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Benedict XVI on Jesus (Review)

This book (Joseph Ratzinger Benedikt XVI, Jesus von Nazareth, Freiburg, 2007) is elegantly written (as to be expected from one whose favorite author is Theodor Storm), rich in original argument and edifying reflection. It will bring its readers to a refreshed and deepened knowledge of Christ. It is also a provocative book that will elicit strong disagreement from many theologians and exegetes. ‘This book is in no way a magisterial act. Everyone is free to contradict me,’ the author declares (p. 22, and dust jacket). It remains to be seen if in the current climate this invitation is seized on.

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THE HISTORICAL JESUS AND THE CHRIST OF FAITH

Probably the most controversial feature of the book is its ambition to close the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the Church’s post-Easter faith. Benedict begins his book by deploring the efforts to recover a historical Jesus lying behind the gospel accounts, pointing out that they have produced only a heap of contradictory and subjective portraits. It might be argued that a relative stability attaches to the notion of Jesus as ‘eschatological prophet’ and that Benedict’s treatment of the quests for the historical Jesus here is a rather precipitous polemic. The idea that the gospel image of Jesus is based on a later faith in his divinity seems to Benedict to void faith. Students of theology have often been taught that insight into Christ`s divinity developed gradually: at an early stage, it is at the Resurrection that Jesus is ‘established Son of God’ (Rom 1.4) and that ‘God made him Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2.36); then this is projected back to the Baptism, then to his conception (in the Infancy Narratives) and finally to his pre-existence. Benedict insists that Philippians 2.6, ‘some twenty years after the Resurrection,’ already proclaims a pre-existent divine Christ and has ‘a fully developed Christology’ (p. 21). Benedict does not advert to the alternative exegesis of this hymn, according to which the kenosis of Jesus has less to do with a pre-existent divine status than with the fact that, unlike Adam, he did not snatch at equality with God; in which case the reference to his being ‘in the form of God,’ even if it has the suggestion of some pre-existent status, would precisely not entail equality with God. This alternative exegesis goes back to the 16th century Reformers, I believe, and is often cited by advocates of a Christology from below.

However, it is true that Paul transfers to Christ language that the Old Testament uses of God (see H.-J. Schoeps, Paulus, Darmstadt, 1972, p. 158). Larry Hurtado and others have recently pointed to the explosion of worship of Jesus in the very earliest years of the Christian movement (see T. Tilley, ‘Remembering the Historic Jesus -- A New Research Program?,’ Theological Studies 68, 2007, pp. 3-35). When talking of a ‘developed Christology’ we should distinguish between, on the one hand, exalted mythic language, which is compatible with other mythic apprehensions of a more adoptionist kind -- to be found not only in the Synoptics but even in high Christological writings such as Hebrews and John -- and, on the other hand, the metaphysical exactitude of later accounts of Christ’s divine status, especially after Nicea. Historical study of Scripture that is guided by an apologetic purpose cannot take time to enjoy the great variety of the early Christologies, including the elaborate Jewish apocalyptic frame of the hymn quoted by Paul, and his own more restrained vision centered on resurrection rather than exaltation.

Benedict does not consider very closely the common view that the paschal experience shed a new light on the identity of Jesus which was projected back onto the earthly ministry of Jesus in the Synoptics and especially in John, and that the original words and deeds of Jesus as they appeared before his death and resurrection cannot be reconstructed with certitude. Rather, he reacts to it as follows: ‘This impression has in the meantime pervaded the common consciousness of Christianity. Such a situation is dramatic for the faith, making its point of reference insecure. The inner friendship with Jesus, which is what it all comes down to, risks grasping at the void’ (p. 11). But did not St. Paul already accept that ‘knowing Christ according to the flesh’ (2 Cor 5.16) is not what counts, but knowing the risen Christ as ‘a life-giving Spirit’ (1 Cor 15.45)? It is not a catastrophe for faith that we have little certain knowledge of the historical Jesus. We know him primarily as he is remembered within the theological horizons of post-paschal faith. The effort to reconstruct him historically has value as securing the reality of his humanity and preventing faith from ballooning off into Gnostic fantasy. But the very opacity that this quest faces is itself a mark of historical reality; we cannot conjure up from history the Jesus of our dreams.

Benedict believes that the tensions Rudolf Schnackenburg finds between the images of Jesus created by the historical-critical method and the image of Jesus that trust in the Gospels produces are not insurmountable. Historical-critical exegesis ‘can make the figure of Jesus present to us with a vividness and depth that we could not have imagined a few decades ago’ (p. 22). But we must keep in mind how the Bible presents Christ – as a new Moses, one who speaks from an unparalleled intimacy with God: ‘He lives before the face of God, not only as a friend but as Son; he lives in most inward unity with the Father. Only from this standpoint can we really understand the figure of Jesus, as encountered in the New Testament; everything that is recounted to us of the words, deeds, sufferings, and glory of Jesus is anchored in this’ (p. 31).

The tensions Schnackenburg found are very mild ones compared to those which other exegetes register. For Benedict they signal the limits of the historical-critical method, which is confined, it seems, to the literal sense, even to a dead letter, and needs to be filled out by a more integrated theological vision, something like the higher moral and mystical senses of Scripture that Origen sought. Schnackenburg suffers ‘a certain dividedness’ because of ‘the constraints of the method, which he regards as both obligatory and unsatisfactory.’ He wants to describe the Gospels’ image of Christ, but he sees it as ‘built up from manifold layers of tradition, through which one can perceive only from afar the “real” Jesus’ (12). But the situation Benedict describes here is one common to most exegetes; it is basic to exegesis as such. Paul Ricoeur has diagnosed this situation in many ways, though Benedict cites him in his 1988 speech (see below) only as showing a problem, a problem he thinks to dissolve by the methods of the present book. But the ‘dividedness’ cannot be wished away. It is a feature of ‘the hermeneutic age of reason’ (Jean Greisch). As Joseph Ratzinger wrote forty years ago: ‘A reference to the ecclesial nature of exegesis, on the one hand, and to its methodological correctness on the other, again expresses the inner tension of church exegesis, which can no longer be removed. but must be simply accepted as tension’ (H. Vorgrimler, ed. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, 3.268).

Benedict calls the debate on the Son of Man sayings a graveyard of dead hypotheses; yet most historical research produces such apparent quagmires. History has to do with probabilities far more than with certitudes. Opting for improbabilities instead brings one no nearer authentic certitude. For instance, exegetes consider it improbably that Jesus actually said to his judges, ‘You shall see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Mk 14.62; quoted by Benedict, p. 377, apparently as historical). The statement has the hallmarks of an early Christian creedal utterance, inserted by Mark as part of the theological design of his Gospel (as already argued in the classic study of Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos, 1913; 5th ed., Göttingen, 1965; Bousset’s testamentary lecture on ‘Religion and Theology,’ 1919, remains a timely warning against impatience with the opacity and indirectness of all scriptural scholarship and against the delusions of an immediate grasp of the historical Jesus). Like the other evangelists, Mark not writing as a historian but as a theological interpreter of the traditions about Jesus. One can stonewall on this, asking, ‘How can you prove he didn’t say it?’ But to erect such defensiveness into a method is to close the door on historical reason, which deals in probabilities. Despite his guarded approval of historical-critical research in its more sober forms (e.g. John Meier’s A Marginal Jew), Benedict’s rhetoric is often such as to give aid and comfort to fundamentalist diehards.

More than any previous Pope, Benedict knows the score on the exegetical front, but he is chary about the implications, the inbuilt indeterminacy that emerges at the biblical bases of the faith. Yet this instability brings the blessing of a plurality of perspectives on Jesus, whereas Benedict’s own account imposes a single perspective, which though sublime is incomplete. Theological reflection can supplement exegesis, but it cannot intrude on it to simplify or streamline its work. The plurality of the senses of Scripture that exegesis uncovers can feed into the Church’s uses of Scripture in prayer, the context in which Scripture first comes fully alive. But it cannot be expected that this church usage should be directly reinvested in exegesis, even if that was the practice in the time of Origen. Contemplative listening to Scripture can challenge exegetes to do more justice to the mystical dimensions of Scripture, in the Johannine writings for example, but the challenge can be met by exegetes only within the rules of the exegetical game. Theology that builds on the findings of exegesis often overrides those rules, as Karl Barth did, but the closer one hews to what is warranted by exegesis the more well-founded and responsible one’s theology is likely to be. Barth, in his restorationist biblicism, adopted a Panzer-hermeneutics that found the fullness of doctrine in the scriptural texts. But the methodology represented by Bultmann has proved more durable and successful, and responsible theologians accept the realistic discipline that this methodology imposes. Appeal to the Holy Spirit or to the sensus plenior as an alibi for exegetical wilfulness is no longer acceptable; it leads to transformation of the biblical record into a docetic fantasy.

Reading Benedict, one has the impression that his real quarrel is not with exegesis, but with the Gospels themselves, which simply do not provide the historical and doctrinal transparency he seeks. He has adopted a strategy that could be highly dangerous to Christian faith, by implying that if the Gospels are not historical in the sense that he claims, then they are not historical at all and are not worthy of any trust. Many Christians have reconciled themselves to the actual historical texture of the early Christian records, and have found a mature and serene faith in doing so, including the possibility of maintaining a Johannine and Chalcedonian vision of Christ. Benedict pulls the mat from under these people, and encourages an assertive attitude to the texts that borders on fundamentalism (a pathology that some have detected in parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). The boomerang effect of such a policy could be disastrous pastorally. The massive crisis of faith currently afflicting Catholic Ireland is an indication of how that could play out.

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THE HISTORICITY OF THE FOURTH GOSPEL

‘The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel and the Jesus of the Synoptics are one and the same: the true “historical” Jesus’ (p. 143). Most exegetes will be nervous about this retrojection of the Johannine Prologue into the Synoptics. Benedict connects the Fourth Gospel closely with John, son of Zebedee; he is the eye-witness, the Beloved Disciple, claimed as its author in John 21.24. Benedict follows the conservative exegete Martin Hengel in linking its language to the culture of the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem with which John had close connections (Jn 18.15-16). In the Johannine school at Ephesus there was another John a presbyter, who presents himself in 2 Jn 1.1 and 3 Jn 1.1; he was the bearer of the tradition after the death of the Apostle and set it down as the spokesman for the Apostle in the Fourth Gospel. Benedict quotes another conservative exegete Peter Stuhlmacher, who supposes that ‘in the Johannine school is continued the style of thinking and teaching that shaped the internal teaching discussions of Jesus with Peter, James and John’ (p. 269). A problem with this is that the Johannine language is so very different from what we find in the Synoptics; and moreover, as Benedict notes, it is not confined to the inner circle of disciples, but exhibited in public controversy with the Jewish leaders.

Benedict expresses disappointment that even Hengel is ‘amazingly negative’ or at least ‘extremely prudent’ about the historicity of the Fourth Gospel (p. 270). His objections here suggest a theologian who is not primarily trained in exegesis and who wants the exegetes to provide results more amenable to his purposes. Talk of the Gospel as a literary work or as reflecting the revelations of the Paraclete, leading the disciples into all truth, makes Benedict nervous: ‘What faith can it be “witnessing” to, when it has so to speak left history behind it? How can it strengthen faith, when it presents itself as a historical witness – and this with great emphasis – and yet is not narrating historically? I think that here we stand before a false concept of the historical as well as a false concept of faith and the Paraclete. A faith that lets the historical drop in this way in reality becomes “Gnosis.” It leaves the flesh, the Incarnation – the truth of history – behind it’ (p. 270). Benedict declares that the Johannine discourses must have a historical core: ‘The real claim of the Gospel is to have correctly reproduced the content of the discourses, of Jesus’ witness to himself in the great Jerusalem confrontations, so that the reader can really encounter the decisive contents of this message and in it the authentic figure of Jesus’ (p. 271).

