Generally there’s a gap between people great at explaining what the words of the Bible mean (its cultural, linguistic, and genre contexts), and what the Bible means (the transcendent, spiritual worth of the text). Thus Michael Heiser, N.T. Wright have excellent works explaining the original plain meaning of the Old and New Testaments, while C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton are great at explaining what the Bible means and what Christianity is.
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, is a rare man who can do both.
This short volume primarily focuses on the Gospel’s Christmas accounts, as well as Luke’s retelling of Jesus being found in the temple. In this book Benedict uses the text to show not just how Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled, but the meaning of the magi, the reaction of Jerusalem, the apocalyptic nature of the event, and so on.
This book is short, easy to read, and great. Ratziner displays a mastery of textual analyses on par with Heiser and Wright. That he wrote this being the public face of the largest religion in the world is astonishing,
When I wrote my impressions of the Gospel According to Matthew, I noted it began with an ending — with a genealogy that normally serves to close a section of the Torah. I did not catch how Luke did the same thing. Near the beginning of Luke’s gospel is reference to the Book of Enoch — the gospel opens with a genealogy containing 77 generations (70 from Enoch on):
Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Janna, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathiah, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathiah, the son of Semei, the son of Joseph, the son of Judah, the son of Joannas, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmodam, the son of Er, the son of Jose, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonan, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menan, the son of Mattathah, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
This mapping of 77 generations to forever is derived from Enoch:
To Michael likewise the Lord said, Go and announce his crime to Samyaza, and to the others
who are with him, who have been associated with women, that they might be polluted with all their impurity. And when all their sons shall be slain, when they shall see the perdition of their beloved, bind them for seventy generations underneath the earth, even to the day of judgment, and of consummation, until the judgment, the effect of which will last for ever, be completed.
The implication of is even greater than I had imagined. The message is not simply, the previous chapter is over. Rather, the previous world is over. All things are made new in Jesus, for He is the beginning and the end.
The Adoration of the Magi
Another reference I missed is how Luke comments on Matthew’s magi. Luke’s later magi, a wicked man, is named bar Jesus, as if to drive the point home. Compare Matthew’s account of Christmas:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magoo from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
To Luke’s of the early church age:
Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the Magus (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.
Benedict explicitly notes that magi had a range of meanings in the time, from expert scientist to devious fraudster. But the double use, plus the name reported of the wicked magi, is interpretted by Benedict as making the point that religion can open or close one to God, depending on the nature of the religion and how one receives it.
Gentiles and the Bible
Benedict seems aware of the stories from ancient Canaan. He identifies the Star of Bethlehem with a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that occurred around 6 BC. Throughout the Mediterranean and near-east Saturn a longer was associated with the Creator God Cronos or El, and Jupiter with the presiding god of a younger generation, Zeus or Ba’al or Marduk. Thus a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter could be read as the Ba’al-of-El or the Zeus-of-Cronos. At the time of the first Christmas many peoples recognized the existence of the Creator God, but the Jews were conspicuous in worshiping him.
Benedict argues the Magi went to Jerusalem as the recognized Temple of the Creator God, familiarized themselves with ‘local’ relevant prophecies (such as of the King of Israel to be born in Bethlehem), and proceeded accordingly. I find this treatment brilliant, as it both incorporates Christianity as the completion of astrology, while also deeply humanizing the motives of the magi themselves.
The Scholastics of the Time
A major development in the 20th century was a move away from Scholasticism (which viewed Christianity primarily as a set of truth-propositions to be accepted) to the current period of re-utilizing the Bible and the Church Fathers as sources, which sees Christianity primarily as a relationship between the believer and God. Benedict was a major champion of the re-utilization or resourcement, as an academic, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, and as Pope. The current, Benedictine, era thus can see critical references to “experts of the law” as applicable to the now-defeated Scholastics.
Benedict discovers an additional dig, as the magi are leaving Jerusalem
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
apparently none of the “Chief Priests and scribes” bothered to apply their intellectual knowledge of the signs and of Herod’s nature, to preventing the massacre in the Bethlehem. Perhaps they simply couldn’t. As my friend Michael Lotus noted, it was Christ’s acts which took a cynical statement of politics:
And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.”
and turned it into a religion of salvation.
The Tradition and the Bible
I have Protestant friends who struggle with the Catholic and Orthodox doctrine of the Bible and Sacred Tradition. Instead of defensively arguing for Tradition from the Church’s authority, Benedict does so on a textual basis. It is clear, he states, that the story of Christmas derives from a family Tradition — of Mary’s recollections.
Benedict does not push this point, but I think it is meaningful. The Bible itself is derived from the knowledge of people who knew Jesus for years or decades. That the Bible was the total, complete, and only method of transmission of this memory is not a natural claim.
But this introduces an unresolved question. Benedict says Mary’s reply to the angel is not explicable in the text, and is a “riddle” (or “mystery”). The text itself states that Mary is betrothed to Joseph, and the regular mechanism of conceiving a child in the near term seems pretty obvious. What is going on?
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. …
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
According to Benedict, we don’t know.
It’s interesting comparing The Infancy Narratives to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si or On Heaven and Earth . Francis is thought provoking and moves the reader to action. But Benedict can explain complex issues in more detail in a clear and thoughtful way.
I am very glad I read this book. I indirectly owe it to Fr. Harrison Ayre and Fr. Anthony Sciarappa whose Clerically Speaking podcast often discusses Ratzinger’s writings in very approachable terms. Even with that recommendation, though, I didn’t expect the clarity of writing or the masterful handling of the biblical text. This book is excellent reading for anyone wanting to learn more about what the Bible says about the first Christmas.