Did Pope Leo X call Jesus a "fable"?
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"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:

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.

Update. January 2012: With a pointer from our research assistant "Punkish," I have now found information indicating that Britannica did contain this quote, but for the source within it came from, it may as well not have been there are at all. It is quoted in the article on the Renaissance, which was authored by John Addington Symonds, who merely quotes it in passing as a "witty epigram" of Leo's repeated by others. He does not give any source for the quote, and there seems to be very little reason to give Symonds credence in the matter; he was a literary critic and a poet, not a historian (and we might add, for what it is worth, seemed to have an unhealthy interest in young boys). Symonds' reference does little to aid in the validation of the originality of the quote -- and also does not excuse persons offering the bogus Britannica quote without checking it.

Early in my research I decided, for an experiment, to have someone ask several Skeptics who use this quote where they got it from. The "best" answer came from someone who attributed it to an author named Jovius, in a work called De Vita Leonis X, published in 1551. We were told that this was in the "Vatican Archives." When we asked whether this person had actually seen this item at the Vatican, we were told that the Skeptic "knew someone who had access, once, long ago" and encouraged us to look up the item in a search engine.

I did this -- the item is referenced in the Catholic Encyclopedia article noted below, which specifically says that this saying does not come down to us from Leo.

That alternative view, presented by this item from the online Catholic Encyclopedia, claims rather that the quote originated with a near-contemporary of Leo, a Catholic apostate named John Bale. No cite is given of any work where the quote appears; this is no better than what the Skeptics offer, for my purposes. A couple of the Skeptics have been asked about this Bale attribution, and significantly, their answers don't amount to much. Acharya S tells an inquirer that the quote to Leo "has been widely reported in numerous texts," and for her, that's good enough reason to think it genuine.

Another Skeptic at the site askwhy.co.uk replied to an inquirer by criticizing the Catholic Encyclopedia article for not confessing to Leo's bad habits in other areas, but never actually answers the question posed, "Where did this quote come from?"

An alert reader later informed me that John Bale, who was a member of the Carmelite order, was a playwright. The following was found at http://www.carmelites.org/carmlibrary/bale.htm which is now defunct:

John Bale (1495-1563) was an Englishman who had joined the Carmelites and was educated at Cambridge where he was first exposed to Protestant ideals. He abandoned the order by 1535 and enjoyed the protection and patronage of leading pro-Protestant factions in the court of Henry VIII. During this time he wrote a number of plays and several tracts that attacked the papacy....

This is confirmed by The Complete Plays of John Bale (ed. Peter Happe), who notes that Bale in his plays "introduced a variety of matter to satirise the Roman Church and parody its rites and customs." [15] Our alert reader referred me also to Joseph McCabe's, Rationalist's Encyclopedia, which has an article on Leo X, which says:

The statement that he said, "We owe all this to the fable of Jesus Christ," appears in the work of an ex-priest long after his death, and we cannot check it. Encyclopaedia articles on Leo are based upon Roscoe's Life and Pontificate of Leo X (4 vols., 1805), which is very unreliable.

McCabe's "ex-priest" is probably John Bale, but I doubt if McCabe had any authority to say whether or not Roscoe's work was reliable or not. McCabe offers no specifics, but seems to hint that it should have said more about Leo's supposed sexual misadventures. Our research assistant "Punkish" reports that Roscoe was indeed criticized for making Leo his hero, but not because of unreliability.

However, the good news is that Roscoe does explain where the quote came from. I obtained an 1853 reprint of this book, in 2 volumes. On page 387-8 of Vol. 2, Roscoe notes that Leo has been the subject of extremes of praise and scurrilous insult -- among the latter, a quote indeed from a satirical work of Bale (with a "historical" format) entitled The Pageant of Popes.

