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The Pope’s New Book

So, I read the Pope’s new book last night, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  It wasn’t what I expected.  I don’t know why it wasn’t what I expected:  about thirty seconds solemn reflection should have told me what it would be.  But I believed the media reports and was led astray.  The press coverage stressed the things I pointed out in my post yesterday:  we don’t know what year exactly Jesus was born, since the calendar devised by the sixth-century Dionysius Exiguus was off; we don’t know if Jesus was born on December 25; there is no NT record of an ox and an ass at the manger scene; etc. etc.

But as it turns out, these are very, very minor points in the book, and not what the Pope is interested in at all.  As it often does, the media cherry picked the parts of the book, minor as they are, in order to stress what seems (to the media) as sensational and newsworthy.  But these things are not what the book is about.  The Pope is not principally trying to “set the record” straight with respect to all the myths and legends that have sprung up around the nativity scene.   He instead provides an intelligent, very pious, and not very critical pastoral and soothing interpretation of the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.

Of course he would do that.  What else would he do?  He’s not going to focus on the discrepancies between the accounts, the historical implausibilities, the violations of all sense (not just virgin births, of course, as that’s a doctrinal certainty; but also stars stopping over houses and the like).   For Pope Benedict (or theologian Ratzinger) these stories are *Scripture* and are not only theologically at the heart of the Christian gospel but are also rooted in real, actual history.  They really happened.  As described.  In detail.  Completely and fully.   He maintains in the book that critical scholars are too critical and ought to realize that these things really took place as the Gospel writers said.  If you’d been there, you would have been able to capture it all on your camcorder.

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Rene Salm at the Society of Biblical Literature Meeting
The Other Gospels and the Birth of Jesus



  1. Avatar
    zemi  November 28, 2012

    Thanks for this review of yours! I actually hope you would have a post on his book, perhaps even the previous ones! Have you read them as well? Do you feel the same about them? There are scholars, such as Ben Witherington who praise the previous book(s), whereas folks like Geza Vermes say basically very similar things as you.

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    Mikail78  November 28, 2012

    Hey Bart, very quick question. Raymond Brown, as far as I know, has a very good reputation for his critical scholarship on the New Testament. But even though he was a critical scholar, he still adhered to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and was a devout Catholic. He believed that these implausible stories could only be believed by faith and not proven to be historically accurate. Is my assessment of Dr. Brown correct? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 29, 2012

      Ray Brown, and other good Catholic scholars, like John Meier, are completely open to and expert in historical criticism; questions such as whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth can certainly be queried on historical grounds, and they do so. (Meier, for example, votes for Nazareth; he like Brown is an ordained priest). Others, such as whether Mary was a virgin, cannot be, and so are to be taken on faith, or not.

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    dallaswolf  November 28, 2012

    I am distrustful of doctrine that is not compatible with the order and reason of my mind provided by the immanent presence of the Logos in all creation.

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    Jim  November 28, 2012

    I’m not the sharpest spoon in the cupboard nor an NT scholar, and maybe some things that seem fable-ish (re Christmas story) may still be logically debated such as Luke’s dating of the Quirinius census vs Josephus’s (a minority position has challenged Josephus’s numbers: Rhoads; JETS 54, 65-87, 2011 and references cited therein), but I do know how to save a buck or two. As of today’s post I’ve saved the blog membership fees minus the cost of buying the Pope’s new book. Thanks for your heads up!

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    toddfrederick  November 28, 2012

    Glad I saved my money.

    Way back in olden times, I was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, so I guess I can say this: why do they (and other church people living in the 21st century with scientific and scholastic facts hitting them in the face) still believe in fairy tales? I want to know more about the Roman centurion who got Mary “in trouble”…Panteras, I think his name was.

    I once heard an intelligent priest justifying the veracity of highly questionable holy sites and relics by saying they help to stimulate faith in God’s people even though they are obviously fake.

    I suppose you’re correct…he’s the Pope and really can’t, or won’t, say anything else…he might lose paying church members. Same is true for many “successful” Protestant church pastors.

