A few days after Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, a distinguished Lutheran theologian happened to meet up with a Catholic colleague of long acquaintance. “You should be very happy,” the Lutheran observed. “Why?” his friend wondered in reply. “Because you have just elected the best theologian to be pope since Gregory the Great.”
When Gregory I came to the See of Peter in 590, the future of the Catholic Church—and whether the Church would have a future—was far from clear, and the papacy had little by way of worldly power to confront the crisis. The Church was besieged from without and troubled by dissension within. Rome lay in ruins about him, its population less than a tenth of what it had been during the closing days of imperial glory two centuries before. The barbarian tribes vying for control of Italy and much of the rest of Europe were either Arian or pagan, without loyalty to Rome and the papacy. And they were literally at the gates. One of the most important acts of Gregory’s pontificate was to negotiate a peace with the Lombard chieftain Agilulf, saving Rome from complete destruction.
To a large extent Gregory the Great met the problems of his time simply by teaching the faith. In sermons, pastoral instructions, exegetical works, and lives of the saints, he sought to display the inherent beauty of Christianity and of lives shaped by the gospel. He made no claim to originality but merely presented the core teaching of the Church, the faith of Nicaea and Chalcedon, of Augustine and the Church Fathers, and did so in a clear, precise, and attractive manner. His originality lay at the level of particulars, a by-product of his extensive effort to teach in his own time what he had received from Scripture and the Fathers.
As a new dark age closes in, Alasdair MacIntyre famously observed, we hope for a new St. Benedict. The former Cardinal Ratzinger surely did not choose by accident the name under which he would be pope. But in his actual exercise of the Petrine ministry he more resembles Gregory the Great than that other ancient saint who is his namesake. Leading a twenty-first-century Church much diminished in power and influence throughout Europe, Pope Benedict XVI manifests a similar trust in the renewing power of the gospel, devoting much of his papacy to a persistent effort of clear, precise, and attractive teaching that seeks to transmit rather than innovate, to inform rather than speculate. As pope, the former professor of theology has been above all a catechist.
In countless public presentations he has spoken in plain terms of the prophets and the apostles, the Fathers, saints, and doctors of the Church, confident that their insight and example will prove pertinent to his twenty-first-century hearers. (During the summer of 2008, I heard him talk for close to half an hour, at a Wednesday audience under the warm Roman sun, of the historical and contemporary significance of Isidore of Seville.) In the many books gathered from these theological talks, in book-length interviews before and after becoming pope, and in his homilies, encyclicals, and apostolic exhortations, Benedict XVI has striven to teach the faith to a generation that, within and without the Church, is confused about it, puzzled by it, and hostile to it—to the generation of barbarians among whom most of us must, to some extent, also number ourselves.
The two volumes of his Jesus of Nazareth hold a unique place in the catechetical project that has defined his papacy. They have been published under his baptismal name, Joseph Ratzinger, with his name as successor of Peter only in second place on the book cover (though in much larger type, at least in the English edition). In the foreword to the first volume he emphasized that his book was not an official text that embodied the authority of his office but was rather the fruit of his “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’” As such, he said, “Everyone is free to contradict me.” Even the highest Catholic regard for the teaching authority of the pope does not require agreement with the biblical exegesis of Joseph Ratzinger in these books.
Whether it is really possible for a pope to publish a private book is perhaps open to question. But Benedict’s effort to put a degree of distance between this work and his office reflects, it seems, his desire to teach about Jesus to all who will listen, regardless of their attitude toward the Church and the papacy. His “personal search” can be ours.
“Only in this second volume,” Benedict observes, “do we encounter the decisive sayings and events of Jesus’ life”—decisive, of course, not only for a historical appreciation of Jesus but for Christian faith in him. Covering just one week, from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection from the dead, Benedict treats the final events of Jesus’ life as historical happenings, to be sure. But they are also divine mysteries, the acts by which God generously opens up his innermost life to us and invites us in. This, above all, is what Benedict aims to teach us.
The result is a book that reads, as Benedict informs us at the outset, rather like a traditional theological treatise on “the mysteries of the life of Jesus.” Despite the obvious differences in substance and style, the pope finds himself closer in spirit to Thomas Aquinas’ classic theological account of Jesus’ passion and resurrection in part 3 of the Summa Theologiae than to the standard modern approaches to the figure of Jesus. While he sees this book as a historically responsible interpretation of the New Testament, Benedict clearly distinguishes what he is doing here from the characteristically modern effort to provide a purely historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life. In particular, he distances himself from the now common effort to breathe theological life into the religiously impoverished results of modern historical reconstructions.
