A glance at volume three on the Infancy of Christ
Pope Benedict XVI's new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives concerns, specifically, the accounts of Jesus' birth as they are found in the first two chapters of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke respectively. However, the Pope also examines various passages from the Gospel according to John which shed light on Jesus' divine origin. Fr Robert Dodaro, OSA, President of Rome's Augustinianum and Professor of Patristics at the Pontifical Lateran University, provides an overview of the third and final installment in the Pope's work on the life of Christ.
Why did the Pope write this book?
The Pope writes in the foreword that he had promised this book for some time as a "small antechamber" to his two earlier volumes on the figure and message of Jesus of Nazareth. He does not conceive of it as a third volume. He expresses the hope that this small book will be able to help many people on their path towards and alongside Jesus.
What is the book's central message?
Perhaps the message is best summed up in the Pope's own words: "From the moment of his birth, [Jesus] belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path." (pp. 66-67)
For whom is this book intended?
The Pope wrote this book for everyone: believers and non-believers, Catholics and non-Catholics. He realizes that people who lack more than a basic Christian theological or exegetical training may find the book difficult to understand at certain points where his discussion turns slightly technical. However, he did not write it for specialists or scholars, and he hopes that all believers who read it will find in it support for their faith.
What method did the Pope use in writing this book?
The Pope begins with the words of the Evangelists themselves and then applies modern biblical research in order to make historical sense out of the Gospel narratives. However, he is also attentive to the fact, as he says, that the Gospel writers were "much closer to the sources and events than we could ever claim to be, despite all our historical scholarship" (p. 63). At times the Pope reflects as well on the biblical narratives in the light of the interpretation that was given to them by the earliest Christian teachers, the Fathers of the Church. Finally, the Pope examines what the biblical narratives of Jesus' birth have to tell us for the Christian life today.
Does the Pope employ modern scriptural scholarship in the book?
Yes, he does. In the book the Pope references several modern and even recent biblical scholars whose commentaries on the Old and New Testaments he consulted. It should be noted, however, that these scholars do not always agree among themselves about the historical meanings of various passages in the Bible. It should also be noted that the Pope freely consults the views of the early Christian Fathers of the Church and of medieval theologians in presenting the Church's and his own understandings of various biblical passages. In the end the Holy Father expresses his own views about the meanings of biblical passages.
Does the Pope cite only Catholic theologians and biblical scholars?
No, among Protestants, the Pope cites Karl Barth, Klaus Berger, Otto Kaiser, Hans-Joachim Kraus, Peter Stuhlmacher.
Does the Pope always agree with modern Scripture scholars?
Not with all of them, no. First, they do not always agree among themselves. One example of the
Pope's independent thinking is found in his assertion that there is no convincing reason to doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem despite the view of many scripture scholars that he was born in Nazareth (pp. 65-66). In defending his view the Pope points out that, although the historical accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke differ in some respects, both agree that he was born in Bethlehem. And they are the only sources we possess on the question.
Does the Pope say anything new in this book?
If by "new" one means a scholarly discovery or a novel teaching about the birth of Christ that contradicts or veers even slightly from the Church's traditional understandings, then no, there is no new doctrine in this book. However, the Pope presents in a fresh and concise form his own way of understanding the birth of Christ and its meaning for humanity.
Does the Pope say anything original in this book, or does he merely repeat the published views of other scholars?
It is not the Pope's intention to make an original, academic contribution to the established scholarship on the biblical narratives concerning the birth of Christ. At the same time, the book is not a simple summary of views by other scholars on this matter. The Pope frequently refers to the insights of various scholars, indicating when he agrees or diagrees with them, prior to giving his own position on the various biblical texts concerning the birth of Christ.
What does the Pope say about the virginal conception of Jesus?
He says that it is both historical and true. The Pope says that the accounts of Jesus' conception and birth in Matthew and Luke are not derived from myths, but from "the family tradition ... handed down recording events that took place" (p. 53). He agrees with Joachim Gnilka [Das Matthäusevangelium. Erster Teil,
Herders theologischer Kommentar Neuen Testament, vol. I/1, Freiburg—Basel—Vienna 1986, p. 30] that the mystery concerning Christ's conception and birth was added to the beginning of these Gospels later, only after Mary's death (p. 53). Hence the miraculous event itself, now in the public domain, became the object of theological reflection (p. 53).
"Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing with the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive — with God's creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments — the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb — are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope."(p. 57)
What do modern biblical scholars say about the virginal conception of Jesus?
Modern biblical scholars do not agree among themselves about the meaning of the accounts of the virginal conception of Jesus given in Matthew's and in Luke's Gospels. See, for example, Raymond E. Brown, et al. (eds.), Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars, Philadelphia 1978, 85-97, who conclude that the historicity of the virginal conception cannot be proven or disproven by the evidence given in Mt 1:18-25. Scholars disagree as to whether Luke's Gospel affirms the virginal conception of Jesus. See, for example, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, "The Virginal Conception of Jesus in the New Testament," in Theological Studies 34 (1973) 227-249, and Brown et al., Mary in the New Testament, op. cit., 119-125. However, John McKenzie ("Die Mutter Jesu im NT", in Was geht uns Maria an? Beiträge zur Auseinandersetzung in Theologie, Kirche and Frömmigkeit, ed. E. Moltmann-Wendel et al., Gütersloh 1988, 23-40, at 24-28) dismisses both biblical accounts concerning the virginal conception of Jesus as completely lacking in historical foundation.
Are there any other outstanding features of the infancy narratives that the Pope accepts as having an historical basis?
The Pope accepts as historical the general account in Luke's Gospel of the revelation to Mary (the "annunciation") concerning the conception and birth of Jesus. Following the German biblical scholar Joachim Gnilka, the Pope places great authority on the words of Lk 2:51 that "his mother kept all these things in her heart" as indicating Mary's role as a primary source of Luke's account of these events. The Pope understands that not all biblical scholars will agree with him: "Naturally, modern 'critical' exegesis will tend to dismiss such connections as naive. But why should there not have been a tradition of this kind, preserved in the most intimate circle and theologically shaped at the same time? Why should Luke have invented the statement about Mary keeping the words and events in her heart, if there were no concrete grounds for saying so? Why should he have spoken of her 'pondering' over the words (Lk 2 :19 ; cf. 1:29) if nothing was known of this?" (p. 16).
The Pope also accepts the historical nature of the narratives contained in the first two chapters of Matthew's Gospel concerning the role of Joseph in accepting God's miraculous intervention in Mary's conception of Jesus as well as the events surrounding the adoration by the Magi.
"The two chapters of Matthew's Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply" (p. 119).
The Pope accepts as historical Matthew's account that the Magi travelled to Bethlehem and adored the newborn Christ there.
What does the Pope say about the Jewish people in this book?
The Pope does not speak about the Jewish people in general terms in this book. However, the Pope clearly states that Jesus was brought up as a religiously devout Jew by Mary and Joseph, both of whom also observed Jewish religious law devoutly. Moreover, the Pope places particular emphasis on Jesus' words recorded at Mt 5:17 that he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. The Pope rejects those interpretations of Jesus' life and ministry that interpret him as "revolutionary" or "liberal" with respect to Jewish religious devotion. The Pope insists that Jesus' attack on false piety "was not an attack on Israel's piety." (p. 120)
In view of the fact that the author of this book is the Pope, are Catholics obliged to accept its views?
Concerning the Bible and Jesus Christ, Catholics are obliged to accept only what the Catholic Church teaches definitively as these teachings are found, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Pope has not added to or changed any of these teachings in this book.
That unenforceable 'yes' of a human being
In one of his Advent homilies, Bernard of Clairvaux offers a stirring presentation of the drama of this moment. After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary's door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free "yes" to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable "yes" of a human being. So Bernard portrays heaven and earth as it were holding its breath at this moment of the question addressed to Mary. Will she say yes? She hesitates . . . will her humility hold her back? Just this once — Bernard tells her — do not be humble but daring! Give us your "yes"! This is
the crucial moment when, from her lips, from her heart, the answer comes: "Let it be to me according to
your word." It is the moment of free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made. Mary becomes a mother through her "yes". The Church Fathers sometimes expressed this by saying that Mary conceived through her ear — that is to say: through her hearing. Through her obedience, the Word entered into her and became fruitful in her. In this connection, the Fathers developed the idea of God's birth in us through faith and baptism, in which the Logos comes to us ever anew, making us God's children. For example, we may recall the words of Saint Irenaeus: "How shall man pass into God, unless God has first passed into man? How was mankind to escape this birth into death, unless he were born again through faith, by that new birth from the Virgin, the sign of salvation that is God's wonderful and unmistakable gift?" (Adv. Haer. IV 33.4).
(Chapter II, pp. 36-37)