Cardinal: Pope's Book Goes Against the Grain
Says Ideas Are Original and Pointed
BENEVENTO, Italy, JULY 22, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Cardinal Renato
Martino says that Benedict XVI's book, "Jesus of Nazareth," is pointed
and sometimes polemical, a "book with salt and pepper" -- and sometimes
"'Jesus of Nazareth' is a surprising book," said the president of
the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in a July 15 presentation
of the volume in southern Italy.
"Its observations are acute and go against the grain, and its
ideas are original, even provocative," he added. "The reader is
frequently surprised by what the Pope says and his attention is drawn
away from what is politically correct."
The cardinal also called it a "robust" book. "If you will permit
the irony," he said, "it is weighty precisely because it is the fruit
of a broad design to explore a few aspects of the figure of Christ in
The 74-year-old cardinal contended that "'Jesus of Nazareth' is
very dense in expression and argumentation, but acute -- and
occasionally pointed -- in the things it says. In other words, it also
contains a lot of polemics."
"It is thus," the cardinal said, "a book with salt and pepper --
and in some passages hot peppers -- like certain very tasty summer
dishes that are cooked here in southern Italy."
The cardinal drew attention to the passages in which the book
touches on the social doctrine of the Church, noting a place in which
the Pope writes: "Purely material poverty is not salvific."
"This claim really struck me," Cardinal Martino said, "insofar as
it takes aim at all the possible social and sociological readings of
He added: "The Holy Father maintains that it is spiritual poverty
and not material poverty that comes first. So, you cannot take poverty
in the sociological sense as the point of departure because, in itself,
it does not say anything significant.
"Being materially poor or rather, everyone becoming more poor does
not, in itself, carry a message of salvation."
"It is from spiritual poverty -- the Church as the 'community of
the poor of God' -- that the energy to struggle against material
poverty is born, which is then redeemed from its materialism," the
According to the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice
and Peace, these are "broad indications that aim at many positions that
in the past, as in the present, have proposed to follow the opposite
path and no longer take God as the criterion of discernment but
poverty, sociologically understood."
Another passage that the cardinal touched on is the dialogue
between the Holy Father and the Jewish theologian Jacob Neusner.
"This dialogue," Cardinal Martino explained, "is one of the most
beautiful parts of the book. Christ builds a new community and thus
brings about the death the 'Eternal Israel' based on the Torah; he
brings and end to the family and progeny, bonds of the flesh, he
destroys the law of the Sabbath and does not offer concretely
realizable social structures but a 'New Israel,' bearer of a universal
Neusner understands that this "claim" can only come from God, but
does not renounce the Eternal Israel, the community founded on blood
and the law.
Benedict XVI, instead, thinks that Jesus does not destroy the
Torah but brings it to fulfillment. "The social doctrine of the Church
is born here," the cardinal observed.
"I was struck not only by the fundamental idea that animates the
whole book -- which is the necessity of God so that the world can
function as world -- but also the straightforward acknowledgement that
cultures and religions are not bearers of salvation," he said. "Is this
disrespect for cultures and other religions? No. Is it a reassertion of
the Christian claim? Yes."
Father Cantalamessa on Jesus
"Between History and
ROME, JULY 14, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a
translation of a talk given in Rome by the Pontifical Household
preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, on historical research
* * *
JESUS OF NAZARETH
BETWEEN HISTORY AND THEOLOGY
Talk given at a public debate held in Rome
12 May 2007
1. Jesus, between history and … history
It seems to me that, more basic than the alternative
expressed in the title, "Jesus, between history and theology," is the
alternative, "Jesus, between history and history." The notion of a
rectilinear, univocal form of historical research concerning Jesus,
leading progressively to a clear and complete picture of him is a myth
which no serious historian of our day would claim to validate.
Leaving aside the diachronic variations -- that is to
say, the historical reconstructions of Jesus that have come, one after
the other, during the last two centuries -- let me look for a moment at
the synchronic views, that is, those that have arisen simultaneously in
one epoch, our own.
In the new introduction to her work: "From Jesus to
Christ. The origins of the images of Jesus in the New Testament," Paula
Fredriksen, Professor at Boston University, writes: "Paperbacks
proliferate as the range of portraits of Jesus broadens. In recent
scholarship, Jesus has been imagined and presented as a type of
first-century shaman figure; as a Cynic-sort of wandering wise man; as
a visionary radical and social reformer preaching egalitarian ethics to
the destitute; as a Galilean regionalist alienated from the elitism of
Judean religious conventions (like Temple and Torah); as a champion of
national liberation and, on the contrary, as its opponent and critic --
on and on. All these figures are presented with rigorous academic
argument and methodology; all are defended with appeals to the ancient
data. Debate continues at a roiling pitch, and consensus -- even on
issues so basic as what constitutes evidence and how to construe it --
seems a distant hope."
Appeal is often made to recent discoveries that are
supposed at last to have given historical research an advantage over
the past, to wit the scrolls of Qumran, the library of Nag Hammadi,
archaeological excavations, sociological research. Yet how variable the
conclusions can be that are drawn from these new historical sources is
clear from the fact that they have given rise to two images of Christ,
one irreconcilably opposed to the other. On the one hand we have a
Jesus "wholly and in all things Hebrew," and on the other, Jesus son of
the hellenised Galilee of his time, imbued with a cynical philosophy.
Researches in sociology too tend to lead to
diametrically opposed results, as E. P. Sanders, the great specialist
on Jesus and Judaism has noted: For some, "Jesus' world faced a severe
social and economic crisis, one that grew worse day by day. Palestine's
small landholders were in a tightening noose of institutionalized
injustices such as double taxation, heavy indebtedness, and loss of
land. Peasant families fell ever more heavily into debt under the
steady economic pressures of double taxation. The wealthy lent them
money that they could not repay, charged very high rates of interest,
and then foreclosed on the property… There was rising indebtedness and
a declining peasantry, the social-economic infrastructure was in
decline and poverty worsening." For others, on the contrary, "Galilee
was urbanized, cosmopolitan and prosperous… in fact an epitome of
Hellenistic culture… Jesus and his hearers spoke Greek."
