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Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration

by Benedict XVI

Doubleday, 374 pages, $24.95

In the foreword to his new book, Jesus of Nazareth , Pope Benedict XVI gives a brief autobiographical sketch of his own encounter with the issues he treats. He lists “a series of inspiring books” about Jesus published in the 1930s and 1940s, and their common denominator was that they “presented him as a man living on earth who, fully human though he was, at the same time brought God to men, the God with whom as Son he was one.”

That sentence could stand as an excellent précis of Benedict’s book. Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth seems to be an attempt to recover and update the synthetic theological vision of these essentially precritical works while also incorporating the insights of the historical criticism that has gained official sanction in Roman Catholicism over the past sixty years.

The reader will be surprised to find on the first page of the foreword the statement that it was only in the 1950s that “the gap between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the ‘Christ of faith’ grew wider and the two visibly fell apart.” In the Protestant world and in the universities of Europe, this gap had developed more than a century earlier and had reached crisis proportions well before World War I, as attested by Albert Schweitzer’s landmark 1906 book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus . Perhaps Benedict means this only as an autobiographical statement of a thinker whose early experience was shaped chiefly by developments internal to Catholicism. In any case, he regards the separation between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history as a disaster for theology and Christian faith. His book attempts to remedy this situation.

Jesus of Nazareth , the first part of a projected two-volume work, treats only the first part of the public ministry of Jesus (as indicated by the subtitle, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration ). The chronological framework, however, is not strictly observed. The chapter “The Message of the Parables,” for example, focuses almost exclusively on Luke’s parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus, all of which occur after the transfiguration. Similarly, Benedict’s chapter “The Principal Images of John’s Gospel” draws on the Farewell Discourses of John 13 to 16. If John’s story is superimposed on the synoptic narrative, this too is post-transfiguration material.

The genre of Jesus of Nazareth is puzzling. Is it a scholarly study of the historical figure of Jesus? An integrative theological account of the biblical foundations for the Church’s later articulation of trinitarian doctrine? A devotional meditation on the person of Jesus intended for prayerful appropriation by the faithful? An apologetic confrontation with secularism’s barren and destructive view of humanity?

The answer is that it is by turns all these things. As readers, we may be caught up in a warmly moving devotional reflection on Jesus’ unity with the Father and his desire to bless humanity. Then we turn the page and find ourselves in the midst of a survey of scholarly interpretations of “the kingdom of God” in the twentieth century or a critical rebuttal to Rudolf Bultmann’s theories of pre-Christian Gnostic sources for the Fourth Gospel. And perhaps on another page we find a couple of paragraphs on the difficulties with the way Western nations have offered aid to developing countries.

The effect is to induce whiplash. One might say charitably that many different kinds of readers will find something engaging here. Or one might say less charitably that this is a book in need of a good editor who could help the author sort out the two or three different books that seem to have been struggling together in the womb during the book’s “long gestation period.” As it stands, readers not interested in the history of historical-Jesus scholarship are likely to find the intermittent surveys of critical opinion distracting, while readers like me who are interested in these matters are likely to find them sketchy and unsatisfying, even where we are inclined to be sympathetic to the positions Benedict takes.

The single most dominant theme throughout Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus’ “intimate unity with the Father.” The key to interpreting his identity and activity lies in his relation to God, which is ontologically grounded in his preexistent unity with the Father and expressed in his communion with the Father in prayer. Again and again Benedict quotes John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (The translation here follows Benedict’s German text rather than standard English translations.) The entire aim of Jesus’ teaching and activity is to reveal his own union with God and to invite all humanity to share in an intimate, loving relation with God.

The second major theme of the book is the universal scope of Jesus’ mission. While God’s previous revealing and saving activity had been focused on the nation Israel, now in Jesus “God intends to come to all men.” Benedict can even say, “This idea of universality will turn up again and again as the real core of Jesus’ mission.” The contrast between an ethnocentric Judaism and a universal Christianity is played out in many of the book’s exegetical probes.

Along the way, Benedict downplays the apocalyptic content of Jesus’ message. The idea that Jesus preached “imminent expectation” for the coming of the kingdom of God, he argues, “can actually be decisively ruled out,” because it does not reckon adequately with the full range of statements in the gospels about the kingdom, some of which clearly have a present dimension. The scholar C.H. Dodd’s emphasis on “realized eschatology” in the teaching of Jesus, Benedict declares, is “much more on the right track in terms of the real dynamics of the texts” than the readings of exegetes who emphasize future apocalyptic themes in the Jesus tradition. Here, clearly, Benedict is jousting with the ghost of Albert Schweitzer, who interpreted Jesus as a Jewish millenarian prophet whose apocalyptic hopes were mistaken and ultimately frustrated.

