The Syncretism Boogeyman (Merry Christmas)

I think one of the biggest problems in Evangelical Christianity is the “legalism boogeyman”, which I have written about before. But another empty fear consumes the Hebrew Roots movement at this time of year: the syncretism boogeyman.

Hebrew Roots aficionados are loathe to adopt any practice that seems “syncretic”, or that incorporates elements of worship that are derived from any extrabiblical (universally called “pagan”) tradition. This time of year the biggest target is Christmas. Unfortunately, most of the attacks on Christmas are ill-founded and mean-spirited.

Toby Janicki’s highly recommended four-CD set “What About Paganism?” offers several potential reasons why Christmas was fixed on December 25 by the early church. Toby also mentions the theory, found in this Bibical Archaeology Review article, that December 25th was fixed based on the view that Christ must have died on the date of his conception; if he had been conceived on or near Passover, he would have been born around Christmas.

McGowan’s article is interesting in that it takes some of the wind out of the sails of those who trumpet Christmas as nothing more than a rehabilitated pagan holiday. But there is still no denying that the date and practice of Christmas is foreign to the Apostolic church, a later invention, and currently infused with practices that are not drawn from the Bible.

While the Internet is astir with arguments between Hebrew Roots-ites who condemn everyone who celebrates Christmas as an idolater and those who think that we shouldn’t condemn several billion people solely for decorating trees, I would like to provide a little background to the discussion.

As much as the Hebrew Roots camp (hereafter “HR”) seems interested in learning about their Hebrew Roots, they don’t seem interested at all in learning about the ancient world and how people thought and acted then. Everyone – everyone – in the ancient world offered sacrifices to their gods. The Jewish sacrificial cult was not substantially different from anyone else’s. Everyone had specific cultic rites they had to perform in order to successfully live in harmony with their gods.

The God of the Jews was, in this particular respect, identical to the other gods of the nations: He had a temple and required that certain rites be performed correctly in it. The rites themselves are, on the surface, nonsensical. Sprinkling blood, burning fat and incense, putting blood on the ears, thumbs, and toes of the priests… none of it makes any sense from a modern scientific point of view. So it was with the cults of all the other gods.

This becomes even more interesting in light of the fact that God’s temple cult post-dated the concept of temples, cultic rites, etc. HR loves to point out that in Deuteronomy 12:29-32 God commanded the Israelites not to borrow pagan methods of worship. But loads of what God commanded the Israelites to do is mirrored in older pagan religions! Is God a syncretist?

It gets worse. Pick up any decent Old Testament Survey textbook; the most popular among Evangelicals is probably LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush. You’ll find that large swaths of the Old Testament have nearly exact parallels in contemporary or even more ancient sources. The wisdom literature of the surrounding nations sounds exactly like Proverbs. The hymns to other gods sound exactly like the Psalms. Is God a syncretist?

HR people love to play on the differences between the cult of Y-H and the cults of foreign gods but the condemnation of pagan worship in the Prophets must be seen in light of the fact that all the Semitic cults, at least when compared with modern religions, had numerous and obvious similarities that obviously do not qualify as syncretism. So what is syncretism?

Let’s take a closer look at Deut. 12:29ff. “When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”

There seem to be three basic concerns here. The first is that God does not want the Israelites to inquire after pagan gods. The reason for this is very simple and if you miss it, you miss the point of the entire passage: in antiquity, all gods were regarded as territorial. In other words, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that upon entry in to Cana’an, the Israelites would have to figure out how to worship the indigenous gods. In a sense, they probably thought they were changing jurisdictions. This is what everyone thought in the ancient world, because all gods were regarded as territorial.

Why do you think God kept reminding Jacob that He was “with him” as he traveled to Laban and back (Gen. 28:15, 31:3)? Why did God have to remind Moses that He would be “with him” (Ex. 3:12)? Because the default understanding of gods was that they inhabited specific places – whether natural, such as a grove of trees, or artificial, such as a temple. God wanted Jacob and Moses to know that He was not only the God of Bethel, or of the burning bush – he was God, everywhere. This made the God of Israel unique among other ancient gods.

Another great example is the Samaritans. When they were brought in by the Assyrians to inhabit Samaria, they were attacked by lions. The King of Assyria sent one of the priests from Bethel (you know, the illegitimate cow altar Jereboam built) to teach the Samaritans how to appease the indigenous god (God?). (I wonder if it worked?)

