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The Ox and Lamb Could Not Be Reached For Comment
November 29, 2012 5:09 PM   Subscribe

On November 21st, Image Books published Pope Benedict XVI's third and final volume in his Jesus of Nazareth series, The Infancy Narratives. In the book, along with discussions of the geneology of Jesus and the account of the annunciation of his birth, Benedict describes the nativity with as much historical accuracy as modern scholarship permits. The reaction in the world press was immediate:

From the relatively sedate Pope's book on Jesus challenges Christmas traditions at CNN; to the acerbic Daily Mail take Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions; to the outrage evident in Wownews.co.uk's article Pope bans Christmas, the press had a field day.

Somewhat bewildered at the response, this week the Catholic social network Xt3 posted a blog article The Pope Has Not 'Banned' Christmas and Reuters reports Read all about it: Pope has not canceled Christmas.
posted by ob1quixote (115 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
As Colbert said, you know what else the Bible doesn't mention? The pope.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:13 PM on November 29, 2012 [43 favorites]


Also, the word "rapture," or abortion.
posted by JHarris at 5:22 PM on November 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


This just in from AP: "Pope is time traveler from 20X6."
posted by Nomyte at 5:29 PM on November 29, 2012


The bible also fails to mention 'homosexual' or 'LSD'.
posted by item at 5:29 PM on November 29, 2012


Surely there is something in there about silly hats?
posted by Brocktoon at 5:33 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


The bible also fails to mention...'LSD'

It's effects are documented at length in the books of Daniel and Revelations.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:35 PM on November 29, 2012 [33 favorites]


As Colbert said

I love the lead-in to that segment, the animated "Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude", which has a biplane shooting down Santa, and then Jesus catching him, in another biplane.

A blitzkrieg. In biplanes. Not only did they have the wrong vehicles, they had the wrong war.

Had me snickering, anyway. :)
posted by Malor at 5:35 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


For more information on what the Bible doesn't contain, may I recommend you to The Human Bible (MeFi)?
posted by JHarris at 5:36 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Leviticus clearly favors vi. What is less clear is whether the called-for stoning of Emacs users should be of the lithic variety or via the tokin' ring.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:39 PM on November 29, 2012 [20 favorites]


The bible also fails to mention 'homosexual' or 'LSD'.

I'm pretty sure the Bible covers men "lying with" or "knowing" men.
posted by DU at 5:44 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


POPE TO XMAS: DROP DEAD
posted by Egg Shen at 5:45 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


JHarris: "For more information on what the Bible doesn't contain, may I recommend you to The Human Bible (MeFi)?"

Thanks for reminding me of that, JHarris. I meant to listen to it after the MeFi post, but blanked on it.
posted by brundlefly at 5:45 PM on November 29, 2012


I'm pretty sure the Bible covers men "lying with" or "knowing" men.

But not 'homosexual' by that exact name - unless you were referring to LSD, because you gotta be trippin', man.
posted by item at 5:48 PM on November 29, 2012


I think the lack of words idea a false positive. Tell me Plato's word for video.
It's lazy thinking, and will not convince any believer otherwise. The purpose is to change minds, not to mock, correct?
posted by Mblue at 5:50 PM on November 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


You know what else the bible doesn't mention? Soap.

That's why I think real Christians shouldn't wash.
posted by lumpenprole at 5:55 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


The media appears to be manufacturing outrage because the Pope is popularizing what has been common knowledge to Bible scholars and historians of Christianity for years and years and years now (e.g., Christ's birthdate, as the CNN article notes). From the summaries provided, the Pope seems to be saying absolutely nothing new. It's just that it's the Pope saying it.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:59 PM on November 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


So there really is a war on Christmas. Just not from the people Bill O'Reilly expected.
posted by TedW at 6:01 PM on November 29, 2012 [9 favorites]


Who exactly is the Pope mocking? Because the rest of us have merely adopted his brand of logical analysis.
posted by Brocktoon at 6:04 PM on November 29, 2012


you know what else the bible doesn't mention? 'bags' groove', from 1954, miles, sonny rollins, horace silver - awesome stuff. you can't explain that.
posted by facetious at 6:10 PM on November 29, 2012 [13 favorites]


This is totally manufactured by newspaper writers with too much time on their hands. The Pope hasn't said anything that biblical scholars haven't been saying for decades.

(Not that I'd expect evangelicals in the US to be aware, but still.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:11 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Who exactly is the Pope mocking? Because the rest of us have merely adopted his brand of logical analysis.

If this was directed at myself, my comment was about previous comments, not the main post.
posted by Mblue at 6:13 PM on November 29, 2012


As Colbert said: "Unavailable Video".
posted by ovvl at 6:25 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


But not 'homosexual' by that exact name...

"homo" is Latin and the Old Testament (where a lot of these inane rules are documented) was written before that language even existed. So yes, that word isn't in there. In fact, you'll find very few "exact" English words in a Hebrew and Greek Bible.

I think it's pretty dumb to base a dismissal of Biblical rules on whether the "exact name" of the item is mentioned. It implicitly gives a pass to the stupid rules that ARE mentioned. (Like wearing cotton or whatever it was.)
posted by DU at 6:35 PM on November 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


My favourite what-the-fuckery regarding the nativity as depicted in Christmas carols is the Little Drummer Boy.

I mean, hey, why not parumpapumpum like Keith fucking Moon in the middle of the damn night to entertain a newborn baby who is trying to avoid being discovered and killed?

(Is there stuff in this book about the whole Herod thing, by the way? Seems like that's where the juicy history-contradicts-the-Bible stuff would be.)

