Thursday, January 09, 2014

Birthdays and Circumcision

This blog is intended to be a safe place for my fellow brothers/sisters. I like taking a scholarly approach to biblical studies, so I'm not afraid of opposing viewpoints. But I will not willingly dialogue with a Witness who does not agree with the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses or with someone, who although identifying himself/herself as a brother/sister, refuses to accept the exousia of Jehovah God's ecclesia. None of the foregoing means that I'm afraid to talk with someone who disagrees with my religious views.

Now I recently posted something about disfellowshipping which led to a side conversation about birthdays and circumcision. I'm not going to spend lots of time addressing these issues, but I will make a few brief comments in this blog entry.

1) Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate holidays or birthdays. Some object to this belief by saying that birthdays no longer have the associations they once did, where people once celebrated birthdays for reasons that involved superstition and magic. Granted, most people observing birthdays today might not be celebrating them for reasons that involve superstition. However, if someone wants to be a Christian that pleases God or he/she wants to live a life governed by Scripture, that person will consider what ancient Judaism and Christianity both thought respecting birthdays.

The evidence suggests that neither Jews nor Christians observed birthdays in times of antiquity. Besides their association with magic or superstition, there were other unsavory elements of birthdays that kept members of Judaism and Christianity from observing birthdays. We must also ask why someone would want to celebrate a birthday since the day of death is better than the day of one's birth. Most importantly, we have no divine sanction, no exhortation--not even a hint from God--concerning the approval of birthdays.

I would add that we cannot detach past associations from these days either. That would be like trying to remove the negative connotations from American slavery; something that's very hard to do.

2) I should clarify my earlier statement. Circumcision did predate Abraham by quite some time; but my point about circumcision was why the descendants of Abraham practiced it. I was not focusing on other cultures that might have had circumcision rites.

Abraham's fleshly progeny did not practice circumcision because the ancient Egyptians did. Rather, circumcision represented an agreement between God and Abraham. When the Jews observed the practice, they were following the dictates that had been given to their forefather (Lev 12:1ff). The children of Israel were not trying to imitate pagan practices when they circumcised newborn Jewish males.

3) As for baptism, it's irrelevant who might have practiced baptism before Jews or Christians did. The question is why Jewish or Christian baptism was practiced and what influenced the Judeo-Christian baptism. What evidence is there that the Jews baptized people because of pagan influence? As for Christianity, it's clear that early followers of Jesus were baptizing new disciples because their Master had engaged in the practice. Christian baptism is not a result of some pagan influence.

4) Finally, some want to quote Romans 14:5 "One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions."

Yet we must consider this verse within its appropriate context. It has nothing to do with approving birthdays or pagan holidays, but is likely a reference to feasts that were once commemorated under the Law of Moses. We cannot strip a verse out of context just to support our pet ideas.

Those who like to quote Romans 14:5 should also recall the words of Galatians 4:9-11: "But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain" (NASB).


Philip Fletcher said...

I like this very much. I also like the simplicity of your answers. It helps to answer questions about birthdays in a way even children can understand. Excellent

Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

As usual your comments have helped make a difficult (and touchy) subject easy to understand.

If I may, I would only add one thing - something that I usually lead with when discussing this subject with others. Namely, that contemporary birthday celebrations involve customs which are *still* superstitious in nature and thus would fall under any scriptural condemnation against the belief in or practice of pagan ritual.

For instance, blowing out candles and making a wish is something that is obviously and unquestionably superstitious in nature – even when done in jest. Therefore, the argument that the modern birthday celebration has lost its pagan roots within western culture is moot, since there are still practices that emulate paganism in both form and function.


Edgar Foster said...

Thanks, Philip and Nathan. You're correct about birthdays still being associated with superstition although a number of people I know would try to deny that their birthday celebration has anything to do with magic or superstition. As a matter of fact, someone once told me that birthdays promote God's glory since they commemorate the gift of life bequeathed to us by our Creator. They might also contend that the candles or making wishes have nothing to do with superstition, although that is stretching things.

It's funny how we're supposed to live in a "disenchanted" time period when people have/are moving away from superstition, belief in spirits, and more toward a secular and technological world (i.e. the Enlightenment period and beyond). Yet people still have their birthday cakes with candles as they make their various wishes. Moreover, we still find people clinking glasses as a sign of "good cheer." But that practice also has traditionally been a form of superstition. However, if we took a survey of why people say "cheers!" while having a drink with friends, most would likely deny any link with spirits or good luck. Having said all of the foregoing, I still must agree that birthdays still have those elements of superstition and magic.

Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

So someone wants to celebrate a day in honour of God's gift of life to them? Sounds good. Just change the date and ditch the ritual and I'll drink to that (without clinking). ;)


Edgar Foster said...

LOL, Nathan. Good one.

Anonymous said...

Romans 14:5 likely refers not to Jewish festivals but to self imposed days of fasting and abstinence from meat. That is why the immediately preceding verses deal with vegetarianism rather than the Mosaic law.

Anonymous said...

For the record I typically forgo cake on my birthday and only have ice cream.