Richard Dawkins's suggestion that Christmas Day should be changed to Newton Day is one that will please most Christians but present problems to atheists and rationalists alike. This is because Newton was a devout, almost obsessive Christian, who spent much of his time searching for meaning in the Bible and writing religious tracts such as A Short Scheme of the True Religion.
Equally worrying for hard scientists is that Newton experimented with alchemy, which he readily assimilated into his natural philosophy, only parts of which would be transmuted into what we now call science.
I do not know if Professor Dawkins has any connection with the winter solstice, but as an aggressive atheist, who shows unflinching devotion to scientific truth, he is being characteristically modest in avoiding the obvious suggestion that Christmas should henceforth be called Dawkins Day.
Dr Milton Wainwright
University of Sheffield
Early Christianity, in its successful mission to establish itself as a major world religion, had more nous than Richard Dawkins credits. It did not, for example, "simply [attach] Jesus's birth to a long-established and convenient winter solstice festival" (my italics). Long-established, certainly, but more than merely convenient: it was essential to the project to subsume pagan beliefs (pagan is now a time-honoured Christian slur-word).
Thus the winter solstice time for appeasement and encouragement of the sleeping gods of fertility (in rural parts today we still "wassail" the cider-apple tree on 6 January, otherwise known as Twelfth Night, which cunning Christians allow to the Lord of "Misrule") was the obvious moment for the Messiah's birth, just as the springtime festival of floral rebirth was the opportune moment to locate his rebirth and resurrection.
And no, the crucifixion is not another daft joke by the God Dawkins seems to believe in, as a figure of ridicule necessary to his argument; it was another rip-off of pagan wisdom, in which the tribal shaman was sacrificed at the peak of his potency to make way, before his powers waned, for his successor: a sacrifice that transmuted into animal sacrifice, and then symbolic ritual.
In fact, it was the special genius of Christianity to recognise the rootedness of such beliefs, linked to the seasonal round of growth and harvest which sustained human existence--and to establish the Christ story that continues to hold millions in its thrall.
Richard Dawkins peddles the old myth that the Virgin Birth story arose because of a mistranslation in Matthew 1:23 of an Old Testament verse where the word alma means young woman rather than virgin. This argument would carry some weight, were it not for Luke's account of the Nativity, which all scholars agree is totally independent of Matthew's, and which makes no reference to this or any other Old Testament "proof-text".
Rightly or wrongly, the early Christian Church believed in the Virgin Birth. Matthew, whose Gospel was intended to prove to the Jews that Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled, found the verse in question and used it as a proof-text. But the belief was there to begin with.
Professor Dawkins thinks that "the whole Virgin Mary myth" arose from a Greek mistranslation of a word in Hebrew scripture, but it may equally have developed in response to Judaean allegations that the "charismatic wandering preacher called Jesus" was an illegitimate foreigner (John 8:41).
The actual father of this Galilean was identified as "Pantera" in traditions from the 1st century. Several Roman soldiers, including one stationed in Britain and another just north of Galilee during the boyhood years of Jesus, had this "leopard" nickname. One was Julius Tiberius Abdes Pantera, his third name a Latinised form of the Aramaic for sacred servant.
As many Romans and Jews expected a "world saviour" around the time Jesus was conceived, this centurion might well have had an angelic commission of paternity, a theme underlying the Gospel narrative about Persian astrologers visiting his fostered offspring.
Professor Dawkins should commemorate Newton on 4 January, not Christmas Day. Newton was born when England still followed the Julian calendar. Even Orangemen now recognise Pope Gregory's calendar, and celebrate the Boyne on 12 July, not, as formerly, on 1 July.
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Wainwright, Milton, et al. "More on Dawkins." New Statesman  7 Jan. 2008: 6. Academic OneFile. Web. 10 Dec. 2009.
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