A less prominent but significant emphasis of Jesus of Nazareth is that Jesus, as the incarnate Logos, removes “the concrete political and social order” from “the directly sacred realm” (meaning the specific requirements of the Torah) and transfers it to “the freedom of man.” This has the effect of “assigning reason its sphere of responsibility for acting within history.”

For Benedict, this has two closely intertwined consequences: the exalting of human reason (although, to be sure, not autonomous reason apart from God) and the refusal to identify Jesus with any particular political system or agenda. Benedict’s Jesus stands apart from worldly politics. “Discipleship of Jesus offers no politically concrete program for structuring society.” Instead, the communion with God given by Jesus “frees men and nations . . . to work our their own juridical arrangements.”

It is symptomatic that Benedict does not even comment on the fact that the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer teaches the disciples to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors .” Benedict treats this petition, without explanation, as a prayer about forgiveness of sins. There is a complex history of interpretation here, but the economic dimension of Jesus’ teaching on prayer does not appear in Benedict’s account. Likewise, the programmatic account of the beginning of Jesus’ public proclamation in the synagogue at Nazareth in Luke 4:16-21”in which Jesus declares, in Isaiah’s words, that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives”plays no structural role at all in Jesus of Nazareth . In sum, Benedict’s portrait of Jesus is strongly Johannine: grounded in high-christological claims that Jesus was one with God, claiming a universalism that breaks the boundaries of Judaism, proclaiming a realized eschatology, and sketching a Jesus whose kingdom is not of this world and whose teaching contains minimal social ethics.

To Benedict’s credit, he makes a serious case that these emphases are not confined to John’s gospel but can be found in the synoptic gospels as well. For example, on Benedict’s reading, the Sermon on the Mount, with its strong implicit claim of Jesus’ sovereignty over the Torah and its simultaneous summons to poverty and humility, contains “a hidden Christology” that also comports with the Pauline message of Christ’s kenosis and descent to the cross.

The arguments adduced are both interesting and complex, but the fact remains that it is the Gospel of John that imparts the fundamental shape to Benedict’s portrayal of Jesus. The other New Testament texts are read selectively for corroborative testimony of this basically Johannine account.

A book this ambitious inevitably makes controversial claims and invites critical discussion. Let us consider some of the problematical issues. Despite an emphatic endorsement of the historical-critical method and a robust insistence that the doctrine of incarnation requires faith to be based on historical truth, Benedict is aware of the limitations of historical knowledge. The result is an ambivalence about history that runs like a fault line through the whole book.

On the one hand, Benedict seems generally content to allow New Testament critics to operate within the field of history, and he readily acknowledges that the claim of Jesus’ divinity “exceeds the scope of the historical method.” On the other hand, he wants to “take this conviction of faith as our starting point for reading the texts with the help of historical methodology.” But many historical critics would protest that such a starting point compromises historical methodology. The total portrait of Jesus that Benedict draws stands in serious tension with the findings of historical criticism. I am sympathetic with many of his readings, but surely if “the aim unequivocally is not . . . to give up serious engagement with history,” he owes us a more careful explanation of how he proposes to reconceive the practice of historical criticism to allow for the historical claims he wants to make.

This problem appears acutely in Benedict’s grudging and uneven acknowledgment of any historical distance between Jesus of Nazareth and the narrative representations of him in the canonical gospels. To take a single example, Benedict cites Matthew 5:17-18 as proof that “Jesus has no intention of abrogating the Ten Commandments.” That statement is certainly true of Matthew, the narrator of this account. But whether this passage in the Sermon on the Mount can be taken without further discussion as a reliable report of Jesus’ views is a more complicated problem. Benedict tends to brush such complexities aside, even in the far more difficult case of the “I am” discourses in the Fourth Gospel.

Because of Benedict’s pervasive tendency to treat the texts as transparent to the historical facts about Jesus, he also fails to be sufficiently attentive to the individual narrative shape and content of the four distinct witnesses of the canonical evangelists. Time and again he dutifully notes these differences but then brushes them aside as inconsequential. So, for example, he quotes the differing versions of the “sign of Jonah” saying in Matthew and Luke, but then says, without further explanation, “We do not need to analyze the differences between these two versions.”

Why not? Surely it would make a difference to the historical picture of Jesus whether he used the Jonah story to predict his own resurrection after three days (Matthew) or whether he read the story as a typological precedent for his own prophetic mission of calling people to repentance (Luke). Each version of the saying resonates with theological concerns of the gospel in which it appears, but reflection on such distinctions too rarely appears in Benedict’s harmonizing readings of the texts.

