The practice of gift-giving has obviously gotten way out of control for many of us in the Christmas season.  I suppose on the upside, it helps the economy and gets more people employed, so that part’s good.  But the commercialism and greed, not to mention the sense of heavy obligation (all those relatives!), uncertainty (O God, what am I going to get her this year?), and anxiety (I’ve only got three days left!), take a bit of an edge off of what is supposed to be a good thing: giving to the people we love to show we care for them and want them to know it.

So for me, at least, the principle of gift-giving this time of year is something to be cherished.

It is rooted ultimately in the Christmas story.  But there is one aspect of the story – possibly the most significant aspect – that many people have never considered – one that nevertheless lies at its core.  At heart it is the story of God’s giving his Son and his Son coming for others – a story that most Christians take very literally and that others of us take as a powerful message, even if metaphorical.  But who were these “others” for whom this gift was given?

In the world of Jesus – the broader Roman world in which he was born, raised, ministered, and died – there was, of course, a wide sense of the importance of giving.  People gave to their loved ones, their family, their friends, occasionally to their neighbors, and, if they were wealthy, to their communities.  These are the people and groups they most cherished, and in that order. There was not much of a practice of giving to yet others, to those one didn’t know, strangers or foreigners.  Unless it was seen to be a “smart” thing to do for one’s own benefits.

That was true of governmental spending.  The city of Rome itself was one of the very few places in the Empire where the government would give a grain dole every year to its citizens to allow them to be sufficiently fed.  (The dole was *not* given to non-citizens; and most people were not citizens.)  But the dole was not given out of generosity per se.  It was given to keep the wider population relatively content with their lot since, in city of a million people without a police force, widespread starvation was not a good idea so long as civic stability was considered a desideratum.

Rome, though, was an exception.  Most places couldn’t afford to take care of their poor (citizens or otherwise) and it was pretty much each person, each family unit, each community for itself.  Good luck with that in a world without systems of irrigation, mass-transit, or easy inter-community communication.

On the personal level, throughout the empire, those who could give anything, as a rule, gave to those closest to them.  Even the fabulously wealthy.  There was almost no idea that a wealthy person should provide significant (or much of any) assistance to the poor, the needy, the homeless, the hungry.  At most a rich person might toss a copper to a beggar on the street.  But they wouldn’t give much.  On the contrary, there were moral arguments against giving much, still found in the surviving writings that have come down to us.  Many thought that was not just a waste of money but was borderline obscene.  And the idea of giving to one’s enemies (personal or political) was preposterous.

And the Christmas story?  It is the message that God gave his son and his son gave himself to those they didn’t know, to help those who were in desperate need.  (You say “But God knows everyone”!  Fair enough.  But keep reading.)  The gift did not come to the wealthy: the child was born in poverty.  The gift did not come to the powerful: the rulers tried to kill him (and in the end did so).  The gift did not come to the religious faithful, the “friends” of God (as they thought).  The magi were pagans who didn’t know the God of Israel; the Jewish Scripture scholars who knew the child was to be born in  Bethlehem didn’t go to see him, let alone worship him.  He was alien to them, by their choice.  The shepherds who came to him were outsiders from society and culture, who nonetheless realized what and who had come.

The coming of Christ in the Christmas story is in fact the gift of God to his enemies.  To those who have alienated themselves from him.  To those who have intentionally and willfully decided to cross him, to disobey him, to ignore him, to curse him, to blaspheme him.  They are the ones to whom God sent his Son and for whom the Son agreed to come into the world.  Not his “friends” but his enemies.  He loved them anyway, and gave himself to them.  And at the other end of the story, they are the ones who rejected, humiliated, tortured, and crucified him.

The message of the Christmas is not only that we too should give only to those we cherish — beloved family and friends and community – but also to those who are, at the very least, unknown to us and alien to us.  It is for everyone.  For the poor, the homeless, the hungry – even if they are strangers, foreigners, and enemies.

