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Ex Cathedra

By (July 1, 2007) 5 Comments

Jesus of Nazareth

By Pope Benedict XVI

  Pope Benedict XVI has recently published a book, Jesus of Nazareth, subtitled “From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.” The book quickly became a worldwide bestseller, a phenomenon doubtless connected to the existence of approximately a billion Catholics on earth. Casual non-Catholic observers, seeing the book’s prominence in bookstore windows and displays, could be forgiven for passing incuriously onward, reflexively assuming that such a book will have little to say to them.They would be encouraged in this opinion by a glance at the other Papal bestsellers in the post-Vatican II era. Treacle could be expected, milky platitudes fit to comfort pious abuelitas in the quiet hour when the day’s work is done. Such works are not difficult for Vatican undersecretaries to produce, and they are literally, demographically guaranteed to produce a large amount of profit.

In that respect, it’s a shame this book’s title isn’t “Hey You—Come Back Here,” because Pope Benedict XVI has written a singularly remarkable work. This is not a book Pope John Paul II could have written, nor is it one his immediate predecessors would have written. There is no treacle here, and what few platitudes there are come couched in such idiosyncratic egg-headery as to seem completely personal.

In retrospect this is not surprising; long before he ascended to the Throne of Saint Peter, Joseph Ratzinger was a formidable theologian and biblical scholar, albeit a notoriously rigid one. It is with some accuracy that the essential doctrinal conservatism of John Paul II’s papacy has been laid at Cardinal Ratzinger’s door, but still an element of surprise remains: the expectation is that a cardinal’s cunning will give place to a Pontiff’s placations.

Not so in Jesus of Nazareth. This is a deeply intelligent, intensely personal distillation of one scholar’s lifetime of reflection and examination on certain key points of the Catholic faith. Readers who take it up will find themselves in the presence of a learned, earnest, and at times disarmingly humble theologian, rather than a Pope per se, which raises problems of its own, as we shall see.

Indeed, in his preface Pope Benedict stresses this personal element, writing:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

The problem here, at least for practicing Catholics, arises from the question of whether or not it’s possible for a Pope to write a work of theological pronouncements that is not an exercise of the magisterium, that is, a product of Papal infallibility on matters of faith and doctrine. The First Vatican Council hints that the answer to this question is no; it holds that the Pope’s theological statements are “irreformable” upon utterance. Second Vatican Council is no help either; it holds that although the Pope’s pronouncements on faith are not technically divinely inspired, they are “free of error.” Even the ultimate scriptural authority of the concept, Jesus telling his disciples that what they hold on Earth shall be held in Heaven, appears at least on the surface to have no off-switch.

Pope Benedict XVI writes an intensely detailed work of scriptural exegesis and tells his readers they are all free to contradict him, because in this case he is merely speaking as a man, not as Supreme Pontiff. But if he genuinely believes the doctrines he espouses in Jesus of Nazareth, is not the magisterium activated? And even if not, what spiritual fate can await a Christian – especially a Catholic—if they do contradict their Pope? Is His Holiness the final interpreter of scripture, as his job description rather unequivocally states, or is he not?

This fundamental dichotomy is no less instructive than is the Holy Father’s manifest desire throughout Jesus of Nazareth to bridge it, to be just an ordinary man searching for the face of his God, as all men are entitled to do. It’s a profoundly personal split, and it’s mirrored in the methodology he chooses to use.

Early on in Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope sincerely praises the “historical-critical” school of Biblical exegesis, saying it has “opened up to us a wealth of material and an abundance of findings that enable the figure of Jesus to become present to us with a vitality and depth that we could not have imagined even just a few decades ago.” This school of exegesis excavates the meaning of scriptural passages by taking into account the full range of their physical production and textual history, including obvious human errors in creation and transmission. Such a declaration would have prompted smiles of recognition from all the great 16th century humanists, none of whom saw any conflict between their philological, exegetical labors and the personal lifeblood of their faith. But it’s nothing less than astonishing coming from the present-day head of the Catholic Church, a body that in recent decades has increasingly embraced a strident doctrinal atavism entirely at odds with the open-minded, even-handed approach of historical exegesis (even more astonishing that it should come from the architect of so much of that atavism).

