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History of the Early Church
Other Major Changes of the Post-Apostolic Church
The Value of Historical Awareness
Introduction to the Early Church
The Apostolic Church, a House Church System
Fourth Century Changes in Church Meetings
Other Major Changes of the Post-Apostolic Church
Ideological Competitors of Early Christianity
Changes in 4th Century Theology – The Gospel
Changes in 4th Century Theology – Church and State
The Apostolic Church vs. Greek Mysticism
Changes in 4th Century Theology – Determinism, Divorce
Conclusions, Does God Care About These Changes?
Christmas, Another Major Change Made By the Post-Apostolic church
Because it constitutes a major element of modern Christian culture, we should also mention Christmas. It is a historical fact, that for 200 years after Christ the church did not celebrate Christ’s birthday or any holiday on December 25. And it wasn’t until sometime in the middle of the 300’s AD that most of the church began celebrating a holiday on December 25.
The actual observance of the day of Jesus' birth was long in coming. In particular, during the first two centuries of Christianity there was strong opposition to recognizing birthdays of martyrs or, for that matter, of Jesus. Numerous church fathers offered sarcastic comments about the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays…"
The observance probably does not date earlier than A.D. 200 and did not become widespread until the 4th cent."
In fact, both Irenaeus and Tertullian, who both wrote between 170-210 AD, do not mention Christmas in their list of Christian feast days.
"Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts..."
The Catholic Encyclopedia
However, it is also a historical fact that December 25 was celebrated in the Roman and pagan world as the birth of the sun god Sol or Mithra. In the decades and centuries before Christians began celebrating December 25, Roman emperors promoted the sun god and his feast day of December 25.
"Natalis Invicti. The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date. For the history of the solar cult, its position in the Roman Empire, and syncretism with Mithraism..."
The Catholic Encyclopedia
The first mention of December 25 as the birth date of Jesus occurred in A.D. 336 in an early Roman calendar. The celebration of this day as Jesus' birth date was probably influenced by pagan (unchristian) festivals held at that time. The ancient Romans held year-end celebrations to honor Saturn, their harvest god; and Mithras, the god of light.
World Book Encyclopedia
The precise origin of assigning December 25 as the birth date of Jesus is unclear. The New Testament provides no clues in this regard. December 25 was first identified as the date of Jesus' birth by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 and later became the universally accepted date. One widespread explanation of the origin of this date is that December 25 was the Christianizing of the dies solis invicti nati ("day of the birth of the unconquered sun"), a popular holiday in the Roman Empire that celebrated the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer. Indeed, after December 25 had become widely accepted as the date of Jesus' birth, Christian writers frequently made the connection between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son."
Under the Achaemenids, Mithra became increasingly important, until he appeared in the 5th cent. B.C. as the principal Persian deity, the god of light and wisdom, closely associated with the sun. His cult expanded through the Middle East into Europe and became a worldwide religion, called Mithraism. This was one of the great religions of the Roman Empire, and in the 2d cent. A.D. it was more general than Christianity."
In Roman religion, the name of two distinct sun gods at Rome. The original Sol, or Sol Indiges, had an annual sacrifice and shrines on the Quirinal and in the Circus Maximus. After the importation of various Syrian sun cults, Elagabalus built a temple to Sol Invictus on the Palatine and attempted to make his worship the principal religion at Rome. Aurelian later reestablished the worship and erected a temple to Sol in the Campus Agrippae. The worship of Sol remained the chief imperial cult until the rise of Christianity."
"Sol, in Roman religion, in Roman religion, sun god. An ancient god of Mesopotamian origin, he was introduced (c.220) into Roman religion as Sol Invictus by emperor Heliogabalus. His worship remained an important cult of Rome until the rise of Christianity."
The worship of Sol assumed an entirely different character with the later importation of various sun cults from Syria. The Roman emperor Elagabalus (reigned AD 218-222) built a temple to him as Sol Invictus on the Palatine and attempted to make his worship the principal religion at Rome. The emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275) later reestablished the worship and erected a magnificent temple to Sol in the Campus Agrippae. The worship of Sol as special protector of the emperors and of the empire remained the chief imperial cult until it was replaced by Christianity."
"Church Year -
Many have posited the theory that the feast of Christ's Nativity, the birthday of "the sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2), was instituted in Rome, or possibly North Africa, as a Christian rival to the pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun at the winter solstice. This syncretistic cult that leaned toward monotheism had been given official recognition by the emperor Aurelian in 274."
"Hellenistic Religion –
Syrian solar cults of Sol Invictus (the "Unconquered Sun") and Jupiter Dolichenus played an important role under the emperors Antoninus Pius, the Severans-Septimius, and Alexander-and Elagabalus and these were hailed as the supreme deities of Rome under Aurelian, whose Sun temple was dedicated in 274."
Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340) was the court theologian of Emperor Constantine the Great, who formed the Orthodox understanding of the mutual relationship of church and state... Some of Eusebius' remarks echo the cult of the Unconquered Sun, the Sol Invictus, who was represented by the emperor according to pagan understanding. The emperor - in this respect he also resembled the pagan god - emperor who played the role of the pontifex maximus (high priest) in the state cult - took the central position within the church as well."