Hengel lists five factors that shape Johannine composition: ‘the theological shaping will of the author, his personal memory,” “church tradition and with it historical reality,” of which Hengel astonishingly says that the Evangelist “has altered it, indeed, let us calmly say: has done violence to it”; lastly… it is not “remembrance of the past, but the interpreting Spirit-Paraclete who leads into the truth, that has the last word”‘ (pp. 271-2). Benedict is indignant at Hengel’s concession that the Fourth Gospel does violence to history. But note that the date of Christ’s death differs in John and the Synoptics. If John changed it for theological reasons, that is indeed a form of doing violence to history, at least in the eyes of a historian. (I note that Benedict has recently addressed this contradiction: http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=105819.) Benedict creates a seamless progression between Hengel’s five factors: the Evangelist’s personal memory is the basic historical reality that is taken up in Church tradition, and the Spirit gives a deeper insight into that reality as it is remembered.

The historicity of the Fourth Gospel was asserted in a judgment of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, May 29, 1907, at the height of the Modernist crisis. This magisterial statement is referenced on the Vatican’s website, but the text is not given there. The author is declared to be none other than the Apostle John and it is denied that the events related are totally or partially invented or are to be taken as symbolical or allegorical. It is also denied that the discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are not the very words of Christ himself: ‘Dubium: Utrum... dici possit... sermones Domini non proprie et vere esse ipsius Domini sermones, sed compositiones theologicae scriptoris, licet in ore Domini positas? Responsio: Negative’ (Denzinger, 2112). Benedict wants to uphold something like these positions even today, giving the anti-Modernist quarrel a new twist one hundred years later.

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JESUS PROCLAIMS HIS DIVINITY

Having secured the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels, Benedict proceeds to read them in light of the Johannine vision of Christ. He advocates an integral biblical hermeneutics that reads each book of Scripture in light of the whole canon. He appeals to the ‘canonical exegesis’ that continues the historical-critical method organically and raises it to the authentically theological level. This may allude to the movement launched by Brevard S. Childs thirty years ago, which has had little influence on the practice of exegesis. But Origen (about whom Benedict enthused in two recent weekly audiences) is an older patron of a spiritual exegesis that finds the fullness of Christ in every part of Scripture. However, Origen achieved this tour de force only by the use of allegorical methods that modern exegesis has forsworn. In the case of the Gospels, Benedict’s method of spiritual reading detects the tacit presence of the full Johannine (and Nicene) teaching behind the seemingly modest narratives of the Synoptics.

Like Karl Rahner, Benedict understands inspiration as a communal matter; each biblical author is sustained by the entire history of the People of God, and the labor of composition advances by a process of constant rereading of the traditions. A biblical author ‘speaks in a living community and thus in a living historical movement, which he does not create and which is not created by the collectivity either, but in which a greater guiding power is at work’ (19). That may imply that whatever limits in vision or expression we may find in some gospel narrative is amply made up for by the Spirit who has given the Church the fullness of truth.

Thus the Baptism of Jesus is presented in grandiose terms as an anticipation of the Passion and the descent into Hell, as in Greek Orthodox iconography (though Benedict draws back from this and finds his vision sufficiently warranted in the Baptist’s words, ‘behold the Lamb of God’). Like the Temptation, the Baptism expresses Jesus’ solidarity with sinners.

Everything in the Gospels, in Benedict’s reading, concerns the divinity of Christ. The Temptation concerns God: ‘Is he the real, reality itself, or not? Is he the Good, or must we invent the Good ourselves? The question of God is the fundamental question that puts us at the crossroad of human existence’ (p. 57). The opponents are named as Marxism and blind trust in technology: ‘Western development aid built on purely technical and material principles, which has not only left God out but has pushed people away from God in its presumption of knowing better, is what first made the Third World into the Third World in today’s sense. It has pushed aside the seasoned religious, moral and social structures and filled the void with its technicist mentality. It believed it could change stones into bread, but it has given stones in place of bread. What is at stake is the primacy of God. What is at stake is to recognize him as reality, a reality without which nothing else can be good’ (p. 62). Likewise, all the ethical discussions with the Pharisees really turn on the divine authority of Christ (as the Johannine discourses reveal).

Benedict presents Jesus’s radicalization of the decalogue as clear evidence that he places himself on the same level as God. However, it should be noted that Matthew’s image of Jesus as the new Moses is a quite late composition. Luke’s presentation of the same material in his ‘sermon on the plain’ is a less exalted scenario in which Jesus speaks more in the style of a prophet encouraging the poor and challenging the rich. The quest to reconstruct the earlier states of the tradition (in the sayings-source Q) takes us back to still less exalted images of Jesus.

Of Peter’s confession of Christ as the Messiah, Benedict says: ‘the effort to reconstruct the original words of Peter historically, and to ascribe everything further to later developments, where possible to post-Easter faith, leads to dead ends. Where would the post-Easter faith have come from if Jesus had laid no foundations for it?’ (p. 350). The usual way of distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, Benedict urges, ascribes an amazing creativity to the community and seems to trust Jesus with very little of his own self-definition. He postulates that the exceeding greatness of Christ must have been palpable at the very beginning, and its articulation must go back in essentials to Jesus himself. But it might be objected that the Resurrection experience and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the infant church could have brought a rich new understanding of the historical Jesus, which could be the main source for the articulation of the Christ of faith.

In discussing the titles of Jesus, ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son [of God],’ Benedict rejects the exegetes’ questioning of the historicity of most uses of the former title, which he sees as reflecting ‘the very center of Jesus’ self-consciousness’ (p. 382) and as expressing ‘the being-one of God and man’ (pp. 384-5). ‘Son of God,’ too, is not a mere Messianic title, but ‘expresses a special being-one with God’ (p. 389). Given Benedict’s views on the historicity of the Fourth Gospel, it is no surprise that he regards the divine ‘I am,’ placed on the lips of Jesus in that Gospel, as used by the historical Jesus himself. In all three expressions, ‘the originality of Jesus appears – what is new in him, what is proper only to him, which cannot be derived from anything further’ (p. 406).

A point Benedict repeatedly makes is that Jesus was crucified not for any political reason but because of his temerity in declaring himself equal with God. The implications of this for Jewish-Catholic dialogue, currently in reverse gear because of neoconservative predominance in the Curia, are disturbing; see Edward Kessler, ‘A Deafening Silence,’ The Tablet, April 14, who points to the neglected Vatican document of 1985, ‘Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church’ (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/relations-jews-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_19820306_jews-judaism_en.html). (See the reply from Fr Cantalamessa the following week.)

Indeed, there is no topic in the Gospel that Benedict cannot show to be concerned basically with the true divinity of Christ. All the parables are ‘hidden and multi-layered invitations to faith in him as “the Kingdom of God in person” ‘ (p. 227). His Midas-touch changes everything into high Christology, and it is unsurprising that his book ends with an evocation of the ‘consubstantial’ of the Council of Nicea: ‘This word did not Hellenize faith, loading it with an alien philosophy, but to the contrary secured the incomparably new and other reality that had appeared in Jesus’s dialogues with his Father’ (p. 407). I agree with this, but it should be noted that this anti-Hellenistic moment occurred within a deeply Hellenistic and Roman Imperial context. To articulate the truth of Christ’s divinity today, we must search out a wider language, attuned to the culture of our own times, with the boldness that the Nicene fathers showed in their day.

I am told that John Paul II, in the retreat he gave for Paul VI, preached that Jesus enjoyed the beatific vision while in his mother’s womb (also stated in Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 1943). Benedict has not taken up that tradition here, but one may surmise that he believes Jesus to have enjoyed the beatific vision throughout his earthly mission. The question of Christ’s self-consciousness is at the heart of Benedict’s quarrel with the historico-critical method. The limitations of Christ’s human knowledge are recognized by most theologians, despite the 1918 ruling of the Holy Office that it should not be taught (1) that Christ in his earthly life did not have the knowledge that the blessed have; (2) that it is not certain that the human soul of Christ knew from the start, in the Word, everything past, present and future, or everything that God knows by seeing. On his knowledge of his own divinity, Karl Rahner suggests that he had an ‘unthematized’ awareness of it rather than full and explicit knowledge, which would be incompatible with the reality of his humanity.

Schillebeeckx espouses the low-level account of the exegetes: ‘his extraordinarily pronounced consciousness of a prophetic role, on which is grounded his message of the approaching rule of God, while in and through his own strangely marvellous ministry he sees clearly that this kingdom is drawing near. The first thing that strikes us is Jesus’ Jewish spirituality... What Jesus lived by was the Jewish passion for searching out God’s will in everything. His God was Israel’s God, the God of the patriarchs and prophets, Israel’s God who lived still in apocalyptic and in the zeal of Pharisee and Essene’. His use of Abba shows ‘the unconventional style of his intercourse with God, its unaffected and natural simplicity... Jesus’s Abba consciousness was not the immediate ground for calling him.. ‘the Son’.. In the end that ground... lies in the resurrection’ (Jesus, 1979, 259-62).

Benedict’s discovery in the Gospels and in history of a Christ who knows and proclaims his divine status is not capable of exegetical proof but is a consequence of doctrinal faith. If it cannot be proven, can it be disproven? Can it be imposed on theological grounds, beginning with the historicity of the Virgin Birth? Or is it inevitable that exegesis will eat away at theology, forcing it to adopt a more subtle Christology?  I would say that the weight of exegetical probability is against it. If one takes the Johannine Jesus as historical one has to supplement the utterances of Jesus in the Synoptics and in Q with a consciousness of being divine that they do not suggest or that they seem to be in conflict with: ‘Why do you call me good?’, Mk 10.18, ‘No one knows the day... not even the Son’, Mk 13.32). Let us be content with the claim that Jesus had a sense of being in intimate, unique union with the Father; this would provide a respectable basis for continuity with the Resurrection experience and kergyma. Maybe this could not be ‘proven’ either but it would fit well enough with the historical probabilities.

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WHAT IS THE KINGDOM?

            Benedict’s ‘integral’ reading of the Gospels tends to reduce them to a monotonous insistence on the reality of God. Benedict asks why God has not revealed his presence more clearly, and concludes that it is a mystery; yet he does not advert to the idea that God reveals his presence in the struggle for justice and liberation. Rather the biblical language of liberation from oppression is totally interiorized: ‘We live in this world, in which God does not have the self-evidence of what is graspable, but can only be sought and found through the freeing (Aufbruch) of the heart, the “exodus” out of “Egypt”‘ (p. 63).

From the Temptation Benedict turned immediately to Jesus’s teaching. It is to be regretted that he did not focus on the first impact of Jesus’s ministry, as a healer of the multitudes who flocked to him – particularly emphasized in Mark, the oldest of the Gospels. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew also is given in five chunks that are placed after five chunks describing his actions. The Messianic signs of the ministry of Jesus, opening the eyes of the blind, etc., show clearly that the Gospel is meant to have an impact in the real world. ‘These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons..., they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover’ (Mk 16.17-18). To be sure, in his short chapter on the Disciples Benedict strongly emphasizes the healing work of the Church (pp. 212-13). Casting out demons is presented as conquest of the irrational by reason; exorcism is the restoration of the light of reason. Here we find a touch of that Eurocentric logocentrism for which Benedict has often been criticized. He states that ‘Chaos Theory passes by insight into the rational structure of the world and places men before obscurities that he cannot dissolve and that put a limit to the rational side of the world’ (p. 211). But it seems that this theory is distinguished rather by its discovery of order and pattern in chaos. Perhaps Benedict is taking a side-glance at the evolutionism, which accepts fully the role of randomness in the cosmos, while again finding a rationale in it.