Benedict structures the book around nine interconnected mysteries in the final days of Jesus’ earthly life: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple, his eschatological discourse (Mark 13 and parallels), the washing of the disciples’ feet, the high-priestly prayer of John 17, the Last Supper, Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, his trial before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and burial, and his resurrection from the dead. To this he adds a brief “epilogue” wherein he discusses Jesus’ ascension, his session “at the right hand of the Father,” and his return in glory. His approach to each of the mysteries remains basically the same, and we can gain a clar sense of his project if we focus on his treatment of the cross.
Benedict’s chapter the “Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus” begins with a brief “preliminary reflection,” what we might call (in language the pope uses sparingly) a hermeneutical observation. The four gospels differ in emphasis and detail, Benedict observes, but they are at one in “the broad outlines” of Jesus’ crucifixion, and all four saturate their presentations of Jesus’ final suffering and death with allusions to the Old Testament. Two texts have particular prominence. One is Psalm 22, which begins with the lament of one forsaken by God but ends with confidence that God will hear the suppliant’s prayer and that the whole assembly of Israel will rejoice. The other is Isaiah 53, the song of the servant of God whose suffering will justify many.
Benedict insists that we must keep these Old Testament texts firmly in mind when seeking the truth about Jesus, for without them we do not get at the same events in a different way but forfeit access to the events altogether. This is not a hypothetical temptation. Many modern scholars presume that we must remove the language of Israelite prophecy from our description of Jesus if we are to be rigorously historical. Others claim that we should renounce any claim to interpret Jewish scripture lest we make a morally illicit intrusion on the rights of another religious community.
Such worries fail to appreciate how the New Testament presents Jesus to us. “The facts are, so to speak, permeated with the word—with meaning,” writes Benedict, “and the converse is also true: what previously had been merely word—often beyond our capacity to understand—now becomes reality, its meaning unlocked.” This observation, as befits Benedict’s ministry of restorative catechesis, amounts to a restatement of Vatican II, which taught Catholics to see Scripture this way. As we read in Dei Verbum, the “economy of revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other.”
And as Benedict points out, seeking to enter into this interpenetration of deed and word is not only a matter of following Church teaching. “The methods of modern critical textual analysis” also show that the first generation of Christians came to their faith in Jesus’ passion and resurrection by learning how to understand word and event in light of each other.
With this “harmony between word and event” in view, Benedict’s reflection turns to Jesus on the cross. He acknowledges the differences in how the gospels depict the crucified and sees no need to harmonize the accounts; the differences themselves are essential to an adequate apprehension of Jesus. Still less does Benedict see the need to choose between the gospel accounts, to take one as closest to the event itself (a dubious honor most often accorded to Mark) while downgrading the rest as questionable theological glosses.
He follows, in part, a traditional form, offering a meditation on the seven last words of Jesus, the seven utterances the four gospels together ascribe to the Crucified. Interspersed with succinct reflections on these sayings is attention to the actions and events that affect the suffering Jesus: the mockery of the passers-by and the Sanhedrin, the casting of lots for his seamless garment, the anguished compassion of the faithful women (above all, the Mother of Jesus) at the foot of the cross, and finally the confession of the centurion and the effusion of blood and water from the pierced side of the slain redeemer.
Deed as well as word here overflows with scriptural allusion, and close attention to the Old Testament content of the gospel accounts becomes indispensable, Benedict clearly supposes, if we would approach the mystery of the cross as it actually is. In the dividing of Jesus’ clothes among the executioners, for example, Psalm 22:18 comes into view, a reference that John makes explicit. In their casting of lots for his seamless tunic, “we may detect,” Benedict writes, “an allusion to Jesus’ high-priestly dignity,” for the ancient testimony of Josephus reports that the high priest of Israel wore just such a seamless garment.
But illumination flows not just from word to event. Jesus dies at three in the afternoon, the very hour, Benedict several times observes, when the paschal lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for Passover. Here we find an event that “unlocks the meaning” of a previously mysterious word, in this case the prophecy of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The words by which John the Baptist identified Jesus are, of course, those by which Catholics identify him each day, sacramentally present in every Eucharist as one who takes away our sins. In fact, as Benedict reads them, the gospels “explicitly portray Jesus’ death on the Cross as a cosmic and liturgical event.” The mystery of the cross, precisely as it is presented to us in the gospels, does not belong only to the past, which is why historical and textual analysis alone, no matter how sympathetic or doctrinally traditional, cannot fully illuminate that mystery for us. We must allow ourselves to be guided as well by the paschal mystery as a present fact.
The same goes for all the mysteries of Jesus’ life that are depicted with such seeming simplicity in the gospels. Each event from the entry into Jerusalem to Golgotha, the Emmaus road, and the upper room is pregnant with its own future, with the life it will have in the Church. The Last Supper is already laden—deliberately, by Jesus himself—with the Church’s Eucharist. Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane anticipates the Church’s faith in the reality of both his divine and his human will, and so forth.