A helpful reader there has provided photocopies of the relevant pages from that book. In this work Bale "professes it to be his intention to give [the Catholic Church] double according to her works" and places this quote in Leo's mouth as a reply, yes, to Mr. Bembo after the latter read a passage from the Gospels. (Ironically, even in Roscoe's time, he says with perhaps some exasperation, this story "has been repeated by three or four hundred different writers, without any authority whatsoever, except that of the author above referred to.") Let's have a look at that quote as it appears in the Pageant (material found on pages ranging from 179-180):

Leo the tenth was a Florentine borne, of the noble house of Medicea, and called ere he were Pope John Medices. He being Deacon and Cardinal of Saint Maries, contrarie to all hope was chosen to succede Julius. He beinge diligetly from his youth trained up in learning under learned schoolmaisters, and especially one Angelus Politianus, did afterward greatly favour learned men. When he was but. xiv. yeres olde he was made cardinall by Innocentius the. viii. and at the yeres of xxxviii. he obtained the papacie. This Leo was of his owne nature a gentil and quiet person:but often times ruled by those that were cruell and contencious men, whom he suffered to do in many matters according to their insolent wil. He addicting himselfe to nicenesse, and takinge ease did pamper his fleshe in diverse vanities and carnal pleasures: At banqueting he delighted greatly in wine and musike: but had no care of preaching the Gospell, nay was rather a cruell persecutour of those that began then, as Luther and other to reveale the light thereof: for on a time when a cardinall Bembus did move a question out of the Gospell, the Pope gave him a very contemptuouse aunswere saiying: All ages can testifie enough howe profitable that fable of Christe hath ben to us and our companie: Sleidan faith he sente letters and bulles of pardons into all nations for suche as woulde give money for them, the effectes of his pardons were diverse, some especially to sell licence to eate butter, chese, egges, milke, and fleshe upon forbidden dates, and for this purpose he sent divers treasurers into al coutreis, and namelye one Samson a monke of Millaine into Germany, who by these pardons gathered out of sundrie places such hewge sommes of money that the worlde wondered at it, for he offered in one day to geve for the Papacie above an hundred and twentie thousand duckates.

You might think, "Well, this sounds pretty historical overall." But check the next section:

Martin Luther being singularly wel studied in the scriptures, and cotinuing at Wittemberge in Germanye (where these pardons polled maynely) began to enforme and teache the people howe muche they were abbused, to give such greate sommes of money for suche trifles as were nothing profitable, and wished the to be better advised in bestowing theyr money, whereupon he purchased the Popes bitter curse against him and his adherents, to the no littell disturbance of the whole estate of Germanye: for because by the preaching of Luther, and his bookes painting out the treacherie of the court of Rome, the princes of Germanye, as the Duke of Saxony, the Lantgraue and other wold not yelde so much as in time past the Pope had commanded by usurpation. The Emperour and they in the ende fell together by the eares, by the Popes procurement, as at large is set forth in Sleidan, and can not so aptly in this place be reported. Other enormities which in the Popes pardons moved Luther were these: The people were perswaded that if they bought these pardons they nede not to seke any further for salvation, and that no sinne coulde be so horryble, but that by these indulgences it shuld be forgeven, and that the sowles that lye tormented in Purgatorie shoulde flie into heaven forthwith, as sone as the money receyved for these pardons at the charge of their friendes shoulde be put into the Popes cofers. But to returne to Pope Leo: he made xxxi. cardinals in one day, wherby he got greate bribes and muche treasure, but the same day appeared manye horrible fightes and great tempestes arose, with vehement windes, thonders and lightninges, vehementlye runshinge upon the Churche where the Pope and his Cardinals were with such force, y it shooke downe an idol made for the picture of Christ like a childe in the lappe of the virgine Marye: also it broke S. Peters keyes out of his hand. These things were enterpreted to prognosticate the decay of the Popes kingdome, and thereupon many wrote bitter verses.

