Now that the secular media has completed its rants about how Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) destroyed Christmas, the time has come to engage more seriously the accomplishment of Ratzinger in his new book The Infancy Narratives. What is the overall merit of his project? Let me begin by saying that the spiritual reflections Ratzinger offers throughout the book are well worth anyone’s read. I was deeply moved, for instance, by his reflections on the Annunciation, and by his insightful commentary on the fact that while, in Mary’s society, women were not allowed to express their own consent to betrothal, God asks of Mary her consent to be the Mother of God. Yet at the risk of being labeled one of those Scripture scholars who happily point the Magi towards their destination but do not deign to follow themselves, as Ratzinger comments on the Jewish Scribes in Matthew 2:4-9, I feel it necessary to offer my critique of Ratzinger’s project as a whole.
In keeping with his background in German philosophy, Ratzinger regularly poses dichotomies throughout his text that, in my opinion, are false. In particular, I would like to examine the question of the genre of the infancy narratives in Ratzinger’s new book. He regularly dubs this genre as “interpreted history,” with a heavy (and Modern?) overemphasis on the “history.” The infancy narratives, he claims, are history that has been interpreted through the lens of the Hebrew Bible Scriptures. Historical events – in this case events such as the Annunciation, the birth in Bethlehem, the census under Quirinius, the Magi’s star – are all real, historical events, many of which were probably passed down orally from Mary herself, that have gone through later interpretation in light of the Old Testament. And so what we get in the infancy narratives is the product of this interpretive process: “real history, theologically thought through and interpreted.”
In order to make his point, Ratzinger dialectically opposes to “interpreted history” two other options: “Myth” or “story” along with Jewish midrash, and intentional deception. The second option he dismisses quickly with a quote from Klaus Berger: “One must suppose, until the contrary is proven, that the evangelists did not intend to deceive their readers, but rather to inform them concerning historical events.” As for the first, midrash is summarily dismissed without discussion. “Stories” are likewise rejected offhand simply with the assertion: “To sum up: what Matthew and Luke set out to do, each in his own way, was not to tell ‘stories’ but to write history.” And where does this history come from? Despite the doubt of the majority of scholarship, it comes from “family tradition.”
Two issues primarily are cause for concern. First, Ratzinger almost invariably takes the minority opinion concerning contentious historical questions. He – very problematically in my opinion – glosses historical problems such as the dating of the census and the disagreement between Matthew and Luke about where Joseph and Mary are originally from. After quickly glossing the issue, he concludes: “The two different strands of tradition agree on the fact that Bethlehem was Jesus’ birthplace. If we abide by the sources, it is clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth.” Yet it is not so simple. If the census that purportedly took place ca. 6 BC did not actually take place, then there was no reason for Joseph to go to Bethlehem. And the scholarship of Alois Stoger that Ratzinger cites to support the idea that Quirinius may have briefly been in Syria in 6-7 BC, and that the census may have been initiated at that time only to be completed twelve years later, is far from convincing and quite a stretch of the historical record.
This brings us to my second concern. Ratzinger’s offhand rejection of anything but “history” (and a rather Modern view of it, it seems to me) creates problems for his literary analysis. For example, he cites with approval Rene Laurentin’s observation that Luke structures his infancy narrative using the 490 days announced by Gabriel in the book of Daniel. John the Baptist’s 6 months in the womb prior to Jesus, added to Jesus’ 9 months, combined with the 40 days until the Presentation in the Temple, total 490 days. Very neat. But how might such a literary technique square with history? Are we to believe that John the Baptist was actually historically 6 months older than Jesus and that this fact also just happens to fit neatly into the schema of 490 days?