Monday, November 26, 2012

Pope's Books Stops Short of Truth

Pope Benedict XVI
Just in time for the holiday season, Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI has opened his mouth about the birth of Jesus and stuck his pen in it.  He’s written a book titled Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, which is already a best-seller.  A writer like me can only be envious, since it will eventually be translated into 20 languages and had an initial run of 1 million copies.

The book is being marketed as history.  Actually, it is almost complete fiction.

The pope doesn’t see it that way. He is willing to concede there were no animals in the stable where Jesus was supposedly born, that there were no angels singing and that the traditional date of the birth is a mistake.  That’s a start, but he didn’t go far enough.

Benedict insists much of the biblical account of Jesus’ birth is factual.  After all, he says, Gospel authors Matthew and Luke “didn't want to write stories but history, a real history.”

It’s just, he says, that the texts have been interpreted by faith. 

In short, the facts have been changed to match belief.  In short, they aren’t true.

Actually, they can’t be.  They contradict each other. Two books, John and Mark, have no birth stories at all. Mark, the oldest text, does not know of any.  John, the oldest of the Gospels, clearly rejects such tales because he was well aware of the other books.

The holy family en route to Egypt.
The remaining two Gospels completely disagree with each other.   In Matthews’ account, the family is living in Bethlehem and is visited by three kings from Persia.  They are magi, members of a completely different faith.  They are guided by a star to the holy family’s home.  King Herod, alerted by the arrival of the foreign dignitaries, seeks to kill Jesus, so Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus must flee to Egypt for safety.

Herod died around 4 BCE. .Jesus must have been born before then.

Luke, however, has the family head from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. There is no room at the inn, so Jesus is born in a feeding trough surrounded by animals. Then, after the birth, the family goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for the traditional baby-naming ceremony.

No magi, no escape to Egypt and, obviously, no Herod.  

There was a census, but it took place in 6 CE, 10 years after Herod died.  Roman authorities required the census because they had relieved one of Herod’s sons of his leadership position and were assigning one of their own lackeys to run a third of the south Syrian protectorate. That part didn't include Nazareth, which was unknown in that day and probably did not exist. In addition, the census did not force anyone to return to an ancestral home, as Luke claims.  That would have been absurd.  The census wasn’t just to count people.  The Romans wanted to know what they could tax.  Jesus’ family had nothing to tax in Bethlehem. 

There were also no inns in those days.  Travelers stayed in private homes, right along with the animals.  The stable came from the story of Mithra, an alternative deity born in a cave.  Other stories about the birth Jesus place him in a cave with the star of Mithra shining above.

Giotto's Adoration of the Magi
The contradictions demonstrate that both stories cannot be correct.  In fact, modern Christmas tales typically combine the two accounts, having the magi visit Jesus in a stable with the guiding star overhead. Older artists, like Giotto, did the same thing, but used a comet instead of a star. (right)

The pope credits Mathew’s star to a “major planetary conjunction” that occurred in 6-7 BCE.  The conjunction did take place then, but the alignment has commonly appeared for millions of years.  Somehow, only one Jesus was born.  Moreover, the timing does not work out with Luke’s version, which has no star anyway.

The myths surrounding Jesus’ birth are only one limit to the pope’s book’s historical claims.
Benedict also insists in the story that Mary really was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, as Matthew and Luke both claim.   

Jesus’ birth and his resurrection from the dead, the pope wrote, are the two moments in the Gospels when "God intervenes directly into the material world."  He adds that "this is a scandal for the modern spirit," since in today's world, God is "allowed to operate on thought and ideas but not on matter." But, for just this reason, he adds, Mary's virginity is a "test" and a "fundamental element" of the Christian faith.

Funny, early Christians didn’t think so.  Not even Matthew.  Computer analysis shows that his original text lists Joseph as the father.  Even Paul, the leading propagandist of the faith, knows nothing about a virgin birth, and he was writing no more than a decade or two after Jesus died or some 2,000 years before the pope.

The Vatican said that Benedict began the project while a cardinal and has devoted "every free minute of his spare time” to it.  Too bad he didn’t use some of those hours to do some real research.  Just for starters, he could have mentioned that the texts were written by anonymous authors.  The names Matthew and Luke were added around 150 CE.   And all four Gospels were written from 40 to 70 years after Jesus lived. 

Chances of accuracy faded with each passing year.

Of course, Benedict produced his book for the faithful.  That would naturally limit his scope and willingness to provide accurate information.  Still, a few actual facts would have been nice for a nonfiction best seller.

In writing this book, however, the pope has inadvertently revealed something really worth contemplating.  Like all religious leaders in any faith, he is loath to trust followers with the truth.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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