Jesus of Nazareth  

by Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI (Doubleday: New York, 2007) 

Some may think it an impertinence to review a book written by the supreme pastor of the Roman Catholic communion.  However, His Holiness makes it clear in his introduction that he offers this tome as “Joseph Ratzinger”: this is neither an encyclical nor a magisterial document. Rather, it contains theologoumena, or carefully considered opinion(s) on a controverted topic.  In the foreward, the pontiff explains, “I have tried, to the best of my ability…”(xxi); “I wanted to try to portray the Jesus of the gospels” (xxii); “this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord…’” (xxiii). Indeed, along with his humble request for a sympathetic reading, Benedict XVI concedes: “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me” (xxxiv). A candid (but appreciative) response, then, honors his signaled intent.

 Of course, even a personal inquiry into difficult matters by a spiritual leader of such stature is nothing to take lightly.  It is clear from his manner that the author wants both to engage others in the ongoing discussion about the historical Jesus and to be of pastoral assistance— troubleshooting where some are puzzled, and encouraging where others are in distress.  His perceptive study accomplishes all these ends, and sustained the keen interest of this reviewer until the very last page.  In addition, the excellent translation by Adrian Walker matches the cogent thought of the author.


Despite the wide-ranging conversation into which the Pope enters, he avoids footnotes, although the annotated bibliography at the back of the book is organized according to chapter, and by order of the authors mentioned. This feature (along with the glossary) is congenial to the non-specialist, but academic readers will find themselves both spotting and speculating upon the influence of other scholars, not explicitly cited, but rather subsumed under general references. Names mentioned make present a host from ancient days up until today, clearly worth the attention of both the pontiff and his readers—Origen, St. Cyril, St. Gregory Nyssa,  John Meier, Evdokimov, Schnackenburg, Soloviev, Gnilka, Neusner, Hengel, Stuhlmacher, Fr. Ray Brown, and others.  The book is both a catholic and a twenty- first-century work, although vestiges of the earliest “quests for Jesus” may be glimpsed in a few charming passages, as when the gentle topography of the “Mount of Beatitudes” is contrasted with the severity of Mosaic Sinai (p. 67)! We are reminded of the donkey’s long eye-lashes that so captured Renan’s imagination in his Vie de Jésus.


The very helpful foreward outlines the author’s method and presuppositions. His Holiness takes account both of the manner in which Jesus (in the gospels) read the Bible, as a united meta-narrative, and of scholarly critical method.  Specifically, he argues: it is a mistake to separate the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith; because of the Incarnation, the historical inquiry is consonant with a robust Christian faith though it has its limits; the Scriptures “belong together” yet they are diverse; canonical exegesis must supplement the historical-critical method; attention to genre, authorial intent and historical context is sensible; there are three “interacting subjects” or speakers of the Scriptures, that is, the original authors, the People of God, and God himself. One can, perhaps, discern some subtexts behind these principles. For example, it seems that the Pope approves the historical quest of, say, a John P. Meier, in contrast to the dismissive and arguably more docetic approach of Luke T. Johnson.  On the other hand, the speculative limits of historical hypothesis, the value of canon and the weight of the mature reading of the people of God must be taken into account.


His Holiness intends, then, to incorporate the best of the historical-critical method with a respect for the canon and the traditional readings of the Scriptures, and so “offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible.” His reference to canonical readings must point specifically to Childs and the Yale school. Moreover, his debate and positive approach surely are also informed by other insights of unnamed scholars: hypothesis-centered historical inquiry (liberal Protestant E. P. Sanders), allusive literary criticism (Methodist Richard Hays), composite theological-literary-historical-philosophical approach (Anglican N. T. Wright, Orthodox Theodore Stylianopoulos) and the renewed interest in ancient “pre-critical” methods now evinced by those many who are reviving theological interpretation of the Bible.


Prior to and during the course of his own argument, the Pope offers a perspicacious sketch of the extended academic quest(s) for the historical Jesus (from von Harnack, Weiss and Schweitzer up to today), along with their philosophical underpinnings. This writer, however, was surprised to find scarcely a trace of the particular findings of the “third quest” (Sanders, N. T. Wright, Vermes, et al) with regards to the character of the Pharisees. This may be because the pontiff’s research was conducted mostly on the question of Jesus, and not extended to Paul, the Judaizers and the Law.  However, the realms overlap, and this omission means for an unfortunate blurring of lines between “ethics,” “legalism” and Pharisaic attention to the distinctives of Torah (p. 62) —ironically, the same presupposition that catalyzed the Lutheran reactions to Rome as promoting “works-righteousness.”  Similarly, it was surprising that he gives no recognition to recent observations concerning the “ascent” (rather than descent) of the Son of Man of Daniel 7, which has borne such weight in discussions of the “little apocalypse” among N. T. Wright and his interlocutors.


Mostly, however, the work is impressively nuanced, despite its designed audience of non-specialists.  There is a cogent discussion of the meanings of the “Kingdom of God,” which neither dismisses the social or internal possibilities of the phrase, but then argues effectively for a Christological and dynamic sense, that is, Jesus as the active “Kingdom of God in person”(188.). His analysis of the Sermon on the Mount is enhanced by warm dialogue with Jacob Neusner, with whom he must ultimately differ, but from whom, he insists, we can learn much about obedience and the ongoing significance of the Decalogue “which Christians have to transfer into the context of God’s universal family (122). The Beatitudes are engagingly personalized in the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, who exemplifies the Christian’s call to die and rise again in baptism. The Pope treats with subtlety both apocalyptic literature (not simply defined as eschatological) and the polyvalent but pointed parables of Jesus, entering into the scholarly conversation with ease, and pastorally indicating both its limits and its fruits.  Careful exegeses of key points (for example, “deliver us from evil”) are explained by means of other pertinent Scriptural passages, and are skillfully woven into the major argument. The Pope is also winsome in his response to skeptics who have dismissed some passages, for example, the “woes” that accompany the Beatitudes in Luke’s gospel [i.e. the Jesus Seminar]—these woes are contextualized within the tradition of “two-way” wisdom writings, as a “warning sign” that “unmasks false promises and false offers” rather than as condemnations (96-7).  Full of treasures, too, is the lengthy treatment of the gospel of John, where Jesus is seen both as the Shepherd and the sheep-bearer!


His Holiness’s pastoral character emerges in his trenchant, if sometimes too brief, words concerning some of the “hot button” issues of the day—the inadvisability of naming God “Mother,” the vulnerability of God in the incarnation, the effect of the Holy Spirit upon both human spirit and body, the conflict of Christological claims with a move to a universalized and nonspecific religion,  and the Nicene Creed not as a mere “hellenizing” document but essential for the life of the Church. While he holds a firm line in these areas, he does so with great affection for those who are questioning, with an attentiveness to the actual arguments put forth by skeptics, and with a marked avoidance of facile polemic. His approach and practice are a model to the faithful reader. Eastern Christians will find, as usual, that the Pope is appreciative in many places of Orthodox spirituality and sacramentality, though the treatment of the Transfiguration remains unaccountably Western, with its call to “see, understand and hope,” but missing the invitation “to enter the cloud” today, to which the God-seers have testified (Luke 9:34). Despite this bifurcation, readers of varied backgrounds will find here solid food for thought and for the spirit, from one who joins Peter in encouraging creedal Christians to confess, with more depth: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”