Cardinal: Pope's Book Goes Against the Grain
Says Ideas Are Original and Pointed

BENEVENTO, Italy, JULY 22, 2007 ( 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 "hot peppers."

"'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 depth."

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."

Social doctrine

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 the Gospel."

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 cardinal continued.

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 promise."

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 … History"

ROME, JULY 14, 2007 ( Here is a translation of a talk given in Rome by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, on historical research concerning Jesus.

* * *

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."[1]

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."[2]
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"[3].

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 points.[4]

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."[5]

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 term.

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[6]; 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[7]. 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 endless manipulation.

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 irreducible opposite.

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 difference.

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"[8].

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."[9]

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 interpretation."[10]

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[11].

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."[12]

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."[13] 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 human[14].

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 Testament."[15]

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 demise.

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.

7. Conclusion

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[16], 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.

--- --- ---

[1] P. Fredriksen, "From Jesus to Christ. The Origins of the New Testament images of Jesus," 2nd edition, Yale University Press, 2000.
[2] Cf. E. P. Sanders, "Jesus in Historical Context" []
[3] J. Dunn, "Christianity in the Making," I, Grand Rapids, Mich. 2003, p. 97.

[4] G. Theissen and A. Merz, "Der historische Jesus: ein Lehrbuch," Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999.
[5] J. Meier, "A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus," Doubleday, New York 1991, p. 5-6.
[6] On the theory of Jesus as cynic, cf. B. Griffin, "Was Jesus a philosophical Cynic?" [].

[7] 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.
[8] Op. cit. p. 624.
[9] Ib. pp. 636-646.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI, "Gesù di Nazaret," Rizzoli, Milano 2007, p. 409.
[11] Cf. H. de Lubac, "Exégèse médiévale. Les quatre sens de l’Ecriture," 4 voll., Aubier, Paris 1959-1964.
[12] C. H. Dodd, "History and Gospel," London 1952, p. 109.

[13] M. Dibelius, Iesus, Berlin 1966, p. 117.
[14] Cfr. L. Hurtado, "Lord Jesus Christ. Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity," Grand Rapids, Mich. 2003.
[15] 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.
[16] 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 Nazareth.

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 Gospels.

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 tells us.

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