by John Shelby Spong
A few months before the startling announcement of his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI published a book on the birth narratives of Jesus as found in the New Testament. It was a book promised in the publication of a previous book by this Pope, entitled Jesus of Nazareth, which I reviewed in this column more than a year ago. In this previous book, Benedict XVI had scrupulously danced around any and every opportunity to discuss the Virgin Birth. He wanted, he said, to address that subject later, devoting an entire volume to it. I was intrigued by how he would manage this subject as so much of the Roman Catholic doctrine and piety is related to the figure of the Virgin Mother of Jesus.
The primary New Testament portrait of Mary is in the birth narratives, yet the overwhelming consensus of modern biblical scholarship dismisses the literalization of these narratives, so the Pope would have to compromise either Marian piety or biblical scholarship. When I finished reading Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives just a few weeks ago his choice was clear. The Pope made a decision not to engage the scholarship of the last 200 years in order that he might continue to cling to the core teachings of his Church. The result was a book that the scholarly world will simply ignore and, as a result, a new sense of dis-ease will settle across the hierarchy of Roman Catholicism. I now understand why this Church has not been able to relate to its scholars and why the hierarchy keeps trying to suppress critical thought.
Benedict XVI’s book reveals an inner devotion that will be attractive to many. He also employs a homiletical style as many of his pages “preach” the lessons he draws from the birth narratives. Frequently in his prose, he seeks to reveal connections between the birth narratives and the later gospel portrait of the adult Jesus and ultimately to link both to the development of the creeds. The birth narratives are made the servants of the church’s doctrinal understanding. Yet, he does acknowledge and recognize the fact that the birth narratives, which appear only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, reveal a clear dependency on Jewish tradition.
This is typically the first step one takes out of literalism as critical scholarship begins to be embraced. For example, he says, “the Song of Mary,” known in the Church as “the Magnificat,” reflects its origin in the “Song of Hannah” found in the book of I Samuel. The “three days” in which the boy Jesus was apparently lost when his parents took him up to Jerusalem at the age of 12, presages the three days the crucified Jesus was lost to the world. The echo of the slaying of innocent boy babies in the story of Moses and the Pharaoh appears to be present in Matthew’s story of King Herod slaying the boy babies in Bethlehem. Yet the idea never seems to occur to the Pope that the infancy narratives were not history, that they are little more than Jewish haggadic Midrash and were never intended by their authors to be looked at or read as literal narratives.
This lack of informed scholarship was also absent from his original book, Jesus of Nazareth. In that volume, he gave no evidence that he has ever read or even recognized Roman Catholic scholars. In this earlier book he even asserted that the “Farewell Discourses” in John (14-16) were actually delivered by Jesus in Jerusalem during the final week before his arrest and crucifixion, a point of view that no Johannine scholar would affirm. A study of these discourses will reveal that they actually talk about the persecution, which the Johannine community was experiencing when the Fourth Gospel was written, some seventy years after the crucifixion.
There are many Roman Catholic biblical scholars with whom he might have consulted. One thinks immediately of Edward Schillebeeckx, probably the outstanding Catholic scripture scholar of the 20th century; John Dominic Crossan, one of the three founders of the Jesus Seminar, or Raymond Brown, who taught New Testament at Union Seminary in New York for decades and whose work was chronicled on two occasions in cover stories in Time magazine. I suggest, given the combination of his own biblical naïveté and the current challenges to some of his Church’s dogmatic traditions, that he might not have felt comfortable with either Schillebeeckx or Crossan, both of whom found little support in the Catholic hierarchy for their work, because neither was willing to live inside the doctrinal boundaries that their church seems to require even though both authors are regarded in the academic world as brilliant.