Deuteronomy 12:29-32 is primarily, then, about the problem of the Israelites trying to worship the indigenous gods because of the common understanding that they had to in order to inhabit that piece of real estate peacefully.

The second concern is about the barbarity of the indigenous worship: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for [Hebrew: כִּי; that means "because"] every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” Notice what God finds particularly appalling is the child sacrifice. He wants to make sure that the Israelites don’t take on such practices. That is the stated reason He forbids them from taking on the practices of the Canaanites.

The third concern is about the purity of Temple worship: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” God doesn’t want the Temple worship to be contaminated by other rites. The cult has to operate exactly as He commanded. This was the case for every ancient sacrificial cult. Everything had to be just so.

So for example, when King Ahaz had Uriah build an altar identical to the one in Damascus, and demanded that the daily offerings be offered on it, that was syncretism. The worship of Hashem was mixed with worship of the Damascene gods by combining the rituals together.

Syncretism then is a bit narrower than the HR camp tends to define it. It involves actively seeking after other gods in addition to the true God. It involves polluting cultic worship with other rituals that don’t belong. Both of these concepts are intimately related. And Christians don’t do either of these things. None of this applies to the situation of Christmas trees, etc.

The Jewish sages did a lot of study and work to figure out how the prohibitions on idolatry apply outside the cultic sacrificial system. Their conclusions are often reasonable and sensible and I think we can learn a lot from them. Teaching organizations like FFOZ are doing a great job of distilling this information for us. We ought to take advantage of this information and use it to help us come to Biblical conclusions.

Pick up “What About Paganism?“ while it’s on sale.


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21 Responses to The Syncretism Boogeyman (Merry Christmas)

  1. Peter says:

    “…most of the attacks on Christmas are ill-founded…”

    I’m not sure if I just read this wrong but it seems to imply that you are aware of valid arguments against Christmas.


    Do you consider the following passage a valid argument against Christmas?

    Jeremiah 10:1-4

    1 Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. 2 This is what the LORD says:
    “Do not learn the ways of the nations
    or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
    though the nations are terrified by them.
    3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
    they cut a tree out of the forest,
    and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
    4 They adorn it with silver and gold;
    they fasten it with hammer and nails
    so it will not totter.

    • Jacob Fronczak says:

      Of course there are valid arguments against Christmas as it is popularly celebrated. The unhealthy consumerism and the secularization of the celebration are the prime ones that come to mind and I believe the Puritans had similar concerns. I also think Christians should be informed about the issues with dating Christ’s birth and the relative unimportance of the celebration compared to the Resurrection. Resurrection Sunday should be a much bigger deal but unfortunately in many churches it is not. Furthermore I don’t think it is healthy to tell young kids to believe in mythical figures like Santa Claus and ascribe God-like powers to them. These are all things I would like to see addressed in mainstream churches. They are also all issues that Christians of every stripe are concerned about and working to change.

      As for the Scripture passage, Toby is correct in asserting that Jeremiah 10 is referring to the carving of an idol from wood, which is a different issue.

      • Peter says:

        What if the adornment of the tree–the decking of it with silver for example– is enough in HaShem’s eyes to make it an idol?

        If Jeremiah 16:19 says that gentile ancestors possessed nothing but false gods (“Our ancestors possessed nothing but false gods,
        worthless idols that did them no good”) and the bedecked evergreen is a tradition inherited from these “ancestors” then wouldn’t it follow that the tree itself is a memetic vestige of paganism? We know, for example, from Roman coinage that the bear evergreen itself–without anything added to it–was considered a symbolic deity in the Mithraic religion. So this is not by any means a far-fetched premise. And if it is plausible then shouldn’t we avoid such traditions out of yirat HaShem?

        • Jacob Fronczak says:

          Just because someone worshiped an evergreen tree doesn’t make evergreen trees idols. Intention is a huge issue here. You can’t accidentally worship idols.

          • Peter says:

            HaShem is a jealous G-d. His name is Jealous (Ex 34:14). And so His nature may require Him to be angry not at the tree but at the accoutrements of pagan worship–the affixing of the tree and the bedecking of the tree on the specific day associated with the rebirth of a pagan deity which is symbolized by the “ever” green tree. He hates the act apart from any mental culpability. This is the Jewish view on the matter. Here is the evidence for the Jewish perspective:

            Deuteronomy 23:12-14
            12 Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. 13 As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. 14 For the LORD your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.

