Benedict’s search for the “Face of the Lord”
by Jahnabi Barooah
When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the office of the Bishop of Rome on 11 Feb. 2013, Fr. James Martin, SJ commented on what would be his most enduring legacy:
His most lasting legacy, I would suggest, will not be in the various “newsworthy” acts of his papacy . . . but something far more personal: his books on Jesus. . . . In these books, the pope brought to bear decades of scholarship and prayer to the most important question that a Christian can ask: Who is Jesus? This is the pope’s primary job–to introduce people to Jesus–and Pope Benedict did that exceedingly well.
I just finished reading Benedict XVI’s trilogy on Jesus, and I couldn’t agree more.
[Disclaimer: Yours truly is not a Bible scholar, just a curious reader armed with one college-level course on the New Testament; so this is less of a review, and more of a personal reflection.]
In the foreword to the first book in the series, “From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration,” Benedict XVI states that he set out to write the series because he perceived a widening gap between the ‘historical Jesus’ (unveiled by scholarship) and the ‘Christ of faith’ until “the two visibly fell apart” in the 1950s. From the zealous anti-Roman revolutionary on the one hand to the gentle moral teacher on the other, these portrayals of Jesus become less like the Jesus of the Gospels and more like “photographs of the authors and the ideals they hold,” Benedict XVI argues. The result of this, he says, is that “intimate friendship with Jesus . . . is in danger of clutching at thin air.”
At the heart of the series, then, is Benedict XVI’s aim to draw a compelling picture of the figure and message of Jesus of Nazareth so that readers may encounter him, and believe in him.
Part One, “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration,” (Doubleday, 2007) is concerned with Jesus’ public ministry. It is full of illuminating meditations and discourses on the theological symbolism of the Kingdom of God, temptations of Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, the message of key parables, the Lord’s Prayer, the historical nature of the Johannine Gospel among others. From there in Part Two, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection,” (Ignatius Press, 2011) Benedict XVI tackles critical questions like: Was Jesus (merely) a political revolutionary? On which day was Jesus crucified? Who was responsible for his death? Did he really establish a Church? Does the Resurrection necessarily contradict science? If Jesus is not Lord, will his teachings be equally important? The final volume “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (Image Books, 2012) is presented not so much as Part Three, but rather as an “antechamber” to the two earlier volumes. It is slim (144 pages) compared to the two earlier volumes in the series (400 pages and 384 pages, respectively). Here, Benedict XVI examines Matthew and Luke’s narratives about the childhood of Jesus, starting with the annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and concluding with the (rather confusing episode of the) 12-year-old Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Benedict XVI provides valuable commentary the theological kernel of beloved Christmas traditions of dubious historicity: animals at the creche (not documented in the Gospels), the story of the three Magis (narrated in Matthew) and the guiding star among others.
On first reading, it is difficult to characterize the series neatly into a particular genre. The books move fluidly between responding to (mostly German) 20th century historical-critical scholarship about Jesus to deeply personal theological meditations on the figure and message of Jesus to stinging critiques of modern Western atheism.
Fundamental to a fruitful reading of Benedict XVI’s treatise on Jesus, then, is a clear understanding of his methodological approach to the biblical texts. This is best described as a theological discipline — a hermeneutic grounded on faith in Jesus as Lord, and fortified by a responsible attitude towards historical reason. Again and again, the reader is told (in the forewords to all three volumes) that the historical-critical method of reading Scripture commonly employed by (academic) exegetes is valuable, but is also limited precisely because it is a historical method:
“To the extent that it remains true to itself, the historical method not only has to investigate the biblical world as a thing of the past, but also has to let it remain in the past. It can glimpse points of contact with the present and it can try to apply the biblical world to the present; the one thing it cannot do is make it into something present today — that would be overstepping its bounds. Its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and limit.” (Part One, pg. xvi)
Benedict XVI supplements historical-critical exegesis with canonical exegesis, a method of biblical interpretation that reads individual texts in light of the unity of Scripture. While a purely historical approach will necessarily treat each biblical text separately, Benedict XVI argues that Jesus presents the key to the unity of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and that the Hebrew scriptures are to be re-read and re-interpreted in the light of Jesus. Finally, Benedict XVI contends that good exegetical exercise has to be concerned with whether and how biblical texts matter for the reader in the present. (Part Three, pg. xi)
When it comes to the relatively modern quest for the ‘historical Jesus,’ according to mainstream modern exegetical techniques, Benedict XVI states emphatically that as long as it is focused only on the past, it does not “make possible a personal relationship with Jesus.” (Part Two, pg. xvi) For Benedict XVI, this means that this type of exegesis consequently “lacks sufficient content to exert any significant historical impact.” (ibid.) The ‘real historical Jesus’ is illuminated, Benedict XVI argues, through the saints and the teachings of the Church Fathers, and ultimately, by personal encounter with the Lord. (ibid.) For Benedict XVI, then, the quest for the historical Jesus starts with one of the foundational tenets of Christianity: Jesus is Lord who “lives [as a Son] in the most intimate unity with the Father.” (Part One, pg. 6) In Benedict’s worldview, this is the only approach that can explain the message and figure of Jesus. Any other approach, would be wholly or partially erroneous.
Several important broad themes appear throughout the series. Here, I’ll mention just one. Benedict XVI emphasizes time and again, the continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, that Jesus did not come to abrogate the Torah, but to fulfill the Law. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that throughout, Jesus was a devout observant Jew. A quick example: In response to the Sabbath disputes that many exegetes use to show that Jesus was a liberal revolutionary, Benedict XVI points out that the theological heart of the Sabbath for Israel was not in the negative commandment of not working, but rather in the positive commandment of resting in a manner of imitating God. And so for Christians — the community of disciples being the new Israel — the Sabbath is not irrelevant but takes on a new Christological depth. “The essential elements of the Old Testament Sabbath then naturally passed over to the Lord’s day in the context of the table fellowship with Jesus,” he writes. (Part One, pg. 112)
All in all, Benedict XVI has done a great service to the world through his series, Jesus in Nazareth. At once scholarly and accessible, everyone — academic, lay person, clergy, believer and non-believer alike — will emerge with a more nuanced understanding of Jesus by reading him.
Prior to reading Benedict XVI’s books on Jesus, I was exposed to mostly liberal Christian scholarship on Jesus. Thus, I was greatly challenged by Benedict XVI’s reading of Jesus, and for that I could not be more grateful.
P.S. — Curious about what it means to search for the “face of the Lord?” Look no further than this talk by Pope Benedict XVI.