History of Christmas in the Roman Empire, and Israel Today

“If Joseph and Mary set off from Nazareth to Bethlehem today, they would have to cross 11 Israeli checkpoints, a conflict zone, several security checks, and a 30 foot high wall. They would never have made it.” — Dr. Norman Finkelstein.

Bethlehem Nativity Church is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use. It was built in 326 A.D., above the cave locals believe Jesus was born in, and is considered sacred by both Christians and Muslims. It was built just 13 years after the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the edict of Milan, declared Christianity the official religion of the empire, while remaining tolerant of pagan religions.

Bethlehem, on the West Bank, has been under Palestinian control since 1995. The church is in a dilapidated condition, but in 2010, the Palestinian Authority announced a restoration project, according to Wikipedia.

Christians make up only about two percent of the population of the Holy Land today, compared to 15 percent in 1950. National Geographic magazine in this photo essay gave us a sense of Bethlehem in contemporary times.

Richard Cohen, author of “Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life,” wrote a column in The New York Times on how the birth of Jesus came to be observed as part of Roman and pagan celebrations of winter solstice. Early Christians thought the birth of Jesus was in the spring or the fall; it was proclaimed as December 25 by Pope Liberius in 354, sharing a birthday with the pagan celebration of the sun’s birthday.

Ross Douthat had a thoughtful piece on how December is “a tough season for believers”; it’s when “American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

He recommended sociologist Robert Putnam’s book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, co-written with David Campbell of Notre Dame, based on a comprehensive survey of religion in American life. “Thanks to Americans’ ever-increasing tolerance, we’ve been spared the kind of sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal,” Douthat observes.

He also recommended To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by UVA sociologist James Davidson Hunter. Noting that Christianity no longer dominates American culture like it once did, the author critiques what he calls the flawed strategies of activists on both the religious right and the religious left.

Perhaps Christianity has come full circle. Religion in America today, Douthat noted, looks more and more like “the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning.”

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