The Pope hates Christmas

Breaking news from the Telegraph … the newspaper’s Rome reporter reports that one Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. the Bishop of Rome, Pontiff of the Catholic Church alias  Benedictus PP. XVI, claims Jesus was not born December 25, in the year 1.

As I read this story, “Jesus was born years earlier than thought, claims Pope” I could envision the clatter of the teletype in the background with three bells ringing to tell the news room a major story had come across the wires. In a story datelined from Rome, we learn:

“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 [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives], 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.”

The assertion that the Christian calendar is based on a false premise is not new – many historians believe that Christ was born sometime between 7BC and 2BC. But the fact that doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition have been raised by the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics is striking.

“Many historians believe” that Jesus was not born in the year 1, or 0? How about all historians for the past few hundred years — I’m not aware of any school of church scholarship that holds to the contrary view. The Telegraph reports that in addition to challenging the notion that Jesus was not born in the first year of the Gregorian calendar, the pope claims the traditional church creche is all wrong:

Christ’s birth date is not the only controversy raised by the Pope in his new book – he also said that contrary to the traditional Nativity scene, there were no oxen, donkeys or other animals at Jesus’s birth. He also weighs in on the debate over Christ’s birthplace, rejecting arguments by some scholars that he was born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem.

Well, there goes the Christmas pageant. But why is this news? Anyone with even the remotest knowledge of the issue would not be surprised by this revelation.

It could well be ignorance on the part of the reporter, who upon reading the third volume in the pope’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was dumbstruck by this information and had to rush to print to tell England the news. Or, it could be that the Telegraph, aware of the abysmal level of religious knowledge and practice in England, believed that this would be news to the millions of cultural Christians in England whose only relationship to the faith were hoary memories of youthful school and church pageants. Or, this could be just another story in the series of articles from the British press that paints Benedict XVI in unflattering colors.

The article closes out with an Oxford professor’s calming assurance the pope may be right as “most academics agreed with the Pope that the Christian calendar was wrong and that Jesus was born several years earlier than commonly thought, probably between 6BC and 4BC.”

Again we have the “most academics” — I would be interested to know who are the dissenters that believe in the 25 Dec 00 date.

The signs the story was rushed in to print also comes from the selection of the expert. The Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture from Oxford is quoted on the absence of any dating in the text of the Bible as to exact time of Jesus’ birth. But the professor is allowed to move out of his area of expertise — Biblical interpretation — into Patristics or Patrology (the study of the writings of the Church Fathers and the history of the early Christian Church) and in doing so, the good professor makes a mistake.

The idea that Christ was born on Dec 25 also has no basis in historical fact. “We don’t even know which season he was born in. The whole idea of celebrating his birth during the darkest part of the year is probably linked to pagan traditions and the winter solstice.”

This claim by the Old Testament scholar about the origin of the Christmas holiday is false. While the village atheist may delight in repeating this legend, it is nonetheless untrue. A non-academic rejoinder to this “pagan traditions” claim can be found in a 2003 article “Calculating Christmas” by Prof. William Tighe in Touchstone magazine.

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

From this piece, should you be interested in the details you can access the academic literature. But returning to the Telegraph piece, there are some fascinating things raised in the pope’s new book — and smart fellow that he is it came out just in time for Black Friday. There is an interesting historical and religious debate mentioned by the Telegraph story, the location of Jesus’ birth: Nazareth v. Bethlehem, but that is passed over in favor of the “striking” news about the calendar question. Given the excitement over the women bishops’ vote in the Church of England the reporter may have needed to “sex-up” his story to find space in the newspaper for another religion news item. Whatever the reason, the story is a disappointment. The Telegraph is supposed to be a “quality” newspaper, but this story is worthy of the tabloids.

Nativity scene courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Nothing like using a non-story to create a little sensationalism to juice up newspaper circulation.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The frustrating thing is that you know the book is full of all kinds of theological and pastoral insight about the Incarnation and Birth of Jesus Christ, yet the only thing that The Telegraph and other news sources (of which there are many reporting on this “major development”) think worth reporting are the date and the animals. They simply don’t get religion.

