We don't know the exact day Christ was born, so why celebrate on Dec. 25?

One theory said fourth-century Rome's Christians invented the date to counter a pagan birth of the sun festival timed during the year's darkest days.

A competing tradition held that Jesus was conceived on the same date as his crucifixion, which the ancients put on March 25. Adding nine months of pregnancy, they reached Dec. 25.

The Dec. 25 tradition seemingly spread from Rome across western Europe. But for Christians in the East, Epiphany remained the more important holiday. That was later folded into the Nativity season, but Jerusalem's church didn't adopt Dec. 25 until A.D. 549.

That's a seasonal sample of the knowledge available in the newly revised third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press has also issued a companion Encyclopedia of Christianity.

These one-volume reference works rank as 2005's books of the year in religion. The dictionary belongs in every church library and the encyclopedia provides valuable accompaniment. Though pricey ($125 each), either or both would make a thoughtful Christmas gift for the clergy or studious friends.

The dictionary's latest editor is Elizabeth A. Livingstone of St. Anne's College, Oxford. The encyclopedia's editor is John Bowden of Nottingham University and King's College, London.

The dictionary has been an indispensable reference work since the original edition appeared in 1957. The roster of some 500 contributors (who unfortunately get no bylines in the thousands of articles) remains rather British. However, throughout the years the book has expanded beyond its geographical and Anglican and Catholic focus to tell more about evangelicalism and Christianity in the developing world.

The encyclopedia has fewer but longer articles than the dictionary, running 1,000 words and up, but sub-topics are thoroughly cross-referenced and indexed. (For example, Christmas is treated under "Festivals and Fasts.") Thirty-three "gateways" articles provide broad orientation. Other features: a who's who, time chart and glossary.

Bowden's introduction to the volume says "ignorance of even the most basic features of Christian belief and history is almost universal" — true for Britain but an overstatement for America. Even practicing Christians "have a very limited awareness of the wealth and diversity of their heritage," he adds, in a less disputable observation.

At first glance, the encyclopedia appears to handle the Bible with the relatively moderate approach to literary and historical disputes that Brits often favor.

Bowden himself wrote the article on biblical criticism. He summarizes that modern scholarship thinks the Bible was not directly inspired by God in the sense that the human authors were automatons "but it can still be seen as an inspired and authoritative work."

Another 2005 book is notable for distinctiveness and potential importance: "The Bible and Its Influence," published by the nonsectarian Bible Literacy Project of Fairfax, Va. This is a textbook for public high school use, covering the Bible's contents and its cultural, historial, literary and religious importance.

The contributors cleverly sidestep ideological feuds and represent an amazing variety of affiliations. The question now is whether schools will take the plunge and offer elective courses on humanity's most influential — if controversial — book.

The year's worst religious book? "God's Covenant With Israel: Establishing Biblical Boundaries in Today's World" from the evangelical New Leaf Press. Author Binyamin (Benny) Elon, a rabbi who chairs Israel's hawkish Moledet Party, deemed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a softie and quit his Cabinet.

Elon believes the Bible grants Israel a claim to Palestine and good chunks of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. His supposedly scriptural peace plan has Israel seizing the West Bank and Gaza, eliminating Palestine and forcing all Arabs into Jordanian citizenship. This poorly written, poorly reasoned book will convince only those already committed to Elon's scenario.

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