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The Christian calendar is based on a miscalculation, and Jesus was born several years earlier than commonly believed, Pope Benedict XVI argues in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.
"The calculation of the beginning of our calendar – based on the birth of Jesus – was made by Dionysius Exiguus, who made a mistake in his calculations by several years," says the 85-year-old pontiff in the book that was published Wednesday, weeks before Christmas.
"The actual date of Jesus's birth was several years before," the pope argues in the book that has a print run of 1 million copies.
Dionysius Exiguus, or Dennis the Small, was a 6th-century monk from Eastern Europe who is best known as the inventor of the Anno Domini (AD) era, which is used to number the years of both the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar.
Several academics have made similar claims, but this is the first time that the pope has raised doubts over the date of the birth of Jesus.
John Barton, Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture at Oriel College, Oxford University, said most academics believe that Jesus was born probably between 6BC and 4BC. "There is no reference to when he was born in the Bible – all we know is that he was born in the reign of Herod the Great, who died before 1AD," The Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying. "It's been surmised for a very long time that Jesus was born before 1AD – no one knows for sure."
Benedict also claims in the book – which is being published in various languages spoken in Catholic countries including Italian, German, Croatian, French, English, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish – that while the traditional nativity scene always involve animals, there were no oxen, donkeys or other animals at Jesus' birth.
With his latest book, which explores the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Benedict completed his triology. His first book was about the public ministry of Jesus, and the second about his death. All three are published under his real name, Joseph Ratzinger.
In the new book, the pope decries that many see God as limiting their freedom. "God himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself," he writes, adding, "God, with his truth, stands in opposition to man's manifold lies, his self-seeking and his pride. God is love."
Benedict stresses on the uniqueness of Mary's "virgin birth" of Jesus. "Perhaps one could say that humanity's silent and confused dreams of a new beginning came true in this event – in a reality such that only God could create."
Monsignor Philip Whitmore, the English translator, said the pope intends to bring out the "inner meaning" of the Gospel descriptions of Jesus' birth and childhood.
"The pope helps us to understand the world where Jesus was born. Caesar brought peace to the Roman Empire, but this tiny child brought something much more wonderful: God's peace, eternal life, an end to sin and death," CNN quoted Whitmore as saying. "Anyone who's wondering why Christmas came to be such a great celebration in the West can find the answer right here. The pope explains how the birth of Jesus changed history forever."