(Like wearing cotton or whatever it was.)

Deuteronomy 22:11 bans interwoven wool and linen; Leviticus 19:19 bans any interwoven fabrics. Take that, polyblends!
posted by Sys Rq at 6:43 PM on November 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


It's true, the average Joe Christian really does get outraged when confronted with the historical Jesus; even when the historical Jesus is given all the possible benefit of the doubt, as most biblical scholars and, no doubt, the pope afford him.

It can make it hard to argue the real theological issues when uncontested facts of history are disputed as vehemently as, say, whether Jesus was the son of god.
posted by gilrain at 6:44 PM on November 29, 2012


Leviticus clearly favors vi. What is less clear is whether the called-for stoning of Emacs users should be of the lithic variety or via the tokin' ring.
posted by b1tr0t


In the original translation the bible ended with :wq
posted by 445supermag at 7:05 PM on November 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


Nobody cares what some nameless "Christian scholar" said, because he isn't the Pope.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:11 PM on November 29, 2012


The reaction in the world press was immediate: IT STINKS!

*runs away giggling*
posted by clavicle at 7:26 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the original translation the bible ended with :wq

Any divinely inspired writer would surely have known about :x
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:27 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Image Books published Pope Benedict XVI's third and final volume in his Jesus of Nazareth series, The Infancy Narratives.

I never foresaw Pope Benny's JC sharing a stable with Spawn and WitchBlade, but I guess more recent publications like The Walking Dead have made it a much closer match. I'd laugh if there was a scene where JC took off his robe of pockets and got his tiny feet washed, though.
posted by Sparx at 7:33 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


"homo" is Latin

(Ancient) Greek.

"homosexual(ity)" as a concept isn't developed until the 19th century. There's a good bibliography here.
posted by junco at 7:37 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Pope Benedict XVI's third and final volume in his Jesus of Nazareth series

The 3 prequels sucked. Just start with Episode IV: A New Pope.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:38 PM on November 29, 2012 [24 favorites]


The Pope hasn't said anything that biblical scholars haven't been saying for decades.

How can someone who knows what biblical scholars have been saying for decades not have heard of "speaking ex cathedra"?
posted by benito.strauss at 7:43 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure the Bible covers men "lying with" or "knowing" men.

Linguistic quibbles aside, it's fair to note that men having sex with other men is not the same thing as men identifying as a type of person we call homosexual, in the sense of being consistently primarily attracted to men as sexual partners.

Given that the range of practices regarding sex between men historically has included forcing sex as an act of war or a requirement of slaves or as a rite of passage or as a religious observance or as a cementing of bonds between equals or as a punishment for crime or as an outlet when women were unsuitable or unavailable, and that all of these were found in various spots around the world during the times covered by the Bible, there are a lot of reasons why authorities may have wanted to ban sex between men as a behavior that really don't have anything to do with attraction and love relationships between free and consenting adults.

In other words, it's not likely "homosexuality" they sought to prevent, since there was no such construct, as much as the particulars relationships that were considered out of the bounds of morally appropriate practice, unlike, say, an arranged marriage with an 11 year old girl who is your legal property and can never refuse sex, which is fine. But anyway.
posted by Miko at 8:05 PM on November 29, 2012 [38 favorites]


benito, not even all papal books and encyclicals aimed at proclaiming Catholic doctrine are considered "ex cathedra." This book isn't a genre that could even potentially be considered an example of papal infallibility.
posted by straight at 8:07 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


not even all papal books and encyclicals aimed at proclaiming Catholic doctrine are considered "ex cathedra."

Ah, I didn't know that. Is there a formal way to distinguish when the Pope is in fact speaking ex cathedra?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:10 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


These links seem to confirm my guess that the only people who are remotely surprised by anything the Pope is saying here are non-Christians. These sorts of, "Actually the Bible doesn't say the Wise Men were kings, or that there were three of them, or that the angels were singing, or anything about animals, and it probably wasn't winter, and it was probably more like a cave than a barn, and we don't really know the actual date" observations were a staple of Christmas-time sermons and Sunday School classes in the evangelical church I was growing up in 30 years ago.
posted by straight at 8:14 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's really rare, and it's accompanied by a declaration on the order of "this is pronounced ex cathedra."

There's a really good comment here on the hierarchy of statements of belief...last one, scroll down, can't figure out how to link it.

I was raised amongst Catholics and when it gets down to this lawyeristic stuff, even I am lost. My mom, who had the full pre-Vatican II Catholic education, is pretty good at it though.
posted by Miko at 8:16 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


a weird little thought just occurred to me - i love reading poetry, and i also love reading books *about* poetry. same with philosophy. same with literature. etc.. in the same way i love reading the new testament - but i have *never* read an interesting book about it. no idea why.
posted by facetious at 8:20 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


These links seem to confirm my guess that the only people who are remotely surprised by anything the Pope is saying here are non-Christians.

They might not be certain kinds of evangelicals, but I wouldn't rush to say they're non-Christians. Many of these folk interpretations/earlier traditions were, after all, stewarded in mainline Protestant and Catholic communities for centuries before the evangelical movement arose. Part of what the evangelical movement was about was the idea "let's go back to the Bible and strip away the trappings of these big, corrupt wayward churches with their false teachings," which involved developing new and often less poetic Bible translations and correcting against what was seen as the overdone observance of things like the Nativity play with camels and the gifts and the crowns of the "kings" with a sense of getting back to nuts and bolts and removing oneself from the distractions of what had become an increasingly secular holiday observance.

