The third installment in Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy has just been released in English. This one is on the infancy narratives, meaning the material in the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. (John and Mark don’t have infancy narratives.)
I finished the book last night, so I was a bit surprised to see a CNN story today with the headline “Pope’s book on Jesus challenges Christmas traditions: Pope sets out to de-bunk Christian myths.”
Oh please. The book is thoroughly traditional. There is no “de-bunking” of any kind in it. If you’ve read Benedict’s other two Jesus books, nothing in this one will surprise you. There’s nothing really inflammatory in it, it certainly isn’t “historical critical” in a sense that any self-identified historical critic today would recognize, and there is no sustained reflection on what the relationship of biblical criticism and Christian faith ought to be (generally “Christian faith” just trumps biblical criticism). The scholarship Benedict engages is solidly old school (e.g., the History of Religions search for ancient precedents for the virgin birth gets several pages of discussion), which accounts for some of the strange remarks on whether the evangelists were writing “history” or apologetic. Though who could blame him for not dialoging with cutting edge scholarship? The man’s busy.

Frankly–and no disrespect to the Pope here–I thought this volume was kind of boring compared to the previous two. That said, it’s a nice meditative reading of the infancy narratives, especially if you’ve never sat down to read them before. (And if you happen to pray the rosary, this book makes for a good companion to the Joyful Mysteries.) One section in particular, on the annunciation, was quite beautiful in my opinion:

[Mary’s] reaction is different from Zechariah’s. Of him it is said that he was troubled and ‘fear fell upon him” (Lk 1:12). In Mary’s case the first word is the same (she was troubled), but what follows is not fear but an interior reflection on the angel’s greeting. She ponders (dialogues within herself) over what the greeting of God’s messenger could mean.  … She does not remain locked in her initial troubled state at the proximity of God and his angel, but she seeks to understand. So Mary appears as a fearless woman, one who remains composed even in the presence of something utterly unprecedented. At the same time she stands before us as a woman of great interiority, who holds heart and mind in harmony and seeks to understand the context, the overall significance of God’s message. In this way, she becomes an image of the Church as she considers the word of God, tries to understand it in its entirety and guards in her memory the things that have been given to her. (pp. 33-34)

15 thoughts

  1. This passage on the annunciation “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” does engage critical scholarship and does reject one traditional interpretation. In the end the Holy Father admits he doesn’t know either:

    She asks not whether, but how the promise is to be fulfilled, as she cannot recognize any way it could happen: “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (Lk 1: 34). This question seems unintelligible to us, because Mary was betrothed, which meant that, according to Jewish law, she was already effectively a married woman, even if she did not yet live with her husband and they had not yet begun their conjugal life.

    Since Saint Augustine, one explanation that has been put forward is that Mary had taken a vow of virginity and had entered into the betrothal simply in order to have a protector for her virginity. But this theory is quite foreign to the world of the Judaism of Jesus’ time, and in that context it seems inconceivable. So how are we to understand the passage? A satisfying answer has yet to be found by modern exegesis. Some say that at this point, having not yet been taken into the marital home, Mary had had no dealings with men, yet she saw the task as immediately pressing. But this fails to convince, as the time when she would be taken into the marital home could not have been far off. Other exegetes have wanted to view the saying as a purely literary construction, designed to continue the dialogue between Mary and the angel. Yet this is no real explanation of the saying either. Another element to keep in mind is that according to Jewish custom, betrothal was unilaterally pronounced by the man, and the woman was not invited to express her consent. Yet this does not solve the problem either. So the riddle remains— or perhaps one should say the mystery— of this saying. Mary sees no way, for reasons that are beyond our grasp, that she could become mother of the Messiah through marital relations. The angel confirms that her motherhood will not come about in the normal way after she has been taken home by Joseph, but through “overshadowing, by the power of the Most High,” by the coming of the Holy Spirit, and he notes emphatically: “For with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1: 37).

    (Kindle Locations 451-466)

    God Bless

    1. Hi Chris–Yeah, I saw that part, but it didn’t strike me as an especially profound engagement with biblical criticism, especially since Augustine’s view (the traditional view that gets rejected here) is not actually defended by anyone writing today.

      And btw, what are “Kindle Locations” and how do you find them? Do they correspond to page numbers in a hard copy? I have a few kindle books that I read on my iPad, and I’m always at a loss re: how to cite them.

    2. Hi Sonja,

      I think the Holy Father is writing more of a popular reflection than a detailed engagement with critical scholarship. My guess is that there are any number of conservative writers (mostly not scholars) today who promote Augustine’s view and to them the Holy Father’s view would be something of a challenge.

      On the Windows kindle app, one can highlight the text and then select COPY from the popup menu. When you paste that text, it includes locations. I have yet to find a way to correlate locations with page numbers. Sigh.

      God Bless

      1. I agree that he doesn’t intend it to be a detailed engagement with critical scholarship, but it’s still more scholarly in style (just mentioning Eduard Norden, e.g.) than most other things you’d see published by Image/Doubleday. And in large part, that’s just his writing style. I’m also taking into account the explicitly scholarly stuff he has published in the past, as well as his previous two Jesus books, which do show his keen interest in historical criticism. But there, as well, I get the feeling that the majority of biblical scholars are no longer as occupied with the questions that were pressing when he himself was a full-time academic, and so his critique of historical criticism sounds rather “off.” So my criticism is really more of the media portrayal of the book as being somehow groundbreaking or surprising than of the book itself. I found the book utterly unsurprising, and completely in line with everything else he’s written.

        Thanks for the info re: Kindle Locations!

  2. I taught C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle in my intro theology class before Thanksgiving and the distinction made in the reactions you cite in this post parallels exactly the separation of the “sheep and the goats” in Lewis’s story. Those who see Aslan and look upon him with fear (and anger) are cast aside while those who see Aslan and look upon him with fear, but then love, are welcomed into the Real Narnia.

    Just an interesting parallel that I thought of and I would have never made the connection with those reactions except for your post. :)

  3. In the two volumes I’ve read by the Pope thus far, he does engage modern scholarship, though, often not explicitly, but it’s there under the surface. I certainly see it. Just because he doesn’t bring up a scholar or a particular reading doesn’t mean he’s unaware; so for example, from what I’ve read about his latest volume, he doesn’t mention Raymond Brown and yet he knows his work very well. Pope Benedict has made it clear before in his writings that modern doesn’t mean better, that’s why he quotes and engages with thinkers from all over the spectrum of Church history. I also think he deliberately does this in his Jesus books to teach readers, especially young scholars, not to focus so much on what is new and disregard the old just because it’s in the past. I consider Ratzinger to be one of the most measured and prudent scholars I’ve read and so I don’t see a lack of new hypotheses on this or that question as a deficit. Another thing I’ve noticed is that he hardly ever references his own writings in his Jesus volumes prior to becoming Pope. He mentions his Introduction to Christianity in the main body of the text in the first volume but doesn’t bring up any other works in that or in the second volume (Main body) when I thought he’d have referred to his Eschatology and his Spirit of the Liturgy, so I’ll be interested to see if he bothers doing so in the new book when it arrives in the next few days. Give it time Sonja, you’ll come round to the simplicity of Ratzinger’s approach in the years ahead when you tire of the claims and methods of supposed cutting edge scholarship. ;)

    1. Whew, good to know that I’ll “come round” when I’ve had enough of this “supposed cutting edge scholarship.” Glad I have an expert like you to impart wisdom to young naive folks like me!

  4. I’m glad to be of help Sonja. No, I wouldn’t say you’re naive, it’s just that some people are educated into ditches, it’s sad but it happens. You’re welcome. Much appreciated! ;)

    1. I’m amazed that you were able to discern that I’ve been “educated into ditches.” Thanks for “mansplaining,” as it were.

      Really though, your tone is not welcome on this blog. If you have a substantive critique of a post, by all means offer it, but minus the condescension.

  5. Thanks for this post. When I read the excerpt from the book on Mary’s reaction to beholding the angel, I was at first very moved by the Pope’s characterisation of Mary as a ‘fearless woman’, ‘of great interiority’, etc. But when he related all of this to the Church, I couldn’t help but think, “Ah, you’re praising this extraordinary woman so that the strength of the institution you represent can be made even more theologically impregnable.” May the Lord help my cynicism.

  6. Thanks for this post. When I read the excerpt from the book on Mary’s reaction to beholding the angel, I was at first very moved by the Pope’s characterisation of Mary as a ‘fearless woman’, ‘of great interiority’, etc. But when he related all of this to the Church, I couldn’t help but think, “Ah, you’re praising this extraordinary woman so that the strength of the institution you represent can be made even more theologically impregnable.” May the Lord help my cynicism.

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