Pope Benedict XVI and the Birth of Jesus: Poor Scholarship?

Since my rebellious teenage years, I understood that the blind acceptance of other people’s arguments based solely on their authority, age, or position is not always a good way to go on in life! Of course, we do that a lot. It’s an inevitable way of doing things. The reason for that is simple: You can’t be an expert on everything so most of the things we “know” are derived from other experts. Take, for instance, medicine. Most of us are absolutely ignorant when it comes to diseases, diagnoses, and treatments. So naturally, we rely on medical professionals and other experts within that field. It’s a logical thing to do. However, when it comes to areas that we do know a lot about, things should be different. In those cases, we should scrutinize arguments and presented evidence!

I think pope Benedict XVI was a great theologian whose intellectual depth is beyond my reach. And I do mean it – without any false modesty! His book Introduction to Christianity is one of the best books I’ve ever read. In it, Benedict presents a philosophically sound way of looking at Christianity as a religion and a cultural phenomenon. For those who think that atheistic writers such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris are amazing, please read Benedict’s book. In comparison, they look like kids who decided to do philosophy – and a bad one if I may add. Does that mean I consider Benedict infallible? Do I then accept all his arguments and theories unquestioningly? Of course not! I do hold that he made some weak arguments in his public career. The best example of that is the first part of his trilogy on Jesus entitled Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. The book was published back in 2012 and I read it a couple of years ago. As the title suggests, it is all about Benedict’s analysis of Jesus’ birth and childhood years. He approaches these subjects both as a theologian and a historian. Unfortunately, his theological beliefs generated the distortion of historical evidence and emphasized the poor or even sloppy scholarship on Benedict’s part. To illustrate this, I will use the example of Luke’s census related to the birth of Jesus.

In his Gospel, Luke (writing more than 70 years after the fact) claims that in the days before Jesus’ birth emperor Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David. Also, both Luke and Matthew relate Jesus’ birth to the last years of Herod’s reign. From other sources, we know two important facts:

  1. Herod died in 4 BCE
  2. There really was a census while Qurinius was governor of Syria. But, it happened in 6 CE and it only affected Judea, not the whole empire! A historian named Flavius Josephus describes it!

So, how can Jesus be born both at the end of Herod’s reign (4 BCE) and during the census that happened in 6 CE? In the last hundred years, conservative theologians and historians tried to reconcile these accounts in numerous ways (I wrote about some of those: see here). To their disappointment, none of the proposed theories carry any plausibility, and some are just factually ridiculous. And this is something that great Catholic scholars such as Raymond Brown or Joseph Fitzymer are well aware of. They both conclude that Luke made a mistake. When I first picked up Pope Benedict’s book, I expected him to accept the arguments that critical scholars developed and concur with Brown, Fitzmyer, and others. However, I was wrong. So how did Pope reconcile these contradictions and “save” Luke’s historical reliability? He surely knows about the challenges as he writes: There is much debate regarding the date of the census. After he explains those challenges, Pope goes on to provide a solution:

There are indications that Quirinius was already in the Emperor’s service in Syria around 9 BCE. So it is most illuminating when such scholars as Alois Stoger suggest that the “population census” was a slow process in the conditions of the time dragging on over several years. Moreover, it was implemented in two stages: firstly, registration of all land and property ownership, and then – in the second phase – determination of the payments that were due. The first stage would have taken place at the time of Jesus’ birth.

He refers to Stoger’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. But when you take a look at this book, you find out that Stoger didn’t cite any primary source that would support his argument that a “population census” was a slow process that could last several years. And remember: we are talking about a time gap of approximately 10 years! Is there any evidence that population taxes in Roman Empire lasted that long? Not even close! Also, he never cites any evidence for the empire-wide census – either at one time or spread out over time. Why? Because there isn’t any. We know a lot about the Roman taxation policy, and everything Luke tells us about this census is wrong. First of all, Roman documents show that taxation was done by the various governors at the provincial level. There isn’t any evidence supporting an empire-wide census. It wouldn’t make any sense. Moreover, the census in 6 AD happened precisely because Archelaus was overthrown and Judea fell under the direct rule of Rome via Pontius Pilate who became the first prefect of that province. A Roman census directed by the emperor during the time of Herod the Great (who ruled as a Roman client king) wouldn’t make any sense. Herod was the one responsible for the taxation policy, and he was quite successful in it!

A few passages later Pope continues to drive arguments in the same lane as he writes:

Some have raised the further objection that there was no need, in a census of this kind, for each person to travel to his hometown. But we also know from various sources that those affected had to present themselves where they owned property. Accordingly, we may assume that Joseph… had property in Bethlehem, so that he had to go there for tax registration.

Interestingly enough, Benedict makes an assumption based on zero evidence. Where did he get the idea that Joseph had property in Bethlehem? His assumption is based on another distorted assumption that the census really happened during the last years of Herod’s reign. Moreover, by claiming that Joseph must have a property in Bethlehem, Benedict contradicts the picture of Joseph’s destitute status and Jesus’ birth in a κατάλυμα (a word that often gets mistranslated as an inn, but actually had a generic meaning of accommodation or a place to stay). Furthermore, based on what we know about the economics of 1st century Palestine, what are the odds that a person such as Joseph, who came from a lower class of society, would have property in another town (besides Nazareth)? The odds are not that good – and that’s an understatement of the year! There are other substantial problems with Luke’s census that Benedict ignored. Take, for instance, the idea that people had to move to their ancestors home towns to register for a census. Does that make any sense at all? Of course not. Could you imagine people all over the empire moving to their ancestral homes? It would be an enormous migration of the population within the Empire. And none of our sources bears to mention it? Common!

In the end, I think we all operate at different levels in our lives. Pope Benedict XVI was not just a scholar. He was, first and foremost, a leader of the Catholic Church, a theologian, and a firm believer in Christ! While writing this book, he was operating from a perspective of a theologian with a clear agenda: harmonize the Gospels and enhance their historical reliability, but do it in a more sophisticated way than a regular conservative (evangelical) believer in the southern USA. Unfortunately, that brought him to the land of distortions and poor scholarship!

1 thought on “Pope Benedict XVI and the Birth of Jesus: Poor Scholarship?”

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