Book and Product Reviews

Reading: Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (Doubleday, 2007) is the first of a trilogy of books written by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI about the life and teachings of Jesus. The third and final volume of the series, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, was published in 2012. While I’ve not yet finished reading it, its surprising richness merits a brief post.

This book resists easy categorization. What it is, at its heart, is a series of scholarly sermons, reflections on the inflection points of Jesus’ life prior to Holy Week as recorded in the Gospels. Ratzinger’s work is really theological and biblical scholarship at its best, the two poles blended and existing in a symbiotic relationship. With a gentle but confident voice, he does with Gospel texts the sort of thing that I originally had in mind when I began to be drawn to biblical scholarship as a potential career in the first place: he respects its historical setting while finding rich contemporary significance in an intellectually honest way.

Ratzinger makes no distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. This is what one would expect from a committed Catholic scholar and the one-time spiritual leader of the Roman Church, which has generally been far behind liberal Protestantism in its acceptance and use of critical scholarship. Even after Vatican II, which affirmed the usefulness of historical-critical methods (albeit, when kept in proper Church-centered perspective), Catholic biblical scholars have tended to find more in common with conservative evangelical scholarship than critical scholarship. I say this not as a critique of the Pope’s method –- not at all. Its traditional approach comes, perhaps ironically, as a breath of fresh air. I tire very quickly of the extravagant and completely unverifiable claims of critical scholarship based on speculative and often discredited theories and methods and an unreasonable skepticism toward textual reliability. I am interested in what we can and cannot claim to know, but I am also cognizant of the fact that there are different bases of knowledge, and no person’s worldview is free of unverifiable presupposition. A useful and honest doctrine of scripture needs to take into consideration the very significant problems facing someone wanting to reconstruct from a text the world behind that text, but that does not mean that one is justified in automatically disbelieving everything in a text just because it’s there in the text (which is, practically, what quite a lot of critical skepticism, both modern and post-modern, ends up looking like). So when I observe that Ratzinger makes no distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, I am not impugning his methodological presuppositions at all. I feel he is on solid epistemological grounds and has avoided a lot of often inane discussion of questionable value. In fact, his description of his approach in the book’s introduction is one of the most insightful and profound expositions of the relationship between critical scholarship and the vocation of the Church that I have encountered.

Like I said, I’m still working through Jesus of Nazareth, so I want to refrain from a full engagement with it, just yet. What I can say so far is that the book is an extremely valuable dialogue partner for me. It engages and challenges me on both the scholarly and spiritual levels, probably because for Pope Benedict XVI these are not distinct “levels,” and this non-distinction appeals to me. There are some points he makes that I would like to probe and challenge, but I’ll wait to do so publicly until I’ve given his whole book a fair reading.

What do you think?