Jesus Before Christmas

by | Dec 14, 2017 | 3 comments

Christmas wasn’t always part of the Christian experience.  There’s no record that Jesus or his disciples or the early church celebrated Christmas at all. In fact, the first Christmas or Christ Mass wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century.  It’s likely Jesus wasn’t even born in the winter.  Rather, it’s thought that December 25 was chosen as a day to celebrate his birth because it coincided with a pre-existing pagan festival. That would make it easy for non-Christians to add a new layer of meaning to their old celebrations. That happens in the history of religion.
The interesting thing though is that December 25 wasn’t just the date of a pagan festival. It also coincides, in a way, with a festival that Jesus did actually celebrate.
Like Jews of his time, Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication which occurs on the 25th of Kislev, a month in the Jewish calendar that most closely approximates December.  “At that time,” the Gospel according to John relates, “the Feast of Dedication took place in Jerusalem; it was winter. Jesus was walking in the Temple in the portico of Solomon. Tell us,” the Jews said, “if you are the Messiah.”  Their comments were fitting, for the Feast of Dedication marked the last time a deliverer had arisen to save them from oppression.   It was past time for another; the Roman experience was a cruel one indeed.
The Feast of Dedication commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its utter desecration at the brutal hands of Antiochus Epiphanes about 170 years BC. Today, that feast is known by its Hebrew name, Chanukah. Although Chanukah only gets a line or two in the New Testament, it actually plays a huge role in the birth of Jesus.
To explain, we have to go back in history over three hundred years before the birth of Christ.  Alexander the Great ruled the ancient world around the Eastern Mediterranean. After conquering the Persian Empire, Greek culture, or Hellenism, spread like wildfire. The Jews living in Israel quickly found themselves surrounded by it and then almost swallowed up by it. Hellenism was to the ancient world what Western culture is to the modern world. Just as you can find a McDonald’s in just about every corner of the world, not to mention American pop music, blue jeans, TV re-runs, Western style Christianity, and the English language, so in that day, you could find Greek culture, religion, and language permeating every other culture of the world. Needless to say, it wasn’t all good, especially for those in the minority, like the Jews.  It put their whole distinctive way of life at risk.
After Alexander died, his empire eventually fell into the hands of one Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Epiphanes means “face of God,” but a more apt description was the moniker the Jews gave him: “Epimanes” or “crazy man.”  He was the Hitler of the intertestamental period.  Like Hitler, he was obsessed with wiping out the Jewish people.  He began with the slaughter of the citizens of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple.  Alfred Edersheim explains what happened in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah:

“All sacrifices, the service of the Temple, and the observance of the Sabbath and of feast days were prohibited; the Temple at Jerusalem was dedicated to Jupiter Olympus (a Greek god); the Torah was searched for and destroyed; the Jews forced to take part in heathen rites; in short, every insult was heaped on the religion of the Jews, and its every trace was to be swept away.”

Bottom line:  Antiochus was bent on genocide. The final straw was the slaughter of a pig on the sacrificial altar in the Temple. Definitely not kosher. This occurred on the 25th of Kislev, the month that generally corresponds to our December.
A Jewish deliverer rose up whose name was Mattathias. Even though they were outnumbered and overpowered, under his leadership the Jewish people began a campaign of guerilla warfare against Antiochus and his Syrian armies to reclaim the Temple.  Mattathias died fighting, but his five sons carried on, including one whose name you might know: Judah Maccabee. He led the fighting till the Temple could be purified and its services restored.
Exactly three years after its desecration, the Temple was rededicated.  This also took place on the 25th of Kislev, about 165 years before the nativity of Christ.  If Antiochus had carried out his plan, there would have been no Mary, no Joseph, and no Jesus.  There would have been no Messiah of Israel, no Savior of the World.  Bottom line:  without Chanukah, there would be no Christmas. Jesus owed his life to Chanukah. In a sense, we owe our faith to it.
In the midst of this Advent Season, let us remember the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom of religion and which makes possible the major Christian one.  Let’s do like Jesus did and re-dedicate ourselves to freedom of religious expression, and to the freedom to dedicate ourselves to God.
Adapted from “Christmas through Jewish Eyes”, by Rebekah Simon-Peter.

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  1. Melissa Thompson

    This fascinates me. So much of our Christian history I do not know. But stepping back, even if this, God’s handiwork is at work. The oppression they must have felt. The works was in desperate need of a Messiah. The prophesied one. And when you glimpse the Temple and the desecration and then later restoration. It all seems to fall together. Making the story richer with layers of history that seems to be singing the same song. “Hail hail King Jesus, Hail Hail Emmanuel “. Thank you for sharing this insight. -Melissa

  2. John Smith

    Your article confirms the Jewish peoples biblical connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
    When Israel recaptured all of Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan during a full blown out war with Israels Arab neighbors. Historians must be scratching their heads as to why Israel gave administrative control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Waqf and East Jerusalem partial control back to the Arabs that tried to destroy them.
    And these are the same Jordanian Arabs who would not allow the Israelis access to the Western Wall from from 1948-1967.
    Then in an ironic twist the Arabs used the Western Wall area as a garbage dump to desecrate the site for the world to see between 1948-67. Just as enemies of the Jewish people did back in Roman times.
    This story is rich in Irony and leaves me scratching my head why the United Methodist Church and all their Churches across the US are pro Hamas Palestinians and anti Semitic against the Israelis and Jews??
    This story is even more ironic because in this email there is a story where the Pakistani Sunni Muslims attacked a Methodist Church murdering 9 Christians. Yet the Methodist Church remains anti Israel at every turn no matter how many Christians persecuted by the followers of Islam across the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa.
    Maybe someone can answer me that question. Thank you

  3. Ronald J. Williams

    You have a point, but, I think it is incomplete. I would encourage for you to get in contact with the United Methodist Church’s missionary presence in Israel to get their point of view. I also think it is appropriate to reach across religion borders. Your editorial seems to put all Moslems in the same package, which is unfair because while some of them are doing acts that are terrible, others are essentially against what the more radical sects of Moslems do. I know that they assisted in transporting food for UMCOR during the earthquake-floods in the SE Asian Island Nations. RJW



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