The unknowing reader might at first think that Jesus of Nazareth is coauthored. At the top of the dust jacket is “Joseph Ratzinger.” Then, directly below it, in much larger type, “Pope Benedict XVI.” Perhaps it was, in the manner of many books, written by the pope “with the assistance” of Joseph Ratzinger. But of course that is not the case. The book, we are told, has undergone a “long gestation.”
Most of it was written by Joseph Ratzinger when he was Joseph Ratzinger, and he says that, since becoming Benedict XVI, “I have used every free moment to make progress on the book.” As it is, Jesus of Nazareth is Part I of a larger project. It is the story of Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan to Peter’s confession of faith and the Transfiguration. Part II, including the infancy narratives, may or may not come later [It has. DJ], “As I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given.”
We [First Things] are very pleased to have published the review of Jesus of Nazareth by Richard Hays, the distinguished professor of New Testament at Duke University. It is, I believe, the very model of what a book review should be. It tells what the book is about, respectfully engages its arguments, and sets forth in an accessible way both its strengths and weaknesses. I expect the pope was pleased with Mr. Hays’ sympathetically critical treatment of the book. But, of course, and as always, there is more to be said.
Initial reports that the pope was going to publish the book emphasized the novelty of the idea. One British paper excitedly reported that the pope was declaring that he is not infallible. And indeed he writes: “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but it is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of Jesus.’ Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.” It also goes without saying — although the pope has just said it — that this book has nothing to do with infallibility, which is a very precise and narrowly defined exercise of teaching authority that ensures that the Church will never require anyone to believe what is false.
Nor is it unprecedented for a pope to publish a book that claims no magisterial authority. One thinks, for instance, of John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope and Memory and Identity, the former, like the present book, being an international bestseller. Some popes are undeniably prolific. Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903, issued eighty-five encyclicals, plus hundreds of pastoral letters, bulls, and other documents. But it is true that in the past two centuries popes tended to be seen as rather remote figures who spoke in public seldom and then in the mode of magisterial authority. That changed dramatically with John Paul II, and Benedict is obviously following in his steps, and indeed going further. He has, for example, engaged in extended Q & A sessions in public gatherings.
The complaint is heard that John Paul, and now Benedict, are expanding papal authority and hogging the public spotlight, making the pope the teacher of the Church. Who listens to their bishop when they can listen to the pope? The same voices once complained that the papacy needed to be “humanized” and “personalized” rather than presenting itself as an oracle issuing occasional pronunciamentos from on high. There is no pleasing some people.
A Living Relationship
As to why he published Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict says, “It struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him.” The entire book is marked by this sense of urgency. It is not so much another book about Jesus as it is an invitation to follow him in the adventure of discipleship. Of course it is also about Jesus and is supported by the scholarship pertinent to historical facts and the development of the Church’s understanding of his person, message, and mission. Although, as Richard Hays respectfully noted, some of the scholarship is rather dated.
Of the writing of books about Jesus there is no end. I don’t know whether Benedict had in mind and seeks to counter fabrications such as The Da Vinci Code and its predecessors and imitators, but it seems more than likely. I see Garry Wills has a new book out, What Jesus Meant. It purports to explain what Jesus meant to say and no doubt would have said had he the advantage of being Garry Wills. While Wills and likeminded authors depict a Jesus in radical discontinuity with the Church’s teaching, Benedict — convincingly, if not surprisingly — makes the case that, from the beginning and on all the really big questions, the Church got it right.
Benedict is taken with Jacob Neusner’s little book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. In many ways, Benedict acknowledges, Jesus disappointed some messianic expectations. “What did Jesus actually bring,” Benedict asks, “if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?” “The answer is very simple: He brought God.” He continues:
He brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance, gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature — the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth. . . . Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origins and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of the hardness of hearts that we think this is too little.
