which is not simply a renewal of any or all of the old ones. Go back and read again verses like Gal.4.4-- Christ came to redeem those under the Law, OUT from under the Law. Or Ephes. 2.14-15, Christ has set aside through his death the Mosaic Law of commandment and petitions, or Col. 2.2 the warning for Christians to not be entrapped by the observance of new moons and sabbaths, a clear reference to the Levitical Law. In addition the whole book of Hebrews has as part of its function making clear that EVEN JEWISH CHRISTIANS SHOULD NOT GO BACK TO THE OBSOLETE OLD COVENANT PROVISIONS SINCE WE NOW HAVE A NEW COVENANT WITH NEW OBLIGATIONS TO FOLLOW.



C.P.O. said...

Great post. I'd be interested in hearing more of your take in another blog entry on more of this pagan Christianity stuff. I'm meeting more and more house church folk who are quite taken with those sorts of ideas.

crystal said...

Nicholas was an interesting guy - I read in Wikipedia that at the First Council of Nicaea, he punched out Arius :)

Brigitte said...

to banner kidd: when I read something like your comment, I think: have you read anything in the NT?

Who even cares what day things are on, or what you call it, or how you dress, or where it first happened, and so on and on. There has to be liberty in these things. (But some conventions are, of course, helpful for order).

True religion and faith is inside a person. You can't judge it. God sees it. The universal church of all believers of all times and places, is "invisible" so to speak.

The visible church has days and times and places and works, and so it needs to be, but what counts is not seen.

Banner Kidd said...

The thing that all your posts ignore is what Yahweh established. Who cares what day? HE does and so should we.

We were not redeemed from the Law we were redeemed from the bondage to sin. See Paul in Romans 6-8.

Col. 2 has to do with the philosophy and empty deceit of men and the commandments and doctrines of men, not the Holy Eternal Commandments of Torah!

Our liberty is in the perfect Law of Liberty, freed from sin and entered into the New Covenant by grace. The word grace is the Greek word "Charis" which means, according to Strong's "especially the divine influence on the heart with the reflection in the life."

The New Covenant as spoken of by Jeremiah and the writer of Hebrews is when the Torah of Yahweh is written on our hearts, placed in our minds, and that HE causes us to walk in HIS statutes and keep HIS commandments.

Yeshua said, "If you love ME keep My commandments." He also said that HE only said and did what HIS Father said. No new religion here.

In Matthew 5 HE says we are to not even think that HE came to destroy the Torah or the Prophets, but that HE came to fulfill them. The word "fulfill" is "pleroo" which means to "fully preach."

Revelation says in one place that the saints are those who keep the commandments of Yahweh and the faith in Yeshua Messiah. In Revelation 22 we are told that only those who keep the commandments have the right to the Tree of Life.

Please address these portions of text among many.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Banner, your view was not held by either the earliest Christians in the first century, who said quite clear as does Paul in Rom. 10, that Christ is the end and completion and fulfillment of the OT law, after which it becomes obsolete, and it is even more at variance with the Christians of the next 5 or so centuries.

The basic problem here is that you do not seem to understand covenants, and the fact that as Paul says so clearly as does the author of Hebrews, that all covenants are not the same, and the last one, the new one replaces all previous ones, making them obsolete.

As Paul says very clear the Law was given only for a period of time, until the Redeemer would come. He draws an analogy with a child minder, a paidagogos, and says that when God's people came of age, they did not need the child minder, the Mosaic Law any more.

More importantly, since God's people broke the covenant repeatedly, God finally instituted the oath curses of that covenant, on Christ himself in his death, and so both brought the old covenant to an end and a completion, and inaugurated the new one.

May I suggest you read my Galatians and Romans and Colossians commentaries, and then get back to me? Then we can talk about the Law.

One more thing. So-called Messianic Judaism is neither Judaism, nor is it sufficiently messianic as it repeatedly under-estimates the radical nature of what Jesus' death was all about, and how the situation changed thereafter for God's people.


Ben W.

Adam Gonnerman said...


