The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI


Benedict’s “small antechamber” to the other two volumes.

Good exegesis involves two stages:

  1. Historical – what the respective authors intended to convey through their text in their own day
  2. A personal response – is it true? does it concern me? if so, how?

“Every exegesis must fall short of the magnitude of the biblical text” (xii)

 Chapter 1: “Where are you from?” (John 19:9) – The question about Jesus’ origin as a question about being & mission

  •  Jesus’ provenance is both known (Jn 6:42) & unknown (Jn 9:29), seemingly easy to establish, and yet not exhaustively… Who is Jesus? Where is he from? The two questions are inseparably linked (4).

Matthew’s genealogy

  • Placed at beginning of Gospel. Serves as a kind of heading to the entire Gospel. Unfolds the question of Jesus’ provenance in its dual significance.
  • 2 key names:
    1. Abraham –  the universality of Jesus’ mission fulfilling Abraham’s 3rd promise from God (see Gen 18:18 & Mt 28:19) = the universality is already contained within Jesus’ origin.
    2. David – With its 3 sets of 14 generations – number symbolism for “David” = David’s imprint on entire genealogy = Gospel of Christ the King. Davidic promise permeates the symbolic structuring of time
  • 4 women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and wife of Uriah:
    • these women were sinners = Jesus taking on the sins of the world.
    • more importantly… none of these women were Jewish = Jesus’ universal mission.
  • Mary:
    • Yet most important of all is that the genealogy ends with a woman: Mary, who truly marks a new beginning and relativizes the entire genealogy. “That which is conceived in Mary is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20).
  • Joseph:
    • The genealogy is still important: Joseph is the legal father of Jesus. Jesus belongs by law to the house of David, but comes from God Himself = dual origin.

Luke’s genealogy:

  • Placed at beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (3:23-38).
  • Serves to introduce and legitimize Jesus in his public mission.
  • 76 names without any outwardly recognizable pattern.
  • Yet here too a symbolic structuring of historical time can be detected: the genealogy contains 11 x 7 members. Luke may have known the apocalyptic formula that divides the world history into 12 parts and at the end consists of 11 x 7 generations.
  • Purpose of Luke’s genealogy = humanity starts afresh with Jesus –> Jesus takes upon himself the whole of humanity, the whole history of man, and he gives it a decisive re-orientation toward a new manner of human existence.

Comparing Matthew’s & Luke’s genealogy:

  • Neither evangelist is concerned so much with the individual names as with the symbol structure within which Jesus’ place in history is set before us: the intricacy with which Jesus is woven into the historical strands of the promise, as well as the new beginning which paradoxically characterizes his origin side by side with the continuity of God’s action in history.
  • They only agree on a handful of names. PB16 considers it utterly futile to formulate hypotheses on trying to reconcile these 2 genealogies. Their genealogies go in opposite directions (both break off & stop at Joseph).
    • Matthew roots to top of tree – Abraham to Jesus = to emphasize Davidic promise vs.
    • Luke treetop down – Jesus to Adam = to emphasize humanity starting afresh with Jesus.

John’s Gospel

  • John grandly and emphatically proposes an answer in his Prologue to the question of Jesus’ provenance –> Jesus comes from God. He is God.
    • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt [pitched his tent] among us” (Jn 1:1-14).
  • Opens up a new and true beginning & a new manner of human existence (Jn 1:12) to become children of God.
  • John has recapitulated the deepest meaning of the genealogies & taught us to understand them as an interpretation of our own origin… our true “genealogy” = through faith in God to become sons of God.

Chapter 2: The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist & the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus

On the Particular Literary Character of the Texts

The infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation. There is a reciprocal relationship between the interpreting word of God and the interpreting history: the word of God teaches that “salvation history,” universal in scope, is present within the events. For their part, the events themselves unlock the word of God and manifest the true reality hidden within the individual texts (17).

One of the characteristics of early Christian narrative is that it provides these “waiting” words with their “owner” (17).

  • Luke’s infancy narrative:
    • Haggadic Midrash (exegesis on Scripture by means of narratives)
    • Belongs firmly to early Christianity
    • Mary is a source for his work (2 x Luke says Mary kept it in her heart).

The Annunciation of the Birth of John

  • John the Baptist is a priest – both parents are of priestly stock.
  • John the Baptist is a prophet – Books of Malachi and Daniel references.
  • The great difference between the annunciation of the birth of the Baptist to Zechariah and the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary:
    • Zechariah = priest – Temple – liturgy
    • Mary = unknown young woman – unknown small town – unknown private dwelling.
    • Overall, shows the profound continuity in the history of God’s action and the radical newness of the hidden mustard-seed.