There is a disturbing discussion in which Benedict opposes the Isaianic vision of a healed world, in which swords will become plowshares, to the otherworldly vision of Jesus. Jesus tells us ‘that no kingdom of this world is the Kingdom of God, the definitive state of salvation of humanity. Human kingdom is human kingdom, and anyone who says he can establish a healed or whole (heile) world is assenting to Satan’s deception and surrendering the world to him’ (p. 73). This stark opposition of prophetic hopes for justice and peace over against the message of Jesus could court the danger of a Marcionite rejection of prophetic hopes as belonging to a lower material order than what the true Messiah brings,

It leaves Benedict facing the main theme of his book: ‘What did Jesus then really bring, since he did not bring world peace, or good conditions for all, or a better world?’And the answer does not alleviate our fears of a reduction of the Gospel to abstraction: ‘The answer is quite simple: God. He brought God… Now we know His face, now we can call on Him’ (p. 73). I miss the concreteness of Luther, who taught that Jesus brought a gracious God, a God who is gracious because he is identified by a concrete action, the forgiveness of sins, and the conferral of freedom. This point is well-sighted at the following blogsite: http://estamos-vivo.blogspot.com/2007/04/seeking-kingdom-of-god-on-earth-is-it.html. The lively discussion in the combox there suggests that the Sobrino notification and Benedict’s continued sniping at Liberation Theology are actually having the effect of reviving the Liberation Theology debate.

Benedict’s chapter on the Kingdom of God acknowledges the contrast between the preaching of Jesus in the Synoptics, of which the overriding theme is the coming kingdom of God, and the preaching of the early Church, centered on Christology. (He might have noted that the theme of the Kingdom practically disappears in John, but that would militate against his effort to class the Johannine discourses as teachings of the historical Jesus.) Benedict rejects Bultmann’s view that the teaching of Jesus is a Jewish premise of New Testament theology, not part of that theology itself, as well as Loisy’s statement that ‘Jesus preached the Kingdom but it was the Church that came.’ In the latter he finds a note of irony and lamentation, but this is probably a misunderstanding; in this early, apologetic work, Loisy was defending the necessity of the Church against Harnack’s attempt to reduce Christianity to the preaching of Jesus. Benedict resolves the tension between Jesus and the early Church here by interpreting the notion of the Kingdom with the aid of the Fathers. From Origen he draws the idea that Christ is the Kingdom in person (autobasileia) – an idea also taken up by Karl Barth – and, moreover, that the Kingdom is an interior, mystical reality. A third dimension of the Kingdom is the ecclesiastical one; the Fathers bring Church and Kingdom into intimate conjunction.

This vision of the Kingdom ignores the fresh perspectives that have had so deep an impact in much twentieth century theology, ever since Johannes Weiss rediscovered the eschatological character of the teaching of Jesus (Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes, 1892; ed. F. Hahn, Göttingen, 1964). The work of Edward Schillebeeckx and of the Liberation theologians marks the full entry of Kingdom awareness into Catholic theology. Schillebeeckx is not cited by Benedict, nor are any of the Liberation theologians. Though the palette of exegetes he draws on is ecumenical and often liberal, his specifically theological sources are a tiny handful of conservative Catholic voices (Karl Adam, Henri de Lubac, Christoph Schönborn, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hugo – not Karl – Rahner). Benedict’s presentation of the twentieth century theological struggle with the notion of the Kingdom is quite polemical, in contrast to his glowing reception of the patristic interpretations. He notes that some Catholic theologians have accused Vatican II of being Church-centered rather than Kingdom centered, but he does not note that a more common criticism is that the Vatican since Vatican II has lost the Council’s wholesome tension and equilibrium between Church and Kingdom in an over-identification of the two. He then notes that recent theology has also criticized Christocentrism in favor of a Kingdom-oriented theocentrism, and that some have gone beyond this to replace theocentrism altogether with Kingdom-centrism. Kingdom, in this perspective, means only a world in which peace, justice and the stewardship of creation prevails. It is in this extremely polemic context that Benedict first connects the Kingdom with the ideas of justice and peace, ideas that not only theologians but most Christians regard as central to the teaching of Jesus. Vatican II in its insistence on relating the Gospel to the signs of the times stressed these ideas again and again, as did the social encyclicals of John XXIII and Paul VI. The skewed perspective in which Benedict introduces them gives a closed and stifling atmosphere to his own presentation of the Gospel.

Alarmingly, Benedict scoffs at the ideas of peace and justice as abstractions: ‘Who can genuinely say what justice is, or what really serves justice in the concrete situation, or how peace is to be created? On closer inspection all this shows itself to be utopian chatter without real content, unless one silently presupposes party doctrines as the content of these concepts to be accepted by all’ (p. 84). Now the New Testament teaching about justice and peace has been studied by many exegetes and theologians, and the Church has tried to spell out the contemporary applications of those teachings quite concretely. Benedict should have begun with a rich, concrete account before tilting at unnamed theologians (Paul Knitter, perhaps) in a style that can only recall the most depressing moments of recent church history, including especially the suppression of Liberation Theology by a papacy gravely compromised by its support of the Contras in Nicaragua. For the unnamed theologians, Benedict declares, ‘God has vanished, it is a question only of humans. Respect for religious “traditions” is only apparent. In reality they are seen as a heap of customs that we can leave people keep on to even though ultimately they do not count for anything. Faith and the religions are finalized to political goals.’ Why does he constantly conjure up these straw men, providing rhetoric that is used against Liberation Theology, and indeed against any Christian anywhere who effectively opposes injustice in the name of the Gospel?

This negative rhetoric reinforces the widespread impression that Benedict is a classic reactionary thinker, locked in positions formed in the late 1960s, which have led to no real insight and which have not been challenged or nourished by any real dialogue. Benedict can be faulted for making no attempt to relate the Kingdom to evolution or to the human struggle for liberation. What was the Kingdom Jesus preached? Benedict’s answer is: ‘Quite simply, God, and indeed God as the living God, who is able to act concretely in the world and in history, and is doing so even now’ (p. 85). Jesus says to us: ‘God exists. And: God is truly God, who holds the threads of the world in his hands. In this sense the message of Jesus is very simple, theocentric through and through. The new and quite specific quality of his message consists in this, that he says to us: God is acting now – it is the hour in which God, in a way that surpasses everything up to now, is showing himself in history as its Lord, as the living God.’

Turning Benedict’s rhetoric against himself, could one not say that this message on closer inspection could turn out to be utopian, without real content, unless some party doctrine fills in the blanks? Al-Qaida use the same language and fills in its blanks in an oppressive and violent form. The whole point of the Church’s teaching about justice and peace is to ensure that God-language is a language of liberation and healing, not of oppression, that is, that it is truly a language about the living God.

Benedict promises to define the message of the Kingdom more closely by referring to the kingship of God in the Psalms and the Book of Daniel, in Temple and synagogue worship and at Qumran, and among the Rabbis. God’s rule ‘is present as a power that shapes life through the prayer and being of the believer who carries God’s yoke and thus partakes in advance in the coming world’ (p. 87). This is still very abstract. Then he notes that Jesus speaks of the Kingdom as already come (Mk 1.15, Mt 12.28, Lk 17, 21), stating that ‘it is these words that called up the theses of the imminent expectation and allowed it to appear as the specific belief of Jesus.’ This is directed against theologians such as Albert Schweitzer who see Jesus as mistakenly expecting the imminent end of the world. Benedict accuses them of ignoring a large part of Jesus’s sayings and forcing others to fit their interpretation, but it is not clear how Benedict himself explains texts such as Mk 9.1 and Mt 10.23 in which the early Church appears to ascribe expectation of the imminent eschaton to Jesus.

A calm explanation of this troubling point would have been of more value than the polemic. Later (p. 365), Benedict adopts Rudolf Pesch’s view that Mark 9.1, in the context of the Gospel, refers to the Transfiguration, which immediately follows. Benedict does not note that Mark is writing at a time when the expectation of an imminent end (so lively in Paul and his congregations) has ebbed, and that he is integrating a saying attributed to Jesus into a context that defuses it. In his discussion of the parables, Benedict clarifies the matter: ‘All our considerations hitherto have led us to recognize the immediate expectation of the end-time as an aspect in the early reception of the message of Jesus, but at the same time it apparent that one cannot plaster it over every saying of Jesus nor elevate it to the basic theme of his message’ (pp. 226-7).

In the catechetical chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is again referred to an interior reality, in the heart, which is identical with Christ himself. The prayer for the Kingdom has less to do with imagining some divinely granted future state of the world, a state of justice and peace such as the prophets longed for, than with recognizing ‘the primacy of God’ (p. 179) over against any ‘automatism of a functioning world such as the utopia of the classless society envisaged’ (p. 180). The other petitions are mostly given a Christological reading; ‘our daily bread,’ for example, is connected with the Eucharist.

Benedict’s most salient reference to social justice (picked up in the advance publicity for the book) occurs in the discussion of the parable of the Good Samaritan: ‘We see how the robbed and plundered people of Africa call on us; we see how much they are our “neighbors,” and that it is our lifestyle, our history, in which we are entangled, that has plundered them and still does so. Above all we have wounded them in their souls. Instead of giving them God, the God who is near in Christ, thus taking up and bringing to perfection all that is precious and great in their own traditions, we have brought them the cynicism of a world without God, concerned only with power and profit’ (p. 238). Such remarks are homiletic obiter dicta; they do not have an integrated perspective into which to fit them, such a perspective as could have been developed on the basis of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. The weakness is the same as was noted in Benedict’s Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, namely, a tendency to make the social mission of the Church a matter of charity rather than deeply reflected and consistently enacted thinking on justice.

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THE NEW TORAH

Without a strong justice and peace emphasis, it is very unclear what the Kingdom means. In the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount we are told that ‘the reality that Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God, the rule of God,” is extremely complex, and only in the acceptance of the whole can we approach its message and be led by it’ (p. 89). Benedict returns to Origen’s idea of the Kingdom as an interior reality, to another discussion of imminent expectation, and to the idea that the new proximity of the Kingdom resides in Christ himself, in whom God is ‘acting and ruling – ruling in a divine way, that means without earthly power, ruling through the love that goes “to the end” (Jn 13.1), to the Cross’ (p. 90). Only here, he insists, does the message of the Kingdom find its concrete identity and unity. He promises to spell this out in the next chapter, on the Sermon on the Mount.

‘Blessed are the poor’ is interpreted by Benedict exclusively in terms of piety. ‘It is precisely Luke who presents to us the “poor in spirit” who are so to speak the sociological group in which the earthly Jesus and his message could take their start. And conversely it is clear that Matthew remains entirely in the tradition of the piety of the Psalms and thus in the vision of the true Israel that is therein expressed’ (p. 106). Benedict sees no need at all to connect the first beatitude with the really existing poor, in the line of recent church emphasis on a preferential option for the poor When Benedict finds this preferential option in Luke, along with a sympathy for women and for the Jews (p. 218), it is probably not in the strong sense that the phrase has for Latin American theologians. Purely material poverty, he insists ‘does not save, even if the disadvantaged of this world can surely reckon with God’s generosity in a quite special way. But the heart of those who own nothing can be hardened, poisoned, malicious’ (pp. 106-7).

