Sunday 25 November 2012

Papal Bull

The Pope has written a book.  There is probably nothing unusual in that.  I feel sure lots of past popes have written books, and the present pontiff is noted for his love of the pen, along with just a soupcon of theological controversy.

I rather thought Catholicism was all dogma.  “Oh, don’t be so dogmatic”, I can hear Pope Benedict say in my mind’s ear, “there is always room for a little flexibility in faith.”  There seems to be more than a little room when it comes to aspects of the Nativity. 

Christmas approaches with alarming speed.  But Christmas may not be Christmas at all, at least according to Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives, a new addition to the Papal back catalogue published last week.  Never mind the season, never mind the month, never mind the day: Jesus was born years earlier than is commonly supposed.  The accepted date was based on a miscalculation by Dionysus Exiguus – also known as Dennis the Small –, a sixth century Eastern European monk. 

Dionysus is now best known for the concept of Anno Domini (AD) – in the year of our Lord.  I remember once in a religious studies class, after we had already established what BC meant, we were asked if any of us would care to hazard a guess at AD.  Without pause for thought I replied “After Death.”  “I’ll give you after death”, the teacher said.  I was a bit of a minx, you see. 

According to Benny, Dennis was a bit of a menace when it came to dating. We do not know how he calculated the year of Christ’s birth but he got it wrong, perhaps by as many as several years.  Jesus, you see, was born BC; born, in other words, before Christ!  The contention isn’t new; other scholars have made such a claim, now weighted with a papal imprimatur. 

My goodness, here is the head of the Catholic Church dealing in doubt.  What next, I wonder?  I’ll tell you what next: the Infancy Narratives has no room in the inn for cattle and donkeys.  The ox and ass did not keep time as the drummer boy played because they were not there.  It’s all a myth, the Pope says.  “There is no mention of animals in the Gospels”, he writes, in what is the third and last part of his biography of Jesus.  The inclusion of domestic animals in the Nativity scene was most likely inspired by pre-Christian traditions. 

Not to worry, boys and girls; there will be no Papal Bull ejecting the menagerie, even that set up every year in Saint Peter’s Square.  Even so, it’s as well to remember that it’s just a lot of bull.  So, too, apparently is the singing heavenly host greeting the birth of Christ.  His Holiness writes that the angels did not sing Hark!; they only spoke the words.  Maybe they were crooning. 

But when it comes to the really important stuff, when it comes to the Virgin Birth, there is no room for doubt or papal equivocation: this is the literal truth, the dogma upon which the faith stands or falls.  The Pope is insisting on the word of the Gospels and only the Gospels, which ironically aligns him with seventeenth century English Puritans, who, in their own literal way, literally dispensed with Christmas altogether, a pagan festival unsanctioned by scripture.

It seems to me that there is a kind of naïve purity or theological blindness here in an argument that is too subtle by half, and that half concerns the element of myth from which all belief takes succour.  When one removes the myth one removes the magic.  It is the need for this sort of primitive reassurance that moves mountains, not Papal monographs.  


  1. Ah, those troublesome details . . . where the Devil lurks :)

  2. Dennis the small wanker! They copied the religion of Egypt! The Same basic story just different players, the concepts of virgin birth, death and resurrection etc. are repeated in the religions of many ancient civilizations. When a new religion was popularized many aspects of the old religion were retained to ease the transition of the masses. Papal Bull? what an appropriate title. There is much repressed history as accepted dogma is useful for keeping the simpletons in line.

    1. Yes, very true. Isis and Osiris should consider action for theft of copyright. :-)

  3. I once said in a comment on one of your articles that "religion is the curse of the thinking mind as the mind invents that what it does not know". You responded that I made an interesting point but did not elaborate. So I take this further based on the myth idea in this article. To me all religions are based on myth mostly elaborations of historical occurrences that are blown out of all proportion as ignorance, exaggeration and cultural mores become incorporated. Hence a myth is transformed into a belief and sometimes a religion is born. These religions have the effect of making people individually and collective act in ways that on the face of it make them happier and the world a better place. However in truth they are only finding happiness by proxy and are encouraging disharmony, division and intolerance. Would it therefore not be better for the individual and the world if the mind was only ever objective, rational and considered everything only based on evidence. Perhaps not maybe we would not have evolved or survived to the present day without subjective as well as objective thought and belief in religion is the price we have to pay.

    1. Antisthenes, this is very well put. I suppose the thing is when it comes to the big questions about life and existence reason is cold comfort. Most people are here on an irrational plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night. I'm sure you will understand the reference here. :-)

  4. In repressed history and in all else, Truth has many enemies and lies many friends.

  5. All of us believe
    we were born of a virgin
    (for who can imagine

    his parents copulating?),
    and cases are known
    of pregnant virgins.

    But the Question remains:
    from where did Christ get
    that extra chromosome?

    (W. H. Auden. ''The Question').

    Christianity: Journey From Facts to Fiction. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad - Khalifatul Masih IV. Islam International Publications Ltd, 1994, 1996).