The Annunciation to Mary

  • The angel does not address Mary with the usual Hebrew salutation shalom – peace be with you – but with the Greek greeting formula – chaire – “Hail! Rejoice!” This exclamation from the angel marks the true beginning of the New Testament (26). Also, the universality of the Christian message is shown in this greeting. And yet this word is also taken from the Old Testament, and thus it expresses the complete continuity of biblical salvation history.
  • Mary:
    • God’s living tent, in which he chooses to dwell among men in a new way.
    • Mary’s great interiority & inner engagement with the word (cf. Lk 2:19, 51)… she seeks to understand rather than remain locked in her initial trouble… also fearless woman.
    • Mary’s fiat is the moment of free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made.
    • Mary conceived through her ear (Church Fathers reference)
    • After the angel left, Mary remains alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity (37)

The Conception and Birth of Jesus according to Matthew

  • Related exclusively from the perspective of Saint Joseph
  • “Just” man = sums a holy life in the Old Testament (cf. Psalm 1).
    • Read Psalm 1 as a portrait of the spiritual figure of Saint Joseph
  • Joseph seeks the path that brings law and love into a unity.
  • The dream reveals St. Joseph’s capacity to perceive the divine and his ability to discern.
  • Emmanuel = although Jesus is not actually named Emmanuel, the entire history of the Gospels seeks to demonstrate that He is Emmanuel in his very person, that is God with us = true man & true God.

Virgin Birth – Myth or Historical Truth?

  • The difference between the concepts of Egyptian pharaohs, Greek gods, and other accounts versus the Gospel account is so profound that one really cannot speak of true parallels. In the Gospel accounts, the oneness of the one God and the infinite distance between God and creature is fully preserved. There is no mixture, no demi-god. It is God’s creative word alone that brings about something new. Jesus, born of Mary, is fully man and fully God, without confusion and without separation.
  • The accounts of Matthew and Luke are firmly rooted, in terms of their basic conception, in the biblical tradition of God the Creator and Redeemer. As far as their specific content is concerned, though, they are derived from the family tradition, they are a tradition handed down, recording the events that took place.
  • The humility gives it a disturbing grandeur (56).
  • Ultimately, God is allowed to act in the material domain too. God is God.

Chapter 3: The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem

The Historical and Theological Framework of the Nativity Story in Luke’s Gospel

  • Context of world history is important for Luke. For the first time, “all the world,” the ecumene in its entirety, is to be enrolled. For the first time there is a government and an empire that spans the globe. For the first time, there is a great expanse of peace in which everyone’s property can be registered and placed at the service of the wider community… only now can a message of universal salvation, a universal Saviour, enter the word: it is indeed the “fullness of time” (58-9).
  • Jesus belongs to a time that can be precisely dated and a geographical area that can be precisely defined: here the universal and the concrete converge.
  • God shows Himself to be the true guiding force behind all history.
  • Comparing Jesus and Augustus Caesar:
    • Caesar was considered a Saviour, a god, whose birth brought a new reckoning of time as both a politician and a theological figure who wanted two things: (1) peace & (2) universality of reign.
    • What Caesar claimed for himself is ultimately realized in a loftier way in the defenceless and powerless child born in a Bethlehem cave and visited by poor shepherds. The peace of Christ surpasses the peace of August as heaven surpasses earth (77).

The Birth of Jesus

  • “There was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6)
    • Points towards the reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message.
  • The manger:
    • Since Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes (stiffly wrapped in bandages), the manger is a kind of altar.
    • From St. Augustine, we see that the manger, a place where animals find their food, is altar the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God.
    • The manger is also the Ark of the Covenant – God is mysteriously hidden among men & is found between two animals (like two angels for the Ark).
  • “First-born”
    • Is a “theological quality” in the Old Testament, highlighting a particular way in which Jesus belongs to God (Ex. 13:1, 13).
    • St. Paul takes the idea of “first-born” further in Romans 8:29 (new human family idea) and in Colossians 1:15-18 (new cosmic idea)
  • Shepherds
    • We should not read too much into this idea that shepherds were the first to receive the message (it was pretty natural b/c they were closest to the event). But they still do represent the poor of Israel, God’s first love.
    • Idea of shepherd’s watchfulness taken up by monastic circles.
    • Jesus, born among shepherds, is the great shepherd of mankind (parallel to anointing of David as king).
    • “peace to men of good will” –> translation issues… “peace to men of good pleasure / men with whom God is pleased”… Jesus is the one with whom the Father is pleased…. “so men “with whom He is pleased” are those who share the attitude of the Son – those who are conformed to Christ (75). To avoid moralizing position or predestination position = both grace + free will is Scriptural.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