  • Julia

    I’ve read that December 25th was picked b/c there was an ancient semi-belief that a person usually died on the same day of the year that the person was conceived – or something like that. So – somebody figured out what was the day of the year that Jesus was crucified -close to the Passover which is a movable date in early spring – and counted 9 months forward to December 25th. There were lots of things like that in the old days that would be incorporated into stories about famous people. These were not necessarily taken as absolute fact, but were considered appropriate and/or poetically/symbolicly true.

    The Times (of London)’s Rome correspondent is thankfully now retired. He was really quick to jump on all kinds of rediculous things concerning Rome and the Papacy to entertain his British readers. The Telegraph rome correspondent is just clueless, not malicious. Or so it seems.

  • Jerry

    Ok. I admit it. You snagged me with that headline which I saw on the twitter feed and I had to read this story. I was not sure what to expect outside of bad reporting.

    I think this kind of non-story is an example of the need to find a “gnat” to use to dismiss religion. What I means is that there’s a logical fallacy that basically says that if I can find any tiny, inconsequential issue with what I think someone believes, I can dismiss the belief entirely.

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  • FW Ken

    Not sure that the pope re-states in each volume what he says in the first: these are the work of an individual theologian, not a magisterial statement of a pope. As such they are subject to the same criticism as the work of any theologian.

    Which means that a reporter should not be stirring the pot as though these were papal statement. That is in addition to the fact noted above that none of this is new. Back in the 70s, the theory was that Jesus was born in the spring, since the shepherds would have been the fields watching for birthing sheep. Theories change.

  • Will

    Would someone explain by what logic the exact date of Jesus’ birth is “one of the keystones of Christian tradition”?
    If somehow it was demonstrated that the Law was not actually given on Shavuot, would this somehow invalidate Judaism?
    I repeatedly encounter “arguments” like this.

    • Sari

      To refute the fact, you’d have to know the Law was given on Shavuot. What are the odds?

      The two holidays have more in common than is apparent. Torah refers to Shavuot as the festival of the first fruits, not Matan (giving of the) Torah. Tradition assigns the date. So, too, Christmas. In both cases, the event is what’s critical. Who can imagine the Jewish People without Torah or Christians without Jesus?

  • suburbanbanshee

    There actually was one comment that might shock some Catholics: the “death of Mary” bit didn’t have any explanations about the two different theories of the Dormition/Assumption. But I think most Catholics now know that there are slightly different traditions about this in the East and West, so hopefully nobody will really be scandalized.

    It’s a very good book, btw.

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  • Martha

    “one of the keystones of Christian tradition”

    I must have been out sick that day we were supposed to learn this in Christian Doctrine class, otherwise I would not be sitting here gawping at the insinuation that “Pope says Dec 25th Year 1 not real date – Christianity is found to be a pack of lies!” angle.

    Honestly? How on earth has this reporter missed all the Discovery Channel features on the Star of the Magi, etc. etc. etc. which come out every year and tell us all that “Astronomers calculate…”?

  • andom

    “A recent doctoral dissertation by S.E. Hijmans at the University of Groningen (NL) takes a fresh look at whole kit and caboodle. The new Dr Hijmans is the first to have noticed that there is absolutely no evidence to show that the Games of the Sun founded by Aurelian ever took place on December 25th. On the contrary, no feast day for Sol is mentioned on that day until 80 years later in the Calendar of 354 …In fact, the Calendar lists a festival of Sol that was celebrated in 354 AD from 19-22 October… if the Christians had wanted to take over Sol’s most important festival, that should have been the multi-day games celebrated on 19-22 October. … There is a real possibility that the day was not dedicated to Sol until after the bishop of Rome first celebrated Christmas on that date in 336 AD — a pagan reaction to a Christian feast, perhaps, rather than vice versa… At the very least, this new way of looking at the evidence casts doubt on the contention that Christmas was instituted on December 25th in order to counteract a popular pagan religious festival. Christ didn’t have to trump Sol after all. Sol wasn’t even in play.”
    http://judithweingarten.blogspot.it/2011/12/whose-christmas-is-it-anyway.html
    n.b. even if the Bishop celebrated officially the Christman in 336 AD this does not mean that the date of december 25th was not oldest:
    http://chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas/

