Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

I recently received a copy of the Pope's book on Jesus -- Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by Jospeh Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI, translated from the German by Adrian J. Walker, New York: Doubleday, 2007. I want to begin with an overall impression before I get into any sort of detail concerning the content of this book -- Benedict has written a heartfelt look at Jesus in which he attempts to wrestle with academia while maintaining traditional Christian thoughts about Jesus. His endeavor is quite noble, as anyone who tries to live in the Church and the world of scholarship can attest. Benedict claims that during the 1950s the gap between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith seemed to grow very wide (xi) and I would say that the gap between the Church and the academy has followed suit. So before I make any critiques, point out any weaknesses, or nitpick any details, Benedict should be applauded for this grand undertaking.

In order to honor full disclosure, I must admit that I am a Protestant through and through and some of the anti-Catholic prejudices that I grew up with were not only challenged by this book but were destroyed. As almost everyone is aware, after Vatican II the Catholic position on critical scholarship loosened to a great degree. That is not to say that there were no Catholic scholars who were doing critical scholarship before then 1960s (Alfred Loisy comes to mind), but after Vatican II the grip on Catholic scholarship was relaxed to a great degree. The result of this decision has been that it has helped engender some wonderful scholars, especially Raymond E. Brown, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, and Luke Timothy Johnson. However, many people have continued to sense a general disdain of critical scholarship by old-school Catholic conservatives. It was often assumed that Benedict was such a person, a fact highlighted by his moniker "John Paul's bulldog." The general buzz in the air after Benedict's election was that he was going to either keep a closer eye on Catholic exegetes or actually move the Church backward.

However, many people have been surprised by the Pope's sensitivity with different tough issues during his reign. Thus, many of the statements in the foreword of Jesus should not have surprised me at all, but I was in fact pleasantly surprised at many points. A few examples will illustrate my point:
  • **Benedict, after complaining about some of the results of historical-critical scholarship, admits that "the historical-critical and remains an indispensable tool of exegetical work" (xv). While I didn't doubt that Benedict and other conservative Catholics utilized historical research, I was somewhat surprised to hear him admit that the historical-critical method was "indispensable."
  • **In the same vein, Benedict says that since history "is an essential dimension of Christian faith, the faith must expose itself to the historical method" (xv). Later in the foreword the Pope will indicate that the historical-critical method has some limitations, but this is a pretty strong statement nonetheless.
  • **When describing the purpose of his book with regard to modern exegesis, Benedict says "my intention in writing this book is not to counter modern exegesis; rather, I write with profound gratitude for all that it has given and continues to give us...I have merely tried to go beyond purely historical-critical exegesis" (xxiii). So this book is not meant to be an apology of conservative Catholic interpretation, which is somewhat unexpected coming from "John Paul's bulldog."
  • **Lastly, one of the last paragraphs of the foreword shattered some of my preconceived notions of papal self-understanding. Actually, my wife and I were sitting in the airport in Chicago, me reading Jesus and she reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire, and after reading this paragraph I had to stop and let her read it too. We were both impressed: "It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my own personal search 'for the face of the Lord' (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding" (xxiii-xxiv). There goes that preconceived notion that I had that the man who was Pope had to be pompous and arrogant.
From the beginning, however, there is a problem that makes this book hard to review properly -- Benedict never identifies his target audience with any clarity. He simply refers to them as his readers without giving any further description. Does he intend this book to be read by lay Catholics, seminarians, scholars, Protestants, non-Christians, etc? It is hard to decide whether or not the purpose of a book has been fulfilled if the author does not indicate to whom it is written. Thus, I can only assume that the Pope intended a wide audience. In this light, much of this book can easily be understood by the general reader. However, from time to time there are several pages in a row in which Benedict gives a survey of scholarly literature or discusses the minutiae of exegesis or interpretive methodology. Therefore, I can see many general readers being turned off by this.

On the other hand, Jesus is loaded with modern-day applications of Jesus' teachings, critiques of the social responsiveness of those to whom this duty has been availed, and significant deviances from accepted historical-critical givens (such as allowing unrelated parts of the Bible to interpret one another, taking the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels as giving us more information about Jesus than the Evangelists, and not significantly doubting the historicity of the Fourth Gospel), which would leave many biblical scholars frustrated (a fact that is seen clearly in the reviews of Jesus by Geza Vermes and Richard Hays).

Despite the uncertainty of the audience, the Pope's purpose in writing this book is clear enough: "this book...seeks to transcend this method [i.e. historical-critical exegesis] and to arrive at a genuinely theological interpretation of the scriptural texts" (365). The question of why the historical-critical needs to be transcended remains, and Benedict offers an answer by giving two important critiques of this method. The first is that the historical critical method "does not exhaust the interpretative task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scriptures inspired by God" (xvi). He goes on to say that the historical exegesis can only see the words of the Bible as human words ("simply...literature" [xx]), which is not enough for those who by faith believe that the Bible is in some way God's Word. The second critique is that the historical-critical method is limited in some ways, namely that it only deals past contexts which shed light on "what the author could have said and intended to say" (xvi), that the unity of the Bible "is not something it can recognize" (xvii), and that its results "can never go beyond the domain of hypothesis" (xvii).

These critiques, as we have already seen, have not chased Benedict away from the historical-critical method, as they have many other interpreters these days. Instead, the Pope makes a call for "complementary methods" to be used when reading the Bible (xviii). One such method is what he calls "the process of constant reading" in which "[o]lder texts are reappropriated, reinterpreted, and read with new eyes in new contexts" (xviii). This is a combining of the study of inter-biblical intertextuality and Wirkungsgeschichte (the effective history of a text). Another complementary method is what Benedict calls canonical exegesis, which entails "reading the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole" (xix). Lastly, the third main complementary method that Benedict espouses is what I would call an ecclesial hermeneutic. The Pope explains it as follows: "The People of God -- the Church -- is the the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are always in the present" (xxi). These three complementary methods have had quite a bit of popularity as of late, as exhibited in the work of Ulrich Luz, Brevard Childs, and Markus Bockmuehl, respectively.

As far as the content of the book is concerned, Benedict has covered a few select items from the baptism of Jesus to the transfiguration. He spends quite a bit of time examining parts of the Sermon on the Mount (especially the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer), Jesus' parables, and the imagery used to describe Jesus in John's Gospel. In the process of making interpretive decisions, the Pope utilizes the results of critical scholarship (especially when they help prove his points), the writings of the Early Church, and, primarily, other texts in the Bible (especially so-called messianic texts of the OT and the writings of Paul). Many scholars will want to criticize him for his selective use of the historical critical method, his sometimes uncritical trust in the Church Fathers, and his unabashed method of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, and that is fine. However, no one should have been surprised by these things since they were explicitly stated in the foreword.

The bottom line is that this book is the result of a deeply personal search for Jesus by Benedict. Many Evangelical readers will be surprised by how much he sounds like one of them. In fact, as I was reading along I could imagine many Evangelical biblical scholars agreeing with and highlighting line after line in Jesus (Craig Blomberg's review highlights this fact as well). I also think that many educated Christians might be surprised by the types of books that the Pope reads and the types of scholars that influence him in this book. Particularly interesting to me is the fact that Benedict reads the work of Evangelical (like Peter Stuhlmacher) and Jewish (like Jacob Neusner) scholars .

The thesis of the Pope's position on Jesus is this: all of the stories about Jesus and all of his teachings found in the Gospels are to be seen in light of "Jesus' filial existence" -- his "communion with the Father" (7). Therefore, since Jesus had this special and unique relationship with the Father, all the things he did and said were made possible. Benedict argues that one cannot understand Jesus apart from this intimate relationship to the Father.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. I believe that it would be particularly helpful to someone teaching or preaching through the texts that are covered in this book, but only if the preacher or teacher keeps in mind that s/he is reading the Pope's highly personal expression of his search for Jesus.

Check out my other reviews here!

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