The Pope’s New Book on Jesus’ Birth. Now He’s in Trouble!

The Pope’s New Book on Jesus’ Birth. Now He’s in Trouble! December 7, 2012

There has been a fair bit of press about the newest publication from the current head of the Catholic Church, Joseph Ratzinger, better known now as Pope Benedict XVI (don’t you just hate sequels?). There was even a humorous take on some of the aspects of the new book from the colossus of comedy Stephen Colbert.

But the hub-bub is mostly about how the Pope is saying certain parts of the standard idea of the Christmas scene are not found in the Bible. For example, there are no animals to be seen in the Nativity stories, though you can hardly find a Renaissance painting or Christmas card without them. Pretty small potatoes, really, but it’s really a matter of His Holiness doing some historical criticism related to the Christianity. This is also up his alley. The current occupant of Saint Peter’s position in the church was a bookish man, served as an expert in the Second Vatican Council, and wrote considerably before becoming pope. However, most of what he wrote, going by the bibliography on Wikipedia, is primarily theological rather than historical, especially historical criticism of the Bible itself.

So why care about it, especially if you aren’t a Catholic? Well, the Pope does get into defending historical claims about the birth of Jesus, so it is interesting to find what arguments he makes, supposing his would be better than any given apologist, Catholic or Protestant. But what got me interested when I was contacted by James Sentell (whom I have previously criticized concerning the Nativity stories) and discovered than in this little book His Holiness endorses an astronomical interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem. This is actually a first in the history of this idea, something that I ought to know having written on it in detail. So I wanted to see for myself that that was the case, along with what else is in there.

So, in a few posts I want to highlight some of the things that would get me in trouble with the papacy if I were still Catholic. :) Let’s take a look at the weaknesses of the arguments made by Pope Benedict.

For this post, allow me this observation: his resources. My first interest was to see what he had been reading. Understandably  the references in his book are largely devoted to theological or exegetical literature rather than historical/critical literature. The Pope’s book is mostly a theological discussion, so it makes sense that he care more about the books of exegesis rather than higher criticism. But it was still amazing to see what books are not in there. In the 20th century there were a number of good Catholic Bible scholars that did proper historical criticism, such as Herman Hendrickx. His The Infancy Narratives may be a bit out of date now, but it was still good scholarship and mainstream. The work of John Meier is also not to be found, though this Catholic priest is extremely well-respected (and more conservative than most from the Jesus Seminar). But most importantly, there is no sign of citation (or even reading) the work of the most important study on the infancy narratives in the 20th century, let alone that done by a Catholic, Raymond Brown‘s Birth of the Messiah. Not citing this work is like doing physics in ignorance of the work of Richard Feynman. This is even more amazing considering that the Pope had said back in 1988 (before becoming the pope) how Brown did good work and would be happy to have more exegetes like Brown (see Donahue, Life in Abundance, p. 251 n. 26). If I were Brown, and he were alive, I would feel perplexed and insulted.

What it looks like though by not including these authors, along with many more that publish is worthy journals such as the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, is that His Holiness is avoiding the hard criticism of the Bible. But how can one defend the faith and what it means if you don’t engage with it’s best criticisms, including those in-house? Considering that is now at least one Dominican that thinks Jesus was a myth, you would hope some of that critical thought would make it into the work of the most important living figure in Christianity.

So you can already get the idea that the Pope has not really engaged with the historical criticism of his own theological brothers. He obviously hasn’t dealt with the hard stuff first brought forth by David Strauss over 150 years ago. He also hasn’t read the useful book on the historicity of the Nativity by Jonathan Pearce (see his The Nativity: A Critical Examination to get an idea of what mainstream scholars do say about the tale). And he obviously isn’t reading my papers or blog (yet!).

But with this preliminary look, I’ll get into some of the arguments he makes. Stay tuned.

This can be found on Aaron’s own blog here.

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  • Listen. If the Pope believes, then thou shalt I!!

  • peterike

    I know nothing about this issue nor do I care, but I think it’s fair to say that just because a work isn’t referenced by the Pope, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t read it or considered its arguments. When you are a life-long scholar as Ratzinger/Benedict is, your thoughts are informed by many more works than you will happen to cite, particularly in a book that seems to have been written for popular consumption (and currently #141 on Amazon, so apparently it’s selling very well). In fact, because it was written for the masses and not for scholars, he may have deliberately left out more controversial or challenging works.

    • That may be true. However most popular level books still reference in some way. Look at Charles Foster’s book The Christmas Mystery as a good example. The Pope is writing a book on Biblical Exegesis. The point here, I think is that he HAS referenced some, but not others. It is not like he hasn’t referenced. And if you are going to make exegetical claims on particular pericopes and accounts, then it is wise to at least mention the greatest works on them. Ray Brown is not only THE scholar on the nativity, he was a Catholic Father. It is a very important and salient point that the Pope the head of the Catholic church, does not reference the greatest work on the accounts.

      Of course, why is it important? Because Brown claimed the 2 accounts were historically unreliable and that the verisimilitude was to be found in the theology and not the factual claims. The omission says more about the honesty of the Pope’s research than it does about his intended audience.

    • Indeed, the Pope may have left out more challenging works, but the problem is that the Pope will go into arguments about the historicity of the Virgin Birth or how the census could have happened under Herod the Great, etc. He goes through the apologetics but doesn’t cite people like Raymond Brown who show that such arguments don’t hold together. This will be apparent in the next posts of mine that will go up here. 

      That’s why I say the Pope in is trouble now. He has walked into a scholastic minefield, one that even Catholic scholars have set up, and His Holiness hasn’t done the work to know where the mines are. It’s also hypocritical to do something like historical analysis and say there weren’t any animals at the Nativity but then cower away from the historical analysis that says there weren’t any Wise Men either. Again, in the next post you will see that the Pope just doesn’t know the arguments he is trying to deal with.

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