It is not surprising, then, that in the post-modern
thinking a radical scepticism has developed. Here the alternative is no
longer between history and theology, nor between one history and
another, but between history and interpretation or literary criticism.
The text is read without any regard for foregoing objective data; all
turns upon the reader's direct confrontation with the text and the
outcome is all subjective and relative.
The most recent, monumental (and in my view genuinely
innovative) monograph on the historical Jesus, written by James Dunn of
Durham University, England, ends off a review of the opinions with this
assessment: "The loss of confidence in historical method in post-modern
circles is thus complete. And so far as the quest of the historical
Jesus is concerned, its results, particularly when the various Jesuses
of the neo-Liberal quest are included, simply confirm the failure of
traditional historical methodology. The simple and rather devastating
fact has been that Gospels researchers and questers of the historical
Jesus have failed to produce agreed results".
What conclusion are we to draw from all this? That we
might as well abandon research into the historical Jesus? Certainly not
that. The author just quoted gives an example, devoting his monumental
work to this very research. I believe that we can apply to historical
research what the proverb says about God, that "he writes straight on
crooked lines." It does in fact advance our knowledge of history,
opening new horizons and formulating new hypotheses, some of which
prove to be productive and enlightening. The very failure to find a
commonly accepted alternative to the Gospel narrative is in itself an
important historical acquisition.
The requisite in approaching research into the
historical Jesus is above all a greater humility and an awareness of
our own intrinsic limitations. Historical criticism has caused orthodox
theology to be more humble and aware of the problematics, but
historical criticism itself needs perhaps to accept its own limits,
whether arising from the sources, or from the object of its
investigations which -- hypothetically at least -- extends beyond the
limits of history. The approach to the problematics, the pro and the
con and the awareness of limits, is what in fact distinguishes the
great scientific monographs on the Jesus of history from the works of
writers in search of sensationalism whose works are triumphal
processions marching to conclusions already obvious from the outset.
Among the serious monographs, the most recent has been that of Gerd
Theissen and Annette Metz, although it is questionable on many
A mistaken methodology, against which the serious
researchers are always on guard, is that of taking something
"historically not demonstrable" simply "as historically false."
Concerning many of the events related in the Gospels, history can only
conclude that they cannot be supported on the basis of historical
argument, yet this does not justify the conclusion that the narrative
is therefore false.
It is particularly necessary to abandon the illusion
that believers start with a preconceived idea when writing about Jesus,
but unbelievers, unprejudiced, do not. John Meier, author of a major
study on the historical Jesus, writes: "Whether we call it a bias, a
tendenz, a worldview, or a faith stance, everyone who writes on the
historical Jesus writes from some ideological vantage point; no critic
is exempt. The solution to this dilemma is neither to pretend to an
absolute objectivity that is not to be had nor to wallow in total
relativism. The solution is to admit honestly one's own standpoint, to
try to exclude its influence in making scholarly judgments by adhering
to certain commonly held criteria, and to invite the correction of
other scholars when one's vigilance inevitably slips."
2. Jesus, Hebrew believer or cynic philosopher?
Speaking of the limits of historical research, I would
like to highlight one that seems to me to be decisive. It concerns the
possibility of an historical research on Jesus that not only prescinds
from, but from the outset excludes any faith in God; in other words,
the plausibility of what has at times been called "the Jesus of the
atheists." I'm not now speaking of faith in Christ, in his divinity,
but of faith in God, faith in the most commonly accepted sense of the
Far be from me the idea that non-believers have no
right to concern themselves with Jesus. I am convinced that Jesus is
"the patrimony of humankind" and that no one, and of course neither the
Church, holds a monopoly on him. What I want to make clear are the
consequences of keeping to that point of departure, and that the
"preconceptions" of a researcher who does not believe have no less
influence on research than those of one who does.
I am convinced that, if one prescinds from faith in
God, one eliminates not only the divinity, that is the so-called Christ
of faith, but also the historical Jesus "tout court"; nothing is left,
not even Jesus the man. It is simply not possible to contest on
historical grounds that the Jesus of the Gospels lived and worked
relating to and aware of the heavenly Father, that he prayed and taught
others to pray, that he based everything on faith in God. If this
dimension is eliminated from the Jesus of the Gospels, his whole
personality disintegrates and becomes incomprehensible.
But if we assume that God does not exist, Jesus is
simply another one of the deluded many who prayed, adored, spoke with
his own shadow or the projection of his own essence, to use Feuerbach's
terms. And how would it be possible to explain the fact that this man's
life, as they readily admit, "changed the world"? It would be
tantamount to saying that truth or reason had nothing to do with the
change in the world, but only illusion and irrationality. How then
explain that this man continues, at a remove of two thousand years, to
appeal to humankind as no other?
There is only one way out of this dilemma, and we need
to recognise the consistency shown by those who in recent years have
made it their own. The way out is the one mapped out in the ambit of
the "Jesus Seminar" based in Berkeley, California. Jesus was not a
Hebrew believer; he was basically a philosopher in the mode of the
cynics; he did not preach a kingdom of God, nor an approaching end
of the world; all he did was pronounce words of profound wisdom in the
style of a Zen master. His purpose was to reawaken in people a
self-awareness, to convince them that they had no need of him or of any
other god, because they themselves carried within themselves a spark of
the divine. Strange enough -- rather not surprising at all -- these
are the things that New Age has been preaching for some decades!
