In late October, Richard Burridge, dean of King’s College London and professor of biblical interpretation there, was the first nonRoman Catholic to receive the prestigious Ratzinger Prize, set up as a kind of Nobel Prize for Theology. (Previous winners include Brian Daley, S.J. and Rémi Brague.) In giving him the award, the Vatican recognized an Anglican scholar who pioneered a distinctive understanding of the gospels, the implications of whose work still need unpacking.
Anyone trained in theology before the 1980s will recollect that New Testament scholars, working with a modern understanding of biography influenced by Freud, Marx, and Durkheim, said that the gospels were not biographies. They claimed that the gospels do not describe Jesus’ appearance or personality or his setting within the sociopolitical and historical events of the tumultuous first century. The true story, whatever that was, was assumed to have been lost or significantly revised in the thirty-year gap between the life of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel.
Our teachers took the line first espoused by Rudolf Bultmann and the form critics: The gospels were sui generis, “a unique word for the Unique Word.” This meant that study of the gospels was a study of the imaginative minds of the early Church, because the gospels were not about Jesus but about the values and arguments among the first Christians. The claim that in Jesus we were encountering God Incarnate was evaded: Jesus was invisible, hidden behind stories that told us more about the early Christian communities when the gospels were written than about Jesus himself as the source of those stories.
Pope Benedict XVI describes the difficulty in his foreword to the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth: Historical-critical scholarship separated the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith.” As it advanced, it made “finer and finer distinctions between layers of tradition in the Gospels, beneath which the real object of faiththe figure [Gestalt] of Jesusbecame increasingly obscured and blurred.” That produced “the impression that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him.”