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Faith is believing what you know ain't true
on 4 July 2014
'There is no greater vocation for a Pope than to preach the gospel with conviction and urgency' (publisher's note on flyleaf). It's hard to disagree with this. The publisher goes on to claim that 'it is a masterpiece of its kind', and this is a claim we can sensibly examine. What kind of book is it, and is it a masterpiece?
It is certainly a book of very great strengths, as we should expect from the head of the Catholic Church. Ratzinger knows his NT well, and his OT too. As many reviewers have observed, it is wonderfully readable and concrete, in the best traditions of German scholarship. More, it is illuminating, drawing parallels and making connections - Jesus as the OT 'tent of meeting' who was 'pitched among us' (pp 11 and 22); the contrast between the annunciation of John the Baptist and that of Jesus (p 20); the way God puts himself at risk of rejection by Mary (p 36); the links between Matthew's Nativity story and Isaiah 1:3 (bringing us the ox and the ass), Psalm 72:10, and Isaiah 60 (responsible for the camels and dromedaries); the way in which the Gentile term 'King of the Jews', famously written by the Roman soldiers over the cross, reminds us of its earlier use by the Magi.
Moreover he is consistently respectful of Jesus' Jewish heritage, character, and family, notably in his discussion of 'the just man' (pp 19ff); and there is an elegant, almost Jungian discussion of the archetype of the virgin and child (p 55). These features of the book - making connections, writing concretely, exploring symbolism, respect for the values of the text - are all qualities of the great literary critics, and Ratzinger can hold his head up in that company.
So, why only two stars? For three reasons.
First, its inconsistency on the subject of Biblical inerrancy (the belief that every word of the Bible is true). Where it suits his argument, Ratzinger treats the text as inerrant (p xi, or the discussion on p 117 of Isaiah's prophecies). Where it doesn't, as in the meaning of the angels' words (p 74) or the contradictory genealogies supplied by Matthew and Luke, he treats them as symbolic statements rather than literally true: 'It seems to me utterly futile to formulate hypotheses on this matter. Neither evangelist is concerned so much with the individual names as with the symbolic structure' (p 8).
Second, it stupendously fails to meet the first criterion it sets itself, namely 'to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through their texts in their own day'. It shows (and this must be deliberate) a complete refusal to consider the historical context, both for the events of the Bible, and for the writing of the Bible. The evangelists wrote for different audiences, crafting their narrative to suit the historical context (for example, the rivalry between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist, or the need to play down Jesus' Jewish identity and mission so that they could appeal to a Gentile world); they wrote in Greek after 70 AD, and showed little interest in, or respect for, the testimony of the Aramaic-speaking disciples; the placing of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is highly appropriate as a symbolic statement of his Davidic pedigree, but contradicts everything we know of the Roman legal and constitutional world of its time. And if this is true for the NT, it is even more true of the OT. Ratzinger's discussion on pp 46-51) of the famous Isaiah prophecy (Is 7:14) is a shining example. Believers can choose to take that prophecy as pointing forward to Jesus, but there is no evidence that the prophets were doing anything other than commenting on their own time.
The criticisms of the book that I have made so far are to some extent matters of judgement: I take one approach to Scripture, Ratzinger takes another. But there is one overwhelming criticism, one piece of 'wilful blindness', that we cannot ignore. Ratzinger uses the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 - 'a virgin shall conceive and bear a son'. But Bible scholars have known for well over a century that that is not what the Hebrew Bible says. The word translated as 'parthenos' - virgin - in the Septuagint, was originally written as 'alma' - young woman, maiden - in the Hebrew. The word has no implications of virginity. It is not a prophecy of a magical event. It just says, somewhat unsurprisingly, that a young girl will have a baby.
This reading of Isaiah is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact, as any Bible commentary will make clear (see eg Dewey, Which Bible?, p 70). Ratzinger must know this (and if he doesn't, it is appalling that nobody told him). And this consistent refusal to face the historical context of the events of the Bible undermines the whole of what would otherwise be a lovely book. As a study of the symbolism of the Infancy Narratives, it is beautiful. But as history, these carefully constructed stories have no more truth value than the Easter Bunny, and a Pope should know this. As Mark Twain so elegantly put it, 'Faith is believing what you know ain't true'!