This was a radical message in the Roman world.  To be sure, it is a message that makes better sense to many people today, as we – unlike people in antiquity – are more open to and more inclined to be concerned for those around the world we don’t know and possibly don’t like, people who are suffering from the ravages of war, poverty, hunger, homelessness, disease, and despair.  And when we give to help even these strangers, we are listening to the Christmas message.  It is a message worth hearing.

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2023-12-27T17:22:28-05:00December 24th, 2023|Public Forum|

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  1. RD December 24, 2023 at 9:30 am

    How about within the Jewish community itself in New Testament times? Was it considered an obligation to help provide for and give gifts to other than family and close friends, i.e., the poor, needy, sick, and disabled? Deuteromomy 15:7-8 indicates that it should have been: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” Do we know if this was actually an expected and common practice back then?

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2023 at 11:44 am

      Yup, in my book I’ll be arguing that Jesus got his ethics and that the Christians (in modified form) did as a result from the Jewish tradition, esp. as found early on in Deuteronomy and the Hebrew prophets (well, some of them, such as Isaiah and Amos).

      • 2Search4Truth December 27, 2023 at 11:41 am

        I would say Jesus got his ethics from his Male Heart…

        • BDEhrman December 28, 2023 at 12:52 pm

          Well, if so his Male Heart was different from every other male heart I’ve ever known….

  2. fishician December 24, 2023 at 9:43 am

    Ironic that many of those claiming persecution for celebrating Christmas ignore some of the major points of the story, like Jesus being born into a poor working family with no political influence, and they had to flee to another country for safety, presumably without having to climb a wall or swim through barbed wire. And Jesus went on to provide free food and healthcare to the needy! The socialist! Merry Christmas to all!

  3. Judith December 24, 2023 at 10:19 am

    Love this! Hope it results in lots and lots of donations, the purpose of the blog.

  4. DreadLocNamikaze December 24, 2023 at 10:31 am

    Is there any historical or biblical data suggesting that Jesus was born on the 25th of December? Everything I have ever reasearched indicates ‘no’ but I’m not an expert in the matter, where as you are, so I’d like to know your thoughts.

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2023 at 11:45 am

      The only data we have is that it was a roughly 1/365 chance.

      • AngeloB December 26, 2023 at 10:42 pm

        The Ukrainians have just moved their Christmas celebrations to December 25th.

  5. tbrower495 December 24, 2023 at 5:01 pm

    Merry Christmas Bart, from a long-time blog member and fan. I have a question that is off-topic but it’s really buggin’ me so want it off my chest. Today, someone named David LeBlanc has been confidently asserting in a “Life After Christianity” Facebook group thread that early in your career, before you became famous, you insisted that there was no historical Jesus. Based on everything I’ve ever read/heard from you (which is just about everything except your academic journal articles), I don’t think this is remotely true. What would you say about Mr. LeBlanc’s claim?

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2023 at 11:59 am

      Completely bogus. Ask him for a a bibliographical reference. He’s just makin’ stuff up…. (Well, more likely he trusted someone else who was makin’ stuff up.)

      • AngeloB December 26, 2023 at 10:45 pm

        How historically likely is it that Jesus was born on January 7th?

        • BDEhrman December 28, 2023 at 12:44 pm

          There’s absolutely a 1/365 chance! Most years.disabledupes{ff491eeb6f54ba38c3a00332ae4a9194}disabledupes

        • sLiu January 10, 2024 at 6:54 pm

          On Monday San Francisco, I met some wannabe immigrants from Turkiye. the one comment the guy said is turkey has 4 season. I assumed it to be as Hong Kong or Israel was a mild year long temperature.

          So Joseph & Mary were freezing their asses off trekking to Nazareth?
          & what about the 3wise men?

          • BDEhrman January 14, 2024 at 2:04 pm

            They were wise enough to bring winter coats.

  6. AngeloB December 24, 2023 at 5:03 pm

    Merry Christmas Bart! 🙂

  7. lewrenchge December 24, 2023 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you! May you, and all who read this, have a meaningful Christmas and a joyful New Year.

  8. Foreigner December 25, 2023 at 4:47 am

    Beautiful ! I’m moved by your way of presenting and sharing your thoughts. In such a sincere and objective manner. Some atheists and agnostics should take notice. Your deep consideration is always a pleasure to be hold. Thanks !

  9. dankoh December 25, 2023 at 10:21 am

    Japan is less than one percent Christian, yet Christmas is a major holiday there – because of the opportunities for gift-giving and getting.

  10. RaleighJohn December 25, 2023 at 2:14 pm

    A good take on the season and its meaning. I had to reread this sentence a couple of times and was wondering who in your mind is the “they” in this sentence: “And at the other end of the story, they are the ones who rejected, humiliated, tortured, and crucified him.” It seems like the “they” could be a number of different groups depending on the circumstances, understanding, or particular passion narrative so was wondering about its use in that sentence.

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2023 at 12:09 pm

      “They” are “his enemies” (just mentioned before). You’re right, it’s a broad generalization , since not all of “them” ordered his crucifixion!

  11. tcroberts02 December 25, 2023 at 4:40 pm

    You preach a fine sermon to Christians and non-Christians as well. Good job!

  12. georgelentulo December 26, 2023 at 12:51 am

    Very good, sir. Thank you for this.

  13. 2Search4Truth December 26, 2023 at 1:01 am

    The gift is love indeed! Not the kind that is content with shaking hands in Church on Sunday, although that IS a step in the right direction. But an entire emotional POLARITY of positive, loving feelings for one another… most often based on personality complementations (“I know mine and mine know me”) leading to us living in the experience of the Kingdom of Heaven… all around us and within us. By contrast, Jesus lived in a day and age and time when fear was respected so much that people thought they needed to become powerful over others to survive and keep them at bay… NEGATIVE emotional polarity… something even our Democratic Societies of today can only hope to let some live, while the criminal code of conform and obey or be punished ultimately is what’s keeping us in a status-quo National Peace. The Hippies of the 60s gave a rather ill-informed try, but ended up so unorganized that they longed for the advantages that all being on the same page offered. I think we’ve all missed Jesus’ real message of living refined Eros as caring love… both in the years after he died and up through today.

  14. 2Search4Truth December 26, 2023 at 1:06 am

    Hi Bart, I’m a new silver blogger member and have an important question for you…
    Do you know at what point in history people stopped thinking of Eros in terms of a God that controlled their feelings and was thought to determine who they were attracted to and who were attracted to them as their essential identity, (lived in Plato’s days and probably referred to as “Platonic Love…” a genuine love for a real friend, living the golden rule together) then morphed that initial understanding into marital commitment reproduction as the only way to be allowed to experience any Eros at all (and in fact enforced under pain of sin in the church or disobeying the state ?)
    Kathy Gaca, in her book “The Making of Fornication” (UCal, 2003) says that when men first heard they should regulate their sexuality as told to, they “howled with laughter.” Can you possibly key me into how they changed their minds, or had it changed for them (a transformation that couldn’t have happened overnight) and just when, or over what time period, that occurred in society?
    Thank you SO much! ( references for me to read will help!)

  15. babaks December 26, 2023 at 5:19 am


  16. Dr Doolittle December 26, 2023 at 8:46 am

    Bart. I agree with your exegesis. But why do you think this message would be something early Christians would want to preach? Some writers say that the declaration, “peace on earth, good will towards men…” is at odds with the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus’ in which the focus is a coming messianic kingdom, free from Roman oppression of the Jews. They posit that the message of the angels is presented that way, along with admonitions by Paul to obey the authorities, to pacify those who otherwise might join the ranks of the zealots and the anti-Roman resistance.

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2023 at 12:18 pm

      I doh’t think it’s at odds with Jesus’ own message, since he appears to have thought that those who give of themselves fully to others will be the ones who will receive the kindom when the day of judgment arrives (e.g., the parable of the Sheep and the Goats). This eventually became the motivation for charity: give lots now in order to get even more in the world to come….. Not exactly what Jesus had in mind (in terms of motivation), probably; but certainly valuable for those in need, whatever the motivation of the givers.

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