Saturday, February 08, 2014

Birthdays and Circumcision--Again

1) While it may be tempting to deny that birthdays are rooted in superstition, magic and pagan religious customs--almost everything I read backs this idea. People (in general) evidently began celebrating birthdays in order to keep away bad spirits. Granted, not every culture has the same practices for birthdays or how to observe Christmas (etc). That's an understatement. But I'd like to see an early culture that observed birthdays for non-religious or non-superstitious reasons. I have not found one yet.

2) Ancient Jews and Christians roundly condemned the observance of birthdays at one time. Origen is a famous example: he wrote that not one "saint" (holy person) observed a feast on the day of his birth. Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria spoke ill of those who speculated about the Savior's day of birth. See John Davidson, The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of His Original Teachings, page 131. Another patristic writer who spoke against birthdays was Arnobius of Sicca; see Adversus Gentes 7.34. It's also possible that Philo condemned birthdays while we know that Josephus did.

"Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the birth of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess" (Josephus. Translated by W. Whiston. Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 26. Extracted from Josephus Complete Works, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids (MI), 14th printing, 1977, p. 632).


One writer examines both sides of the issue from a Jewish perspective, but it seems that all of his examples to uphold the celebration of birthdays are late, since they date from the 4th cent. CE onward. See

3) To my knowledge, wedding rings did not originate from pagan religious sources. I read an article on this point years ago, but would be happy to see additional research on the matter. I choose not to wear a wedding ring anyway, but not for religious reasons. It's a matter of conscience IMO.

4) On circumcision, we have two issues at play. What are its origins and why did God command Abraham to do it? Scholars point out that the issues surrounding circumcision are more complex than the subject may first appear. There's no necessary B-line from Egypt to Israel as far as circumcision is concerned; secondly, it's far from clear that the Egyptians started practicing circumcision because of religion.

In a journal article, "Circumcision in the Ancient Near East," Jack M. Sasson argues that it's very unlikely the Israelites or Phoenicians adopted circumcision from the Egyptians. After reviewing some archaeological evidence from Egypt, he reports: "Thus one can note a basic difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians in the surgical process involved in circumcision. Whereas the Hebrews amputated the prepuce and thus exposed the corona of the penis, the Egyptian practice consisted of a dorsal incision upon the foreskin which liberated the glans penis. The Old Kingdom reliefs at Saqqara clearly demonstrate the results obtained by the Egyptian surgeon." See JBL 85 (1966): 473-76.


Ivan said...


What's it matter why an ancient culture did x if you do x for an entirely different reason?

The bible doesn't tell us do x and it doesn't tell us to not do x, therefore it is up to Christian freedom and conscience to determine whether x is appropriate for them, no?

Edgar Foster said...


1) Nathan has illustrated that quite a number of people--even you argue that not everyone does it--still celebrate birthdays for the same reason they have always been celebrated (generally speaking). Additionally, what if the Israelites would have reasoned that it was okay to imitate the Egyptians by making a golden calf and throwing a big festival, but calling the feast an observance to Jehovah? That's actually what they did and Jehovah was offended. But looking at the matter from another perspective, what if I decide to clink glasses when drinking with friends, but I reason that it's not because I want to ward off bad spirits? Then why do it? Just because it's a custom of the world that supposedly has a different meaning today? Could I also avoid walking under ladders, but claim to be doing it for a non-superstitious reason, unlike my peers?

2) Sorry, Ivan, but I cannot agree that this matter falls under the rubric of conscience. Early worshipers of God used the two occurrences of birthdays in scripture to extract a lesson about how we ought to act. The Bible does not contain explicit counsel on many things: suicide, smoking, masturbation, cannibalism, slave ownership, etc. Does that mean that all of these acts are matters of conscience? We have to consider other factors when deciding whether to celebrate birthdays or not, don't we?

Edgar Foster said...

1st line should say "even if you argue" etc.

Anonymous said...

In the entirety of Gods word there is not one command regarding birthdays. J.F.Rutherford's personal dislike for Birthdays and celebrations in general coupled with his personal fixation of Alexander Hislop's pseudo-history filled 'The Two Babylons' explain their no birthday rule. It is well known today that Hislop was not a reliable historian.

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Anonymous,

If someone wants to reply to your comments, I'll let them. But otherwise--this topic will be closed for now.

