An Historic Book Inaugurating a New Era of Theological Exegesis
Although this is a substantial book, it can be read straight through. In reading its nine chapters, all focusing on one perspective, the reader is led on steep paths towards a captivating encounter with Jesus, a familiar figure who is revealed as even closer, in his humanity as well as in his divinity. Having read the book one would like to be able to continue the dialogue, not only with the author but with the One of whom he speaks. Jesus of Nazareth is more than a book; it is a moving, fascinating, liberating testimony. What interest it will arouse in experts and in the faithful!
Apart from its interest as a book on Jesus, this is a book by the Pope who humbly introduces himself to the forum of exegetes for an exchange with them on the methods and results of their research. The Holy Father’s aim is to continue with them, with of course complete scientific rigour, but also with faith in the Holy Spirit who fathoms the depths of God in Holy Scripture. In this forum the good exchanges easily outweigh points of criticism, thus contributing to making the essential contribution of the exegetes better known and recognised.
Is there not much to be hoped for from this rapprochement between the rigorous exegesis of the biblical texts and the theological interpretation of Holy Scripture? I cannot help seeing in this book the dawn of a new era of exegesis – a promising era of theological exegesis.
The Pope engages in dialogue first and foremost with the German exegetes but he does not overlook the recognised authors who belong to the French-, English- and Latin- speaking regions. He excels in identifying the essential questions and crucial challenges, while avoiding the discussion of details and academic arguments that could detract from what he is proposing. That is, to “discover the real Jesus,” not “the historical Jesus” of the mainstream critical exegesis but the “Jesus of the Gospels,” listened to in communion with all Jesus’ disciples across the ages, and thus to “attain sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, p. xvii.)
The Book as an Exegetical Paradigm
This formulation of his aim reveals the methodological interest of the book. The Pope approaches in a practical and exemplary manner the theological complement desired by the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini for the development of exegesis. Nothing is more stimulating than the example given and the results obtained. Jesus of Nazareth offers a magnificent foundation for a fruitful dialogue, not only between experts but also between pastors, theologians and exegetes!
Before giving several examples to illustrate the results of this exegesis by Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, I add a further observation on the method. The author strives to apply more profoundly the three criteria for interpretation formulated at the Second Vatican Council by the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: taking into account the unity of Holy Scripture, the Tradition of the entire Church and respecting the analogy of the faith. As the good teacher that he is, who has accustomed us to his mystagogical homilies, worthy of St Leo the Great, Benedict XVI illustrates, starting with the figure of Jesus – oh how central and unique! – the fullness of meaning that shines out from Holy Scripture “read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit through whom it was written” (Dei Verbum, n. 12).
Even though the author refrains from offering an official Teaching of the Church, it is easy to imagine that his scientific authority and in-depth examination of certain disputed questions will be most useful in strengthening the faith of a large number of people. In addition they will serve to give an impetus to discussions that have run aground because of the rationalist and positivist prejudices that have tarnished the reputation of modern and contemporary exegesis.
The Book Captures a Crucial Historical Period
Between the time that the first volume came out in April 2007 and the publication of the second volume during this Lent 2011, many happy events but also painful experiences have marked the life of the Church and of the world. One wonders how the Pope managed to write this very personal and very demanding work, the timeliness of whose subject and the audacity of whose undertaking are quite obvious to anyone interested in Christianity. As a theologian and pastor, I have the impression I am living in a historical period of great theological and pastoral significance. It is as if amidst the turbulent waves tossing the barque of the Church, Peter had once again grasped the hand of the Lord walking towards us on the waters to save us (Mt 14:22-33).
Having spoken about the historical, theological and pastoral character of the event of this book’s publication, let us now come to its content which I would like to sum up, albeit very imperfectly, around several crucial questions.
1. Historical Foundation of the Faith.
First of all the question of the historical foundation of Christianity which runs through the two volumes of the work; then the question of the messianic nature of Jesus, followed by the question of the expiation of sins by the Redeemer, which poses a problem for many theologians; and likewise the question of the Priesthood of Christ in relation to his Kingship and his Sacrifice which have such great importance for the Catholic conception of the priesthood and of the Holy Eucharist; lastly the question of the Resurrection of Jesus, his relationship to corporeity and his connection with the foundation of the Church.
It goes without saying that the list is not exhaustive and many will find other more interesting points, for example the author’s commentary on the eschatological discourse of Jesus or again, his priestly prayer in John 17. I identify the above-mentioned questions as knots to be smoothed out in exegesis as in theology, in order to lead the faith of the faithful back to the word of God itself, understood in its full force and coherence, despite the theological and cultural conditioning that sometimes blocks access to the profound meaning of Scripture.
