- - Wednesday, February 13, 2013

JESUS OF NAZARETH: THE INFANCY NARRATIVES
By Pope Benedict XVI
Image, $20, 144 pages

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he will step down at the end of this month, the first pope in more than 600 years to vacate the Vatican before his death. He cited the usual health considerations consistent with his age, 85, and said that his post-papal plans would be to live “a life dedicated to prayer.” He will spend some time in a cloistered convent and then, well, who knows? Popes don’t usually retire, so we are not in terribly well-charted territory here.

Another thing that popes usually do not do is write multivolume works about the life of Jesus Christ during their papacies, yet that is what this pope has done with the “Jesus of Nazareth” series. Rather than put out a lot of official encyclicals and other documents, Benedict focused on writing about the life and message of his religion’s founder, and did so in such a way that invited the engagement of interested readers of every faith and creed.

It is probably unfair to the pope’s final entry of the series, “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives,” that it is now going to be read with an eye toward his dissipating energies, but at least more people will now read it. Its sales are climbing the Amazon charts and this week had reached No. 1 in one of the subcategories. Also, he practically invited this speculation when he wrote in 2010 in the introduction to the second book of the series that he would prepare a third book on Jesus‘ infancy “if I am given the strength.”

There is, in my reading, only one really obvious trick that he missed this time around that a more vigorous and dramatic pope might not have overlooked. The omission comes when Benedict is discussing King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents. This was Herod’s order, after learning of the birth of Jesus, to put all the male children in Bethlehem younger than 2 to the sword to root out a potential rival “King of the Jews.”

This villainous act is disputed, yet as the retiring pope points out, Herod had several of his own children killed. Caesar Augustus is reported to have said, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” It is surprising that Benedict left this out.

The historical record outside of the Bible is scant here but, Benedict insists, not entirely silent. We know that Herod was paranoid and murderous. We also know that Bethlehem was a small cow town, and we can speculate that a very localized slaughter might have received little or no official notice, especially if the locals feared greater violence.

Benedict’s approach is part historical, part theological. He believes that the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, give us a reasonably close history of the events in the life of Jesus, but that they were not written as what we think of as histories. He investigates the events of Jesus‘ early life in light of secular history and sacred tradition, mining what modern Bible scholars and ancient church fathers have to say on the subject for useful insights.

Along the way, he poses stark, even shocking — coming from a pope, at least — questions to readers along the lines of, “Is this true or is it made up?” Benedict believes that the stories handed down to us about Jesus are true, even if we cannot understand all of the particulars. Indeed, his willingness to raise these questions and corresponding unwillingness to give pat answers come off as less of a shrug and more of a particularly beguiling argument. Life is murky, messy and mysterious, he suggests. Any stories that are too neat are just going to seem concocted.

Quite right, I think. Here’s hoping that in his retirement, Benedict finds the strength to write on.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books.