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'Jesus Of Nazareth:" Pope's Final Book On Jesus Claims No Animals In Manger; Virgin Birth Was Historical Truth

First Posted: 11/21/12 EST Updated: 11/21/12 EST

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Just in time for Christmas, the Vatican on Tuesday (Nov. 20) unveiled a new book by Pope Benedict XVI focused on Jesus' birth and childhood, the final installment of his trilogy on the life of Jesus.

"Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives," will hit bookstores in 50 countries with an initial print run of 1 million copies. The book has already been translated in nine languages, while 11 more are planned.

With this final installment in his "Jesus of Nazareth" series, Benedict completes a project he had conceived when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

According to the Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, after being elected pope in 2005 Benedict has been working on it in "every free minute" of his spare time.

Drawing on the work of other scholars, most of them fellow Germans, Benedict uses the new book to tackle some of the most controversial themes of Christian tradition.

On Mary's virgin conception of Jesus, Benedict says the answer to the question of whether this is a "historical truth," rather than a "myth," should be an "unequivocal yes."

Jesus' virgin birth and his resurrection from the dead, he writes, are the two moments in the Gospels when "God intervenes directly into the material world."

"This is a scandal for the modern spirit," Benedict notes, since in today's world God is "allowed to operate on thought and ideas but not on matter." But for just this reason, he adds, Mary's virginity is a "test" and a "fundamental element" of the Christian faith.

The Gospels are mostly silent on the period between Jesus' birth, his presentation in the Temple at age 12 and the debut of his public ministry at around age 30. Most accounts of Jesus' childhood -- striking another child dead, giving life to clay pigeons -- come from ancient texts that were never accepted as Christian scripture.

In his book, Benedict sidesteps the extrabiblical legends and focuses solely on what's contained in the Gospel accounts of the New Testament.

The three wise men from the Christmas story, Benedict concedes, could be inspired by a "theological idea" rather than by a "historical event," though he says he prefers a more literal interpretation of the biblical account.

The star of Bethlehem, he notes, has been convincingly identified with a major planetary conjunction that took place in the years 7-6 B.C.

Benedict also recalls that, according to the Gospels, there are no animals in the Bethlehem stable to warm the newborn Jesus. But, he adds, no Nativity scene would be complete without them.

Benedict remains convinced that the Gospel narrative of Jesus' birth and infancy is not just a symbolical account or mere "meditation."

Matthew and Luke, he stresses, "didn't want to write'stories' but history, a real history, even if interpreted and understood" through the lens of the faith.

Click through the slideshow to see most and least Catholic states in the United States:

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  • Massachusetts

    44,905 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Rhode Island

    44330 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New Jersey

    36,799 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Connecticut

    35056 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New York

    32443 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Illinois

    28439 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New Mexico

    28407 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Pennsylvania

    27578 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • California

    27469 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Louisiana

    26490 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Wisconsin

    25,066 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • North Dakota

    24,881 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • New Hampshire

    23,626 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Minnesota

    21,689 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Vermont

    20,503 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Nebraska

    20,414 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Delaware

    20,328 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Texas

    18,586 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Hawaii

    18,350 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • South Dakota

    18,286 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Michigan

    17,375 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Ohio

    17,272 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Nevada

    16,703 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Iowa

    16514 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Colorado

    16138 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Kansas

    14952 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Arizona

    14549 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Maryland

    14503 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Maine

    14311 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Florida

    13371 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Montana

    12898 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • District of Columbia

    12622 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Missouri

    12094 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Washington

    11664 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Indiana

    11532 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Wyoming

    10862 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Oregon

    10408 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Virginia

    8422 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Kentucky

    8291 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Idaho

    7872 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Alaska

    7162 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Georgia

    6156 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Utah

    5793 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • West Virginia

    5173 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Oklahoma

    4756 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Arkansas

    4206 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Alabama

    4198 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • North Carolina

    4121 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • South Carolina

    3929 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Mississippi

    3791 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.

  • Tennessee

    3504 Catholic adherents per 100,000 people.