I think it would be completely possible, for instance, to grow up in a Methodist church, say, in the 60s or 70s as a basic casual believer, and not really confront enough Biblical scholarship to get that the specific window dressing of the Nativity and the wintertime setting are not supported in the texts.

But yeah, this stuff has been in discussion a long time, and somewhat ironically, the evangelical re-examination of Biblical texts probably deserves just as much credit for correcting the popular imagination on the Nativity story as secularization does - if not more, since a secular point of view could legimately be "whatever, it's just a story either way."
posted by Miko at 8:24 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is there a formal way to distinguish when the Pope is in fact speaking ex cathedra?

Basically, he's not.

There are only two statements that Catholic theologians mostly agree are instances of papal infallibility (and, weirdly, they're about things that most every Protestant would deny are true): Pope Pius IX's 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (i.e. that Mary was born without Original Sin, but did not necessarily live a sinless life) and Pope Pius XII's 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary (i.e. that Mary was taken bodily to heaven at the end of her life, possibly like Elijah before she died or possibly immediately following her death).

There are maybe 5 or 6 other encyclicals that some theologians argue ought to be considered ex cathedra statements. Nothing Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI have written are considered ex cathedra (although John Paul II's encyclical asserting that only men can be priests is considered an infallible statement of already existing Church doctrine, rather than something JPII proclaimed by the authority of his office as Pope).
posted by straight at 8:29 PM on November 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


no idea why

There's such a point of view problem. The people who write reams about it but feel the project is one of supporting some version of its truth/accuracy/Divinity, or who write reams about it but in an effort to prove its total falsity/idiocy/uselessness you don't want to read that stuff. The people who you'd want to read don't want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Somewhat oddly, though.

It would be great to read the 1492 or the Guns, Germs and Steel of the New Testament, if someone good would take it on.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've always interpreted the "not lie with a man as with a woman" to be a rousing endorsement of lesbianism. This interpretation has served me well through the years.
posted by Iteki at 8:32 PM on November 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


Ah, I didn't know that. Is there a formal way to distinguish when the Pope is in fact speaking ex cathedra?

Indeed there is, but it's worth pointing out that popes have ever spoken ex cathedra twice, ever, unless you count the canonization of saints.

(on preview, what straight says above).
posted by jquinby at 8:32 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, is there going to be a book-signing tour?
posted by Goofyy at 8:32 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The worst part of all this retconning is it gives writers the excuse to faff around endlessly with the origin story. For christ's sake, write something current, I'm sick of emo teenager Jesus discovering his spider powers.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:33 PM on November 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


but I wouldn't rush to say they're non-Christians.

Good point. I didn't at all mean to say, "You're not a real Christian if you haven't heard this stuff before." I just meant to point out that this sort of debunking has been common and completely non-threatening to many conservative Christians for decades.
posted by straight at 8:34 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just learned this word "retcon" and am glad to have a hip, modern alternative to "apologetics." You know, for kids.
posted by Miko at 8:36 PM on November 29, 2012 [13 favorites]


I've always interpreted the "not lie with a man as with a woman" to be a rousing endorsement of lesbianism. This interpretation has served me well through the years.

I prefer to go with, "It doesn't count if you're standing up."
posted by Sys Rq at 8:38 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Wikipedia article on papal infallibility is actually quite good.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:44 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah, I didn't know that. Is there a formal way to distinguish when the Pope is in fact speaking ex cathedra?

He puts it in tiny font with square brackets.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:04 PM on November 29, 2012 [16 favorites]


445supermag: "In the original translation the bible ended with :wq

No, silly. It ended with a newline.
posted by double block and bleed at 9:05 PM on November 29, 2012


"It would be great to read the 1492 or the Guns, Germs and Steel of the New Testament, if someone good would take it on."

Understanding the Bible, very very readable (get an earlier edition for $12, the field doesn't move fast enough to make a big difference to a layman). I believe Harris considers himself an atheist but the textbook is the most widely-used text in academic theology departments for intro Bible type courses. It's a very good single-book summation of the state of Biblical scholarship and how Biblical scholarship works and how to read the Bible as a historical text.

I also like The New Testament World for cultural anthropology of the New Testament, but it's a little heavier and more scholarly. Accessible to the intelligent layman but an easier read if you've got a little social science background.

I think that's what you're after? Although i'm not entirely sure what "The GG&S of the New Testament" means. Every few years something pop-theology by someone important/well-known/good at their work with current Biblical scholarship comes along (historical Jesus and Gnostic Gospels were sexy in the 90s), but they're not going to get traction in fundamentalist communities and people who don't know much about religion because they dislike it probably won't care to read them anyway.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:30 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


That one Pope always has to ruin it for the rest of us.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:36 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


So, setting aside the media flap, what are the things he says? From the Reuters article it sounds like there are three things:

1. No animals, no stable
"In the 137-page book, the pope states a fact: that in the gospels there is "no reference" to the presence of animals in the stable - actually, it was probably a cave - where Jesus was born."
2. Something about singing - not clear to me what the controversial part about this is?
"Benedict says the evangelist Luke wrote that at the moment of Jesus' birth the angels "said" the well-known phrase "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased". But in the next line he explains that "Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song", that "the angels' song of praise has never gone silent", and that it is "only natural that simple believers (even today) join in their caroling on the Holy Night"."
3. Traditional date is wrong
"Another section of the book that irked some bloggers is where the pope restates what biblical scholars have known for decades, if not centuries - that Jesus was born several years earlier than the first century AD. Benedict writes that since King Herod died in 4 BC, Jesus was probably born "a few years earlier". He attributes the erroneous fixing of the year of Jesus' birth to a miscalculation by the monk Dionysius Exiguous some 500 years later."
So, knowledgable people - is this the full list of "surprising" things? What's the thing about the time of year?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:51 PM on November 29, 2012


You know what else the bible doesn't mention? Modern telephony, jet engines, vaccines. I could go on.

