Telegraph Discovers Pope Doesn’t Think Jesus was Born in Year 1

From Nick Squires at the Telegraph:

Jesus was born years earlier than thought, claims Pope

The entire Christian calendar is based on a miscalculation, the Pope has declared, as he claims in a new book that Jesus was born several years earlier than commonly believed.

…The assertion that the Christian calendar is based on a false premise is not new – many historians believe that Christ was born sometime between 7BC and 2BC.

But the fact that doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition have been raised by the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics is striking.

Not really; the Pope is merely stating a fact that anyone with even a passing interest in the Bible has known for years, and which is utterly unproblematic for Roman Catholics or other Christians.

I have in my possession a Roman Catholic Bible published by James Duffy in Dublin in 1865, which comes with an “Approbation” by Paul Cullen, the Archbishop of Dublin.  A “Historical and Chronological Index” at the back of the book places “Christ is born” at AD 1, while the Old Testament chronology in the same work places the birth of Adam at 4000 BCE (expressed as year 1 AM, or “Anno Mundi”). It’s not clear whether this is prescriptive or purely conventional, but a few decades later the 1909 Catholic Encylopedia was more than happy to acknowledge that

From the evidence it seems that the date of the Nativity given by Dionysius Exiguus is not the right one, for it is after Herod’s death. Tertullian and Irenæus are nearer to the truth with the years 2 or 3 B.C.; but it must be placed still further back, and probably the year 7 B.C. will not be found to be much astray.

The Encyclopedia comes with Nihil Obstat from Remy Lafort, described as “Censor”, and an Imprimatur by the Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal Farley. These do not amount to an official endorsement, but they do indicate that a work is regarded as free from doctrinal or moral error.

I also have a New Jerusalem Bible, which was created in the 1980s and 1990s and which comes with a Nihil Obstat from John Deehan and an Imprimatur from Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster. The date given for the birth of Jesus in the “Chronological Table” at the back of the book is a very tentative “6? 4?”.

The vagaries of the conventional dating were also explicitly acknowledged by Pope John Paul II, in his 1994 Tertio Millennio Adveniente:

..the two thousand years which have passed since the Birth of Christ (prescinding from the question of its precise chronology) represent an extraordinarily great Jubilee, not only for Christians but indirectly for the whole of humanity, given the prominent role played by Christianity during these two millennia.

In short, what the Telegraph describes as “striking” is a complete non-issue.

And that’s not just true for Roman Catholics; according to a note at the back of the Good News Bible, published by the American Bible Society in the 1960s and 1970s for a popular readership:

…the original calculation was later found to be wrong by a few years, so that in fact the birth of Christ took place about six years “before Christ”.

There are probably thousands of other sources, in English and other languages, which show that all reasonably educated Christians, and not just secular historians, accept that Jesus was not born in 1 CE; I’ve just referred to a few that I happened to have to hand. The date is a convention, and it’s not a “keystone” of any doctrinal significance whatsoever.

The Telegraph article also has the detail that Pope Benedict

…also weighs in on the debate over Christ’s birthplace, rejecting arguments by some scholars that he was born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem.

This is where the truly interesting historical and religious debate is to be found - yet the Telegraph, which is supposedly reasonably high-brow, passes it over in one uninformative sentence.

(H/T Zwingli Redivivus)

One Response

  1. [...] in a new book by the Pope, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (pp. 65-66); the Telegraph noted this in passing while getting over-excited by the fact that the book also contains the well-known [...]

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