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    FrancisDunn  November 28, 2012

    Thank you Dr Bart. You SAVED me from spending $20.00 on the old hash, rehashed. I went to catholic school as a child and was told to “never question my faith”; the wrong thing to say to me. I went through the motions and when I was 12 went to public high school. My world history teacher was delighted I was not interested in learning history out of a school text book. She introduced me to Shapiro and I became rather surprised that there was no reference to this Jesus and his miracles. Needless to say I wanted to read more and so I did. Oddly enough I too took a bible apart and compared the four gospels and was rather disgusted to find the discrepancies. The clincher was the empty tomb but no one saw an actual resurrection. Im sure you are aware that when you “ASSUME” you tend to make an ASS out of YOU and ME. I am now 63 and quite content being agnostic. I’ve read several of your books. I plan to read them all. Keep up the great work.

    Warm regards

    Francis Dunn

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    Jdavis3927  November 28, 2012

    Thanks, but I will pass.

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    billgraham1961  November 28, 2012

    I read a similar article on CNN last week, and thought the Pope had suggested a more scholarly approach to the life and times of Jesus. What surprises me nonetheless is the number of people who still think December 25 is Jesus’ birthday. I’d like to think he was born on September 20, which is my birthday. Of course, that would make Jesus a Virgo. If he were born in the Chinese year of the Ox, even better. Then, I could claim that I was like Jesus, and everything would be totally groovy for me until I had to confess that my lifestyle isn’t exactly a carbon copy of his.

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    glucab86  November 28, 2012

    Hi Bart,
    What do you think about the Alois Stöger hypotesis about the census cited by the pope?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 29, 2012

      There’s no evidence for an empire wide census, either at one time or spread out over time.

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    jimmo  November 28, 2012

    “you should NEVER trust the media to give a fair representation of someone’s writing, work, view, argument, or perspective”
    When I read that, I was immediately reminded of the “reviews” of both Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted.

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    maxhirez  November 28, 2012

    Interesting-is this a shift from authority via apostolic succession to sola scriptura, or possibly the beginnings of an attempt to incorporate the latter into the former? Did you get a sense of politic or machination underlying il Papa’s words? Is a rescinding of the church’s acknowledgment of Galilean cosmology on the horizon?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 29, 2012

      No, he is not arguing sola scriptura. But Scripture is still the Word of God in the Catholic tradition, and the accounts of Scripture are, traditionally, seen as historically accurate.

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  April 18, 2018

        Hi Bart!
        I have to correct you on that one since I come from Catholic background and live in a country where Catholics are in majority!
        Catholic Chuch believes that Scripture is Sacred and Inspired by God, but does not give any clear definition of that inspiration and there are a lot of catholic theologians, even bishops, who are aware of critical scholarship. If you decide to study theology here, you will probably find books by R. Brown or even you (your Introduction to the New Testament) in a syllabus.
        Also i would like to remind you of a catholic priest from a 18th century Simon Ricard. He was a pioneer of critical approach to the Bible.

        Kind Regards from Croatia!

  12. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  November 28, 2012

    Ok, so that won’t get on my wishlist then! 😉

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    Claude  November 28, 2012

    He maintains in the book that critical scholars are too critical and ought to realize that these things really took place as the Gospel writers said.

    Lamest apology ever!

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    nichael  November 28, 2012

    You should excuse the expression, but “Amen”.

    The only tweak I would make to what you write above is that you should never trust the media’s representation of *anything* remotely technical.

    I’ll spare you the long-winded version of my rant on this topic, but I’ve found that a simple, but excellent, rule of thumb is that if an article or news story refers to “scientists” (as in “Scientists announced today that…”) it can be dismissed out of hand. A writer who is so incompetent –or so anxious to dumb their story down– that s/he can’t be bothered to distinguish between something so basic as, say, a physicist/biologist/mathematician/historian/geologist/etc is not worth wasting your time reading.

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    RonaldTaska  November 29, 2012

    Good review. Thanks!
    I find it extremely discouraging that people like the pope can just ignore and never really address mountains of textual and historical criticism and never have any of it affect any of their views about anything.

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    jimvj  November 29, 2012

    “The Pope is not principally trying to “set the record” straight with respect to all the myths and legends that have sprung up around the nativity scene.”

    What about myths and legends about the first apostles? Do we really know if Thomas went to India? That Peter was crucified upside down in Rome? Why would Peter, who probably spoke no Latin or Greek, go to Rome? Why would Thomas go so far away, when there was so much virgin territory much closer to the Jerusalem?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 30, 2012

      Ah, you need to read my books!

      • Avatar
        jimvj  December 3, 2012

        Which part of which book(s)?
        And will the rest of the books be on the Finals?

        I have read several of your books, especially the ones targeted at lay audiences; and I find them all very enlightening.
        But I don’t remember all the details.

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