Omniscient my chinny chin chin.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:19 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's the thing about the time of year?
There isn't any evidence for a specific date, and the details don't support a date of 25 December.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:20 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


HiroProtagonist: Any divinely inspired writer would surely have known about :x

Should we discuss the ZZ Heresy? Or is that too sensitive?
posted by Malor at 11:59 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I was always under the impression that the date was chosen to be close to Yule, in order to give the Christians a reason to celebrate while everyone else was getting all bacchanal. Kind of like Kwanzaa for Christ.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:04 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some scholars note that December 25 is nine months from the day Jesus was thought to have died and that perhaps the date was chosen by someone who thought it seemed fitting that Jesus would have died on the same day he was conceived.

LobsterMitten, I haven't read the Pope's book, but here's a few others I grew up with:

* The "wise men" probably didn't show up on the night Jesus was born. Their visit may have come as much as a year or two later. The Gospels don't refer to them as kings nor do they say there were three of them. The number three comes from the list of gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

* There probably weren't any real inns in a little town like Bethlehem. They more likely showed up at someone's house, the guest room (the Greek word translated "inn" is the same as that used to describe the "upper room" where Jesus held the Last Supper) was taken, and they had to stay in the animal shed.

* In addition to not mentioning singing, the angels are not described in any of the Gospels as having wings.
posted by straight at 12:07 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox is a light-scholarly presentation of the source texts and their historical context from an academic with a good insight into classical-age civilisation. It covers both old and new testaments. I found it an easy read and it doesn't project a particular dogma pro or anti.
posted by communicator at 12:36 AM on November 30, 2012


kaibutsu: "I was always under the impression that the date was chosen to be close to Yule, in order to give the Christians a reason to celebrate while everyone else was getting all bacchanal."
That's a very benign way of looking at it. More cynical people might claim it was done to supplant old customs with new ones, taking over traditional holidays for your own purpose. A culture war, if you like.
posted by brokkr at 1:37 AM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Benedict describes the nativity with as much historical accuracy as modern scholarship permits

No - he describes it with biblical accuracy - there is no historical record of Jesus.
posted by daveg at 3:36 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


No - he describes it with biblical accuracy - there is no historical record of Jesus.

What do people mean when they say this? It's my understanding that most ancient historical records are similar to the Bible in terms of how many grains of salt you have to take them with. In college, I read Herodotus and the Venerable Bede, for instance, and both described "miracles," but if you discard them as historical records, then what are you left with? Those are the oldest or only records you've got, and the best you can do is try to correlate them with the other, equally dubious writings you have, and with archaeology and some basic logic, and try to piece together a story that makes sense to you.

Lots of writings mention Jesus. Most but not all of them are gathered into the compendium we know as the "New Testament." Those are mostly but not entirely consistent with each other, and at last partly consistent with the ones that were left out. Many but not all of the other details mentioned in these writings, like the names of the prominent Romans of the time, are mentioned by writers covering other topics as well. Just how much documentation do you expect about the life of one peasant living in a minor Roman province, who was executed for calling himself a king?

If there's no "historical record" of Jesus, in other words, of whom (besides maybe a few emperors) is there a historical record?
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:07 AM on November 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


and that perhaps the date was chosen by someone who thought it seemed fitting that Jesus would have died on the same day he was conceived.

The date was chosen to hijack the Green Man festival at the Winter Solstice. That's why we have Christmas trees.

As long as the people got to have their celebration, they were willing to put the God label on their much older customs. The Christmas Tree, and Christmas in general, is a bastardized version of a pagan ritual.
posted by Malor at 4:11 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't the whole idea that people had to return to their place of birth for the Roman census basically completely unsupported? Besides being completely illogical and counterproductive for the census-takers, there is no historical record of this outside of the Bible (and you can bet there would be if everyone was returning to their place of birth).

Basically the whole idea of Christ being born in Bethlehem in the first place is likely a fabrication to help satisfy prophecy.
posted by jamincan at 4:13 AM on November 30, 2012


Basically there's no contemporaneous verification of anything in the Gospels and there's no historical record of an actual Jesus Christ. People still quote that long-discredited bit of Josephus for some reason.

Here's the thing- being an itinerant messianic preacher wasn't exactly unique at the time (that nobody wrote about Jesus Christ yet people wrote about specific preachers is one of the big "no historical Jesus" things), and my best guess is that Jesus Christ is a composite figure of a bunch of those guys, with some edits made to the story (and specific versions of the story chosen) to make it line up with the particular prophecies that made their way into the Bible.

Of course, at that point, you have to decide whether by "historical Jesus" you mean "there was a specific guy named Jesus Christ and the Gospels are an accurate (to whatever extent you demand) account of his life" or "the things in the Gospels happened, more or less".
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:23 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I believe Dec 25 was intentionally chosen to co-opt the Mithraic festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.

Yep Mithra was another god born of virgin birth in a cave. Who was also resurrected to serve as an intermediary messenger god between man and the divine.

