Advent, the season in which Christians prepare for Christmas, is in full swing. Holiday greetings ring out, families prepare to visit loved ones, and church bells are calling the faithful to remember the birth of Christ over 2,000 years ago. With those joyful thoughts in mind, let’s discuss three prominent media lies about Christian history.
Lie #1: Christmas started as a pagan midwinter holiday, and was adopted by Christians in imitation of another religion.
The truth: celebrating Christmas on December 25th is not the result of trying to replace a pagan tradition with a Christian one, although several pagan winter holidays have been cited by those attempting to discredit Christianity as a possible basis for our festivities.
In his book A Daily Defense, author Jimmy Akin lists two of the more prominent examples:
First: Saturnalia, a Roman holiday dedicated to the god Saturn (even the Wikipedia page for the holiday tries to tie it to Christmas). As Akin points out, the dates for this holiday – December 17th – 23rd – are the wrong dates for Christmas. Moreover, as noted in The Catholic Herald, there is strong evidence that Christmas has been celebrated on December 25th since at least the year 115 AD – a time at which Saturnalia celebrations were still common, meaning it would have been odd for the early Christians to get the date wrong if they were merely copying the earlier tradition. In addition, Saturnalia does not celebrate the birth of a child, divine or human, but rather the rule of the Roman deity Saturn over the earth. There is no evidence of any connection between the holidays, aside from the fact that they both occur in December, and the academic link between them is of modern invention.
Second: The Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. The Wikipedia page connected with this holiday (Sol Invictus) falsely attempts, as with Saturnalia, to link it to Christmas. On December 25th in the year 274 AD, the Roman Emperor Aurelian made the dedication to the Roman god of the sun an official part of the Roman religion. However, as already pointed out, Christians had been celebrating Christmas on December 25th since at least 115 AD. Thus, there is more reason to believe that the Romans stole the idea for this holiday from the Christians than the other way around. And as with Saturnalia, the theological significance of the two holidays is different, and there is no evidence (aside from the date) to connect the two.
Moreover, it is likely that Christians have celebrated Christmas on December 25th since the death and resurrection of Christ, give or take a few years. The year 115 is merely the first year for which we have a written record that the holiday was celebrated on December 25th. As most written records deteriorate or are lost over time, it is probable that the tradition started earlier. Thus, Christ’s birth was likely celebrated on the 25th of December because that was when the first Christians believed – or knew – it had occurred.
Lie #2: Medieval Christian scholars were anti-science, and believed the Earth was flat.
The truth: although the Middle Ages (roughly 475-1450 AD) didn’t feature the level of technological development we have seen in the last 150 years, our scientific understanding during that period still progressed by leaps and bounds. Calendars and timekeeping improved, as did the quality and availability of metal (especially steel), which was vital to the working class. Agricultural production and efficiency reached new heights. And one form of eyeglasses (for far-sighted people) was even invented, with glasses for near-sighted individuals coming just after the end of the era.
And everyone knew that the earth was round.
The modern lie – that Christian academics then thought the earth to be flat (and that Christopher Columbus proved the religious fanatics wrong) has been thoroughly debunked.
Columbus himself was a deeply religious man, and fully aware that the earth was round before he set out on his famous 1492 voyage, the purpose of which was to discover new trade routes by sailing around the globe to reach India.
In his essay “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth” famous atheist, Harvard Professor, and paleontologist Stephen J Gould explained how the myth of a medieval flat Earth belief actually came into circulation.
Gould noted that an 1837 book titled History of the Inductive Sciences is largely responsible for the original tall-tale. That book fabricated the idea of a medieval belief in a flat Earth based on the writings of two inconsequential medieval scholars, whose ideas did not reflect mainstream thinking at the time. According to Gould, the myth gained further ground in the 1870s as researchers who felt religion was inherently opposed to science sought to justify their beliefs. Gould’s essay points specifically to John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) as a prominent work (fifty new editions were produced in fifty straight years) that cited the flat-earth argument as evidence that religion had held back science.
Furthermore, as Gould also noted, the Spanish royal family (who provided funding for Columbus’s voyage) was perfectly aware that the Earth was round. Church scholars advising the Spanish king and queen even argued against giving Columbus money – not because they thought the Earth was flat, but because they had correctly calculated that it was too large to circumnavigate for wooden ships of the period. Columbus’s failure to listen to Church scholars regarding the size of the Earth nearly got his entire crew killed, and would have, had the Americas not been in the way of his attempting to sail to his intended destination of India.
In short: mainstream Christian scholars during the medieval period (including Saint Thomas Aquinas, who mentioned the subject) were completely aware that the earth was round. Technological and scientific development also progressed at a solid pace during the Middle Ages.
Lie #3: Christian and conservative beliefs infringe on personal freedom, and represent the past.
The truth: what is now thought of as conservative ideology was once called liberalism, and was developed during the Enlightenment period in the western (Christian) world.
Most of the Enlightenment’s political ideas (which led directly to the American Revolution and a global rebirth of freedom) concerned a growing faith in personal and political liberty. The Enlightenment (and now the conservative movement) took the west away from the philosophy that ordinary people needed strong leaders to control them. Mainstream enlightenment thinkers, like modern “conservatives,” put faith in the idea that virtuous individuals were capable of controlling themselves, and would be benefited by less government control over their lives and property.
Here are some quotes from prominent Enlightenment thinkers and early American patriots. See if you can spot the “conservative” beliefs, which were just as radical then as they are becoming now. [Spelling and grammar are original to the writers.]:
On Big Government
“In the estimation of the democracy a government is not a benefit, but a necessary evil.” – Alexis de Tocqueville
“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil…” – Thomas Paine
On Property Rights
“Though the water running in the fountain be every one’s, yet who can doubt, but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out?” – John Locke
“The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” – John Locke
“It is in the Interest of Tyrants to reduce the People to Ignorance and Vice. For they cannot live in any Country where Virtue and Knowledge prevail. The Religion and public Liberty of a People are intimately connected; their Interests are interwoven, they cannot subsist separately; and therefore they rise and fall together.” – Samuel Adams
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.” – George Washington
“Love your neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” – Benjamin Franklin
“Ne’er yet by force was freedom overcome.” – Sam Adams
“I am of opinion that a democratic government tends in the end to increase the real strength of society…” – Alexis de Tocqueville
On Staying Safe and Social Distancing
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Benjamin Franklin.
Sentence structure and spelling from “ye old times” aside, the words above could have been spoken by any modern conservative. These quotes and more are available in my book Proof America’s Founding Fathers were Conservative on Amazon.
I wish a Merry Christmas to all people of good will! But wait! There’s more!
Bonus lie: Biden won the election.