  • 3 events belong to the 40th day: 
    1. The “purification” of Mary – Mary presented the offering of the poor (cf. Lk 2:24) (normally it would be a lamb for a burnt-offering and a young pigeon or turtle-dove for a sin offering, but Mary presented two young pigeons or turtle-doves) = drives home Luke’s theology of poverty. Mary does not need to be purified from the birth of Jesus, but she obeys the law, and in this way she serves the fulfillment of the promises.
    2. The “redemption” of the 1st born child Jesus through an offering prescribed by the law – Although Luke quotes the law regarding the consecration of the first-born (2:23), he links it to the 3rd event of the presentation. Evidently Luke intends to say that instead of being “redeemed” and restored to his parents, this child was personally handed over to God in the Temple. Rather than being “redeemed” and restored to his parents, we find the opposite – he is handed over to God and belongs to God completely now.
    3. The “presentation” of Jesus in the Temple – Jesus is publicly handed over to God His Father.
      • Simeon’s prophecy to Mary = theology of glory <–> theology of the Cross
      • Anna the prophetess


Chapter 4: The Wise Men from the East and the Flight into Egypt

The Historical and Geographical Framework of the Narrative

  • King Herod – Herod’s quasi-messianic claim to be the redeemer at least of the Jewish kingdom is the antithesis to the newborn child.
  • Bethlehem – “Bethlehem of Judea” – the “of Judea” could suggest a subsidiary theological theme – Jacob’s blessing of Judah (Gen 49:10) and Balaam’s prophecy of the star (Num 24:17) –> Balaam’s oracle, as a non-Jew, would have circulated outside Judaism in some way and set people thinking.

Who Were the Magi?

  • 4 principal meanings of magi (magoi):
    1. Members of the Persian priestly caste – who were also philosophers (quoted by Aristotle) –> religious and philosophical wisdom that ultimately leads people to Christ.
    2. Possessors & users of supernatural knowledge & ability
    3. Magicians
    4. Deceivers & seducers – example in Acts, a magus named Bar-Jesus (13:10)
  • The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers. They were “wise.” They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence ” philosophy” in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of the intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities… They represent the religions moving towards Christ, as well as the self-transcendence of science toward him (95)… they are the successors of Abraham who set off on a journey and the successors of Socrates who go beyond conventional questioning to the higher truths… they are the forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age (96).
  • 3 kings:
    • represent all 3 known continents: Africa, Asia, Europe
    • represent 3 phases of human life: youth, maturity, old age.
  • “The key point is this: the wise men from the east are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. They initiate a procession that continues throughout history. Not only do they represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him (97).

The Star

  • Although the story is theological in many ways, it would be wrong to dismiss it a priori. 
  • Some various ideas:
    • Kepler (+1630) saw in the year 7-6 B.C. (the likely time Jesus was born) a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Kepler himself witnessed this in 1604 with the addition of a supernova, in which intense radiance streams happen for weeks or months from it.
    • Chrysostom did not think it was a star: “That this star was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, as it seems at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its very course. For there is… not any star that moves by this way” (In Matthaeum Homiliae, VI)
    • Ferrari d’Occhieppo dismissed the supernova theory and said that the conjunction of Jupiter (the highest Babylonian god, Marduk) and Saturn (the cosmic representation of the Jewish people) in the constellation Pisces could hint to Babylonian astronomers that a universally significant event has happened in the land of the Jews.
  • Nevertheless, the wise men must still have been inwardly moved by some hope. They went as far as Judea, then had Scriptures lead them finally to the Christ.
  • Overall, the cosmos speaks of Christ. Creation gives an intuition of the Creator. Biblical monotheism brought about a clear demythologization of the astral divinities.

At the very moment when the Magi adored Jesus, astrology came to an end, as the stars from then on traced the orbit determined by Christ ~ Gregory Nazianzen

An anthropological revolution happened: human nature assumed by God – as revealed in God’s only-begotten Son – is greater than all the powers of the material world, greater than the entire universe.

Jerusalem – Stopping Point on the Journey

  • The wise men have arrived at the king’s palace in Jerusalem.

“king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2)

  • a Gentile title that reappears in Jesus’ Passion – mystery of the Cross is present.

“Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3)

  • Reference again to Holy City quaking on eve of Jesus’ Passion (Mt 21:10) + Herod’s troubled b/c someone vying for the throne + all Jerusalem troubled b/c “they knew Herod, after all”.

“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel” (Mt 2:6)

  • Matthew combines two passages and makes the following adjustments:
    • Micah 5:1 “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler”
      • FROM “You are the smallest along the clans of Judah”
      • TO “You are by no means least among the leading cities of Judah”
        • –> appears to resolve the paradox = a small city, considered insignificant in itself, can now be recognized in its true greatness
    • with a passage from 2 Samuel 5:2 “who will govern my people Israel”
      • Coming ruler is portrayed as the shepherd of Israel.

The Worship of the Wise Men before Jesus

  • St. Joseph – even though Matthew’s infancy narrative was written from Joseph’s perspective, Joseph is strikingly absent. Gnilka suggests that this is Matthew’s way of reminding of us of the virgin birth & marking Jesus out as the Son of God.
  • The gifts – they are not practical gifts, but rather acknowledge the royal dignity of him to whom they are offered.
    • Gold = Jesus’ kingship
    • Incense = divine sonship
    • Myrrh = mystery of His Passion

Flight into Egypt and Return to the Land of Israel

  • St. Joseph reappears as the principal actor on the stage
  • Herod’s killing, although we have no non-biblical source to prove this, is albeit likely due to his character.
  • Parallels between the event & Moses Haggadah handed down by Josephus –> Jesus, the true Son, himself went into “exile” in a very deep sense, in order to lead all of us home from exile.
  • Jeremiah’s prophecy uniquely reworked by Matthew through 2 changes to emphasize the cry to God that is only truly consoled through the Resurrection.
  • Jesus went to Galilee by the command of the angel –> to show that Jesus’ Galilean origin corresponds to God’s design for history.

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Mt 2:23)

  • Matthew is not referring to any particular Scriptural passage, but to the prophets overall. Their hope is summed up in this designation of Jesus. Where is this hope to be found? Benedict outlines 2 possible solutions
    1. “Nazirite” = based on prophecy of birth of Samson – Jesus was not a Nazirite in the classical sense of the term, but was totally consecrated to God, so Jesus is the true Nazaritie.
    2. “Nezer” from the term “Nazoraios” = Isaiah’s Messianic trilogy in chapter 7 about a “shoot” (nezer) that comes from Jesse –> Jesus is the new shoot –> link to the ending of Matthew’s genealogy  – entirely new beginning in Jesus…. what at first sight refers to simply to his origin, actually points to his essence: he is the “shoot,” he is the one completely consecrated to God, from his mother’s womb to the day of his death (118).

“The adoration of the Magi, unlike the story of the Annunciation to Mary, does not touch upon any essential aspect of our faith. No foundations would be shaken if it were simply an invention of Matthew’s based on a theological idea” ~ Jean Danielou, The Infancy Narratives, pg. 95 –> Nevertheless, Danielou concludes that were are dealing with historical evens, whose theological significance was worked out by the Jewish Christian community and by Matthew.

Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply (119).

Epilogue: The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple

  • Jesus’ family was devout: they observed the Law.
    • The fact that Mary and Jesus also took part in the pilgrimage once again demonstrates the piety of Jesus’ family (boys were only obliged to take part once they were 13 + women’s obligation was a debatable matter).
  • Jesus reveals a new freedom: not the freedom of someone with no obligations, but the freedom of someone totally united with the Father’s will.
  • This story illustrates the link between the radical newness and equally radical faithfulness, rooted in Jesus’ sonship.
  • Freedom and obedience were combined in a healthy manner in the holy family –> Jesus’ parents expected to see him when the evening came.
  • Jesus’ absence = mission of the Son.
  • 3 days can be explained in quite practical terms but we also see a silent reference to the 3 days between Cross and resurrection.
  • Jesus’ divine sonship is very clear – I am with my Father.
  • Jesus’ “must” – readiness to submit to the Father’s will – perfect filial obedience
  • Parent’s misunderstanding = shows they both have a “journeying” faith – shrouded in darkness and has to mature by persevering through that darkness.
  • We should be humble to leave intact the loftiness of Jesus’ words.
  • Story of Samuel is being repeated on a higher plane, in a definite manner.
  • Jesus’ wisdom grew – he does not live in some abstract omniscience, but he is rooted in concrete history, a place and a time, in the different phases on human life, and this is what gives concrete shape to his knowledge = Jesus thought and learned in a human fashion = true God and true man.




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