The Link Between Faith and History: The Infancy Narratives according to Benedict XVI

Vatican Pope Book

One million copies published in 29 languages and distributed in 73 countries. These are the row figures on the last book about Jesus recently published by Pope Benedict XVI. The new volume ends the series that Ratzinger began projecting before his election to the papacy, and now it finally comes to fruition, when he is 85 years old and presides over a complex state, i.e. the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church, which of course is a global institution.

It follows the 2007 one that touched on the story of Jesus from his baptism to the Transfiguration, and the 2011 one which dealt with the Passion and the Resurrection. The new book focuses on the Infancy Narratives, i.e. the 180 verses that Matthew and Luke wrote to publicize the events preceding and following Jesus’ birth up to when he was twelve years old.

Historical Facts Theologically Interpreted

It is important to appreciate the background of Ratzinger’s books. Why is he writing on the life of Jesus according to the Gospels? In the late XIX century, different “lives” of Jesus were written in the attempt to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith”. The main assumption was that Christology had little if nothing to do with what really happened to Jesus, which is something that went beyond historical research and belonged to the realm of faith only. Liberal scholars argued that we know nearly nothing of the historical Jesus, yet we have a highly developed Christology that is not based on the historical records of the facts of Jesus’ life, but on the faith of subsequent communities. Therefore, the Gospels were considered as accounts driven by what the first Christians believed, not necessarily by what really happened. These views were and are still widely accepted among Catholic Biblical scholarship.

Ratzinger writes to readdress this whole issue. The way he does it is through his own effort to comment on the Gospels. His goal is to affirm the basic historicity of the Gospel accounts and therefore the historical nature of the Christian faith which is centered on the historical Jesus. Benedict XVI argues that, in the Gospels, faith and history, facts and their theological interpretation, internal Biblical evidence and external historical evidence are intertwined. Yet, the theological significance of Jesus’ life is based on what really happened, not at the expense of it or even not interfering with history. So, in the case of the Infancy Narratives, we are confronted with a reliable account of what really happened (including the star and the Magi), coupled with a theological explanation of the birth of Jesus, His Person and work.

A Change of Mind?

It is interesting to note a shift of emphasis here. In the 1993 document on “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (whose chairman was Raztinger himself) tended to overlook the relationship between faith and history in the Biblical text. It assumed that the historical-critical methods were just neutral scholarly tools without any pre-conceived assumption as far as the historical reliability of the Bible was concerned.

Historically, this is not true. Historical-critical methods were the chosen weapons to try to dismantle the trustworthiness of the Written Word of God. Moreover, the reality is that most Catholic academic Biblical scholars do have skeptical views about the historicity of Scripture and carry their skepticism under the banner of the historical-critical methods.

In 1993 Ratzinger seemed to be rather naive about the dangers of separating faith from history and of considering the Bible a book stemming from faith but not rooted in history. Now he seems to be more aware of the issues and wants to provide an example of Biblical interpretation that takes the historicity of the Bible seriously. Will his books of Jesus stir a debate in Catholic exegetical circles? Will they readdress the confidence in the historical reliability of the Bible in Catholic academia and the wider public?

A Commendation and a Couple of Reservations

Ratzinger’s book on the Infancy Narratives is not a technical piece of exegesis. It is rather a spiritual commentary on the Gospel narratives which speak about how the Son of God became a man. They are long meditations following the synoptic order of events of Jesus’ life, with some questions and applications for the contemporary reader.

The final book is even better than the previous one. The latter portrayed Jesus as if he were a priest going around celebrating Masses everywhere he turned. Ratzinger’s sacramental reading of the Gospels heavily influenced his interpretation of the Passion. This book is a more straightforward and canonical reading of Jesus’ story firmly rooted in the OT and linked to subsequent NT teachings. It is perhaps the best of the series, with two reservations.

Commenting on the fact that various details of the Infancy Narratives originated in the accounts given by Mary herself (who was the only witness present), the Pope also infers that other Marian traditions which are not found in the NT derive from the same source. The issue, then, is: why didn’t Luke or Matthew add them to their Gospels? More fundamentally, why didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire the Evangelists to insert them in the canonical texts? What is in Scripture and has become Scripture has an all together different status than other traditions claiming the same origin.

The other perplexity has to do with Ratzinger’s comment on Luke 2:7: “She gave birth to her firstborn”. Here the Pope spends a couple of pages arguing that the reference to Jesus being the “firstborn” does not imply that Mary had other children. In fact, he affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary. But is this really what the text here is saying or suggesting? Is the later Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity not a development that is based more on Marian elaborations rather than on what the Gospels say?

Leonardo De Chirico

Rome, 30th November 2012

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Of course, Catholics see all kinds of “Marian traditions” in St. Luke’s Gospel, including the one Leonardo specifies, her perpetual virginity. St. Jerome makes an argument from scripture that she was ever-virgin, and in the introduction to his response to Helvidius, who claimed that she was not ever-virgin, he makes it seem as if Helvidius’ position is rather novel: “I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating.”

