Jesus’ Infancy through the Eyes of Benedict XVI

As Benedict’s entire Jesus of Nazareth trilogy masterfully illustrates, the answer lies in carefully balanced exegesis that takes the historicity of the Gospels seriously, while also attending to the particularities of their unique literary form.

 

It is time to stop and pay close attention when the theologian you are reading starts talking about his “method.”  In the final volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series of books, released a year ago this Advent, Benedict XVI painted a beautiful portrait of Jesus’ early life, but he began it with a discourse concerning method.

As we prepare for the season of Advent, it is worth following Benedict’s advice to step back for a moment before we delve into our meditation upon the events surrounding Jesus’ birth: “Before we consider the content of the texts,” the emeritus pontiff says, “a brief word about their particular literary character is necessary.”

That the Gospels have a “particular literary character” is something that many Catholics find hard to appreciate.  People in the pews are generally aware that the Gospels are not transcripts of Christ’s life such as we would possess if video cameras had existed 2000 years ago.  The faithful also have the sense that the Gospels are more than mere legends or myths.  But how is the average person supposed to determine what historical claims are actually being made in the Gospels?  And on what grounds are they to base their trust in the Gospels as histories of Jesus’ life?

In his characteristically sober, forthright manner, Benedict ties these questions together: “Finally, we must ask in all seriousness: when the evangelists Matthew and Luke tell us, in their different ways, and following different traditions, about Jesus’ conception from the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, is this a historical reality, a real historical event, or is it a pious legend?”  We discover a clue to answering this challenge right at the outset of Benedict’s reflection on the Annunciation. He tells us that attempts have been made to see in the Gospel a sort of haggadic midrash.  With this interpretative method, the ancient rabbis had sought to explain difficult portions of pre-existing biblical stories by crafting new narratives based on them.  In doing so, a rabbi might condense a biblical text, expand it, fill in gaps, or clarify potentially misleading verses.

One of my favorite examples of this, outside the Bible itself,  is found in the Book of Jubilees.  Here the author recasts God’s command to sacrifice Isaac in a way that resolves the tension we experience in the text of Genesis 22.  The author of Jubilees must have asked himself the same question Christians across the centuries have posed: “How could our good God have commanded Abraham to slaughter his innocent child?”  The Book of Jubilees resolves the problem by shifting the responsibility for the gruesome command away from God.  In a dialogue remarkably similar to that which we find in the beginning of the Book of Job, it is at the instigation of a demon named “Mastema” that God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son!

An excellent illustration of a similar interpretative move is found in the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom. The first few verses of Wisdom 10 put a different spin on what happened after the Fall as well as on what—or who—caused the Flood. I won’t ruin the experience for readers of encountering this text for the first time–it can be read very quickly.  Further, entire biblical books could be characterized as midrash.  For instance, the books of 1-2 Chronicles might be described as a sort of midrash insofar as they recast the narratives of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, making key changes that significantly alter the history presented in the earlier tradition.  My favorite example here is to compare the cause of David’s sin in 2 Samuel 24:1 to its cause in 1 Chronicles 21:1.  Who incites David to sin: is it God, or is it Satan?

For his part, Benedict XVI does not conclude that the Gospels must have been written in the style of the Midrash, but he does say that “the literary resemblance is beyond dispute.”  Regardless of how far one may wish to take this claim, for Benedict, it is clear that the Gospels constitute a form of interpreted history:

{W}hat Matthew and Luke set out to do, each in his own way, was not to tell “stories” but to write history, real history that had actually happened, admittedly interpreted and understood in the context of the word of God. Hence, the aim was not to produce an exhaustive account, but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word. The infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation.

There is a lot to digest here, but I summarize Benedict’s thought with three simple observations.

First, Benedict is adamant that the Gospels describe real events that actually happened. For us today, it means that the ordinary, day-to-day events of Jesus’ life could have been captured on video camera (or on the apostles’ iPhones).

Second, this history does not simply contain what would have been recorded on video, since it is “admittedly interpreted” and “understood in the context of the word of God.” This means that the Gospel histories themselves reflect a history previous to themselves–that of the Old Testament. Because they seek to retell that history in light of Christ, the Gospel accounts vary from what would otherwise have appeared on a video camera, had such devices existed at the time.

