Translated by Philip J. Whitmore Bloomsbury 2012 £9.99 ISBN 978 1 4081 9453 9 132pp
This third and final volume of the Pope’s Jesus trilogy is well translated. It is a clear, scholarly treatise that humbly examines the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew. I say humbly because it is rather extraordinary to read an author whose office is so often associated with infallible truth telling to be engaging in open questioning about the historicity of the virginal conception let alone the wise men! Joseph Ratzinger – his personal name is on the book – ‘enters dialogue with the texts. In so doing (he is) conscious that this conversation, drawing in the past, the present and the future, can never come to an end, and that envy exegesis must fall short of the biblical text’.
The exegetical method Ratzinger uses is, unsurprisingly, allied to Christian consensus through the ages that Scripture is God-breathed and the divinity of Christ foundational truth. Pilate’s question in St. John Chapter 19 ‘Where are you from?’ heads the first chapter as the Pope sees the four Gospels primarily addressing this question, one to which answer is given: God’s Son. The following three chapters are on the annunciation of John the Baptist and Jesus, the birth of Jesus and the wise men and the book ends with an epilogue on the finding of Jesus in the Temple.
I valued the author’s grasp of tradition which has provided me with a number of new lines for Christmas preaching. Mary’s discretion – seen as solution to the late arrival of the infancy narratives – and her interiority ‘pondering in her heart’ are affirmed, as is Joseph’s righteousness which gives vital spiritual continuity with the Old Testament. I had never thought of John the Baptist’s priestly heritage pointing to Christ as fulfilment of priesthood as well as prophecy. The Pope’s classical knowledge underlies his discussion of the peace of Emperor Augustus, vital for early evangelisation, transcended by the peace the angels sing of, and Virgil’s fascinating story of the birth of a new world order forty years before Christ’s birth. The shepherds’ watchfulness is taken up in monastic tradition (vigils) and their making haste on account of ‘the things of God’ a spiritual challenge for Christians today.
At the heart of the Holy Father’s treatment is recognition of what he calls ‘waiting words’ in the Old Testament such as Isaiah’s passages on the virgin birth and suffering servant that find realisation in Jesus ‘who will save his people from their sins’. The ancient words come true in Christ whose story is true as it ‘proceeds from the word of God, by which it is sustained and brought about’. The centrality of forgiveness to his good news is drawn out by recalling the full Gospel narratives the infancy accounts give prefaces to.
The book quotes mainly German scholars best known of whom is Karl Barth who, like the current Pope, recognises how scandalous divine intervention in the material world seems to the modern spirit. ‘God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain – but not in the material’. The virgin birth stands alongside the resurrection in its challenging this reduction of God who, without power over matter ‘simply is not God’. Such an assertion, heartening as it is, is exceptional in this book. Its tone overall is measured and scholarly, considering all sides on questions of interpretation, even if it lands overall and unsurprisingly with the faith of the church through the ages.
The Revd Dr John Twisleton Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes, West Sussex 21st December 2012