The book’s subtitle gives a decidedly liturgical cast to the whole. “Holy Week” designates not simply a series of events in first-century Jerusalem but also, and primarily, the Church’s yearly celebration of them. All things human turn on what happened long ago in Jerusalem. These events cannot, therefore, belong only to the vanished past. Holy Week is not simply the recollection of what once occurred. It is the presence of the events it recalls, events in which each of us can now participate by liturgical deed and sacramental act as well as by hearing the words that tell of them.
It is therefore no pious afterthought, but essential to the apprehension of the events themselves, that Benedict concludes his chapter on the crucifixion and burial of Jesus with a section on the significance for every human being of Jesus’ death: “the death of Jesus as reconciliation (atonement) and salvation.” Here we find a relatively extended discussion of how the more technical questions of dogmatic theology—in this case, the doctrine of the atonement—arise out of the imperatives of biblical interpretation.
In Romans 3:25, St. Paul, “evidently drawing upon a tradition of the earliest Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem,” speaks of the crucified Jesus as the hilasterion whom God put forward for us as his supreme act of justice, to be embraced by faith. This Greek term is usually rendered into English with some variation on the general term “atonement” (“place of atonement,” “atoning sacrifice,” and so forth).
But as Benedict several times emphasizes, most historical-critical exegetes now hold that it refers specifically to the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, the place at the heart of the Temple where, once a year, “the expiatory blood was sprinkled on the great Day of Atonement,” according to the prescriptions of Leviticus 16. Meditating on the mystery of the cross in light of the prophets and the apostles, Benedict argues, the earliest Christians soon came to believe that the crucified Jesus had accomplished the supreme act of expiation or propitiation for sin. In these terms the mystery of the cross began to live in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in these same terms, Benedict clearly supposes, we should embrace the mystery of the cross today.
As he knows, objections abound, and Benedict considers several of the most important. Some will object that the first Christians were Jews and, as the New Testament relates, continued to frequent the Temple in Jerusalem. They could not have adopted so radical a view, one that takes the Temple sacrifices commanded in the Torah and replaces them with the cross of Jesus. According to this objection, the theological idea that the cross has obviated the need for the Levitical sacrifices must be understood as a later gloss (embodied, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews), an implicitly anti-Jewish notion all too eagerly embraced by later Gentile Christians.
Whatever its motives, Benedict suggests, this objection fails to account for the originality of Jesus: his “historical impact,” which means the capacity of his words, deeds, and sufferings to reshape the way even his first followers understood their scripture and themselves. “One thing was astonishingly clear from the outset: with the Cross of Christ, the old Temple sacrifices were definitively surpassed. Something new had happened.”
This need not conflict with the earliest practice of going to the Temple in Jerusalem. “The Temple remained a venerable place of prayer and proclamation. Its sacrifices, though, were no longer relevant for Christians.” To affirm the radical difference Jesus makes need not lead to an anti-Jewish stance that finds no value or purpose in the Old Testament law. In fact, Benedict apparently affirms, following St. Bernard of Clairvaux, that in the present “time of the Gentiles” the Church “must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews.” This has rightly drawn much attention. How it squares with the universality of Jesus’ saving mission, affirmed by Benedict with equal clarity, is a problem he is not the first to leave unsolved.
Another objection resists the very idea of expiation (or “atonement,” as the pope’s German term Sühne is often rendered in the English version), arguing that the Christian God does not demand the suffering of an innocent man in order to free a guilty humanity. He simply forgives, out of sheer mercy. This, Benedict replies, is not what expiation means and not how the New Testament understands the cross of Jesus. It is a profound mistake to play God’s mercy off against his justice, as Anselm long ago discerned.
“The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world,” Benedict writes, “cannot simply be ignored” by God. That would not be justice, and so it would not truly be mercy. But God’s just way of dealing with the reality of evil is not to impose injury on the innocent in order to make up for what the guilty have done to God. “It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself.” At its heart the cross is not a punishment but an offering, a gift of Jesus—of God incarnate—to the Father and to the world, a total gift of self, a gift greater than any debt.
The thought that, in Jesus, God takes the suffering of the world upon himself suggests still another objection, one diametrically opposed to the last. Justice does not call for God to receive a gift from us so much as it calls for us to receive a gift from God. This gift, according to a significant strain of modern Christian piety and theology, should be understood as God’s complete solidarity with our condition. It is an identification with our suffering lot fully realized only at the point of Jesus’ cry from the cross, expressing his own complete experience of what we secretly fear most: the absence of God. According to this line of thought, Jesus’ cross can be meaningful for us only if God’s solidarity with us goes precisely, if paradoxically, to the point of abandonment by God. The cross is not what we must suffer in order to make up for what we have done to God. It is what God must suffer in order to make up for what he has done to us.
