Mysteries of Christ’s Early Life
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
By Pope Benedict XVI
Publisher: Image Books
Pages: 144 pages
Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs
After serving for many years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expressed a sincere wish to retire to a private life in his native Germany. There the world-renowned theologian hoped to enjoy uninterrupted hours of study and to add to his already impressive list of books. Pope John Paul II’s refusal to accept Ratzinger’s resignation, and then Ratzinger’s elevation to the papacy in 2005, altered his plans. Yet remarkably, as Pope Benedict XVI, he managed, as a private theologian not exercising papal authority, to write a series of reflections on the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, known as the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. The choice of subject is fitting for what is in many respects his magnum opus, for throughout his theological career, as well as his pontificate, the Person of Jesus Christ has always been at the heart of his teaching.
Pope Benedict’s purpose in writing Jesus of Nazareth is twofold: He seeks mainly to explore the mystery of Jesus as revealed to us in the Gospels, while at the same time offering by demonstration a more faith-filled approach to scriptural exegesis in response to the problems that have arisen from the use of the historical-critical method. As a form of biblical scholarship, the historical-critical method uses the tools of historical research in reading biblical texts in an attempt to understand them in their historical context.
Pope Benedict acknowledges the historical-critical method as a great tool, since the Christian faith claims that the events in Scripture were real historical occurrences recorded by real human authors. Historical science alone, however, cannot admit to the intrinsic unity of Scripture and in practice has separated the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith, claiming supernatural happenings to be mere myths and leaving Christianity without a foundation.
The meaning of Scripture cannot be reduced to the fragmentary conclusions of historical research. Scripture requires a fuller reading that incorporates faith and tradition yet asserts the historicity of key biblical events. Benedict believes that Scripture must be read as a unified whole with the understanding that Christ is the source and meaning of its unity. In this way, Scripture can be rightly understood as both the work of human authors and, primarily, the Word of God. Only this kind of reading preserves the historical realities of Scripture while drawing out its universal message, which transcends the boundaries of history.
The third and final release in the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy is, as its subtitle suggests, an exegesis of the infancy narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In the foreword, Pope Benedict explains that it is not to be considered a third volume but an “antechamber” to the much lengthier Volumes I and II, which cover Jesus’ public ministry and His Paschal Mystery. Benedict begins humbly, noting that no exegesis can ever fully unfold all that Scripture contains. Moreover, the mysteries of the Christian faith are replete with paradoxes. In attempting to answer the question of Jesus’ origin we find one such paradox: “Jesus’ provenance is both known and unknown, seemingly easy to establish, and yet not exhaustively.” Benedict explains that the answer to where Jesus is from also reveals to us His very identity and mission. Progressing through the infancy narratives, this identity and mission is further revealed.
Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus offer an explanation of His origin and who He is. Matthew prefaces his Gospel with his genealogy of Jesus, which begins with Abraham, who received God’s promise. It runs down the male line through King David but in the end comes to Jesus through Mary — the legal spouse of Joseph, of the House of David. “Mary is a new beginning,” Benedict writes. “Her child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived through the Holy Spirit.” God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants finds universal fulfillment in Jesus, who is both Son of Man and Son of God.
Luke’s genealogy of Jesus differs greatly. Situated at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ public ministry, it starts with Jesus and reaches all the way back to Adam, and has very few names that match with Matthew’s list. What is important, though, is “the symbolic structure within which Jesus’ place in history is set before us.” As a descendant of Adam, “Jesus takes upon himself the whole of humanity, the whole history of man, and he gives it a decisive re-orientation toward a new manner of human existence.” The two genealogies complement each other and show us that, though we are all born of man, faith in Christ gives us new birth. “From Christ, through faith in him, [we] are now born of God.”
Pope Benedict argues that it is reasonable to believe that Matthew and Luke received the historical information for their accounts of Jesus’ infancy from traditions and personal testimonies. In fact, Mary was most likely a principal source of information for Luke’s Gospel, providing firsthand accounts of the most significant events in the early life of Jesus. “What Matthew and Luke set out to do…was not to tell ‘stories’ but to write history…admittedly interpreted and understood in the context of the word of God.” Their goal was to provide a record of real events as they pertained to the young Church of their time.
In Luke’s accounts of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist and the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, we find the convergence of the Old Covenant with the New. “Everything said here, everything that happens here, is saturated in the words of sacred Scripture,” Benedict writes. “It is only through these new events that the words acquire their full meaning.” At the annunciation of John the Baptist, in a thoroughly Jewish context, the words of the Old Testament prophets find fulfillment upon the coming of a new prophet, set to rise above the prophets of old, for he — the new Elijah — is to prepare the way for the coming of God Himself.
It is at the annunciation of the birth of Jesus that we find the true beginning of the New Testament, where numerous passages from the Old Testament are fulfilled in the words of the archangel Gabriel. “Yet the ancient words take on a new life; they transcend themselves on account of the new event that they express and interpret.” Some of the magnitude of this moment is conveyed in the word of greeting Gabriel speaks to Mary as he comes to deliver God’s message. He does not use the standard Hebrew greeting shalom (peace be with you) but chaire (rejoice!), which is Greek. The message once given to Israel now extends to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike, as it comes to fulfillment.
Matthew too writes of the conception and birth of Jesus, but from the perspective of Joseph rather than Mary. Pope Benedict pauses to consider whether Matthew and Luke are conveying a historical fact or contriving a pious myth when they write of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. After examining the hypotheses of modern scholars who compare Christ’s birth with myths in ancient religions, he explains how we can assert with confidence that Jesus was truly conceived and born of a Virgin.
In his account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Luke presents the historical context of the world at the time, providing specific details. Jesus’ birth takes place in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, precisely because of the census imposed on all under the Roman Empire. For the first time, the “whole world” is united such that “only now can a message of universal salvation, a universal Savior, enter the world: it is indeed the ‘fullness of time.'” The Roman emperor in those days, Caesar Augustus, viewed himself as a savior of mankind and a great peacemaker with his Pax Romana; however, even at its peak the Roman Empire was never the perfect kingdom. Jesus, the true Savior and Peacemaker, comes to proclaim a Kingdom not of this world.
Pope Benedict pays much attention to the setting of Jesus’ birth. For example, he explains that Jesus was probably born in a cave. Benedict also explains that there is no historical proof that an ox and ass were present beside the infant Jesus; this is a venerable tradition that alludes to the words of Isaiah, with the ox and ass representative of a humanity that was once blind to God. He also discusses the role of the chorus of angels and the shepherds at Jesus’ birth.
The story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple concludes Luke’s account of Jesus’ infancy. In this setting, within traditional Jewish ritual, “Jesus is publicly handed over to God, his Father.” Here we meet Simeon, who gives praise to God upon meeting the Christ child and offers prophecy. Jesus is to bring glory, yet it will not come without suffering. “The Suffering Servant has the great mission to bring God’s light to the world,” Benedict explains. “Yet it is in the darkness of the Cross that this mission is fulfilled.”
Matthew includes in his Gospel the narrative of the Magi and their visit to the infant Jesus. He establishes the precise historical context of the visit by noting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod, “king of the Jews.” Who the Magi were is not so clear, but in all likelihood they were great seekers of truth, “custodians of religious and philosophical knowledge that had developed in [Persia] and continued to be cultivated there…. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. They represent a procession that continues throughout history.”
The star the Magi followed to find the newborn “King of the Jews” has great theological significance; still there is evidence that it was also an actual astronomical occurrence. It is well documented in ancient sources that there was a planetary conjunction in 7-6 B.C., right at the time Jesus was born, which could explain the phenomenon. In any case, the coming of Jesus truly is a cosmic event. Benedict elaborates on this, explaining that the star demonstrates that the language of creation speaks of Christ, inspiring hope that God will reveal Himself, and that we must seek Him out.
When the Magi arrive, they present the divine King with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which tradition holds to represent the mysteries of Jesus’ kingship, divine sonship, and death. King Herod, however, felt greatly threatened at the idea of a new king being born. According to Matthew, he ordered the slaughter of all male children up to the age of two in the region of Bethlehem, prompting the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. Pope Benedict points out that there is no historical record of the massacre of the Holy Innocents outside of Matthew’s Gospel but, based on what we do know of Herod’s brutality, it would not be at all surprising if this actually happened.
Benedict concludes with an epilogue on the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple from Luke’s Gospel. He makes an interesting observation that the fact that Jesus could disappear without Mary and Joseph immediately noticing speaks of a healthy sense of freedom and obedience within the Holy Family. After three days, Jesus is found in the temple with His Father, where He says He must be, prefiguring His Passion. “What might seem like disobedience or inappropriateness vis-à-vis his parents is in reality the actual expression of his filial obedience.” Mary and Joseph do not totally understand this. Even Mary must grow and deepen in her understanding of the mystery of Jesus as she journeys in faith.
The book ends where it began — in mystery. Mystery, as clearly shown by Pope Benedict, does not mean that one cannot know, but that one can never finish knowing. Our emeritus Pope, in Jesus of Nazareth and in so many other ways, has helped us come to a deeper knowledge of the mystery of Jesus Christ. Still, infinitely more is left to be known. Pope Benedict now has more personal time and enjoys the private life he long hoped for; his new life of prayer purposely hidden from the world may mean that this final book in the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy is the last book he will ever have published. While we may no longer have him to teach us by word how to grow in the knowledge of Christ, with the example of his ongoing dedication to prayer he continues to teach us how to come to know Him better.
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