He is the “Christ,” meaning the Messiah. Since the title “made little sense outside of Semitic culture,” it was “joined with the name of Jesus: Jesus Christ. What began as an interpretation ended up as a name, and therein lies a deeper message: He is completely one with his office; his task and his person are totally inseparable from each other.” “In the end,” writes Benedict, “man needs just one thing, in which everything else is included; but he must first delve beyond his superficial wishes and longings in order to recognize what it is that he truly needs and truly wants. He needs God. And so we now realize what ultimately lies behind all the Johannine images: Jesus gives us ‘life’ because he gives us God.”
It is frequently claimed, Benedict writes, that the teachings of Jesus, especially in the Beatitudes, represent “the Christian ethics that is supposedly superior to the commands of the Old Testament.” This, he says, is wrong, since “Jesus always presupposed the validity of the Ten Commandments” and explicitly said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Running throughout Jesus of Nazareth is a powerful anti-Marcionite insistence upon the inseparability of the Old and New Testaments. The German biblical scholar H. Gese is favorably quoted: “Jesus himself has become the divine word of revelation. The gospels could not illustrate it any more clearly or powerfully: Jesus himself is the Torah.”
In his “talk” with Jesus, Rabbi Neusner poses the question: What of the law and the prophets did Jesus leave out? The answer is “Nothing.” So what then did he add? The answer is “Himself.” To which Benedict adds, “Perfection, the state of being holy as God is holy as demanded by the Torah, now consists in following Jesus.”
Agreeing with Neusner, Benedict underscores that the crucial decision is in response to the question, Who is Jesus? Echoing Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations), the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, Benedict writes: “Jesus has brought the God of Israel to the nations, so that all the nations now pray to him and recognize Israel’s Scriptures as his word, the word of the living God. He has brought the gift of universality, which was the one great definitive promise to Israel and the world. This universality, this faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . is what proves him to be the Messiah.”
As an aside, Benedict takes exception to the now common use of the Tetragrammaton (“I am who I am”), the name of God given to Moses. This, he says, is who God is without qualification. “The Israelites therefore were perfectly right in refusing to utter this self-designation of God, expressed in the word YHWH, so as to avoid degrading it to the level of the names of pagan deities. By the same token, recent Bible translations were wrong to write out this name . . . as if it were just any old name. By doing so, they have dragged the mystery of God, which cannot be captured in images or in names that lips can utter, down to the level of some familiar item within a common history of religions.”
Benedict returns to the Jewish-Christian connection in his treatment of the parable of the prodigal son, which he prefers to call the parable of the two sons. A conventional interpretation is that the elder brother represents the Jews. In the parable, the father says to the elder brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In this way, writes Benedict, “the father not only does not dispute the older brother’s fidelity but explicitly confirms his sonship.” Thus “it would be a false interpretation to read this as a condemnation of the Jews,” writes Benedict.
At the same time, there are those, both Jews and non-Jews, for whom “more than anything else, God is Law; they see themselves in a juridical relationship with God and in that relationship they are at rights with him. But God is greater: They need to convert from the Law-God to the greater God, the God of love. . . . In this parable, then, the Father through Christ is addressing us, the ones who never left home, encouraging us, too, to convert truly and to find joy in our faith.” This is a delicate treatment of a delicate subject. Christians who affirm the universality of the mission of Christ cannot help but hope that all people, including Jews, will accept him as the promised Messiah. At the same time, one is somewhat surprised to find in the foregoing passage traces of the idea that Judaism is a religion of law while Christianity is a religion of love. That is an idea that is apparently rejected elsewhere in the book.
Jesus of Nazareth is indisputably a scholarly work, although a scholarly work that is readily accessible to the general reader. Benedict at several points addresses the problems associated with contemporary biblical scholarship. A purely historical approach to individual texts cannot recognize the Bible as the Bible, the book of the Church. Such a method “can intuit something of the ‘deeper value’ the words contain. It can in some sense catch the sounds of a higher dimension through the human word, and so open up the method to self-transcendence.
But its specific object is the human word as human.” “We have to keep in mind the limits of all efforts to know the past: We can never go beyond the domain of the hypothesis, because we simply cannot bring the past into the present.” Therefore, we must go beyond the historical-critical method to recognize that these texts constitute the one Scripture that speaks with a living voice and is to be understood by “taking account of the living tradition of the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic correspondence with the faith).”
