The Immaculate Misconception

Pope Benedict XVI has a new book out: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.

The big news coming from it? The Pope says that we’re all wrong about Jesus’ birthday:

“The calculation of the beginning of our calendar — based on the birth of Jesus — was made by Dionysius Exiguus, who made a mistake in his calculations by several years,” the Pope writes in the book, which went on sale around the world with an initial print run of a million copies.

“The actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before.”

Next thing you know, he’ll say Christians just co-opted the date of December 25th from Pagans and that Jesus was brown, not white…

That’s not the only big news:

… Benedict writes in a new book on Christ that contrary to popular belief, Jesus’s birth was not presided over by oxen, asses, camels or indeed any other beasts.

“There is no mention of animals in the Gospels”…

So, here’s what I’d like to know.

If the Pope knows that all those aspects of the Christian mythology are false, why not go all the way and just admit there were no angels, no virgin birth, no miracles, etc? What’s stopping him? If human error could find its way into our understanding of the Bible at all, why can’t we be wrong about other aspects of our traditional interpretations of it as well?

Of all the issues anyone has with the story of Jesus’ birth, I’m pretty sure the exact date of it and the appearance of animals were pretty low on the list of disputes.

Let me know when the Pope admits the whole story is a work of fiction. I’ll totally buy that book.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “The actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before.”

    I can agree with Pope Indulgence that the currently recognized date is wrong, but there is no date that lines up with all the historically relevant events (known dates of various rulers, date of census, etc.).I wonder (since I’m not going to read his book) whether he tells us which of the two paternal lineages for Jesus H. Christ (well, actually of his step-father) is bogus.

  • Librepensadora

    In 1977, Catholic biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown published “The Birth of
    the Messiah,” in which he detailed the complete lack of historicity in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke.  The man was a priest, even belonged to one of the RC orders, the Sulpicians,  and (according to internet sources) was a famous Biblical scholar. Pope John Paul II appointed him to various biblical committees and commissions.  Fr. Brown understood the appeal of the traditional trappings of the Christmas story, but debunked it all as myth and as the evangelists’ attempt to fit the Jesus of Nazareth character into the “descendant of King David” and “born in Bethlehem” required of Old Testament prophecies for the Jewish Messiah.

  • Michael Wilt

    I’m so glad the pope has failed to demystify The Little Drummer Boy…

  • viaten

    “The Immaculate  Misconception”, or perhaps Myth-conception.

  • HughInAz

    “Contrary to popular belief, Jesus’s birth was not presided over by oxen, asses, camels or indeed any other beasts.”

    No, the asses are presiding over the vatican.

  • The Godless Monster

    Uh…The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary by her mother.

  • Greg Gay

    The Pope finds it too hard to believe that there were animals in the stable where Jesus was born but insists that it was a virgin birth? Next he’ll be telling us that condoms cause AIDS. Oh, wait…

  • viaten

     The Immaculate Conception Misconception.

  • Anna

    Sounds like the title of a The Big Bang Theory episode, LOL.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    But I love that song.

  • Good and Godless

    Are they finally admitting abstinence only contraception is not 100% effective?

  • C Peterson

    Contrary to popular belief, there’s virtually no evidence that Jesus even existed as an historical character. So I can’t get too excited about a change from one arbitrary “birthday” to another.

  • Plasticpony256

    I’m really liking this Pappy, he has so far approved the use of condoms, given credence to evolution, pardoned Galileo, and now had essentially admitted that aspects of cannon are historically inaccurate.

  • JMB

     Glad someone else caught this too.

  • Plasticpony256

    And oh lest I forget, he has admitted that Limbo was manufactured

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Hated it the moment I first heard it as a teen ager. It wasn’t traditional. Which is to say not one of the ones I had heard before I was old enough to notice.

    Still seems like a silly premise. I’m going to guess neither the Hebrew or Roman military employed drummer boys.

  • Godlesspanther

    I hope the book includes a chapter about how the Pope smokes dope every day. 

  • pagansister

    Good Grief!  Does this mean that—that—that—all the propaganda they have been feeding the masses for 2000 plus years – is—-NOOOOOO!  NOT true???  Now the earth will most definitely come to an end——-

  • pagansister

    If the stable didn’t have any animals in it—where were they?   In the Inn?   As for the virgin birth—IMO Mary and Joseph had been messing about and he wasn’t using any protection–thus JC!  Guess Mr. Pope finds sex before marriage unacceptable but being pregnant by an invisible being is much more believable. 