            As you can see from this passage, HaShem is not always interested in the subjective intention of the offender. He is at times offended by the act itself (the actus reus) absent any mental guilt (mens rea).

            And the result of just performing an unclean act even without a guilty mind is that HaShem will “turn away from you.”

            I know this sounds foreign to Christian ears–the idea that G-d cares about even our thoughtless actions, but this is the nature of our Creator as evidenced by Scripture. And He doesn’t change.

          • Jacob Fronczak says:

            Peter, if doing something that a pagan once did in veneration of an idol makes God jealous, then we’re all in trouble. An ordinary action acquires cultic significance only in certain contexts. If I accidentally get blood on my right thumb, ear, and big toe, I don’t accidentally get consecrated as a priest.

            Your excrement example is totally irrelevant. Of course you can accidentally become ritually unclean, or defile the Temple, or murder someone, or steal something, and in all cases there are consequences. But we are talking about putting garlands on a tree, something that is not explicitly forbidden (as your example is) and is not used in a cultic setting. It’s not even associated with worship of competing gods. No one with a Christmas tree in their house is worshiping Mithra or has any intention of doing so. That cult is dead and its rites are meaningless.

            To reiterate, the act of decorating a tree has no inherent cultic value whatsoever. Only when done with intent to honor Mithra does it actually do so.

            For example, killing a cow is not the same as offering a sacrifice even though the action is exactly the same. The only difference is the intention and the cultic act performed with the blood.

  2. James says:

    Fabulous write up. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Vayeishev: If I Were a Rich Man | Morning Meditations

  4. James says:

    Just because someone worshiped an evergreen tree doesn’t make evergreen trees idols. Intention is a huge issue here. You can’t accidentally worship idols.

    Agreed. To put it another way, Stonehenge may have been a place of pagan worship in ancient times. If I decide to go to the UK as a tourist and visit Stonehenge because I think it’s a really cool historical artifact, that doesn’t me an I’m an idol worshiper.

    • Peter says:

      No one is saying it makes you an idol worshipper. Let’s not create straw men here. The context of a decorated evergreen tree on a specifically pagan date might make G-d jealous. And why risk offending Him? That’s my point.

      • Jacob Fronczak says:

        And quite a bit more serious than the possibility of God getting offended by a pretty tree (which I consider remote) is the hurt, anger, and resentment many Hebrew Roots advocates definitely engender by their tactless rejection and condemnation of their own families and friends during the holiday season. That’s my point.

        • Peter says:

          No one would advocate being tactless–that’s a straw man.

          Obviously, one is obligated to share the Truth in love–this would never be a point of debate.

          The issue is when you replace the Truth for a pagan tradition that, on your own admission, runs the risk of offending G-d.

      • James says:

        I disagree that I’m raising a straw man argument. You suggest that having a Christmas tree and decorating it is the same as those people who, in ancient times, would cut down a tree, use half of the wood to burn in the fire to warm their homes and cook their food, and carve the other half into a human-like shape, then bow to it and call it their “god” (see Isaiah 44:6-23). I don’t see people relating to a Christmas tree that way, and for those very few years that I celebrated Christmas in a religious fashion before giving up the observance, I don’t recall worshiping the tree, either. I didn’t even relate to it as a religious symbol so much as just another decoration, like putting lights in the outside of my house (which I don’t do anymore) or my wife baking cookies in the shape of trees and reindeer (which she doesn’t do anymore).

        You talk about risking offending God and I certainly wouldn’t want to go out of my way to do that. On the other hand, given that none of us are 100% positive about what exactly pleases God, and what doesn’t, we probably “offend” Him on a regular basis anyway, just out of plain old ignorance. I often imagine God as a patient Father, smiling and shaking His head at us, like a human Dad might do as he watches his small son or daughter try to “help” set the table or play dress up with his hat and tie. He doesn’t tolerate disobedience, but if he didn’t tolerate mistakes and our all too human misunderstanding of His Word and intent, the world would have long ago been devoid of a human presence.

        I don’t celebrate Christmas but my parents do (they’re both almost 80). They know my feelings on the matter, but they choose to follow their own counsel on honoring the King of Kings. I choose to obey the commandment to honor my parents and don’t continually remind them of my convictions.