An “Anonymous Community”
While recognizing the limits of much biblical scholarship, Benedict regularly invokes its practitioners, either to agree or disagree with them. In one paragraph, for instance, we encounter Peter Stuhlmacher, Martin Hengel, E. Ruckstuhl, and P. Dschulnigg. (German is, after all, the pope’s first language.) Many scholars claim that the high Christology to be found in, for instance, John’s gospel is the construction of the early community trying to make sense of their experience of Jesus. Benedict is skeptical. “The anonymous community,” he writes, “is credited with an astonishing level of theological genius — who were the great figures responsible for inventing all this?
No, the greatness, the dramatic newness, comes directly from Jesus; within the faith and life of the community it is further developed, but is not created. In fact, the ‘community’ would not even have emerged and survived at all unless some extraordinary reality had preceded it.” On question after question, critical biblical scholarship turns out to offer little more than “a graveyard of mutually contradictory hypotheses.” But as I said, while he recognizes the severe limits of such scholarship, Benedict nonetheless employs its findings and suppositions in advancing his argument.
Benedict does not mention by name Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose work he has elsewhere praised very highly, but one suspects Balthasar’s presence, if only to disagree with him, in the treatment of Christ’s descent into hell. There is this, for example, on the baptism of Jesus: “Jesus’ baptism, then, is understood as a repetition of the whole of history, which recapitulates the past and anticipates the future. His entering into the sin of others is a descent into the ‘inferno.’ . . . He goes down in the role of one whose suffering-with-others is a transforming suffering that turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss.”
And there is this: “The Apostles’ Creed speaks of Jesus’ descent ‘into hell.’ This descent not only took place in and after his death but accompanies him along his entire journey. He must recapitulate the whole of history from its beginnings — from Adam on; he must go through, suffer through, the whole of it, in order to transform it.” And again: “Thus it is not only after his death, but already by his death and during his whole life, that Jesus ‘descends into hell,’ as it were, into the domain of our temptations and defeats, in order to take us by the hand and carry us upward.” While employing aspects of its rhetorical force, Benedict distances himself from Balthasar’s contention that, in his descent, Jesus experienced the hell of the damned.
A striking feature of the book is the author’s delight in tackling biblical passages that strike many as strange, if not contradictory. He notes, for instance, that the “Good Shepherd” text of John 10 does not begin with “I am the good shepherd” but with another image, that of the door. “He who does not enter the sheep-fold by the door but climbs in by another way is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” Then Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep.” How to understand this? Benedict answers: “This can only really mean that Jesus is establishing the criterion for those who will shepherd his flock after his ascension to the Father. The proof of a true shepherd is that he enters through Jesus as the door. For in this way it is ultimately Jesus who is the shepherd — the flock ‘belongs’ to him alone.”
Or consider Luke 9:18, where we read, “As he was praying alone, the disciples were with him.” That is, says Benedict, a “deliberate paradox.” “The disciples are drawn into his solitude, his communion with the Father that is reserved to him alone. They are privileged to see him as the one who . . . speaks face-to-face with the Father, person to person. They are privileged to see him in his utterly unique filial being — at the point from which all his words, his deeds, and his powers issue.”
In his treatment of these and other passages, Benedict follows the pattern of the early Church Fathers. Nothing in the biblical text is accidental or out of place; every passage, every word, has its purpose. While his book does not address in detail the question of scriptural inspiration, the presupposition of divine direction is evident in every page.
As I said, the review by Richard Hays in the last issue is, in my judgment, altogether admirable and quite the best that I have seen anywhere. The foregoing reflection is simply intended to lift up additional aspects of the book, in the hope that it will encourage others to read it with the care that it deserves. Jesus of Nazareth is not, as the author himself takes pains to underscore, the last word on the subject. But it is a greatly needed word in a time when mass audiences are titillated by fanciful fabrications about the discovery of “the real Jesus.” The last word on the Word will be spoken when there is a final answer to the last words of the Bible, “Come, Lord Jesus.”