The Telegraph (UK): Pope’s New Book Casts Doubt on “Keystone of Christian Tradition”

Every once in a while I come across a piece of “religion reporting” that is so delightfully tone-deaf or so laughably ignorant of basic religious concepts that I can’t help but…well…laugh. Take, for example, two recent stories from the same Rome correspondent for The Telegraph.

No doubt the reporter in question is a fine man and a diligent reporter, but his sense of what is and is not newsworthy suggests a certain unfamiliarity with how religious belief works. The result is embarrassing, not so much for the author’s theological tone-deafness, but for the complete lack of awareness that his ignorance is being spectacularly displayed for all to see.

Our first story actually includes the line: “[T]he 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.”

That sounds important, no? What “keystone of Christian tradition” has Pope Ratzinger strikingly done away with?

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Well, In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI mentions that the convention of counting years from the birth of Christ began a half-millennium after Christ, and that the monk who came up with the idea miscounted by a few years. Translation: The Pope has “declared” – that’s The Telegraph’s word – that Jesus probably wasn’t born in the year zero.

Needless to say, that the Pope would acknowledge the (widely known) inaccuracy of a sixth-century monk’s calendar is hardly “striking.” What is striking, to me at least, is that we live in a culture so obviously post-Christian that this bit of trivia is presumed to cast “doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition” and therefore deemed newsworthy.

The Telegraph ran a separate news story to report that, in the same book, the Pope reveals that there is no scriptural evidence for tradition’s favorite manger-side ungulates. That’s right, neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John has anything to say about any donkeys, cows, or camels gathered ‘round yon Virgin. (Presumably this mean that the lyrics of “Little Drummer Boy” are a total fabrication.)

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One wonders what might happen should religious neophytes at The Telegraph discover some of the other “secrets” of the Catholic faith. Did you know that Adam and Eve might not have been snacking on apples that fateful day in Paradise? Or that St. Paul, on the day Jesus interrupted his otherwise pleasant journey to Damascus, might not have been riding a horse. And don’t even get me started on Jonah’s “whale,” which the Bible calls a “great fish.” You’d think God of all people would know the difference between a fish and a mammal!

All joking aside, I hear the Pope’s new book is very good. (If the secular press really wanted to impress people, they might try reporting that!) With Advent just around the corner, it might make an excellent early Christmas present. I can think of worse ways to spend Advent than meditating on the Nativity with Pope Benedict as a guide.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar. The views expressed here are his own.


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  • davend

    “The view are his own”?

  • Shameful Benedicto

    The problem is that we know that there was no census taken in the years surrounding the birth of Jesus. We also have no historical evidence of any census that required men to return to the town of their birth. In an era of dangerous roads, and when women couldn’t work, such a requirement would have been impossible. This is fact.

    Instead of addressing these massive holes in the story, the Pope distracts us with questions about whether there were donkeys around at the birth, and whether the angels sung or talked.

    • vox borealis

      “A systematic provincial census was carried out under Augustus, for the first time in 27 BC in Gaul, gradually extending across the whole empire and repeated at regular (perhaps ten-year) intervals. The nativity story in the Gospel of Luke is based on the census carried out by the governor of Syria, P. Sulpicius Quirinius, in AD 6, when Judea was incorporated into the province of Syria.” Quoted from the entry on the Census, in the scholarly Brill’s New Pauly Encyclopedia of the Ancient World (english translation).

      So yeah, there was a historically documented census in the years surrounding Jesus’ birth. Now, whether that fact can be reconciled with other chronological indicators in the nativity accounts, such as the death of Herod in 4 BC, or even whether determining a strict chronological sequence is even relevant, is another matter.

      • Reagan Mom

        Yes, but we know that census required people to report where they lived now, not where their ancestral home was. And in fact, as you not, it was carried out in 6 A.D. I wouldn’t call that the years surrounding the birth of Jesus.

        • Tony Love

          Please be honest, Reagan Mom.

      • Let Peeps Vote

        This census did not occur in either the year before, or the year following the birth of Christ.

        • vox borealis

          What strange responses. We don’t know when Christ was born, so we don’t know for sure whether the Gospel accounts refer to the census of Quirinius in AD 6 or another, earlier census. That’s the point.

          Moreover, we don’t know the specific mechanisms of the provincial censuses. There is certainly plenty of secular scholarship that accepts the plausibility of a census requiring denizens to register in their ancestral towns, for example: Thorley in Greece and Rome (1979).

