Continuing from my last post, I will take a look at some of the historical claims of the Nativity of Jesus from the Bible and see how Pope Benedict XVI defends them in his most recent book.
First, let’s make a note of an argument that His Holiness seems to use several times in defending the historicity of the stories from modern critics. Many scholars will point to the theological reasons as to why the author of a given Gospel would tell such a story, which in turn gives us reason to suspect that the tale make not be historically authentic. Benedict, on the other hand, says that that is not sufficient to consider the tradition inauthentic. Perhaps not, but it should make us suspicious. Besides, this is not the only reason scholars doubt things such as the birth in Bethlehem or the miraculous conception of Mary. There are other things to consider.
We can actually see that Benedict doesn’t follow his own argument when he considers traditions that accrued to the biblical version of the Nativity. For example, His Holiness looks at the belief that an ox and a donkey were at the manger, but he notes that this is not mentioned in Gospels. However, he figures that this “lacuna” (p. 69) was filled in using a reworking of Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib.” And this is very reasonable argument to make us think the detail was created via scriptural exegesis turned into narrative details. But his reason for not considering the story of the ox and ass as historical is the same reason that Bible scholars become suspicious of other details in the New Testament that also fit a similar potential creation. The scholars then look at what the strength of the historical tradition is, as does Benedict here (noting how it isn’t found in our older sources). But the Pope doesn’t do that when it comes to the Bible itself, making for a disingenuous approach, especially when he doesn’t consider the other reasons historians are suspicious of most of the infancy narratives of Jesus.
Take the birth in Bethlehem, for example. Benedict notes how it conforms to Micah 5:1-3 (especially verse 2), claiming how it is a prophecy that informed people that the Messiah would be born in the city of David. While this does give scholars pause as to doubt the tradition because it could have been invented to fit the prophecy, Benedict does not see that as a good reason; after all, both biblical sources for Jesus’ birth city, Matthew and Luke, say Jesus was born in Bethlehem (p. 63). But this ignores several things. For one, Matthew and Luke are later than our earliest Gospel, Mark, and Mark seems to only know of a Jesus from Nazareth (1:9). John, on the other hand, has its characters indicate that they thought Jesus was from Nazareth as opposed to Bethlehem (7:42). So the earliest Gospel does not know of a tradition that Bethlehem was Jesus’ birthplace, and John contradicts it. His Holiness is forgetting his own source material.
But let us also consider Matthew and Luke and suppose that they are independent (as the Pope believes and needs for his argument). The two Gospels give very different stories as to how the Holy Family either got to Bethlehem in the first place or how they left. Matthew says the Magi came to a house (2:11), indicating that they have a permanent residence there rather than in Nazareth. Benedict claims that Joseph must have had property in both Nazareth and Bethlehem (p. 62-3), but this is without evidence and extremely unlikely for a given common man in this day; Joseph was supposed to be a carpenter, not a duke with lands, titles, and oodles of money. Also, Luke says that Joseph and Mary went to an inn or guestroom (2:7); if Joseph had his own place in Bethlehem, why did they not have a space of their own appropriate for a child to be born into? Apparently they are staying at a place that is not their own.
We also have the convoluted way that Joseph had to get himself and pregnant Mary to Bethlehem: an empire-wide census that has no evidence for it in that time, nor was there a census described by Luke 2:1-5 like it. Matthew knows nothing of it. On the other hand, Luke doesn’t know of the escape from Bethlehem because of the ire of King Herod trying to kill baby Jesus as Matthew describes; Luke just has the family go back to Nazareth without much hullabaloo.
There is actually very little conformity between the infancy sources, and one of the very few things they agree on is the birthplace. But that agreement can be explained by conforming to a prophecy; if the Evangelists had historical sources, then it becomes very hard to explain the significant differences between the tales. It is imprudent for a historian to just take what two sources agree on and say that that is bedrock and ignore all other contradiction. One needs to consider other alternatives.
But the Pope does have one other argument to favor Bethlehem: there is a tradition that Jesus was born in a cave near Bethlehem. Moreover, it is alleged that the Roman Emperor turned that cave into a shrine to Tammuz-Adonis in order to suppress the budding Christian cult. And Benedict says something interesting: “Local traditions are frequently a more reliable source than written records” (pp. 67-8). That is flabbergasting, especially since it means we need to forget his own preferred written source: the Gospels! After all, no canonical Gospel says Jesus was born in a cave, and Matthew and Luke contradict that when they say the Holy Family was in either a house or inn/guestroom. So the Pope accepts other traditions over his own Bible it seems. This is also rich because a significant bit of the book is to argue that many traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus are not in the Bible and not historical; now we have something not in the Bible but is true even despite what the Gospels say!