The question of the historical foundation of Christianity has occupied Joseph Ratzinger since the years of his formation and his first teaching assignment, as transpires from his book on Einführung in das Christentum [The Christian Faith: yesterday and today], published more than 40 years ago, which had a remarkable impact on the public and read- errs of the time. Since Christianity is historically the religion of the Incarnate Word, it is indispensable for the Church to stick to the real facts and events, precisely because they contain the “mysteries” that theology must deepen in using the keys to interpretation that pertain to the domain of faith.
In this second volume about the central events of the Pas- scion, death and Resurrection of Christ, the author confesses that the task is particularly delicate. His exegesis interprets the real facts in a way similar to that of the treatise on “the mysteries of the life of Jesus” by St Thomas Aquinas (p. xvi), “guided by the hermeneutic of faith, but at the same time adopting a responsible attitude toward historical reason, which is a necessary component of that faith.” (p. xvii)
In this light, one understands the Pope’s interest in historical-critical exegesis which he knows well and from which he extracts the best in order to deepen knowledge of the events of the Last Supper, the meaning of the prayer in Gethsemane, the chronology of the Passion and, especially, the historical traces of the Resurrection. He does not fail to denounce in passing the lack of openness of an exegesis that is practised too exclusively according to “reason,” but his principal aim remains to illumine with a theological light the facts of the New Testament with the help of the Old Testament and vice- versa, in a manner analogous to but stricter than the typological interpretation of the Church Fathers. The connection of Christianity with Judaism appears strengthened by this exegesis which is rooted in the history of Israel, reapprehended in its orientation to Christ. This is why the priestly prayer of Jesus, for example, which seems a theological meditation par excellence, acquires with the Pope a whole new dimension thanks to his interpretation illuminated by the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur.
2. How are we to understand the Messiah?
A second knot to be straightened out concerns the messianism of Jesus. Certain modern exegetes have made Jesus into a revolutionary, a moral teacher, an eschatological prophet, an idealistic rabbi, a holy fool, a committed partisan taking the side of the marginalised of his epoch, a messiah made some way in the image of his interpreter, influenced by the prevailing ideologies.
Benedict XVI’s exposition on this subject is broad, and firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition. It is inscribed in the continuity of this tradition which unites the religious and the political, but emphasises to what point Jesus brings about a rupture between the two contexts. Jesus recognises before the Sanhedrin that he is the Messiah, but not without explaining the exclusively religious nature of his messianism. Moreover this is why he is condemned for blasphemy, because he identified himself with “The Son of man … coming with the clouds of Heaven.”
The Pope’s illustration of the royal and priestly dimensions of this messianism is strong and clear. Its meaning is to establish the new cult – worship in Spirit and in Truth – which involves the whole of existence, personal and communal, as an offering of love for the glorification of God in the flesh.
3. Expiation for Sin
A third knot to loosen concerns the serious aspect of redemption and the place that the expiation of sins should or should not occupy in it. The Pope confronts the modern objections to this traditional doctrine. Is not a God who demands an infinite expiation a cruel God whose image is incompatible with our idea of a merciful God? How can we reconcile our modern mindsets sensitive to the autonomy of the individual with the idea of a vicarious expiation on the part of Christ? These knots are particularly difficult to untie.
The author returns to these questions several times, at different levels, and shows how mercy and justice go hand in hand in the framework of the Covenant that God desired. Would a God who would forgive everything without wor- rying about the response his creature should offer have taken this Covenant, and especially the terrible evil that has poisoned the history of the world, seriously? When one looks closely at the texts of the New Testament, the author asks, is it not God who takes upon himself, in his Crucified Son, the need for reparation and for a response of authentic love? “God himself ‘drinks the cup’ of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love which, through suffering, transforms the darkness.” (p. 232)
These questions are asked and resolved in a sense that invites reflection and especially conversion. For one cannot probe these ultimate questions if one remains neutral or distant. One must base one’s freedom on them in order to discover the profound meaning of the Covenant which involves precisely the freedom of each person. The Holy Father’s conclusion is peremptory: “The mystery of atonement is not to be sacrificed on the altar of overweening rationalism.” (p. 240)
4. Christ the Priest
A fourth knot concerns the Priesthood of Christ. According to today’s ecclesial categories Jesus was a lay man invested with a prophetic vocation. He did not belong to the priestly aristocracy of the Temple and lived on the margins of this fundamental institution of the people of Israel. This fact has led many interpreters to consider the figure of Jesus as totally foreign to the priesthood and with no relation to it. Benedict XVI corrects this interpretation by relying heavily on the Letter to the Hebrews which speaks abundantly of the Priesthood of Christ and whose doctrine harmonises well with the theology of St John and St Paul.
Benedict XVI replies fully to the historical and critical objections by showing the coherence of the new Priesthood of Jesus with the new worship that he came to establish on earth in obedience to the Father’s will. The commentary on the priestly prayer of Jesus is of great depth and leads the reader to pastures he had not hitherto imagined.
