Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Birthday, Jesus (Sometime Before Spring of 4 B.C.) [28 Nov. 2012]

  In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), Pope Benedict XVI notes, as a lead in the UK Daily Telegraph puts it, "Jesus born years earlier than thought." What I find most interesting about this story has been that it was news.

            In 1950, in a totally non-controversial passage in the history textbook The Ancient World, Joseph Ward Swain of the solidly Big Ten, classically Midwestern, University of Illinois, wrote that "Jesus was not born in the year 1," or, I guess, Zero. "Two of our four Gospels tell us that he was born under Herod the Great, who died in the spring of 4 B.C."

            Working through other information in the Gospels, the scholarly consensus by the late 1940s was "that Jesus probably was born about five years before the turn of the century" — in the Christian counting of centuries — and that it's "fairly certain that he was crucified on April 7, 30 A.D." Swain adds, "There is, of course, no evidence regarding the exact day of his birth, and not until several centuries had passed did Christians agree to observe Christmas on December 25" (II.476-77).

            Of course. And then Swain moves on to the significant historical stuff about "His" — Jesus's — "Preaching and Crucifixion," the next subsection title, and then a long discussion of the rise of the Church.

            So Jesus was "born years earlier than thought" by whom?

            Americans are a people of strong faith, but as surveys pretty consistently indicate, "large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions — including their own";  and, I'll throw in, that "large numbers of Americans" includes a lot of reporters.

            The United States is not "a Christian nation" mostly because we're not a nation at all; it's "the American Republic," and the Republic is a stew or chop suey or mish-mosh (not a melting pot) of races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions. Which is a damn good thing.

            We are, though, strongly … let's call it inflected by Christian culture, and Americans, for understanding our country, need some knowledge of Christianity. Also of the other world religions, but that's for another time.

            Christians especially should know Christianity, and it shouldn't be some sort of traumatic shock if someone tells them that it's a fair guess that Jesus was born in the spring — "when shepherds were watching their sheep in the field by night" (Luke 2.8) of 4-5 BC, and that it's no coincidence that Christmas in the northern hemisphere is a Festival of Lights like Diwali, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa: it's the winter solstice, people, and the time of the old Roman Saturnalia, so December was and remains an excellent time for a winter holiday balancing spring holidays like Passover and Easter. (The Islamic New Year, Muharram, is a quieter holiday.)

            It's Constitutional for secular public schools to teach about religion, and in principle the US Supreme court and NGOs like The American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way are all for such teaching. Still, serious religious education is politically risky for a school district and undoubtedly expensive: doing the job decently requires well-educated teachers.

            Someone, though, needs to do a better job, and the various Christian churches and Christian households are obvious places for serious study of the faith. One good way to start a discussion would be hitting kids with the neat paradox that Jesus Christ was born "B.C." and checking out what the Gospel narratives actually say on the subject. For that exercise, Pope Benedict has definitely supplied a "teachable moment."

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