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.
The first of those points involves the Jesus genealogies in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which drive clergy untutored in Hebrew pronunciation to distraction (and which may sound, to the irreverent, like starting line-ups during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament). These genealogies, Benedict insists, are not literary filler. They make the essential, theological point that Jesus is, uniquely, the universal particular: a man born in a specific time and place who nonetheless fulfills the promise that “all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves” by Abraham and his progeny; the son of the Most High who, nevertheless, is legally a son of the house of David, because of Joseph’s righteousness in taking this child of mystery as his own, naming him, and bringing him and his mother into his home; the eternally begotten Son who did not come “with the timelessness of myth” but who belongs, as Ratzinger writes and the gospel of Luke insists, “to a time that can be specifically dated and a geographical area that is precisely defined.” Here, with the child in the manger, “the universal and the concrete converge,” for it was in him that “the Logos, the creative logic behind all things, entered the world,” so that “place and time” are fully participant in the redemption — a redemption anchored in history and geography, not abstracted into mythology.
All of this hinged on an act of human freedom, which is Benedict’s second, crucial point, and the essence of his analysis of the Annunciation story. Following the theological lead of a medieval doctor of the Church, Bernard of Clairvaux, the pope describes the angel Gabriel’s visit to the virgin of Nazareth in these dramatic terms:
After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free “yes” to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable “yes” of a human being.
That “yes,” that “be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), is, with the Resurrection, one of the two cornerstones of Christian faith. God does not contradict his creation in the virgin birth or in raising Jesus of Nazareth from death, the pope writes. “But here we are not dealing with the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive — with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. . . . If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation.” God has finally gotten, we might say, what he had intended and desired all along. The power of divine love, first poured out in creation, has become the history-defining and cosmos-changing power of redemption.
That cosmic dimension of what an earlier generation, rather too beholden to Teutonic exegetical neologisms, called the “Christ event” is underscored in Benedict’s charming handling of the magi story. Always the theologian, preacher, and catechist, Benedict is, of course, far less interested in who the mysterious “wise men” from the east were than in what their adventure meant — and means.
First, that these visitors were gentiles means that the promise noted above, that all nations would be blessed in Abraham and his seed, is being fulfilled in this “newborn king of the Jews.” And second, the “star rising in the east” (Matthew 2:2), which leads to the Christ child in Bethlehem, puts an end to astrology and gives us an important indicator of the truth about humanity and its destiny. The ancient belief in the stars as divine powers who shaped, even determined, the fate of men and nations is supplanted by the truth of the matter: as the pope writes, “it is not the star that determines the child’s destiny, it is the child” (and his Father, whose will is to reveal the truth about man to man) who “directs the star.” And here, for the skeptical and the cynical, is the truth about that Self that postmodernity puts at the center of everything. Here is what the pope calls the true “anthropological revolution”: “human nature assumed by God — as revealed in God’s only-begotten Son — is greater than all the powers of the material world, greater than the entire universe.”
So: Who takes humanity more seriously: Richard Dawkins, or Benedict XVI?
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives ends with a brief explication of a gospel passage that has comforted generations of parents dealing with the mysteries of teenagers: the curious episode of the finding of the young Jesus in the Temple. Here, as in the Annunciation, Benedict’s accent is on freedom rightly understood: the kind of freedom that leads to, rather than away from, authentic piety.
In this first recorded exercising of his human freedom, the young Jesus is neither defying his parents nor challenging the Jewish piety of his day. As the pope writes, “Jesus’ freedom is not the freedom of the liberal,” the freedom of the imperial, autonomous Self. “It is the freedom of the Son, and thus the freedom of the truly devout person. Jesus brings a new freedom: not the freedom of someone with no obligations, but the freedom of someone totally united with the Father’s will, someone who helps mankind to attain the freedom of inner oneness with God.”
Thus the culmination of the Christmas story and the gospels’ infancy narratives offers Americans, through the wisdom of Benedict XVI, something important to ponder as we, and indeed the entire West, consider the true meaning of freedom and the liberating power of obligation on the verge of what seem likely to be challenging years ahead.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.