Does the Pope really hate Christmas?

The DeLorean dashboard from “Back to the Future”

There was a scene in the 1985 movie Back to the Future in which Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown demonstrates to Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly how easy it is to time-travel in his tricked-out DeLorean. You just punch in the “destination date” on the dashboard and away you go. At one point, Doc Brown tells McFly that he can even go back and observe first Christmas, whose coordinates he types in as “DEC 25 0000.” (Or did he put “0001,” I can’t remember. There was no year zero. The calendar starts in year 1.)

Even as a 15 year-old, I rolled my eyes. Hollywood! The first Christmas didn’t take place, as far as anyone knows, on December 25, nor did it take place in the year AD 1, never mind AD 0, which doesn’t exist. Even my old NIV Study Bible, if memory serves, said that the birth of Christ took place around 6 B.C. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and the Massacre of the Innocents included all male children under 2, implying that Herod thought Christ’s birth had taken place within the past two years.

Does it matter that we got the date wrong? No. Does it have any bearing whatsoever on the historicity of Jesus or the Virgin Birth? No. Is it controversial to say that Christ wasn’t born on December 25, 1? No.

The Church set the date to begin with. We’ve known for a long time that the Church got it wrong. And the fact that Christmas corresponds to the winter solstice is uncontroversial (unless you’re one of these people).

With this in mind, I’m confused about the news coverage regarding the Pope’s new book on Christmas, including this overheated lede from CNN:

(CNN) — It’s Christmas, but not as you know it: a new book released this week by Pope Benedict XVI looks at the early life of Jesus — and debunks several myths about how the Nativity unfolded.

In “Jesus of Nazareth — The Infancy Narratives,” the pope says the Christian calendar is actually based on a blunder by a sixth century monk, who Benedict says was several years off in his calculation of Jesus’ birth date.

According to the pope’s research, there is also no evidence in the Gospels that the cattle and other animals traditionally pictured gathered around the manger were actually present.

“According to the pope’s research”? Please! The pope is an accomplished scholar and theologian, but he hardly needed to do any primary research to come up with this. None of this is new. And none of this is controversial. We were taught in seminary that animals weren’t a part of the manger scene until St. Francis in the 13th century.

Regardless, the news media are wrong to use the word “myth” to describe these things. It isn’t a “myth” that Jesus was born on December 25 or that there were donkeys, sheep, cows, or camels at the manger; it’s a tradition. Nor is it a myth that Jesus was born in the year 1; it’s a mistake, long since corrected.

In clarifying these issues for the public, Pope Benedict is merely sticking to what the Bible tells us. As a Protestant, I can only say a hearty “Amen”!

2 thoughts on “Does the Pope really hate Christmas?”

  1. Brent, in light of these “corrected dates,” do we know the year of Christ’s death, or how old he was then? (It seems to me there is a verse somewhere that he started his ministry “being about 30 years old,” and at least traditionally had a three-year ministry before the Crucifixion.)

    1. We don’t know for sure. The three-year ministry timeline comes from John’s gospel. Luke tells us he was “about 30” when he began. In my head, I carry around the year AD 30 as the time of his death. Plus or minus a couple years, I guess.

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