Monday, November 26, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI's Book On The Infancy Narratives

(The citations below refer to approximate location numbers in the Kindle edition of the book.)

The Pope recently published the third volume in his series of books on Jesus (Jesus Of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives [New York: Random House, 2012]). The latest volume focuses on the Biblical accounts of Jesus' birth, with an epilogue about the temple visitation (Luke 2:41-52). It's less than 150 pages long, and it's more exegetical and theological than apologetic. Most of the book is good. It has the sort of weaknesses you'd expect from a Roman Catholic work (e.g., a false view of Mary). It doesn't break much new ground. However, it's a generally good overview of the infancy narratives from a conservative perspective, at an intermediate level.

There's some valuable material in the book outside of the context of apologetics. Benedict often makes good theological points, and much of what he says about the application of the Biblical text to our modern context is significant. But my primary interest here is the book's relevance to apologetics. Most of my review will focus on that dimension of the book.

Benedict and his predecessor have sometimes sided with liberals on matters of Biblical controversy. See here for some examples. But the Pope's book on the infancy narratives is conservative, not just in its general outlines, but also in many details. He thinks Matthew and Luke were writing in a historical genre. He maintains that the infancy narratives stem from sources within Jesus' family, with Mary in particular as one of Luke's sources. He defends the historicity of the virgin birth, Luke's census, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and other aspects of the narratives that are often dismissed as unhistorical. He argues against alleged pagan and fictional Jewish origins for the accounts. He contends that passages like Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:2 weren't fulfilled by any of the contemporaries of the prophets, but instead pointed forward to Jesus.

However, he doesn't argue in much depth for his conclusions. He brings up some good points along the way, and he cites the work of scholars who have studied the infancy narratives, but he doesn't do a lot to advance the case himself. He often repeats the most common argumentation, what you'd get from reading a typical conservative commentary on Matthew or Luke. He doesn't even repeat the best arguments of conservative scholarship, much less does he break new ground himself.

Take his treatment of the Slaughter of the Innocents, for example. He claims that there are no reports of the event in extra-Biblical sources, and he repeats the common observation that such an action by Herod would be consistent with his character (1261). By contrast, see my article on the Slaughter here, in which I cite better arguments from modern scholarship and add some further arguments of my own. Why couldn't a Pope do at least as much?

Some of you may be wondering what Benedict does with passages in the infancy narratives that are problematic for Catholicism. He addresses issues like Luke's use of "firstborn" (Luke 2:7) and Simeon's comments to Mary in Luke 2:35, but he doesn't say a lot. You won't find any interaction with the best argumentation against a Catholic reading of those passages. You won't find responses to arguments like the ones raised by Eric Svendsen in Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001).

When commenting on Luke 2:35, the Pope appeals to ecclesiastical tradition as a means of discerning how to interpret the passage. He refers to "the believing and praying Church", "the writings of the Church Fathers", etc. (1022) Yet, the earliest patristic interpretations of the passage contradict the Catholic view of Mary. Basil of Caesarea tells us that his anti-Catholic interpretation of the passage was widespread. See here and here.

On the other hand, the Pope writes about Luke 1:34:

"Since Saint Augustine, one explanation that has been put forward is that Mary had taken a vow of virginity and had entered into the betrothal simply in order to have a protector for her virginity. But this theory is quite foreign to the world of the Judaism of Jesus' time, and in that context it seems inconceivable. So how are we to understand the passage? A satisfying answer has yet to be found by modern exegesis." (452)

I came to the Pope's book with a belief that the infancy narratives contradict the Catholic view of Mary. After finishing the book, my belief was still intact, but strengthened. If there's a good case to be made for the Catholic view of Mary in the infancy narratives or good answers to the best objections to that view, you wouldn't know it by reading the Pope's book.

Though Benedict's view of the infancy narratives is mostly conservative, there are some elements of it that are disappointing from a conservative perspective. I'll give a couple of examples.

He doesn't attempt a detailed harmonization of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. He doesn't even provide an approach that could be applied to arrive at a detailed harmonization. He tells us that "Neither evangelist is concerned so much with the individual names as with the symbolic structure within which Jesus' place in history is set before us" (173). That doesn't help much. Contrast the Pope's view of the matter to what we find in early church history. Julius Africanus refers to relatives of Jesus who had verified the accuracy of the genealogies, and Eusebius of Caesarea refers to how "every believer" offered a harmonization (Eusebius, Church History, 1:7:14, 1:7:1). The earliest Christians considered it a significant issue. One of the most common objections raised against the infancy narratives in our day is the alleged inconsistency between the two genealogies. Benedict should have said more about the subject.

In the context of discussing the presentation of Jesus in the temple, he refers to how Luke "lacked precise knowledge of Old Testament legislation" (954). That may be the Pope's way of addressing the alleged error in Luke 2:22. But his comments on the subject are highly ambiguous and leave the reader wondering whether he's saying that Luke erred.

Something I found striking about the book is the absence of any reference to the work of Raymond Brown. Brown's book on the infancy narratives is still considered the standard in the field. It's widely cited, even though it's been almost two decades since the last edition came out. Brown was one of the foremost Catholic scholars of his day. His efforts were often promoted by the Catholic hierarchy, including previous Popes. Benedict never mentions him, never cites his book on the infancy narratives, and doesn't include Brown in his bibliography. Though Brown's work on the infancy narratives goes into a lot of depth and has many good attributes, it's largely liberal and has had a corrupting influence on how scholars and the public view the events surrounding Jesus' birth. Instead of correcting Brown head on, Benedict takes the indirect approach of arguing against many of Brown's conclusions without even mentioning Brown in the process. That's better than repeating Brown's errors. But it's not good enough. Members of Benedict's denomination, like Brown, have been at the forefront of arguing against a traditional view of the infancy narratives. Those individuals often did that work not only without being disciplined by the hierarchy, but even with a lot of support and promotion from that hierarchy instead. In large part, it's people like Benedict who created this mess. They're doing little to clean it up. The Pope's book is a step in the right direction, but a lot more is needed.


  1. Does the Supreme Pontiff mention John Meier?

    In the first volume of the series he praises (sort of) Meier's A Marginal Jew. Meier, in volume 1 of A Marginal View, takes a dim view of the historicity of the Infancy Narratives.