Third, the Gospels do not aim at producing exhaustive accounts; rather, each evangelist crafted his narrative with an eye to what was important for his flock to know in the concrete circumstances of their lives.

Pope Emeritus Benedict thus offers a great example of how Christians ought to maintain balance in our endeavor of biblical interpretation.  For, although the above should make it clear that the Gospels are not simply histories in the way we conceive of history today, the account of Jesus’ conception is not “a story crafted from an idea, an idea reformulated as a fact.”  In other words, just because the evangelists wrote interpretive histories, it does not mean that they invented facts to support their own preconceived ideas. The reality is the other way around: “{T}he event itself, a fact that was now in the public domain, became the object of reflection–understanding was sought. The overall picture of Jesus Christ shed light upon the event, and conversely, through that event, the divine logic was more deeply grasped.”  The events of Jesus’ life, recorded in the Gospels, were not made up in order to push the agenda of some desperate followers of a failed Jewish rabbi.  The events of Jesus’ life were real, and the Gospels were crafted in the attempt to preserve the knowledge of these events, as well as to shed light into their deepest meaning.

The Gospels yield untold insight into the deepest mystery of Jesus precisely because their authors wrote interpreted history, instead of “just sticking to the objective facts” (which, in any case, is impossible, despite what many assume). That the bare “facts” do not always readily square with one another was an obstacle neither for the evangelists themselves, nor for the early Church. After all, she allowed four Gospels to coexist in tension with one another in the canon of Sacred Scripture.

What is the bottom line in response to Benedict’s initial question at the beginning of this post? The Gospels do record real historical events, but what they intend to record is not necessarily what people assume.  Last year, Benedict’s final volume of Jesus scandalized some readers with his comments about the historicity of certain figures and animals associated with the Nativity scene. How, then, are we to know what is real, and what is not, when it comes to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth? As Benedict’s entire Jesus of Nazareth trilogy masterfully illustrates, the answer lies in carefully balanced exegesis that takes the historicity of the Gospels seriously, while also attending to the particularities of their unique literary form.  It also means challenging the commonplace superficial notion of what is meant by “objectivity,” “history,” and “the real.”

As a fruitful read for any Christian, Jesus of Nazareth, does more than merely provide a method for sound exegesis.  Pick up the book this Advent season, and you will find that Benedict puts his tools into practice by applying them to concrete biblical texts that touch the very heart of that mystery which we are about to celebrate.

 

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avatar About Dr. Matthew J. Ramage, PhD

Dr. Matthew Ramage is assistant professor of theology at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He earned his MA from Franciscan University and his PhD from Ave Maria University. He is author of the book Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas (2013, CUA Press).

Comments

  1. avatar Mom & Dad says:

    Good job Matt. It is a very intellectual writing. Keep up the good work. God bless you, Mom Dad

  2. avatar Mom & Dad says:

    Matt this is so very good, and it helped me understand more deeply as I am reading your new book, and the interpretations of Benedict the XVI. Love,Mom

  3. avatar John Kippley says:

    Thanks for your review. I am now encouraged to read the text.

  4. avatar Pierre Lévesque says:

    Thank you for your comments that help us to understand and appreciate Benedic XlV

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  1. [...] Jean Heimann, Catholic Fire Espousing a Peronist, Not a Marxist Liberation Theology? - A. Chafuen Jesus’ Infancy Through the Eyes of Benedict XVI - Dr. M. Ramage, H&PR O Sapientia - Gregory DiPippo, New Liturgical Movement The [...]

  2. [...] Jean Heimann, Catholic Fire Espousing a Peronist, Not a Marxist Liberation Theology? - A. Chafuen Jesus’ Infancy Through the Eyes of Benedict XVI - Dr. M. Ramage, H&PR O Sapientia - Gregory DiPippo, New Liturgical Movement The [...]

  3. [...] book Dark Passages of the Bible.At Homiletic and Pastoral Review I recently authored a piece on reading Jesus’ infancy through the eyes of Pope Benedict XVI.  This piece discusses how and in what sense the Gospels record history and teach theology.Today [...]

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