Are we to take it, then, that when Jesus said ‘blessed are you poor; yours is the kingdom of God... woe to you rich; you have had your reward’ (Lk 6.20, 24; closer to the Q source than Mt 5.3) he meant only ‘blessed are you pious people’? Even if such utterances are placed in a context of imminent eschatology, is it not clear that the judgement they announce has a social dimension, in continuity with the Hebrew prophets? Benedict agrees that the poverty blessed by Jesus is ‘not a merely spiritual attitude’ (p. 107). It takes concrete form -- in people like Francis of Assisi who choose a life of poverty! ‘To be the community of the poor Jesus, the Church needs again and again the great renunciants; she needs the communities who follow them, who live poverty and simplicity and thus show us the truth of the beatitudes’ (p. 107). The phrase ‘social justice’ now occurs for the first time: ‘It is true that the Sermon on the Mount is not as such a social program. However, only when the large orientation that it gives us remains living in our thoughts and deeds, and when from faith comes the strength for renunciation and responsibility for the neighbor and for the whole, can social justice grow’ (p. 107).

‘Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice’ is not connected directly with social justice. Rather it concerns ‘people who are on the look-out, searching for the great, the true justice, the true Good… who are not satisfied with what is near at hand and do not stifle the unrest of the heart, who show people the way to greater things… people of an inner sensitivity that enables their eyes and ears to perceive the gentle signs that God sends into the world and who thus can break with the dictatorship of the habitual’ (pp. 121-2). Examples: Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the Apostles, Paul, and all who seek passionately for truth.

Entering into an interesting discussion with Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1993), the commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that he claims to have found most helpful, Benedict points out that Neusner does not object to Jesus’ interpretation of the Law but to the way Jesus insists on his own importance. Neusner recognizes ‘this mysterious identification (Gleichsetzung) of Jesus and God’ (p. 137), though rejecting it. Time reports on the Jewish-Christian dialogue initiated here: ‘In fact, a close reading of the Pope’s chapter suggests more a marriage of convenience. Benedict is preoccupied with what he sees as the Gospel’s overriding message of Jesus’ divinity, even in passages that liberal Christians read primarily as straightforward injunctions to help the poor and powerless. Having a rabbi help make that case is novel and convenient. Regarding one verse, Benedict writes that “Neusner shows us that we are dealing not with some kind of moralism, but with a highly theological text, or, to put it more precisely, a Christological one.” He acknowledges the rabbi’s point that Jesus is offering the Jews a transformation rather than a continuation of the Torah but maintains that the trade-off is worth it, provided Jesus is not merely “a liberal reform rabbi” but “the Son.” That Neusner and other Jews regard that very Sonship as a deal breaker does not bother him much.’

In the debates about the Sabbath, ‘was Jesus in reality a liberal rabbi – a precursor of Christian liberalism?’ (p. 139). Benedict claims that when Jesus says, ‘Come unto me, all ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11.28) he is usually taken to be opposing the severities of Jewish legalism. He points out that Neusner has a deeper interpretation: Jesus is presenting himself as Lord of the Sabbath and as the true Sabbath of Israel, or as the Torah in person, that is, as God. But it must be noted that Neusner, to the extent that he takes the Sermon on the Mount, a late construction, as a portrait of the historical Jesus, is not reading critically. Moreover, the authority claimed by Jesus in Matthew’s scenario it that of the new Moses, not the authority of God; to speak in God’s name is not the same thing as to speak as God. And is it really such a good thing that Jewish-Christian dialogue return to the disputation model of the Middle Ages, in a face-off between the perfection of the Torah on the one hand and the divinity of Christ on the other? (see http://www.forward.com/articles/the-pope-and-i-a-debate-with-jesus-is-joined-by-b).

Neusner objects that Jesus destroys the coherent social order of Judaism by his attitude to the Sabbath and to family ties. Benedict replies: ‘The lack of the entire social dimension in the preaching of Jesus (Das Fehlen der ganzen Sozialdimension in Jesu Predigt), which Neusner from a Jewish viewpoint quite insightfully criticizes, at once harbors and conceals a world-historical happening, which as such has taken place in no other cultural sphere: The concrete political and social orders are released from immediate sacrality, from legislation by divine law, and transferred to the freedom of the person who is grounded through Jesus in the will of God and who thence learns to see what is right and good’ (p. 151). I wonder about the uniqueness claimed for this ethical revolution – it would need to be checked against other achievements of the Axial Age, notably in Buddhism. Benedict claims that this desacralization of the State is the freedom Christ brings, but it has been perverted into laicism in the modern world.

Benedict attacks Marcion and the Marcionism of Harnack, and ‘the widespread temptation to interpret the New Testament in purely spiritual terms, untying it from any social and political relevance’ (p. 154). But what concrete proposal has he to make? He talks of defense of the family and of Sunday as part of the new universalized Torah that the Church represents. But he has no time for ‘political theologies of every kind,’ for they are ‘the theologization of a single political path, which contradicts the newness and breadth of the message of Jesus. Thus it would be false to designate such tendencies a Judaization of Christianity, since Israel connects her obedience to the concrete social ordinances of the Torah to the kinship-community of the “eternal Israel” and does not explain it in terms of a universal political recipe’ (pp. 154-5). But it may be objected that the ‘Gospel of Justice and Peace’ could indeed be seen as a wholesome rejudaization of Christianity in that it takes up the prophets’ burning concern for social justice and for peace and sees it as lying at the heart of the Gospel, something Benedict seems instinctively to oppose.

Only at the conclusion of this long chapter on the Sermon on the Mount does Benedict begin to indicate the concrete content of the new Torah, and in terms that still remain extremely general. Jesus fulfills the Torah ‘in that he indicates to historically acting reason the space of its responsibility. So must Christianity ever anew work out and formulate social ordinances, a “Christian social doctrine.” It will correct previous arrangements in ever new developments. It finds in the inner structure of the Torah, in its development through the prophetic critique and in the message of Jesus that subsumes both at once the breadth for the necessary historical developments and the solid ground that guarantees human dignity on the basis of the dignity of God’ (p. 160).

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THE CONTEXT

Some may have imagined that Benedict’s warm words about the historical-critical method means that he pursues an integral exegesis that would unite the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Schillebeeckx, practicing a kind of kenosis as a theologian who went back to school with the exegetes, did attain such a unity, beginning from the Jesus of history and eventually uncovering his identity with the Christ of faith. But Benedict scarcely recognizes the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith at all.

As John L. Allen writes (http://ncrcafe.org/node/1056):Intellectually, the aim of Jesus of Nazareth is, in the first place, to defend the reliability of the gospel accounts; and secondly, to argue that that gospels present Christ as God Himself, not as a prophet or moral reformer. Over and over, the pope uses phrases such as “implicit Christology,” “hidden Christology,” and “indirect Christology,” to argue that even where the gospel accounts don’t draw out the theological consequences of stories and sayings of Jesus, their message is nonetheless discernible. On one level, Jesus of Nazareth reads like a running conversation with exegetes such as Adolf von Harnack, who argued that the Jesus of the gospels was not yet “the Christ,” and that turning him into a deity was a work of later Christian theologizing. (Clearly, Benedict isn’t buying it.)’

In a recent interview Rowan Williams remarked: ‘To look at the church for quick answers rather than clear and solidly founded answers is a mistake; you’re expecting the church to give you answers which come out of a slot machine. I think you’re going to be disappointed.’ By writing a long and rationally argued book, Benedict is educating the faithful out of the infantilism of easy answers. But insofar as the answers he himself strongly affirms appear not to be solidly founded at many points, he has not yet fully accomplished the educative task of a modern religious leader. In presenting his arguments as open to discussion, he takes a further step toward guiding the faithful to intellectual maturity; but again the clash between this and the clamp-down on open discussion in the Church for the last thirty years signals a limit to the venture.

Although this book has been presented, in a blaze of publicity, as a personal writing, without magisterial status, which theologians can feel free to contradict, in reality its relationship to the Magisterium is more subtle. Its publication coincides with the Notification rebuking Jon Sobrino, just as the publication of Dominus Iesus in 2000 corresponded with the Notification on the writings of another Jesuit, Jacques Dupuis. The principles of exegesis upheld as normative in the Sobrino Notification are the very ones that Benedict expounds at length in his book. (The Sobrino Notification is trounced by Peter Hünermann, editor of the most recent version of Denzinger, in Herder Korrespondenz 61:184-8, and by Nikolaus Klein in Orientierung, April 15; Hünermann leads a group of 130 theologians calling on the CDF to reform itself, by returning to the prescriptions of Paul VI; http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=815812007; http://www.temoignagechretien.fr/journal/article.php?num=3253&categ=Croire. In response, neocath Jeff Mirus scoffs at 'the dissident modernist theologians of Germany and Austria,' while Philip Blosser mutters darkly about 'rebellion.')

Another straw in the wind is the rebuke delivered to Francis Moloney by Paul Mankowski, SJ, of the Biblicum, for his denial of the historicity of the miracle of Cana. Fr Mankowski judged that such a view is held by the heterodox (Protestant exegetes) but could not be tolerated in Catholic exegesis. As Allen notes:  ‘Jesus of Nazareth expresses in an exegetical key the same concern with Christology that drove the interventions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with regard to theologians such as Jesuit Frs. Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight, as well as the most recent notification on Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino. In each case, the concern was with what Joseph Ratzinger saw as a faulty Christology in the name of some presumed good – inter-religious tolerance in the case of Dupuis and Haight, social liberation for Sobrino.’ Quoting a Vatican official: ‘Christology is the key for this pope... And it’s not over,’ Allen warns: ‘That comment suggests there may be additional investigations, additional notifications, additional teaching documents and papal messages, circling around the themes laid out in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Notification on Sobrino insists that the divinity of Christ is explicitly taught in the New Testament, implying that if you do not find the full divinity of Christ clearly taught in the Gospels you are either a victim of the alleged limits of the historical-critical method or a bad theologian. ‘To maintain that John 20:28 affirms that Jesus is “of God” is clearly erroneous, in as much as the passage itself refers to Jesus as “Lord” and “God.”‘ To which exegetes would reply that ‘Lord’ by no means implies true divinity; if it did every reference to ‘Lord Jesus’ in the New Testamen could be taken as proving Christ’s divinity, which would certainly have made the work of the defenders of Nicea in the fourth century much easier. The Notification continues: ‘Similarly, John 1:1 says that the Word is God.’ No, it says ‘Theos ên ho Logos.’. Theos has an emphatic place at the beginning of the sentence, but as Origen pointed out long ago Theos is not the same as ho Theos. One could translate ‘the Word was divine.’ ‘My God’ (ho theos mou) might seem to clinch the case, but the same phrase was used as an honorary address to the Emperor Domitian. The Gospel does not say: ‘Jesus is ho Theos,’ which would be a stronger assertion of divinity. In any case the divinity of Christ is not at issue in John 20 and Thomas’s acclamation is only one of a series throughout the Gospel in which Jesus is saluted by an appropriate title.

‘Many other texts speak of Jesus as Son and as Lord.’ Son of God was a Messianic title, not a declaration of the ontological full divinity. ‘The divinity of Jesus has been the object of the Church’s faith from the beginning, long before his consubstantiality with the Father was proclaimed by the Council of Nicea.’ The articulation of it has not been clear from the beginning, however; if it were, the stupendous controversy unleashed by Nicea would be inexplicable. ‘The fact that this term was not used does not mean that the divinity of Jesus was not affirmed in the strict sense, contrary to what the Author seems to imply.’ Sobrino says that the New Testament contains the seed of the later doctrine, which is a perfectly sensible position. Even the highest Christology in the New Testament is patient of an Arian interpretation; metaphysical clarification has not even begun; and we have noted that an adoptionist Christology can appeal to many New Testament texts, which suggests that Chalcedonian orthodoxy should make space for the adoptionist perspective to be given as free a range as possible. (Recall that to say ‘Jesus is God’ depends on the communicatio idiomatum, and is a secondary consequence from the Hypostatic Union, according to which Jesus is -- in person, but not in his human nature as such -- the eternal Word of God; what such a union/identity of a human being and a divine Hypostasis could mean is profoundly inscrutable; it leaves space for a wide range of interpretation of the Christ event.)

As long ago as 1988 the then Cardinal Ratzinger questioned the basic premises of critical exegesis of the Gospels in a New York lecture (http://www.tcrnews2.com/RatzingerExegesis88.html). As Stephen Hand reports: ‘Surrounded by both friends and foes (including the American exegete Raymond Brown) the Cardinal delivered the most trenchant critique of the erring philosophical and theological presuppositions which lay behind the historical-critical method since the early days of the Pontifical Biblical Institute founded by Pope Leo XIII. What was just as interesting perhaps, was that Ratzinger, in what may have been more than a tongue-in-cheek literary device, opened the lecture by recalling the Church’s eschatological awareness, quoting Wladimir Solojews’s History of the Antichrist, in which the Arch-enemy of Christ is said to have earned his doctorate in theology at Tübingen and was renowned for his pioneering exegetical works’ (http://tcrnews2.com/RatzingerBible.html). The same Soloviev passage occurs in the present book (p. 64). The reader may well fear that Benedict is demonizing critical biblical scholarship as usually practiced, particularly when it implies a method of literary or ideological suspicion toward the text (as probably all critical exegesis does in one degree or another). Incidentally, it is incorrect to call Raymond Brown an enemy of Ratzinger, who declared that he ‘would be very happy if we had many exegetes like Father Brown’ (Origins, February 11, 1988, p. 595). Nonetheless, American neocaths, led by Brian W. Harrison and Robert Sungenis, still pursue Brown like a relentless plague of gnats. Joseph A. Komonchak reports on the Commonweal blog: ‘Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1988 talk, along with talks/essays by Raymond Brown, William H. Lazareth, and George Linkbeck, and an accurate and full account of the two-day colloquium in which the Cardinal participated, has been published as Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, ed. R.J. Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989). Raymond Brown’s talk is followed by an addendum in which he sets out, on the basis of the two talks given and the give-and-take of the conversations that followed, the agreements and differences between him and the Cardinal over the historical critical method.’

Hand’s report continues: ‘While Ratzinger did not question the validity of the historical method per se, he clearly attempted to undermine much of it (at least to the extent that it has been practised for over two hundred years) by summoning orthodox Catholic theologians and exegetes to “get beyond disputes over details and press on to [a critique of] the foundations,” calling for “the work of a whole generation” which he referred to as a “criticism of criticism.” The Cardinal suggested that only now could such a thorough “criticism of the criticism” be undertaken, precisely because the method has been around so long; indeed almost to the point of exhausting itself in variations on its central theses. The kind of criticism that the former theology professor called for is one that would aim at and be able to expose the “appearance of quasi-clinical-scientific certainty” which posed as the method for so long.’

The ‘critique of the critique,’ like ‘the reform of the reform,’ are ideas characteristic of Benedict’s frame of mind. Always a theologian who listened to novel or liberal ideas and then pointed out their dangers or limits, he became increasingly a theologian who disqualified ideas, preemptively, in view of their perceived dangers. Liberation Theology was the major victim of this hermeneutics of suspicion. As an exasperated Sobrino wrote to Fr. Kolvenbach: It seems that the Congregation is obsessed with finding limitations or errors of all kinds, or with branding as such whatever presents itself as a different conceptualization of some truth of faith. In my opinion, this is based to a large extent on ignorance, prejudice, and an obsession with finishing off the Theology of Liberation. Sincerely, it is not easy to dialogue with this type of mentality’ (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=127601).

But this hermeneutics of suspicion has also been invoked to lame the impact of Vatican II. The alleged naive optimism of Gaudium et Spes, and the novel emphases in the ecclesiology and ecumenical openings of Vatican II and Paul VI received similar treatment. The authority of episcopal councils was undercut in his Theologische Prinzipienlehre (Munich, 1982), perhaps in view of the reception of Humanae Vitae by so many of them; however, the Roman Synod, happily, is to have some of its collegial authority boosted in changes Benedict has recently announced. Benedict’s correction of suspect tendencies becomes a highly reflective dialectic. But its upshot is not to produce a strong and simple thought of the kind that engages people in dialogue and thus moves history forward; rather it is systematically restorationist and can be upheld only by curtailing debate (as his heavy claims for the historicity of the Johannine discourses curtail open-minded questioning after the historical Jesus and a more subtle understanding of the Johannine text and Johannine theology).

Hand adds this comment: ‘Interestingly, the reaction and fallout to Cardinal Ratzinger came some five years later in 1993 when the Pontifical Biblical Commission, headed by none other than Ratzinger himself, published a document entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. It turned out to be far less than an enthusiastic response to the Cardinal’s call to foundational criticism of the criticism. Instead the Commission simply reaffirmed the legitimacy and centrality of the historical-critical method with precious little that echoed the Cardinal Prefect’s core concerns. Father Albert Vanhoye, who not long after the lecture began his second five-year term as Secretary of the PBC, said in an interview: “In that talk [Ratzinger] strongly criticized form criticism as practiced by Rudolph Bultmann and Martin Dibelius, and he argued that form criticism had been built upon philosophical presuppositions contrary to the faith of the Church... We responded to [Ratzinger’s lecture] by indicating that, in its essence, the historical-critical method is not tied to the a priori assumptions of Bultmann and Dibelius, and that it is necessary to employ this method in a manner that liberates it from any a priori assumption that would be contrary to the Church” (First Things, June/July 1997, p. 35). Thus the bang was morphed with a shrug into a whimper. Fr. Vanhoye appears to gloss over the Cardinal’s particular criticisms of the a priori assumptions of the method; the methodological assumptions, it should be noted, accepted not only by Bultmann and Dibelius, but by not a few Catholic theologians, with dire effects for Catholic theology. He said, “Cardinal Ratzinger was always present in our discussions except when he had a conflicting commitment, but he was admirably discreet, not insisting on his criticism(emphasis mine). Cardinal Ratzinger is discreet indeed. Prophets know when to speak and when to remain silent – and how to wait. So the call to “critique of the foundations” relative to biblical studies may still belong to the future, to future theologians who will soon replace their teachers…The bomb only awaits detonation. In God’s good time.’ Yes, it looks as if this prophecy is coming true!

For an insider account of the preparation of The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, see Brendan Byrne in Australian EJournal of Theology 1 (August 2003): ‘On the one hand, older scholars such as Joseph Fitzmyer were determined not to yield an inch of the hard-won high ground in regard to the primacy, almost the exclusivity, of the historical-critical method; on the other hand, there were those who felt it was time to recognise that the historical critical method had its limitations, that it had limited appeal in many pastoral and homiletic contexts, and needed to be supplemented by other approaches and methods of interpretation. At one stage, too, it had more or less been agreed upon to omit the virtually compulsory salute in church documents on Scripture to the “treasure-house” of Patristic interpretation. Then, not without some encouragement from the Cardinal President, back came a “patristic paragraph” (III, B, 2), albeit, to my mind, very well composed by one of the French members of the Commission. So the document emerged, with the historical-critical method still enjoying a certain primacy but having to make room on its perch for several other methods and approaches—literary and structuralist, canonical, social scientific, liberative (liberation theology and feminist theology)—all critically reviewed, to be sure, but none rejected or regarded as totally without merit.’

Byrne makes a dramatic statement: ‘I think, too, it has to be said that the task of promoting the kind of biblical literacy asked for at Vatican II has received little help and no small degree of hindrance from prevailing tendencies in the Roman Curia. The 1993 document of the Biblical Commission stands on a lonely eminence in this regard—and even it could have been negative in tone had not several of the members of the Commission fought long and hard to exclude gratuitous judgements in many areas. The handling of scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) is simply disgraceful and in many respects regresses not merely behind Vatican II but Divino Affante Spiritu itself. When I asked at a session of the Biblical Commission why that Commission was not being employed or at least consulted during the preparation of the Catechism, my question was received in sullen silence; I had ventured upon some inter-Curial turf war. When one teaches New Testament within the Catholic tradition, with complete loyalty and appreciation of that tradition, including such things as the primacy, the distinct presbyteral and episcopal ministry, a high christology and deep sacramentality, one can only become more and more aware of the gap between the Gospel as Jesus appears to have proclaimed it and required it to be lived in the community, and the policies, edicts, appointments and decisions that have emanated from Rome in recent years… Let me simply say that, having resisted for years the application of the strictures of Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 to my own Church, I find myself unable to do so any longer.’

Another context for Benedict’s book is the fierce controversy generated by a best-selling Italian work, Inchiesta su Gesù, by the exegete Mauro Pesce, interviewed by Corrado Augias. Though panned by Vatican apologists such as Giuseppe De Rosa in Civiltà Cattolica, Raniero Cantalamessa in Avvenire, and Sandro Magister (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=110941&eng=y), Pesce’s views seem reasonable and well-grounded, and his book appears to fill a huge gap in the scriptural education of the Italian laity. Deploring the way Cardinal Ruini seeks to discredit the History of Vatican II directed by Giuseppe Alberigo and to deny that the Council brought any substantial innovation, Pesce says that the Council’s achievement of placing the Bible at the center of the Church’s life for the first time in many centuries has been undercut by the marginalization of historico-critical exegesis. ‘Accused of aridity and of not furnishing enough religious nourishment, historical exegesis is often replaced with a “spiritual” exegesis, sometimes inspired by the allegorical interpretation of the Fathers, sometimes simply by moralism and intimism. Postconciliar biblical theology risks being separated from the actual state of scholarly research. I believe that today there is a parlous disconnect from scholarly research in many church circles’ (http://www.mauropesce.net/dblog). De Rosa and Cantalamessa were incensed that Pesce characterized Jesus as a Jew, not a Christian, but Pesce, like Kessler above, points to the neglected 1985 Vatican document on Judaism, which teaches that ‘Jesus was and always remained a Jew.’

Perhaps the most alarming contextual aspect of Benedict’s book is what it augurs for the next Roman Synod on Scripture in the Church. The Synod will be dominated by the liturgical use of Scripture, with emphasis on canonical exegesis, typological and allegorical reading of the Old Testament -- in the line of Henri de Lubac’s hollow restorationism, incisively criticized by Richard Hanson in Allegory and Event (SCM, 1959) -- and probably with little participation of critical exegetes. Preachers will not be encouraged to distinguish the voice of Jesus in the Gospels from the words of the historical pre-paschal Jesus. The problems that Scripture poses to the faithful -- such as the difficulty of reconciling the divinely sanctioned genocides with the notion of Inerrancy -- will be brushed under the carpet as usual. Probably we will have more than what Byrne calls ‘the virtually compulsory salute in church documents on Scripture to the “treasure-house” of Patristic interpretation.’ A primacy of patristic over contemporary exegesis may be affirmed. 

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FURTHER IMPLICATIONS

There is a close connection between Benedict’s book along with the Sobrino Notification on the one hand and Dominus Iesus (2001) along with the Dupuis Notification on the other. As Benedict closes, one by one, the perceived gaps between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, as he seals off one by one possible leaks through which a Christology from below might gain entrance, he seeks to establish that Christ is from the start the fullness of divine revelation and that there is thus no basis for a ‘theocentric’ or ‘regnocentric’ reading of his mission that would in any way be in rivalry with the Christocentric view.