First, I've addressed the "Bible doesn't forbid birthdays" line of reasoning. There's a lot of things that Scripture doesn't explicitly prohibit. That doesn't mean such actions become a matter of conscience or somehow permissible. Neither cannibalism, slavery or suicide are directly condemned in the holy writings. One sure can't draw the inference from these "omissions" that these acts are matters of conscience, can we? And what about the fact that the earliest Jews or Christians did not observe their birthdays? I have not seen much (or adequate) interaction with this argument.

With regard to why Witnesses don't celebrate birthdays, I don't believe you can chalk it up to Brother Rutherford alone or Hislop's book in and of itself.

Edgar Foster said...

It's interesting that the 1975 YB (page 147ff) notes that the Bible Students were still observing Christmas after Russell's death:

Mabel P. M. Philbrick remarks: "A custom that certainly would not be carried on today was the celebration of Christmas with a Christmas tree in the Bethel dining room. Brother Russell's usual 'Good morning, all' was changed to 'Merry Christmas, all.'"

So how can Rutherford be singled out when this kind of change in greeting occurred after the death of Russell and during the tenure of Rutherford? There may be evidence that birthdays continued to be recognized under Brother Rutherford. So I don't find what you're saying all that credible.

On the other hand, I'll concede that Hislop's work was/is ahistorical. But it sometimes takes a little while for people to know such things about works that claim to be historical.

Anonymous said...

Edgar Foster said..."Neither cannibalism, slavery or suicide are directly condemned in the holy writings. One sure can't draw the inference from these "omissions" that these acts are matters of conscience, can we?"

Slavery is not condemned at all in the scriptures, harsh treatment of slaves was condemned. Cannibalism and suicide are directly condemned with the command "thy shall not kill." I see nothing in the scriptures condemning the celebration of birthdays, even by inference.

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Anonymous,

You don't have to kill someone to practice cannibalism since the act itself refers to one human eating another human. There is no direct or explicit command in scripture about eating dead humans. The Jews usually eschewed cannibalism, although the Hebrew Bible does not forbid it.

The command "thy shalt not kill" or "you should not murder" does not fit the bill either. I believe suicide is murder and I would apply Exod. 20:13 to suicide; yet it's still not correct to say the Bible contains an explicit prohibition regarding suicide. An explicit command would be "Thy shalt not commit suicide" or "you should not kill yourself." We find nothing of that sort in the Hebrew canon.

I see nothing that forbids cannibalism by inference either, although one could argue that suicide is indirectly forbidden. but you need to view my comments within the context of the previous discussion, where Ivan wrote:

"The bible doesn't tell us do x and it doesn't tell us to not do x, therefore it is up to Christian freedom and conscience to determine whether x is appropriate for them, no?"

I could rephrase his statement as "The Bible doesn't tell us to practice cannibalism and it doesn't tell us to not practice cannibalism, therefore it is up to Christian freedom and conscience to determine whether cannibalism is appropriate for us, no?"

Again, cannibalism and murder are not necessarily synonymous.

Anonymous said...

Birthdays are generally happy occasions, we celebrated my son's 5th birthday last May. Cannibalism, slavery, suicide, drunkenness and murder were a no show. Birthdays are a lovely thing to celebrate annually to show our gratitude for those people we love the most in our lives. Can't see a reason why our father in heaven would be displeased by that. But I'm sure your religion can find one!

Edgar Foster said...


I don't think Witnesses have said that birthdays are completely sullen events. It's a joy to watch young people grow up, no doubt about that. But do you think that joy (happiness) is a measure of what's ethical or not? Does the joy that an act produces tell us whether that act is pleasing to God or not? After all, I'm sure the Israelites enjoyed (while they were doing it) their mock festival to "Jehovah." That did not make their idolatrous act, meet in the sight of god.

I never claimed that murder or drunkenness necessarily occur at all birthdays. My reasons for stating any of the things you mention were because of something Ivan said earlier.

Jehovah's Witnesses love to have a good time within the bounds of God's laws. We're not trying to rain on anybody's parade, but we realize that sentiment and emotion are not reliable guides for what is acceptable to Jehovah; neither is human opinion a reliable guide. I find it interesting that the man from Galilee who has his birthday celebrated every year--whether he wants it or not--never revealed the date of his birth, nor did his apostles of his Father in heaven. If birthdays are so important, then why doesn't the Bible encourage the practice or tell us a little more about Jesus' birthday and about other birthdays?

Anonymous said...

