Since, this year, Christmas Eve falls on a Friday that means, if I want to do our annual Christmas radio show I need to do it today. Which is fine. Christmas is a fun, and interesting, holiday. Steeped in traditions that have nothing to do with its alleged origins it has become a global holiday that brings out the strangest in people. I’ve done my fair share of articles on the day, covering everything from the joys of Christmas poop to how Colonel Sanders is the image used for Santa in Japan, and you can use the previous link if you want to read them all. Today I’m not going to talk about those. Instead I’d like to spend some time talking about the two guys who represent the day. From the religious side of things. Because, believe it or not, a long time ago, in a Galilee far away, this whole thing had to do with a dude who said some very nice things and another dude who did some. Let’s take a look at them in chronological order.
First, what is the name of the first dude? As Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry notes, that’s easier asked than answered.
A lot of people, including some Messianic Jews (Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah), will call Jesus by a different name: Yeshua (Hebrew יֵשׁוּעַ). They say that Yeshua is the Jewish name that Jesus would have been called by those who knew Him. Some messianics and other groups say that Yeshua is Jesus’ real name and that the name “Jesus” is wrong. Others say that it is okay to use either one. But then again, there are those who say that the word, “Jesus,” is pagan in origin and should not be used at all. And if that weren’t enough, some say that “Jesus” is derived from “Zeus” and really means “hail Zeus.” With all these possibilities is there a real answer to what was the Messiah’s real name? Yes, there is. It is found in the New Testament.
Fortunately for us, the nice people at Got Questions (a faith based scholarship website), have the answer.
Some people claim that our Lord should not be referred to as “Jesus.” Instead, we should only use the name “Yeshua.” Some even go so far as to say that calling Him “Jesus” is blasphemous. Others go into great detail about how the name “Jesus” is unbiblical because the letter J is a modern invention and there was no letter J in Greek or Hebrew.
Yeshua is the Hebrew name, and its English spelling is “Joshua.” Iesous is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name, and its English spelling is “Jesus.” Thus, the names “Joshua” and “Jesus” are essentially the same; both are English pronunciations of the Hebrew and Greek names
Quick note here, no matter which name you use, there’s no requirement in the bible that you only use one language or another. As long as you’re referring to the prophet of the New Testament, you’re golden.
Okay, so now we’ve named him. Let’s take a quick peek at the events leading up to His birth. I wrote Another Birther Conspiracy back in 2012 and, since the facts happened over 2,000 years ago, not much has changed. The one thing that did has been corrected with a minor, parenthetical, edit.
Before we get to the story of the birth of Jesus we need to back track a bit. Specifically we need to go back to 63 BC. That was when Rome invaded, and conquered, Judea, the land of the Jews. The Jews, as you might imagine, did not like being invaded and conquered so there were several minor rebellions. Rome dealt with them in their usual subtle fashion, they killed anyone who opposed them.
Keep in mind that Judea had many great warriors but Rome had an army. There is a massive difference there. And the result of their clash was obvious. In less than a year Judea was a Roman enclave.
Rome wanted two things from Judea; (1) a Mediterranean port for trade and; (2) taxes. The former it got by holding the land, the latter it got by imposing the same method that Romans used on any lands they conquered. A centurion would guesstimate the population of a town or village, round it up and say “You owe Rome this much money every month.” It was then up to whoever the Centurion assigned to collect that money.
In Judea that task fell mainly to the pharisees.
They don’t come off very well in the New Testament, and you can see why. Their job was nearly impossible. They had to keep the Romans happy by taking as much money as possible from their fellow Jews while at the same time keeping the Romans from killing their fellow Jews for sport.
It was a task that made no one happy.
Flash forward to 5 BC. Chinese astronomers recorded that a comet appeared in the spring of that year and hung in the sky for an extended period. It probably got caught in a gravity well for a bit. But whatever the reason, there would have been a glowing object in the sky and, thanks to an optical illusion, it would have appeared to be hanging there as if it just magically appeared.
That seems about right for the Star of Bethlehem.
Now a couple of annoying facts. First off, Rome never counted the people it conquered in any census. They really didn’t consider them people. You were either a Roman citizen or you were chattel. And, to Rome, Jews were chattel unless they, like the family of Saul who became Paul, earned citizenship. Second, I have already noted how the Romans collected taxes. They did it that way to keep everyone in place. The last thing they would do is set the people they worked so hard to conquer loose on roads where they could congregate and foment rebellion.
This would have been especially true of the Jews. Most Roman soldiers were illiterate. (Many) Jews were not. They could read and write from a young age. That’s because, unlike any other contemporary religions, Judaism was memorialized in a book, the Torah. If you wanted to be a good Jew you needed to be able to read the Torah.
So a group of people who could spread a plan for rebellion just by passing slips of paper scared the hell out of the Romans. Better to keep them in their little towns and lord over them with garrison troops.
Which is exactly what they did.
