Did Pope Leo X call Jesus a “fable”?

Did Pope Leo X call Jesus a “fable”?

I read about this in the comments of another OP. I had not heard about it, so I looked it up. It turns out to be something that is used regularly all over the place. The following article examines its history. It’s very long but worth following the link to read. I hate how this editor makes quotes look, so I’ll just tell you that the article I am quoting begins with the italicized sentence after this intro and ends just before the bolded text at the end. Full disclosure – this is taken from an apologetics website. I went through the first two pages of links from my Google search, but they were all in discussion websites similar to our own and seemed to be personal opinion in echo chambers.

“What profit has not that fable of Christ brought us!” Pope Leo X.

Before I worked for my state’s prison system, I had a job as a researcher at my state’s department which oversaw emergency medical services. During that year I worked there, I had several requests concerning a chemical called viton.

The word had gotten around to EMS and law enforcement personnel nationwide that this very dangerous chemical was found in various automobile parts, and that if there was an accident and there was a fire involved, the viton could be released and would eat through protective clothes and flesh in an instant.

Sound too wild to be true? It was — this was a rumor that was passed uncritically from one source to the next, without any verification. “Viton” did not exist as such (it is actually something used in the rubber to make o-rings).

After the third inquiry I decided to try and track the rumor to its source if I could. I tracked backwards from a sheriff’s department in rural Nevada, to a slightly larger law enforcement agency in Utah, who pinned the blame on a fax they received from a consulting firm in San Antonio — which turned out not to exist. Ultimately, however, the rumor seemed to go back to a tow truck operator in Florida.

I bring up this story as an example paralleling the story of the quote above. This quote is referenced by countless Skeptical sites on the Internet. Troubled by this one? Don’t be. First of all, it’s not as though some offhand comment by a single Pope is enough to overturn 1500-2000 years of relevant secular and religious scholarship. The Skeptics would like for you to believe that perhaps Leo committed a serious gaffe here, in which he admitted what was otherwise hidden for nearly 1500 years, namely, that Christ never actually existed.

Of course, we need only realize that Leo’s words, if genuine, need be taken as no more authoritative than those of, say, Joseph Wheless, who also quoted it.

And speaking of Wheless — in doing my trace on this quote, I found that he is actually one of the earliest persons who made use of this quote for Skeptical purposes; the other earliest person was Robert Taylor — author from the 19th century of his own questionable works, including one claiming that the entire Bible was written by Egyptian monks in 250 BC [Diegesis, 429], and he uses a slightly different version of the quote.

In the process of research I scoured the web for any pages that were using this quote, to see if anyone could give me a source earlier than Taylor. Here’s some interesting data:

  • The quote is used mostly by Skeptics who will accept anything at face value that makes Christianity look bad. The Secular Web folks don’t use it that I found, other than in their historical curiosities section where they keep the works of Wheless. Sadly, the quote is also used by some anti-Catholic/KJV-Only sort of sites.
  • The overwhelming majority of sites that use the quote provide only the quote and attribution, and nothing else. No context, no citation. In other words, they pass it around uncritically. That should be a warning to us.
  • Warning two: Only two sites that I have found so far offer any sort of context. One claims the quote was made in the presence of one of Leo’s staffers, Pietro Bembo. Another (written by Revilo P. Oliver) says that the quote was made in the presence of “intimates.” Neither provides a citation or a source for this information, but the first does, sort of, turn out to be right.
  • Warning three: A small number of sites (many fewer, though, since I first wrote this article years ago) do give a citation, which looks like this: (Encyc. Brit., 14th Ed. Xix, pg. 217).
  • No one, however, actually picked up a 14th Ed. Of Britannica and found this quote. Britannica’s 14th edition was printed from 1929-1973. I had photocopies made, with the help of an alert reader in the UK, of the page where this quote is supposed to be (14th edition, Vol. 19) and it does not contain the article on Leo X, which is actually instead in Vol. 13. Vol. 19 is from “Raynal to Sarreguemines” and p. 217 is the middle of an article on Respiration. Nice pictures of a pigeon’s lungs and a goat’s branchiole, but no Leo.
  • The actual Leo article from pp. 926-7 of Vol. 13 says a lot about Leo’s lackadaisical attitude towards spending, but has no mention of the “fable” quote either way.

As an added note, the 15th edition of Britannica, which I have access to, does not say anything about this quote in its article on Leo, and I have received a copy — from an associate in a New Zealand library — of the 11th edition article, which also lacks the quote. Britannica does not know about this quote at all.


What say you? And who wants to place a bet on how long before the “God is our savior. Repent and ye shall be saved.” vs “Your God is a homicidal maniac.” battle begins? I’m hoping to get through a whole page, but I’m probably being naively optimistic.

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