        My aged aunts and uncles also are Christians and also celebrate Christmas. I suppose I could “tactfully” inform them of their pagan ways and urge them to stop, but not only do I believe I would fail in this effort, I would cause needless discord in the family and dishonor them. In this case, I choose to err on the side of compassion. If God is displeased with me for that, I will accept His judgment as His servant.

        I have seen too many people become deeply hurt and too many families fractured because of one person who held their truth above all else including the commandment to honor parents and the aged, who decided to “tactfully” stand against the “idol” of even the tiniest bit of tinsel or one small chorus of Silent Night.

        • Peter says:

          You wrote:
          “You suggest that having a Christmas tree and decorating it is the same as those people who, in ancient times, would cut down a tree, use half of the wood to burn in the fire to warm their homes and cook their food, and carve the other half into a human-like shape, then bow to it and call it their “god” (see Isaiah 44:6-23).”

          My response: James, I’m not suggesting that at all. That’s what I meant by strawman. A strawman is when you say I’m arguing proposition B when in fact I’m arguing proposition A. I’m not saying that Christmas trees make YOU into an idolator. I’m just saying it might be “ervah” per the verse I mentioned.

          Here’s a good example of what I mean: if you just married someone and then you discover that they have a box full of pictures of ex’s, it might make you jealous even though your spouse had no intention of offending you. Maybe she even forgot she had the pictures. But it would still make you jealous even if there was no mental culpability on her part. In the same way, we risk offending a Jealous G-d when we retain certain things.

          No one is advocating being judgmental or tactless with people–especially family.

          Have a great Shabbos everybody! : )

          • Jacob Fronczak says:

            “No one is advocating being judgmental or tactless with people–especially family.” You’re not listening. This is the way a large number of people are acting, whether they realize it or not, whether they “advocate” it or not. I can only conclude that you are purposefully blind to this problem.

          • James says:

            Thank you Peter and I hope you had a nice Shabbos, too. Actually, I do know what a straw man argument is and I don’t believe I’m creating one. Many people (though not you it seems) directly misapply the Jeremiah 10 scripture to Christmas trees and reach particularly inaccurate conclusions. On top of those conclusions, some of those people choose to “tell the truth in love”, whether that truth is actually perceived as “love” or not.

            I also don’t want to drag this conversation out any more than it has been already, at least as far as my participation is concerned. The problem I see here is less about Christmas trees and “unintentional idol worship” and more about messed up methods of communication, misunderstandings, and, as Jacob has pointed out, how our actions hurt people, even when our intent is to help (and we’ve all heard the one about the pavement on the road to hell).

            If Jacob will permit me to “spam” his blog, I’ll just insert a link to my latest commentary, not on Christmas, but on how badly we disciples of Christ (or however you’d prefer to say that) express our message of faith, and devotion to God, and our compassion for our fellow human beings. Permit me to present Considering Replies.

  5. MacKenzie says:

    I’ve found this post and follow-up comments very interesting. As someone who only has her little toe in the HR movement, I have found the Christmas ban to be problematic. My husband was willing to listen/read/pray about the “out there” ideas of HR but found the fears over paganism and Christmas/Easter to be so ridiculous in their lack of basis a huge turn off, so much that he wasn’t willing to listen to the other information those sources contained. (And this comment is not a criticisms of him. If someone is going to take verses out of context or try and twist the truth, I don’t necessarily want to listen to other things they have to say either). I have heard other, more reasonable, arguments against Christmas but those first crazy ones did a big disservice to the whole movement.

    Right now we celebrate Christmas but not at all like a “mainstream” Christian does – no Santa, very few presents, etc and I don’t foresee that changing soon. Luckily the friends we have who follow torah are loving and non-judgemental with their opinions. I don’t throw my Christmas tree in their faces and they don’t call me “heathen sinners*” when they see the lights up.

    *Yes, that was a direct reference to our old YG days :-)

    • Jacob Fronczak says:

      Great points. Those of us who appreciate the Hebrew Roots of our faith could be doing a lot more good by focusing on common ground, affirming the positive, respecting other people’s choices, and ditching the junk theology. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who seem to think they have some prophetic calling and mandate to correct everyone else’s theology and praxis, and to condemn everyone who doesn’t agree with them… Of course, there are nuts in every denomination but the Hebrew Roots movement has more than their fair share due to the lack of leadership, coherence, and scholarship. Which is why I love First Fruits of Zion, a strong voice for sanity and scholarship.

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