In the next section, Bale explains that as Leo went out to conduct Mass, a "great roofe of Marble stone" fell down behind him, killing some of his guards. Does anyone -- any Skeptic especially -- want to argue that Bale is writing history here? Bale was not a historian, but he had plenty against the Catholic Church. Here are some quotes from his Dedication to the Pageant:

For as the holye ghoste hath taughte mee I have called that Romaine Sinagogge the mutherer of Godlye men, wicked Jesabell, the horned beast, the impe of the Drago, the doughter of the devill, the spouse of Sathan, speaking blasphemies, the purple beast, the misticall Babilon, the great strumpet with whom the kinges of the earth have comitted fornication, which have dronke of the wyne of her fornication, the woma cloathed in purple, scarlet, gould, pearles and precious stones, having a goulden cuppe full of all filthines & lustes of the world, the mother of fornication, and droncke with the bloud of the saintes of JESUS CHRIST, the habitatio of devils, and the cage of all evill spirites and hatefull birdes....
There is yet a thirde matter which forced mee hereunto, and having seene and heard these thinges vehemently moved me to write. This is the precepte of Christe in the xviii. Chapter of the Revelationof S. John: For a voyce came from heaven from the right hand of the father and the everlasting throne of Christe, with a great voyce founded in our eares saying: Go from her my people lest ye be made partakers of her wickedness, and ye receive part of her punishment. For her sinnes are gone up to heaven, and God hath remembred her wickednes. And thou commaundemet followeth which was given against the beast with seven heades. Reward her even as she hath rewarded you, and give her double according to her works, and poure in double to her in the same cup which she filled unto you. And forasmuch as she glorified her selfe and lived wantonly, so much poure you into her of punshment and sorrowe. This is the worde of the Lorde declared unto us as well here as in the fiftye Chap. of Jeremy. That this serpent might perish & all his doinges brought to nought. Yet for al this I do wel remeber the sayings of S. Paule, that al Princes ought to be honoured although they be wicked and unprofitable for a common wealth, because they be placed there of God, neither to speake evill of them beinge but wormes, dust and ashes, Neither dare I murmur against the providence of God, which is contrary to his holy worde. Therefore from the bottome of my hart I beseech our Lorde and Redeemer Jesus Christe, that he woulde have mercye uppon all Kinges, Princes and Nations, and so provide that all nations maye be so governed as is most tending to his glory: For whole reveng he hath most stoutly fortifyed mee up in this my old age. Not studying to derogate or take awaye the honour from anye christian Kinge, but onely to invey against the Romishe beast, the Synagog of Sathan, and most wicked Antichrist, with the writings and testimonye of most learned men.
If the vehemencye of my stile shall offende thee, beholde the marvelous force of the holye ghoste in the Prophete David and most holy king, who in the Lordes cause most stoutlye saide: I have hated the congregation of the wicked, Psal. 25. He promiseth also afterwarde by his Prohpetes, that he woulde destroye the brothell houses and wicked places, Ezechi. 16. I will shewe fayth the Lord unto all Nations thy nakednes, and to al kingdomes thy shame Nahum. 3. Thy dishonour and filthines shall be opened, and thy reproche shall be seene, I will be revenged, and none shall resiste mee, Esay 47. Woe be unto those Kinges as manye as have worshipped the beast or have ayded her, or have received helpe of her, or have committed fornication with her, as many as have served her, and have joyned handes against the Lambe, and waged battell for her cause, because their names are not written in the booke of lyfe from the beginninge of the worlde. And the Lambe shel overcome them at the last like a Lorde of Lordes, and kinge of kinges, and they shall go together with the beast to destruction and utter dampnation, Apocalips 17. GOD therefore give in the hartes of Christians whom the x. hornes do shadowe, that they maye make her desolate and leave her naked, that they maye eate her fleshe and burne her in fire, that is, let her abide her last punshment for the sheding of the innocent blood, of so manye faithfull Christians. Be it done, Be it done. Amen.

In short, the evidence indicates that the Skeptics are posting fiction as fact, using the work of someone who thought the Catholic Church to be the whore of Babylon.

So then -- based on the data, as far as I'm concerned, anyone using this quote is perpetuating error. But if any Skeptic can answer the questions following, providing documentation for their replies, I will revoke this essay and report the facts. Not allowing Bale as a source, the questions are:

Objection: You're glossing over the real story about Leo X, namely that he was one of the most corrupt, morally bankrupt popes the Catholic Church has inflicted on the world.