How can this new image of Jesus be justified
historically? Simply by taking as absolute the "Q" source (the
collection of the sayings of Jesus based on the use Mark and Matthew
made of them in their Gospels) and regarding it as the only document
having any tenable link with a Jesus who really existed. But this is
not good enough, because among the sayings of Jesus listed in that
collection, there are some that are incompatible with that image of
him. Thus the distinction is made between three successive layers in
that document (itself hypothetical!), of which the oldest, called "Q3,"
alone authentic, could be taken as a nucleus of esoteric sayings
approximating in kind those we find in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. I
studied classical philology and textual criticism during my university
years, and know that on such premises there is no possibility
whatsoever of hitting the mark. That approach leaves the data open to
Before any of them, Nietzsche saw the dilemma clearly
and resolved it in a way much more coherent than today's -- making of
Jesus not a philosopher in the cast of Greek rationality, but its
3. Continuity or complete break? The "Jesus of
Nazareth" of Benedict XVI
Let us move now to the alternative mentioned in the
title of this paper, "Jesus of Nazareth between history and
'theology.'" After all of the immense effort that has been expended,
from Reimarus to today, to free the historical Jesus from the Christ of
ecclesiastical dogma, it will perhaps serve some purpose again to take
into consideration the viewpoint of tradition and church dogma now that
they have become more humble and more aware of their own limits, thanks
precisely to historical criticism.
This, I believe, is what Pope Benedict XVI set out to
do in his book "Jesus of Nazareth." Someone has accused him of
bypassing in that way all the problems and doubts to which modern
historical criticism has given rise. But I ask myself: what was the
pope supposed to have done -- write yet another historical
reconstruction in which to confront and discuss all objections? We
heard, above, how long the list is of writers, believers and
non-believers, who have done just that, and I cannot see how yet
another such work, even if written by a pope, would have made any
What the pope chose to do was to present in a positive
light the figure and the teaching of Jesus as understood by the Church,
starting from the conviction that the Christ of faith is also,
rigorously, the Jesus of history. Since the pope has left everyone the
liberty to criticise his book, I too permit myself a small reservation.
I think that the continuity between the Christ of the kerygma and of
dogma, for all that it is real, is not quite as rectilinear as is made
to appear in the summary introduction to the book.
On this point, I think we can share the opinion of
Theissen and Merz: "Christians, after Easter, spoke of Jesus more
affirmatively (that is to say, they said greater and more important
things) than the historical Jesus would have said about himself. This
'value plus' of post-Paschal Christology in respect of Jesus'
pre-Paschal self-awareness, whether on the historical or on the
objective level, is based on the actual event of Easter".
Theissen and Merz saw that the two phases -- before
Easter, and after -- relate to each other in the same way as implicit
and explicit Christology do. Among the elements of implicit Christology
that they find in the Gospels, not a few correspond with those on which
Benedict XVI bases his argument in his book: the expression "Amen" in
the particular way Jesus uses it; the self-confidence with which Jesus
counterposes the authority of the Torah and of Moses with his "But I
say to you …"; his particular way of relating to the Father and above
all the distinction between "My Father" and "your father"; his
forgiving sins; the superiority Jesus claims over the Baptist whom he
defines as "the greatest of the prophets."
It would be most ungenerous to fail to recognise the
theological and spiritual richness of Benedict XVI's book on Jesus, and
gauge it only against the measure of the historical Jesus. It is of
course a book written by a believer for believers and for those who
take an interest in knowing the Christ of tradition and of the Church.
He himself declares that he does not want to enter into the debates
that are proper to historico-critical research, but assuming them, to
go beyond, seeking in wonderment a genuinely theological
The pope bases himself explicitly on canonical
exegesis, that is, on that type of exegesis that presupposes the belief
that God has not just one way of revealing himself to the world, the
way of history; he has many other ways, among which the most important
is biblical inspiration. This conviction allows not only the reading of
"the fragment in the whole" (that is, a text within its context) as the
moderns use to do, but also "the whole within the fragment" (that is,
the entire Bible reflected within each of its parts) as the Fathers
have done and on which the Church's spiritual reading of Scripture down
through the ages is based. In a magisterial work, Henri de Lubac has
demonstrated how coherent and fruitful this way of reading the
Scripture has been.
It is very significant that the decision of the pope
to keep to the Jesus of the Gospels is, on certain counts, confirmed in
the monograph of James Dunn to which we referred above. In that work,
after a lengthy and sharp analysis of the results of the research on
the historical Jesus over the last three centuries, the writer comes to
the conclusion that there has been no break between Jesus the preacher
and the Jesus preached, and hence between the historical Jesus and the
Jesus of faith. The Jesus of faith was not born after Easter, but was
there in the first encounters with the disciples, who became disciples
precisely because they believed in the Rabbi of Nazareth.
The difficulty in making the link between the Jesus of
the synoptic Gospels and the real Jesus arises for the most part from
the failure to take into account the laws that govern the transmission
of the founding traditions of a community still without a written
culture, as happened when accounts of Jesus were first formulated and
circulated among groups of people. The study of these laws (even now
verifiable among peoples of pre-literate cultures) shows that an event
or a teaching held to be important for the history and for the life of
the community can be transmitted with acute accuracy as to its
essential elements, though in the particulars showing variations in
each narration, to meet the requirements of the moment.
Historical criticism ("Formgeschichte," or history of
form) has tacitly projected on the epoch of the New Testament the
process which leads today to the final edition of a book: successive
revisions, layers as it were, based one upon the other, adding to or
subtracting from it some part. This has given rise to the illusion that
one can work back from a layer to the one before, eventually to arrive
at a hypothetical, original nucleus -- which almost always turns out to
be a close reflection of the point at which the scholar concerned aimed
at the outset.
What do we actually discover by taking this approach?