          All that can be said is that it is difficult to reconcile the chronological markers given by Luke. He places the birth of Jesus in the context of the governorship of Quirinius (which implies a date of c. AD 6) and the reign of king Herod the Great (which implies a date of c. 5 BC). That gives a ten year or so range, a “problem” that has been long recognized by scholars and theologians, and one that presents little serious problem to anyone accept the strictest biblical literalists.

          For those who bother to do a little scholarly reading on the subject, various solutions have been suggested: (1) the reference to either Quirinius or Herod is mistaken, and Luke has telescoped events; or (2) the census referred to occurred at an earlier point, perhaps during an earlier governorship of Quirinius (Thorley in Greece and Rome 1979, KOrbishley in Klio 1936); or (3) the reference to Herod the Great is mistaken, and the king at the time was in fact Herod Archilaus (Rubel in Gymnasium 2011); or (4) the reference to Quirinius is an error for Quintilius (Rist in JThS 2005, Taylor in American Journal of Philology 1936).

          But again, no serious reader finds problematic the reference to the census itself, nor to the allegedly shocking (as the Telegraph would have you believe) fact that Jesus was not necessarily, gasp, born in AD 1. The only significant problem is to account for the apparent inconsistent chronological indicators.

        • Guest

          Peeps, whatever you write, I must admit, gives me pause given your promotion of homosexual “marriage.”

    • Guest

      So untrue.

    • wayne

      Another book by a man in a shiney costume and funny hat. All that matters is Christ and him crucified. And asking for salvation. The plan of salvation gets muddied by all these books and idol chat. We have the bible,….what else do we need?

      • Guest

        The Church to interpret It.

  • Alessandra Parrini

    And remembering that when when is more important than who is born..

  • rhhenry

    Wow, that’s all the arrows the (anti-Cathlolic) press has in its quiver? That the precise date of Jesus’s birth is off by 10-ish years? Sounds as though we believers have won the fight . . .

    • Reagan Mom

      How so? The Bible is clearly wrong. If God can’t get the dates right I. The Bible, what else is incorrect?

      • Bob L

        It isn’t God messing up the dates, but us poor, fallible humans. Besides, as the Catechism states:

        110 In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention,
        the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and
        culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of
        feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. “For the fact is that
        truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of
        historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other
        forms of literary expression.”

        So Catholics don’t believe that every word in the Bible is LITERAL truth, but that:

        107 The inspired books teach the truth.

        • Let Peeps Vote

          What? The bible is open to interpretation?

          So gay people can get married?

          • Tony Love

            No. Homosexuals can never marry.

          • vox borealis

            Well, strictly speaking they can marry: a homosexual man can marry a homosexual or heterosexual woman, for example.

          • Tony Love

            You are right, Vox borealis. That could occur.

          • vox borealis

            How does that even follow? If this is the level at which you conduct this line of argument, come back when you are serious.

            That said, at least I see who’s the Telegraph’s target audience.

          • Guest

            You may ridicule, Peeps, but you can’t hide. Your fallacy has been exposed.

      • Guest

        No, the Bible is correct…and so is the Pope.

  • kgbla

    And why do those painting of Adam and Eve show them with belly buttons? And how did Noah keep those Antarctic penguins cold? And how did the earth start orbitting the sun?

    • Joe

      If you humble yourself, Kgbla, one day you will find out.

      • kgbla

        Ahh. Its a big secret.

        • Guest

          Humility is no secret at all, Kgnla, please try it–and without delay.

          • kgbla

            Humility is no secret. But the answers to my questions appear to be.

          • Guest

            Not if you open your heart. You can do it, Kgbla.

          • kgbla

            It may work for some people but i do not accept that “pray for the answer” nonsense.

            “Praying is like a rocking chair. It’ll give you something to do, but it won’t
            get you anywhere”– Gypsy Rose Lee

    • Mara

      It would be interesting if the painting of Adam and Eve was accurate and the “story” from the Old Testament was not. And we all know that Noah took a male and female from some species so that they could reproduce so that there would be food available for Noah’s family until the local flood receded. Noah was a great weatherman and a great planner.

      • kgbla

        And you also believe that the tooth fairy exists?

        • Tony Love

          Is the tooth fairy under the aegis of Divine Revelation, Kgbla? Do you see the difference?

          • kgbla

            I wouldn’t know. Perhaps for some people. Of course i see the difference. The Noah story is believed by millions which somehow gives it ligitimacy.

            “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof
            denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”– Douglas Adams

        • Ann Unemori

          For an imaginary sprite, the Tooth Fairy certainly is enduring.

          • kgbla

            Undoubtably my favourite fairy.

  • Serena

    Not much in the way of mainstream obliviousness to Christian history and theology could shock me anymore.
    I always figured Jonah’s fish was a shark anyway.



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