Joseph Ratzinger Benedikt XVI. Jesus von Nazareth. Freiburg: Herder, 2007
This book deserves praise for its clear and elegant style, its vigorous argumentation, and the skill with which it projects a radiant vision of the Christ of faith. It may provide a wholesome antidote to the Gnostic extravaganzas of a Dan Brown and the fundamentalist obsessions of a Mel Gibson. However, for many Catholics who are seeking to deepen their scriptural culture, and to combine a grasp of the historical reality of Jesus with a recognition of his status as proclaimed in the Creed, the book will not be as helpful as it might have been.
The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith
Benedict deplores the efforts to recover a historical Jesus lying behind the gospel accounts, claiming that they have produced only a heap of contradictory and subjective portraits. Against this, it might be argued that a relative stability attaches to the notion of the historical Jesus as “eschatological prophet.” In any case, we know the earthly Jesus primarily as he is remembered within the theological horizons of post-paschal faith. Benedict says 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. Nonetheless, the Resurrection experience and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the infant church surely brought a rich new understanding of the historical Jesus, which may well have been the main source for the articulation of the Christ of faith.
The effort to reconstruct the historical Jesus has value as securing the reality of his humanity and preventing faith from ballooning off into Gnostic fantasy. 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. Moreover, the different layers of tradition that one can uncover in the rich texture of a completed Gospel text provide a prismatic reflection of Jesus that is far richer than the desiderated account of him wie er eigentlich gewesen. While some poorly instructed Christians may think that the truth about Jesus is concealed from view by the Gospels, scripturally literate Christians are quite capable of recognizing that uncertainty about the actual words and deeds of the historical Jesus is made up for by the richness of the secondary witness found in the Gospels. Benedict’s worry that “this 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) seems excessive. 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)?
Benedict believes that the tensions Rudolf Schnackenburg finds between the Jesus of critical historical research and the Jesus of the Gospels 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: “Only from this standpoint can we really understand the figure of Jesus” (p. 31). Yes, but this is a post-paschal, Johannine vision.
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. The “dividedness” cannot be wished away. It is a feature of ‘the hermeneutic age of reason’ (Jean Greisch).
More than any previous Pope, Benedict knows the score on this front, but he cannot accept the instability that it introduces at the basis of faith. Yet it also brings the blessing of a plurality of perspectives on Jesus, whereas Benedict imposes a single perspective. 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.
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 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.
Jesus Proclaims his Divinity
”The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel and the Jesus of the Synoptics are one and the same: the true ‘historical’ Jesus” (p. 143). Defending the Johannine provenance of the Fourth Gospel, Benedict follows 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 (2 Jn 1.1; 3 Jn 1.1), who set down the Apostle’s eye-witness testimony. Benedict quotes 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).
Benedict is disappointed that Hengel is “amazingly negative” about the historicity of the Fourth Gospel (p. 270) and even accuses the Fourth Gospel of doing violence to history. 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: “How can it strengthen faith, when it presents itself as a historical witness—and this with great emphasis—and yet is not narrating historically?... A faith that lets the historical drop in this way in reality becomes ‘Gnosis.’” (p. 270). John “correctly reproduced the content of the discourses, of Jesus’ witness to himself in the great Jerusalem confrontations” (p. 271).
The historicity and Johannine authorship 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. “Doubt: Whether…it can be said...that the discourses of the Lord are not properly and truly discourses of the Lord himself, but theological compositions of the writer, albeit placed on the lips of the Lord? Response: 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..
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?” (p. 57). All the ethical discussions with the Pharisees really turn on the divine authority of Christ. Benedict regards as historical the divine “I am,” placed on the lips of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. He insists 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.
Benedict’s Midas-touch thus 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’ dialogues with his Father” (p. 407). Benedict does not note that this anti-Hellenistic moment occurred within a deeply Hellenistic and Roman Imperial context. He never proposes that to articulate the truth of Christ’s divinity today, we must search out a wider language, attuned to contemporary culture, with the boldness that the Nicene fathers showed in their day.
What is the Kingdom?
Benedict opposes the Isaianic vision of a whole or healed world (die heile Welt), 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 world is assenting to Satan’s deception and surrendering the world old to him” (p. 73). This stark opposition 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…? The answer is quite simple: God. He brought God” (p. 73). I miss the concreteness of Luther, who taught that Jesus brought a gracious God, who is identified by a concrete action, the forgiveness of sins, and the conferral of freedom.
Benedict’s account of the Kingdom does not draw on the perspectives explored in theology since Johannes Weiss rediscovered the eschatological character of the teaching of Jesus (1892). The work of Edward Schillebeeckx and of the Liberation theologians marks the full entry of Kingdom awareness into Catholic theology. Benedict views this negatively, 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 ignores a more common criticism—that the Vatican since Vatican II has lost the Council’s wholesome tension between Church and Kingdom in an over-identification of the two.
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, in the course of a polemic against insufficiently Christ-centered theologies. “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). This is very loaded rhetoric. The New Testament teaching about justice and peace has been studied by many exegetes and theologians, and Vatican II and Paul VI gave a lead in the effort to spell out the contemporary sense of these Gospel imperatives in light of “the signs of the times.” A positive account of justice and peace should have been given instead of expressing irritation at “utopian chatter.”
What was the Kingdom Jesus preached? “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). 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? 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 does reject “the widespread temptation to interpret the New Testament in purely spiritual terms, untying it from any social and political relevance” (p. 154). Yet 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” (p. 154). 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.” (p. 160)
Benedict’s most salient reference to social justice occurs in a 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.” But the social is quickly overshadowed by the theological: “Above all we have wounded them in their souls. Instead of giving them God…we have brought them the cynicism of a world without God” (p. 238). These obiter dicta are not placed in an integrated perspective. Their placing suggests that the social mission of the Church a matter of charity rather than of deeply reflected and consistently enacted thinking on justice. Those tempted to disconnect the Gospel from social and political reality will find an alibi in the abstractionism of Benedict’s language.
The Temptation of Pure Origins
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. Clinging to pure origins, inviolable identities, is a principal source of inter-religious violence.
Although this book forswears magisterial status, it is impossible not to notice that its publication coincides with the Notification rebuking Jon Sobrino, just as the publication of Dominus Iesus in 2000 corresponded with the Notification on Jacques Dupuis. The principles of exegesis upheld as normative in the Sobrino Notification are the very ones expounded in this book. John Allen reports a Vatican official as warning: “There may be additional investigations, additional notifications, additional teaching documents and papal messages, circling around the themes laid out in Jesus of Nazareth.” Even as a personal work this book will provide an arsenal to conservative students who are already inclined to resist the methods and presuppositions of their professors of Scripture. For many 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 critical exegetes and theologians it is more likely to induce gnashing of teeth and the sense of doors being locked.
The Japan Mission Journal 61/2, Summer 2007
The Japan Mission Journal 61/2, Summer 2007