I am hoping to make this my last post on the short book about the Nativity of Jesus by Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). So far, from what I can tell, I have been one of the few bloggers going through and being critical of its historical contents, which I will continue here. For background, my first post looked at the apparent lack of engagement with the best literature on the subject of Jesus’ birth, including Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah. My second post looked at the arguments His Holiness used to defend the historicity of certain details of the Gospel(s) version(s) of the birth of Christ and how his own arguments were not correctly applied.
As for the rest of the blogosphere, here is what I have found around the Internet:
Jim West highlights a news report about the book and how the Pope says Jesus was not born in 0 AD; Jim asks so what else is new? A similar feeling can by seen with Sonja of Women in Theology who found this volume boring compared to the prior two books by Ratzinger on Jesus. She also notes there really isn’t any debunking in the book at all, but is actually very traditional (I agree). Timothy at Catholic Bibles finds some of the news going around silly, though he does get a kick out of the tongue-in-cheek post “The Pope Hates Christmas”. There the author has more criticism at the media than the Pope. Lastly, one of the few blog posts critical of the book’s historical criticism comes from Bart Ehrman, though most of that post is behind a pay wall (with the proceeds going to charitable causes). It also looks like Ehrman is working on a collection of English translations of the non-canonical infancy gospels. That seems like something useful.
So with that link-farm out of the way, let’s see what else His Holiness is up to. As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I wanted to focus on how the Pope interprets the Star of Bethlehem, the reason I wanted to read this book in the first place. First off, this can be considered historic for the discussion of the Star; the last time someone high up in the Catholic hierarchy endorsed astronomy or astrology to interpret the Star was Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly almost exactly 600 years ago. But now the Bishop of Rome has considered naturalistic possibilities for the Star, which seems unprecedented based on my research.
But upon re-reading, it seems that Benedict tip-toes around the subject. Before getting into the Star itself, he does some background of who the Magi were in pre-Christian and Christian literature, and there he seems to have done some decent homework. He also notes how the Magi in Matthew are placed in a very different light than the magician of the Book of Acts. Benedict also considers if the Magi came from Babylon, but that leads into the work of a researcher on the Star, which he saves for later.
Now let us see how the Pope deals with the Star. First, he brings up the long church tradition of seeing the Star as something theological and its nature unlike anything else the astronomers deal with (pp. 97-8). However, he then says that just because the Star has theological weight does not mean it isn’t astronomical in nature. He then discusses the innovations of Johannes Kepler, about the supernova in 1604, and the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE (Benedict keeps saying they conjunctions were in 7-6 BCE, but the last of the three conjunctions took place in December of 7, never in 6 BCE; it was the massing in 6 BCE that Kepler cared about). Unfortunately, His Holiness has come to accept a long line of misinterpretation of Kepler; the great astronomer did not say the Star was a supernova, but instead it was a miraculous event in the Earth’s atmosphere, close to the ground. This is clarified by David Hughes in his 1979 book The Star of Bethlehem, and the proper reading of Kepler was already done back in 1937 by a Jesuit. Michael Molnar also gets this point correct in his book and website FAQ. But this is beside the point of whether the Star was a supernova or the conjunction of two planets.
As for the supernova, the Pope also notes how the scholar Friedrich Wiesler (1811-1892) “discovered” (p. 99) a Chinese record of a bright star in 4 BCE. This isn’t accurate, as the Chinese star record was known much earlier by J. C. Foucquet in 1729 (as noted by Christopher Cullen back in 1979). The details are rather beside the point because it seems the Pope doesn’t follow that line of thinking, but instead defers to the Austrian astronomy Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo. Ferrari d’Occhieppo believes that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces was sufficient to be the Star, as His Holiness notes (p. 99). It is rather unfortunate that the astronomer had died five years ago, because I would imagine he would have been delighted to see his hypothesis prominently cited by the leader of the Catholic Church.
But does the Pope endorse this view of what the Star was? That seems to be unclear. Benedict does not deny the conjunction and that it “could well have pointed astronomers from the Babylonian-Persian region toward the land of the Jews” (pp. 99-100). The Pope later suggests that the conjunction would have gotten the Magi to go the Jerusalem, but from there they needed other informants to go to the place of Jesus’ birth. The Star “leads the wise men as far as Judea” and to Jerusalem in particular since that is the natural place for the new king to be born (pp. 100-1). But then the Magi need Scripture to get the rest of the way. So it seems the Pope endorses the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction as what got the Magi to go to see King Herod.
But this is where Benedict is failing and seems to be influenced by the non-biblical traditions that attached itself to the story, the sorts of things he was trying to removed in his analysis. The Gospel of Matthew does not say the Star lead the Magi to Jerusalem; instead, the leading takes place on the trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Matt 2:9). It is only later traditions that say the Star also guided the Magi in some fashion to the court of King Herod. This also leads to how the Pope is trying to have a bit of the naturalistic with the supernatural, because His Holiness does not specify anything about the Star when it comes to the details in Matthew 2:9, about how the Star “goes before” the Magi, arriving and standing “over where the child was”. Ferrari d’Occhieppo thought that he could explain this astronomically, but Benedict does not make that argument at all; he doesn’t even talk about the amazing leading of the Wise Men or the movement of the Star (even though it was mentioned in his quote of John Chrysostom [p. 97]). Benedict talks of the Star disappearing and reappearing, bringing the Magi to great joy (pp. 105-6), but he skips over the more miraculous part of the story.
So we see something rather interesting here. His Holiness endorses the naturalistic version of the Star of Bethlehem in part, the portion that explains why the Magi would have been interested, but he doesn’t even talk about where any naturalistic Star hypothesis has the greatest difficulty in explaining Matthew’s text. Perhaps he knows of the difficulty of naturalistic interpretations at this point, not to mention that removing the miraculous here while not doing the same for the Virgin Birth or Resurrection is very odd. But the Pope can still try to squeeze out the historical verisimilitude that a naturalistic Star hypothesis can bring, bolstering his beliefs that the stories in the Gospels really happened. It begins to look like the use of smoke and mirrors.
So how plausible is it that the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions would have been of interest to the Magi, let alone get them to think there was a Jewish king being born? As I note in my article on the history of interpretations of the Star of Bethlehem, the idea of such conjunctions became important in astrology no earlier than the 3rd century CE with the rise of the Sassanid Empire and what it would do with the scientific knowledge of the Greeks, Romans, and Indians. And it was a Muslim in the 9th century that would apply the 7 BCE conjunction to Jesus. The importance of such astronomical events was not thought to exist until much after the time of the first Christians, and it wouldn’t be applied until a millennium afterwards. The evidence that the constellation of Pisces, the two fish, was the constellation of the Jews finds no support until the 15th century in Spain by Jewish apocalyptic thinkers making their own astrological arguments. There is simply no evidence that such a conjunction in Pisces, or any constellation for that matter, was particularly important, let alone for prognostications about Judea. I will detail this at length when I publish my own book on the subject.
So ends the Pope’s discussion of what the Star was, and it seems he wants it both ways and can get neither. The popular Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions don’t fit history or the details of Matthew’s tale, and His Holiness fails to even try to have magic fill in the gaps, leaving the story wide open to doubt. And so ends my critical look at the book. You can tell that if you want to know what really happened at Jesus’ birth, you won’t find the arguments here. If you want to defend the faith from skeptics, this book will fail you quite a bit. But there is some attractive writing when it comes to the theology, and some level of humor can be found, though it is dry. The Pope is German, after all.
Now, let’s see if any other blogs have additional critiques of the book. Let me know if you find any good ones (or bad ones, for that matter).