The surprising reason it falls during Lent, and why it has been important for fighting heresy and abortion.
Over at Christianity Today I’ve just published an article on a subject that has long puzzled me: Why don’t pro-life evangelical Protestants talk much about the Annunciation? And if we believe that life starts at conception, then why are we more likely to associate the Incarnation with Christ’s birth (Christmas) than with the Annunciation (conception)?
Some familiar names for Christian History readers—N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, Scot McKnight, and others—were kind enough to reply, and I’m grateful for their insights. In fact, I received more response than I had expected, and as a result wasn’t able to include some of the more interesting church history aspects of the discussion.
Among them: Why March 25? The answer at first seems obvious: It’s nine months before Christmas. So many writeups on Annunciation assume (as I had) that once the church placed Christmas on December 25, it was a simple matter of counting backwards to mark Annunciation and Jesus’ conception.
But Muhlenberg College historian William J. Tighe argues that such a history gets things backwards. Before trying to determine either the dates of Jesus’ birth or conception, they tried to determine the date of his death. Tighe’s brief overview, which was published in Touchstone, is worth reading, as is his sequel of sorts in Touchstone’s current issue. But for our purposes here, what you need to know is that Greek Christians in the East said Jesus died April 6 and Latin Christians in the West said March 25.
At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the "integral age" of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed. … Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.
Thus is it no accident or irritation that the Annunciation often falls during Lent—or even Holy Week. Originally, that was part of the point. As Augustine wrote, "He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered." (Biblical Archaeology Review’s article on this point is also worth reading.)
As the centuries went on, Annunciation became more associated with Mary than with the Incarnate Christ. By 656, the tenth council of Toledo,for example, called it "the festival of the Mother of God." But discussion of the unborn Jesus continued.
The headscratching headlines about the restoration of the world's oldest monastery.
"Egypt: Ancient Monastery Called a Sign of Coexistence" read the New York Times headline on an Associated Press story. The Daily Star of Lebanon, on its headline for the same story was even more direct: "Ascetic saint becomes a symbol of tolerance."
To be clear, it's the renovation, unveiled last week, of Antony's 1700-year-old monastery that's the symbol of tolerance, not Antony himself.
“I believe today is important because it can answer all the questions of the people all over the world and it can show how the Muslims can stay here eight years restoring and making impressive work,” Zahi Hawass told the Associated Press and other journalists.
As for Antony, he wasn't quite the symbol of interfaith tolerance. Here's the opening of Mark Galli's profile in Christian History's issue 64, on Antony and the other desert fathers:
Crossing the dry Egyptian desert, a band of philosophers finally arrived at the "inner mountain," the monastic abode of a Christian named Antony. The skeptical scholars asked the illiterate old man to explain the inconsistencies of Christianity, and after they got started, they ridiculed some of its teachings—especially that God's Son would die on a cross.
Antony, who spoke only Coptic (not Greek, the international language of the day), answered through an interpreter. He began by asking, "Which is better—to confess a cross, or to attribute acts of adultery and pederasty to those whom you call gods?" After questioning further the reasonableness of paganism, he moved to the central issue.
"And you, by your syllogisms and sophisms," he continued, "do not convert people from Christianity to Hellenism, but we, by teaching faith in Christ, strip you of superstition. … By your beautiful language, you do not impede the teaching of Christ, but we, calling on the name of Christ crucified, chase away the demons you fear as gods."
Because of their mutual commitment to Scripture, says Robert Louis Wilken, evangelicals and the church fathers have a natural affinity.
On October 29, the nation's attention was focused on Yankee Stadium and game two of the World Series. But at Wheaton College, several hundred people chose instead to crowd into Barrows Auditorium to mark the public beginning of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies.
Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, promised baseball fans he'd keep the Center’s inaugural lecture brief. In his short address, he dashed through the church fathers’ approach to interpreting Scripture, touching the bases at Isaiah 6, Matthew 5, and Job 14, before coming home with key insights on patristic exegesis.
In addition to relating the Fathers’ comments on these passages, Wilken explored why evangelical Protestants in particular should pay attention to writers like Gregory the Great, Augustine, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa, and why evangelicals are indeed beginning to realize “that the early heritage is theirs also.”
The large majority of Wilken’s graduate students over the past ten years have been evangelicals, he said. The success of the ambitious Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press) testifies to such interest as well. Now the opening of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies institutionalizes that interest—and in a first-rate location.
First, Wilken posed the question, Why this renewed interest?
Six things I've already learned from the new "Ancient Christian Doctrine" series.
In The Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose's entertaining and sympathetic account of his undercover semester at Liberty University, he records a conversation with Jon, a freckle-faced, carrot-top "rapture nut" from Kentucky.
Jon tries to explain the rapture to Roose, taking him on a scriptural tour that begins with the seven days of creation and ends appropriately in the Apocalypse. Jon says to Kevin, "If all those numbers and verses weren't about the end of the world, what were they about?"
Good question. Surely parts of Revelation are about the end of the world, but the seven days of creation?
The Bible is so varied and so vast a collection of writings that it is important to know what it is about just to avoid getting sidetracked. The end of the world is certainly a part of what the Bible is about. But isn't the picture bigger than that?
In his general introduction to volume one of the new five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine (IVP), Thomas Oden says that we can know what the Bible is about by paying attention to the orderly instruction the early church gave to new believers. "This teaching sought to express the commonly shared understanding of the unified meaning of the whole gist of Scripture."
That orderly instruction of new believers (catechesis) was refined into the church's creeds, which all include lines like "he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" and "we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." The End is in there.
But there is more to it than that.
Long before football, Chrysostom fought frivolity.
This week, the bane of preachers everywhere returns. When the clock strikes noon on Sunday in America's heartland, anxious Christians will clear their throats, shift positions in their seats, and hope the pastor's next words are "in conclusion." Some Christians living in the Mountain West and on the Pacific Coast might decide to skip church altogether. Because the NFL is back. And pastors will once again wonder privately how members can forget everything about that morning's sermon but recall detailed statistical information for scores of players they "own" in fantasy football leagues.
Few preachers I know would dare mention this frustration in a sermon. You might as well complain about the weather as lament the NFL's popularity. You can't do anything to change either. Pastors don't want to come across as puritanical or legalistic. We have moved beyond previous generations' complaints about card-playing, dancing, theatre-going, and Sunday sports. What many Christians may not realize, however, is that these pastoral concerns run all the way back past the fundamentalists, beyond the Puritans, to the early church. Even those of us who love to watch the pigskin fly would be wise to consider the warning from the most famous preacher in early Christianity.
The thunderbolt of Bethlehem struggled with the need to synthesize classical learning and Christian truth. So did the brightest lights of the Renaissance and Reformation. And so do Christians today.
Guest blogger James Edwards is Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington. He is the author of The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, September 2009). Dr. Edwards is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a contributing editor to Christianity Today magazine.
If you spend any time in the great art museums of Europe you will see with surprising frequency a more or less stylized portrait of an emaciated monk in a wilderness den, often pummeling his body with a stone. I have been interested in this figure for a number of years, but rarely have I seen other museum visitors recognize or relate to the subject. The monk who captured the imagination of the Renaissance painters is St. Jerome, who lived from 345 to 420. I believe that Jerome should capture our imagination as well, and serve as an icon of our times.
In nearly all the portraits, Jerome is depicted as a tormented ascetic, praying, with his four hallmarks somewhere on the canvas: a crucifix, a skull (symbolizing meditation on mortality), a recumbent lion (which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw and which may symbolize the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11), and a red cardinal's hat (symbolizing Jerome's status, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four great doctors of the Latin church).
Two donors have helped create a new patristics program at Wheaton College.
When theologian George Kalantzis returned to the Wheaton College campus last fall after spending the summer in the Holy Land, he had a very pleasant surprise. While he was out of the country, two donors had approached the college administration about funding a program that would encourage interaction between Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism over their mutual legacy from the early church.
No one at Wheaton knew just how much these donors would fund, but George and his colleagues decided to dream big: they envisioned a Center for the Study of Early Christianity, with a vertically integrated program from undergraduate courses up through master's and doctoral studies.
Their big vision was rewarded.
When we teach about the early church, we frequently omit the story of spiritual gifts.
Cessationism is the belief that the miracles of Jesus' lifetime and the apostolic period happened solely to attest to the authority and inspiration of the apostolic writings, and that miracles and extraordinary spiritual gifts ceased after the writing of the apostolic documents was concluded.
As writers such as ex-Dallas Seminary professor Jack Deere have argued, this is a position with no biblical foundation. But it also has a problem with the historical record. That record shows clearly that the early church was quite active in the charismatic gifts at least through 200 AD. There was a decline in the 3rd century, and then again it became active.
Sadly, many writers and teachers who are not cessationist continue to give the impression that miracles and extraordinary gifts were phenomena limited to the apostolic period. The way the early church is usually taught, we hear much about martyrdom and persecution; much about Gnostics and Arians and doctrinal disputes; much about how bishops and clergy roles evolved, and how the apostolic tradition was passed down and the canon of the New Testament evolved.
We hear how Tertullian scoffed at those who tried to translate the gospel into the categories of Greek philosophy; how Origen of Alexandria nearly single-handedly invented the systematic study of the Bible; how Irenaeus defended the faith against a host of heresies and spoke of the Work of Christ in illuminating new ways; how Cyprian insisted on the unity of the church and its necessity for salvation.
What we don't usually hear is how these same august teachers and bishops from the 100s and 200s AD and beyond - Tertullian, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and many more - talked about miracles of healing, prophecy, and exorcism as everyday occurrences in the church. Tertullian is typical when he says "God everywhere manifests signs of his own power - to his own people for their comfort, to strangers for a testimony unto them" (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul).