The Infancy Narratives– the Pope on Jesus’ Origins, Part One

We have already previously reviewed on this blog Pope Benedict’s two very substantial books on Jesus of Nazareth (see the archives for 2011). Now on the wheels of those two books comes a very slender but substantive treatment of the ‘infancy narratives’. Though it is only 144 pages, it is far from insubstantial, and has become a best seller since it came out in November. As I have said before Josef Ratzinger is a classically trained theologian and exegete. He is perhaps unique in all of papal history in his training and abilities in this regard. Furthermore, he has a good critical mind and understanding of the importance of good historical reflection. Consider for example his statement at the very outset of this new book:
“I am convinced that good exegesis involves two stages. Firstly, one has to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through their text in their own day—the historical component of exegesis. But it is not sufficient to leave the text in the past and thus relegate it to history. The second question posed by good exegesis must be: is what I read here true? Does it concern me? If so how? With a text like the Bible, whose ultimate and fundamental author is God himself, the question regarding the here and now of things past is undeniably included in the task of exegesis. The seriousness of the historical quest is in no way diminished by this: on the contrary it is enhanced.” (p. xi). While I would say that the Pope is speaking about both good exegesis, and its modern application here nevertheless, he is write that any believing person will need to go through this whole hermeneutical arc to fully deal with the Biblical text.

One thing that distinguishes this book from the Pope’s previous two books on Jesus is that the works cited come up close to the present. The previous two books seems to have been written prior to when the cardinal became the pope, but clearly this one was written more recently to judge from the notes and bibliography.

Once again the Pope relies mostly on German and some French scholarship, and in this particular volume there are some notable lacunae…. for example it is hard to imagine writing a book like this and taking no note of the majesterial work of Father Raymond Brown on the subject (two major studies on the virginal conception and on the birth narratives), perhaps the leading Catholic scholar on this subject in modern history. I do not really know the level of facility the pope has with reading detailed Biblical scholarship in English, but this omission is very surprising. In our next post, we will discuss what the Pope has to say about those interesting and varied genealogies in Matthew and Luke.

  • J. Duomai

    The last sentence of the first para has a typing error. It should be “right” instead of “write”.

  • David

    He is a surprisingly good exegete given that it is not his area of expertise. Having said that, he is quite competent in many areas other than his speciality which is of course theology.

    I thought the second book dealt with scholarship closer to the present for the most part, certainly more so than the first; there was one chapter in the first book that I felt decidedly lacking in engagement with recent scholarship and that was the chapter on the parables. Still, it did not hurt the overall case he was making.

    As for Raymond Brown’s work, Ratzinger praised his work at a conference in the late 80s and I would think he has read his big books. He would have had to as prefect of the CDF, so it is not that he has avoided his scholarship. Just because you do not deal explicitly with a scholar does not mean you are ignoring their work. Raymond Brown’s books on St John’s Gospel are listed in the bibliography by Ratzinger at the end of the first book and yet he is never cited in the main body of the book. Why is it that Ratzinger praises – with qualifications – the series of books on Jesus by John P Meier, yet never cites him in that book and only engages with him briefly on two occasions in the second book, why not the third? You could go on and on. In any case, the translator of the last two Jesus books by the Pope, Philip Whitmore, has said in a Vatican Radio interview recently that the Pope did not write the books, he dictated them into a microphone with notes on a page beside him. That may be one reason why he rarely quotes non-German scholars.

    Here’s the short interview with Msgr. Philip Whitmore:

  • Carol Brook

    I’m just new to this site and am intrigued that you would be considering the Pope’s book as having something to say to us Protestants. The Catholic Church does not follow scripture at all, does not follow scripture as God’s word or truth. In these last days it seems frightening to me that as Protestants (originally protesting against the catholic church that’s how we go the name Protestant) we are not encouraging people to be ready for the soon coming of Jesus rather than worrying about whether it is a well written book, it probably is very well written but Ratzinger has clearly decided that he does not believe in God’s word or he would follow it and encourage his flock to, he has nothing to share or offer us. Surely this is the time when we should be following the Word and getting back to the Sola Scriptura. May God help us to see the light before it is too late! It was Jesus who said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” not Ratzinger, he is only a man.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Carol: Unfortunately, you don’t what you’re talking about. Not only are there many Bible-believing Catholics out there, there are also many Bible-believing Catholic scholars (I know, I deal with them regularly and some are friends), and in fact the Pope is one of them! It is of course true that in addition to the Bible the Pope and most Catholics believe in a lot of Christian traditions as well, which Protestants do not accept. But that is a story for another day. I quite agree that the Pope is only a man. He would agree as well :) BW3