Not -- at least directly -- the "hidden interiority" of Christ, what he
thought of himself, but the "Jesus as remembered"; "remembered" however
-- and this is where the difference lies -- not at a distance in time,
after Easter, by disciples and communities that re-interpreted the
events and the teachings as extraneous interests moved them to do, but
by those who straight away began to tell, in story form, of what they
themselves experienced and heard.
Read in this way, the scholar says, "the synoptic
Gospels are examples of a model and technique of oral transmission that
have guaranteed a stability and continuity in the tradition of Jesus
greater than any of those ever imagined in the past."
4. Easter -- a watershed
For many historians, Easter does not represent a
qualitative leap in Christology, but an absolute beginning. But the
more historical research stresses this new beginning, the greater the
difficulties with it become. Once we abandon the thesis of Reimarus,
that the resurrection of Christ was a conscious fraud of the disciples,
how can we explain such an absolute beginning? All the subsequent
development of faith in Christ it is said to be based on the
Resurrection, but then, when closely examined, it appears to have no
basis at all, because the Resurrection itself is a matter of faith,
therefore something subjective, not real. Christianity appears to be a
massive upside-down pyramid, its point resting on the void.
This is not the place to call for yet another in the
unending series of debates on the resurrection. I'll confine myself to
citing an affirmation made by the English scholar, Charles H. Dodd,
with which I wholly agree: "The assumption that the whole great course
of Christian history is a massive pyramid balanced upon the apex of
some trivial occurrence, is surely a less probable one than that the
whole event, the occurrence plus the meaning inherent in it, did
actually occupy a place in history at least comparable with that which
the New Testament assigns to it."
The resurrection, some say, is a metaphor; that is
true, but the meaning of the metaphor, as Paul Ricoeur has pointed out,
is not to give expression to something other than reality, but to say,
of reality itself, something that cannot be said in any other way. The
resurrection in itself is something positioned at the limits, or more
properly, outside the limits of time and space and hence too of
history, yet there is something that took place within time and space
and that the historian must therefore set out to explain.
Two facts are offered for the historian's
consideration, and it is these that permit him to speak of the
resurrection: the first is the unanticipated and inexplicable faith of
the disciples, a faith so tenacious as to stand firm even against the
test of martyrdom; and the second is the explanation of such faith that
the disciples left of it. The observation made by Martin Dibelius will
always remain pertinent: "When the decisive moment arrived, and Jesus
was taken, scourged and sentenced, the disciples cherished no
expectation of a resurrection. They fled, and considered the cause of
Jesus over and done with. What was needed, therefore, was something
that in a very short time would not only bring about a radical change
in their state of mind, but would move them to an entirely new kind of
activity and to founding the Church. This 'something' is the historical
kernel of faith in the resurrection." There has been an endless
number of attempts to find alternative explanations for this
"something," but so far none has lasted much longer than its author.
5. The veneration of Jesus Christ
Where then, and when, did what we call 'Christianity'
begin? If by 'Christianity' we correctly intend the veneration of Jesus
of Nazareth as Lord, and as Divine, it began at Easter and Pentecost.
Larry W. Hurtado, professor of New Testament Language, Literature and
Theology at the university of Edinburgh, has taken up again the study
of the origins of the cult of Jesus undertaken by W. Bousset at the
beginning of the previous century, now on a new basis, in the light of
what has come to be recognised as the Judaic, non-Hellenistic matrix of
primitive Christianity. And the conclusion at which he arrives is that
the veneration of Jesus as a divine figure burst out suddenly and
unexpectedly, not little by little and later on, among circles of
followers in the first century. More precisely, its origins are found
among the circles of Jewish Christians of the very earliest years. It
is only an idealistic way of thinking that continues to attribute the
veneration of Jesus as a divine figure to the decisive influence of
pagan religions and to the influx of gentile converts, holding it to
have come about at a later stage and more gradually. The veneration of
Jesus as 'Lord', that found adequate expression in cultic worship and
in total obedience, was however widespread, not at all confined or
attributable to particular circles, as for example the 'hellenists', or
gentile Christians of a hypothetical 'Syriac Christ-cult'. Through all
the diversity of primitive Christianity, faith in the divine condition
of Jesus was incredibly widespread, common to all. Very nearly all of
the 'heresies' of primitive Christianity postulated the idea of the
divinity of Jesus. This was not in discussion. The problematical issue,
rather, was whether there was room to consider him authentically
Clearly, if we compare the Jesus of the Gospels with
the Christ of Nicea and Constantinople, the difference at first glance
seems abyssal. So too, if we compare the scanned image of a human
embryo in the womb with the child born and grown into adulthood, there
seems to be an unbridgeable gap between the two, even though all that
the grown man is, was seminally within the embryo. Didn't Jesus compare
the kingdom he preached with the smallest of seeds, destined to grow
and to become a great tree ? (Matthew 13:32).
According to the faith of the Church, this
development, all the undeniable facts of history aside, is driven by
one, inner and hidden force: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the
one factor notably absent from all the historical research concerning
Jesus. On hearing even mention of the name, the historian does an
about-turn, growling that that belongs in another genre; it would be
doing theology. But is it possible for the researchers into the history
of Jesus to ignore something to which Jesus himself, in texts of
inarguable authenticity, attributes his own ability to drive out demons
and perform miracles? It has become the custom, today, to speak of
Jesus and the first disciples as "itinerant charismatics," but what
remains of a charismatic if the experience of the Holy Spirit is left
out of consideration?
Paul and the Acts of the Apostles show that after
Easter the community again and again had the experience of being guided
by the Holy Spirit. John gives explicit expression to this awareness,
linking it back to a promise made by Jesus: "I still have many things
to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the
Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth, since he
will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has
learnt; and he will tell you of things to come" (John 16:12-13). A
'prophecy' after the event, one might say; true, but even in this case
the event still remains to be explained!
