Now that the secular media has completed its rants about how Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) destroyed Christmas, the time has come to engage more seriously the accomplishment of Ratzinger in his new book The Infancy Narratives. What is the overall merit of his project? Let me begin by saying that the spiritual reflections Ratzinger offers throughout the book are well worth anyone’s read. I was deeply moved, for instance, by his reflections on the Annunciation, and by his insightful commentary on the fact that while, in Mary’s society, women were not allowed to express their own consent to betrothal, God asks of Mary her consent to be the Mother of God. Yet at the risk of being labeled one of those Scripture scholars who happily point the Magi towards their destination but do not deign to follow themselves, as Ratzinger comments on the Jewish Scribes in Matthew 2:4-9, I feel it necessary to offer my critique of Ratzinger’s project as a whole.
In keeping with his background in German philosophy, Ratzinger regularly poses dichotomies throughout his text that, in my opinion, are false. In particular, I would like to examine the question of the genre of the infancy narratives in Ratzinger’s new book. He regularly dubs this genre as “interpreted history,” with a heavy (and Modern?) overemphasis on the “history.” The infancy narratives, he claims, are history that has been interpreted through the lens of the Hebrew Bible Scriptures. Historical events – in this case events such as the Annunciation, the birth in Bethlehem, the census under Quirinius, the Magi’s star – are all real, historical events, many of which were probably passed down orally from Mary herself, that have gone through later interpretation in light of the Old Testament. And so what we get in the infancy narratives is the product of this interpretive process: “real history, theologically thought through and interpreted.”
In order to make his point, Ratzinger dialectically opposes to “interpreted history” two other options: “Myth” or “story” along with Jewish midrash, and intentional deception. The second option he dismisses quickly with a quote from Klaus Berger: “One must suppose, until the contrary is proven, that the evangelists did not intend to deceive their readers, but rather to inform them concerning historical events.” As for the first, midrash is summarily dismissed without discussion. “Stories” are likewise rejected offhand simply with the assertion: “To sum up: what Matthew and Luke set out to do, each in his own way, was not to tell ‘stories’ but to write history.” And where does this history come from? Despite the doubt of the majority of scholarship, it comes from “family tradition.”
Two issues primarily are cause for concern. First, Ratzinger almost invariably takes the minority opinion concerning contentious historical questions. He – very problematically in my opinion – glosses historical problems such as the dating of the census and the disagreement between Matthew and Luke about where Joseph and Mary are originally from. After quickly glossing the issue, he concludes: “The two different strands of tradition agree on the fact that Bethlehem was Jesus’ birthplace. If we abide by the sources, it is clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth.” Yet it is not so simple. If the census that purportedly took place ca. 6 BC did not actually take place, then there was no reason for Joseph to go to Bethlehem. And the scholarship of Alois Stoger that Ratzinger cites to support the idea that Quirinius may have briefly been in Syria in 6-7 BC, and that the census may have been initiated at that time only to be completed twelve years later, is far from convincing and quite a stretch of the historical record.
Matthew is also clearly wrong in thinking that Jesus and Mary were from Bethlehem. The other gospels are clear in their claim that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth. And so, if Matthew is wrong about his Bethlehem claim, and Luke is in position of faulty historical data, then can it be so easily claimed, “it is clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem”? Would it not be easier for Ratzinger to treat the faulty historical records that Matthew and Luke utilize in their infancy narratives in the same way he treats their appropriation of two different genealogies, viz., by claiming that the authors have “based themselves on traditions whose sources we cannot reconstruct. It seems to me utterly futile to formulate hypotheses on this matter. 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”? Could not the sources that the evangelists were working with also have been flawed and beyond our reconstruction? May they not too have been more interested in the “symbolic structure” of these sources than with the historicity of every detail?
This brings us to my second concern. Ratzinger’s offhand rejection of anything but “history” (and a rather Modern view of it, it seems to me) creates problems for his literary analysis. For example, he cites with approval Rene Laurentin’s observation that Luke structures his infancy narrative using the 490 days announced by Gabriel in the book of Daniel. John the Baptist’s 6 months in the womb prior to Jesus, added to Jesus’ 9 months, combined with the 40 days until the Presentation in the Temple, total 490 days. Very neat. But how might such a literary technique square with history? Are we to believe that John the Baptist was actually historically 6 months older than Jesus and that this fact also just happens to fit neatly into the schema of 490 days?
Scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond E. Brown also reject the infancy narratives as midrash, yet they are far more conscious than Ratzinger of the constructions at work in the narratives and the issues that these constructions raise for their historicity. While the historical elements of these narratives cannot be ignored and have a central part to play in the Christian religion, inaccuracies in Matthew and Luke cannot be simply chalked up to an intention to deceive or summarily ignored. A third option, an option that Ratzinger apparently refuses to consider, is that Matthew and Luke, writing much later than the events, are dealing with incomplete and faulty historical traditions. Yet even these faulty traditions most likely have kernels of historical truth and are able to convey in their own albeit incomplete ways the plan of God at work in the birth of Jesus Christ.