Sunday 23 December 2018

Advent 4 : A Date To Reckon With

In this Advent series we’ve looked at how our present Christmas developed. We’ve seen how the first date was 6th January, chosen by Christian Gnostics who thought gay sex would save the world from sin; of why Roman Christians later chose 25th December to lure people away from Gnosticism; of why Emperor Aurelius chose 25th December for his reboot of a cult created by the gay Emperor Elagabalus to lure people away from Christianity; and how pagan winter festivals influenced Medieval traditions like the Boy Bishops, as celebrated by the gay King Edward II.

Today we look at how science has tackled the date of Christmas.

It has long be accepted that our current “A.D.” (or the unpopular, politically correct “C.E.”) numbering system of years is wrong. What should be the 2,018th year after the birth of Christ is actually, probably, the 2025th year, yet we retain the original numbering.

The problem arose from the first attempt to calculate how many years had elapsed since the birth of Christ by a 6th century monk called Dionysius Exiguus. In his day years were often reckoned from the first year of a sovereign’s or pope’s reign. Under that old system we in the UK would call this year the 66th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (66EII). In the USA the year would be reckoned from the first year of office of the president. Every Medieval nation would have their own year number and there was no unified date.

Dionysius correlated all the chronicles and lists available to him at the time and counted back to the year of Christ’s birth which he called 1 AD (Anno Domini, i.e. the year of “Our Lord”, though it originally meant Anno Diocletian, the year of Emperor Diolcetian's reign). Before we go further let’s get one thing clear. There was no Year 0. Zero, as a number, didn’t exist in the 6th century. Dionysius came to the conclusion that he was living in the year 525 AD. No-one took much notice of until a couple of centuries later. We now know that he was out by 6 or 7 years.

Among the many scientists who tried to come up with a more accurate date of Christmas Day was Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). However, he didn’t attempt to correct the miscalculation of the year. Newton used maths, dates of the Jewish Passover, the zodiac and Roman Imperial reigns to establish in which year of Imperial Rome Christ was born, and on which day of 34 AD he was crucified. He believed that December 25th was chosen by the early Christians for Christmas because it was the old Winter Solstice (we know what he didn’t – that January 6th was the original date).

The first person to take a better scientific approach was probably the Swedish theologian and historian (Nils) Vilhelm Ljungberg (1818-1872). He wrote several books on ancient chronology and the Bible, so he already had experience in correlating dates from ancient records.

In the 1840s Ljungberg had a personal assistant called Hjalmar Croneborg (1830-1876) who later went on to become a member of the Swedish parliament. From letters Ljunberg wrote to Hjalmar, and a poem expressing sexual desires towards him, it is clear that Lungberg was gay (for the record, Hjalmar wasn’t). However, among Ljungberg’s friends were several homosexual men, including his future defender Fredrik Wulff (1845-1930) who may also have been his lover.

Ljungberg became a lecturer in Latin in Gothenburg. In May 1861 he gave a lecture which caused the “Ljungberska Striden” – the “Ljungberg Controversy”. In it he challenged key doctrines of Christian faith. He advocated a return to the orthodoxy of early Christianity and suggested the Church drop the Holy Trinity, the doctrine that God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit are one.

His lecture didn’t go down very well with the church, not surprisingly. The resulting outcry led to accusations that Ljungberg was a heretic and an Arian (a follower of the 4th century priest Arius who caused a split in the early Church by preaching against the Trinity). The Bishop of Gothenburg demanded Ljungberg’s resignation. Ljungberg refused, and by the end of the year the King of Sweden and the government were involved. Ljungberg stood his ground and remained until 1866 when ill health forced him to retire.

From then on Ljungberg was able to undertake private research. One of his projects was to establish the exact date and year of Christ’s birth. In addition to his tremendous knowledge of ancient chronology he knew some astronomy. Using known dates of eclipses in ancient records and planetary alignments, correlating them to historic events in the Bible, Ljungberg came up with a precise date for that first Christmas Day – 1st October 7 BC.

Not many scientists accepted his date but he did have his supporters. The above-mentioned Fredrik Wulff said that if Ljungberg was a member of some prestigious university his date for Christ’s birth would be readily accepted.

Ljungberg had another supporter in Viktor Rydberg (1828-1895), a novelist and scientist. It was the “Ljungbergska Striden” that prompted him to write “The Bible’s Doctrine Concerning Christ”. No doubt he supported Ljungberg’s date for Christ’s birth, but he also has his own Christmas connections.

Rydberg was a huge fan of northern mythology and wrote on the subject. One was a poem about a traditional Swedish gnome called a Tomten, one of the Scandinavian alternatives to Santa Claus. The poem is still popular in Sweden today, as is another of his works “Little Viggy’s Adventures on Christmas Eve”. There was a national day of mourning when he died, something Vilhelm Ljungberg didn’t get.

Ljungberg’s date for the first Christmas has since entered Christmas folklore. It has even been accepted by Christian fundamentalists who have cherry-picked verses from the Bible to prove it is correct. Modern scientists have followed Ljungberg’s example and used astronomy to date Christmas, most to determine about the origin of the Star of Bethlehem. Even more than a century after Ljungberg died astronomers still come up with a date of about 6 BC or 7BC. Apart from atheist scientists trying to prove a supernatural event in the Bible, it is ironic that the Star of Bethlehem is central to the Three Wise Men and Epiphany on 6th January, and we all know that 6th January was the first ever date given to the birth of Christ by those gay-loving Gnostics.
Over the past four Sundays I hope I’ve given you some idea of how the lgbt community has influenced the time of year we call Christmas, whether it’s the original religious observance or the later secular celebration. They’ve become so interwoven that people today can’t tell one from the other. It’s certain that the early Christians and Gnostics wouldn’t recognise our Christmas as the same as theirs.

Whether you celebrate the Christian Christmas, the secular Christmas or your own spiritual celebration I wish you all the joy and peace of the season.

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