Pope Benedict Rejects “Foolish Prejudice” about Pope Francis

Pope-Franis-Pope-BenedictFive years ago today, on March 13, 2013, I was about to go out to the store early in the afternoon, but paused to look at the news to find out what was going on with the conclave — and ended up live-blogging the election of Pope Francis. The ensuing five years has been a real roller-coaster ride. And I have been blogging it all the way.

There is, naturally, a tone of commentary today, but the one I most wish people would read is the one by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He wrote it in reply to Msgr. Dario Vigano, Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, in response to his gift of a set of just-released volumes on the theology of Pope Francis. He writes about the critics of Pope Francis and his own:

I applaud this initiative that seeks to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice according to which Pope Francis would only be a practical man devoid of particular theological or philosophical formation, while I would have been only a theoretician of theology who understood little of the concrete life of a Christian today.

These small volumes rightly show that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation and they help [people] therefore to see the internal continuity between the two pontificates, even with all the differences of style and temperament.

God bless dear Pope Benedict! Attention to all Pope Francis critics who look to Benedict’s papacy as a nostalgic touchstone. He doesn’t agree with you.

Read more here.  I corrected the English from the Italian a bit from here.

Update: March 20: I originally wrote this in great haste, and had noted something odd about Sandro Magister’s comments in the last link, but didn’t have time to comment on it. He implied that Benedict’s “ironic” comments that followed, about not having read the volumes thoroughly and therefore being unable to write a more detailed analysis were somehow supposed to mean that Benedict was not actually giving any endorsement of Pope Francis — for those who know how to read between the lines! This has been seized on by so many people who ought to know better — and by Raymond Arroyo on EWTN, who I’m no sure knows better at all. His attacks on Pope Francis lately have been disgraceful.

Here is a good post/article by Dave Armstrong, who I believe hits the nail on the head.


Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives, Part IV

Part I   Part II   Part III

Back to Bart Ehrman and his objections to the historical accuracy of the Infancy Narratives. This is the last part for now, but I hope to return to the subject of Jesus’ birth soon. I may even write a book about it.

Only in [Luke] do Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census when “the whole world” had to be enrolled under Caesar Augustus. The whole world? Luke must mean “the whole Roman Empire.” But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire.


Journey to Bethlehem, 14th-century fresco

Well, yes there was. Part of the problem is that historians have been looking at the wrong time for this census, 6-5 B.C., and the wrong kind of census, a census for taxation.

Since Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great, the king of Judea, it is thought that this census must have taken place before  4 B.C., the date that since the time of Emil Schürer,[1] historians have almost unanimously assigned to Herod’s death. As a result, they have looked for a Roman census for taxation before this date and have to go back to 8 B.C., too early for the birth of Jesus. But more recent historical study has concluded that 1 B.C. is much more likely a date for Herod’s death. I wrote about this here.

But equally problematic is the supposition that Luke is referring to a Roman census for collecting of taxes, because this would not have been done in Judea under Herod. Roman “client kings” like Herod the Great collected taxes from their people themselves without Roman intervention. But Luke doesn’t specifically say that there was a census, nor does he say anything about taxes — these are all interpretations put on his words by translators. He actually spoke about an apographe, or “registration,” which was the word normally used for a Roman census for taxation, but was also employed to refer to a number of other types of registration, such as enrollment in the army.

Ernest L. Martin, followed by a number of other authors, dated the birth of Jesus to coincide with the empire-wide registration requiring a loyalty oath to Augustus, that was part of the planned celebrations for the Emperor being named Pater Patriae or “Father of his Country” in February 2 B.C.[2] Word about the registration had gone out by the spring of 3 B.C. and the registration in Judea would probably have been carried out that fall, in accordance with Roman custom, as that was the best weather for traveling.[3]

So Jesus was born in the late summer-early fall of 3 B.C. It all fits perfectly with what Luke wrote in 3:23, that Jesus was “about thirty years old” in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which would equal 27 A.D., and would give a 3 B.C. date for Jesus’ birth.

In this account Joseph and Mary need to register in Bethlehem (which is why Jesus is born there) because Joseph is descended from King David, who came from Bethlehem. But David lived a thousand years earlier. Is everyone in the entire Roman Empire returning to their ancestral home from a thousand years earlier? Imagine the massive migrations for this census. And no historian from the time thought it was worth mentioning? This is not a story based on historical fact.

This objection is actually my favorite, because it shows such ridiculous historical ignorance on Ehrman’s part. Apart from the fact I already pointed out that taking a census by tribes and clans was the normal procedure throughout the history of Israel (See Part III), the practice was also well known to the Romans. Censuses among the people of Rome were taken by tribe and family. It was the practice among many ancient peoples. So it would not have been any surprise to the historian of the times that people registered with their own tribes or clans. And though in many cases, the clans or tribes tended to live in the same area, migration also took place, resulting in people living some distance from their homelands. But people did not lose their ancestral memories, even over centuries. In addition, a Roman registration, like the one mentioned above, was generally taken at a relatively local population center. Herod’s kingdom, geographically speaking, was not that large a space. Historian William R. Ramsay wrote: “After all, not a great deal of journeying to and fro would be required for the enrolment.  . . The majority of the strictly Jewish population was probably resident at that time in the southern part of Palestine, though there was also a large minority scattered over all the cities of the central and northern districts. A considerable number of people would have to make journeys of one to four days to their own city, and the same back again; but nothing approaching to a general transference of population would be necessitated.”. [4]

But more than that, it is very likely that Joseph’s ancestors had emigrated from Judea not “a thousand years earlier,” but less than a hundred years earlier. Here is why:


Peter Paul Rubens (and workshop) Triumph of Judah Maccabee

By the eighth century B.C., the kingdom of Israel consisted of a southern part, Judea (or Judah), in which the tribes of Judah, Levi and a part of tribe of Benjamin lived, and Israel, in the north, where the other ten tribes lived. Then in 732 BC, the Assyrians attacked and ravaged the northern kingdom, killing many inhabitants and carrying others off into slavery (2 Kings, 15:29); many of those left fled to the southern kingdom of Judah; for hundreds of years afterward, the former northern kingdom had few to no Jewish inhabitants, and was settled by Gentiles. Then in 586 BC, the king of Babylon besieged and conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and deported much of the population of Judea to Babylon. King Cyrus permitted them to return in 538 BC, when they resettled Judea and rebuilt the temple; only 123 people from the whole of Bethlehem returned (Ezra 1:21); they settled there and re-peopled the town.

When Judah Maccabee and his brothers came to power in the 2nd century B.C., they established the Hasmonean dynasty, defeated the Gentiles who had moved into Galilee, and began the Jewish re-settlement of the northern part of Israel. We get some hints of this in the books of Maccabees (1 Mac 5:14-21), but archaeology tells the rest of the story. Beginning in the late 2nd or early first century B.C., archaeological remains indicating settlement begin to appear in Galilee, and from then on, much of the pottery in Galilee began to resemble that produced in Judea, indicating not only the migration north by the inhabitants of Judea, but continued emotional attachment to their homeland.[5] This was still going on at the time of the Roman conquest of 63 B.C., and probably afterward. A Jewish archaeologist writes: “Scholars agree that the Galilean population at the turn of the first century BCE was a mixture of Jewish remnants, converted pagan, veterans of the Hasmonean army, and many new immigrants from Judea.”[6]

So there is nothing surprising about Mary and Joseph returning to his father or grandfather’s home in Judea (a journey of 4 or 5 days). Herod the Great, an Idumean convert to Jerusalem, though a lover of Hellenist ways, generally respected ancient Jewish customs. Because this census, as mentioned above, was taken under the auspices of both Herod and Caesar Augustus, who also made it a habit to respect Jewish sensibilities, there is every reason to think that Herod would have seen to it that the enrollment was done according to the traditional Jewish custom.

Understanding the historical circumstances gives a whole new coloring to Joseph’s relationship to his roots in Judea. It is often thought that he and Mary would have been strangers when they arrived there and needed to seek an inn. I think (along with many others) that “inn” is a mistranslation. Joseph would almost certainly have had relatives living in Bethlehem, with whom they could have stayed. The most likely explanation of “there was no room for them in the kataluma” is that this word refers not to an inn, but to a guest room, or guest quarters in a home, or even the home itself; the word essentially refers to any temporary accommodation. It might even be translated “they didn’t have a room to themselves in the place they were staying.” Due to the registration, there was likely a bit of overcrowding in the home (as in our homes at Christmastime), and the lack of a private room or bed led Mary to put her newborn in an unusual crib fitting to a home where humans and animals lived in close quarters. This opens up a whole new subject that I hope to explore someday soon.


[1] Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ: A New English Version Revised and Edited by Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar. (New York: Bloomsbury, 1973, repr 2014), 1:326-28, note. Schürer’s work, originally published in 1896, has retained considerable authority.

[2] Ernest L. Martin, The Star of Bethlehem: The Star that Astonished the World, extended 2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Associates for Scriptural Knowledge, 1996), passim. The Introduction summarizes the evidence.

[3] William M. Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? A Study on the Credibility of St. Luke (London Hodder and Stoughton, 1898), p. 194.

[4] Ramsay,  Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?, pp. 194-95.

[5] A large number of works have discussed this movement of peoples: among them see Mordechai Aviam, “First Century Jewish Galilee: An Archaeological Perspective,” in Religion and Society in Roman Palestine: Old Questions, New Approaches, ed. Douglas R. Edwards (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 7-27; also his “The Transformation from Galil Ha-Goyim to Jewish Galilee: The Archaeological Testimony of an Ethnic Change.” In David A. Fiensy and James R. Strange, eds. Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mischnaic Periods. Vol. II: The Archaeological Record from Cities, Towns and Villages. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2015, pp. 9-21, and Mark A. Chancey, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee. The Population of Galilee and New Testament Studies. Cambridge UP, 2004.

[6] Aviam, “Transformation from Galil Ha-Goyim to Jewish Galilee,” p. 16.

Pope Paul Will be Canonized this Year!

Pope-KoreaThis is irresistible. We now have this right from the Pope’s mouth:

At the end of a closed-door question and answer session with priests of Rome on Thursday, the Pope said it will be a “holy year” for Paul VI. “There are two Bishops of Rome who have recently become saints: John XXIII and John Paul II,” the Pope said. “Paul VI will become one this year. One cause for beatification is underway, John Paul I; his cause is open. And Benedict and I are on the waiting list. Pray for us.”


I always love his humor. I look forward to being able to officially pray to Paul and John Paul I for their intercession, especially on behalf of their successors.

(update: Feb 25, He will actually be canonized, not beatified! I don’t know how I made this error. I had been correcting people for some time, telling them to call him “Bl. Paul VI.”

Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives — Part III

Well, I had the best intentions, but I was ill with whatever was going around the first two weeks of January, so I wasn’t able to post any more installments then, spent about two weeks trying to catch up with work, and then was hit with the news that I need to find a new apartment and move as soon as possible. So this installment has been greatly delayed and I just finished. I think that for now I’ll skip what I was going to write about whether Matthew or Luke was written first. It is interesting and important for the questions I’ve been addressing, but not so much for the material I now want to cover.


A medieval manuscript listing the genealogy of Jesus according to Luke

Bart Ehrman’s 2012 Newsweek article “What do we Know about Jesus?” is a pretty shoddy piece of journalism that is not important or unusual in itself, and is now more than five years old, but I’m using it because it is quite typical of the approach so many secularists take to the Gospel story. Ehrman begins his questioning the of historical nature of the Nativity story with the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. It illustrates perfectly what I have been saying: that what Ehrman writes shows not only his ignorance of the history of Jewish people and Palestine at the time of Christ, but his lack of interest in ancient modes of thought and writing about history. To do this, I’ll look at his specific objections and then answer them.

The evangelists want to relate Jesus to the ancestral line of the Jewish patriarchs. Neither of them has access to the kind of reliable data they need for the task. So they have provided genealogies that have been invented for the purpose.

Here is a good example of Ehrman’s muddled thinking. On one hand, he seems to be claiming that the evangelists used in good faith the genealogical material they had, but unfortunately for them, the material wasn’t reliable. On the other hand, he also suggests that they just “invented for the purpose” the genealogies they had to prove their contention about Jesus’ Davidic descent. He suggests both but never outright states either. He also completely ignores the relevant historical factors that gave rise to genealogies in Israel to begin with, and allow us to understand how they were shaped. None of this, of course, could be done in the single sentence that Ehrman thinks is all that the subject deserves.

In reality, there is no question that the evangelists had abundant data. The ancient Israelites were almost obsessed with compiling genealogies.

Their data began with census lists. The taking of censuses in Israel began with the Exodus, when God told Moses to take censuses of the Israelites; the purpose was to require all male Israelites who were of age to contribute a ransom, or tax, of a half-shekel to the upkeep of the sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant, and later for the temple (Ex 30:11-16). Census were also done to count men who were of age for military service (Num 26:1-4). Census-taking was done “by clans and ancestral houses, registering by name each male individually” (Num 1:2). This was continued throughout Israelite history.

So there was an actual basis for the many genealogies scattered throughout the Old Testament. They were probably compiled from written records of censuses and used to form genealogies, which in turn were used for future censuses. We learn from the Book of Chronicles:

The sons of Gad dwelt over against them in the land of Bashan as far as Salecah: Joel the chief, Shapham the second, Janai, and Shaphat in Bashan. And their kinsmen according to their fathers’ houses [After naming them, the author concludes] All of these were enrolled by genealogies in the days of Jotham king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam king of Israel. (I Chronicles 5:11-17)

Ehrman would no doubt say that the genealogies in Chronicles are unhistorical. (Keep in mind that for him “unhistorical” means they have an error or errors somewhere). Does he have any genealogies of the same people that are without errors to compare them with? We don’t have anything like this, of course. Most of the earlier parts of the genealogies stem from various writings of the Old Testament the compilers would have been familiar with, and while there are some discrepancies between the two that need to be explained, there are clear sources. The latter parts from the exile up to Jesus no doubt come from family traditions. What can we say about the accuracy of these?

Here we have the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who tells us that genealogies were very carefully kept down to his own time. “For anyone who takes a share in the priesthood must father children by a woman of the same nation; he must pay no attention to wealth or other distinctions, but should examine her pedigree, procuring her genealogy from the archives and supplying multiple witnesses.”[1] As he was from the priestly line, he also refers to his own pedigree, “as I find it recorded in the public registers” in Jerusalem.[2] He says that these archives existed until they were burned during the destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 A.D.[3]

Though Josephus’ evidence regards only priestly genealogies, the same seems to have been true of the other surviving tribes as well. Other records traceable to the first century reveal that the different families of the tribe of Judah, including “the family of David,” were appointed to bring wood to the Temple altar at different times of the year, implying that all of them were able to give an account of what family they were from.[4] In 1972, Israeli archaeologists discovered an ossuary, or box both, at a burial site in Jerusalem, with an inscription describing the person or persons buried there as “belonging to the family of David.”[5]

Other skeptics say that genealogies like those in Matthew and Luke must be artificial constructions because Matthew obviously does not include all the names and skips generations. (“son” is often used in these genealogies in the sense of “descendant”). He further divides the names into three groups of fourteen generations, because the number 14 in Hebrew can be used to spell out the name “David.” This may look artificial to us, but it is perfectly natural to the mindset of the people of the time. That their data set was interwoven with religious concepts foreign to modern secularist does not at necessarily imply that their data was faulty. Of course, we can’t say that the genealogies were accurate in every detail over a large number of generations, but are we prepared to say that Jesus was not descended in any way from King David?

Why are they giving the line through Joseph when he’s not a relative of Jesus?

It is not only blood descendants that appear in Jewish genealogies of the time. Jewish people readily regarded a man as a legal descendant of someone even when not a direct biological descendant. For instance, if a man had no descendants and died, his brother (or in some cases, another close relative) could marry his widow, and agree to their first-born son being the legal heir of his brother. This known as a levirate marriage. In this way, a man could be considered the son of a man who was dead at the time of his conception, while he was the biological son of another.

Israelites also recognized adopted sons as heirs; among the Judahite ancestors of King David was the son of a slave who had been adopted (e.g. 1 Chron. 2:34-6). Caleb was biologically the son of an Edomite (a non-Jew) named Jephunneh (Num. 32:12), but he was adopted into the tribe of Judah (Numbers 34:12), and his descendants would have been recognized as belonging to that tribe.

Why do the genealogies, though both evidently of Joseph, show him having different fathers?

There have been a number of different answers to this puzzle. Some suggest that Joseph and Mary were from two different branches of the Davidic line, and that Luke is actually giving Mary’s genealogy. That is, Luke has “Jesus . . . was the son, as was thought, the son of Joseph, the son of Heli . . .” while this interpretation requires awkward reading “the son, as was thought, of Joseph, [but really] the son of Heli” and that Heli was Mary’s father, who had made Joseph his heir. But I find this theory unconvincing for other reasons as well. Being the son of David through Mary would not have been much use in regard to legal descent, which was traced through the father; in addition, what Luke actually tells us about Mary’s family was that she was a sungenis or blood relative of Elizabeth, who was descended from Aaron (1:5, and 1:36); this would mean Mary was from the tribe of Levi, at least on one side of her family.[6] Neither Matthew nor Luke explicitly tells us anywhere that Mary was descended from David, though this was a widespread opinion very early in the Church.[7] This raises the question: If Luke is not concerned at all to tell us about Mary’s Davidic ancestry in his narrative, what reason would he have to put it in his genealogy?

More convincing is the idea that both genealogies are of Joseph, and that a levirate marriage was involved (see above). This is one for which there is actually some historical evidence. Julius Africanus, a third-century Christian writer, born in Israel, who collected traditions from the descendants of Jesus’ family, writes that though Herod had destroyed their genealogies, their reconstructed version said that Joseph was the product of a levirate marriage, one side descended from the Solomonic (or royal) line of Judah, the other side descended from another son of David, Nathan. He writes: “Matthan, descended from Solomon, begat Jacob. When Matthan died, Melchi, descended from Nathan, begat Heli by the same wife [Estha]. Therefore, Heli and Jacob are uterine brothers. Heli dying childless, Jacob raised up seed to him and begat Joseph, his own son by nature, but the son of Heli by law. Thus Joseph was rightly called the son of both.”[8]

Africanus’ report would indeed explain the differences in the line up to Matthan, as well as the difference between Heli and Jacob. In order for this to work, Matthat and Matthan have to refer to the same person; they do seem be two forms of the same name.

Nevertheless, this solution gives rise to another puzzle: the genealogy of Luke, who traces the line from Nathan, does include a Melchi, but makes him Heli’s great-grandfather, not his father. Luke’s line runs Melchi, Levi, Matthat, Heli, Joseph. Matthew’s runs Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, Joseph. Many scholars think that Africanus or his sources confused the names or made some other error. But there is no problem when we look at Matthew’s genealogy and assume that there was a Melchi a couple of generations down, let’s say a nephew of Levi, who married Matthan’s widow, and that Matthew simply doesn’t mention him or the other Melchi because he is tracing descent from Solomon. Since names do tend to run in families, this is a possible solution. But it leaves the question, why, then does Matthan/Matthat have two different fathers (Eleazar/Levi)? We evidently have to suppose that there was a levirate marriage in the previous generation as well. But this is certainly not impossible, given that this was an Israelite custom.

If nothing else, this story does illustrate the enormous effort Jews expended on their genealogies, and how complex the record-keeping was, since they had to keep track of levirate marriages, and recall whether “son of” meant son or grandson in a particular case, and so on. And the reason that it is so difficult for us to reconstruct the genealogies in a way that would satisfy our modern minds is that we don’t have all the information that the ancient Israelites did – which once again tells against Ehrman’s thesis.

One more installment after this, on the census of Quirinius.


[1] Flavius Josephus, Against Apion: 1:32, nos. 126-28, in Against Apion: Translation and Commentary, by John M. G. Barclay (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007), pp. 24-26; see also Midrash, Sifrei Bamidbar, 116.

[2] Josephus, Life, 3-6 in Josephus, Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library (New York: Putnam, 1926), vol. I, pp. 4-5.

[3] Josephus, Jewish War 2.427; 6.354.

[4] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period; translated from the 3rd German edition (1962) and revised by author in 1967 by F. H. and C. H. Cave (Philadelphia, 1969), p. 226. For an argument in favor of the descendant of David keeping genealogical records, see Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London/New York: T & T Clark International), pp. 159-61.

[5] David Flusser, “The House of David on an Ossuary,” in Flusser and R. Stephen Notley, Jesus (3rd edn.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001, repr. 2012), pp. 180-86.

[6] The most compelling reason to consider Mary as a descendant of David is that she would normally have married someone of her own tribe, as this was required by Numbers 36:1-2, to keep a daughter’s inheritance from passing into another tribe; the Fathers of the Church generally believed this is why Mary had to be of David ancestry to marry Joseph. But this is not necessarily true. As time went on, after the exile, preventing intermarriage with Gentiles and securing pure ethnic Israelite ancestry became more of a concern among Jews than tribal identities; according to Jeremias, there were certainly marriages between members of priestly families and those of other tribes in the first century (Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, p. 219). That leaves at least a possibility that Mary was descended from both the tribes of Levi and Judah.

[7] The earliest reference is a Jewish-Christian work probably from before 70 A.D., the Ascension of Isaiah, 11.2 (“a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name [was] Mary”). Some use Luke 1:27: “a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David . . .” as evidence, supposing that the words “of the house of David” refer back to Mary rather than Joseph, as some of the Fathers believed. See Marcus Bockmuehl, “The Son of David and His Mother,” Journal of Theological Studies, N.S. 62:2 (October 2011): 491-92.

[8] Julius Africanus, Letter to Aristides, the text of which is preserved in Eusebius, Church History, 1.7.1-17.