This note is struck early on and struck consistently throughout: Jesus of Nazareth has, among its many aims, a profound desire to reconcile. In the face of a steepening divide between the world’s secular and religious voices (and perhaps in recognition of the occasions when his own comments have served to worsen that divide), Pope Benedict XVI in passages like this is clearly offering an olive branch:

If we push history aside, Christian faith as such disappears and is recast as some other religion. So if history, if facticity in this sense, is an essential dimension of Christian faith, then faith must expose itself to the historical method—indeed, faith itself demands this.

There’s much in such sentiments to enrage the majority of religious Americans who believe the Earth is seven thousand years old. That the author of such sentiments is not a radical teenager from the next town over but the supreme head of their faith only sweetens the irony. But the esteem in which His Holiness holds the methods of historical exegesis has a limit. He is not, naturally, abandoning faith.

Instead, the methodology he adopts throughout Jesus of Nazareth is the so-called “canonical exegesis” of comparatively recent American vintage. Canonical exegesis uses all of the critical, factual armature of ordinary exegesis, but it uses them in the assumption that “a voice greater than man’s” (the phrase is the Holy Father’s) speaks through the whole of the Bible, uniting the individual books and turning their apparent incongruities and contradictions into matters of faith, of unity. In other words, canonical exegesis studies the Bible not despite the fact that many believe it to be the word of God but assuming that very claim.

For example, ordinary factual exegesis, confronting the Gospels and noting their vast differences—pivotal events in the life and ministry of Jesus described differently or omitted altogether from one Gospel to the next, etc—would examine these texts as they would warehouse receipts from an ancient Egyptian midden-heap, and they would draw whatever conclusions simple rationality suggested. They certainly would not conclude that three of the four Gospel-writers actually knew each other, or that any of them was an actual eyewitness to anything they describe. Canonical exegesis, on the other hand, would approach those same textual incongruities with the basic assumption of common authorship—not the Evangelists, but God Himself, choosing to leave certain things (like the Crucifixion, or the Last Supper) out of some Gospels while including them in others. This assumption, at least in its purest incarnation, would not necessarily hamper scholarly investigation, but the explicitly faith-based elements raise the possibility of doubt.

The notion of canonical exegesis is troubling to a great many exegetes, humanists, and intellectuals, as we shall see, but adopting its tenets allows Pope Benedict XVI to indulge in pious apostrophes that perfectly balance his own scrupulous exegetical comments but would otherwise be rendered impossible by them. Again and again in Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope naturally and eloquently succumbs to an exhorter’s enthusiasm, as in this passage about the “deliver us from evil” line of the Our Father:

Notwithstanding the dissolution of the Roman Empire and its ideologies, this remains very contemporary! Today there are on the one hand the forces of the market, of traffic in weapons, in drugs, and in human beings, all forces that weigh upon the world and ensnare humanity irresistibly. Today, on the other hand, there is also the ideology of success, of well-being, that tells us, ‘God is just a fiction, he only robs us of our time and our enjoyment of life. Don’t bother with him! Just try to squeeze as much out of life as you can.’ These temptations seem irresistible as well. The Our Father and this petition in particular are trying to tell us that it is only when you have lost God that you have lost yourself; then you are nothing more than a random product of evolution.

There is a valiant attempt at something going on here, and the germ of it can be seen in that last line; never before has a Pope reconciled his theological position to a point where the presence, the reality of evolution does not disturb it. For the first time, intelligently and passionately, a Pope is here at once acknowledging the “facticity” of evolution while at the same time reducing its importance to that of mere functionality—the what and how of life, not the deeper meaning. In recent years readers have been bombarded with vociferous anti-religion tracts of varying length and vitriol; this simple sentence from Jesus of Nazareth silences them all, by granting them their battlefield and declaring their victories beside the point.