Now where else have I heard that story...
posted by vuron at 4:28 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zeitgeist is bullshit.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:32 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Malor: "That's why we have Christmas trees. "
[citation needed]

As far as I know, Christmas trees are a German tradition which is first documented in the 16th Century. It became more widely known and used in the rest of Europe during the first half of the 19th Century.

You may be thinking of Yule logs, which is another thing entirely.
posted by brokkr at 4:44 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's the thing- being an itinerant messianic preacher wasn't exactly unique at the time (that nobody wrote about Jesus Christ yet people wrote about specific preachers is one of the big "no historical Jesus" things)

But what do you mean nobody wrote about him? Dozens of people wrote about him. Do you mean "Nobody wrote about him in a source other than the Bible"? But the Bible isn't a single source, it's a collection of sources. I mean, people made a conscious effort to collect what they felt were the most reliable writings about this guy into one book, so it's hardly fair to say "why aren't there other sources that aren't in this book?" Do you mean, "Nobody wrote about him while he was still alive," (since the earliest Gospels are thought to date to ~70 years after his death, IIRC?) Perhaps, but again you could say the same of many historical figures. Journalism as we know it today didn't really exist. Do you mean "Nobody who didn't actually believe in his divinity wrote about him?" But again, you could say the same of the deified Roman Emperors, more or less. I mean, to the extent that you can tell what any of these authors really believed. Sure, it would be helpful to have more skeptical accounts, but you just don't often get many of those in history in general, I think. It's the believers who are motivated to write about the subject in the first place.
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:45 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Should we discuss the ZZ Heresy? Or is that too sensitive?

It almost brought down the Empire in the 5th century AD. A curious mix of Nestorianism and the doctrine of the Trinity, the ZZ Heresy claimed that Jesus was a human, bearded power trio that is not identical with rock but personally united with rock.
posted by ersatz at 5:35 AM on November 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


More seriously though, Pope Benedict is probably in the right here. Christianity is big on symbolism and if it gets a few people to think about how religions evolve and what symbols represent rather than take everything literally, that's a positive sign in my book.
posted by ersatz at 5:39 AM on November 30, 2012


"I believe Dec 25 was intentionally chosen to co-opt the Mithraic festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti."

The RC was regularly doing "embrace and extend" centuries before MS.
posted by klarck at 6:02 AM on November 30, 2012


"I believe Dec 25 was intentionally chosen to co-opt the Mithraic festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti."

There's a credible argument that it was the other way around, for whatever it's worth.
posted by jquinby at 6:10 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


It seems that if we are using gestational period and the concept of integral ages we are really grasping at straws in terms of proving that Christ's birth on Dec 25 pre-dates celebrations of the Sol Invicti within Rome.

I wouldn't be shocked if there was something both religions were probably co-opting.

I just think it's interesting that one tribal god was elevated to victory while another tribal god vanished to the dustbin of history.
posted by vuron at 6:23 AM on November 30, 2012


In the original translation the bible ended with :wq

Technically, the first draft ended with:

quit
exit
[tab][tab]
q
^q
:q


They edited out the embarrassing bits.
posted by verb at 6:35 AM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


How can someone who knows what biblical scholars have been saying for decades not have heard of "speaking ex cathedra"?

Except that he isn't. I've only read the first volume, but in the preface Benedict makes it perfectly clear that he isn't writing authoritatively, but rather writing his perspective as a Christian and scholar. To my recollection there have been only three modern instances of popes speaking ex cathedra about matters of faith and dogma.
posted by dgran at 6:37 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't be shocked if there was something both religions were probably co-opting.

This seems most likely to me, too. I would also bet on its being a celebration originating in northern Europe, where the darkness of winter is far more significant and emotional, rather than southern Europe or north Africa.
posted by Acheman at 6:42 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would also bet on its being a celebration originating in northern Europe

I agree with this. There is such a rich body of artifact and lore that relates to the seasonal rituals of northern agrarian societies, and after spending some time with them they all begin to blur into something not that dissimilar from today's winter observances. The common themes are: bringing in, preserving, and eating the first/best fruits of the harvest; enjoying the first round of freshly butchered meats before having to preserve them; enjoying the first new wine, ciders, and grain beverages once they've had a chance to ferment; having time to celebrate because outdoor labor is much lessened after the end of the growing/birthing/butchering season; observing the changes in day-length and conducting rituals meant to ensure the return of the sun for the next year's growing season; conducting rituals meant to maintain homepathically the continuance of life when most things in the natural world die (greenery, holly), focusing on light and celebrations around light (hearth-logs, candles, coals, fireplaces), etc.

I don't think it's at all highly contested amongst historians that the observances, if not the specific dogma, associated with the Christmas holiday are almost all borrowed/descended from pre-Christian Northern agrarian religions.

As far as death/resurrection and virgin birth, these are both far too common in world folklore to point to a single antecedent tradition. Just about every religion originating outside the tropics has a death/resurrection myth, and maybe there are some in the tropics too. Both the ancient Mediterranean and Northern Europe were places of swirling, changing cult and local religion occasionally swept over by new fervors. There's not going to be a terribly simpler, linear tale.

And in adapting existing traditions into the structure of a newly introduced holiday with new religious intent, the Christian church wasn't doing anything that churches and rulers hadn't done before. Hearts and minds. If there's an analogy for today, it's probably the co-opting of formerly religious (like Christmas) or formerly memorial (like Veterans Day or Memorial Day) or formerly community (like Independence Day or Thanksgiving) observances for use by the powers of commerce to achieve their ends rather than only the less profitable, interpersonal ones for which those holidays were originated.
posted by Miko at 7:01 AM on November 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


A brief (laconic, even) history of papal fallibility: posted by Herodios at 7:02 AM on November 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


. . . the co-opting of formerly religious (like Christmas) . . . observances for use by the powers of commerce to achieve their ends

If I were consulted, I would advise Christianity to let Commerce have this one. Theologically, the 'died for your sins and ascended' bit is far the more interesting part of the story.