The Holy Spirit is outside of the field of history,
but his effects are historical and so deserve to be taken into
consideration. This could be one of the areas where history and
theology ought to work together, each one in its own way. This is what
James Dunn, author of "Christianity in the Making," has done in his
work, "Jesus and the Spirit. A Study of the Religious and Charismatic
Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New
6. One Christianity or many?
I still need to come to the issue raised by those who
say that in the beginning there was not one Christianity, but many,
that is to say, many different interpretations of Christ's message,
gradually eliminated one by one by the growing weight of the orthodoxy
imposed by the church of Rome. It is possible -- why not? -- to speak
of different Christianities, but then of course we need to say the same
of nearly every institution and of the great novelties of history. In
that sense there was not one Jewish religion but many Jewish religions,
nor one Renaissance but many Renaissances, nor one French Revolution
but many French Revolutions, and so on, because each of these realities
were the result of the processes of the interaction and refining of
various factors and tendencies. Sociologists teach us that that is what
usually comes about in a movement's development from its nascent status
to the establishment that is its final result.
The idea put forward in some quarters, to begin again
from the beginning, putting all of those possibilities into one bag --
that is, bringing all the old no-longer-held modalities into play again
-- in order to bring to life a new, unedited form of Christianity,
makes me think of the project to develop a new Esperanto, and of its
We should rather accord to the orthodoxy of the
origins the merit of having fought its battle with books and decrees,
without having sent anyone, neither Marcion nor Valentinus nor
Montanus, to the bonfire. Some will say orthodoxy didn't have the power
to do that: true enough, but the fact remains that it was not done, and
that at least in the early centuries of its history, orthodoxy did not
impose its way by force and conquest but by argument and example of
life. Its beginnings are clean; they are still worth examining, and
they can still inspire us.
The notion of an orthodoxy that emerged victorious by
eliminating its competitors under the powerful guidance of Rome is a
pure legend. Orthodoxy was not established in its origins by way of a
movement from the centre to the periphery, but on the contrary, by
movement from the periphery towards the centre. The struggles against
ebionite beliefs, docetism, and encratism did not move outwards from
Rome, but all arrived in Rome from Antioch in Syria, from Asia Minor,
from Alexandria in Egypt, from Carthage and from Lyon in France. Rome
in the first two centuries and a half of Christian history was more the
arbiter between the parties than a leading force in the struggles
against heresy. Even in the Council of Nicea, the influence of Rome and
of the West in general was minimal. Attributing to Rome the triumph of
orthodoxy is, to a large extent, the consequence of a backward
projection of later situations, if not of the present state of affairs!
It would be interesting to review the various forms of
so-called alternative Christianities, in order to see which of them, if
still in existence, would be accepted by those who lament their
passing. Encratism surely not, because of its rejection of marriage and
material possessions; certainly not Marcionism because of its radical
anti-Jewish stance; nor I believe would the various forms of gnosticism
or docetism find acceptance, rejecting as they do the material world
and the real humanity of Jesus. As to the famous prophets and itinerant
charismatics, so dear to modern researchers into the Jesus of history,
we note a curious point: in our day a movement similar in many of its
aspects has reappeared in spectacular fashion in Christian churches,
yet there are students of the historical Jesus who look on this with
irony and hold it to be nothing more than the fruit of fundamentalism,
irrationality and religious enthusiasm. (I know something of this
because, at times, I too am placed in this category!).
There is, it is true, a stream that finds favour today
among many scholars, ebionism, that is, the form of Christianity that
remains in practice within the matrix of Judaism, holding Jesus to be a
man and keeping to the observances of the Torah. This is something of
which we know very little, apart from the fact that they were isolated
communities living in the east of the Jordan. There was no war against
them, no bonfire of books. Paradoxically, orthodoxy has not suppressed
their memory, as some say, but in fact preserved it. If it were not for
the fact that certain of their writings are quoted by authors of
orthodox Christianity, we would know nothing whatever about them.
Concerned as they were with countering the much more belligerent
Gnosticism, the orthodox writers gave them only passing attention.
Orthodoxy, however, did not content itself with
fighting these alternative forms of Christianity, but made them its own
after freeing them of any "sectarian" and heretical element. The
instance of encratism survives in the Church in the life-states of
virginity and monasticism; the instances of gnosis are taken up by the
Alexandrines, Clement and Origen; the way of the itinerant prophets,
after the initial crisis arising from Montanist excesses, was to emerge
again in the Church in the mendicant movements of the Middle Ages.
I cannot end my analysis without drawing attention to
a contradiction. All of the spasmodic research into the historical
Jesus, when those who undertake it distance themselves from the Christ
of the Church, becomes by definition a radical refutation of history
itself. The history to which Jesus gave rise, that he created by his
life, is not only not taken into consideration, but some make every
effort to obliterate it in favour of a starting-point detached from it
and in contrast to it.
In this there is no application of the hermeneutic
principle of "the history of effects" ("Wirkungsgeschichte"), which
takes into account not only the influences undergone but also the
effects produced and the influences exercised. The interpreter, says
H.-G. Gadamer, can not impose his own view on the tradition of the past
that he is studying, but can begin to understand it adequately only
thanks to that very tradition and to the extent that he shares in it. I
don't believe this means that only those with an inward adherence to
Christianity can understand anything about it, but it surely should put
us on our guard against believing that only those who stand outside of
it can say anything objective about it.
