Getting to know Jesus of Nazareth

Published 4:40 pm Friday, June 26, 2009

Much has been said both in praise and in criticism of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Fergus Kerr, a theologian writing in The Tablet, calls it Joseph Ratzinger’s best book.

Peter Steinfels, a journalist writing in Commonweal, finds it “persuasive and deeply helpful.”

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Richard Hays, a biblical scholar writing in First Things, criticizes it, especially for not providing “a more careful explanation of how he proposes to reconceive the practice of historical criticism.”

In a winsome manner, Pope Benedict’s foreword makes clear that his book is “in no way an exercise of the magisterium,” and that “everyone is free … to contradict me.”

He describes his book as “solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’.” Richard Hays confesses to being puzzled about the genre of the work and expresses dissatisfaction with its seemingly diverse topics. Agreeing with Hays, one of our seminar members also described it as a “mishmash,” lacking a clear methodology. However, most participants agreed that the Pope’s unifying purpose was the care of souls and that the description of the work as his “personal search” suggests the genre of personal theological testament as the means chosen to achieve that end.

Christian interpretation begins with an act of faith in Christ that is consistent with historical reason but transcends it.

In Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope presents a portrait of Jesus that goes beyond what historical criticism can offer since it draws on the resources of Christian faith, but that is “much more logical, and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions” provided by the historical quests of recent decades.

For instance, Benedict points out the implausibility of a Jesus, who made no divine claims. Such an interpretation of Jesus does not adequately explain the impact of Jesus on the New Testament authors or on subsequent generations.

The Jesus whom Benedict seeks to present is the Jesus of the four Gospels, which, the Pope maintains with the Christian tradition, “exhibit a deep harmony despite all their differences.”

“What is distinctive today about the Pope’s interpretation of the Gospels,” remarked Daniel Harrington of Weston School of Theology, “Is the way Benedict identifies the divinity of Christ as the hermeneutical key for unlocking the Gospel depictions of Jesus.”

Clearly the Pope recognizes the importance of historical scholarship to understand the Bible.

Jesus of Nazareth is thoroughly imbued with discussions of biblical scholars about the Kingdom of God, parables and the historical background of the Gospels. The Pope shows a considerable familiarity with exegetical works and should be pardoned for dialoging primarily with somewhat older works in his own language.

How many theologians can boast Benedict’s familiarity with exegesis?

How many exegetes demonstrate such familiarity with theological writings?

Benedict regards canonical exegesis, which interprets individual texts in the light of the whole Bible, as a necessary complement to historical-critical study. This method accords with the teaching of Dei Verbum §12 that proper interpretation requires attending to the content and unity of Scripture as a whole.

The Pope acknowledges that the unity of Scripture based on its divine inspiration is a datum of faith, although contemporary exegesis has also shown a considerable basis for the unity of Scripture in the progressive rereading of prior biblical writings.

This canonical perspective enables the Pope to see—in company with the New Testament authors and the Christian tradition—a single divine plan unfolding in the Old and New Testaments. So he affirms the continuity of Jesus with the Old Testament, and the permanent value of the law of Moses.

Canonical exegesis enables Pope Benedict to interpret the Synoptics in light of the Gospel of John and the Beatitudes in light of the experience of Paul and in the light of John’s theology of the cross as exaltation.

A detailed look at Pope Benedict’s interpretation of the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus illustrates the strengths of his hermeneutic, and in particular shows how he draws on the Christian tradition.

He begins by discussing the different ways the Synoptic evangelists begin their Gospels and introduce Jesus’ baptism, each yielding different insights into Jesus and his mission. He then elaborates on the historical background of the event, both political (the Roman empire) and religious (the various sects in Judaism including the community of Qumran). Then Benedict introduces John the Baptist, referring to his possible association with Qumran and to the Old Testament texts the Gospels employ to describe his mission. He provides some historical background to the practice of confession of sins in Judaism of that time. All of this is standard critical exegesis.

Then, in circular fashion, Benedict affirms, “Only from this starting point can we understand Christian baptism.”

The anticipations in Jesus’ baptism have become reality through the Paschal Mystery. To be baptized “is to go where [Jesus] identifies with us and to receive there our identification with him. … Paul develops this inner connection in his theology of baptism, though without explicitly mentioning Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.”

Benedict then describes how the liturgy, iconography and patristic teaching of the Eastern Church “developed and deepened this understanding of Jesus’ baptism.”

Hymns and icons link Epiphany, the liturgical celebration of Jesus’ baptism, with Thursday through Saturday of Holy Week, with the tomb and Hades. He cites Cyril of Jerusalem: (“When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man”) and Chrysostom (“Going down into the water and emerging again are the image of the descent into hell and the Resurrection”).

Benedict then sums up and enlarges upon this theology by describing Jesus’ baptism as a repetition of all of history, recapitulating the past and anticipating the future. Jesus’ descent symbolizes a “suffering-with-others,” an “identity with the fallen,” a taking on of all the sin of the world and suffering it through to the end, which only he can do because of his equality with God.

Jesus thus transforms suffering, defeats death, frees human beings from the evil one and all that holds them captive, and converts all that exists and “prepares a new heaven and a new earth.”

Thus the sacrament of baptism becomes “the gift of participation in Jesus’ world-transforming struggle” accomplished in his descent and ascent. (Benedict’s use of “descent and ascent” without mention of the Jordan waters now evokes the descent and ascent of John 3:13 and of Ephesians 4:9-11.)

He finds biblical confirmation of this theology of the cross at Jesus’ baptism in John the Baptist’s words early in the Gospel of John, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Aramaic word for “lamb” recalls both the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and the Passover Lamb.

This is powerful stuff—a rich imaginative theological interpretation that builds on critical exegesis, draws on tradition and relates it to the sacramental life of the church. It places Jesus’ baptism in relation to his divine identity and the Paschal Mystery with an undeniable potential for preaching and teaching.

In Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI has shown how a man of faith and reason, a Christian scholar, can find the face of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, and how others can do the same. Biblical scholars have been given a fine example of a pastoral hermeneutic capable of building up the life of the Church that is grounded in faith, reads Scripture canonically and theologically, and that draws both on the resources of critical exegesis and of the Christian tradition.