Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Every one knows that this is the feast of the nativity of Jesus. The most ancient feast kept in the church, after those of Easter and Pentecost, was that of the baptism of Jesus. There were only these three feasts, until St. Chrysostom delivered his homily on Pentecost. We here make no account of the feasts of the martyrs, which were of a very inferior order. That of the baptism of Jesus was named the Epiphany, an imitation of the Greeks, who gave that name to the feasts which they held to commemorate the appearance or manifestation of the gods upon earth — since it was not until after his baptism that Jesus began to preach the gospel.

We know not whether, about the end of the fourth century, this feast was solemnized in the Isle of Cyprus on the 6th of November; but St. Epiphanius maintained that Jesus was born on that day. St. Clement of Alexandria tells us that the Basilidians held this feast on the 15th of the month tybi, while others held it on the 11th of the same month; that is, it was kept by some on the 10th of January, and by others on the 6th; the latter opinion is the one now adopted. As for the nativity, as neither the day nor the month nor the year of it was known, it was not celebrated.

According to the remarks which we find appended to the works of the same father, they who have been the most curious in their researches concerning the day on which Jesus was born, some said that it was on the 25th of the Egyptian month pachon, answering to the 20th of May; others that it was the 24th or 25th of pharmuthi, corresponding to the 19th and 20th of April. The learned M. de Beausobre says that these latter were the days of St. Valentine. Be this as it may, Egypt and the East kept the feast of the birth of Jesus on the 6th of January, the same day as that of His baptism; without it being known (at least with certainty) when, or for what reason, this custom commenced.

The opinion and practice of the western nations were quite different from those of the east. The centuriators of Magdeburg repeat a passage in Theophilus of Cæsarea, which makes the churches of Gaul say: “Since the birth of Christ is celebrated on the 25th of December, on whatever day of the week it may fall, so also should the resurrection of Jesus be celebrated on the 25th of March, whatever day of the week it may be, the Lord having risen again on that day.”

If this be true, it must be acknowledged that the bishops of Gaul were very prudent and very reasonable. Being persuaded, as all the ancients were, that Jesus had been crucified on the 23d of March, and had risen again on the 25th, they commemorated His death on the 23d and His resurrection on the 25th, without paying any regard to the observance of the full moon, which was originally a Jewish ceremony, and without confining themselves to the Sunday. Had the church imitated them, she would have avoided the long and scandalous disputes which nearly separated the East from the West, and were not terminated until the First Council of Nice.

Some of the learned conjecture that the Romans chose the winter solstice for holding the birth of Jesus, because the sun then begins again to approach our hemisphere. In Julius Cæsar’s time the civil and political solstice was fixed for the 25th of December. This at Rome was a festival in celebration of the returning sun. Pliny tells us that it was called bruma; and, like Servius, places it on the 8th of the calends of January. This association might have some connection with the choice of the day, but it was not the origin of it. A passage in Josephus (evidently forged), three or four errors of the ancients, and a very mystical explanation of a saying of St. John the Baptist, determined this choice, as Joseph Scaliger is about to inform us.

It pleased the ancients (says that learned critic) to suppose — first, that Zacharias was sovereign sacrificer when Jesus was born. But nothing is more untrue; it is no longer believed by any one, at least among those of any information.

Secondly — the ancients supposed that Zacharias was in the holy of holies, offering incense, when the angel appeared to him and announced the birth of a son.

Thirdly — as the sovereign sacrificer entered the temple but once a year, on the day of expiation, which was the 10th of the Jewish month rifri, partly answering to the month of September, the ancients supposed that it was the 27th; and that afterwards, on the 23d or 24th, Zacharias having returned home after the feast, Elizabeth, his wife, conceived John the Baptist; when the feast of the conception of that saint was fixed for those days. As women ordinarily go with child for two hundred and seventy or two hundred and seventy-four days, it followed that the nativity of John was fixed for the 24th of June. Such was the origin of St. John’s day, and of Christmas day, which was regulated by it.

Fourthly — it was supposed that there were six entire months between the conception of John the Baptist and that of Jesus; although the angel simply tells Mary that Elizabeth was then in the sixth month of her pregnancy; consequently the conception of Jesus was fixed for the 25th of March; and from these various suppositions it was concluded that Jesus must have been born on the 25th of December, precisely nine months after his conception.

There are many wonderful things in these arrangements. It is not one of the least worthy of admiration, that the four cardinal points of the year — the equinoxes and the solstices, as they were then fixed — were marked by the conceptions and births of John the Baptist and Jesus. But it is yet more marvellous and worthy of remark, that the solstice when Jesus was born is that at which the days begin to increase; while that on which John the Baptist came into the world was the period at which they begin to shorten. The holy forerunner had intimated this in a very mystical manner, when speaking of Jesus, in these words: “He must grow, and I must become less.”

Prudentius alludes to this in a hymn on the nativity of our Lord. Yet St. Leo says that in his time there were persons in Rome who said the feast was venerable, not so much on account of the birth of Jesus as of the return, and, as they expressed it, the new birth of the sun. St. Epiphanius assures us it was fully established that Jesus was born on the 6th of January; but St. Clement of Alexandria, much more ancient and more learned than he, fixes the birth on the 18th of November, of the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. This is deduced, according to the Jesuit Petau’s remark on St. Epiphanius, from these words of St. Clement: “The whole time from the birth of Jesus Christ to the death of Commodus was a hundred and ninety-four years, one month and thirteen days.” Now Commodus died, according to Petau, on the last of December, in the year 192 of our era; therefore, according to St. Clement, Jesus was born one month and thirteen days before the last of December; consequently, on the 18th of November, in the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Augustus. Concerning which it must be observed that St. Clement dates the reign of Augustus only from the death of Antony and the capture of Alexandria, because it was not until then that Augustus was left the sole master of the empire. Thus we are no more assured of the year of this birth than we are of the month or the day. Though St. Luke declares, “that He had perfect understanding of all things from the very first,” he clearly shows that he did not know the exact age of Jesus when He says that, when baptized, He “began to be about thirty years old.” Indeed, this evangelist makes Jesus born in the year of the numbering which, according to him, was made by Cyrenus or Cyrenius, governor of Syria; while, according to Tertullian, it was made by Sentius Saturninus. But Saturninus had quitted the province in the last year of Herod, and, as Tacitus informs us, was succeeded by Quintilius Varus; and Publius Sulpicius Quirinus or Quirinius, of whom it would seem St. Luke means to speak, did not succeed Quintilius Varus until about ten years after Herod’s death, when Archelaus, king of Judæa, was banished by Augustus, as Josephus tells us in his “Jewish Antiquities.”

It is true that Tertullian, and St. Justin before him, referred the pagans and the heretics of their time to the public archives containing the registers of this pretended numbering; but Tertullian likewise referred to the public archives for the account of the darkness at noonday at the time of the passion of Jesus, as will be seen in the article on “Eclipse”; where we have remarked the want of exactness in these two fathers, and in similar authorities, in our observations on a statue which St. Justin — who assures us that he saw it at Rome — says was dedicated to Simon the magician, but which was in reality dedicated to a god of the ancient Sabines.

These uncertainties, however, will excite no astonishment when it is recollected that Jesus was unknown to His disciples until He had received baptism from John. It is expressly, “beginning with the baptism of Jesus,” that Peter will have the successor of Judas testify concerning Jesus; and, according to the same Acts, Peter thereby understands the whole time that Jesus had lived with them.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25