A Multicultural Story
The city is Rome. It is the first century after Christ, at midnight, the first moment of December 25th. The temples are lit up. Priests in white robes stand at the altar. Boys burn incense. The congregation is here to celebrate the birth of their Lord God. But Jesus Christ is not the name on their lips – when he was born this was already an ancient ceremony. It commemorates the sun god Mithras. As R.J. Condon puts it:
“His worshippers believed he had come from heaven to be born as a
man in order to redeem men from their sins, and he was born of a virgin
on December 25th. Shepherds were the first to learn of his birth ....” (Our Pagan Christmas, R.J. Condon).
This picture contrasts with the accounts we have of Christian ceremony during the same period – if ceremony is not too grand a name for the informal gatherings of Christians in the home of one of their members. There they would study the sayings and teachings of Jesus – a teacher from an entirely different tradition: the Jewish monotheistic one. Here is a typical account, by the Roman governor Pliny, written in 112 CE:
“They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn, to sing antiphonally a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not to some wickedness, but not to commit acts of fraud, theft or adultery, not to falsify their word, not to refuse to return a deposit if called upon to do so. When they had done these things they used to depart and then come together again to take food – but food of an ordinary and harmless kind.” (Letters, 10.96.7, Pliny the Younger).
To understand the contrast between the ritual (or lack of it) known to the earliest Christians and the importance of both Catholic and Protestant ritual today we have to look at the historical context of the early church.
(The Pagan Saviours: Pagan Elements in Christian Ritual and Doctrine, Institute for Cultural Research, London, 2000.)
Without doubt the understanding and story changed over time and place to fit contemporaneous circumstances. For we need to remember three things: First, the Roman Empire whose reach, influence and soldiers spread from modern Sudan in the south, to the Scottish border in the north, from Morocco in the west to the Caspian Sea and Arabian Gulf in the east, was a melting pot of cultures. Greek and Roman civilizations with their pantheon of Gods mixed with others, the great civilizations of Egypt, for example, where the splendors of the Pharaonic tradition stretched back thousands of years, or Persia where Zoroaster and then Mithra were worshipped and absorbed into Greek and Roman society three or four hundred years before Christ. All religious practices were tolerated by the Empire and freely observed. Numerous cults such as those of Attis, Adonis, Dionysis, and Venus were practiced. Each had its own stories, myths and legends and, as we have seen elsewhere in our human journey through the ancient world, elements from each were absorbed between traditions.
Second, since the time of Augustus, Romans were used to Divine Emperors and their offspring, Sons of God, so it is not surprising that Jesus is presented as the Son of God who performed mighty works, which were the sign of the presence of God’s power and kingdom.
Third, in ancient societies conception and birth were still somewhat magical events because people had no real biological knowledge, thus many stories are associated with miraculous births. Even in the Jewish tradition, for example, Isaac, a child of importance, was conceived of Sarah and Abraham when they were 90 years old. Divine conception was well known in the Greco-Roman tradition.
(Left) image of Jesus Christ, venerated by Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christians as “God the Son”