It is also ridiculous that Pope Benedict wants to use a local tradition rather than written records because of another obvious contradiction: his sources are written. Moreover, these are written sources composed over a century after the alleged time of Jesus’ birth; we are not talking about a record of a local tradition close to the time of Jesus’ life but way, way later and after the publication of Matthew and Luke. Could not the local tradition itself be a product of people knowing the Gospel story? Apparently that was not considered by His Holiness.
So the arguments in favor of Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace are poorly argued by the Pope; yet he still needs to confront the problem of the significant contradiction between Matthew and Luke about the date of Jesus’ birth. Matthew says it took place under King Herod who died in late 5/early 4 BCE, while Luke says Jesus was born during the census conducted by Quirinius in 6/7 CE. We have at least a decade contradiction. Pope Benedict tries to get around this with ways that have become common in apologetic literature, though his familiarity with even those lines of argumentation seem weak. (The most thorough refutation of all the attempts to make the timelines fit was done by Richard Carrier here.)
What His Holiness argues was that the census was a rather long event, first with the counting and then the administering of the taxes (p. 62). But this makes nonsense of fixing the problem. First off, the registration of properties is what is said to have happened in Luke 2:1f; the Greek word apographe means to register or make record; you can see the root graphe in the term, from which we get modern words like graph, graphic, paleography (the study of ancient handwriting). The Vulgate’s Latin uses a very similar term, describeretur. This should also be obvious in Benedict’s native German translations (I’m looking at the Schlachter 2000 version); the verb used is erfassen and the noun used is Erfassung, both which deal with recording or registering. Using an older German translation, Martin Luther (1545) uses Schätzung, which also means to estimate value of property.
But this doesn’t even matter because Luke says Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem during the taxation phase of whatever sort during the time Quirinius was governing Syria, which started in 6/7 CE, way after the time Herod died; we also know who was governing Syria at the time of Herod’s death and before. So even with this excuse given by Benedict (who cites Stroeger, Lukasevangelium , pp. 372f.), it doesn’t fix the problem anyways. That makes me think the Pope doesn’t really grasp the problem nor the attempted solutions to it, though they fail as well.
Lastly for this blog post, let’s look at the argument for the Virgin birth. First, the Pope discounts the connection between pagan miraculous births and that of Jesus (pp. 51-2). In particular, he states how there is no real parallel to Jesus’ virgin birth, citing the story of Perseus. That strikes me as interesting, claiming that there isn’t actually any parallel between the stories, since one of the sources used by Benedict, that of Justin Martyr, said that the story of Perseus was parallel to that of Jesus. In his 1st Apology, Chapter 22, he states
And if we affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus.
He also relates the myth of Perseus’ mother becoming pregnant not through sexual means by via a golden shower (Dialog with Trypho 66), though other versions say it was sunlight. How does Justin explain these parallels. The Devil created them in advance so as to confuse people about who the real son of God was. And other than denial, this is the only excuse for these similarities. Sure there are differences, but there are also differences between Perseus miraculous birth and other Greek heroes; does that mean none of the births were miraculous, or just that different stories, different details?
How the Virgin Birth got into the tradition is also amazingly claimed to go back to earliest times. According to His Holiness, “only after Mary’s death could the mystery be made public and pass into the shard patrimony of the early Church” (p. 53). So nobody knew about the Virgin Birth until after the last potential witness to it (Mary) died. And it had to remain a secret because … well, no actual reason is given. It just had to be suppressed to explain why nobody knew of it until later. Well, given that logic, we can make lots of claims about Jesus and just say they were suppressed for unknown reasons, including Jesus was a communist (actually, see Acts 4 for a Christian commune), gay, a man-hating feminist, and really hated Lynyrd Skynyrd and religion. Obviously the early Christians wouldn’t pass that along, so it must be true! I guess the Pope is trying to make an argument from embarrassment (which is itself a flawed argument for authenticity), but he cannot even establish that is was embarrassing–and if it was, they why was it even brought up if it could easily be suppressed by the family of Jesus? There is just no sense to be had here besides that provided by wishful thinking.
So you are getting the idea that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI is far from infallible* when it comes to historical biblical criticism. From what it looks like, I seem to be more familiar with the biblical passages than the leader of the Catholic Church, something that ought to be an embarrassment to the organization. But I am not done yet pointing out what doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Next time, let’s look at my particular interest with the Nativity stories: the Star of Bethlehem.
* The doctrine of papal infallibility really isn’t being refuted with my discussion. That only deals with points of doctrine, not necessarily historical analysis. The book doesn’t come down ex cathedra, getting the stamp of infallibility, which is most clear because the Pope uses his given name, Joseph Ratzinger, as author. However, since the Pope does depend on the historicity of the events to buttress his exegesis, such error could potentially be a problem on the infallibility front.