Benedict’s uneven attention to the theological and literary contours of the individual gospels is perhaps just one manifestation of the fact that his dialogue partners in New Testament exegesis are, for the most part, the great scholars of earlier generations: Jeremias, Dodd, Bultmann, Schnackenburg, and Barrett. There are exceptions: Joachim Gnilka’s commentary on Matthew and Pierre Grelot’s Les Paroles de Jésus Christ , both published in the 1980s, are cited frequently. But, for the most part, his definition of critical issues seems to be set by the problems of earlier generations. Bultmann’s hypothesis of Gnostic sources for John is a good example: This theory has more or less fallen into the dustbin of criticism, but Benedict still feels the need to refute it.

Jesus of Nazareth does not seem to be informed at all by the more recent, and now much more influential, work of even such great Catholic scholars as Raymond Brown and John Meier. It is perhaps not surprising that an eighty-year-old scholar would continue to focus on the categories and questions that were current in the German academy during the era of his own training and more active scholarly career. But it is regrettable that Benedict did not bring his discussion up to date. His dismissive discussion of Jesus as an apocalyptic teacher would profit greatly from engagement with the work of scholars such as E.P. Sanders and Dale Allison. And it would be fascinating to know what the pope thinks of the work of N.T. Wright, whose books on Jesus are widely influential in the English-speaking world.

The de-emphasis on apocalyptic elements in Jesus’ thought is one particularly unfortunate feature of Benedict’s account. A more resolutely historical approach would situate Jesus firmly in the apocalyptically oriented Judaism of his day. Such a finding hardly compels us to follow Schweitzer’s conclusion that Jesus was deluded and disappointed, but it does require us to take seriously Jesus’ identification with”and redefinition of”Israel’s national hope, his formation of a countercultural Israel symbolized by the Twelve, and his orientation toward future eschatological judgment and vindication in the resurrection of the dead. Such motifs remain disappointingly peripheral in Benedict’s treatment.

Equally disappointing is Benedict’s skirting of the problem of the apparently anti-Jewish perspective in John’s gospel. Much recent scholarship has contextualized the gospel’s hostility toward “the Jews” in a historical setting later than the time of Jesus, after the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and emergent Christianity. Because Benedict insists, on the contrary, on reading the Johannine discourse material as historical reminiscence of what Jesus really said and taught, he is left with a Jesus who tells “the Jews” that their father is the devil. As far as I can see, Benedict never discusses this problem. But the issue cries out for attention in light of his privileging of the Johannine portrait of Jesus’ identity.

Finally, one occasionally stumbles over glaring exegetical errors, such as the passing statement that Paul’s Letter to the Galatians was written to Jewish Christians. (The letter was, on the contrary, written to Gentile converts who were being pressured to adopt circumcision and Jewish customs.) One might have hoped that Benedict would be in a position to avail himself of better proofreaders to spare him such embarrassing mistakes.

This list of criticisms, however, should not be taken as a dismissal of the book’s argument as a whole. Benedict’s synthetic reading of the canonical New Testament witnesses is both subtle and illuminating. He is right that the Jesus of the synoptics”the one who is Lord of the Sabbath and who teaches with an authority that transcends that of the scribes”is much more than a simple Galilean prophet. So, too, there are indeed intriguing links between the synoptic Christologies and the more overt high Christology of John. Benedict spots these links with a discerning eye and forces the reader to think seriously about them. He rightly shows that the messianic “joyful shout” of Matthew 11:25-27 and Luke 10:21-22 is not, as often supposed, an incongruous intrusion into the synoptic narratives; rather it articulates an understanding of Jesus’ sonship that is entirely consonant with other features of the narratives in which it appears.

From beginning to end, Benedict grounds his interpretation of Jesus in the Old as well as the New Testament. The significance of the gospel stories is consistently explicated in relation to the Old Testament’s typological prefiguration of Jesus, and Jesus is shown to be the flowering or consummation of all that God had promised Israel in many and various ways. The resulting intercanonical conversation offers many arresting insights into Jesus’ identity and significance. Many of the connections that Benedict discerns are traditional in patristic exegesis, but his explication of them is artful and effective.

Closely correlated with his constructive use of the Old Testament in Christology is Benedict’s sympathetic appropriation of patristic exegesis. Rather than ignoring the Fathers or using them as foils for the interpretations of modernity, Benedict draws them into the conversation as wise and illuminating commentators on the figure of Jesus in the gospels.

Finally, the book is full of luminous passages that offer a fruitful basis for meditation on the mysterious and gracious figure of Jesus. If one focuses on these sections of the book, it must be judged a great success. This book is the distillation of the wisdom of one who has lived long in prayer and reflected deeply on Jesus’ unity with the Father.

But if Benedict intends his work to be taken seriously as history, his next volume will need to set forth more clearly how the practice of history writing should be done in the new world revealed by incarnation, cross, and resurrection. If he does, it will become more evident that his account of the historical Jesus poses a frontal challenge, not a modest amendment, to the assumptions and methods of post-Enlightenment historiography.

Richard B. Hays , George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, is currently editing, with Beverly R. Gaventa, a book entitled Seeking the Identity of Jesus.