I'm not "glossing over" anything. This is not an article about Leo's lifestyle but about a false quote attribited to him on the Internet and in books, in support of an idea that Jesus never existed.

You seem to think that Bale's mention of bizarre prognostications, shows he is unhistorical. That's a strange attitude to take if you believe in the bizarre events readily accepted by Christians in the Bible.

Not at all. That Bale wrote this as a satire -- which Happe identifies as Bale's genre -- is what shows it is "unhistorical". It was never meant as a history. I inserted the part about the omens to ask Skeptics if THEY were willing to take the matter as historical and Bale's intent as such. If they want the fable quote to be historical, what of this?

I would have no problem accepting Bale's report of supernaturalism, prima facie -- if this were actually a document of historical intent -- but it isn't.

If you're right in making Bale into a liar, then he is illustrating Christian dishonesty.

No more a liar than Monty Python, actually. Remember: satire.

If Bale was indeed a liar and his alleged quotation of Leo X was false, then why was it remembered for so long?

It wasn't. The "fable" quote was revived by Robert Taylor, the heretic who wrote from his jailhouse and confused an Isaac Watts hymn with one for Prometheus, and Wheless followed Taylor uncritically (McCabe did not, however). The quote was not remembered at all out of care or concern. Contrast: If the quote was true, why was its context so quickly forgotten?

Tekton Research Assistant "Punkish" brought our attention to a discussion here between Roger Pearse and another person who claimed the source of the quote as Pope Alexander VI.

Update, May 2013: I have some more people trying to validate this thing other ways now. Here’s three explanations that are making the rounds these days, and the replies:

It was Pope Leo X who made the most infamous and damaging statement about Christianity in the history of the Church. His declaration revealed to the world papal knowledge of the Vatican's false presentation of Jesus Christ and unashamedly exposed the puerile nature of the Christian religion. At a lavish Good Friday banquet in the Vatican in 1514, and in the company of "seven intimates" (Annales Ecclesiastici, Caesar Baronius, Folio Antwerp, 1597, tome 14), Leo made an amazing announcement that the Church has since tried hard to invalidate. Raising a chalice of wine into the air, Pope Leo toasted: "How well we know what a profitable superstition this fable of Christ has been for us and our predecessors."

Answer: This one’s not going to work, because Baronius’ text is a history of the church since New Testament times – and it stopped recording at the year 1198, because Baronius died before he could finish it. That means he didn’t get to Leo X’s time by several hundred years. But in case some critic wants to say he mentioned the quote anyway, maybe as some sort of illustration...fine. There’s a link to the history on Google Books below. Let’s see one of the critics tell us where it is.

The second and third references:

The pope's pronouncement is recorded in the diaries and records of both Pietro Cardinal Bembo (Letters and Comments on Pope Leo X, 1842 reprint) and Paolo Cardinal Giovio (De Vita Leonis Decimi, , op. cit.), two associates who were witnesses to it.

Answer: The Letters and Comments work by Bembo does exist...sort of. But there is no 1842 edition listed in OCLC, and the title is actually this:

Petri Bembi Epistolraum Leonis decimi Pontificis Max. nomine scriptarum libri sexdecim ad Paulum tertium Pont. Max. Romam missi

Translated, that’s "16 books of letters written in the name of pope Leo X, dedicated to Pope Paul III" -- not quote the same title. So I’m betting the quote is also not in here. But, here again, this work is on Google Books (link below) so maybe some enterprising atheist can find it in there. I can’t.

As for that last item by Jovius, it turns out Roger Pearse – who also gave me some feedback for this article – has a copy of it on his website (link below). He says the quote isn’t in there. Again, maybe one of you atheists can find it for us.

Of course I’m being facetious. We have other reasons, besides not finding it, to suspect the quote isn’t in these works. The source of these claims is an article for the conspiracy/UFO magazine Nexus, and an article by Tony Bushby on the alleged criminality of the papacy. For those who may not recall, Bushby is the author of The Bible Fraud, a book that uses the Leo quote on the cover and also has a tendency to include made-up factoids. Bushby has no scruples when it comes to documentation – so it’s no surprise this one’s turning up bogus, too.