What’s even funnier is that even the author of the story admits that this is not news, but still tries to pretend it’s news anyway:
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.
One may be forgiven for asking, “Why is this ‘striking’? Does anybody *not* know this?” Catholic faith has never depended on an exact dating of the birth of Jesus. We’ve always had a rough idea of when it was, and current scholarship is doing an interesting job of pinning that year down with more exactitude.
As to other features of the piece, it is notable that the English press, as is its custom, has treated the publication of the Pope’s book–which is intended as a theological reflection and is explicitly set forth as something to be subjected to comment, criticism and argument among other theologians who may even correct the Pope in his personal views (as is the way with the scholarly community)–is treated as though it is an edict from a dictator. So the Pope does not “say”. He “declares”. This is of a piece with the press’ tendency to perpetually speak of the Vatican “cracking down” on this and that.
The Pope further notes that the New Testament does not mention animals in the stable at Bethlehem, which the Telegraph declares “controversial”. I’m not sure why, since in fact, the New Testament does not mention animals in the stable at Bethlehem. Luke, to whom we owe the information about the stable at all, is interested in this detail because a) it prefigures Jesus’ being one who is “outside the camp” of his countrymen (aka “despised and reject of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”, aka one of God’s poor ones or anawim), and b) it prefigures the Eucharist (“Bethlehem”=”House of Bread” and Jesus is laid in a *manger* or feed box). Luke, in fact, bookends his whole gospel with the Eucharist, mentioning the manger at the beginning and the Emmaus disciples recognizing him “in the breaking of the bread” at the end.
So where do the critters come in? First and foremost, they come in because Christian iconographers always put an ox and an ass in the stable as a reminder of Isaiah’s rebuke to Israel:
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3)
This theological motif in Christian art and theological reflection gets an extra boost in medieval Italy when St. Francis invents the creche, using real animals. And, of course, Christian reflection on the first Christmas naturally assumed that, it being a stable and all, there likely were animals there. So Christians who don’t read the Bible much but get their information from centuries of Christian imagery just sort of assume “the Bible” talks about the cattle lowing and the poor baby waking and so forth. It’s all perfectly legit Christian piety, likely historical, and even theologically sound to suppose an ox and ass and other barnyard critters may well have shared the stable with the Holy Family. It’s just that it’s not actually mentioned in Luke’s account. He has other fish to fry.
The Pope, not surprisingly, accepts the unanimous consensus of both the New Testament writers and all of Holy Church (until a few recent clever scholars tried to deny it) that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This is what we call “common sense”. And finally, the reporter quotes a scholar repeating the tired wheeze that Christmas is just a warmed over solstice celebration, which Yr Obedient Svt addresses here. Next time somebody tells you Christianity is just collection of warmed over solstice and equinox festivals, ask yourself, “Why is there no evidence for this?”
The happy thing about the normal train wreck of press coverage of the Pope’s new book is, of course, that the Pope’s new book is getting a lot of exposure. People who read it looking for sound scholarship and serious theological reflection will be rewarded in spades as they always are whenever anybody takes up something written by Benedict XVI. Put it on your Christmas list for any Christian who wants to see how a smart and faithful scholar reads his Bible.