Someone might want to mention it to Llord Lloyd Wwebber, too.
posted by Herodios at 7:22 AM on November 30, 2012


Herodios, as a lapsed Protestant with just kind of a passing interest in theology, I would hazard a guess that The Catholic Church has resolved the issue this way: The *office* of the Pope is infallible; the man passing through the office is not. If they haven't thought of that, maybe someone could tell them? I think it's a pretty good way of looking at it.

And heh, "Pop Bans Christmas". It's astonishing to me that people take this so seriously. Even as a kid, I instinctively knew this stuff was pretty much metaphorical. Nobody was sitting around having serious theological debates on the number of donkeys in the manger.

And since when was tax time at Christmas anyway? That's what Joseph and Mary were doing in Bethlehem. That's April 15th, people. Wake up!
posted by Xoebe at 7:46 AM on November 30, 2012


Am I the only one who glanced at this post and initially thought it was about a new Battle Pope (published by Image comics) series?

Because I'd much rather read that.
posted by mkultra at 7:52 AM on November 30, 2012


> I mean, hey, why not parumpapumpum like Keith fucking Moon in the middle of the damn
> night to entertain a newborn baby who is trying to avoid being discovered and killed?

The star, man. Generates a cone of silence.
posted by jfuller at 8:19 AM on November 30, 2012


It seems that if we are using gestational period and the concept of integral ages we are really grasping at straws in terms of proving that Christ's birth on Dec 25 pre-dates celebrations of the Sol Invicti within Rome.


I think you're conflating two different issues:

1. The nerdy theologian's question, "What day was Christ actually born?"
2. The origin of the practice of having a huge celebration on December 25.

Bishop Usher sat down and tried to calculate the date of Creation, but he was just being a nerd, not fishing for an excuse to co-opt a pagan festival. Similarly, there's evidence of other Christian nerds going back at least to the 2nd century arguing about what day Christ was born and playing with dorky ideas like integral ages.

But the thing is, Christmas isn't the most significant liturgical day for Christians. That would be Easter. In principle, there's no reason Christmas would necessarily be a bigger deal for Christians than, say the Day of Pentecost or the Feast of the Annunciation.

What seems likely to me is that Christmas started out like Hanukkah, an existing Christian holy day that got celebrated all out of proportion to it's religious significance because it happens to coincide with the winter solstice.
posted by straight at 9:06 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are only two statements that Catholic theologians mostly agree are instances of papal infallibility (and, weirdly, they're about things that most every Protestant would deny are true)

Now that I think about it, this isn't weird at all. Stuff that Protestants and Catholics believe in common, like most of the Nicene Creed, don't need an infallible papal stamp of approval. Catholics would say the Nicene Creed is infallibly true because of the ecumenical councils that ratified it and because of its subsequent near-universal adoption by the Church. Even with something like the Assumption of Mary (as a Protestant, I desperately want to call it "the assumption about Mary"), the Pope's declaration was, "This is something many Catholics already believe, and I'm just going to step in and verify that, yes, it's true." It's sort of like the canonization of saints. "Lots of people believe this person was a saint. After some investigation, the Pope declares that yes, she was."
posted by straight at 9:18 AM on November 30, 2012


straight has been putting up some good stuff here, but I'd add that the current pope has spoken (and, I think, written, though I can't recall the book--maybe one of the Jesus ones, maybe Spirit of the Liturgy?) about the timing of Christmas in the year.

He mentions that the liturgical calendar celebrates very few earthly birthdays--most saints' days are the date of their heavenly birthdays, i.e., when they died or were martyred, etc.--and this includes Christmas (Christ's Mass, the birth of Christ) and the feast of the nativity of Saint John the Baptist. These are both very ancient feasts. Aside from the dating of these feasts, and there is evidence that they've been around their current dates since the second century, there is a cosmic dimension to their dates.

Christ's nativity, as has been noted above, is around the winter solstice, when the days in the northern hemisphere begin to lengthen--but, and this is less remarked-upon, John the Baptist's nativity is celebrated when the days begin to shorten, around the time of the summer solstice. This all corresponds with the John the Baptist's prophesy in John chapter 3 in which Christ, the Light of the World, must increase, and I (John the Baptist) must decrease.

Anyway, that cosmic dimension to the liturgical calendar was just something I've thought was neat. So perhaps there's more to it than the Church's clever marketing people just co-opting a pagan feast of Sol Invictus, though I'm sure that had something do with it--but was this because the party was already started by the pagans, or was it because of John 3, or was it because Jesus' birthday really just was around the winter solstice?
posted by resurrexit at 9:29 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


If I were consulted, I would advise Christianity to let Commerce have this one.

The analogy extends to nothing spiritual, only to the observance that big powers with big interests will use any cultural phenomenon to promote their own agendas.
posted by Miko at 9:30 AM on November 30, 2012


The surprise illustrates how distant most of journalists are from what actually happens in congregations. Honest to God, a book that popularized academic "non-supernatural" theology was published in the 1960's. Similarly, people have been examining scripture closely since Nicea; or Jerome; Gutenberg; Erasmus or John Mill.

