A Benedict XVI Christmas
God and human freedom

Pope Benedict XVI


George Weigel

Historians of religious studies would likely regard the past two centuries as the apogee of biblical scholarship. And it’s certainly true that we know far more about the times, customs, languages, thought patterns, worldviews, and literary styles of the people of the Bible and the people who wrote the Bible than did, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson (two biblically conversant, though deeply skeptical, Founders). Yet all that knowledge has led, not to a renaissance of biblical literacy, but to precisely the opposite.

Outside the thriving worlds of evangelical Protestantism and the rather enclosed world of Orthodoxy, skepticism about the veracity and trustworthiness of the Bible is too often the order of the day among church-going (and even Bible-reading) Christians in the 21st-century West. Two centuries of a historical-critical approach to the Bible, filtered through inept preaching, have led to profound dubieties about what the Bible can tell us. “That didn’t really happen” and “That’s just a myth” — thoughts that simply wouldn’t have occurred to believers of the past — are the skeptical “gotchas” that now pop immediately to mind when many Christians hear the Bible proclaimed in their worship or read the Bible at home.

Joseph Ratzinger, the 265th Bishop of Rome, is a man of the Bible who knows the historical-critical method inside and out — and who has spent the better part of the last three decades trying to repair the damage that an exclusively historical-critical reading of the Old and New Testaments has done to both faith and culture. In the second volume of his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, published in 2011, Ratzinger put his intellectual cards on the table, face up: “One thing is clear to me: in two hundred years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit.” If modern interpretation of the Bible was not to “exhaust itself in constantly new hypotheses,” Ratzinger continued, scholars had to learn to read the Bible again through lenses ground by faith and theology, including the theological reading of Scripture developed in the first Christian centuries and in the Middle Ages. It was necessary, in other words, to practice the ecumenism of time when reading and trying to understand the Bible.

And what is true for biblical scholars is surely true for other believers. We, too, must learn to approach the Bible with what the French philosopher Paul Ricœur once called a “second naïveté”: not the naïveté of the child, but the openness to wonder and mystery that comes from having passed through the purifying fires of modern knowledge without having one’s faith in either revelation or reason reduced to ashes and dust. That is what Joseph Ratzinger has tried to do in his Jesus of Nazareth triptych: to offer 21st-century believers and 21st-century skeptics alike a theologically informed reading of the life of Jesus that is indebted to what can be learned from historical-critical scholarship but that does not treat the Bible the way a coroner treats a cadaver: as something dead to be dissected.

The third panel of the Ratzinger triptych, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, was recently published by Image Books. And, in yet another demonstration of the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, Ratzinger, long caricatured as “God’s Rottweiler” by the more vicious boobies of the world press, quickly morphed into the Papal Grinch Who Stole Christmas, as one journalistic illiterate after another stressed one utterly irrelevant point after another: the pope noting en passant that the traditional ox and ass of millions of crèche scenes are not in fact mentioned in Luke’s infancy narrative; the pope writing that, according to the text, the angels in the fields above Bethlehem “said” “Glory to God in the highest” rather than singing that salutation. (Nick Squires, Rome correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, even claimed that Pope Benedict’s hardly surprising acknowledgment that Jesus was probably born in what we know as 6 or 7 b.c. — the misdating is owing to a medieval scribal error — could raise “doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition”: as if it were a “keystone” of Christian faith that Jesus was born on December 25, 0.)

But this is all froth, and thin froth at that. Those who read Benedict on the infancy narratives without the distorting bifocals of postmodern skepticism and sheer ignorance will find a rich reflection on the meaning of the Christmas story. And in the course of his theologically focused exegesis of these beloved ancient texts, the scholar-pope makes several points of capital importance for our present cultural circumstances, and does so in his typically limpid prose.