  • http://www.actualidadereligiosa.blogspot.com Filipe

    According to a Portuguese daily: “The consequences of this revelation are unpredictable and monumental both for Christians and even non Christians”.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Wow! Holding my breath for the “unpredictable and monumental” consequences! Well, since I’m still typing this up, it’s obvious that I’m not. Ho hum.

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  • AmaniS

    This is news to many. I remember speaking to many Christians that believed that Jesus was born on Dec. 25. I always said, “Go ask your pastor.”
    Those behind the pulpit know this, but many Christians do not. I saw this on CNN the reporter looked shocked hear this coming from the Pope.

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  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    I’m thankful that the journalists missed another whole theological hotbed: the Pope seriously questioned whether Mary made a vow of perpetual virginity before the Annunciation! This is a very big thing among some Catholics.

    The talk radio crew at EWTN always brings this out as their ace-in-the-hole when discussing the issue with non-Catholic callers. After all, what other reason could there be for Mary to object to the angel “I know not man” than the fact that she had determined on virginity? Otherwise, since she was about to get married, a pregnancy in her near future wouldn’t be puzzling at all. The Pope found this unconvincing, since consecrated virginity for women seems to have been unknown among Jews of the time. (As for the celibacy of the Essenes, that normally concerned only men).

    Fortunately, Catholics are only required to believe de fide that Mary remained a perpetual virgin, not that she decided on it before the Annunciation. But just try to imagine the headlines if journalists were to try and make news of it! It boggles the mind. . .

    The Holy Father did indeed write a very good book — I’m reading it right now.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Oh, and in regard to the Christmas part, the Holy Father is a little bit behind on his history. More and more historians are coming to believe that Jesus was born not in 7-6 B.C. but in 3-2 B.C. The latter date is the one pretty unanimously held by the Fathers of the Church, if I remember right. They said that Jesus was born in the 42nd year of the reign of Augustus, who, as we all know, assumed power after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. That puts Jesus’ birth in 2 B.C.

    The biggest roadblock to accepting this date has been historians’ insistence that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and since according to the evangelists, Herod was still very much around when Jesus was born, massacring the two-year-olds in Bethlehem and all that, Jesus must have been born a couple of years before his death. But historians are now beginning to move away from the 4 B.C. date to the only other candidate, 1 B.C. (Josephus, the Roman historian’s claim that Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse, and the only other lunar eclipse visible in that part of the world at the time occurred in 1 B.C). This shifting of dates actually solves a number of unrelated problems in Greco-Roman chronology as well, and seems solid. Go back a couple of years from January 1 B.C. (time of the eclipse) and you will hit 3 B.C., perhaps in the fall, since that was the Roman “census” season. Or even a few months later. Maybe even December 25 for all we know.

    If you like this kind of stuff there’s more here – some great Advent reading when you finish Jesus of Nazareth;

    http://www.askelm.com/star

    E. L. Martin seems to have been something of an eccentric, but many other historians make similar arguments. He neatly solves the whole Quirinius census problem too.

  • suburbanbanshee

    There’s a lot of intellectual humility in the book, too, because the Pope points out several areas of the Gospels dealing with Jesus’ childhood which there’s no consensus about, and which nobody really understands. He indicates that sometimes (in the Bible) that means it’s not pointed at us as readers, and sometimes it’s something pointing towards meanings that will only be understood in the future. “I don’t know” is not something you hear much from the learned and great of scholarship, unless they are still willing to learn.

  • northcoast

    While we are beating up the reporter writing this article, shouldn’t we save a few slaps for the editor who let it be printed?

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