The lengthy second chapter (pp. 14-57) covers a great deal of ground including the annunciations stories, and the discussions of the virginal conception. Along the way we discover something of who are the Pope’s regular exegetical discussion partners, namely familiar to those of us who have read Continental scholarship on the Gospels (and the OT prophecies referred to in the Birth Narratives)– O. Kaiser (on Isaiah), J. Gnilka, R. Laurentin E. Peterson, H. Schurmann, even P. Stuhlmacher on the Gospels. The Pope is clearly not reading just devotional books on the NT, but rather serious exegetical and theological ones, mostly, though not entirely, by Catholic scholars.
One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter is the way the Pope deals with the prophecies cited, especially in Matthew in conjunction with the birth stories. He calls prophecy which seems in itself opaque, until Christ comes along and fulfills and sheds light on it— ‘a waiting word’. He illustrates this principle with the usual exegetical debates about Isaiah 7.14, which scholars have had a hard time finding an ancient contextual referent for (is Emmanuel a child of Ahaz, a child of Isaiah….). The Pope argues that the birth narrative stories are grounded in family tradition, some of course going back to Mary herself, and they were not unveiled to the Christian communities until after her death. Here is how the Pope frames things: “A story is told here which interprets the Scriptures. And the converse is also true: what the Scripture intended to say in many passages becomes visible only now through this new story. It is a story that is completely rooted in the word and yet only now does it supply the full meaning of the word which hitherto could not be recognized. The story told here is no mere illustration of the ancient words: it is the reality to which they were referring. In those [ancient] words alone it could not be recognized, but they now attain their full meaning through the event in which they come to pass.” (p. 15). In other words, the virginal conception really happened which led to reflection on the OT prophecies, which in turn with the benefit of hindsight opaquely referred to or alluded to the Christ event.
The Pope discusses supposed parallels from Philo, Egyptian literature, Greco-Roman literature and even Virgil’s 4th Ecologue, which have sometimes been thought to be sources for the stories of the virginal conception. Stressing the differences between those stories and the Gospel ones, the Pope clearly rejects the etymological fallacy (this story was created out of that story etc.). No says the Pope, we are dealing with real events in the life of Mary and Joseph, surprising, unexpected events which caused people to scurry back to the OT to find a precedent, a prediction, an explanation.
The Pope goes out of his way to stress that Mary’s response to the angel was not a foreordained event or a predetermined certainty. Mary had free will and responded freely and positively. She could have done otherwise. Here is how he puts it: “God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man [or in this case a woman]. His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being.” (p. 36).
It is also interesting that the Pope rejects certain traditional Catholic ideas about Mary. For example, he rejects the vow to virginity theory (i.e. her response to the angel indicates she had already decided to remain a virgin forever, and only accept marriage to Joseph as a way to continue to protect her virginity). This theory is discussed prominently in John McHugh’s important book on the Mother of Jesus, but about this theory the Pope says “But this theory is quite foreign to the world of Judaism of Jesus’ time, and in that context it seems inconceivable.” (pp. 34-35). I quite agree. Interestingly, the Pope also translates the Matthean verse, so often debated in the usual way “He took Mary home as his wife but he did not ‘know’ her, until she had given birth to the Son’. (p. 45). He offers no further comment on the birth, but most would take this to clearly mean that Joseph did know his wife in the Biblical sense of the term after the birth of Jesus.
Along the way there are some interesting asides. For example there is a profound treatment of the story of Jesus curing the paralytic cared to him by four men. He points out the oddity that Jesus first indicates the man’s sins are forgiven, which of course is not why they brought the man to Jesus (pp. 43-44). As to why Jesus went about things the way he did the Pope stresses “Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed–his relationship with God–then nothing else can truly be in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else he wants to point man towards the essence of his malady, and to show him–if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.” Exactly right, hence the emphasis on forgiveness over physical healing.
At the end of the chapter, the Pope quotes Karl Barth to the effect that there are two great occasions when God intervenes in the material world– at and through the virginal conception, and at and through the bodily resurrection of Jesus. “These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is allowed to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual realm– but not in the material…But God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter also belong to him?” (pp. 56-57). The answer the Pope gives is— a resounding yes. To which I simply say, AMEN.