Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Pope Benedict XVI’s new book Jesus of Nazareth (English trans., 374 pp.: Doubleday, 2007) is certain to go down in history as one of the most memorable Papal writings ever. Interestingly, it also certainly will be read and studied by the most sophisticated academicians, as well as by the masses of devout Catholics and non-Catholics, even nonbelievers. Such predictions can readily be volunteered not only because of a widespread search for faith, but because of this Holy Father’s brilliant, yet thoroughly engaging and highly relevant style.
“Awesome” is an apt descriptive for the Holy Father’s deep pastoral familiarity with the Scriptural sources. The same adjective applies to his familiarity with the finest Biblical exegesis, especially in the German school. His overall preference for Rudolf Schnackenburg (d. 2002) is clear when he writes that Father Schnackenburg “was probably the most prominent Catholic exegete writing in German during the second half of the twentieth century.”
The Pope is especially grateful for Schnackenburg’s conclusion, as his own life came to a close, that the decisive point of all Christology (particularly in view of the alleged gap between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith”) begins and ends with recognition of “Jesus’ relatedness to God and his closeness to God.”
“Without anchoring in God,” Schnackenburg wrote, “the person of Jesus remains shadowy, unreal, and unexplainable.” (Schnackenburg concentrated on the New Testament, producing many profound volumes. He taught at the University of Munich, where Pope Benedict acquired his doctoral degree, as well as in Bamberg and Würzburg. His four-volume Commentary on St. John’s Gospel – Das Johannesevangelium, published in 2000, and not quite complete – is a monumental, fundamental work.)
In the Foreword to Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict maintains – as Catholic doctrine has always maintained – the historical Jesus. When in the Creed we say, “Et incarnatus est,” we grant God’s “actual entry into real history.” (xv.) However, the historical fact of Jesus’ becoming man “is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for Biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands.” (ibid.; emphasis mine)
Pope Benedict sees the so-called historical-critical method of Biblical exegesis “as an indispensable tool.” However, it fails to “exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the Biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God.” (ibid. xvi.)
The Holy Father stresses the crucial importance of the unity of all Scripture, and that Jesus Christ is the key to the whole. Hence, Biblical interpretation limited simply to historical/cultural methodology (as significant as it can be) is not adequate. An adequate interpretation presupposes an act of faith.
But, he writes, this act of faith “is based upon reason – historical reason,” which allows us to see the Bible as a unity. Pope Benedict describes this process as “canonical exegesis.” In other words, Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the Tradition. An ancient doctrine, which Origen (d. 254) first developed, cites three aspects of this canonical exegesis, over and beyond the literal meaning; specifically, they are the “allegorical” sense (relating to fulfillment of Old Testament texts in Christ), the “tropological” sense (how the text helps us live our lives) and the “analogical” sense (regarding the ultimate goal of all history).
As Pope Benedict develops his personal quest for the face of Jesus – to defend the person of Jesus from recent “revisions” of what the Scriptures reveal – he explains what really happened at Jesus’ Baptism, at the Temptations by the Devil in the desert, at Jesus’ preaching, especially of the Sermon on the Mount which radically and permanently altered the course of world history, at Peter’s Confession of Faith, and at the Transfiguration event. And he concludes this first volume with Jesus’ clear declaration of his identity as the Father’s only begotten Son, the Word incarnate, literally one with the Father.
This last cited truth is dealt with by the Pope in the final chapter of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is magnificently set forth.(For me, it is the most amazing chapter of a most amazing book, in that Joseph Ratzinger, a world-class theologian prior to his ascent to Peter’s Chair, has studied all of the serious claims by commentators who would undermine the Scriptures in various ways from the beginning to the present.) Benedict, like John Paul II, as robust and sophisticated a theological mind as the world has ever seen, has unreservedly, with stunning argumentation, demonstrated anew to a confused world that Jesus of Nazareth literally meant what he said in St. John’s Gospel: “I and the Father are one.”
Jesus of Nazareth, already in the hands of hundreds of thousands throughout the world in various languages, is a religious adventure not to be missed. May the Lord safeguard Pope Benedict for the second volume of this incomparable work.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.