Category Archives: Christian history
In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the birth of Christ – some children will even innocently celebrate it as Jesus’ birthday. But there is still an element of the unknown about the exact date when this event happened. About the only thing we’re certain of is that it definitely did not occur on December 25, in the Year 0.
For starters, there was no Year 0; in fact, there was no specific dating system then. Dates back then were measured by the year of a king’s reign, which would have varied from country to country. The Jews currently do have a specific dating system that puts us in the year 5778, which would have Jesus’ birth around the year 3760. But even this has a flaw, since the Jewish calendar doesn’t line up exactly with our current calendar.
The dating system that we use today was divided into two periods – B.C., or Before the birth of Christ, and A.D., Anno Domini, Latin for the Year of the Lord, meaning after his birth. This dating system came about long after the fact, in about 525 A.D. although it wasn’t widely used until 800 A.D. In this dating system, we have the year 1 B.C. followed by the year 1 A.D. – no Year Zero. So, at best, Jesus would have been born in 1 A.D. But that is also not the case.
Herod died in March or April of what we now call 4 B.C., meaning Jesus was born at least four years Before Christ.
We know that, according to Matthew 2, that King Herod was still alive when Jesus was born. Herod died in March or April of what we now call 4 B.C., meaning Jesus was born at least four years Before Christ. Hmmm.
But it may have been even earlier. We don’t know when the wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus. While some have speculated it could have been up to two years after his birth, Matt. 2:8 suggests that he was still in Bethlehem. Since Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth (Luke 2:4), it is likely they would have made their way back home within a few months after the birth.
We also don’t know how long the wise men stayed, or how long it took Herod to figure out that they’d tricked him. Long enough, it seems, for Joseph to gather his family to flee to Egypt. Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in the area ages 2 and under “in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.” That does seem to indicate that Jesus may have been a toddler by this time, or it may mean that Herod just wanted to make really sure he got the right kid.
But what day was Jesus born on if he wasn’t born on Dec. 25?
So, at the very least, Jesus would have had to have been born at the very beginning of 4 B.C., but more likely in 5 B.C. or even as early as 6 or 7 B.C.
But what day was Jesus born on if he wasn’t born on Dec. 25? Since the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks at night (Luke 2:8), the angelic visitation would have occurred between April and October (the other months would have been too cold to keep the sheep out at night). Some scholars have used the knowledge of the priestly cycle of service to determine when John the Baptist was likely born, and then been able to extrapolate from that a date for Jesus’ birth. The best guess currently is that Jesus was born sometime in the last half of what we now know as September. If that was in 5 B.C., he would have been around six months old when King Herod died, or 1-1/2 if he was born in 6 B.C.
The first record of a Christmas celebration is Dec. 25, 336 A.D.
So why has Dec. 25 been recognized as the day for Jesus’ birth? No one knows for sure. For the first 300 years the early church didn’t celebrate his birth at all, focusing instead on his crucifixion and resurrection. The first record of a Christmas celebration is Dec. 25, 336 A.D., ordered by the Roman Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity.
Dec. 25 may have been chosen because it coincided with pagan winter solstice celebrations, or aligned with the Jewish Hanukkah festival. Early Christians speculated that, based on the date of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary conceived on March 25. That meant that if her pregnancy went exactly nine months, he would have been born on Dec. 25. Eastern churches, however, calculated that he would have been born on Jan. 6 and celebrated Christmas on that day. Some groups, like the Amish, still celebrate Jan. 6 as Old Christmas. It is also the 12th day of Christmas.
Over the years, Dec. 25 became a convenient time in Western Europe and America to celebrate Christmas because it was too cold to engage in any farming. They had more time to plan a celebration. For many people today in northern countries, the cold and shorter days mean more indoor time, so it is still a convenient time for celebrations.
We’ll all feel very blessed this year as we celebrate the Savior’s birth on Dec. 25. But if you really want to get Jesus a birthday cake, the more realistic time to do so would be around September 25. And add four or five candles since he was born at least several years before 1 A.D.