Plenty of every Sunday attending mainline Protestants, of course, understood that the birth of Jesus was a story - and they have though so for generations, especially since the late 19th century (remember, 100 years ago almost all the presidential candidates had religious views that would have barred them from elective office today). The Catholic Church understood this as well, but it also considers the liturgical and ritual consequences of how such studies bear - so perhaps it has been less important. It may be that the pope is more recently sensitive to the dumbing down of Christianity.

These days, all throughout the Episcopal Church, parish leaders use "Meeting Jesus for the First Time" as their intro to Christianity - and Marcus Borg, the author, is a scholar in the Jesus Seminar. But for those who want a non-religious introduction could do far worse than the Harper Collins Study Bible, which is the one associated with the Society of Biblical Literature. The essays give the most current scholarship from people who specialize in the particular books; they're short essays and free from theology. Then there's R. Crumb's Comic Book Genesis; and Robert Alter's translations of first five books of the bible, the Psalms and the David Story. Generally, no need for introductory textbooks - there's a lot of great stuff out there that's written far better.

Anyway, at my church we'll still sing "Silent Night, Holy Night" by candlelight on Christmas eve. I'll still put a baby in the manger, and even though there is not a single person in my congregation who believes that the virgin birth was literally true, I will be expected to do this with reverence and honor. A baby in a stable, rather than a castle; surrounded by animals, with gifts from three foreign fools. Angels appearing the shepherds, rather than political sycophants or sophists. It's just a dream perhaps, but a worthy one.

That's congregational life. People are smart enough to know that stories are important and powerful; they know enough that their facticity is not confused with their truth.
posted by john wilkins at 9:35 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


> That's congregational life [in a non-evangelical church].
My parents recently migrated to an Episcopal church from one of the vast majority of evangelical options here in the Bible Belt, and it was literally a shock and a revelation that such reasonable congregations existed outside of tall tales from the Big Cities.

You're right that not all Christians are as uneducated about biblical research as the media is making out; but you're wrong that they are completely out of touch with Christianity in the US.
posted by gilrain at 10:10 AM on November 30, 2012


People are smart enough to know that stories are important and powerful; they know enough that their facticity is not confused with their truth.

Ahem.
"Forty-six percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form at one point within the past 10,000 years, according to a survey released by Gallup in June. That number has remained unchanged for the past 30 years, since 1982, when Gallup first asked the question on creationism versus evolution."

So, maybe, but also maybe not.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:17 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


JHarris: Also, the word "rapture," or abortion.
Incorrect about abortion. See Exodus 21:22-23, Leviticus 27:6, Hosea 9:14, Hosea 9:16, and 2 Samuel 12:14.

Surprise twist: these list abortions done by God or by servants at his direction, and specifically likens the act to property-damage as opposed to murder.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:14 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


junco: "homosexual(ity)" as a concept isn't developed until the 19th century. There's a good bibliography here.
Some Native American tribes, and assorted other cultures that recognized two-man and two-woman marriages, are going to be mighty surprised to hear that.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:18 PM on November 30, 2012


Goofyy: So, is there going to be a book-signing tour?
I bet he hates all those whacky fans who show up dressed as major characters.

Speaking of which, does anyone know a link to Hot Women of Biblecon 2012?
posted by IAmBroom at 2:23 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be great to read the 1492 or the Guns, Germs and Steel of the New Testament, if someone good would take it on.

Would Isaac Asimov count as someone good? Because, his two volume "Guide to the Bible" is a good (if very large and slightly dated) piece of scholarship.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:43 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't quite explain why people take the scripture literally - we could just blame our educational system. I still hope people still can tell the difference between Narnia and reality, if pressed. They simply choose not to do so while in their church environment. On the other hand, I admit I'm on shaky ground: people still think tax cuts will solve all our economic problems.

In a philosophy class, I would have distinguished between the generic "people" and "everybody." My more abstract point is that in our current environment, where the incredulous and skeptical have generally abdicated the realm of the religious to the enthusiastic and prosperity gospel crowd, the set of people who are both church going and thinking has, unfortunately, declined.

Granted, the Episcopal Church is less than one percent of the population, so I acknowledge my own sample may be skewed. As the mainline churches shrink, I wonder if the remaining who do participate - especially in evangelical religious institutions - have decided to exchange reflection for entertainment.
posted by john wilkins at 3:20 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Regardless of whether fundamentalists are clinging to misguided readings of the Bible in other ways, the point is that's not going to cause a big conflict here.

These news stories make it sound like we should expect some big uproar and outrage from scandalized Christians who love their Christmas stories. That will not happen because the kinds of things the Pope is saying here are already commonly found even in churches that teach young earth creationism.
posted by straight at 3:30 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


the incredulous and skeptical have generally abdicated the realm of the religious

This means that both the religious and the non-religious become increasingly ignorant about religion, and about culture generally. And these two groups make up the set of, well, just about everyone. Bad news.
posted by No Robots at 3:32 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Granted, the Episcopal Church is less than one percent of the population, so I acknowledge my own sample may be skewed

I think that your observations hold for the majority of mainline Protestants and even for most Catholics, based on my life experience and reading on the matter.

I can't speak about the literal credulity of evangelical churches from a personal perspective, but it does seem amazingly high.

This means that both the religious and the non-religious become increasingly ignorant about religion, and about culture generally.

And despite their ignorance, they think the worse of each other, too.
posted by Miko at 3:56 PM on November 30, 2012


But what do you mean nobody wrote about him? Dozens of people wrote about him.

Not while he was alive, they didn't.