It would be wrong to imply, however, that this ethos of conciliation is entirely uniform throughout Jesus of Nazareth. There is one subject that keeps cropping up and tangling the feet of the Pope’s vision of a Catholic Church at peace with forces it has usually condemned. This subject is not scriptural exegesis, and it is not evolutionary biology. It’s the Jews. Pope Benedict’s dream of reconciling faith with canonical exegesis is repeatedly and consistently spoiled by the Jews. Because in the Pope’s view, the only way to reconcile Judaism with Christianity is for the Jews to quit being so stubborn and convert already.

This view derives from his belief that the central unifying hermeneutic of the Old and New Testaments is Jesus Christ, the Savior and the Son of God, a persona of God. Pope Benedict XVI is willing to give pontifical ground and make concessions several of his predecessors would have found unthinkable, but on this point he is crystal clear:

Modern exegesis has brought to light the process of constant rereading that forged the words transmitted in the Bible into Scripture: older texts are reappropriated, reinterpreted, and read with new eyes in new contexts. They became Scripture by being read anew, evolving in continuity with their original sense, tacitly corrected and given added depth and breadth of meaning. This is a process in which the word gradually unfolds its inner potentialities, already somehow present like seeds, but needing the challenge of new situations, new experiences, and new sufferings, in order to open up.

This process is certainly not linear, and it is often dramatic, but when you watch it unfold in the light of Jesus Christ, you can see it moving in a single overall direction; you can see that the Old and New Testament belong together.

The process His Holiness describes might not be linear, but it does indeed have one indisputable direction: right over the Jews, since one of the central pillars of the Jewish faith is that the Messiah hasn’t come yet—in other words (although the Jews themselves have usually been too courteous to put it this way), that Jesus Wasn’t It.

Unsurprisingly, this is not the view on display in Jesus of Nazareth, where mention is made more than once of “God’s delicate attempt to talk Israel around.” Conciliation suffers severely when His Holiness quotes with approval German theologian H. Gese: “Jesus himself has become the divine Word of revelation. The Gospels could not illustrate it any more clearly or powerfully: Jesus himself is the Torah.”

Eight million Jews in the world read this and say to two billion Christians in the world: no, thanks. But the reply is clearly not dreamt of in the philosophy of Benedict XVI, which is remarkable, given his book’s otherwise open-armed ecumenism, and troubling, given Ratzinger’s personal history with Nazi Germany. A Pope calling, essentially, for a world without Jews is bad enough; the head of one religion telling all the adherents of another religion that they’re fundamentally and essentially wrong in their beliefs is not only deeply disturbing but also jarringly reminiscent of the worst excesses of militant Islam.

Needless to say, such an approach wanders far afield from the factual, historical groundwork of scriptural exegesis. Human documents, be they Jewish or Christian, with human origins and human flaws and contradictions can only be held divine by ignoring fact and logic. Pope Benedict XVI refers to the “conviction of faith” at the heart of canonical exegesis, and he urges that it brings the two branches of the discipline closer together. His faith in ‘the initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding’ is implicit and heroic, and the conciliatory urge is to be commended in these fractious times, but that urge cannot entirely succeed. Canonical exegesis wants one concession that factual exegesis can’t grant. Pope Benedict XVI’s version of Christianity wants one concession that Judaism can’t grant.

The Papacy of Benedict XVI shares many parallels with that of the last Benedict, XV—in both cases, the men were preceded on the Throne of Saint Peter by extremely popular Pontiffs with great skill in capturing the public’s affection. And both Benedicts found their Papacy facing a world plunged into turmoil (World War I in the previous case, radical Islam in the case of today) for which history seems but a poor guide. In the eyes of many, Benedict XV’s Papacy was overwhelmed by his age’s strifes. We can only hope that Pope Benedict XVI fares better, especially in light of the compassion and learning so abundantly on display in his latest book.

Nevertheless, we should all pray that Jesus of Nazareth is not, in fact, infallible.

Ignazio de Vega is a native of Trujillo, Peru, and a seminary student in Lima. This is his first English work.