Benedict observes that there is something to this theology—theodicy, really—of solidarity, but not if it goes too far. In the book’s concluding bibliography, the pope quietly but tellingly identifies the Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann and the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (the latter sometimes thought to be a particular favorite of his) as examples of an exaggerated theology of solidarity, which mistakenly takes Jesus’ cry from the cross as the expression of a personal experience of abandonment. The more balanced view, he argues, recognizes that Jesus certainly does take our suffering upon himself but not in order to succumb to it and be overwhelmed by it. He enters into solidarity with us, “bears our griefs” (Is. 53:4), not in order to experience them as we do, to be crushed by them as we are, but to transform them and triumph over them.
Therefore, we need to be sure-footed in our reading of Jesus’ cry of dereliction. He does, indeed, pray the opening lines of Psalm 22, “the great psalm of suffering Israel,” from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He prays these words, however, not in ignorance of how the psalm ends but as the people of God had always prayed them, certain of an answer from God: “He did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (v. 24). Nor does he pray simply as a lone suffering Israelite but as the second Adam, the “head” of the humanity he came to save. Jesus prays, writes Benedict, “as the one who unites us all into a single common subject and incorporates us all into himself.” Now, when we pray our own psalms of suffering, when we cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” we pray in him, and in him find our suffering transformed.
Especially in the English-speaking world, the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth got a frosty reception from most biblical scholars. Benedict’s New Testament scholarship, it was often held, was excessively reliant on German authors and generally outmoded in light of recent scholarship in English. More important, the book was dismissed as a misbegotten hybrid of critical scholarship and Catholic devotion, satisfying to adherents of neither. It is unlikely that the second volume will fare much better.
Undeterred by such criticism from the guild of professional exegetes, the pope clearly has no intention of reading, say, the Gospel of Matthew simply as an independent literary artifact but accepts it as one of the canonical gospels—very much including John, and not limited to the synoptics. He reads the gospels, moreover, in connection with the whole of the New Testament, so that Romans 3:25 becomes a crucial text for interpreting the depiction of Jesus’ cross in the gospels. And he reads the New Testament in relation to the Christian canon as a whole, so that Jesus is rightly understood as the speaker not only of the opening lines in Psalm 22 but of the entire song of suffering and triumph.
Some in the biblical guild embrace this way of reading particular New Testament texts in light of the whole canon, while others resist it. Either way—and this is the point on which Benedict insists—the interpreter of the gospels makes a decision of which no amount of historical evidence can relieve him. Nothing affects our interpretation of a text more than our convictions about what is most relevant to reading the text rightly. The decision to read the gospels as Christian scripture—or not to read them in this way—is ineluctably infiltrated with the reader’s convictions about God, about what God may (or may not) be doing with these texts, about the nature and authority of the communities that have held these texts to be sacred Scripture, and much more. It is, in short, a religious decision, which historical considerations alone cannot compel the reader to make one way or the other.
His recognizing this does not pit Benedict against historical criticism. On the contrary, he consistently draws on the insights and judgments of modern biblical scholars. But he insists that historical criticism, while a necessary component in an intellectually responsible interpretation of the Bible, must be taken up into a “hermeneutics of faith” and not the other way around. He deliberately subordinates the methods and results of modern biblical scholarship (historical-critical or otherwise) to the complex ways of reading long practiced by the Church. Here we find his deep difference from the work of many contemporary biblical scholars—and the source of their vigorous opposition to him.
Benedict’s critics in the biblical guild sense, quite rightly, I think, that he is quietly calling for a deprofessionalization of biblical studies. The result would be an end to biblical studies as we know it. The academic field of biblical studies exists in order to have the last word about what the Bible means. Just this Benedict means to deny them: “One thing is clear to me: in two hundred years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit.” If the scholarly study of the Bible is not to become religiously irrelevant, “it must take a methodological step forward and see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character.”
Forward, not backward. The undoubted technical and methodological expertise of biblical scholars makes an indispensable contribution to the Church. But it does not entitle them to the last word. No one has to choose between being blacklisted as a fundamentalist and delivering himself into the hands of a magisterium of professional exegetes. The Church should listen to what biblical scholars say, and then make its own decisions about what the texts mean. These decisions will always involve much more in the way of faith, tradition, experience, and communal discernment than the canons of biblical scholarship provide—or presently allow.
Benedict makes many such decisions and presents them in a direct, accessible way. His two volumes on Jesus help us see that the Church can give modern biblical scholarship all the credit it deserves yet rightly refuse it the final say in discerning what the Bible means. This is surely an important step forward. And it imparts a singular attraction to his account of what we can believe about Jesus and hope for from him.
Bruce D. Marshall is professor of Christian Doctrine at Perkins School of Theology.