WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (UPI) -- The celebration of Christmas on Dec. 25 is more likely rooted in a Jewish tradition that puts important events at the same time each year than linked to a pagan winter solstice, an Anglican scholar believes.
Neither custom fixes the Nativity with historical accuracy. But Andrew McGowan, a specialist in early church liturgy, thinks the key to dating Jesus' birth may lie in the date of his death at Passover.
"The earliest mention of Dec. 25 as Jesus' birthday comes from a mid-4th century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs," he writes in the December issue of Bible Review.
McGowan credits French Catholic scholar Louis Duchesne (1843-1922) and the American liturgist Thomas Talley with introducing to the modern world the idea of dating Christmas to Jesus' death. But he notes that the concept has its antecedents in antiquity.
Around 200 A.D. Terrullian reported that the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman solar calendar. March 25, later set as the feast of the Annunciation -- the commemoration of Jesus' conception -- is nine months before Dec. 25.
In the East, especially in Egypt and Asia Minor, Christians used a similar 9-month interval using the Greek calendar. They set Jesus' conception and death at the end of the first week in April, and the modern Armenian church, as well as the Orthodox church, still celebrates Christmas on Jan. 6.
"The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is ... reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud," writes McGowan, a professor of Early Christian History at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. Therefore, the date set for Jesus' birth might derive more from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year than from such pagan festivals as Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) that the Roman Emperor Aurelian established on Dec. 25, 274 A.D.
But wait. At the time of Jesus' crucifixion, rabbinical Judaism didn't even exist. It developed after the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the destruction of the Second Temple, which was the center of a religion in which animal sacrifice figured prominently. (Of course rabbis existed before the "rabbinic period." Jesus was one of them.)
McGowan responded to this reservation in a phone interview.
"We do have to be pretty cautious when we use rabbinic documents to try to compare what Christianity and Judaism were like in the first couple of centuries," he said.
The concept of important events recurring at the same time each year occurs in the Mishna, the Anglican priest told United Press International. The Mishna is the body of oral Jewish religious law that was developed before 200 A.D. and redacted by Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi. (Over the next few centuries, additional commentaries were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These commentaries combined with the Mishna are known as the Talmud.)
"The idea probably doesn't get invented in 200 but reflects an existing oral tradition. If the rabbis are thinking about the notion that time has a cyclical character and events take place at certain times of the year right through salvation history, then that's probably something people might have been thinking about as early as, say, 100 of the Common Era. In other words, it isn't so crazy for Christians in 200 or 250 to be thinking in the same kinds of ways."
In his Bible Review article "How Dec. 25 Became Christmas," McGowan points out that Christian writers of the first two centuries make no mention of celebrations of Jesus' birth.
McGowan called his hypothesis "a bit speculative" but nonetheless "a reasonable inference."
He was asked if it would be fair to say that rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity were developing in parallel during this period.
"Absolutely," he replied. "That's certainly where I stand. Christianity in its first couple of hundred years is in effect a form of Judaism from the point of view of many of its adherents and those outside it as well." The two groups might have been careful to distinguish themselves from one another. "But if you went into the Roman Forum, and you pointed to a Jew and a Christian and asked some other pagan, 'Who are these people?' the answer would be, 'They're just different kinds of Jews.'
"So I think they were in mutual dialogue and self-definition. It's often somewhat acrimonious. But sometimes, of course, that fact that groups have an acrimonious relationship doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't close."
McGowan writes that the suggestion that Jesus' birth was set to coincide with pagan feasts was not made until the 12 century, long after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century.
"In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays," he writes. "This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E."