Origen Against the Innovation of Christmas? Check your sources!

I came across the following statement, which immediately sparked my interest (source):

Speculation on the proper date began in the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the idea of fixing Christ’s birthday started. Quite a controversy arose among Church leaders. Some were opposed to such a celebration. Origen (185-254) strongly recommended against such an innovation. “In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world” ( Catholic Encyclopedia , 1908 edition, Vol. 3, p. 724, “Natal Day”).

I tend to agree with the overall point of the author of the page, namely that the celebration of Christmas is an innovation that lacks any authentic apostolic tradition. Nevertheless, I thought that the patristic quotation would be very interesting, if indeed Origen were against the celebration of Christmas.

There are, however, a number of problems with this citation. First, the citation is not to any of Origen’s works, but to the “Catholic Encyclopedia,” a secondary source. Thankfully, one can look up this secondary source (link to “Natal Day” entry).

Second, the work of Origen being cited is his Homilies on Leviticus. We don’t have the original Greek of this work. Instead, we have Rufinus’ Latin translation. Moreover, this work is one that Rufinus himself acknowledged heavily editing. Accordingly, while this may be Origen, it might instead be Rufinus. Moreover, Rufinus translated this in the early fifth century. Thus, if this expresses Rufinus’ views, it may represent a fifth century view, rather than a third century view.

Third, the context of the discussion is not the celebration of Christ’s birth by his contemporaries. In other words, Origen’s words (or Rufinus’ words) were not addressed as a correction to his contemporaries.

Fourth, while Christ’s birth is mentioned in the homily, it is mentioned as the sole exception to the standard case. In other words, applying the logic of Origen/Rufinus may cause us not to celebrate our own birthdays, but it would not similarly require us not to celebrate Christ’s birthday.

For those interested, I’ve posted a modern English translation of the text and the Latin original, as well as some related quotations from the same homily at my “Ancient Voices” blog:

On Celebrating Birthdays and Original Sin
Unique Conception of Jesus
Original Sin and Infant Baptism

– TurretinFan

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