    Luther and Calvin believed in the perpetual virginity of Our Lady, and I would guess they were not unique among the early Protestants in accepting what Leonardo calls the “later Roman Catholic doctrine.” Even halfway through Protestant history, John Wesley referred to her perpetual virginity as one of the important doctrines that “true Protestants” and “Roman Catholics” had in common. Wesley, and all “true Protestants,” believed that “the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”

    I would be surprised if even a majority of Protestants–at least in the more magisterial traditions–rejected the perpetual virginity of Mary until liberal Protestant biblical criticism took off. Now it seems like such an unquestioned dogma in Protestant circles that Catholics are the weird ones for holding on to the traditional teaching. I hope that Leonardo’s insistence that the Catholic teaching on the perpetual virginity is not scriptural means that if he were ever to question or reject the modern Protestant teaching on the issue, he would also be more open to the possibility that Catholic Christianity is true.

  2. Thanks, Kevin. I stand in awe of how God used John Wesley. Last month I was at Asbury Seminary and like a typical tourist I took a photo with their Wesley statue (he was really quite short you know). Despite my earnest appreciation for his legacy, I will have to part company with Johnny on this one.

  3. I do too. I admire Wesley a lot. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of Protestants today disagree with him on the perpetual virginity, and I don’t think he’s being unfair or anything like that. I’m just perplexed at his perplexity at the Catholic position on this, since I’d have to guess that many if not most Protestants agreed with Catholics (and Orthodox) on this until perhaps the 19th or late 18th century. It just feels kind of like when I hear some evangelical preachers talk about contraception as if the Catholic position is some kind of weird innovation from the 1960s, when in fact the big change on contraception came with Protestants in the 20th century. This isn’t to say that modern Protestants can’t disagree with early Protestants or even early-20th century Protestants, but I just think one should, at least on the surface, be more perplexed at the later Protestant position than the earlier Protestant/present-day Catholic position. Since evangelicals were willing to give the abortion issue a second look in the 80s, and they seem to be rethinking contraception today, I’m hopeful that a more robust Marian theology gets its turn in the evangelical sun in the not-too-distant future.

  4. Dear Leonardo,

    Truly, I am baffled by your claims that PBC’s 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, “tended to overlook the relationship between faith and history in the Biblical text. It assumed that the historical-critical methods were just neutral scholarly tools without any pre-conceived assumption as far as the historical reliability of the Bible was concerned.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. You don’t cite exactly where in this document your claims would be evident. So let me cite paragraphs in it that refute your claim: III.C. The Task of the Exegete, Section 1. principle Guidelines: “In devoting themselves to their tasks, Catholic exgetes have to pay due account to the historical character [italicized in the original] of biblical revelation. For the two Testaments express in human words bearing the stamp of ther time the historical revelation communicated by God in various ways, concerning himself and his plan of salvation. Consequently, exgetes have to make use of the historical-critical method. They cannot, however, accord to it [historical criticism] a sole validity. . . . Exegestes necessarily bring certain presuppositions … to biblical writings. In the case of the Catholic exegete, it is a question of presuppositions based on the certainties of faith: the Bible is a text inspired by God, entrusted to the Church for the nurturing of faith and guidance of the Christian life. . . . The [historical-]critical study of the Bible cannot isolate itself from theological research, nor from spiritual experience and the discernment of the Church. Exegesis produces its best results when it is carried out in the context of the living faith of the Christian community, which is directed toward the salvation of the entire world.” One of those certainties mentioned by this document is stated by Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on Divine revelation, Dei Verbum (no. 11): “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).” I suggest you go back to read the PBC document because it doesn’t do what you claim it does: treat historical-critical methods neutrally. Furthermore, you make a similar claim regarding Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. “In 1993 Ratzinger seemed to be rather naive about the dangers of separating faith from history and of considering the Bible a book stemming from faith but not rooted in history. Now he seems to be more aware of the issues and wants to provide an example of Biblical interpretation that takes the historicity of the Bible seriously.” This undocumented claim also couldn’t be further from truth. I wish we could have coffee or lunch or something but, failing that, let me just refer to you to Chapter 2, Faith and History, 2A: Salvation and History, and 2B: Salvation History, Metaphysics and Eschatology, in Ratzinger’s Principles of Catholic Theology, pp. 152-199. You may not agree with his conclusions, but it is simply preposterous to suggest that Ratzinger was “rather naive” about the question regarding faith and history. Also, to name another significant and famous address of Cardinal Ratziner in New York City in 1988: “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations
    and Approaches of Exegesis Today” ( Here, too, he subjects the historical critical method to radical criticism, arguing for a theological interpretation of the Bible, canonical exgesis and the integration of exegesis and theology. Please read it before you make any other claims about Ratzinger’s work in the matter you are considering. Finally, there has been continutiy in Ratzinger’s position on the question you raise. Verbum Domini, The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (2010), is a brilliant synthesis of that biblical and theological hermeneutic. To your criticism, though: “The historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith. The history of salvation is not mythology, but a true history, and it should thus be studied with the methods of serious historical research.” Read the whole section on the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the Church. Perhaps we shall be able to discuss or debate this matter in person one day. Yours in Christ, Eduardo Echeverria

  5. Leonardo, Just one more thing I forgot to metnion. Chapter 2 from Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, that I mentioned above consists of various parts that were originally written in 1967, 1970, and totally revised for publication in the German edition of Principles in 1982 and then in the English edition of 1987.

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