I have an aversion to conflict, but it's comments like these that prove they can serve a purpose. Your post was good, but your responses to banner kidd were excellent.

Thank you for the post and the comments.

Ben Witherington said...

A few more things Banner-- you need a much better and newer concordance than Strong's. I would suggest Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker's concordance.

The verb pleoro means to fulfill and so to complete. It certainly does not mean to fully preach, especially when the issue is the fulfillment of Scripture. And when a Scripture is fulfilled, whether it be promise or prophecy or Law, then it has served its intended purpose, and is at an end.

And as for Jesus, it is true he does reiterate some of OT Law, but as Mk. 7.15-19 makes clear, he also declared all foods clean. How could he do this without violating Levitical Law--- easy, he had fulfilled the purpose of those laws, and they were now obsolete, so he was perfectly free to make new rules for the new covenant, as well as reaffirming some of the old ones (but only some). Furthermore, he added a whole new set of commandments that went beyond, the OT Law, such as loving one's enemies.


K. Rex Butts said...

Wonderful post! I was only vaguely aware of who the real St. Nick was. What a wonderful example of trying to live out the life of Jesus Christ.


townpiper said...

I see that banner has all the answers, so it becomes an exercise in futility to argue with him.

Great post , Ben. Thanks a lot . God Bless

Banner Kidd said...

Nope! I don't have all the answers, but the Bible does, and you seem to have an aversion to what HE says. May I ask why you would not want to obey HIS commandments? There are so many things posted here that are nothing more than men's traditions rather than what Scripture says. To follow your line of thinking Jesus came to start a new religion that was rebellious to HIS Father. Are you aware that the prophecies that foretell HIS coming say that HE must not speak anything different than what had already been spoken in Torah? Are you aware that what you accuse HIM of would make HIM ineligible to be the Messiah?

HE does not change. HIS Name is still Yahweh. HIS Son is Yeshua, HIS given Hebrew Name that has meaning. Jesus means nothing that I can find. But Yeshua means "Yah Is Salvation." HIS sacrifice means nothing apart from Passover, HE being the Passover of Yahweh.

I can't believe you would rather rest your salvation in what men have to say rather than what the Almighty said. Remember that Scripture says that all men are liars. The word is "all!" Only HE is True, and HIS Word is Truth. The Psalms clarify this by saying that HIS Law - Torah is Truth. When Yeshua said, "Sanctify them by Your Truth, Your Word is Truth," the only Word they had at the time was Torah and the Prophets! Wake up and smell the coffee!

Ben Witherington said...

Sadly Banner what you fail to see is that you are interpreting the Bible from a particular human point of view yourself, based on a particular human tradition, the one you favor.

You are not simply reading the Bible and repeating it, you are interpreting. For example, your assumption is that God could not make covenants for a particular time and place and for a specific people.

You assume that just because God's word is of eternal worth, that all of it is of eternal application.

Let me ask you a question--- Have you been stoning your children recently when they misbehaved? If not, why not? I mean that's in there as part of the Levitical Law, and no time limitation seems to be placed on such a commandment.

You don't seem to grasp that not all of God's commandments were intended by God to be permanently applicable.

Nor do you seem to get that when something is fulfilled it is completed, finished. This does not mean we cannot learn from it, but it does mean that it is no longer binding on God's people.

Go back and re-read the book of Hebrews again, written quite specifically for Jewish Christians.

Unfortunately it is precisely your view that gave Paul no end of apoplexy, the view of the Judaizers. But neither Paul, nor James nor Peter were Judaizers, and when God revealed to Peter (see Acts 10) that God had declared even Gentiles clean through the grace of Christ, then it became very evident that a Christian was not required to live like someone under the Mosaic Law covenant. Can you do so in order to be a Jew to the Jew? Sure, as a missionary approach, that is fine. Are you required to live and be that way as a Christian--nope. This is why Paul says he can be either the Jew to the Jew or the Gentile to the Gentile, and frankly, for any Jew to say the latter would be pure sin, if it were still the case that the Mosaic Law was still binding on Jews now that Christ has come and fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the Mosaic Law and its sacrifices.


Ben W.