Books about Jesus attract me, but when the Pope (Benedict XVI) writes a book on Jesus, I’m doubly interested. So, I’ll do a series — and it is really nice to kick it off while we are in Italy.
Big ideas first.
“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” (xxiii-xxiv).
We’ve had many authors whose books we have reviewed enter into the conversation. So, if you know the Holy Father personally, send him our way!
The Pope sets his book into the conversation of historical Jesus scholars, and his foreword gives a sketch — a nice one — of that discussion. His interlocutors are dated (Schnackenburg, Bultmann, et al) but he is clearly aware of what is going on. His sparring partners, however, are clearly Roman Catholic and European; I’m not sure he’s in touch with the explosion of scholarship of the Third Quest — and here one thinks of EP Sanders, G Vermes (who wrote a tough review of this book), Dom Crossan, M Borg, and NT Wright. (This harms the book, but not fatally.)
Benedict’s method is lucid and much needed: it is canonical (he routinely sweeps through the Bible to illustrate the meaning of something in the Gospels) and it is theological. And there are four dimensions to how the Pope proceeds, and each is needed and each sheds light — even if most historical Jesus scholars would deem his points “non-historical Jesus”.
1. The book is theological — it is not simply historical; it does not subject any evidence to any kind of critical test. Instead, he reflects and contemplates on the theological significance of a given event or teaching of Jesus.
2. The book is densely christological — instead of sticking to no more than can be known of a human figure who was Galilean, 1st Century, Jewish, and charismatic, this book explores the dense christology that a given event or teaching reveals. What began again afresh in the days of Ben Meyer’s brilliant The Aims of Jesus is taken to a higher level in the Pope’s book.
3. The book is (no surprise here) ecclesiological — this book unpacks everything in an ecclesial direction. Jesus established the Church, and the kingdom is unfolded in the direction of the Church. Along this line, Benedict regularly inserts an insight — theological, pastoral — from the Fathers of the Church.
4. The book is cruci-centric — baptism, temptations, Beatitudes — from beginning to end, Benedict’s interpretation leads him directly to the Cross. In fact, the Cross casts its shadow back onto every event in the life of Jesus and every teaching because, as he puts it, you can’t understand any of it until you understand it from the Cross.