"Mystery Religion -
The height of Syrian influence was in the 3rd century AD when Sol, the Syrian sun god, was on the verge of becoming the chief god of the Roman Empire. He was introduced into Rome by the emperor Elagabalus (Heliogabalus) in about AD 220…The emperor Aurelian (270-275) elevated Sol to the highest rank among the gods…emperor Constantine the Great, some 50 years later, wavered between Sol and Christ. For some time his religious policy was devised so as to allow the coexistence of both religions.
In his writings, Tertullian reports that the early Christians did not join in with the pagans in their holiday customs.
[Addressing pagans:] On your day of gladness, we [Christians] neither cover our doorposts with wreaths, nor intrude upon the day with lamps…We are accused of lower sacrilege because we do not celebrate along with you the holidays…
Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.44.
Christians have no acquaintance with the festivals of the Gentiles.
Tertullian (c. 198, W), 4.24.
You Christians have your own registers, your own calendar. You have nothing to do with the festivities of the world. In fact, you are called to the very opposite…
Tertullian (c. 2122, W), 3.101.
Tertullian’s comments express the disapproval early Christians felt for those who participated in pagan holiday customs surrounding December 25.
The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s as Saturnalia is Saturn’s. Yes, it is Saturn’s day, which must necessarily be celebrated even by little slaves at the time of Saturnalia. Likewise, New Year’s gifts must be caught at…And all the presents of Midwinter…The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday. Every ceremony of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian teacher?
Tertullian (c. 200, W), 3.66.
We must now address the subject of holidays and other extraordinary festivities. We sometimes excuse these to our wantonness, sometimes to our timidity – in opposition to the common faith and discipline. The first point, indeed, on which I will join is this: whether a servant of God should share with the very nations themselves in matters of this kind – either in dress, food, or in any other kind of festivity.… “There is no communion between light and darkness,” between life and death. Or else we should rescind what has been written, “The world will rejoice, but you will grieve”…When the world rejoices, let us grieve. And when the world afterward grieves, we will rejoice….There are certain gift days, by which some adjust the claim of honor; or with others, the debt of wages….If men have consecrated for themselves this custom from superstition, why do you…participate in festivities consecrated to idols?
Tertullian (c. 200, W), 3.68, 69.
Imagine how different Christianity would be today if there was no Christmas holiday occupying our anticipation and activities for several months each year? When we do we can see another aspect of how different apostolic church culture was from our own today. Think about the passages in the bible that may relate to the issue of celebrating holy days. And more importantly, think about how our perspective on what those passages were intended to mean may be affected by our modern traditions, which stand in stark contrast to the early church’s experience.
Conclusions on Changes in Church Practice after the Apostolic Age
As we have seen, there are significant changes in Church practice and culture which had occurred by the end of the fourth century. From the times of the apostles and 100 years afterwards, the earliest church met in their homes each week. Their meetings focused on teaching and edification through instruction. Teaching was the shared task of a group of experienced men and included interaction from the other men present at the meetings. Church meetings had little or no musical activity. And a full communal meal was shared by all in thanks and commemoration of the central act of New Testament fellowship instituted by Christ as the only feast that his followers must keep. There was no celebration of Jesus’ birthday or any Christmas holiday on December 25.
But, by the time of Constantine sweeping changes were introduced that have significantly altered Christian culture and church life. Since then, the church has met in buildings patterned after pagan temples and government buildings. Our teachers are trained like the professional orators of Greek and Roman religion and government. They are fully paid professionals and many of them sit in special seats just like the Roman magistrates and Greek orators. And each week they deliver uninterruptible speeches crafted from the art of Greek rhetoric. The rest of the church faces forward. We don’t speak to one another. And a large segment of the service is devoted to the music of the choir and musicians on stage. By contrast, only few quick minutes each month are given to drink a small sip of wine and eat a bite of bread for communion. And each year several months are focused on the celebration of Christmas.
George Barna sums up his own study of early and modern Christian practices in the following quote.
If you spend time searching God’s Word for most of the common practices in conventional churches, you will rarely find them. If you go further and spend time tracing the history of these practices, you will soon discover that most of our religious habits are man-made choices. In fact, you’re likely to discern a pattern about the way that we “do church” these days: If we do it, it’s probably not in the Bible as one of the practices of the early church! Does it surprise you that most of what we do in religious circles has no precedent in scripture? This includes many of the activities within church services, the education and ordination of clergy, the routines commonly used in youth ministry, the methods of raising funds for ministry, the ways in which music is used in churches, even the presence and nature of church buildings…new perspectives and practices that churches have held on to for many years…
George Barna, Pagan Christianity, p. xxvii-xxix
Let’s take a moment to pause and consider the scope of these changes. They are significant. When we think of the things that most effect and define our Christian lives in the church we cannot help but turn to our particular church, its building, its sanctuary, our pastor’s sermons, our weekly meetings, and how good the music and worship are from one week to the next. And each year we look forward to joining together with Christians around the world in celebrating Jesus’ birth on Christmas. And yet not a single one of these features which define modern Christian life was known to the church of the apostolic era. Instead, all of these elements of modern church life parallel Roman imperial culture and pagan religious practices. If a Christian from the first century were transported to our time, would they be able to recognize our church meeting as a Christian gathering at all?
We may be tempted to dismiss these changes as unimportant. But imagine how different your Christian life would be if you were suddenly removed from your modern church and put into a church that met in someone’s house with no music, with a full meal, and without Christmas each year. It’s a big difference.
Church History Study