With a couple of strokes of a hammer 500 years ago, history changed – in Christianity and, ultimately, the whole world.
It was on Oct. 31, 1517, that a Catholic priest named Martin Luther allegedly walked up to the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed a big sheet of paper to the door. On it he had written 95 “disputations” he had against how the Catholic Church was operating. It eventually led to what is now known as the Protestant Reformation and to the distinction between Catholic and Protestant churches.
Luther was well-educated in philosophy and law but in fulfilling a vow he made in 1505, when he was 21, he became a monk. A few years later he was asked to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg, and a few years after that to become a vicar who visited the local Catholic monasteries.
To raise money, the Pope had representatives sell indulgences – basically, “get out of Hell free” cards.
It was during this time that Pope Leo X wanted to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To raise money, the Pope had representatives sell indulgences – basically, “get out of Hell free” cards. The idea was that people could buy forgiveness for their sins. Half of the money went to Rome, the other half was the “commission” of the man who did the selling of indulgences.
Luther, a huge fan of the book of Romans, objected to this practice since only God can forgive sins and give grace. He wrote a letter to the Pope with 95 points about why this was wrong, which became known as Luther’s 95 Theses. For centuries the story was that he nailed this letter to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, although scholars now believe he simply sent the letter to the Pope.
Regardless, the Pope was not pleased and insisted that Luther take back what he said. Luther had a hearing to make his case and refused to change his mind. He was branded a heretic and in 1521 was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
A few months later he appeared at the Diet of Worms, which has nothing to do with a fad weight loss program. A diet was a general assembly and it was held in Worms, Germany. There Luther was again accused of heresy, but he steadfastly refused to change his mind. After defending his beliefs, Luther concluded with, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” Then he raised his hand in the traditional salute of a victorious knight – the equivalent today of a mic drop.
It was considered a crime in Germany for anyone to provide Luther with food or shelter – and they could kill him without any legal consequence.
Despite his eloquence and victorious gesture, the Diet branded him a heretic and outlawed his writings. It was considered a crime in Germany for anyone to provide Luther with food or shelter – and they could kill him without any legal consequence.
However, a local nobleman name Frederick III supported him and gave him shelter in his castle. There Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (it was also illegal at this time to have a Bible in anything other than Latin) and penned more critical articles against the Catholic Church, developing further the themes of grace, love, patience and charity.
His writings led to a revolt among peasants, who believed that this new theology gave them a right to attack the ruling classes, who were usually favorites of the Catholic Church. Luther opposed the revolt, citing Jesus’ command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. However, he did help smuggle 12 nuns out of a convent in 1523 by hiding them in herring barrels. He ended up marrying one of the nuns, which flew in the face of the Catholic Church’s prohibition of marriage among priests, one of the many changes he advocated.
From 1525-29, Luther worked on establishing a new church, one that reformed Catholic teachings. Because it was a protest against Catholicism, it became known as the Protestant Reformation. Members of his church became known as Lutherans, although he insisted they should be known only as Christians or Evangelicals.
Luther went on to translate the entire Bible in German (translating directly from Greek rather than from the Latin) and also wrote a number of hymns, including the classic, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Luther’s fortitude to stand up to the Catholic Church inspired other reformers.
Luther’s fortitude to stand up to the Catholic Church inspired other reformers, among them John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and Conrad Grebel, who broke even further from Catholicism in the 1520s and ‘30s.
Whether Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door was actual or metaphorical, there is no doubt that it changed Christianity. Most Protestant and non-Catholic churches today can trace their roots to Luther or one of the other reformers of that period.
Gary Kauffman is a freelance writer, graphic designer and photographer, and a Bible teacher, living in North Augusta, S.C.
Fifty-four years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave voice to his dream. It was a dream that had started 100 years before, when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that people of America could no longer own one another as slaves.
