Mysteries of Christ's Early Life

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MYSTERIES OF CHRIST'S EARLY LIFE Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. By Pope Benedict XVI. Image Books. 144 pages. $20.

After serving for many years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expressed a sincere wish to retire to a private life in his native Germany. There the world-renowned theologian hoped to enjoy uninterrupted hours of study and to add to his already impressive list of books. Pope John Paul II's refusal to accept Ratzinger's resignation, and then Ratzinger's elevation to the papacy in 2005, altered his plans. Yet remarkably, as Pope Benedict XVI, he managed, as a private theologian not exercising papal authority, to write a series of reflections on the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, known as the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. The choice of subject is fitting for what is in many respects his magnum opus, for throughout his theological career, as well as his pontificate, the Person of Jesus Christ has always been at the heart of his teaching.

Pope Benedict's purpose in writing Jesus of Nazareth is twofold: He seeks mainly to explore the mystery of Jesus as revealed to us in the Gospels, while at the same time offering by demonstration a more faith-filled approach to scriptural exegesis in response to the problems that have arisen from the use of the historical-critical method. As a form of biblical scholarship, the historical-critical method uses the tools of historical research in reading biblical texts in an attempt to understand them in their historical context.

Pope Benedict acknowledges the historical-critical method as a great tool, since the Christian faith claims that the events in Scripture were real historical occurrences recorded by real human authors. Historical science alone, however, cannot admit to the intrinsic unity of Scripture and in practice has separated the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith, claiming supernatural happenings to be mere myths and leaving Christianity without a foundation.

The meaning of Scripture cannot be reduced to the fragmentary conclusions of historical research. Scripture requires a fuller reading that incorporates faith and tradition yet asserts the historicity of key biblical events. Benedict believes that Scripture must be read as a unified whole with the understanding that Christ is the source and meaning of its unity. In this way, Scripture can be rightly understood as both the work of human authors and, primarily, the Word of God. Only this kind of reading preserves the historical realities of Scripture while drawing out its universal message, which transcends the boundaries of history.

The third and final release in the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy is, as its subtitle suggests, an exegesis of the infancy narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In the foreword, Pope Benedict explains that it is not to be considered a third volume but an "antechamber" to the much lengthier Volumes I and II, which cover Jesus' public ministry and His Paschal Mystery. Benedict begins humbly, noting that no exegesis can ever fully unfold all that Scripture contains. Moreover, the mysteries of the Christian faith are replete with paradoxes. In attempting to answer the question of Jesus' origin we find one such paradox: "Jesus' provenance is both known and unknown, seemingly easy to establish, and yet not exhaustively." Benedict explains that the answer to where Jesus is from also reveals to us His very identity and mission. Progressing through the infancy narratives, this identity and mission is further revealed.

Matthew and Luke's genealogies of Jesus offer an explanation of His origin and who He is. Matthew prefaces his Gospel with his genealogy of Jesus, which begins with Abraham, who received God's promise. It runs down the male line through King David but in the end comes to Jesus through Mary - the legal spouse of Joseph, of the House of David. "Mary is a new beginning," Benedict writes. …