Benedict’s effort to close the gap between the Church’s Christ and the historical origins, the gap that first traumatized Catholics when Loisy published L’Évangile et l’Église in 1902, is to my mind a lost cause. We are living in the age of what I call ‘the withdrawal of origins’ and this requires of us a new art of judgment in theology. Psychoanalyst Daniel Sibony (Les trois monothéismes, Éditions du Seuil) argues that Judaism, Islam and Christianity suffer from an unacknowledged flaw in their historical origins, which they always wish to characterize as pure, full, and perfect. This clinging to pure origins is a principal source of inter-religious violence. Analogously, clinging to the purity of the Greek metaphysical tradition, identified with Reason as such, and clinging to mythological representations of cosmic and human origins, is a form of denial that can close the mind.

Even to argue on a Johannine basis that the Logos incarnate in Christ goes in search of itself in the other great religious traditions of humanity (as I did in Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth, Edinburgh University Press, 1996) would probably be seen in Benedict’s perspective as implying a too low Christology. The Logos is so fully manifested in Jesus – in the historical Jesus – that there is nothing more to be added from outside, and that any radiance found in other religions is very dim indeed in comparison with the glory of God revealed in Christ.

However, it must be admitted that a dissolution of the concrete identity of Jesus, such as Benedict warns against, is characteristic of much recent theological and sub-theological production, which might go under the rubric of ‘the Jesus I want.’ Reading Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Catching up with Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 2005), one appreciates the need for a defense of the historicity of the Gospels and the validity of Nicea and Chalcedon. O’Murchu gives a hyper-Crossanized account of the historical Jesus, or rather a fantastic reimagining of the Gospel in the form of a ‘story’ told by Christ (‘Joshua’), who claims not to recognize himself at all in the canonical Gospels. The procedure is reminiscent of the Gnostics, yet much of what O’Murchu has Jesus say would be quite compatible with a theology based on a more sober approach to the historical Jesus. Such a theology could follow O’Murchu in imagining the significance of Christ in relation to the evolution of the cosmos and of humankind and in relation to human struggles for justice and liberation. These perspectives have indeed become indispensable for a meaningful Christology today. O’Murchu sees God as revealing himself to all people since the beginning, and he sets Jesus in a ‘relational matrix’ that forbids us to isolate him as a kingly figure to be venerated. Again, this need not be incompatible with a Christology that upholds the Johannine vision of the Logos/Wisdom of God dwelling in history in a special way through and across the Christ-event and that accepts Nicea and Chalcedon as important footnotes to that vision. But the modality of the Incarnation is subtler than classical Christology envisaged, and this subtlety leaves space for opening up to the findings of historical Jesus research, the cosmic and liberationist perspectives, and the problems of epistemology, hermeneutics, and articulation facing Christological faith in today’s context.

O’Murchu has some scathing remarks about the dragooning of Christology by Johannine piety: ‘Spiritual literature tends to adopt John’s Gospel with excess fervor, claiming that Jesus was continually in a deep prayerful relationship with the God he addressed and honored as Father. Therefore the Christian life is considered to be first and foremost about the spiritual, “personal” relationship with God, making engagement with the social, political, or even interpersonal spheres largely redundant and irrelevant… Respectfully, I acknowledge that this kind of spiritualized hope is what sustains and nourishes millions of people in the poorer parts of the planet. It helps them to retain some semblance of meaning and hope in the face of the horrendous odds of oppression and injustice. The cruel irony is that it offers no solution to their plight’ (p. 38).

On a more seasoned and sophisticated plane, James P. Mackey’s Christianity and Creation (Crossroad, 2006) invokes John as an authority for his account of the historical Jesus as a prophet of creation. Mackey sees creation as the sole medium of revelation and like O’Murchu he tends to see the Church’s excessive concern with the ‘divinity of Christ’ as reflecting a human lust for power and control. Against this, I would accept that the Easter experience to which the whole New Testament testifies provides the basis for the high Christology of the Johannine Prologue, which in turn is what is being defended in the conciliar doctrines. But this certainly needs to be credibly contextualized, not only in reference to its sources in the experiences underlying Scripture, but in the wider historical and evolutional context as we currently read it.

Sociologist Peter Berger, in Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity (Blackwell, 2003), represents the average liberal understanding of the theologically literate Christian, in the wake of Schleiermacher and Bultmann. Accepting that Jesus did not know or say he was God, Berger interprets subsequent church doctrine in a mild and dehellenized way, leaving the identity of Jesus with the Word of God rather obscure and ineffable. Zealots will dismiss this as a jaded and out-of-date liberalism, but it seems to me that the effort to banish it totally from the Church in the name of a full-shilling orthodoxy is counter-productive. A revisioning of the Incarnation is needed for many reasons: the results of historical scholarship, the problematization of  doctrine as expressed in the language of metaphysics, and the need to set Christ in relation to the religions of humankind. If we take John 1.14 to mean that the divine Word/Wisdom is revealed or enters our history in, through and across the totality of the Christ-event, then the ultimate identity of Jesus would indeed be ‘Word incarnate,’ but in a sense that could integrate much that is valid in the naturalistic adoptionist or Nestorian perspectives while not denying the mystery of the Incarnation. The phrase ‘Christ-event,’ though sometimes used in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, is regarded with suspicion by those who fear it allows a Nestorian gap to emerge between the struggling and suffering Jesus (cf. Heb 2.10) and the divine Word that dwells in our midst through and across the total unfolding of the story of Jesus; yet somehow or other the biblical event-character of the Incarnation needs to be reinstated over against the substance-language of classical dogma, though preserving the dynamic truth to which dogma points. As theologians have pondered with fascination the development from the lowly Jesus of Q to the exalted Christ of John, they have been tempted to reopen negotiations with Adoptionism and Nestorianism in order to demystify the Johannine picture and reroot it in a Christology from below, in which Jesus is seen as growing into his role, or at least as growing in awareness of his role. One would then say that the Word is enfleshed primarily in the Paschal Mystery rather than at the conception of Jesus.

We are fortunate that Benedict’s book does not have magisterial status (though its central claims may later be spelt out in a magisterial document). Even as a personal work it will provide an arsenal to conservative students who are already inclined to resist the methods and presuppositions of their professors of Scripture. Reading this book I had the feeling that if Benedict was right, a whole century of New Testament scholarship would have to be radically corrected and largely jettisoned. But it would probably be more correct to see Benedict as respectful of historical-critical exegesis, only emphasizing its inbuilt limits, as Raymond Brown also did (though not, of course, with the same consequences). Catholic exegetes are urged to be watchful in preserving a sense of these limits, and not to deny truths or events which their methods cannot prove. As for theologians, they must not be excessively bound by the constraints of exegesis. They have access to Christ through the Church’s life and doctrine and must not hesitate to recognize that this same Christ is speaking in Scripture. For most readers the Pope’s strategy will be received as an immense liberation, a recovery of the fullness of Christ in every page of Scripture. But for most critical exegetes and theologians it is more likely to induce gnashing of teeth and the sense of doors being locked.

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THE RECEPTION

The German reception of the book has been warm, sometimes rapturous, in line with Benedict’s immense popularity in his homeland. Vanity Fair (German edition) adulates Benedict as the ‘Super-Pope.’ Cardinal Joachim Meisner calls Benedict ‘the Mozart of theology,’ and says that he looks as Jesus would have looked had he lived to be eighty! Cardinal Karl Lehmann welcomed ‘a very prudent and reflective, balanced and sensitive, remarkably calm and inspiring book.’ Sale figures are spectacular, and who can help rejoicing when Jesus leaves the wretched Harry Potter sprawling in the dust?

The most salient initial theological riposte to the book comes from the controversial exegete Gerd Lüdemann, Göttingen, who denounces the book as an ‘embarrassing deviation’ and an intellectual scandal (www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/0,1518,479636,00.html). Lüdemann has written very provocative pieces denouncing the Gospel accounts of Jesus as pious frauds, as lies. He will easily be dismissed as one of the ‘usual suspects.’ See for example this neocath site which declares, contra Benedict, that the historico-critical method belongs to the 19th century and has no place in the 21st: http://www.kreuz.net/article.5123.html. (The same site calls theological critics of the Sobrino Notification ‘rats’: http://www.kreuz.net/article.4948.html; German neocath sites seem to be even more fanatical than American ones.) In fact, however, the central points Lüdemann makes in his review are ones that most exegetes would agree on, notably his stress on the impossibility of reading the Gospels, especially the Fourth Gospel, as straight history. The Gospels are serious and responsible theological constructions with a grounding in history, including a nucleus of tradition claimed to come from eye-witnesses. To exaggerate their literal historicity is to damage their true historical value. Lüdemann complains that the status of the author will give Benedict’s book an influence and a theological authority that is not merited by the quality of its biblical hermeneutics. He is seconded by journalist Alan Posener in Welt am Sonntag, who sees Benedict as opposing modernity, reason, and freedom and as championing a faith that most Germans have left behind (http://www.welt.de/wams_print/article826176/Teuflische_Theologen.html).

In a subsequent interview, Lüdemann asks: ‘What professor of theology will dare take up the Pope’s invitation to criticize him, in a time of anxiety? One need only look at the factual conditions in Catholic faculties and how they deal with critical voices.’ ‘The sad thing is that there are so many Roman Catholic exegetes who have done Trojan work for historical exegesis. For them, this papal book is a catastrophe.’ Lüdemann announces a book-length exposition of his critique for July, under the title Das Jesusbild von Benedikt XVI. Über Joseph Ratzingers kühnen Umgang mit den biblischen Quellen (Verlag zu Klampen). New Testament exegete Thomas Söding, who is listed in Benedict’s bibliography (p. 409), on kathweb Nachrichten (Austria) greets the Pope’s revolutionary act of submitting his thoughts to critical discussion: ‘What he needs now are many intelligent and critical readers, who won’t fall on their knees in reverence, but will take seriously the offer of discussion.’ Elsewhere Söding warns of the danger of a dogmatization of the Pope’s personal view of Jesus, which would make life difficult for exegetes. This is reported by Matthias Hoenig in Der Tagesspiegel, May 1, who like Christian Geyer in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 13, notes that the ingenious presentation of the book as the reflections of an individual theologian only thinly veils the weight of papal authorship.

For a useful round-up of German language reviews see: http://www.muenster.de/~angergun/jesusbuch.html. The comments of some rapturous Italian readers can be found at http://www.db.avvenire.it/pls/avvenire/ne_avv_forum.start_bacheca?id=&id_doc=1. A laudatory review by Massimo Introvigne can be found here: http://www.cesnur.org/2007/mi_gdn.htm.

Emeritus Catholic theologian Hermann Häring says: ‘One thing is clear. In his lifetime he was not venerated as God. But the Pope does not want to know anything about this in his book. He projects representations that were invented later on back onto the Gospels... The Pope uses historical research when it fits his dogma. He ignores it when it contradicts him. What is all-important for him is to vindicate the Roman Church and the papal office. Even though his book is distinguished by great clarity and deep religiosity, his image of Jesus is a unified one: smoothed out, harmonious and very inward. It shows neither breaks nor rejections. In the eyes of the Pope Jesus is very far from being a rebel, who protests against a maddeningly unjust world’ (Aspekte).

Another highly respected emeritus Catholic theologian, Peter Hünermann (mentioned above) lauds the style and meditative power of the book, but questions its treatment of exegesis: ‘Is faith really shaken when research today no longer sees certain quotations as words of the historical Jesus but as expressions of the theological effort of the biblical authors?... It is in the post-paschal process of understanding that they first find the right words.’ Exegetes, he points out, ‘understand their work as theological work, not just as “neutral” observation. Thus theology does not begin after exegesis, but exegetical results belong within the totality of theological work. It is just this mutual inherence that the Pope abolishes in his criticism of modern exegesis’  (http://www.ksta.de/html/artikel/1176113303878.shtml).