It is through the Church and by the Church that Jesus
changed the world. Without "that error called Christianity," as someone
has defined it, we would not be here to speak about him. Jesus
would be, today, an obscure Galilean rabbi whose name we would find
only if we were to read a note on the writings of Tacitus or Flavius
Josephus. There would have been no Augustine, no Francis of Assisi, no
Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Pascal; there would have been no Gothic
cathedrals or Romanesque churches, no Dante, no paintings of the
Renaissance schools, no Michelangelo or Sistine Chapel, Bach or his
Passions, Mozart and his Masses. There would, above all, have been none
of the innumerable crowds of men and women who, in the name of the
Christ they knew through the Church, dedicated themselves utterly to
the care of suffering humanity.
Can we be sure that our world would be a better place
without all that? The history of Christianity has not been merely a
matter of crusades, inquisitions and religious wars, even though,
sadly, it has been that too.
--- --- ---
 P. Fredriksen, "From Jesus to Christ. The Origins
of the New Testament images of Jesus," 2nd edition, Yale University
 Cf. E. P. Sanders, "Jesus in Historical Context"
 J. Dunn, "Christianity in the Making," I, Grand
Rapids, Mich. 2003, p. 97.
 G. Theissen and A. Merz, "Der historische Jesus:
ein Lehrbuch," Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999.
 J. Meier, "A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the
Historical Jesus," Doubleday, New York 1991, p. 5-6.
 On the theory of Jesus as cynic, cf. B. Griffin,
"Was Jesus a philosophical Cynic?"
 Cf. Harold Bloom, “Whoever discovers the
interpretation of these sayings…”, published in an appendix to the
Marvin Meyer edition of the Coptic "The Gospel of Thomas. The Hidden
Sayings of Jesus," Harper Collins Publishers, San Francisco 1992.
 Op. cit. p. 624.
 Ib. pp. 636-646.
 Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI, "Gesù di
Nazaret," Rizzoli, Milano 2007, p. 409.
 Cf. H. de Lubac, "Exégèse
médiévale. Les quatre sens de l’Ecriture," 4 voll.,
Aubier, Paris 1959-1964.
 C. H. Dodd, "History and Gospel," London 1952, p.
 M. Dibelius, Iesus, Berlin 1966, p. 117.
 Cfr. L. Hurtado, "Lord Jesus Christ. Devotion to
Jesus in Earliest Christianity," Grand Rapids, Mich. 2003.
 J. Dunn, "Jesus and the Spirit. A Study of the
Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians
as Reflected in the New Testament," SCM Press, London 1975.
 P. Hollenbach, "The Historical Jesus Question,"
in BTB 19 (1989), p. 20.
God Made Visible:
On the Foreword to Benedict
XVI's Jesus of Nazareth
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 18, 2007
"Through the man Jesus, God was made visible, and hence
our eyes were able to behold the perfect man." -- Benedict XVI, Jesus
of Nazareth, Foreword.
"Thou hast said, 'Seek ye my face.' My heart says to thee,
'Thy face, Lord, do I seek.' Hide not thy face from me." -- Psalm 27:8.
"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)." -- Benedict XVI,
Jesus of Nazareth, Foreword.
A nice man gave me an on-line gift certificate for Barnes
& Noble. I thought that I would use it by going down to the Barnes
& Noble store on "M" Street in Georgetown to find a copy of Jesus
of Nazareth, Benedict XVI's new book. I had tried to purchase it at a
book shop called "The Mustard Seed," across Sheridan Road from Loyola
University in Chicago. They told me that it would be in the next
afternoon, but it wasn't. When I arrived back to Washington, armed with
a print-out of the Barnes & Noble gift certificate, I asked at the
B&N desk if they would cash this on-line credit. They wouldn't. Why
not is to me an economic mystery. Though it seems like it all ends in
the same pot, maybe B&N does not want their on-line sales to
compete with their book stores. But I could not find the book in the
store anyhow, which also surprised me.
So I returned home. Next day, I tried to follow the
instructions for ordering the book on-line, to avoid having to do which
was the reason I walked down to the "M" Street store in the first
place. Amazingly, it worked. In two days I had the book. I was struck
by the irony of being able to get the book from my room but not from
the company's book store when I appeared in person. This may say more
about Schall's personality than he may want to know!
What to say about this book? It so happens that while I
was in Chicago, I found in the Jesuit Community Library a copy of
Romano Guardini's book, The Humanity of Christ. It turned out to be one
of the best books I had ever read. Why I had never seen it before I do
not know. I know that Guardini is a favorite of the Pope, whose book,
The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), was written in honor
of Guardini's book by the same title written some fifty years before.
The year before during my retreat (2006), I also had read Karl Adam's
book, The Son of God. Thus, I was struck to read the second sentence in
Pope Ratzinger's Foreword: "When I was growing up--in the 1930's and
1940's--there was a series of inspiring books about Jesus: Karl Adam,
Romano Guardini, Franz Michel William, Giovanni Papini, and Henri
Daniel-Rops were just some of the authors one could name." Ages ago, I
read Papini and Daniel-Rops, but not William, a name I do not know.
Here, I want to say some things about the most interesting
"Foreword" to Jesus of Nazareth. Above, I have cited Pope Ratzinger's
disclaimer that this book is not an "exercise of the magisterium" In
this sense, it is not unlike his "Regensburg Lecture" or his
Interviews. Just at the time that everyone is prepared to reject out of
hand anything pronounced in the name of authority, especially religious
or papal authority, we suddenly have a pope who gives academic lectures
and writes a book telling what he thinks about Jesus just so that we
would know his general views. We tend to suspect, usually wrongly, that
if something is "official," it cannot be "sincere." We prefer sincerity
to truth, a dangerous position. Suddenly, we have a pope who explains,
with evident frankness, just what he holds about Jesus. But he tells us
that we need not accept it unless, perhaps, we might agree with his
reasoning. The burden is on us. We may be the ones who are not sincere
in our search for the truth, especially the truth about who is Jesus of
The whole area of censorship in the Church was designed to
protect the reader from those who claimed to speak in the name of the
Church but who were in fact espousing something dubious or heretical.