The institution of the Eucharist is seen in this context to be of a luminous beauty which is reflected on to the life of the Church as its foundation and permanent source of peace and joy. The author keeps very close to the most searching historical analyses, and resolves doubtful matters by refined theological exegesis – provoking in this author fellings of emotion and admiration for what the author has achieved.
5. Dimension of the Resurrection
Finally a last knot which I consider concerns the Resurrection, its historical and eschatological dimension, its relationship to corporeity and to the Church. The Holy Father begins without beating about the bush: “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead” (p. 241).
The Pope rebels against the wild exegetical imaginings that declare the announcement of Christ’s Resurrection to be compatible with his body remaining in the tomb. He excludes these absurd theories, pointing out that even if the empty tomb is no proof of the Resurrection of which no one was a direct wit- ness, it remains a sign, a presupposition, a trace left in history by a transcendent event. “Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner, mystical experiences.” (p. 275)
According to the Pope, the Resurrection of Jesus introduces something “utterly different,” an “evolutionary leap” which ushers in “a new possibility of human existence.” (p. 244) The paradoxical experience of the apparitions reveal that in this new dimension of human existence, “he is not bound by physical laws, by the laws of space and time.” (p. 266) Jesus lives fully, in a new relationship to real corporeity, but is free from the constraints of the body as we know them.
The historical importance of the Resurrection is revealed in the testimony of the first communities which created the tradition of Sunday as a mark of identity of belonging to the Lord. “The celebration of the Lord’s day, which was a characteristic part of the Christian community from the outset, is one of the most convincing proofs,” the Holy Father says, “that some- thing extraordinary happened that day – the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounter with the Risen Lord.” (p. 259)
The Holy Eucharist
In the chapter on the Last Supper the Pope asserts: “With the Eucharist, the Church herself was established.” (p. 138) Here he adds an observation of great theological and pastoral importance; “So the Resurrection account flows naturally into ecclesiology; the encounter with the risen Lord is mission, and it shapes the nascent Church.” (p. 260) Each time that we take part in the Sunday Eucharist we go to the encounter with the Risen One who again comes towards us in the hope that we will thus bear witness to the fact that he is living and makes us live. Is it not on this that we may reestablish the meaning of Sunday Mass and the mission?
An Overall Perspective on the Book
Having mentioned these knots without being able properly to explain their unravelling, I would like to end this summary presentation by outlining a little further the meaning of this great work on Jesus of Nazareth.
It is obvious that through this work the Successor of Peter is devoting himself to his specific ministry which is to strengthen his brethren in the faith. What is striking here to the highest degree is the way he does so, in dialogue with the experts in the field of exegesis, and with a view to nourishing and fortifying the personal relationship of disciples with their Teacher and Friend today. Such an exegesis, theological in its method but which includes the historical dimension, effectively reconnects with the manner of interpretation of the Church Fathers, but without distancing his own interpretation from the literal meaning or from concrete history by escaping into artificial allegories.
Through the example he gives and the results he obtains, this book will serve as a mediation between contemporary and patristic exegesis on the one hand, as well as, on the other, mediating in the same way in the necessary dialogue between exegetes, theologians and pastors. I see in this work a great invitation to dialogue on the essence of Christianity, in a world in search of points of reference, where the different religious traditions have difficulty in transmitting to the new generations the heritage of humanity’s religious wisdom.
Hence a dialogue within the Church, a dialogue with the other Christian confessions, a dialogue with the Jews whose historical involvement as a people in Jesus’ condemnation is once again excluded. Finally a dialogue with other religious traditions on the meaning of God and of man which emanates from the figure of Jesus, so favourable to the peace and unity of the human race.
Having read this book for the first time and savoured more fully the Truth to which the author humbly and passionately bears witness, I feel the need to follow up this encounter with “Jesus of Nazareth” both by inviting others to read it and by reading it myself for a second time as a meditation on the liturgical Season of Lent and of Easter.
I believe that the Church should give thanks to God for this historic book, for this pivotal work between two ages, inaugurating a new epoch of theological exegesis. This book will have a liberating effect to stimulate the love of Holy Scripture, to encourage “lectio divina” and to help priests to preach the word of God.
At the end of this overview of a work that brings the reader close to the true face of God in Jesus Christ, it remains for me to say: thank you Holy Father! May I nevertheless be permitted to add another word here, does not such a service rendered to the Church and to the world in the well-known circumstances and with the constraints that can be imagined, deserve more than a word or a gesture of gratitude. The Holy Father holds the hand of Jesus on the rough waves and stretches out his other hand to us so that we may be one with him. Who will grasp this outstretched hand that transmits to us the words of eternal life?