Many scholars have said illiteracy would have been rampant in rural areas populated by Jews, and there is a ton of data to back that up. However, in more metropolitan areas this would not have been true. Nevertheless, since Jesus was born in Nazareth, a/k/a Bu-Fu Nowhere, it’s assumed he was illiterate too. I don’t think so. All you need do is read the Sermon on the Mount to see a man who had a deep grasp of the current social order, was well versed in Mosaic Law, understood the division necessary between Church and State (later exemplified with “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21]), and had a wicked sense of humor. All signs of a very literate, and educated, man.
Sense of humor?
Oh yeah. Just ask any rabbi to read you Beatitudes in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The rhythm of the speech will be immediately clear to you even if the words are not. It’s the same rhythm comedians still use for one liners to this day. It gets lost by many modern adherents that Jesus was a very funny dude.
All right, so now we’re clear who Jesus was, where he came from, and have a pretty good idea when he was born. Nowhere near December 25th is an acceptable answer if you don’t buy my theory about March in 5 B.C.
The whole late December dating ritual came about since no one had a clear idea when he was born and the Catholic Church needed to incorporate, i.e., override, many pagan holidays. The result was many pagan traditions such as the tree, the gift giving, the candles (e.g., Christmas lights), egg nog, wassailing (the most violent holiday tradition ever back in its day), all got rolled up in what was, a minor and simple celebration.
So how did all of that lead us to Santa Claus? You can thank Jolly Old St. Nick for that. Well, you can thank St. Nicholas, who really wasn’t all that jolly. The nice folks over at National Public Radio did a fun, if watered down, story about the man.
If you celebrate Christmas, you may have found some presents under the tree, and you may believe those mysterious presents came from a jolly old man in a red suit.
He has a lot of names, including Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Noel Baba, Popo Gigio — and of course — St. Nicholas. But believe it or not, St. Nicholas was a real man. He was a bishop, living in the 3rd century, in what’s now modern-day Turkey.
Professor Adam English of Campbell University in North Carolina pieced together the life of St. Nicholas in his new book, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.
St. Nicholas oversaw a massive transition in the Christian faith, including participating in the Council of Nicaea — the first ecumenical council. Legend has it that he slapped a famous heretic with his sandal. English says the story isn’t true, but his bones show that he had a broken nose.
“So perhaps he did have a violent past, or perhaps he did get into a scuffle or two in his lifetime,” English tells NPR’s Celeste Headlee. But there was one true story that somehow captured the imagination of Christians for centuries.
English says that as a young man, Nicholas had inherited a sum of money. Nicholas hears about a man in town with three daughters on the verge of destitution. So he bags up some gold, and in the middle of the night, anonymously tosses the bag through the window.
Nicholas repeats the act two more times so that the family could use the money as dowries for the daughters, English says. Later legend adds that the window was locked, so Nicholas drops the bag down the chimney, where it lands in a stocking waiting by the fire to dry.
By the twelfth century, English says, nuns in France were making little gifts, leaving them on the doorsteps of children, and signing them “from St. Nicholas.”
None of this, however, was actually connected to Christmas or Christ’s birth. St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th.
English says that Santa Claus was initially introduced into the American context in the early 19th century. It was a combination of the day’s proximity to Christmas, and an effort by prominent New Yorkers to reclaim their European heritage.
“They were looking for roots, they were looking for traditions,” English says. “They turn to their Dutch heritage, and to be Dutch is to celebrate Sinterklass — celebrate St. Nicholas.”
Today’s image of Santa Claus is very different than that of the original St. Nicholas of Myra. English says he loves the stories of the jolly old man, with rosy cheeks, and a hearty laugh. But he wants to challenge Americans to consider the true story behind St. Nicholas.
“To not only give gifts to our family, those that we love and those that we know,” says English, “but to reach out beyond our family walls to those who we don’t know, who we don’t love, and to include them as well.”
I mentioned that the story was watered down. You see, Turkish sailors have a long tradition of sharing oral histories. And no one is allowed to tell a story unless they get it 100% right. And they have lots of stories about St. Nicholas. Basically, they all come down to this, the 5′ tall, rawboned, Bishop of Myra was perfectly capable of laying your ass right out if you crossed him or he caught you doing bad things. The recent autopsy of his remains seems to confirm that as a part of his charm.
Some people think that learning about this stuff somehow destroys the magic. I’m not one of them. I like to think that knowing the facts around each only adds to the richness of the tapestries their stories weave. When you know that Jesus played the Roman army like a violin to spread His message, you have to be impressed with the tremendous battle of wits He had to wage every day just to stay alive. When you know that St. Nicholas was capable of saving children from slavery, and able to knock the snot out of any miscreant, it just goes to show you how dedicated he was to his cause.
These people did not live in a bubble. They walked and talked and breathed and ate among their contemporaries. Their lives were influenced by their pasts while they held their collective vision on the future. Knowing that doesn’t lessen them. In many ways it makes them greater.
Now, how we ended up here from there says more about us than either of them.