In Die Tagespost, exegete Klaus Berger (formerly Catholic, now Lutheran; see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klaus_Berger) writes sympathetically: ‘How does the Pope proceed here exegetically? Why is the book so stimulating?  Often the Pope pushes us into new exegetical territory. That is, he expresses himself boldly, the exegete spontaneously contradicts him, yet notes in the course of reflection that the Pope is “somehow” in the right... The Pope says about the attitude of Jesus to the Old Testament: “Jesus is [sc. now] the Torah.” The exegete: “No, Jesus is the fully authoritative interpreter of the Torah.” Then occurs the thought: But he is this through his whole person; that is why the voice from heaven says, “Hear ye him.”‘ Taking up the Pope’s invitation of criticism, and stressing that incense is for the church and not for book reviews, Berger does not agree that the title ‘Son of God’ is post-paschal just because it is not found in Jesus’s mouth [but Benedict in fact accepts the historicity of Jesus’s self-designation as ‘Son of God’ in John 3.18; 5.25; 10.36; 11.4 (p. 369)]. It is a title used by the evil spirits in the Gospel. The Pope has little feeling for this battle-of-spirits aspect and so reduces exorcism to banishing the fear of devils rather than devils themselves, connecting it infelicitously with his favorite theme of Reason. After a few other minor disagreements, Berger concludes: ‘Let us turn back from professorial grumblings to what really stirs me in this book: The Pope has clearly not made things easy for himself in regard to exegesis. When has it happened before that a systematic theologian has exposed himself to the trench warfare of the exegetes?’ (But there are many theologians who have done so – Schillebeeckx, Kuschel, Pannenberg, Kasper, John P. Keenan in his The Gospel of Mark – and they have taken the blows from exegetes; perhaps Berger is referring to a trench warfare that tackles the basic presuppositions of modern exegesis as he himself apparently does.)

Robert Misik in Die Tageszeitung sees the book as an ‘extraordinarily weak’ defense of the traditional image of Jesus and as a symptom of the crisis of Christianity. Thomas Götz in Berliner Zeitung notes that the Pope’s ‘interesting experiment’ aims at a second naivety, in which, having mastered all that critical exegesis can adduce against traditional conceptions, one nonetheless affirms the latter, bridging or filling in the gap between historical Jesus and Christ of faith.

Reinaldo José Lopes in G1 interviews three Brazilian exegetes, who agree that Benedict’s approach to the Gospels is untenable. ‘You always meet this problem when a dogmatic theologian starts analyzing gospel texts. He will opt to say there is no rupture between the various texts, which all say the same thing’ (Luiz Felipe Coimbra Ribeiro) (http://g1.globo.com/Noticias/PapanoBrasil/0,,MUL33217-8524-630,00.html).

The first voice to greet the English version of the book (Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday) is that of neocath-in-chief George Weigel  (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18629516/site/newsweek). If neoconservative Catholics appropriate this book for their own uses, this will skew its reception by the wider Church. Weigel exaggerates Benedict’s openness to historical critical methods, seeing him as appreciative of the variety of theological perspectives the Evangelists brought to their memory of Jesus; whereas in fact Benedict’s concern with the historicity of the narratives keeps him from a full appreciation of the literary and theological creativity of the authors of the first three Gospels.

Weigel sees Benedict as issuing ‘a sharp challenge to those Catholics who still seek a confessional state, either along the lines of the old regimes in Europe or according to a more contemporary, liberation theology model.’ No doubt he thinks the participation of priests in the Sandinista government made Nicaragua a confessional state. Yet Benedict’s words in Brazil about the need of ‘a moral consensus in society on fundamental values’ which entails a consensus on ‘God with the human face of Jesus Christ’ suggest an avatar of the confessionalism Weigel deplores. (The Brazil trip was a failure on every front, according to La Jornada, Mexico, http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2007/05/14/index.php?section=opinion&article=002a1edi.)

In the same issue of Newsweek Lisa Miller insinuates that only ‘the non-orthodox—the progressive Protestants and “cafeteria Catholics”‘ (yes, ‘Protestants’ has become a sectarian taunt-word once again) will criticize the book, whereas: ‘Moderates may take Jesus of Nazareth as something of a corrective to fundamentalism because it sees the Bible as “true” without insisting on its being factual. Mostly, though, Jesus of Nazareth will please a small group of Christians who are able simultaneously to hold post-Enlightenment ideas about the value of rationality and scientific inquiry together with the conviction that the events described in the Gospels are real. “This is about things that happened,” explains N. T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham who is perhaps the world’s leading New Testament scholar. “It’s not just about ideas, or people’s imaginations. These are things that actually happened. If they didn’t happen, you might still have interesting ideas, but it wouldn’t be Christianity at the end of the day.”‘ But the question Weigel and Wright do not address is whether Benedict’s ‘official biography’ of Jesus sufficiently recognizes the contribution of ‘ideas’ and ‘imagination’ on the part of the Evangelists and their sources, and the irreducible plurality of perspectives on the Christ-event that this entails.

US neocath blogsites vie with one another in adulating the book and shafting its critics; see for example http://amywelborn.typepad.com/openbook/2007/05/rule_1.html. There is an interesting comment on Lisa Miller’s report by Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame: ‘Readers may be interested in this bit of background to the risible article by Ms Miller. The person who is acknowledged as helping with the article called me a few weeks before this article apeared doing “research.” She wanted the names of famous books on Jesus and a description of their contents beginning with Reimarus. When I told her gently that the history of the “higher” criticism was a tad complicated she soldiered on asking about Schweitzer (the only name she seems to know) and then, jumping ahead nearly a century, something about the Jesus Seminar. When I told her about some sources she might consult she said that she was on “deadline.” Not to put too fine a point on it: she did not have a clue.’ In fairness, journalists have to do this kind of research all the time and it is rather unfair for those who help them to then pour scorn on their efforts. And to know the names Reimarus and Schweitzer is to be on better informed plane than most readers of the book.

In the absence of any serious American theological review of the book, five weeks after its German publication, the neocaths seem to have made the hapless Lisa Miller a target of their usual reactive rhetoric and argument; see http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2007/05/excerpt_from_b1.html (also http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2418 and http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/05/invincible_ignorance.php). Carl Olson of Ignatius Press indulges in the usual caricaturing of liberal theology: ‘Why, oh why, do we have to care what “liberal Catholics” think? After all, it’s not as though they don’t have a couple of hundred books about a Jesus who is (pick one or two) a cat-friendly vegan, a registered Democrat, a social worker, a Jewish pen pal, a warm feeling in the tummy, a personal guru, a personal trainer, an inspirational man who didn’t actually exist, a neo-Marxist, an old-fashioned Marxist, a John Lennon fan, etc., etc.’  But Lisa Miller hurts the neocath sensitivities most when she touches on the truth: ‘As for the statement, “This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict’s Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate,” Miller would do well to catch up a bit on the world of biblical scholarship, a field—dare I point out the obvious?—that a certain Joseph Ratzinger has been following closely (and has often been involved in, in various ways) for a number of years now, probably more years than Miller has been alive.’ Yet Miller is correct in saying that Benedict’s interpretation of Jesus’s Kingdom-preaching would be contested by many scholars. Olson’s petulance and ridicule are unnecessary; his best argument is his appeal to N. T. Wright, who cannot, however, be treated as representing a definitive consensus position.

[Many admirers of Benedict’s book are adopting the strategy of treating it as a sacred mystery, any criticism of which would be blasphemous. The polemic notes in Benedict’s own texts are vastly amplified by these groupies, in a way that must be embarrassing to the author. Leopold Spasovski, customer reviewer at amazon.de, recounts: ‘My reviews of two previous books of Joseph Ratzinger drew numerous emails from incensed Christians who warned me that my “presumption” in criticizing the “Holy Father” would close the doors of heaven to me.’ Such rhetoric is in evidence in amazon.com. Those who criticize the treatment of justice and peace in the book are described as ‘disordered, malicious, invincibly ignorant souls’ who ‘don’t have the courage to fully renounce Christ, thus they keep him around as an accessory, as a sort of good luck charm in the eternal quest for “Justice and Peace” rather than as the Logos, the ground of being...  Underneath their masks, they’re about raw power, benign tyranny (think Brave New World), wretched contentment in a Godless world. I hate to say it: they’re in league with the diabolical... I’d have you and your cancerous horde silenced.’ A very common theme is that Benedict has saved Christ and the Bible from vain academics and intellectuals who are bereft of spiritual vision. The debate is pitched, thus, as a clash between Church and Academy rather than as one between a restorationist and a progressive vision of the Church. A streak of populist anti-intellectualism lies close to the surface. However, the general tenor of discussion on the book is rather encouraging; it seems that people are being stimulated to debate the issues: see http://p072.ezboard.com/ftheratzingerforumfrm35.showMessageRange?topicID=29.topic&start=26&stop=44; http://wheatandweeds.blogspot.com/2007/05/advantage-benedict.html; http://www.ntgateway.com/weblog/2007/05/vermes-on-ratzinger-and-quest.html; http://ambassadorwatch.blogspot.com/2007/05/ratzinger-jesus.html; http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2007/04/jesus-of-nazareth-by-ratzinger-benedict.html; http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1037/exclusive.html; http://www.soomah.de/?p=166; http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=2373.]

The first theological review of the book in English comes from Geza Vermes, famous for his stimulating and instructive studies of the Jewish Jesus (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article1807640.ece). Vermes makes the obvious objection: ‘We are told that the Pope obeyed the rules of historical criticism. However, he was prepared to abide by those rules only if they confirmed his traditional convictions. Otherwise, he discarded them without further consideration. As he refuses to examine various possibilities of meaning, he must take it for granted that he has the correct understanding. But how can this be if no critical questions are asked about the original significance of words?’ ‘I must protest against the reiterated papal claim that the divine Christ of faith – the product of his musings – and the historical Jesus – the Galilean itinerant healer, exorcist and preacher – are one and the same. In the absence of a stringent linguistic, literary and historical analysis of the Gospels, especially of their many contradictory statements, the identification is without foundation. One must declare groundless Benedict’s appeal to “canonical exegesis”, an exercise in biblical theology whereby any text from the Old or the New Testament can serve to explain any other biblical text. Such an approach to biblical studies would force back Catholic Bible experts, already the objects of frequent papal disapproval in Jesus of Nazareth, to a preCopernican stage of history.’

A. N. Wilson writes: ‘Most controversially, post Mel Gibson, the Pope gives no attention to those Jewish scholars who question the likelihood of a blasphemy trial before the Sanhedrin. (“The fact that Jesus’ trial was... presented to the Romans as the trial of a political Messiah reflects the pragmatism of the Sadducees” is not a sentence that answers these difficulties).’ ‘This reader at least felt that he had repeatedly identified what was haunting, indeed frightening about the Gospels. No amount of reasonable liberal “explanation” can evade the voice that comes through them – calling the reader not to a set of propositions, nor to a theory, but to a Person, who is at one with God’ (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article1798127.ece).

