Friday, April 27, 2007

Coming to a Bookstore near you May 15: "Jesus of Nazareth" by Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI

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John Allen, who writes the column "All Things Catholic" for the National Catholic Reporter is the only reason for reading anything they print. Today he has a fine analysis of the Pope's new book on Jesus, a personal study by a pre-eminent theology with a new job, that is not an official Church document.

"Jesus of Nazareth" will be available in English on May 15.

[...Snip] What seems clear is that the motive for the book is also emerging as the core doctrinal concern of this pontificate: Christology. Put in a nutshell, Benedict's thesis in Jesus of Nazareth is that there can be no humane social order or true moral progress apart from a right relationship with God; try as it might, a world organized etsi Deus non daretur, "as if God does not exist," will be dysfunctional and ultimately inhumane. Jesus Christ, Benedict insists, is "the sign of God for human beings." Presenting humanity with the proper teaching about Jesus is, therefore, according to Benedict, the highest form of public service the church has to offer.
[...snip]
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.
[...Snip]
On another level, the book offers detailed commentaries on the Scriptures. Benedict, for example, complains that modern translations of Matthew 7:28, which in Greek says that the crowds were "frightened" by Jesus' teaching, often uses "astonished" instead, which he believes obscures the awesome character of an encounter with divinity. Likewise, Benedict doesn't like the way modern translations treat "Yahweh" as a proper name for God, when in fact the Hebrew means "I Am," which is almost a way of underlining the impossibility of naming God. Benedict also says that he would prefer calling the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" the "Parable of the Two Brothers" instead, because the older brother who resents his father's graciousness offers an equally important lesson, especially for pious religious people.

Yet Jesus of Nazareth is not just an intellectual exercise, or an attempt to offer grist for homilies, though there's material for that aplenty. Ultimately, the motive for the book seems to be deep concern for what the pope sees as the toxic consequences of flawed Christology.

Over the course of the book, Benedict critiques a number of popular modern interpretations of Jesus: Jesus as a preacher of liberal morality, Jesus as a social revolutionary, Jesus as an inspired prophet or sage on the level of other founders of religious movements. The pope is well aware that these interpretations usually arise from noble motives, which he also shares -- to affirm the primacy of human beings over the law, to combat poverty and injustice, to express tolerance for other religions. In the end, Benedict believes that all such exegesis puts the cart before the horse. Out of impatience to get to desired social outcomes, Benedict argues, revisionist Christologies subvert the only basis for real humanism, which is belief in God, and in an objective truth that comes from God and stands above the human will to power.
[...Snip]

I'll add four vignettes from the book which don't necessarily illustrate larger themes, but which are nevertheless of interest.

First, Benedict tackles the question of calling God "mother." In a nutshell, he affirms that God is beyond gender, and that Scripture often uses the image of a mother's womb to express the intimacy of God's love for humanity. Yet, he says, "mother" is not a title of God in the Bible, and hence the church is disqualified from using it.
[...Snip]
Second, in light of recent controversies in Catholic-Jewish relations, including a dispute in Israel over the presentation of Pope Pius XII at Yad Vashem and concerns related to the renewed use of the older Tridentine Mass, it's interesting to note the way in which Benedict refers to Judaism in Jesus of Nazareth.

In keeping with classical Christian exegesis and theology, Benedict is unabashed in asserting that Christ was the fulfillment of the promises and longings expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet he is deeply impatient with suggestions that Christ rebelled against, or transposed to a merely metaphorical plane, the demands of the Jewish law. Yes, Benedict says, Christ "universalized" the law, making it applicable not just to Israel but to all peoples, but he also insisted repeatedly that it was not his intention to cancel anything from the Law and the Prophets. Benedict rejects any attempt to minimize the importance of the Old Testament for Christianity.
[...Snip]
Though Benedict is a gracious figure, sometimes in the thrust-and-parry of academic argument, one can feel the iron fist beneath his velvet gloves. There are passages in Jesus of Nazareth where his frustration with exegetes who cast doubt on the reliability of the gospels becomes especially clear.

Perhaps the best example is Benedict's discussion of the temptations of Christ. In the gospel accounts, Satan supports his offers by quoting the Psalms, and Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy. Benedict says the conversation reads like a debate between two experts on the Scriptures, and notes approvingly a passage from Vladimir Solov'ëv, a 19th century Russian philosopher, in his book on the Anti-Christ. Solov'ëv wrote that the Anti-Christ "received a doctorate honoris causa in theology from the University of Tübingen; he's a great expert in the Bible."

"With this account," Benedict writes, "Solov'ëv wanted to express in drastic fashion his skepticism with regard to a certain kind of erudite exegesis of his time. It's not a matter of rejecting scientific study of the Bible as such, but rather a very healthy and necessary warning regarding erroneous paths that such study might take. Interpretation of the Bible can, in fact, become an instrument of the Anti-Christ. It's not only Solov'ëv who says so, it's implicitly affirmed in the account of the temptation itself. The most destructive books on the figure of Jesus, which dismantle the faith, are interwoven with the presumed results of exegesis."
[...Snip]

Finally, anyone who knows the thought of Benedict realizes how strongly he recoils from charges that Catholicism went wrong by "Hellenizing" the faith of the Bible.

In fact, Benedict has argued that the encounter between Christianity and the thought world of Greco-Roman antiquity was providential, and that Christianity cannot simply shuck aside its Hellenistic inheritance, like a snake casting off an old layer of skin, without losing something essential. (That formed part of the argument in his now-famous address at the University of Regensburg, which few noticed because of controversies over his comments about Islam.)

In that light, it's interesting that the very last paragraph of Jesus of Nazareth aims to exonerate the church from the charge that by adopting Hellenistic philosophical concepts, it betrayed the message of Scripture. Instead, he argues, Greek concepts allowed the early church to explicate more clearly the claims implicit in the Bible about what it means for Jesus to be the "Son of God," and to save those claims from misinterpretation.

"It was necessary," he writes, "to clarify successfully this new significance through complex and difficult processes of differentiation and through pain-staking research, in order to protect it from mythico-polytheistic and political interpretations. This was the motive for which the First Council of Nicea (325) employed the adjective homoousios ('of the same substance'). This term did not Hellenize the faith, it did not burden the faith with an extraneous philosophy, but rather it fixed precisely the incomparably new and different element which appeared in [the Bible's] speech about Jesus with the Father. In the Credo of Nicea, the church once again says together with Peter, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' " National Catholic Reporter This article by John Allen has been greatly shortened for inclusion here.

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