The pope has not canceled Christmas
Pope Benedict's new book, "Infancy Narratives," was released on Nov. 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 (and) no lowing oxen ... ."
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 the pope 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 apparently was taken from the Telegraph 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?
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, which then informed the world how they misread the text.
A Reuters story helped clarify things a bit. An excellent headline - "Read all about it: Pope has not canceled Christmas" - should help this necessary corrective analysis gain exposure. Nonetheless, there remains much to clean up.
Back to that Daily Mail headline. 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."
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 - dates 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. But 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. A longer version of this commentary first appeared in First Things (www.firstthings.com).