10. Jesus of Nazareth according to Benedict XVI

March 21st, 2011

It is too early to say whether it will become a theological classic, but Jesus of Nazareth (second part) by Benedict XVI is already a commercial asset. The first printing of 1,200,000 copies in twenty-one languages (and some e-book editions as well) makes it a good business for both author and publishing houses. Launched in time to be an ideal gift for the Easter season, it will probably sell more than the first volume that was published in 2007 and that sold 2 million copies. The first volume covered the life of Jesus from his birth to the great miracles and sermons, whereas this second one recounts the apex of Jesus’ ministry, i.e. his passion, death and resurrection. Though the two books present different elements of the Gospels, there is close continuity and coherence in Ratzinger’s approach to Jesus’ life.

The hermeneutics of Vatican II

One important feature of the Pope’s portrait of Jesus has to do with biblical hermeneutics. How do we read the Gospels? Ratzinger knows that the historical-critical school has nurtured skepticism, if not agnosticism, towards the Gospels as reliable accounts of the life of Jesus. The outcome has been the alleged chasm between the Jesus of history (unknowable in the main) and the Christ of faith (based on ‘mythological’ theologizing by the authors). While not renouncing the historical-critical methods and extensively conversing with liberal exegetes (mainly Germans), Ratzinger wants to recover the faith-element inherent in the Gospels, both as an essential ingredient of their formation and as a fundamental principle of their interpretation.

He calls for a hermeneutical “both-and” approach to the Gospels, i.e. open to critical-historical readings but within the context of a hermeneutics of faith. In the preface he argues that his sketch of Jesus’ life is an exercise of what Vatican II intended for Biblical interpretation. In fact  Dei Verbum (the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) n. 12 says that the reading of the Bible should search out the manifold characteristics of the text within the whole of Scripture and under the “judgment of the Church” whose living tradition is the on-going stream of Revelation.

One note of comparison is worth mentioning. The Evangelical scholar I.H. Marshall identifies three ways in which contemporary biblical scholarship is concentrating on areas more congenial to Evangelicals: the recognition that all biblical books are theological documents with a theological message; that they are all literary texts to be studied in their final form rather than in terms of sources; and that they should be studied canonically as part of the Bible as a whole (Beyond the Bible. Moving from Scripture to Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker 2004, pp. 19-20). Dei Verbum’s approach (and therefore Ratzinger’s) comes close to this, especially in its emphasis on the unity of Scripture and the legitimate place of faith in the reading process.

Yet it is different in equally important issues. First, it wants to retain historical-critical methods by modifying them rather than denouncing their anti-supernatural presuppositions and their arrogance to supersede Scripture. Second, while pushing aside the final judge of a self-claimed universal “reason”, it installs another final judge in the magisterium of the (RC) Church. Tota Scriptura (the whole of Scripture) is recognized but is not allowed to be Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) in that Scripture is viewed always as a part of a wider reservoir of Revelation which is authentically guarded and taught by the Church.

Strong points and question marks

Let’s first consider the strong points. He tends to practice what John Calvin called the “harmony of the Gospels”, i.e. the attempt to read the Synoptics and John’s Gospel together as much as possible, thus complementing each other rather than giving conflicting accounts. Outward discrepancies between the Gospels are generally treated as differences in emphasis, in perspective, and in intention. If taken together, the Gospels give a fuller picture rather than a fragmented one. Admirable also is the constant reference to the Old Testament as the over-arching framework for the words and deeds of Jesus. He also affirms the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus and strongly advocates for its pivotal significance for the Christian faith. These are all welcome features of Ratzinger’s book.

            A few points of contention are also worth noting. For instance, one overt concession to historical-critical methods pushes Ratzinger to say that the Lord’s eschatological discourse has been constructed through different redaction stages and are not the actual words of Jesus as they were spoken. There is also a persistent sacramental reading of the episodes of Jesus’ life as if they were naturally connected to the RC understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice of Jesus and the Church. This is true, for example, as far as the narratives regarding the entry to Jerusalem and the announcing of the destruction of the temple are concerned. Then, commenting on the priestly prayer in John 17 Ratzinger finds clear hints to the apostolic succession in the RC way. Finally, touching on the sensitive issue of the responsibility of the Jews in the death of Jesus, he denies any and goes on to say that Christians do not need to worry about the evangelization of the Jews because “all Israel” will be saved, thus leaving the reader with the idea that purposeful evangelism is not for the Jews.

Expiation and universalism

Perhaps the most serious problem with Ratzinger’s account has to do with expiation. Since the cross occupies a central place In the Gospel narrative, the book ponders on it quite extensively, expounding the doctrine beyond the Gospels themselves. His treatment resounds with what he had already presented in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) and tries to balance God’s justice and God’s love, looking at the cross as the mystery in which the two are combined. Yet  even in his profound comments there are two missing points: propitiation and penal substitution. While God’s justice is often referred to, no place is given to God’s wrath (e.g. Luke 3:7; John 3:36) and the role of the cross in appeasing it. The harsh words of Jesus about God’s judgment are somewhat sentimentalized. Moreover, while expiation is exegeted in its ‘covering’ aspect, no attention is given to the legal exchange that took place at the cross. While Isaiah 53 is used as a background narrative for the meaning of the cross, it is not understood in penal substitutionary terms. The meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus being for “many” or for “all” further complicates the point. The issue here is different from the Calvinist-Arminian debate about the extension of the atonement. Ratzinger’s preoccupation with carefully defining the words is more in line with the “catholic” (i.e. universal), inclusivist view of all mankind being linked to the cross of Jesus, taking therefore a universalist slant.

Pope Benedict XVI has admirably written a Gospel portrait of Jesus of Nazareth that wishes to present the “real” Jesus. More than the “real” one, however, the picture that comes out of the book is that of a “saint” Jesus, i.e. a figure that is astonishingly adherent to RC expectations.

Leonardo De Chirico


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