Apples to oranges. Neither I nor my wife and daughter worshiped our little boy on his birthday as if he were some idol. Perhaps some do?

There is nothing moralistically wrong with birthdays - or festivals for that matter. The question is, do we introduce to these occasions questionable activities or behavior?

Edgar Foster said...


You're overlooking why I made these remarks, as you've done for the whole discussion. Did I say you worshiped your little boy on his birthday? No I did not. But you seemed to be using joy (happiness) as a criterion for ethics or what's pleasing to God. My response addressed this apparent claim of yours. Bringing a smile to someone's face is not a sufficient condition for an act to be judged as godly or moral. That was my point concerning the Israelites and their "festival to Jehovah." The example never implied that you worship/worshiped your child.

The issue of whether birthdays are godly/moral or not is the question. We cannot just assert that birthdays are filled with objectionable or non-objectionable elements: proof must be submitted from scripture and reason. If you want to celebrate birthdays, Jehovah's Witnesses are not going to stop you. We all must stand before our Creator (Jehovah) one day. But when I look at the history or birthdays, the scriptural examples and what some early fathers of the church have to say, I have determined that birthdays are not for me--although I once celebrated them as a child. Have a good day.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edgar,

There doesn't seem to be enough evidence that ALL the early Christians did not celebrate birthdays. How many references are there? Do we agree with everything early church fathers wrote, or do we pick and choose?

The early body of believers had fragmented quite early, as was the prediction, so who held the position of authority in all matters? Maybe those that did mention birthdays went beyond the things written, forming their own additional rules for others to follow?

It's a shame Paul didn't discuss the matter when he met with the apostles in Jerusalem, that would have settled the matter. There was that comment about not adding further burdens to the gentile Christians.

So far I haven't read or been convinced by an adequate explanation as to why Jehovah would be displeased with a modern day birthday celebration, provided care is taken not to overstep Christian principles clearly defined through Gods word. I would be interested to know what specifically would offend our creator.

Witnesses don't seem to have a problem with anniversaries, a birthday is simply an anniversary of ones birth. Why would a birthday offend Him more than a wedding anniversary? What specifically offends Him? Is it simply that the custom had its origins from within a pagan community or is it the immoral and wicked practices which surrounded that custom?

Having spoken to quite a few Jehovah's Witnesses, I have noticed they react awkwardly when the subject comes up, I got the impression they were not entirely convinced themselves.

In all honesty it makes no logical sense to me. I am trying to understand it. I am interested to see if my opinion is wrong but so far I haven't read anything to change my mind.

Anyway I enjoy reading your articles and agree with you on many subjects so keep up the good work!

Take care.

Edgar Foster said...

Hi Anonymous,

You may know that Jehovah's Witnesses have produced mounds of data on birthdays. The WT CD-Rom is quite helpful in this regard.

Of course, we don't have a detailed record of how all pre-Nicene Christians viewed birthdays. The New Testament mentions a birthday, as does the old Testament, but neither "testament" portrays the birthdays in question favorably. As for post-NT professed followers of Christ, we have testimony from Arnobius of Sicca and Origen of Alexandria. Augustus Neander (a historian of the church) more strongly writes that Christians in the early period did not observe birthdays at all. We also have evidence from ancient Judaism that indicates Jews did not celebrate birthdays. But the main reason Witnesses don't observe birthdays is scripture and what it says regarding superstition, luck and pagan religion.

The 9/1/92 WT addressed some of your concerns. I'm going to end this message with a quote from that WT, but I'll make the disclaimer that there are many other articles in our literature that give a reply to every question you raise:

Some customs that were once religious in nature no longer are in many places. For example, the wedding ring once had religious significance, but in most places today, it no longer does. Hence, many true Christians accept the local custom of wearing a wedding ring to give evidence that a person is married. In such matters, what generally is influential is whether a practice is now linked to false religion.—See “Questions From Readers” in The Watchtower of January 15, 1972, and October 15, 1991.
There is no denying, though, that numerous reference works reveal the superstitious and religious antecedents of celebrating birthdays. The Encyclopedia Americana (1991 edition) notes: “The ancient world of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Persia celebrated the birthdays of gods, kings, and nobles.” It says that the Romans observed the birth of Artemis and the day of Apollo. In contrast, “although the ancient Israelis kept records of the ages of their male citizens, there is no evidence that they had any festivities on the anniversary of the birth date.”
Other reference works go into considerable detail about the origin of birthday celebrations: ‘Birthday parties began years ago in Europe. People believed in good and evil spirits, sometimes called good and evil fairies. Everyone was afraid of these spirits, that they would cause harm to the birthday celebrant, and so he was surrounded by friends and relatives whose good wishes, and very presence, would protect him against the unknown dangers that the birthday held. Giving gifts brought even greater protection. Eating together provided a further safeguard and helped to bring the blessings of the good spirits. So the birthday party was originally intended to make a person safe from evil and to insure a good year to come.’—Birthday Parties Around the World, 1967.
The book explains, too, the origin of many birthday customs. For example: “The reason [for using candles] goes back to the early Greeks and Romans who thought that tapers or candles had magical qualities. They would offer prayers and make wishes to be carried up to the gods by the flames of candles. The gods would then send down their blessings and perhaps answer the prayers.” Other such background information is collected on pages 69 and 70 of Reasoning From the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.

Anonymous said...

You are kidding-- right? The Christmas Encyclopedia is written by a retired physician who is neither an ancient historian nor a Biblical scholar. He relies entirely on secondary sources and so far as I can see knows no Biblical or ancient languages. There is a big difference between talking about Christian celebrations which were used to replace older pagan celebrations, and suggesting that Christmas celebrations were derived from ancient pagan celebrations. In the case of Christmas this is absolutely false! Saturnalia for example, did not focus on Dec. 25th. So enough with the faux info.

Anonymous said...

The Nonsense of Christmas– Part Two

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Anonymous,

Please see



Edgar Foster said...

"In 354 [This date may be off. Others have calculated the time at circa 332 C.E.] some Western churches, including those of Rome, commemorated the birth of Christ on December 25; this was then erroneously calculated as the winter solstice, on which the days begin to lengthen; it was already the central festival of Mithraism, the NATALIS INVICTI SOLIS, or birthday of the unconquered sun" (Will Durant, "Caesar and Christ," page 558).

Anonymous said...

1. Maybe, but so what? Those early Christians were former pagans (or Jews). Some of them didn't eat meat, some of them got circumcised. Some of them didn't understand the Trinity. Some of them didn't understand the Law. They had all kinds of issues to deal with. Just like we do now. If we really want to pattern the modern church after them then we need to change a lot more than just our observance of Christmas.

2. See the article you are commenting on. It would seem more likely that Dec. 25 was designed to come after the solstice celebrations. Perhaps an opportunity for believers to be counter cultural in a redemptive way?

3. Adopting and adapting cultural influences is the story of the Gospel in the world. Jesus did it. Paul did it. Everybody does it. You can't not do it. Your English translation of the Bible is an adaptation of the Gospel to a cultural norm that you can understand. Everyone who comes to Christ brings something to the church that was not there before. I'm not saying that makes all adaptations good, just that it happens. Perhaps the feasting and gift-giving are things that we need to cull from our lives, but if so, it would not be because non-Christians also used to do it. Non-Christians used to (and still do) many things that Christians also do with a clear conscience.

4. What exactly would be wrong with celebrating winter solstice? I have no idea about it's pagan cultic connotations. I really only know about it from a scientific and practical standpoint. Practically speaking it is the day when our days stop getting shorter and start getting longer (right?). That's something worth celebrating where I live! And it has nothing to do with what I think about Christmas or Jesus other than the fact that I am grateful that He gives us Summer!

5. Mistletoe is dumb and awkward in real life. I've never seen it used effectively in a real situation. It does come in useful as a literary device in movies though. Also, I wonder how they worshipped holly. I wouldn't worship it, but I am grateful for the reminder that all the trees aren't going to stay all dead looking. (See #4)

6. Odd way to worship a tree by killing it and a few weeks later tossing it over the fence into your neighbor's yard. If that's worship then perhaps I should start worshipping some of the cats in my neighborhood. JUST KIDDING, crazy cat lovers. I would never...

Finally, I question the logic of avoiding things because of their ancient origins and influences. Aren't all human things descended from pagan origins and influences? Abram wasn't born Jewish (did the Hebrew language even exist yet?). The Bible itself was handled compiled and preserved by people who, for the most part, would be very unfamiliar with your theology and practice whatever it is. I would be more concerned with how your current practices affect your current and future attachment to your God through his Spirit in Christ. If Christmas tempts you to tree worship and gluttony, by all means cut it out, but to do so based on its associations with icky historical abstractions is to rather miss the point of an active faith.

Anonymous said...

The Date of Christmas has Nothing to Do with Pagan Holidays (video)

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Anonymous,

if you want to ignore all of the evidence and still observe Christmas, I guess that's up to you. :) But it's funny that people who claim to be followers of Christ want to observe/celebrate days that Jesus never commanded us to observe. I thought he was head of the ecclesia--not us.

According to scripture (2 Cor 6:14-18), we're not supposed to mix the clean with the unclean. One can't help but wonder why people feel the need to observe birthdays if the early Christians did not do it; why observe Christ's birthday, which is likely not his day of birth, if Jesus never observed his day of birth or told us to celebrate it? And don't you just love how the ancient Israelites were told to adapt those old pagan temples and idols into objects of veneration for YHWH?

A scholar named Joseph Kelly (a Catholic) has studied and written intensely about Christmas. He seems to love the day, yet Kelly recognizes the heavily secular elements of the day and he is aware of its origins. Please see

Kelly reports:

Every year the self-appointed self-righteous haul out the phrase the "true meaning of Christmas" to blast everyone else for spending money, the classic symbol of a secular Christmas, and instead insisting that Christmas is a purely religious feast. But this attitude derives from the myth that Christmas was an innocent religious holiday until 19th-century capitalist retailers perverted it. In fact, Christmas has always had a secular element, and spending just represents the modern manifestation of that.

The earliest Christians did not even celebrate Christmas. Not until the mid-fourth century does any evidence survive of such a celebration, and even then it had a strong secular element. Why?

[See the rest of his article for the answer given by Kelly]

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed at how many Christians continue to argue vehemently that Christmas is based on a pagan holiday, even when the facts disagree.

Edgar Foster said...

Well, Anonymous, we know a couple of things. Scholars like Kelly convincingly show that the common practices associated with Christmas do have secular origins. We also know that Jesus never commanded his followers to celebrate his birthday, Dec 25 is not his birthday, birthdays originated from superstition and favorable ideas toward magic or spiritism.

Here's something else to consider about Christmas: what about the rampant commercialism linked with this holiday or the way that Christ takes a back seat to Santa, revelries, greed, and myths around this time of the year?

Yes, we cannot forget the mythic elements (in the sense of "false") linked with Christmas. Parents tell their kids untruths about Santa and flying reindeer. While we want to avoid extremes when it comes to fantastic aspects of life, the supposed day of Jesus' birth--which really is not his date of birth--forces parents to be untruthful with their children. Would Christ approve such falsehoods in his name? Please see John 4:23-4.

Anonymous said...

As Ronald Reagan once said 'there you go again.' You just can't help yourself can you? Why in the world would you take the Jehovah's Witness view on this subject? Jesus also didn't tell us to observe Passover. As Christians we are supposes to share the Lord's Supper, which is not a Passover meal, though it has it's origins in the last supper, which Jesus modified dramatically for his followers with his 'this is my body'....etc. Origins are one thing, legitimate developments are another. The question is whether the celebration of Christmas is a legitimate way to praise and honor Christ and a legitimate development of celebrations in early Christianity, and the answer is yes. There is nothing specifically pagan about celebrating the coming of Jesus in the womb of Mary. On the contrary, it happens to be a part of celebrating the reality and understanding of the Trinity, a specifically Christian idea.

Edgar Foster said...


I'm glad you have a sense of humor. You may have failed to notice from the banner of my blog that I am one of Jehovah's Witnesses. But that's not the only reason I feel this way about Christmas:

1) The Lord'e Evening Meal is not a Passover meal, nor was the Pesach strictly a type of what Christ instituted. Paul makes this point clear in 1 Cor 10:18ff. The Lord's Supper was foreshadowed by the commuion sacrifices in ancient Israel. That observance is not based on falsehoods and pagan religious rites.

2) Origins can be important as evidenced by the children of Israel trying to celebrate a festival to Jehovah with a golden calf, something they evidently learned in Egypt. Was YHWH pleased with their attempt to modify calf worship to his supposed praise? I don't think so.

3) How could observing Christmas honor God and Christ when the day is rooted in falsehoods, and religious uncleanness? The day was secular from the start and based on myths. Besides, the NT does not reveal Christ's day of birth, nor do we read about early Christians observing Christ's day of birth or their own.