But King’s dream went further – to a point where people of black and white skin color could live in harmony. In his speech he dreamed of a time when the offspring of slave owners and the offspring of slaves could sit together at the table of brotherhood. He dreamed of black boys and girls joining hands with white boys and girls as brothers and sisters. And he dreamed that one day people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
The theme of the dream was to quit looking at people as groups and start interacting with one another as individuals. Stop exaggerating the differences and start celebrating the similarities. Because, truthfully, the similarities far exceed and outweigh the differences.
Stop exaggerating the differences and start celebrating the similarities.
Why, then, do we still have incidents like those that happened in Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend?
When I was in college in the late 1970s-early 1980s, we were encouraged to look at everyone as individuals – King’s dream in action. And we did. There was a freedom in it – we no longer felt bound by a constraint of us vs. them, my group vs. your group. The only group that mattered was that we were all human and we were all American. I’m not saying it was utopia but we were much more conscious of our similarities than our differences.
Why Things Changed
But then sometime in the past 15-20 years, things seemed to change. Group identity became more important. Thinking outside the group (depending on the group) was tantamount to being a traitor. What happened?
Power and control happened. Extremists on both sides recognized that they could wield more power by screaming loudly about what they had lost, were losing or could lose. They began to emphasize the differences. And the mainstream media played into their hands, in large part because it allowed them to wield more power as well.
Before long, people were being nudged – in some cases shoved – into one group or another. The group “leaders” – not appointed by anyone nor speaking for the vast majority of those in their group – crowed that if you didn’t agree with every tenet of their group, you must be in the other group. And if you were in that group, then you must adhere to every tenet of that group. If you didn’t – and most people didn’t –and you protested, you were called a denier. And if you were a denier, you were a liar and a hater.
Over time, more and more people have either given in to it, or as more often happens, young people without fully developed thought processes buy into the group-think.
And the mainstream media, in its power play, would like us to think that racism is rampant and only they, and the people they appoint to lead them, can solve it.
Here’s the secret the extremists and the media don’t want you to realize: The majority of the country doesn’t feel this way. The majority of people, black or white, would love for this to just go away and be allowed to treat each other like individuals – to live out King’s dream.
Freedom comes only when we walk together as brothers and sisters, as Americans, as humans.
King addressed this earlier in the same speech: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
That is as true today as it was 54 years ago. Freedom comes only when we walk together as brothers and sisters, as Americans, as humans.
King also addressed what would have been good for both sides of clash in Charlottesville to heed. He wrote this about those in the fight for equality, but it is valuable to everyone. “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence.”
America’s Christians must continue to be at the forefront of this effort, just as they were in the 1850s and just as they were in the 1950s.
Again, the only way we will continue to overcome these extremists is to continue to do what many black and white Americans have already done successfully – get to know each other as individuals and realize that our similarities are far greater than our differences.
Christians Must Lead the Way
America’s Christians must continue to be at the forefront of this effort, just as they were in the 1850s and just as they were in the 1950s. King was a devout Christian who preached powerful sermons. He received strength and power from his daily dependence on Christ through prayer. We should, at a minimum, do the same.
Our prayers today, though, are not to gain freedom or equality for one group or the other. Our prayers today as Christians are to be released from fear and from the constriction of group-think, and to experience the marvelous freedom of seeing each other as individuals.
Parts or all of the Bible have been translated into more than 2,100 languages. But there was one language that almost didn’t get a Bible translation because of the deadly controversy surrounding it.
Translating the Bible into this language was a dangerous task, often ending in the death of the translator. It took almost 200 years before the Bible finally appeared in this language. You might think it was Arabic, given the natural animosity between the Islam and Christianity. Or perhaps Latin, given the early opposition to Christianity by the Romans. Or perhaps Chinese or Russian.
It was English.
The Bible was originally written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). In the late 300s A.D., Jerome translated it into Latin, which became known as the Vulgate (or common person’s) Bible. It was the standard of the Roman Catholic Church for the next millennium.
John Wycliffe came along with the strong belief that the Bible should be translated into English.