  • Nox

    Pardoning Galileo and giving credence to evolution was John Paul II, not Benedict. Benedict also hasn’t approved the use of condoms, he just said in an interview that condoms could be a lesser sin for gay catholic prostitutes.

    Not too much should be read into his statement here either.

     ‘What people traditionally think happened is wrong. What really happened was this. And you know this is what really happened because the pope said so’.

    The idea that history is determined by papal decree is not exactly a new idea for the catholic church.

  • Rob U

     This has been my favourite version since as long as I can remember:

    I have fond memories of sitting on my Dad’s lap as a child while he’d sing along to the scratchy old 45 he used to have.  Wasn’t the least bit religious, but he could certainly appreciate the artistry of all the carols and would fill the house with them at Christmas.

  • Plasticpony256

    I stand corrected.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I grew up with the song as I was raised in a Southern Baptist home.

  • ChrisARippel

    The Pope has rejected only those elements in the Christmas story not mentioned in the Bible. Angels, virginity, and miracles are in Biblical Christmas story. So the answer to your question is obvious and undermines the cleverness of your essay to believers or anyone who pays attention to details.

  • Renshia

    Well I am grateful we got this all cleared up. You can’t imagine how many sleepless night these misconceptions have caused. I am sure there are many catholics that will be resting easier now.

    At least now they can get back to being holier than thou.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Luckily no cannons* were harmed in this misunderstanding. 


  • JohnnieCanuck

    Angels, virgin births and miracles appear in many ancient myths and holy texts. You don’t believe in any of the other tales, we just disbelieve one set of myths more than you.

  • Melia

    Just out of interest, as a soon-to-be Catholic, I’d like to say that questions such as that of the exact birth date of Christ are not binding doctrine, and therefore are open to debate.

    Also, Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable – the Greek word that translates as ‘inn’ can also be translated as ‘upstairs.’ Jews at that time lived in homes where animals were usually kept on the ground floor. Indeed, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is situated over a cave traditionally thought to be Christ’s birthplace. The whole Christmas card nativity scene probably originated with St Francis of Assisi.

    And now that I’ve said my bit, here are some llamas with hats –

  • Erp

     You would be hard put though to find many academic historians, Christian/Muslim or not, of that era who don’t think he existed (minus the legendary trappings).  Something started the Christian church.  Note that precious little evidence exists for many of the people even very important people of that era outside of the most important rulers.

  • Erp

     Actually I think, in the eyes of the Catholic church, condoms for gay sex wouldn’t be sinful since the intent and the effect is not to stop procreation (the same would probably apply if the woman had had an hysterectomy and so incapable of having children and both participants knew it and the condoms were used to prevent STDs only).  The gay sex however would still be sinful (as would the heterosexual sex unless the partners were married to each other).

  • Erp

    It has been known for centuries that someone had made an error in calculating year 1.  Or to be exact they had miscalculated Herod’s death and everyone assumed Jesus had to be born before that.  It is one reason Archbishop Ussher back in the 1600′s  (admittedly an Anglican not Catholic bishop) set creation at 4004BCE (4000 years before he thought Jesus had been born under the revised calculations for Herod’s death).  

    How, I wonder, does the Pope reconcile the conflicting birth narratives in Matthew and Luke (in one the family lives in Bethlehem and flees in fear to Egypt after a warning from an angel and settling in Nazareth after they return;  in the other they go to Bethlehem from Nazareth and then up to Jerusalem and back to Nazareth).   Nor does a birth under Herod fit with a census that could only take place after Herod’s death.

  • Deven Kale

     “Something started the Christian church.”

    Yup. One or more con artists. Proof? One word: Mormons.

  • Deven Kale

     By proof I mean proof that it’s possible. It’s obviously not proof that it’s what actually happened.

  • viaten

     I can already hear Sheldon giving a long explanation and the others wondering what kind of misconception resulted in Sheldon.

