Jehovah’s Witnesses believe it is a sin to celebrate birthdays. They base their prohibition largely on their allegation that early Christians refrained from doing so, without citing specific ancient Christian author(s). The present article examines the entire extant body of Christian literature before the mass apostasy of AD 249-251 and lets the ancients speak for themselves.
Ethical objections to celebrating one’s birthday are found in only one Christian author of the 100-odd whose writings have been preserved from before AD 250. Origen Admantius was a Bible scholar, commentator and preacher who wrote more on Christianity than anyone else before Martin Luther thirteen centuries later. Of the 40-some that have come down to us, only four of Origen’s Bible commentaries and collections of sermons even mention birthday celebrations.
According to Origen, Christians should not observe their birthdays because the only individuals in Scripture who did so also put people to death on that day: the Pharaoh of Joseph who executed his chief baker, and King Herod who had John the Baptist killed because of Herod’s rash oath to reward the dancer who provided entertainment at the festivities (Jehovah’s Witnesses also use these two examples). Origen also surmised from the Gospels that Herod was fond of matters connected with birthdays and that “the lawless word” reigns on such occasions. In contrast, wrote Origen, “We find in no Scripture that a birthday was kept by a righteous man” (Commentary on Matthew 10.22; Sermons on Leviticus 8.3.2).
However, the Matthew Commentary is more concerned in condemning rash oaths that bind to unlawful deeds. The Leviticus sermon probably contains a few distasteful surprises for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Citing the examples of Jeremiah, Job, and believers in his own day, Origen preached that the proper Christian activity for one’s birthday is to curse it, but I doubt that Witnesses pass the day in this activity. Origen considered both such cursing and refraining from birthday parties to be inextricably linked to the doctrine of original sin—rejected by Jehovah’s Witnesses but still held by other denominations—which is the belief that the sin of Adam and Eve taints the whole human race. For this reason, said Origen, the church baptizes infants—something Witnesses roundly oppose.
Sermons on Genesis 7.1 touches in passing on observing one’s birthday, without comment on its desirability or not, while Sermons on Samuel 1.8 merely mentions that people in Origen’s day held birthday parties for their children without Origen condemning the practice. Origen mentioned the topic in these paragraphs only secondarily to his observation that for his infant son Isaac Abraham celebrated not the day of birth or anniversary thereof but the day he was weaned, i.e. transferred from milk to stronger food (Genesis 21.8). Presumably Jehovah’s Witnesses are bound in religious conscience to hold parties for weanings on the same authority that they shun birthdays. And they should baptize children by the same token.
The same Origen who prohibited observing the anniversaries of one’s birth also discountenanced the practice, recent in his time, of designating and maintaining separate buildings exclusively for Christian public worship, be they called “churches” “meeting houses”, or “kingdom halls”. Origen also tentatively suggested that people of God should not ride horseback but only in horse-drawn wheeled vehicles or riding on backs of donkeys on the basis that, like birthdays, we find in no Scripture that a horse was ridden by a righteous man.
Without I as an outsider insisting that Jehovah’s Witnesses practise inflexible consistency, I wish they would present the whole context of the ancient statements before damning the innocent and community-building gatherings of others.