Getting Benedict Wrong on Jesus’ Infancy

A lot could be said about Pope Benedict’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, but one thing that should not be said is that it undermines confidence in the general historicity of the infancy narratives. Yet you might well get a different idea from some of the media accounts. The impression some of those accounts leave is that for Pope Benedict much that the Gospels say about the things leading up to Jesus’ birth and infancy aren’t historically reliable.

The problem of the media misreading has become noticable enough that Spanish theologian Jose Maria Gil Tamayo, writing in L’Osservatore Romano, has criticized the media for missing the point of the Pope’s book and focusing instead on whether the Pope says a donkey and an ass were present at Jesus’ birth. The Washington Post, in turn, has reported on the theologian’s criticisms. The Post piece tries to present the theologian’s criticisms and winds up itself misrepresenting Benedict’s position in the process. For instance: “Benedict also writes that the angels who announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds probably didn’t actually sing, and that the three wise men could have been inspired by a ‘theological idea’ rather than by a ‘historical event’.”

When the shepherds in the field (Lk 2:12-14) encounter the multitude of angels praising God for the birth of Jesus, are the angels “singing”? Benedict notes that the evangelist says that the angels “said” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased”. Does that amount to what the Post reports Benedict as maintaining, that “the angels …probably didn’t actually sing”?

Benedict observes, “Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present” (p. 73). He goes on to link this “song” with the singing of Christmas carols and the singing of the Gloria at Mass. That does not amount to saying that the angels “probably didn’t actually sing”, as the Post reports. Indeed, Benedict appears to maintain that in some sense they did sing, even though Luke doesn’t say they did.

It’s a trivial point, really, but it illustrates the two big problems with much media coverage of the book in particular and of many religious topics in general: getting the basic facts wrong and missing the point. The real story is (1) that Benedict, pace many critical exegetes, assumes the historical reality of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, whether the angels sang or merely recited their Gloria; and (2) the meaning Benedict gives of their Gloria and the angelic epiphany to the shepherds.

We see a similar thing with the controverted question of the Magi. Were they real or simply a literary creation by Matthew (or his source[s]) to make a theological point? The Post article attributes to Benedict the position that the Magi “could have been inspired by a ‘theological idea’ rather than by a ‘historical event’.”

It’s true Benedict agrees with the late Jesuit biblical theologian Jean Danielou that the historicity of the Magi is not essential to the Christian faith, as, for instance, the Annunciation is. They both hold that no “foundations would be shaken if it were simply an invention of Matthew’s based on a theological idea.” Nevertheless, both Benedict and Danielou conclude that in the story of the Magi “we are dealing here with historical events, whose theological significance was worked out by the Jewish Christian community and by Matthew.”

In the end, Benedict concludes, “The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply” (p. 119). 

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About Mark Brumley 64 Articles
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.