Several years ago, in a documentary called “Religulous” (clever, right?), Bill Maher claimed that most of the story of Christ, especially the parts about His birth, were cribbed from pagan mythology. After all, Maher claimed, the Egyptian God Horus was born of a virgin on December 25th, was baptized, had twelve disciples, performed miracles, and ultimately died and rose again. Christianity, said Maher, is nothing but a cheap knockoff.
The problem is, as numerous critics have pointed out, Maher’s claims are complete nonsense. No original source material backs up his description of Horus or, for that matter, of Mithras or Krishna, two other deities Maher claims early Christians copied.
As ridiculous as “Religulous” is, some of its same claims about the origins of Christian holidays remain and tend to surface most at Christmas time. For example, how and when did the Church determine that date of December 25th? Was it to compete with the Roman festival of Saturnalia? And what about trees, and gifts, and lights? Where did all of that come from? And, what about those pagan stories that resemble Christ, of sons of the gods and “corn kings” who die and rise again?
Recently, historian and long-time friend of the Colson Center, Dr. Glenn Sunshine joined Shane Morris to talk about these things on the Upstream podcast. During his conversation with Shane, Dr. Sunshine answered some of the core questions about Christmas.
For instance, Sunshine argued that December 25th was not chosen as the date for Christmas in order to co-opt a pagan solstice festival. More likely, it was based on an ancient Jewish belief that people are conceived on the date of their deaths. Since Christ died on or around March 25th, some Church Fathers believed that Christ must have been conceived on that day and born nine months later… December 25th.