Pope Benedict XVI has revealed in the third installment of his trilogy, dedicated to the life of Christ, that Jesus may have been born earlier than previously thought. The calendar we use today, which commences with the birth of Christ and was created by a Dionysius Exiguus, a 6th century monk, may be mistaken. According to the Telegraph, the Pope explains in his book that Exiguus, who is considered the inventor of the Christian calendar, “made a mistake in his calculations by several years. The actual date of Jesus’ birth was several years before.” The suggestion that Jesus wasn’t actually born on Dec. 25 has been tirelessly debated by theologians, historians and spiritual leaders, but what makes this case different is that now the leader of the Catholic Church is the one asking the questions.
Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, was published on Tuesday. Like the previous two installments, it’s predicted to be a best seller, and a million copies of the book have already been printed. It is expected that the book will be translated into another 20 languages for publication in 72 countries. The Infancy Narratives follows the life of Jesus from conception to his presentation in the temple at the age of 12. The Pope describes this third book as a “small antechamber” to the trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, reports the Vatican Press Office.
Pope Benedict makes some controversial statements in the book. He writes of how the Gospel of Matthew claims that Jesus was born when Herod the Great ruled in Judea. However, given that Herod died in 4 B.C., Jesus must have been born earlier than Exiguus originally documented. Arguments surrounding Jesus’ exact date of birth have confounded scholars for centuries. Even the Gospel of Luke contends that the birth took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria in A.D. 6.
The author takes the opportunity not only to dispute the date of Jesus’ birth, but also to reaffirm the doctrine of the virgin birth as an “unequivocal” truth of faith. Reuters writes that Benedict reminds his readers that sexual intercourse did not play a part in the conception of Jesus. He states that a belief in the virgin birth of Christ is a “cornerstone of faith” and a sign of “God’s creative power.” “If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God,” the Pope argues. “But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation.”
Pope Benedict also examines the “question of interpreted history,” referring in particular to the attempts of the Gospels, like those of Matthew and Luke, to make sense of events after they had occurred, notes Reuters. “The aim of the evangelists was not to produce an exhaustive account,” the Pope explains, “but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word. The infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation.”
There have been countless interpretations of the birth, life and death of Christ throughout history. One such interpreter is Bill Darlison, former Unitarian Church minister and current vice president of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the United Kingdom. Like others before him, he asks whether Christ was actually born on Dec. 25 or whether perhaps he was born “on one of about 150 other dates which have been proposed down through the centuries. Was he born in Nazareth or in Bethlehem and, if Bethlehem, was it Bethlehem in Judea or Bethlehem in Galilee?” He also argues that the spiritual birth “is always a virgin birth, because it is not related in any sense (except symbolically) to physical birth.” In 2004, TIME asked the same question, with David Van Biema wondering if “one might be tempted to abandon the whole Nativity story as ‘unhistoric,’ mere theological backing and filling.”
The historical revisionism continues with the Pope raising the issue of the presence of animals at the birth of Christ. He reveals in Jesus of Nazareth that “there is no mention of animals in the Gospels.” This may come as a shock to the thousands of schools currently preparing their Nativity plays. But Pope Benedict reassures his readers not to worry — that “no one will give up the oxen and the donkey in their Nativity scenes,” notes the Telegraph. Even if animals did not feature at the birth, the Vatican seems happy to keep up the myth as it presents an elaborate life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square this Christmas.
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is available in English and published by Image Books. It follows the first two books, which dealt with Christ’s adult life and death.
This article has been amended. The original version referred to the conception of Jesus as “the Immaculate Conception.” The term refers to the life of Mary, mother of Jesus.