However, despite its name, few common people at that time could read the Vulgate – or read anything, since formal education was only for the elite. That meant only the priests had the knowledge of what the Bible said, and the population had to trust their interpretation of it.
In the 1380s, John Wycliffe came along with the strong belief that the Bible should be translated into English. He began the translation process from the Latin Vulgate. He produced dozens of handwritten copies of the Bible. But the Roman Catholic Church saw this as a direct affront to its authority, and had him excommunicated. His work so enraged a later Pope that 44 years after Wycliffe’s death, he had Wycliffe’s bones dug up, crushed and scattered in a river.
One of Wycliffe’s protégés, John Hus, continued his work. For his troubles, he was burned at the stake in 1415. The fire was ignited using Wycliffe’s English translations of the Bible.
In 1517, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation and along with it began translating the Bible into his native German. But English was still non grata. While Luther worked on his German translation, seven people were burned at the stake for teaching their children to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English.
William Tyndale befriended Luther and in 1526 successfully printed the first English copies of the New Testament. They were quickly confiscated and burned. Tyndale was imprisoned and finally, in 1536, it was decided that one death wasn’t enough for him – he was strangled and burned at the stake. A year later, two of his disciples, Myles Coverdale and John Rogers, managed to successfully publish the entire Bible in English.
What finally turned the tide in bringing the Bible to the English-speaking world was not a great reformer, but a king who wanted to have his way. King Henry VIII, who famously had eight wives, made a break from the Roman Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce. He formed his own church, which became known as the Anglican Church, which was neither Catholic nor Protestant. Coverdale was hired in 1541 to produce an English Bible for this new church.
The peace was short-lived. In 1553, the Queen known as Bloody Mary assumed the throne and returned England to the Catholicism. Some of the blood on her hands belonged to Bible translators, including Rogers. Coverdale escaped to Geneva, Switzerland, where he continued his work. Finally in 1560 – 180 years after Wycliffe began the translations – the Swiss church published the first English version of the scriptures, which became known as the Geneva Bible.
The Roman Catholic church, recognizing it had been beat, produced their own English version in the 1580s, although since it was based on the error-prone Latin Vulgate, was not considered as accurate as the Geneva Bible. When King James I assumed the throne, he returned England to the Anglican Church. It was under his authority that an Anglican version of the Bible was printed in 1611, which was heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic version. It became the popular King James Version that would dominate English speaking churches for more than 250 years.
When the first Protestants sailed to America, for example, it was the Geneva Bible that crossed the ocean with them.
The Geneva Bible was the first to mark chapters and verses and was immensely popular for the next 80 years, outshining the King James Version for several decades.
When the first Protestants sailed to America, for example, it was the Geneva Bible that crossed the ocean with them, and it remained popular in the new country into the 1800s. But the King James Version was the first English Bible to be printed in America.
After almost 200 years of bloodshed, more than 200 years of peace reigned as virtually all English speakers began using the King James Version. It wasn’t until 1880 that the English Revised Version of the Bible turned some people from the KJV. It was also the first Bible, either Protestant or Catholic, to remove the Apocrypha from between the testaments.
The KJV continues to be the Bible of choice slightly more than half of Americans.
That started a wave of English translations over the next 140 years, including the American Standard in 1901 and the New American Standard in 1971. In 1973, the New International Version was produced and has since become popular in evangelical churches. In 1982, the New King James Version was printed. The English Standard Version joined the popular translations in 2002 and the Holman Christian Standard Bible in 2004. A revision of the Holman Bible, the Christian Standard Bible, was released in 2017.
But more than 400 years later, the KJV continues to be the Bible of choice slightly more than half of Americans. The NIV ranks second (between 11 and 19 percent, depending on the survey), the only other English version that garners double-digit popularity.
Through various Bible apps you can now view dozens of English translations of the Bible. And if you’re so inclined, Bible Gateway app offers the opportunity to read the Bible that started it all, the Geneva Bible.
Gary Kauffman is a freelance writer, photographer and Bible teacher in North Augusta, S.C.