  • C Peterson

    I’m aware that most historians consider Jesus to have been real. But I think they are rather foolish, and that this belief stems primarily from intrinsic cultural bias. The reality is, were it any other mythical character with less cultural baggage, it’s hard to imagine any reputable historian placing much likelihood on their historicity given the profound lack of evidence that exists.

    Yes, he may have been real (although very, very different than reported on in the Bible). But I find the Jesus-myth scenario, where he was synthesized in response to the ideas of apocalyptic Jewish cults springing up around the Middle East during the 1st century to be very compelling.

  • julie

    I find this whole post rather pointless…
    The pope is just pointing out that the traditional manger scene with animals and angels isn’t what the Bible says. He’s not saying anything that’s never been said before. It’s not at all controversial to Christians.
    He’s not disproving parts of Christian mythology, he’s just pointing out that they aren’t part of the original mythology. That’s why it doesn’t follow that he should let go of the other parts (like the virgin birth) because those are part of the original mythology. The only way for him to let go of the original mythology is if he realizes it’s not the word of God.
    It doesn’t follow that disbelieving a myth that’s not in the Bible would cause him to disbelieve in the Bible.

  • bernardaB

     Paul started the Christian church by being the first to write about Jesus even though he had only third hand information. He was also the most prolific writer in the NT. The Gospels were written later and disagree with each other. The religion should be called Paulism.

  • Lana

    Because the Bible says Mary was a virgin but doesn’t say anything about the donkeys? 

  • Carmelita Spats

    Please give me a historical mention of Jesus from “that era”. Josephus does not count for obvious reasons. There is PLENTY of historical evidence for important people in “that era”. I find the silence surrounding the Christian Superhero to be very telling…Resurrection? Is that a “legendary trapping”? The graves opening and 500 people seeing their dead relatives walking the streets of Jerusalem? Not one mention in the historical record of one of the most documented eras. Paul records his “visions” and even Paul moves away from the “historical Jesus” to a “spiritual Christ” (whatever that may mean). The bible is propaganda literature. Here’s how the yarn goes…Matthew, Luke and John copied from Mark, who listened to Peter, who heard from Mary, who was told by an angel. How’s that for “eye-witness” testimony?!

  • TheBlackCat

     Which they didn’t do a very good job of, since even if Joseph was a descendant of David, it wouldn’t have mattered for Jesus one bit.

  • Erp

     Well Paul’s letters (those that are considered to be by him not counting those  falsely attributed to him) record that he met Jesus’s brother and he is certainly writing about a community in Jerusalem that preceded him.   In addition it is fairly obvious that Acts was written in part to coverup some major dissension between Paul and the community in Jerusalem (dissension also referred to in the letters).  I would suggest reading someone like Bart Ehrman who is not now a Christian and has the scholarly training  in the field and has published peer reviewed work in the area.  And btw I consider the legendary trappings to include any and all resurrections, darkness at noon, actual violations of natural order (apparent miracles such as people thinking they were healed or thinking they saw him after death are possible [the mind can deceive]).   I would not be totally surprised if Jesus did not exist but I think the preponderance of evidence is that he did (Jesus is to Joseph Smith as Paul is to Brigham Young).

    As for evidence of important people (and Jesus was not important except to a small group of mostly illiterate people until well after his death), consider Pilate.  We know of him from the gospels, from Philo,  from Josephus, from Tacitus (but if you accept Tacitus you also have to accept the reference to Jesus in the same sentence), and one piece of archaeological evidence and there was considerable debate about his actual title.   And Pilate was a ruler over a considerable chunk of the Roman empire for 10 years.   How many of his peers (prefects of other areas of the Roman empire) do we know and of those we know how much do we know beyond the name?

  • ɹǝɯɐןq

    Surprisingly easy for one to reconcile 2 conflicting narratives: imagination.

    Only later might the JC fan learn that those original authors weren’t just gullible historians, but guilty of fabricating historical figures and those miraculous events.

  • TCC

    I just assumed it was a slightly tenuous pun, not that Hemant actually thought that the Immaculate Conception referred to the Incarnation, but I could be wrong.

  • Hemant Mehta

    Just enjoyed the pun :)

  • Sindigo


  • enuma

     Can the Greek word for ‘manger’ also be translated as ‘TARDIS’?  Because time travel is the only way that a baby born during the Roman census could be persecuted by a ruler who died a good decade before the census took place.