pope and Nativity
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of a Nativity scene at the end of his weekly audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican Dec. 16, 2009. Some media outlets have made humorous claims about his views of Christmas and Nativity scenes. Newscom

Whenever the pope publishes something, the press combs through it for mentions of sex. If the pope does not mention sex (as, for example, in a book about a virgin birth) the press then goes to the fallback position and starts looking for the “antiquated faith tries to stave off modernity” narrative.  

This can have humorous results, as can be seen in the mainstream media’s coverage of “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (Image, $20). 

For instance, the United Kingdom’s Telegraph announced last month — as news, if you please — that the pope mentions that Jesus’ birth occurred several years earlier than A.D. 1. It then goes on to declare that “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.” 

“Striking”? Does anybody not know this piece of trivia?

Understanding context

The Telegraph reporter speaks as though Pope Benedict’s mention of the misdating of Jesus’ birth by the medieval monk Dennis the Little is the grudging capitulation of a hidebound Church to the March of Human Knowledge. In fact, the pope is capitulating nothing and is stating something known to any Catholic familiar with biblical scholarship — one of the pope’s areas of expertise. 

Also telling is the curious language used to describe the pope’s notation of this perfectly pedestrian fact of biblical scholarship. For the Telegraph doesn’t record that the pope “says” that Jesus was born somewhere between 7 B.C. and 2 B.C. It says that he “declares” it. The subtext here, as usual, is the conception of the Catholic Church as a sort of theological police state where that which is not forbidden is compulsory.  

But, of course, Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” books are not intended as formal teaching documents of Holy Church, but as the work of a scholar and theologian faithfully reflecting on the Tradition. Consequently, the pope is actually inviting comment and even criticism from fellow scholars, as is the way in the academy from which he hails. If it should turn out (as some scholars, such as Scott Hahn and Michael Barber, are arguing) that there is evidence Herod the Great may have died in 1 B.C., this does not mean a crisis of faith, but simply that Jesus may have been born a bit later than scholars — including the pope — thought. Nothing crucial changes if the Nativity was in 2 B.C. instead of 4 B.C.

The animals’ role

For some reason, the Telegraph also declares “controversial” the pope’s note that the New Testament does not mention animals in the stable at Bethlehem. Apart from some notion that Christians are committed to some dogma that the ox and lamb kept time for the Little Drummer Boy, it is difficult to say why this should be controversial since, in fact, the New Testament does not mention animals in the stable at Bethlehem. 

From the Book
“The census took place at the time of King Herod the Great, who actually died in the year 4 B.C. The starting-point for our reckoning of time — the calculation of Jesus’ date of birth — goes back to the monk Dionysius Exiguus (c. 550) who evidently miscalculated by a few years. The historical date of the birth of Jesus is therefore to be placed a few years earlier. 
“There is much debate regarding the date of the census. According to Flavius Josephus, to whom we owe most of our knowledge of Jewish history around the time of Jesus, it took place in the year 6 A.D. under the governor Quirinius and it was ultimately a question of money, it led to uprising of Judas the Galilean (cf. Acts 5:37). According to Josephus it was only then, and not before, that Quirinius was active in the region of Syria and Judea. Yet these claims in their turn are uncertain. At any rate, there are indications that Quirinius was already in the Emperor’s service in Syria around 9 B.C. So it is most illuminating when such scholar as Alois Stöger suggest that the ‘population census’ was a slow process.”

Luke, to whom we owe the information about the stable at all, is interested in the details of Jesus’ birth in a stable and his placement in a manger for the following reasons: 

A) It prefigures Jesus as “outside the camp” (Heb 13:11-13) of his countrymen (aka “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3)); and 

B) It prefigures the Eucharist (Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” and Jesus is laid in a manger, or feed box). 

Luke, in fact, bookends his Gospel with the Eucharist; mentioning the manger at the beginning and the Emmaus disciples recognizing him “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35) at the end. 

So, where do the critters come into Christmas? Pope Benedict notes that animals are associated with the Nativity, not by Luke, but by later Christians reflecting on the Incarnation in light of the prophets. So, for instance, the ox and ass become fixtures of Christmas art because, among other things, 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’” (Is 1:2-3). 

This theological motif in Christian art and theological reflection gets an extra boost in medieval Italy when St. Francis invents the crèche. And, of course, Christians naturally assumed that, it being a stable and all, there likely were animals there, whether Luke mentioned it or not.  

Pope Benedict has no problem with any of this piety and, in fact, welcomes it like the healthy Catholic he is.  

He simply notes, in his capacity as biblical scholar, that Luke is not the source of this imagery.

The date of Christmas

Finally, the Telegraph coverage departs from discussion of the book at all in order to interview a biblical scholar named John Barton of Oxford University, who repeats the common trope that “The whole idea of celebrating [Jesus’] birth during the darkest part of the year is probably linked to pagan traditions and the winter solstice.’” 

This much-beloved meme has been repeated since it was first asserted by a German Protestant polemicist named Paul Ernst Jablonski in the 18th century. The problem is that neither Jablonski nor anybody else ever produced proof that it is true. He simply assumed it in an effort to argue that the Catholic faith had been corrupted by contact with paganism, while Catholics simply assumed he was right and tried to argue that it was all right to “baptize” harmless pagan customs.  

What nobody on either side ever did was check to find out if Christmas was actually placed where it is on the calendar in response to pagan solstice festivals. 

Now the evidence strongly suggests it wasn’t. According to William Tighe, a Church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, “the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ 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.”  

The fact is, our records of a tradition associating Jesus’ birth with Dec. 25 are decades older than any records concerning a pagan feast on that day. So Hippolytus of Rome tells us, three decades before Aurelian launched his festival, that Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. Meanwhile, Dec. 25 had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor was a sun cult important in Rome before him. 

So what did drive the dating of Christmas? Jewish and Christian Scripture and tradition — and nothing else. Fathers of the Church like St. John Chrysostom calculated the date of Christmas based on information from Luke’s Gospel and used rabbinic traditions about which class of priest was serving in the Jerusalem temple to figure out when Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, would have been on duty.  

Similarly, it is not to paganism, but to a curious Jewish tradition about the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets that the early Church looks in dating Christmas. “Integral age” was the idea that a true prophet died on the same date as his birth or conception.  

Western Christians dated March 25 and Eastern Christians April 6 as the date of Christ’s crucifixion (and therefore of his conception). Add nine months and you have Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 — Western and Eastern Christmas. The irony then, is that the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun was a warmed-over Christian feast. 

Mark Shea writes the Catholic and Enjoying It blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea.