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Etienne Vermeersch

We consider stories of miracles from other cultures to be fantasies, but when it comes to the Bible, even sensible people lose their critical faculties. Etienne Vermeersch

While conceiving Siddhartha (the young Buddha), his mother Maya saw in a dream that he entered her womb in the shape of a little white elephant. All of nature rejoiced: trees and plants blossomed, rivers stopped flowing, and musical instruments played without being touched. At the end of the pregnancy the child came forth painlessly from her right side; he could walk immediately and at each step a lotus flower appeared on the ground.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem [!] in Judea, as a child of a virgin from Nazareth [!], in the time of King Herod, Wise Men [magoi] from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the new born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship him.” Herod sent them to Bethlehem and then the star that had disappeared for a while [to render the visit to Herod inevitable, and so enable his murderous decree?] reappeared and guided them until it stood still above the place where the child was. (Matthew, 2)

No botanist ever wondered how those lotus flowers could grow under the little feet of Siddhartha. But Western astronomers did investigate whether the Wise Men might have seen a supernova, a comet, or a conjunction of planets, as if such a “star” could accompany human beings on a journey and then stand still over a particular place.

We consider stories of miracles from other cultures to be fantasies, but when it comes to the Bible, even sensible people lose their critical faculties. In 2012 (yes, in the twenty-first century) Joseph Ratzinger published—not as Pope Benedict XVI, whom he still was, but as a biblical scholar—Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the third and final volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series. One reads eagerly to find out what Ratzinger has to say about the star of Bethlehem, the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt. He could have kept it short (“those are legends”); instead, he devotes roughly a quarter of the book to their discussion. The relevant texts of Matthew (1 and 2) and Luke (1:5–80; 2:1–52) raise critical issues, and Ratzinger knows it. Yet he does not consider them as “meditation in narrative guise” (which is what the best Christian exegetes, including Catholic ones, think nowadays). No, Matthew gives us “factual history” (historische Geschehnisse), Ratzinger writes, that is interpreted theologically.

Twelve Years Old, Pregnant, and on a Journey

As an extreme illustration of this gullibility, let us consider the story of the Visitation (Luke 1:39–56). According to Jewish practice of the time, a girl’s betrothal was arranged around her twelfth birthday, and, hence, so was Mary’s. Nevertheless, immediately after the “annunciation by the angel,” she visits her niece Elizabeth in Judea. Imagine that! In a culture where women, not to mention unmarried women, were barely allowed to leave the house on their own, a pregnant twelve-year-old girl sets off, on foot, on a journey of more than one hundred kilometers through a dangerous region. And for what purpose? To pronounce the Magnificat—inspired by a biblical passage (1 Samuel 2:1–10), although in those days girls were poorly instructed concerning the Scriptures.

Another typical aspect of stories of this type: they confront readers who accept the possibility of miracles with so many anomalies as to induce total perplexity. Let us assume that an angel did announce the virgin conception; that thanks to a dream, Joseph believed this; that the birth did take place and was announced to the shepherds by a choir of angels; that a star did lead the Wise Men with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Bethlehem; that Jesus’s messianic character was emphasized in the temple by Simeon and Hannah; that in a dream Joseph was ordered to go to Galilee; and that “Mary kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Is it not strange, then, that Joseph and Mary, desperately seeking their wandered-off son, did not understand the words of the then–twelve-year-old Jesus when they finally found him in the temple (“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?,” Luke 2:50)? If all of these miracles did happen, then how can it be that Joseph and Mary had not realized during twelve years of parenting that their son was actually the Messiah, the son of God? According to Mark 3:21, Jesus’s family (hoi par’ autou) “went out to lay hold on him for they said ‘he is beside himself,’” and according to John 7:5, his own brothers did not believe in him. The angels, the shepherds, the prophets in the temple: Was it all to no avail? Had all of this completely escaped Mary’s mind, or had she never bothered to tell her other children?

An Inconspicuous Preacher from Galilee

Ratzinger also does not seem to realize that often a “mythopoetic” tendency arises around famous characters. This concerns the need to narrate myths and legends, either in order to shed light on the significance of these persons or to fulfill a deeply human longing for the miraculous. In many cultures, these kings, prophets, or saints perform miracles, and their births and deaths are accompanied by rare natural phenomena: earthquakes, new stars, comets, or solar or lunar eclipses. Their mothers may be nonnaturally impregnated by a god. Especially in relation to religion, this tendency seems to know no limits. Quite fittingly did Goethe say: “Das Wunder ist des Glaubens liebstes Kind” (Wonder is the dearest child of faith).

But such stories are also used to support particular doctrines. After their visions of the resurrected Jesus, his disciples considered him the Messiah. But how could an inconspicuous preacher from Galilee claim this title? Well, as a descendant of David, he could! Paul (around 56 CE) already knew the tradition that Jesus was born of the seed of David (ek spermatos Dauid) (Rom. 1:3). Later traditions prefer a virgin conception—which if true precludes this continuity of the male line. That is why Matthew and Luke (around 90 CE) try to emphasize Jesus’s kinship to David by situating the birth in David’s city of Bethlehem (in Judea). They do so in quite a bungling way, however. According to Matthew, Jesus’s parents lived in Bethlehem; the Wise Men met them in their house (elthontes eis tên oikian) (Matt. 2:11); and after their return from Egypt an angel has to encourage them to go to Galilee. According to Luke, they live in Nazareth, but Augustus’s census sent them to Bethlehem. A “census” in the city of the ancestors (Luke 2:4)—in the case of David, in the city of one’s ancestors as of about a thousand years earlier—is preposterous beyond imagination. There was indeed a “census” in Judea around 6 CE, but it affected only current residents and concerned property taxes.

Ratzinger’s imagination resolves this by assuming that Joseph owned real estate in Bethlehem. Why, then, was Jesus born in a stable? Luke and Matthew argue for the same thing (birth in Bethlehem) but with incompatible stories; this is proof of their utter incredibility. The same applies to the family trees that have “father” Joseph descended from David: they diverge nearly completely, both in the names and in the number of generations. In my opinion, even the linking of Jesus’s birth with Herod may have been determined by the desire to present him as the legitimate successor of this last great king of all Jews, the temple builder.

In short, Jesus was not born in Bethleh
em, and we do not know when he was born. The virgin conception arranged by God has no biological significance. A human being has two pairs of twenty-three chromosomes each, half from the mother and half from the father. If Jesus was a real human being, he would have received this second sequence either from his father or through (divine) genetic manipulation. In either case, these chromosomes (their DNA sequences) would have to code for the normal proteins. “Divine” chromosomes do not exist, for by definition the Christian God is immaterial. Because DNA was unknown in antiquity, a belief in virgin conception, however enigmatic, was not absurd. But in our own day?

Jesus’s Brothers

Furthermore, Ratzinger’s book is striking in what it omits. Whoever discusses Mary’s virginity cannot ignore that according to Roman Catholic doctrine, Mary remained “always a virgin” after Jesus’s birth (semper virgo). This dogma has no grounds in the New Testament; according to Matt. 12:46, Luke 8:19, John 2:12 and 7:3–5, and 1 Corinthians 9:5, Jesus had brothers. Mark (3:31 and 6:3) attests that he had sisters as well. In Mark 6:3 and Matt. 13:55, the four brothers are referred to by name. One among them, James, played an important role in the early church and Paul (Gal. 1:19) calls him “the Lord’s brother” (ton adelphon tou kuriou). Moreover, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus stated that in 62 CE, James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,” was stoned.

The objections to these statements have been invalidated time and again. How odd that a pope does not find it fitting to address them.

This brings us to the question: Is Ratzinger foolish or ignorant? Neither, in my view. He bases his beliefs on an unwavering faith in the factual reliability of the Holy Scriptures, and if necessary, its truths must be defended in a shrewd way. Some Catholic exegetes solve the problems by distinguishing the “deeper message” from a time-bound myth or legend. Ratzinger is unable to do so, and odd as it may seem, some respect is still due him.

A second question regards the way in which our culture, traditionally drenched in Christianity, has to accommodate this “demythologizing.” In my opinion, we must distinguish between the strictly scientific question of truth and the myths, rites, and other cultural expressions that have grown up a tradition I consider intrinsically valuable. Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio do not lose any of their value in consequence of my remarks. “Peace on earth to all men of good will” remains a meaningful message, even if it is an incorrect translation of eirênê en anthrôpois eudokias.

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Etienne Vermeersch

Free Inquiry

From: Volume 34, No. 1
December 2013 / January 2014