The Pope’s new book, Infancy Narratives, was released on November 21. The day’s headline of the Daily Mail? “Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions: New Jesus book reveals there were no donkeys beside crib, no lowing oxen and definitely no carols.” CNN’s online story followed suit. The New York Daily News repeated the claim about the animals, adding not that the pope agreed with some historians on an earlier dating of the birth of Christ but that “the Christian calendar has Jesus’ birth year wrong, Pope Benedict XVI claims in a new book.”
But those who have read Pope Benedict at length know that such conclusions would be uncharacteristic of his thought. Had they even held the book? My curiosity was particularly stirred when I noticed the following quotation in the Time story, which they apparently took from the Telegraph (U.K.) rather than from the book: “No one will give up the oxen and the donkey in their [sic] Nativity scenes.”
Any book editor worth his or her salt would notice the obvious pronoun disagreement. “No way is that in the English edition,” I thought. In comparing the stories, I noticed that the Daily Mail and others instead rendered the quotation: “No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey.” In the book, the sentence in question seems to be on page 69: “No presentation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass.” This is different from both representations. Which was it? I sought to find out for myself. Random House confirmed via email that neither of the first two quotations listed is in the book; rather they are poor translations from the Italian. Not only have they misquoted the book, perhaps hastily translating the work from Italian, but these unofficial quotations have circulated among multiple publications—secular and religious.
Likely a select few misread the sense of the pope’s text and informed the journalistic community, who then informed the world how they misread the text. A Reuters story published Wednesday helped clarify things a bit. An excellent headline—“Read all about it: Pope has not cancelled Christmas”—should help this necessary corrective analysis gain exposure. Nonetheless, there remains much to clean up.
Back to that Daily Mail headline: “. . . no donkeys beside crib, no lowing oxen and definitely no carols.” Let’s have a look.
First of all, what did the pope actually say about the nativity scene animals? He wrote, “The manger, as we have seen, indicates animals, who come to it for their food. In the Gospel there is no reference to animals at this point. But prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Isaiah 1:3: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.’”
Benedict actually affirms the image of the ox and the donkey present at the manger by pointing to Old Testament imagery and, later, to iconographic tradition that complement the Gospel source. His words justify, rather than call into question, the presence of the animals in the manger scene. This is the beauty of Benedict’s writing, and why he is perhaps better read in the study or in the adoration chapel than in the newsroom. On the one hand, he points out what is obvious: the absence of the animals in the Gospel narrative. On the other, he shows why Christians came to understand that the animals were there, adding, “No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass.”
And those talking, non-singing angels? What did the Pope actually say? He writes concerning the gloria, “According to the evangelist, the angels ‘said’ this.” That must be about as far as some in the secular press read, because the very next sentence is: “But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present. And so, from that moment, the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent” (p. 73). To paraphrase, the pope is saying that when one reads Luke and sees that the angels “said” their glorious words, the angels were of course singing (because that is what angels do).
As for the calendar, well, compare the brusque way in which the New York Daily News says it: “Jesus’ birth year is wrong: Pope” with the way in which the pope actually wrote it: “One initial problem can be solved quite easily: the census took place at the time of King Herod the Great, who actually died in the year 4 B.C. The starting point for our reckoning of time—the calculation of Jesus’ date of birth—goes back to the monk Dionysius Exiguus (+ c. 550), who evidently miscalculated by a few years. The historical date of the birth of Jesus is therefore to be placed a few years earlier.” I used to write headlines for a living, and so I am on the one hand sympathetic to the challenge; nonetheless, I can also spot an unsympathetic rendering of Vatican news.
As should be painfully evident, there is a big difference between what the media says that the Pope says and what the Pope himself actually says. Each time the waves settle from their slipshod coverage, the media should find that it has displaced a bit more of the public trust, trust that they will deliver the truth about Vatican news. They forfeited my trust a while ago. If anyone were to ask me, “How should I read news about the Vatican from the secular press?” I would say, “It can be useful for information, but must be read with a fundamental principle of uniformly applied suspicion and doubt. In other words, read it in the same way in which they would have us read the Bible.”
Kevin M. Clarke is an adjunct professor of New Testament Greek at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, California. He is the author of a chapter on Benedict XVI’s Mariology in De Maria Numquam Satis: The Significance of the Catholic Doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary for All People, and writes for Lay Witness and Zenit. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmclarke.
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