Do you mean "Nobody wrote about him in a source other than the Bible"? But the Bible isn't a single source, it's a collection of sources. I mean, people made a conscious effort to collect what they felt were the most reliable writings about this guy into one book, so it's hardly fair to say "why aren't there other sources that aren't in this book?" Do you mean, "Nobody wrote about him while he was still alive," (since the earliest Gospels are thought to date to ~70 years after his death, IIRC?) Perhaps, but again you could say the same of many historical figures.

Yeah, no, the complete lack of primary sources is not a strong position to argue from.

Journalism as we know it today didn't really exist.

This is not strictly true. There were many people who were writing about what was happening and going on in the Roman Empire; one notable was Josephus, who was so reliable and credible that later Christians went to the notable trouble of faking passages in his work to lend credibility to the historicity of Christ.

Do you mean "Nobody who didn't actually believe in his divinity wrote about him?" But again, you could say the same of the deified Roman Emperors, more or less.

You really don't see a difference between "the set of people who were members of the Christian religion" and "the set of people who were subjects of the Roman Empire"? Maybe see a difference in how one qualifies for membership in those two sets of people?

I mean, to the extent that you can tell what any of these authors really believed. Sure, it would be helpful to have more skeptical accounts, but you just don't often get many of those in history in general, I think. It's the believers who are motivated to write about the subject in the first place.

The believers weren't writing what they knew or saw, they were writing what they had heard had happened decades before. There's a difference between writing about something which is happening and writing down a collection of stories heard thirdhand.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:12 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty: "The believers weren't writing what they knew or saw, they were writing what they had heard had happened decades before. There's a difference between writing about something which is happening and writing down a collection of stories heard thirdhand."

Exactly. It would be like if someone asked a 20 year old today to write about the Eisenhower Era, but the only source material they had were Happy Days episodes. (Which really, I think explains a whole lot of the Republican Party...this wishful remembrances for a time that never actually existed.)
posted by dejah420 at 6:56 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you saying they didn't need Fonzie to make the jukebox work?
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on November 30, 2012


Actually, the New Testament provides an excellent window on its historical setting. As Rabbi Gottlieb Klein noted, "The odor of the Palestinian earth which streams up from these pages is so strong that only unbridled fantasy could transform this historical Jesus into a myth."
posted by No Robots at 6:36 AM on December 1, 2012


That's such a total nonsequiter that I don't even know how to respond.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:01 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is obvious that the best guidance we can hope for in understanding the New Testament comes from Jewish scholars. As Risto Santala puts it, "Jewish scholars often have an intuitive ability to sense what is 'Made in Israel', and so their opinions are usually much more positive than those of Western theoreticians." Santala points out how Jewish scholars provided the earliest and most effective response to the idea that the central figure in the New Testament is a mythical being. To this day, no proponent of mythicism has taken into consideration the arguments of people like Leo Baeck, Gottlieb Klein, or Joseph Klausner. Scholars like Amy-Jill Levine continue the Jewish reclamation of the New Testament and its central figure, and they are ignored by the mythicists. In this sense, mythicism is a throwback to the days before scholars acknowledged that the New Testament is Jewish literature, and that its central figure is a great expositor of Judaism.
posted by No Robots at 7:48 AM on December 1, 2012


"Jewish scholars often have an intuitive ability to sense what is 'Made in Israel', and so their opinions are usually much more positive than those of Western theoreticians."

I believe this intuituve ability is called "confirmation bias."
posted by Sys Rq at 7:53 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Some Native American tribes, and assorted other cultures that recognized two-man and two-woman marriages, are going to be mighty surprised to hear that.

IAmBroom: The argument is that the notion of sexuality as an axis of identity ("I am gay/straight/bi/etc") is a modern concept, while prior to the 19thC "sexuality" was something someone did, not what someone was.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:28 AM on December 1, 2012


I just want to thank everyone for this interesting and informative thread that could have easily gone poorly.
posted by euphorb at 9:49 AM on December 1, 2012


To dismiss Jewish New Testament scholarship as "confirmation bias" is just the kind of cultural obliviousness that is under discussion here.
posted by No Robots at 10:41 AM on December 1, 2012


Well of course YOU would say that.

just kidding :)
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:50 AM on December 1, 2012


Let's return to the actual topic of the thread... does the Jewish New Testament scholarship you mention have anything to say on the points the Pope's book discusses: the year of birth, the time of year, the angels singing, the animals at the birth site, the cave-not-a-barn, etc?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:58 AM on December 1, 2012


Are you saying they didn't need Fonzie to make the jukebox work?
posted by Miko


No, Miko, we all need more of the Fonz in our lives. Much more.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:05 AM on December 1, 2012


@LobsterMitten: Oh, for sure. The pope's just playing catch up here. One Jewish scholar even uses the story of the animals at the manger to make a bit of a joke at the expense of the mythicists, writing, "The kings who came to the Christ-child in the manger arrived too late; they met the ox and ass, the experts, incapable of seeing anything."
posted by No Robots at 11:13 AM on December 1, 2012


There's a difference between writing about something which is happening and writing down a collection of stories heard thirdhand."

Exactly. It would be like if someone asked a 20 year old today to write about the Eisenhower Era, but the only source material they had were Happy Days episodes.


On the other hand, how successful could that 20-year-old be in starting a fan club for Alfred Huston Zinnemann, the amazing director of films such as Vertigo, The Maltese Falcon, and High Noon? Or Fidel Duvalier, communist dictator of Guatemala?
posted by straight at 1:19 PM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


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