In a way, the effect of this much criticized system made it seem that
no one could really tell us what he actually believed or thought. If a
work was "censored" and we as readers knew it was censored, it might
(or might not) be safe doctrinally. But the reader, knowing that the
work in front of him was censored, remained, as a result, unsure
whether the words he was reading were actually those of the author or
whether the author really believed them even if they were valid from a
doctrinal viewpoint. Following the example of the several books of John
Paul II and the several Interviews that he himself had while he was a
Cardinal, Pope Ratzinger has put something quite refreshing onto the
intellectual table of our time, a book about what and who he thinks
Jesus of Nazareth was and is.
Into our world, then, we suddenly have Pope Ratzinger
telling us that what we are reading in his book is "solely an
expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord.'" This
approach startles. We don't expect it. We might think that Ratzinger's
views are silly or erroneous, but it is difficult to maintain that he
does not hold what he professes and tells us about. Certainly he will
let us know when he speaks under the aegis of official papal authority.
Meantime, he understands that the modern world, before all else, is in
search for authenticity and sincerity. Thought he is not saying that
official statements are not useful and sometimes necessary, no longer
is it possible to write off what this Pope says as if it were somehow
merely "official doctrine," held only for bureaucratic reasons. How
often in recent decades have we read idiotic positions taken by some
theologian or critic justified on the grounds that he was opposing
Vatican bureaucracy or dogmatism? If we think we can "write off" the
positions of Benedict found in this book, we can in honor only do so if
we have better reasons, reasons that he too can examine. He does not
ask anything else of us.
The Pope's statement is mindful of what Chesterton wrote a
hundred years ago in the Preface to Orthodoxy: "It is the purpose of
the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian
Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe
it." Both Chesterton and the pope, however, spend most of their time
telling us precisely why the Christian Faith "can be believed." That
is, why there are reasons for believing it.
And yet, both the Pope and Chesterton are much more
persuasive because we know that both really hold what they tell us they
hold. Neither requires our assent unless we are persuaded by their
arguments. Both are for this reason, I think, doubly dangerous to the
doubter or unbeliever who has comforted himself with the thought that
no believer "really" holds what the Church teaches or that what is held
does not make sense.
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, in his presentation of
the English translation of the Pope's book, remarked that, in his many
encounters over the years with Josef Ratzinger, he almost always found
near-by a well-thumbed copy of the Greek New Testament. (L'Osservatore
Romano, May 30, 2007, English).The basic thesis of the Pope is that, by
all accounts, after all examination of modern critical methods and
philosophic suppositions have been themselves put to the test, the
picture presented of Christ in the New Testament is, from every point
of view, the more credible one. The earlier scholars like Guardini,
Adam, and Papini were right. Jesus was "a man living one earth who,
fully human though he was, at the same time brought God to men, the God
with whom as Son he was one. Through the one man Jesus, then, God was
made visible, and hence our eyes were able to behold the perfect man"
(xi). An Incarnation of the actual Son of God, in other words, did take
place within this world, at a definite time--the "fullness of
time"--and in a definite place.
This correct understanding of Christ was widely challenged
beginning in the 1950s, the Pope points out, by theories that divided
the "historical Jesus" and the "Jesus of Faith." There seemed to be two
different Jesuses: the one that scholars tried to find and the one the
Church presented as true. The Pope often in this and other writings
returned to the question of the use of "historical-criticism
scholarship" (xii). In the "Regensburg Lecture," he referred to Adolf
von Harnak's effort to return Jesus to the university by eliminating
any divine aspect from his being and therefore admitting only what
could be examined by modern scientific methods. Such methods, of
course, have their own presuppositions and yield only what the method
allows them to yield. Such methods are valuable, the Pope recognizes.
But they cannot by themselves reach the faith or the being of God in
Christ. Unless a theologian or biblical scholar himself believes, his
method will not assist him in finding the Jesus actually presented in
The Pope can be amusing on this point. "If you read a
number of these reconstructions (of who Jesus was) one after the other,
you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has become
obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their
authors and the ideals they hold" (xii). Thus, Harnak's Jesus was a
sort of good man, a prophet, but definitely not God. The Pope cites the
great Catholic biblical scholar, Rudolf Schnackenburg, who at the end
of his life concluded that "a reliable view of the historical figure of
Jesus of Nazareth through scientific effort with historical-critical
methods can be only inadequately achieved." (xiii). The Pope is not
wholly satisfied with Schnackenburg's view on "how far the 'historical
ground' actually extends." Yet, the final view of Schnackenburg is one
the Pope makes his own starting point for this book. It is that Jesus'
relatedness to God is a genuine "historical insight." That is to say,
historical fact does tell us something true. Pope Ratzinger cites
Schnackenburg again: "Without anchoring in God, the person of Jesus
remains shadowy, unreal, and unexplainable." (xiv). One can say, that
without this anchor, the pictures of Jesus presented in the scholarly
and popular world have been precisely shown this shadowy, unreal, and
unexplainable about them.
Benedict then "sees Jesus in light of his communion with
the Father, which is the true center of his personality." This
centrality is also the point of the Guardini book. The Pope continues
his reflection on Schnackenburg, "The problem with Schnackenburg's
account" is that he thinks the Gospels, as some sort of outside
influence, want to "clothe" Jesus, the Son of God, with flesh. The Pope
makes clear that his own position is that it is not the Gospels that do
this. They report but do not create what they know; namely that the
Jesus they describe is already "clothed" with flesh.(xiv).
Both the Pope and Schnackenburg recognize the value of
Pius XII's encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which approved
use of the "historical-critical method" in studies of the Bible. But
Pope Ratzinger thinks that subsequent Church teachings about biblical
studies in the Council and from the Biblical Commission have shown
further critiques of this method that need to be taken into account to
make it more complete and usable (xv). Any scientific method, as such,
is itself subject to critique particularly in its philosophic
origins--in what it can do.
