One million copies published in 29 languages and distributed in 73 countries. These are the row figures on the last book about Jesus recently published by Pope Benedict XVI. The new volume ends the series that Ratzinger began projecting before his election to the papacy, and now it finally comes to fruition, when he is 85 years old and presides over a complex state, i.e. the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church, which of course is a global institution.
The new volume follows the 2007 one that touched on the story of Jesus from his baptism to the Transfiguration, and the 2011 one which dealt with the Passion and the Resurrection. The new book focuses on the Infancy Narratives, i.e. the 180 verses that Matthew and Luke wrote to publicize the events preceding and following Jesus’ birth up to when he was twelve years old.
1. Historical Facts Theologically Interpreted
It is important to appreciate the background of Ratzinger’s books. Why is he writing on the life of Jesus according to the Gospels? In the late XIX century, different “lives” of Jesus were written in the attempt to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith”. The main assumption was that Christology had little if nothing to do with what really happened to Jesus, which is something that went beyond historical research and belonged to the realm of faith only. Liberal scholars argued that we know nearly nothing of the historical Jesus, yet we have a highly developed Christology that is not based on the historical records of the facts of Jesus’ life, but on the faith of subsequent communities. Therefore, the Gospels were considered as accounts driven by what the first Christians believed, not necessarily by what really happened. These views were and are still widely accepted among Catholic Biblical scholarship.
Ratzinger writes to readdress this whole issue. The way he does it is through his own effort to comment on the Gospels. His goal is to affirm the basic historicity of the Gospel accounts and therefore the historical nature of the Christian faith which is centered on the historical Jesus. Benedict XVI argues that, in the Gospels, faith and history, facts and their theological interpretation, internal Biblical evidence and external historical evidence are intertwined. Yet, the theological significance of Jesus’ life is based on what really happened, not at the expense of it or even not interfering with history. So, in the case of the Infancy Narratives, we are confronted with a reliable account of what really happened (including the star and the Magi), coupled with a theological explanation of the birth of Jesus, His Person and work.
2. A Change of Mind?
It is interesting to note a shift of emphasis here. In the 1993 document on “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (whose chairman was Raztinger himself) tended to overlook the relationship between faith and history in the Biblical text. It assumed that the historical-critical methods were just neutral scholarly tools without any pre-conceived assumption as far as the historical reliability of the Bible was concerned.
Historically, this is not true. Historical-critical methods were the chosen weapons to try to dismantle the trustworthiness of the Written Word of God. Moreover, the reality is that most Catholic academic Biblical scholars do have skeptical views about the historicity of Scripture and carry their skepticism under the banner of the historical-critical methods.
In 1993 Ratzinger seemed to be rather naive about the dangers of separating faith from history and of considering the Bible a book stemming from faith but not rooted in history. Now he seems to be more aware of the issues and wants to provide an example of Biblical interpretation that takes the historicity of the Bible seriously. Will his books of Jesus stir a debate in Catholic exegetical circles? Will they readdress the confidence in the historical reliability of the Bible in Catholic academia and the wider public?
3. A Commendation and a Couple of Reservations
Ratzinger’s book on the Infancy Narratives is not a technical piece of exegesis. It is rather a spiritual commentary on the Gospel narratives which speak about how the Son of God became a man. They are long meditations following the synoptic order of events of Jesus’ life, with some questions and applications for the contemporary reader.
The final book is even better than the previous one. The latter portrayed Jesus as if he were a priest going around celebrating Masses everywhere he turned. Ratzinger’s sacramental reading of the Gospels heavily influenced his interpretation of the Passion. This book is a more straightforward and canonical reading of Jesus’ story firmly rooted in the OT and linked to subsequent NT teachings. It is perhaps the best of the series, with two reservations.
Commenting on the fact that various details of the Infancy Narratives originated in the accounts given by Mary herself (who was the only witness present), the Pope also infers that other Marian traditions which are not found in the NT derive from the same source. The issue, then, is: why didn’t Luke or Matthew add them to their Gospels? More fundamentally, why didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire the Evangelists to insert them in the canonical texts? What is in Scripture and has become Scripture has an all together different status than other traditions claiming the same origin.
The other perplexity has to do with Ratzinger’s comment on Luke 2:7: “She gave birth to her firstborn”. Here the Pope spends a couple of pages arguing that the reference to Jesus being the “firstborn” does not imply that Mary had other children. In fact, he affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary. But is this really what the text here is saying or suggesting? Is the later Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity not a development that is based more on Marian elaborations rather than on what the Gospels say?
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 30th November 2012