Jesus of Nazareth was one of the most important people (if not the most important) in world history. His birthday has been assumed to be 25 December 1AD (anno domini—the year of our Lord), or 1CE (Christian or “Common” Era) since antiquity. Yet, His Eminence Pope Benedict XVI, (Joseph Ratzinger) the head the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination, has published a book, Jesus of Nazareth — The Infancy Narratives which contests this assumption. He is not the first scholar to do so, but he is the most highly placed. The Infancy Narratives is the third book of his trilogy; the other two are: Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.
The book was released to the press Wednesday 21 November. It is published in Italy by Rizzoli and the Vatican Publishing House, and is available online at the Ignatius Press website.
His Eminence is quoted saying, “The stories about Jesus’ infancy in the first few chapters of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are not legends or imaginative reconstructions. They are not “midrash” either, that is, interpretations of the Scriptures through narrations, typical of Hebrew literature. They are “history, history which really took place, history which was certainly interpreted and understood on the basis of the Word of God.”
The Infancy Narratives reportedly states that the Jesus was likely not born in 1AD after all, due to calculation errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk commissioned by Pope John I in 525CE to determine when Jesus was born. The Pontiff alludes to possibilities about the birth year, but he does not speak at all about the 25th of December.
Usually a society measures its life from a major event. “Everyone” knows that the United States became a country on 4 July 1776. November 2012 is in Year 5773 in the Jewish calendar, which dates from when they believe the universe was created. The Muslim religious calendar (some Muslims use the Gregorian Calendar for civil purposes) dates from the migration of the Prophet Mohammad from Makkah (Mecca) to Madinah (Medina) (approximately July 622 CE). The calendar used by most of the world ostensively dates from the birth date of Jesus. But what is that date?
Both the Creation and the migration of the Prophet Mohammad are specific, cross-referenced events. The Jews’ calculation of the time of Creation is based on adding the ages of biblical people and events from other sources. Muslims kept meticulous cross-referenced records on the events in their history. But the time frame in which Jesus was probably born was a time of war, insurrection, confusion, turmoil, and destruction of people, nations, and their records.
Zacharias was a priest in the Jewish Temple, whose son John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus, and was born a few months before Jesus (Holy Bible, Luke 1:5-9). This major clue points us to Temple records because the Jews kept careful track of their priests’ Temple service. The problem with that is that the Temple and its records were destroyed and the Jewish people scattered by Vespasian (later Emperor Vespasian) and his son, Titus, during the Rebellion of 66-73CE.
Chapter two of Luke says, “AND it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. (Holy Bible, KJV, Luke 2:1-3). Augustus was Caesar (or “emperor”) from 32BC to 14AD, and Cyrenius (Roman name Quirinius) was “governor” 12-2BC and 6-14AD. So was Jesus born when Cyrenius was praetor (translated as “governor” in the Holy Bible) or when he was actually the governor five years later?
Even though His Eminence casts doubt about this article being written “2012 years after Jesus’ birth,” (as opposed to 2016 years, for instance), others do not. For instance, the 27th of November 2012 is listed officially as 14 November 2012 by the Orthodox Christian Information Center. They specifically list Jesus birth as occurring on 25 December 1AD, therefore celebrate Christmas on 25 December 2012 (7 January 2013).
Converting between lunar-based calendars (like the Jewish) and solar-based calendars (like the Julian and Gregorian) also introduces confusion. The Jewish calendar is a lunar/solar one formerly based on the counting of 12 new moons per year; the Muslim religious year is strictly a lunar year of 354 days between the first day of each consecutive Muharram, their first month. So sometimes dating between the lunar and solar systems does not quite match up.
Pope Gregory XIII precedes Pope Benedict XVI in changing Christmas convention—in fact his actions caused the old Julian Calendar (used in Jesus’ time) with its accumulated errors sending Easter into the summer to be replaced by the calendar used world-wide to-day, the Gregorian Calendar, so Italians celebrated Christmas 10 days later in 1582.
Benedict XVI seeks to place Jesus’ life in a historical context and strengthen faith by attempting to tell a scholarly truth about the events and people surrounding the birth of Jesus called Christ. Yet, he leaves certain enigmas such as the identity of the Christmas Star (Holy Bible, Matthew 2:2), which other scholars say moves Jesus birth closer to the 4-7BCE date that The Infancy Narratives tends to support.
“In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea…” from “Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.