With this background, the Pope wants frankly to state "the
outlines of the methodology" that he used in writing Jesus of Nazareth.
As we read in Aquinas or in Fides et Ratio, philosophy is the search
for knowledge of what is. When we read scripture or when we consider
the revelation found in it, our final question is: "Did what is
described really happen?" Against this background, Pope Ratzinger's
explanation of his position on this famous method is of especial
interest. This method is an "indispensable dimension of exegetical
work." Why? It is "because of the intrinsic nature of theology and
faith." What does this mean? "It is of the very essence of biblical
faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories
symbolizing supra-historical truths, but is based on history, history
that took place here on this earth" (xv). The account of Christ is not
a good story. It is a good story because it is true; it really happened
to the real Son of God.
A method that eliminated the facticity of the life of
Christ cannot explain who he was. The utter realism of Christian
philosophy and of the Greek mind behind it is a much better ground for
explaining what actually happened and who Christ actually was. "The
factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic
cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et
incarnates est--when we say these words, we acknowledge God's actual
entry into history." Thus if Christ is indeed "Word" made flesh and is
present beginning in a particular history, we will find witnesses of
this fact who will record what they saw and heard. This recording is
what both Testaments are about. As Christians, we do not have an a
priori theory that forbids such events from taking place. We do not
therefore feel constrained to explain them away as if they did not or
could not happen. God entered into history. No method of historical
analysis ought to be based on a denial of the evidence for it.
There are religions that acknowledge no "history" of the
divine dealings with men. Christianity is not one of these (xv). So the
Pope repeats that this method is an "indispensable tool, given the
structure of Christian faith" (xvi). However, the Pope adds, two
further considerations that must be borne in mind when we use such a
method. When we have used the method, it does not "exhaust" our
"interpretative" task. The Bible must be seen "as a single corpus of
Holy Scripture inspired by God." That is, we cannot see it as a series
of single, disparate documents or parts of documents with no relation
to each other. What went before and what came after can be and are used
to explain each other.
What are the "limits of the historical-critical method?"
This method is a modern method and bears its own time-frame, which is
not the past. "The one thing it cannot do is make it (the past) into
something present today." The method also presupposes a "uniformity of
context within which the events of history unfold" (xvii). It must
treat biblical words as "human words." Thus, it can sense perhaps that
something deeper is occurring. "But its specific object is the human
word as human." In treating each book separately, moreover, following
the notion of the word of God behind the human words, the method cannot
see "the unity of all of these writings as one 'Bible'..." The method
cannot see the Bible as a single datum. "We have to keep in mind the
limit of all efforts to know the past: We can never go beyond the
domain of hypothesis, because we simply cannot bring the past into the
present." Some hypotheses no doubt, are better than others, the Pope
The Pope finally wants to evaluate this method. It is very
necessary and useful when we understand what it is and what are its
limits. But we also see, because we recognize these limits, that the
method "points beyond itself and contains within itself an openness to
complementary methods" (xviii). Thus in Fides et Ratio, John Paul II
said that scripture scholars also had to know and be aware of
philosophy, just as philosophers had to have some awareness of the
presence of revelation in the intellectual sphere. "A voice greater
than man's echoes in Scripture's human words" is Benedict's way of
stating that the words of scripture do not only have human origins.
Pope Ratzinger, in his "Foreword," next approvingly refers
to a school of "American scholars," who, some thirty years ago,
developed what they called "canonical exegesis." What is that? "The aim
of this exegesis is to read individual texts within the totality of the
one Scripture, which them sheds new light on all the individual texts."
This approach was recommended by Vatican II's Constitution on Divine
Revelation (#12). The Pope adds, following a passage in Vatican I, that
we also have "the need for taking account of the living tradition of
the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic
correspondences within faith)." This further addition, of course,
implies, not unlike Newman, the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit
in the Church throughout time and the intrinsic consistence of the
whole of faith and reason.
The Pope dwells "for the time being on the unity of
Scripture." It is not just a series of books accidentally held together
by the accidents of time. "Modern exegesis has brought to light the
process of constant rereading that forged the words transmitted in the
Bible into Scripture." Thus, Isaiah appears in the New Testament. Paul
repeats what he has read. Christ himself cites incidents and passages
from earlier scripture. What is clear is that things weave back and
forth in a sort of circular manner. Still, "you can see that the Old
and New Testaments belong together." This subject of the relation of
the Old and New Testament will come up again later in the book when
Benedict discusses Rabbi Neusner's book on Jesus. The Pope continues:
"This Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to
the whole and learns from him how to understand the Bible as a unity,
presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a
purely historical method. But this act of faith is based upon
reason--historical reason--and so makes it possible to see the internal
unity of Scripture" (xix). The Pope constantly is mindful that even an
ordinary human utterance will contain more in an uttered word than we
might grasp at first. The human author of scripture is not "simply
speaking for himself on his own authority." (xx).
The author of scripture also speaks within a community
that remembers all these things. "He speaks in a living community, that
is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, not even
by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is
at work." The bible is not a "simple piece of literature." Each book of
scripture has "three interacting subjects." There is the individual
author or authors, who are part of a collective subject, the People of
God, who knows that it is 'led and spoken to by God himself,
who--through men and their humanity--is at the deepest level the one
speaking" (xxi). Scripture is an account of God's leading his people at
all times and places.
Scripture is the "measure that comes from God." Man is not
the "measure" of all things, but they have a measure. The Church "is
the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of
the Bible are always in the present." This comment refers back to what
the Pope had cautioned about method, that it is itself in the present.
But there is a "place" as it were wherein the words of scr