Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

Pope Benedict XVI
In his book The Spaniard and the seven deadly sins, Fernando Diaz Plaja criticizes what he considers an example of the sin of pride rather common among Spaniards: criticizing a book without having read it. He offers the following example:
Literary judgment is easiest in Spain. I once listened to a radio broadcast where a few writers commented Dr. Zhivago, by Pasternak. The opinions were so hard, sharp and negative, that a lady of the group, with a probably Russian accent, was astonished and asked humbly:
“But how can you say..., where did you read that?” “I have not read the book,” was the astonishing reply. It turned out that, of the four writers who had gathered to discuss the novel, she was the only one who had read it.
November 21st 2012, near the beginning of the Christmas season, was the date of the publication of the book about the infancy of Jesus, third in the trilogy that Pope Benedict XVI dedicated to Jesus of Nazareth (he also signed them in his own name, Josef Ratzinger).
Let’s look at a review issued in a major daily journal in Spain on the same day of the publication of the book:

First the headline: The Pope says that there was no mule or ox in the stable in Bethlehem.
A few statements contained in the text:
·         The Pope, therefore, makes a clean sweep with the details - “in the portal there were no animals.”
·         “... in the time of Jesus’ birth.” A date that Joseph Ratzinger places -following the Gospel of St. Luke- in the year 15 of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, between 6 and 7 BC...
·         “ all probability, the star was a supernova.”
The headline and the first statement are a spectacular display of how journalists can ignore the fundamental to emphasize irrelevant details. Moreover, what the author of the article says is false. The pope never wrote that “there were no animals in the portal.” What he says in chapter 3 is this: The Gospel does not speak in this case of animals, which is very different. Saying that we do not have data on something is not the same as saying that that something never happened. A scientist and a reader of detective novels can distinguish very well between the two. It seems that the author of the article does not understand this.
Moreover, there is nothing new or surprising in Ratzinger’s statement. Nor is it difficult to verify: one must read just over 3000 words, the first two chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which requires less than half an hour. When the author of this article declares his surprise, he is not only displaying his ignorance, he is making clear that he has not read the Gospels.
Let’s look now at the second statement. It contains a glaring unjustifiable historical error. It says that Ratzinger places the birth of Jesus “in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” This is the year 28 or 29 AD, so it can have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. Of course Ratzinger does not say so in his book, he points that date as the “beginning of the public life of Jesus.” It is curious that the same mistake had already appeared in other sources, even before the book’s publication. Has the error been copied from one journalist to another? Or did they have an independent origin?
Finally, about the third statement: the pope never says that the star of Bethlehem was most likely a supernova, as the review states. He just points out that possibility, among others. In fact, he also refers to a possible identification with the astral conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the zodiacal sign of Pisces, a proposal that came from the scientific literature and has been mentioned here in another post.
Of course, I cannot assert that the journalist had not read the book he described in his article. However, the accumulation of errors suggests that, at best, he made a very cursory reading before writing his review.
If the media are capable of gathering such a large number of mistakes in such a simple question as whether there were animals in a stable, and what was the date of the event, how can we wonder that, when they transmit purely scientific information, it is usually fraught with inaccuracies?

Manuel Alfonseca


  1. Not surprising that journalists comment on things they have not read. They frequently give accounts of things that never happened.

    1. I've seen some suggestions that Herod the Great actually died in one B.C. which would likely change the estimates of the date of Christ's birth. Have you seen any of that?