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18 December 1998

Would you believe it?

Thumping good stories are part of the Christian church's success, but Peter Stanfordthinks it is tim

By Peter Stanford

I’ve got to be away on the afternoon my two-year-old son is having his pals round for a pre-Christmas get-together, so we need a replacement Santa Claus. My suggestion of a friend who lives round the corner and works from home received a dusty answer across the kitchen table. She is a woman and, it was pointed out with biblical solemnity, Father Christmas is a man. Or rather St Nicholas, on whom he is based, was male.

Nicholas, granted, is a male name, but old St Nick – or Sinte Klaas, the Dutch dialect form of the name that gave rise to the more familiar Santa Claus – is a very dodgy character on whom to base any authoritative statement. There was a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor called Nicholas but beyond that there is almost no substance to the stories that surround the patron saint of Christmas. It is through folklore that he was attributed with a special love of children – as well as sailors, merchants and pawnbrokers – and therefore got mixed up with present-giving every 25 December.

As is well known, most of the Yuletide trimmings have dubious historical roots. The factual basis of the three kings, the shepherds, the stable, even Bethlehem itself are all hotly disputed by scholars. Luke, for instance, alone of the four gospel writers, mentions the manger and the lowing cattle. Matthew prefers to have God’s son born in a house. John and Mark consider the whole business of his early years so irrelevant they cut to the chase and start with Jesus the adult. Later writers even claimed he was born in the city of Sepphoris in Galilee.

But none of that really matters. The Bethlehem narrative simply gives a starting point to Jesus’s story. One of the principal reasons for the Christian church’s survival over 2,000 years has been its unwavering understanding of the power of stories – or parables in a New Testament context – and of the human need, in a world that can often seem black and pointless, for colourful mysteries to buy into, myriads of detail about ambiguous signs, and the promise, if we have faith, of a great burst of light in death.

In fashioning a suitably enthralling and uplifting narrative, the line between fact and fiction has been obscured. More than that, it has been – and still is – manipulated in an often inconsistent and contradictory fashion in order that the best interests of the church be served. The entire focus on 25 December, for example, is one of the great frauds of history.

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One of early Christianity’s most effective tactics in winning converts among pagan peoples was to superimpose its own feast days on top of existing anniversaries. Co-existence, toleration, transformation and persecution was the officially designated four-stage approach of missionaries in the first millennium. In practice this meant establishing a foothold with pagans, then sharing details of each other’s beliefs, before beginning to integrate their rituals into Christianity and finally using force to drive out any residual elements of ungodly superstition. Around the third century, the popular celebration of Christ’s birth was scheduled for exactly the same time as the winter solstice. In the fourth century the Emperor Constantine gave this takeover his official blessing.

This playing with history and detail is not confined to the remote past. It has continued throughout the centuries, and still goes on. Myths and past distortions are given the official imprimatur and transferred into the category of absolute truth as a way of exerting a continuing degree of control over the faithful.

The Virgin Birth, a central part of the Christmas story, is a prime example. For the first 400 years of Christianity, Mary was a bit part in Jesus’s life, but towards the end of the third century the notion that she conceived her child without ever having sex begins to crop up in liturgies as a way of explaining Jesus’s beginnings without reference to the – in Christian terms, at least – sordid physical details.

Later – principally in the 19th century – Mary’s special role, now established as dogma and buttressed with the promise of papal infallibility, became a potent method of pushing a particular view of women. The myth then developed a political and symbolic purpose far removed both from the facts as far as we can establish them, and even from the interpretation of those who first promoted the concept of the Virgin Birth.

This ecclesiastical spin-doctoring produced a ready response from Christians in the pews. At precisely the time the pope declared that Mary had been born without the stain of original sin and gave her quasi-divine status, she started appearing at sites around Catholic Europe with all the regularity of the chiming of the Angelus bell.

The ambiguities in the church’s attitude to fact and fiction become glaring when seen in the context of the alleged miracles that take place almost daily at these shrines. Many cures are claimed at Lourdes, Fatima in Portugal and Medjugorje in Bosnia, but the church officially endorses only a tiny number. It insists that it can give its backing only if the miracle cure can be proven by the facts. Yet the whole point about miracles is that they defy conventional logic or analysis on the basis of fact. Surely the only honest way to proceed is to accept all – save the most obvious frauds – or none at all.

And in terms of history, the church that promotes as truth events that cannot have happened and individuals – like at least half of the saints on the annual calendar who probably never existed at all – simultaneously denies any knowledge of well-documented episodes that might embarrass it. Such as the tale of Pope Joan, the English woman who dressed up as a man in the ninth century, tricked her way into the papacy and then, after reigning for two years and five months, was revealed as an impostor when she gave birth in the street during a papal procession.

There are around 500 medieval chroniclers, many of them distinguished papal servants, librarians, inquisitors and even archbishops who testify that the story of Joan is true. They are not exactly sending a volley of hallelujahs up to heaven to celebrate the fact, but they admit that the church had been conned during a period when the papacy was, arguably, at its lowest and most degraded ebb. There was a shrine to Joan in central Rome, marking the spot where her child was born and where she was, it is recorded, killed by the angry crowd. There is also a statue to her among the line of popes that still decorates the nave of Siena Cathedral; a playful reference to her on the base of the canopy over the main altar in St Peter’s; and even a special throne with a key-shaped hole cut in the seat, drafted into service after her death, where all future popes had to sit to have their balls felt to make sure they were male before they could be crowned.

In short, there is plenty of documentary evidence to suggest that the tale of Pope Joan has some substance. Admittedly some of the texts are open to various interpretations, many of the monuments have subsequently been removed, and the offending throne is kept under lock and key in the Vatican Museum and therefore cannot be scrutinised. But anyone with any respect for history cannot dismiss the She-Pope out of hand. Yet that – as I discovered when I travelled to Rome to present a BBC documentary about the legend of Pope Joan – is precisely what the Vatican still does.

In their eyes the Joan story makes uncomfortable reading, so it can just be overlooked. Any attempt at investigating her legend, to see if there are elements of truth in it, are met with refusals to co-operate, obstruction and sneers. “It’s a cock-and-bull story,” one official told me, but declined to substantiate his boast.

Yet there is better evidence for Joan than there is for many other popes in the ninth century – a period when record-keeping in Rome collapsed. The names of men with only the flimsiest claim to have existed, plus various anti-popes, are up there in lights among the roll-call of the 250 or so men who have inherited St Peter’s throne. Joan is not even mentioned.

Historical inquiry and justice are taking second place to dogma or, to be more precise, to the current obsession in the Vatican with keeping women in their place. It is now an offence, punishable by a silencing order from Rome, for any priest or nun openly to support women’s ordination. In such a climate, facing up to the possibility that a woman – albeit a randy fraudster – may have deceived her way into the papacy is just too much to contemplate. Next to maintaining discipline and authority in the church, historical fact is a trivial matter.

That is the darker side of the myth-making that gives the Christmas story such a warm glow. It is not enough to make me cast Mary, the kings and Joseph out of our family crib and into the wilderness, but I might just insist – as the small voice of conscience – on having a woman as Father Christmas after all.

Peter Stanford presents “She-Pope” on BBC1 on 20 December at 10.30pm, and is the author of “The She-Pope” (Arrow, £6.99)

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