Presenting the book in Paris on May 23, Cardinal Martini lauds its vision of Christ, but strikes some very mild critical notes, clearly pulling his punches, in the classic style of suave cardinaliate criticism. He points out how difficult it will be for Catholics to dispute this book, despite the author’s foreswearing of magisterial authority. He notes that the merit of a book is not guaranteed by its sales and that, as a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger has not done first-hand study of exegetical matters, such as New Testament text criticism. ‘I think that not all will recognize themselves in his description of the author of the Fourth Gospel when he says : “The actual state of research completely allows us to see in John, son of Zebedee, the witness who responds solemnly with his own ocular testimony, also identifying himself as the true author of the Gospel.”' Vittorio Messori attacks Martini's presentation bitterly in Corriere della Sera, May 25, under the heading In defence of the Pope. With back-handed praise for the Cardinal's Jesuit ambiguity, Messori acutely notes how Martini pushes the book onto the shelf markd 'spirituality' rather than 'exegesis,' praising Benedict for being in touch with the exegesis of his (not our) time. Church historian Alberto Melloni, in the same issue, reinforces the Cardinal's implied critique, adding that Benedict's book will serve as an alibi for the many priests who are profoundly ignorant of Scripture.  ‘It would certainly be a precious service if this book opened a very deep and serene discussion on the status of historical critical exegesis, on the reasons for the indifference it is met with in so much Catholic preaching, on the contempt with which a facile and ignorant conservatism treats it, on the reasons why the figure of Jesus lies ever lower on the horizon of Christian live and is abandoned to the sectarian edulcorations or the facile approaches excited by the scent of an anti-Enlightenment reconquest. But we all know that this is a remote hypothesis... The book legitimates with the authority of a refined intellectual a dangerous mistrust of research... in the name of the facticity of the Gospels assumed in an uncritical and concordist fashion.’ Benedict's imposition of a single transparent sense on the Gospel texts is correlated with an attitude that has blocked all dynamic progress in the Church since the fourth century.

Don Franco Barbaro accuses Benedict of throwing two centuries of historical, biblical and hermeneutical research into the dustbin. ‘I did not expect, obviously, to find writing of the standard of Barbaglio, Ortensio da Spinetoli, Pesce, Knitter, Kung, Molari, Sobrino, Schillebeeckx, E. Johnson, Balasuriya, Vouga, Haight and a thousand others. I fully realized that Ratzinger cannot be placed on the same level as those scholars who are real specialists in the study of Jesus of Nazareth. non può essere messo al livello di questi studiosi che sono dei veri specialisti rispetto agli studi di Gesù di Nazareth. But sincerely I did not think one could still hammer with such force “dogmatic formulations,” without taking account of the heremeneutic turn pointed out for quite some time by official Catholic theologians such as Meier, Geffré… This dogmatic insistence is a source of banalizations, and Christian radicality is confused with religious radicalism. The final impression is that Christianity has two enemies: the modern world and Christian theologians. Yet this book, which offers us again the catechism of our childhood in peremptory dogmatic tones, seems to me extremely significant for two reasons. First, it gives a clear and candid spiritual-psychological and theological portrait of Pope Benedict XVI. In these pages I found more of him than of Jesus, the master of my faith… Second, these pages show the theological and pastoral horizon that the present pontificate is imposing on the Catholic Church. Whoever goes outside these “lines” finds himself off the page, “extra ecclesiam.” This is the problem... The book may be comforting, reassuring, gratifying to those believers for whom the faith functions as a platform of uncorrodable certitudes. To me and many others these pages savor too much of an ideological manifesto and a moralistic tract. I thank God that I have had quite other teachers, in the long course of my years and my studies, who have given me a passion for the life, person and faith of a quite different Jesus of Nazareth. Almost all of them, on examination, turn out to be among those who in the last thirty years have been defenestrated, disowned, suspected and incriminated by Ratzinger’  (http://www.italialaica.it/cgi-bin/news/view.pl?id=007050).

Lawrence Cunningham writes on the Commonweal blog that those (like Hermann Häring) who think Benedict’s approach to the scriptures is retrograde are mistaken. ‘One should read this work from the perspective of Joseph Ratzinger the theologian. The following points might prove helpful: (1) Ratzinger writes as a theologian in the honorable tradition of the Anselmian “faith seeking understanding” which is to say, he writes as a believer seeking understanding; as a consequence, he writes from the angle of the hermeneutics of trust and not of suspicion.’ Unfortunately, exegesis for the last 250 years has advanced by overcoming an initial trust in direct historicity to view the texts as complex theological and literary constructs; Benedict certainly marks a regression on this front. ‘(2) He understands the competence of the exegete but he refuses to allow the exegete to have the final say and, further, he appreciates that biblical exegesis did not begin for Catholics in the twentieth century.... [He] does not find it out of court to call on Cyprian when discussing the Lord’s Prayer or Origen on the same subject.’ He writes from within ‘the household of faith’  and will not be appreciated by the unbelieving. Actually, however, many Catholic and non-Catholic exegetes draw on patristic contributions to exegesis; but when these are invoked to interpret ‘thy Kingdom come’ in the way I noted above, it is not helpful. Spiritual reading of Scripture may draw on the Fathers freely, but it should not claim to thereby override exegesis on its own terrain.

Benedict’s ‘real antagonists are those who would reduce Jesus down to a genteel liberal Protestant or a political revolutionary or a philosopher (pick your reductionist category).’ Such straw-man argumentation is itself reductionist, and it leads Benedict to downplay the justice-and-peace component of Jesus’ Kingdom-preaching, while imposing the Johannine image of Jesus as historical, at the expense of any rediscovery of the pre-Paschal Jesus as eschatological prophet, and even at the expense of the Synoptics’ vision. This is very ineffective and counter-productive argument against the liberal distortions of the Jesus Seminar or against Marxist distortions. As someone remarked, it represents the very illness it claims to cure, that is, a failure to connect integrally the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

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I dont agree with this review but applaud its most interesting discussion of where its author differs from the Pope. It seems to me just the sort of thing to make us think and even more to appreciate the excellent theologian at the Vatican.

Fr. O'Leary,

Since you are popping up everywhere giving your critical opinion of the pope's book, it would be desirable to hear your own position stated candidly. Do you accept the full divinity of Jesus Christ and the triunity of God? The Catholic faithful have been misled before by people with whom they believe to be united in faith. Please forgive the intrusive nature of the question. But you should be absolutely forthcoming about this before proceeding publicly. I recommend you also make this clear at the Commonweal site.

Mr Merriweather, yes I believe in the Trinity and the Incarnation, in Nicea and Chalcedon; see the essays under "Christology" on this weblog.

Or see the reference to Nicea in the review above:

'His book ends with an evocation of the ‘consubstantial’ of the Council of Nicea: ‘This word did not Hellenize faith, loading it with an alien philosophy, but to the contrary secured the incomparably new and other reality that had appeared in Jesus’s dialogues with his Father’ (p. 407). I AGREE with this, but it should be noted that this anti-Hellenistic moment occurred within a deeply Hellenistic and Roman Imperial context. To articulate THE TRUTH OF CHRIST'S DIVINITY today, we must search out a wider language, attuned to the culture of our own times, with the boldness that the Nicene fathers showed in their day.' (emphasis added)

"Olson’s petulance and ridicule are unnecessary"

Well, in hindsight, I think they really were. What does it say, Fr. O'Leary, that your review of Newsweek is far more positive and glowing than your review of Pope Benedict's book? I think it says everything that needs to be said.

Dear Mr Olson,
"Your review of Newsweek is far more positive and glowing" -- not at all. Clearly you have read only the paragraph in which your name is mentioned. Here is the full context:

"The first voice to greet the English version of the book (Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday) is that of neocath-in-chief George Weigel (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18629516/site/newsweek). If neoconservative Catholics appropriate this book for their own uses, this will skew it reception by the wider Church. Weigel exaggerates Benedict’s openness to historical critical methods, seeing him as appreciative of the variety of theological perspectives the Evangelists brought to their memory of Jesus; whereas in fact Benedict’s concern with the historicity of the narratives keeps him from a full appreciation of the literary and theological creativity of the authors of the first three Gospels.

"Weigel sees Benedict as issuing ‘a sharp challenge to those Catholics who still seek a confessional state, either along the lines of the old regimes in Europe or according to a more contemporary, liberation theology model.’ No doubt he thinks the participation of priests in the Sandinista government made Nicaragua a confessional state. Yet Benedict’s words in Brazil about the need of ‘a moral consensus in society on fundamental values’ which entails a consensus on ‘God with the human face of Jesus Christ’ suggest an avatar of the confessionalism Weigel deplores.

"In the same issue of Newsweek Lisa Miller insinuates that only ‘the non-orthodox—the progressive Protestants and “cafeteria Catholics”’ (yes, ‘Protestants’ has become a sectarian taunt-word once again) will criticize the book, whereas: ‘Moderates may take Jesus of Nazareth as something of a corrective to fundamentalism because it sees the Bible as “true” without insisting on its being factual. Mostly, though, Jesus of Nazareth will please a small group of Christians who are able simultaneously to hold post-Enlightenment ideas about the value of rationality and scientific inquiry together with the conviction that the events described in the Gospels are real. “This is about things that happened,” explains N. T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham who is perhaps the world’s leading New Testament scholar. “It’s not just about ideas, or people’s imaginations. These are things that actually happened. If they didn’t happen, you might still have interesting ideas, but it wouldn’t be Christianity at the end of the day.”‘ But the question Weigel and Wright do not address is whether Benedict’s ‘official biography’ of Jesus sufficiently recognizes the contribution of ‘ideas’ and ‘imagination’ on the part of the Evangelists and their sources, and the irreducible plurality of perspectives on the Christ-event that this entails.

"US neocath blogsites vie with one another in adulating the book and shafting its critics; see for example http://amywelborn.typepad.com/openbook/2007/05/rule_1.html. There is an interesting comment on Lisa Miller’s report by Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame: ‘Readers may be interested in this bit of background to the risible article by Ms Miller. The person who is acknowledged as helping with the article called me a few weeks before this article apeared doing “research.” She wanted the names of famous books on Jesus and a description of their contents beginning with Reimarus. When I told her gently that the history of the “higher” criticism was a tad complicated she soldiered on asking about Schweitzer (the only name she seems to know) and then, jumping ahead nearly a century, something about the Jesus Seminar. When I told her about some sources she might consult she said that she was on “deadline.” Not to put too fine a point on it: she did not have a clue.’ In fairness, journalists have to do this kind of research all the time and it is rather unfair for those who help them to then pour scorn on their efforts. And to know the names Reimarus and Schweitzer is to be on better informed plane than most readers of the book.

"In the absence of any serious American theological review of the book, five weeks after its German publication, the neocaths seem to have made the hapless Lisa Miller a target of their usual reactive rhetoric and argument; see http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2007/05/excerpt_from_b1.html (also http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2418 and http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/05/invincible_ignorance.php). Carl Olson of Ignatius Press indulges in the usual caricaturing of liberal theology: ‘Why, oh why, do we have to care what “liberal Catholics” think? After all, it’s not as though they don’t have a couple of hundred books about a Jesus who is (pick one or two) a cat-friendly vegan, a registered Democrat, a social worker, a Jewish pen pal, a warm feeling in the tummy, a personal guru, a personal trainer, an inspirational man who didn’t actually exist, a neo-Marxist, an old-fashioned Marxist, a John Lennon fan, etc., etc.’ But Lisa Miller hurts the neocath sensitivities most when she touches on the truth: ‘As for the statement, “This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict’s Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate,” Miller would do well to catch up a bit on the world of biblical scholarship, a field—dare I point out the obvious?—that a certain Joseph Ratzinger has been following closely (and has often been involved in, in various ways) for a number of years now, probably more years than Miller has been alive.’ Yet Miller is correct in saying that Benedict’s interpretation of Jesus’s Kingdom-preaching would be contested by many scholars. Olson’s petulance and ridicule are unnecessary; his best argument is his appeal to N. T. Wright, who cannot, however, be treated as representing a definitive consensus position."

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