If you’re a lifelong Roman Catholic with an open-minded interest in the life of Jesus Christ, you’re always most curious about the period between his life and his presentation in the Temple at the age of 12.
The Gospels are virtually silent about Jesus’ childhood, but any good historian—and especially a biographer—cannot in good conscience ignore the accounts from ancient texts that the Church understandably never accepted into its liturgy and kept out of Christian scripture.
In those old texts, the boyhood Jesus struck another child dead and gave life to clay pigeons.
Perhaps it was too much to expect that the Pope of all people would dare touch those stories, but in his new book focusing on Jesus’ birth and childhood, Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t even bother to attempt dispelling those accounts.
Instead, in “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives,” the Pope does not attempt to give an explanation or understanding to anything about Jesus Christ that is not already in the Catholic liturgy.
This is hardly the way a serious biographer is supposed to go about researching his topic, but then again this is the Pope and his ongoing airbrushing of the life of Jesus Christ is to be expected—and obviously to the liking of his readers for whom it is like a literary Lourdes.
What the Pope does debunk is the date of Jesus’ birth, arguing that the Christian calendar has the birth year wrong, an error he blames on a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who overshot Jesus Christ’s birth by “several years,” the Pope writes.
Benedict instead aligns himself with other historians who believe that Jesus’ birth actually took place sometime between 7 B.C. and 2 B.C.
The narrative of Jesus’ birth and infancy in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Benedict maintains, are not simply symbolic but “a real history, even if interpreted and understood through the lens of the faith.”
No fewer than a million copies in nine languages hit bookstores and were available online Wednesday in the final installment in the Pope’s “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy, which he began when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The cardinal was elected pope in 2005.
A Vatican spokesman said Benedict researched the book by using the work of other scholars, many of them Germans like himself, in dealing with what the church calls “some of the most controversial themes of Christian tradition.”
Among them is the issue of Mary’s virgin conception, which Benedict maintains to be “historical truth” and not “myth,” as if there was any other position to be reasonably expected from the institution that holds her as a “myth.”
Mary’s virginity, the Pope argues, is a “test” and a “fundamental element” of the Christian faith.
“This is a scandal for the modern spirit,” the Pope writes because in today’s world God is “allowed to operate on thought and ideas but not on matter.”
According to Benedict, Jesus’ virgin birth and his resurrection from the dead are the “the cornerstones of faith” in the Gospels when “God intervenes directly into the material world.”
The gospel accounts that the Pope does include the arrival of the three wise men in the Christmas story that Benedict says may not be a “historical event” but instead a “theological idea.”
But the Pope does admit to preferring more literal interpretation of the gospel’s Christmas story, including the star of Bethlehem that he notes has been convincingly identified with a major planetary conjunction that occurred in the years 7-6 B.C.
Benedict also lets on that he is a traditionalist about the Nativity scene.
Even though the Gospels make no mention of lambs, oxen and donkeys being present in the Bethlehem stable at the birth of Jesus Christ, the Pope writes that he cannot imagine any Nativity scene without them.