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Review of Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives

Joseph Ratzinger, Bloomsbury, 160 pp, £8.86.  

The Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was authored by Joseph Ratzinger in a personal capacity as a theologian. Readers should thus not confuse it with his papal Magisterium or be reluctant to engage critically with the text. Unfortunately, the words ‘Pope Benedict XVI’ takes up a large part of the front cover, and a photo of Pope Benedict covers the entire back cover, which could cause confusion, although this can be put down to the decision of the publishers. Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives is the third, final, and considerably shorter part of the Ratzinger trilogy on the life of Jesus. In the introduction Ratzinger tells us that this volume is a “small antechamber” to the previous two volumes. No explanation is given for structuring the trilogy in this manner. As he has stated in his previous two volumes on Jesus, Ratzinger wants to bring together the canonical-ecclesial hermeneutic and the historical-critical hermeneutic in order to present the figure and message of Jesus. Throughout the current volume it is clear he tries to keep these two hermeneutics together, sometimes edging more to one than the other.    

He begins looking at the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. He points out three important things about Matthew’s genealogy: the universal mission of Jesus to Jews and gentiles via the figure of Abraham and the four women mentioned; the kingly office of Jesus via King David; and the new era that begins with Mary the Mother of Jesus. Concerning Luke’s genealogy, Ratzinger is concerned with the symbolic structuring and sequencing of names beginning with Jesus and ending with God. He draws out the profundity of the genealogies by introducing the prologue of John’s Gospel: Jesus is the Word of God from the beginning; all of us can enter into the genealogy of Jesus by becoming children of God. It is understandable that Christians might find the genealogies daunting, making Ratzinger’s presentation of them helpful and not overly heavy.       

Luke’s Gospel tells us of two announcements.  The first one about John the Baptist’s birth is bound up with Temple worship: Zachariah is the priest offering incense to God when the Archangel Gabriel tells him the news that his wife Elizabeth will conceive a son.  Ratzinger draws out the priestly nature of the Baptist’s own life and mission as opposed to the Baptist as some sort of eccentric wandering preacher and revolutionary as popularly understood.  

The second announcement is the message of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary announcing the Incarnation. These chapters on the Virgin Mary are already found in Ratzinger’s books Daughter Zion and Mary the Church at the source, making this section a representation of previous work. Ratzinger says that “Hail [chaire] full of grace [kecharitomene]” is part based upon and parallels the prophetic words of Zephaniah: ‘Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem.’ However, this greeting is also entirely new, as Origen points out. 

For Ratzinger the words of Our Lady “how shall this be since I know not man” are a riddle and a mystery. He suggests the idea that Our Lady had made a vow of virginity to God was too out of sync with the culture and mentality of Judaism. Ratzinger’s position put him at odds with Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, Bede, Albert, Aquinas, Scotus, Cornelius à Lapide’s commentaries, public speeches by Pope John Paul II, biblicists and mariologists like Scheeben, Laurentin, Battaglia, and Manelli, who all hold that Our Lady had indeed made vow of virginity to God.

Regarding St. Joseph, Ratzinger says “Joseph has to assume Mary has broken their engagement”. However, According to Biblicist Tarcisco Stramare, three hypotheses are available: suspicion of infidelity, fear and humility before the mystery, or perplexity before the inexplicable fact. Both Stramare and Manelli show how the first two options fail, and the third, favoured by Saints Jerome and John Chrysologus to name two, and the majority of Catholic exegetes, succeeds: perplexity rather than suspicion of breaking the engagement.

Ratzinger concludes the section on the Annunciation by writing about Matthew 1:22 and Isaiah 7:14, "A virgin shall conceive and bear a son", with reference to Rudolf Kilian’s scholarship on this passage. It is historically and theologically engaging and contains useful apologetical material. He also addresses the truth of the virginal conception of Jesus against those who seek to discredit the reality by comparing it to ancient stories from world religions.

Unfortunately Ratzinger gives little mention to Our Lady’s Magnificat, apart from a few mentions throughout the text, which seems a missed opportunity as it is so rich in theology and spirituality for understanding the figure and message of Jesus through and in the prayer of his mother the perfect disciple.

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the visit of the shepherds and wise men, the star, the flight into Egypt, and the return to Galilee in Nazareth are presented in their historical and theological aspects, but Ratzinger at this point offers the reader a meditative reflection on the Christmas story. Two points stand out as things we do not often come across. First, he tells us about the parallel with Caesar Augustus as a political but also theological figure with his mission of peace ‘Ara Pacis Augusti’ to the world, as the time for the Jesus the Prince of Peace to enter the world, as noted by Bede. Tradition holds that Augustus learned from the oracle of the Tiburtine Sybil that a Hebrew child would silence all the oracles of the gods. As a side note, tradition records that the Virgin Mary, holding Jesus, appeared to Augustus. He recognised that this vision corresponded to the oracle. In response to this apparition, Augustus built an altar in honour of this child with the title Ara Primogeniti Dei, ‘Altar of the Firstborn of God.’ Three hundred years later, Constantine built a church at the location of the apparition. The second interesting point concerns Jesus being called a Nazarene. Ratzinger, along with Jerome, says that Matthew is referring to the Hebrew text of Isaiah 11:1 which speaks of a fruitful shoot from the stump of Jesse, and shoot in Hebrew is netzer. As such, Jesus the Nazarene denotes both an historical fact and the essence of who Jesus is.

The book ends with a chapter on the finding of the 12 year old Jesus in the Temple. The theme of obedience runs deliberately throughout the chapter: the religious obedience of the Holy Family making pilgrimage, the obedience of Jesus to his Father’s will, the obedience of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. The second theme is the sword that will pierce the heart of Mary, foretold in the Temple, slowly coming to fulfilment now in the loss and finding of Jesus in the Temple. Like and with Mary, we ought to ponder and meditate on the early life and teaching of Jesus, which Ratzinger has attempted with this book.

Daniel Blackman

Version: 21st April 2013

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