Raymond Brown, however, was thought of in Catholic circles as one who was vigorously defending the teachings of this Church and who bent his scholarship regularly to conform to that teaching. Brown, who died a few years ago, however, was not an “opus dei” devotee, and his work on the birth narratives, published under the title The Birth of the Messiah, is today still regarded among biblical scholars as the definitive study on this subject. Yet there is no mention even of Raymond Brown’s work in Benedict XVI’s bibliography and no indication in the pages of his book that Brown’s thought has ever been read or engaged. Instead the Pope quotes second tier “Catholic” propagandists like Jean Danielou, Rene Laurentin and Rudolf Pesch, who spend their time seeking to make a case for a literal star of Bethlehem, a literal journey following that star by the wise men and the literal accuracy of the Virgin Birth understood biologically.
The Pope goes so far as to seek to establish that the major source for the material contained in Luke’s birth narrative came from the mother of Jesus herself. Luke does state, he reminds his readers that “she kept all these things in her heart and pondered them.” There is, of course, no speck of historical data that points to such a conclusion and the time frame of Luke’s gospel would suggest that the mother of Jesus would have been well past one hundred years of age before that gospel was written. Where these memories of the Virgin were stored after her death or who translated them from Mary’s original Aramaic into Greek for Luke to have them available to him are issues not addressed. Neither is there an explanation for the fact that there is a total absence of birth narrative material in the writings of Paul, Mark, the document known as Q or the Gospel of Thomas, all of which scholars believe predate Matthew and Luke.
If the magi were really Persian astronomers seeking salvation, as the Pope suggests, then one does not have to answer the inconvenient historical questions that he avoids. For example, what kind of person would it be, who sees a peculiar star formation in the sky, such as the one the Pope mentions that astronomers have noted as having occurred in 7-6 BCE, when there was a conjunction of the planets of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces, and who then decided to follow that “star’s” guidance in search of a newborn “King of the Jews?” Surely following stars to the birth place of a king is the stuff of fairy tales, not history. What kind of person is it who would assume that this mysterious star was able to travel through the sky so slowly that these magi, presumably on camel-back, could keep up with it? What kind of mentality would it take for one to assume that this star mistakenly led them to the palace of King Herod, where they had to get additional directions, this time from the Jewish Scriptures? What kind of magical story would it be that these gift-bearing persons brought to this child in the home of his parents in Bethlehem, gold, to signal his kingship; frankincense, to signal his divine nature, and myrrh, a symbol of death, to signal the story of his passion and crucifixion?
What kind of person would assume he or she is reading history when it is learned in the story that Herod, a first century head of state, had actually deputized these magi, whom he has never before seen, to be agents of his central intelligence agency in order to bring back to him a report on this newborn king, who presumably would constitute a threat to his throne? When these magi did not do Herod’s bidding, what kind of king would it be who would then go to Bethlehem and slaughter all the baby boys in an attempt to remove this infant threat to his throne, especially when that same gospel will tell us in chapter 13 that this child was raised in the home of a carpenter father?
It is as if Benedict XVI never considered any other possibility than that the birth narratives are the recording of historical events incorporated into the gospel narratives. That was a popular assumption in the pre-critical days of the 18th century. It is not credible today. Benedict suggests that the prophetic text of Isaiah 7:14 (“Behold a Virgin will conceive”) and the passages of the Suffering Servant in II Isaiah (40-55) were written as prophetic words, waiting for their completion in the person of Jesus. He seems to ignore the obvious probability that the memory of Jesus was altered to conform to these biblical expectations and that the texts were even changed to make the points of connection seem more complete.
To him the angels, who sing to hillside shepherds, are real. These shepherds then go on a successful search to find the child armed only with two clues; he is wrapped in swaddling cloths and is lying in a manger. The miraculous nature of these stories is then dramatically affirmed by the fact that they find him immediately.
The primary difference between Christian education and Christian propaganda is that Christian education searches for new ways to understand the biblical texts. Christian propaganda assumes that the literal, traditional understanding of the scriptures is the only correct and true one, and so research is not to discover truth, but to validate the truth that the propagandists already believe they possess. Dogmatic Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, employs this technique. This is the mentality that produces both fundamentalism and the claims of institutional infallibility. This mentality can admit no challenge, denies the relativity of all formulas of human truth and then seeks to impose its understandings with authority claims. It is a pity that even a world-wide figure like the Pope who seeks to enter the public debate by means of a book does not understand this.