Pope Benedict has just released a new book about Jesus Christ.
It's appropriate that he released it now--just before Christmas--because it deals with the birth of Jesus.
It's called Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.
Here are 9 things you should know about it . . .
1. Why did Pope Benedict write this book?
Originally, before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wanted to retire and write a book about his own personal views on Jesus Christ, as he is presented in the gospels. He read many books like this when he was younger, and now he wanted to write his own to help people grow closer to Jesus.
He had even begun working on it in the summer holidays he had in 2003 and 2004, before John Paul II passed on in 2005.
But then he was elected pope and all his free time vanished. He still cared enough about the project, though, to make time for it.
Because he was elected pope at an elderly age, he wasn't sure how long he would live and if he would have the time and energy to complete the project, so instead of writing one book covering all of the gospels, he wrote three, covering different parts.
Volume 1 of the series covered the first part of Jesus' earthly ministry. Volume 2 covered Jesus' passion and resurrection. And now in Volume 3 he is going back to finish the series by covering the "infancy narratives."
2. What are the "infancy narratives"?
The infancy narratives are the parts of the gospels that deal with Jesus' life before his adult ministry--that is, the parts when he was an "infant."
That's an approximate term, though, because they actually cover the period before he was born (in fact, before he was even conceived) and also an incident later in his childhood, when he was about twelve years old.
Only two of the four gospels--Matthew and Luke--cover this period, and they each devote the first two chapters of their gospels to it.
Properly speaking, the infancy narratives are Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.
3. Does Pope Benedict think that these parts of the gospels are historical?
Whether these chapters in the gospels record true history is a hot topic among Bible scholars today.
Many Bible scholars think that they are not historical--that Jesus was not really born of a Virgin, and that the events recorded in these chapters convey theological ideas that were not part of the original gospel message.
Pope Benedict rejects this view and argues that the chapters are fundamentally historical.
They may be written according to somewhat different conventions than we use to write historical books today, and they may involve a certain amount of literary artistry, but they fundamentally record the truth--the historical truth--about Jesus Christ and how he came into the world.
4. Does the Pope reject modern biblical scholarship?
On the contrary. Pope Benedict does not take a hostile view toward modern biblical scholarship in any of the books of his series.
He thinks modern scholarship has produced worthwhile insights.
But he also recognizes that it has its limits, and many people have taken ideas to extremes that are not justified by the evidence.
He thus strives for a balanced view that incorporates genuine insights from recent scholarship but that also displays a healthy respect for the gospels and that does not simply dismiss things that they record based on the whims of modern authors.
5. Does the Pope try to debunk Christmas?
No, but you wouldn't know that from the coverage that the book received in the press.
Modern "journalism" is too often obsessed with trying to paint things in shocking, arresting terms to get ratings, and some reporters have tried to portray the pope as attacking Christmas traditions.
This is not the case at all.
What he does do in the book is simply point out which common ideas about Christmas are recorded in the gospels and which ones aren't.
6. Does Pope Benedict say that the angels didn't sing when they appeared to the shepherds?
Some reporters made a big deal out of the fact that Pope Benedict noted that the gospels do not record that the angels sang when they appeared to the shepherds upon Jesus' birth.
The angels not singing? Horrors!
As if this was a crucial point of faith.
But the pope didn't even challenge the idea. Here is what he actually wrote:
According to the evangelist [Luke], the angels “said” this.
But 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.
And so, from that moment, the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent.
It continues down the centuries in constantly new forms and it resounds ever anew at the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
So however the shepherds may have perceived the angels' message (as speech, chant, or full song), it is entirely natural for us to envision and celebrate this event in song.
7. Does the Pope say that there was no ox or ass at the manger?
Similarly, some journalists were startled when Pope Benedict noted that the gospels do not mention an ox and an ass being present at Jesus' birth.
No ox and ass? What kind of anti-Christmas view is this?
But while Pope Benedict does say "In the Gospel there is no reference to animals at this point," he had just finished saying:
The manger [in which Jesus was laid], as we have seen, indicates animals, who come to it for their food.
So how much does it matter that the gospels do not mention specific animals, and how much of this is just reporters trying to drum up readers, viewers, or listeners by painting things in an extreme light?
8. Do I have to agree with everything Pope Benedict says in the book?
We do need to agree with him whenever he is articulating a point of Catholic doctrine--for example, that Jesus is the Son of God and that he was born of a Virgin.
However, when it comes to the interpretation of particular passages in the infancy narratives, there is more flexibility.
As he famously wrote in the introduction to Volume 1 of the series:
It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium [that is, the Church's teaching authority], but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.
Let's make sure we give him that good will.
After all, he felt so strongly about this work that he has made the time, across his years as pope, to continue work on it, despite all the other things that claim his attention.
Let's give him a good and sympathetic hearing.
9. Where can I get the book?
Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is available at many locations, both online and off.
I hope you enjoy it and grow closer to Our Lord!
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