Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

The Pope’s Jesus 1

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.

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posted May 28, 2007 at 1:17 am

Thanks for doing this series. I saw the book and have been interested in reading it, and your summary of the opening seems to have peaked my interest. I am a bit disappointed that he doesn’t interact with the Third Questers, but the idea that he takes the same ideas as Meyer intrigues me.
Looking forward to the series!

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posted May 28, 2007 at 5:11 am

Yes Scot, thanks for reviewing this book – not on the shelves of my local bookstores, yet – and increasing my anticipation.
Perhaps you might consider reviewing another book sadly not available locally: Mark Scandrette’s Soul Graffiti: Making a Life in the Way of Jesus which has been favourably compared to Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Don Miller. Tantalising!

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posted May 28, 2007 at 6:05 am

Just got my copy and was going to blog it…so this will be fun to read along with you…especially since the reviews I have read so far in the press (eg Vermes, Ehrmann) seem to have totally missed the point given what he wrote in his preface.

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Ted Gossard

posted May 28, 2007 at 7:24 am

I’m very interested. What I saw in Newsweek from the book looked very good. Thanks for reviewing this and thinking through it here, Scot!

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posted May 28, 2007 at 8:48 am

Scot, thanks for the review. I agree that the lack of conversation with the 3Q is disappointing (especially when the pontif comes quite close on a few occasions to things being said from that area).
Regarding the ecclesiastical and christological emphases, I have seen this as a definite strength of the book: the work seems to have this focus, and although it does not intend to be a scholarly study per se he does well to build upon and interact with a solid, informed base. Many of the criticisms of the book are, I believe, unfounded because they try and make this a more intellectually-oriented study than was intended. If we understand this as thoughts which are based upon Ratzinger’s own personal journey to know Christ (see the Preface, esp. xi), then our expectations will allow us to see it as an engaging teaching on Jesus.
As one who studies the historical Jesus, there are many times in which I find the tone of this book to be refreshing in its personal passion and theologican inquiry rather than stopping short at the ‘historical data’ (a point at which I believe we share, based on your comments). Yes, I have been disappointed with particular areas in which I wanted more but its intention reminds me that it wants to play a particular role in the church – one that it achieves well.

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Dan Reid

posted May 28, 2007 at 9:25 am

How timely! I just picked up a copy at Costco and started to read it.

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posted May 28, 2007 at 9:31 am

I am new to your blog and enjoy reading it each day. At the risk of sounding completely stupid, could someone help me understand what “Third Quest” scholarship represents?

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John W Frye

posted May 28, 2007 at 9:52 am

I’m intrigued by dominant theme #4– “cruci-centric” because of comments I have read by N.T. Wright that in essence say that theology proper must begin at the Cross and work out from there. Is this what the Pope is saying?

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Georges Boujakly

posted May 28, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Thanks for posting on this book, Scot. I saw it at Eighth Day and hoped you would do a series on it. My hope is materialized.
I too noticed the absence of 3Q authors and wondered about the reason. I surmised that the Pope surely knows the literature.
Now, to my question which betrays my ignorance. Is there really that much that is totally new in the 3Q which is not embryonically in the German theologians’ opus?

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posted May 28, 2007 at 8:33 pm

I think the Pope details his reasons and methodology in the preface/foreward and in a little note before the bibliography which I reproduce, in part, below:

As explained in the Foreword, this book presupposes historical-critical exegesis and makes use of its findings, but it seeks to transcend this method and to arrive at a genuinely theological interpretation of the scriptural texts. It is not the aim here to enter into the debates of historical-critical research. I have therefore made no attempt to compile a comprehensive Bibliography which would in any case be impossible….” p. 365

I for one, as an ordinary layperson who occasionally reads more academic literature, am certainly not going to quibble about a theological approach. Hoorah!
I am half way through this book and it is, simply, delightful. I can think of some of my (protestant) teachers and ministers smiling and saying, yes yes.
It is a pity that he left the infancy narratives until the second volume but even there he shows another approach: the pastoral. For while he says this is not an exercise in the Magisterium and his personal search for the face of the Lord, he postponed discussion “because it struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him.” p. xxiv
And another note. The Pope taught and studied in the field of patristics and dogmatic theology, not New Testament or Biblical Studies – not that he isn’t widely read. Perhaps some are expecting too much from him?

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posted May 28, 2007 at 8:46 pm

#7 Jeff – this (rather misguided) review by Geza Vermes nevertheless has a good brief summary of the quests for the historical Jesus which may be of use to you.

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posted May 29, 2007 at 4:13 am


[…] Wie es schon andere vor mir geschrieben haben, geht Ratzinger gut auf die aktuelle Literatur über Jesus ein, ignoriert aber einige wichtige Autoren wie Borg, Wright, Crossan oder dem Jesus-Seminar usw. Nach meiner Online-Suche in der Vatikanischen Bibliothek fehlen ihnen die Bücher von Wright. Na gut, kommt vielleicht noch. […]

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posted May 29, 2007 at 7:52 am

Dr. Platypus » Blog Archive » Since I Need All the Jesus I Can Get

[…] The Pope’s Jesus 1 […]

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