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)