Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

I don’t often get outraged about religious coverage since it so often drives me to laughter over anger. There is such a disconnect of understanding that I feel more pity than anything else. It is like they have an editorial board meeting to decide just how wrong they can get a story. While the media’s coverage of Christianity is often so mistaken they crank it up a notch when covering the Pope.

Pope sets out to de-bunk Christian myths

They are of course referring to the Pope’s new book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.

This article presents plenty of evidence that CNN’s Atika Shubert and Hada Messia who wrote this piece had no idea what they were doing and if they actually read the Pope’s book I would be quite surprised.  Though I guess it is possible they read it scanning for the controversial and totally missing out on what the pope was saying.  I provide as evidence:

He also debunks the claim that angels sang at the birth, a staple theme of Christmas carols.

The reality is he said quite the opposite.

According to the evangelist, the angels “said” this. But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present. And so, from that moment, the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent.

Well I could go on about the mindset that produced this article and the total unreliability of so many other headlines and articles on the Pope’s new book.  I think it would be much more interesting to discuss what was actually in his book.

I had thought to delay buying this book as I had other books in my virtual stack of ebooks to go through. I soon dismissed such a foolish idea and went ahead and bought it, downloaded it,  and  read it.

First off it is interesting what the Pope said about his book in the foreword.

It is not a third volume, but a kind of small “antechamber” to the two earlier volumes on the figure and the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

While it is certainly true at around 130 pages this is a much shorter book than his first two books in this series I find this to be my favorite of them.  This is not to diminish how great the first two were and maybe I just love more whatever I am currently reading.  Yet with Advent and Christmas approaching the subject matter really grabs me and what the Pope writes also makes me see some things anew or for the first time.

While news coverage puts the narrative in terms of debunking, that is not what the Pope does.  Pope Benedict does not try to definitively answer questions and  at times questions the plausibility or certainty of some solutions put forward. He is questing towards the truth and puts forward different opinions and then makes clear what his preference is regarding this.  Still it is clear as he has previously noted that he is writing in a private capacity as a theologian and not making dogmatic statements.  He leads a way forward in understanding some common disputes regarding the infancy narratives.  While he does note why he thinks some things are improbable or mistaken, he certainly does not definitively rule them out.

Now as I was reading this book I was highlighting passages like crazy.  I highlighted so much that just reading through my notes is like reading the book again. At least the advantage of highlighting on an ebook is that it makes it so easy to retrieve the same texts. For example what he said regarding exegesis to illustrate my last paragraph:

Again and again, Jesus’ words exceed our rational powers. Again and again, they surpass our capacity to understand. The temptation to reduce them, to bend them to our own criteria, is understandable. Yet good exegesis requires of us the humility to leave intact this loftiness that so often overtaxes us, not to reduce Jesus’ sayings by asking to what extent we can take him at his word. He takes us completely at our word. Believing means submitting to this loftiness and slowly growing into it.

As I was reading through the book I was trying to formulate in my own mind his exegesis of humility and luckily instead of bungling through how to explain it he did it himself towards the end.

I especially found interesting his look at the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke and all the attempts to explain them and reconcile them.  After reading through what he had to say about the two genealogies and looking at them with the view of the authors he writes concerning reconciling the two genealogies:

It seems to me utterly futile to formulate hypotheses on this matter.

So much has been written trying to present possible solutions and yet the Pope cuts to the quick.

Neither evangelist is concerned so much with the individual names as with the symbolic structure within which Jesus’ place in history is set before us: the intricacy with which he is woven into the historical strands of the promise, as well as the new beginning which paradoxically characterizes his origin side by side with the continuity of God’s action in history.

Another thing that really struck me was when he was writing about passages in the Old Testament that seemed to have no context and meaning until the truth was revealed in the New Testament.  I just love the term he used ”Word in waiting.”  He wrote about how Mary’s yes really was the dividing line between the Old and New Testament.  This seems to me to be kind of an ironic reversal.  The Old Testament was pregnant with the Word until Mary’s Fiat and the Word was conceived. This is a clumsy analogy on my part, but what the Pope had to say about the “Word in waiting” really made me see some of these passages in the Old Testament in a new light.  For example he covered  Isaiah 7:14 where the prophet Isaiah, addressing King Ahaz of Judah gives him the famous prophecy. The Pope dismisses attempts at relating the prophecy to specific events during the time of King Ahaz and relates this to one of his “Words of waiting” that required the fullness of time to understand.

Much of the media’s coverage of the book relates to what the Pope write about the date of Jesus’s birth.  There is really no controversy here as scholars have long questioned the traditional date that goes back to a miscalculation by the monk Dionysius Exiguus (550).  This might seem like news to the media which only proves their ignorance.  The Pope gives various evidences for an earlier date which he says is “placed a few years earlier.”  The dating of the census is part of this, but he does not pick any specific solution and sets forth some possibilities regarding this.  Also contrary to the press he does not speak at all on the subject of whether December 25th is the day Jesus was born.

Now I don’t want to write a review longer than the book being reviewed, so I will try to stop here.  I admit this is hard because the book really struck me and I was learning something through every page of it.  This would make a great Christmas gift for Catholics or any one of good will.  It is just so insightful, yet being so readable.  This is not something as dense as “Introduction to Christianity”, but obviously written for everybody. Though I hope readers of this blog need little encouragement in wanting to read this wonderful book.

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