by Margaret Schatkin
Margaret Schatkin is an associate professor of theology, having joined the faculty in 1969. A member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, she specializes in patristics, with a special emphasis on the theology of John Chrysostom.
“Dies igitur vera natalis [Christi] ignoratur.” So wrote Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) in Book VI of his Opus de emendatione temporum, referring to the indeterminacy in antiquity of the actual day of Christ’s birth. Indeed, most liturgical scholars today do not consider December 25th to be the actual day of His birth. St. John Chrysostom, however, asserts that the date of December 25th is historically accurate, citing records of the census taken at His birth and stored in the archives of Rome. These interesting remarks appear in his Christmas sermon, (PG 49, 351-62) Let’s take a closer look at the nature and validity of Chrysostom’s claim.
In his sermon Chrysostom adduces three arguments to prove that December 25th is the correct day of the birth of Christ. The second of these “proofs” is the claim that the records of the census mentioned in Luke 2:1-3 were preserved in the archives of Rome and provided the Roman church with the knowledge of the dies natalis of Christ.
Chrysostom is most confident that the Roman archives contain the record of the day of Christ’s birth. In contrast to Tertullian, he presents this case not to prove the fact of the nativity, but to show that December 25th is the actual day of Jesus’ birth. He wishes to reassure his congregation that this is the correct day, on which to celebrate the feast of the nativity. The homily (PG 49, 351-362) is emphatic in this regard. He describes the day as known from the beginning to those who dwell in the West. He also says that some in Antioch defend the day as time-honored, on the grounds that the prophets predicted His birth, and the festival has become well- known to people from Thrace to Cadiz:
The phrase ἀπὸ Θρᾴκης μέχρι Γαδείρων appears only once in the writings of Chrysostom, and that is its sole appearance in all of Greek literature.
Since the phrase, “from Thrace to Gades” is not a commonplace, the geographical reference becomes more significant. Thrace, which became a Roman province ca. 46 B.C., fell under the rule of the eastern emperors in the fourth century A.D., and Constantinople (earlier Byzantium) was its capital. Thus Chrysostom implies that the feast of the nativity on December 25th was observed in Constantinople from its foundation. This could explain why Gregory of Nazianzus, in Or. 38, which he delivered in Constantinople on December 25, 380, explains the nature and significance of the December 25th feast, but does not defend the choice of day.
Remarkably, Chrysostom states that anyone may examine the Roman archives and verify the December 25th day for himself. This is the proof from the census.
Chrysostom states, on the basis of Lc. 2:1-2, that Jesus was born during the “first census.” Significantly, he indicates that there was more than one census, and seems not to follow Eusebius H.e. 1.5 in identifying the census of Act. 5:37 with that of Lc. 2:2.
Then Chrysostom makes reference to the records of the census preserved in Rome. He writes: “And it is possible for anyone who wants, to read in the archives publicly stored at Rome and learn the time (τὸν καιρὸν) of the census.” The word καιρός is used to signify a moment of history in which is found particular significance for the process of divine revelation. He goes on to indicate that the census decreed by Augustus was not random, but part of the divine plan, God wishing to create a permanent record of the birthday of Christ.
The preacher then goes on to explain that God moved the soul of emperor Augustus to decree a universal census, so that the prophecy of Mich. 5:2, according to which it was necessary that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem, could be fulfilled. The census decreed by Augustus is thus considered by Chrysostom to be a part of the divine economy, and the record of the census to have been preserved by providence.
Where the student of patristic thought recognizes the teaching of divine “economy,” it is the place of the historian to investigate whether Chrysostom’s assertion that the census records are preserved in Rome has any basis in fact. For, similar claims of records being made and stored in Roman archives occur in Latin versions of the Descensus and other apocryphal literature. However, the context of Chrysostom’s remark is far different textually and contextually from the aforementioned apocryphal writings. One outstanding difference between them is that Chrysostom was trained in the School of Antioch to respect history. Not claiming to have been in Rome and seen the archives himself, he nonetheless emphasizes that his information comes from reliable sources. This source was the Church of Rome, as Chrysostom states. The celebration of the nativity on December 25th was a tradition of long standing in the Church of Rome, which the Romans have now sent on to the Church of Antioch.