Pope Benedict XVI’s recently published The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth was his Christmas gift to the Church. In this monograph the Pope uses history, Modern Biblical Criticism, the theological insights of the Evangelists and patrology to reintroduce us to the Incarnation.
Benedict’s obvious intention is to rescue the accounts of Jesus birth, as related by Matthew and Luke, from19th and 20th century biblical skepticism. During this period biblical scholarship tended to present the supernatural events recorded in the bible as, at best, theological insights, and at worst, simply as myths having no basis in historical fact.
The purpose of the Infancy stories is to reveal the identity of Jesus. The Pope shows how the Evangelists’ testimony of Jesus’ divine origin “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” and his humanity, which is established by the Annunciation and rooted in the genealogies, shows how Emmanuel (God with us) fulfills God’s promises to Abraham and David in an extraordinary way.
The intrusion of the God’s Kingdom into our world is highlighted by the Evangelist’s insertion of Jesus into the historical regimes of Caesar Augustus and Herod. In doing so Benedict says, they are clearly proclaiming Christ’s peace as being different from and superior to the Pax Romana. Its universality and timelessness are proleptic, he says, of the Resurrection which establishes a new reality not subject to space and time, suffering and death.
The story of the Wise Men from the East is particularly germane because, the Pope says, it manifests the “inner dynamic of religion toward transcendence which involves a search for truth in partnership with philosophy and science which raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.” Benedict wants to make it clear that the Church does not reject science, but that of itself science cannot reveal the total truth.
Two areas the Pope wants to highlight is that Old Testament prophecy is being fulfilled in Jesus. For example, biblical scholars can find no historical context for Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel”. The Pope says, this verse is only comprehensible by the birth of Jesus. Secondly, he reminds us that Matthew and Luke were closer to the historical events surrounding the Incarnation. Therefore, he says, it is only logical to assume that much of the data concerning, for example, the Annunciation and the prophecy of Simon came from Mary herself.
Far more than an apologetic for the Narratives historicity and their theological implications, Benedict provides pastoral reflections. Regarding Mary, for example, he focuses on “her inner engagement with the Word.” He says, that despite her lack of understanding regarding the virgin birth, which was beyond her grasp, she understood, that “nothing is impossible for God.” We too must have this trust. Another example is the Pope’s meditation on St. Joseph which he presents by using Psalms 1, which he calls “the classic image of the just man”. Benedict tells us that Joseph’s rootedness in the Torah (God’s law) enabled him to discern God’s will and, for example, “not give Mary up to public shame.” He tells us, that our lives, like Joseph’s must also be rooted in God’s law, since it “brings law and love into a unity.”
More speculative is the Pope’s historical proofs for the appearance of the star to the Magi and the reported slaughter of the Holy Innocents. However, he does provide plausible explanations for both events. In the first case, he identifies reported celestial phenomena, in the period of 7-6 BC, which is commonly accepted as the actual time of Jesus birth. In the second instance the veracity of the murders, he believes, can be deduced from the brutal character of Herod who had even murdered two of his sons.
The Pope relies, for the most part, on German scholarship. Surprisingly missing is any reference to the work of the American biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown, who wrote extensively on the Infancy Narratives during the 1970’s. Perhaps this oversight is intentional since Brown’s work relied heavily on rationalism and allowed little room for God to have acted in a super-natural way. Benedict seems to confirm this assertion when he quotes Klaus Berger’s, Commentary on the New Testament (2011), where he states that “the evangelists did not intend to deceive their readers but to inform them concerning historical events.”
Pope Benedict has done Christians a great service in rescuing the Infancy Narratives from modernism which presents the Bible as a fairy tale meant only to provide theological insights or to elicit sentimentality. Biblical scholars and professors of Sacred Scripture should take note of the Pope’s methodology and its practical application for our spiritual life.
Believers and non-believers alike will be impressed with what Benedict has wrought.