As I mentioned previously, this morning I bought a copy of the Italian translation of the Pope's new book Gesù di Nazaret. In as much as time permits me (and I make no promises) I hope that I would have the opportunity to share a few of my observations as I read this book.
Some Initial Observations
The first thing I notice that this Italian edition was edited by Ingrid Stampa (of whom we haven’t heard much recently) and Elio Guerriero. Flicking through, one notes that this book is very much more evidently directed at the general public than Ratzinger's previous volumes; in particular I note the absence of the footnotes which normally abound in theological works. I remember a scientist once telling me that the inclusion of a single mathematical equation in a book probably halves its sales. I suspect that footnotes have the same effect for many people. A theologian of my acquaintance (who received an advance copy some time ago - lucky sod! ;) ) suggested that it's pitched at such a level that it should be accessible to anyone with a decent high school education.
Turning to the index of names at the back it's surprising to note that despite being a noted Augustinian thinker, there are only three page references to St Augustine as opposed to eight for St Cyprian. Apart from the various biblical and historical figures, one notes that Joachim Jerimias, Rudolf Schnackenburg, Jacob Neusner (a Jewish rabbi!), Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann seemed to be the most frequently cited ‘dialogue partners’ in this investigation of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It should be noted that all four figures take very differing and very distinctive approaches to the person of Christ, and it should be fascinating to see how the Pope engages with each one.
There is also a list of citations from magisterial documents at the back of the book - one reference each from Divino afflante spiritu (Pius XII’s great Biblical encyclical) and Dei Verbum 12 (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), and one reference each from two relatively recent documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church and The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.
The list of biblical citations is also interesting -- the most cited gospel is that of John, with more or less equal attention being given to each of the three synoptic Gospels.
Reading the Preface
In his preface or ‘premessa’ (premise), Pope Benedict explains that this book is the result of "a long interior journey."
The Division between the Christ of Faith and of History
He recalls that in his youth (the 1930s and 1940s) there flourished theological books about Jesus which drew heavily on the Gospels written by the likes of Karl Adam, Romano Guardini and so on. However, from the 1950s there has been a greater separation between "the historical Jesus" and "the Christ of faith." One of the results of historical-critical research is an increasing distinction between the levels of tradition present in the Scriptures, with the result that the figure of Jesus himself has become less clearly apprehended. The various attempts to reconstruct "the historical Jesus" have produced an ever greater a variety of contrasting figures and the figures of Jesus therefore seems more and more distant from us. We are left with the impression that we know very little about Jesus, and the idea that the belief in his divinity has caused his image to be reshaped has profoundly penetrated the mind of Christianity. This has the very serious consequence of making the fundamental point of reference of our faith uncertain, namely intimate friendship with Jesus.
Schnackenburg's Attempted Solution
This problem was tackled by Schnackenburg (perhaps the most important German-language Catholic exegete of the 2nd half of the 20th century) who tried to present believers with a reliable picture of Christ, albeit even Schnackenburg was not immune to the shortcomings of his method. The Pope accepts Schnackenburg’s statement about the Gospels, namely “the historical foundation is presupposed, but overtaken by the vision of faith of the evangelists" but we are left with the question of how to arrive at this "historical foundation." (It should be noted that Schnackenburg makes the decisive historical point of Christ's divinity.)
The Pope makes this latter point on which his book will rest, namely the consideration of Jesus starting with his communion with the Father. This is the true centre of his personality and without understanding this one cannot understand Jesus.
Moving beyond Schnackenburg
Benedict proposes moving beyond Schnackenburg. He selects the following phrase from Schnackenburg’s work as being central to its shortcomings: “ the Gospels wish to reclothe with flesh the mysterious Son of God who appeared on earth.” The Pope notes that the evangelists had no need to reclothe the Son of God with flesh, because he really took flesh. But can we reach this flesh through the jungles of traditions?
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
The Pope accepts the validity of the historical-critical method, but also insists that biblical faith has as its foundation real historical events, in the Bible cannot be reduced to symbols. The historical fact is indispensable, because God took flesh and entered history. If we put aside the historical reality, we are replacing Christianity with some other religion. The fact that we are dealing with a historical fact means that Christian faith is accessible to the historical method, and indeed Christian faith demands it. Dei Verbum 12 outlines how this is done, and specifies concrete methodological points which must be kept present in reading the scriptures.
However, even though the historical-critical method is indispensable, it still forms only a part of our understanding of how to read the Bible. Its limits must be recognized, namely that it treats the words of Scripture as belonging purely to the past, an approach which is in adequate in isolation. The Bible must also be understood, not only as individual books written in particular historical contexts, but as the whole which we call Scripture (canonical criticism). The Pope adds that we must also bear in mind the instruction of Dei Verbum 12 that: “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.”
The Ecclesial Dimension of Scripture
Benedict also insists on the ecclesial dimension of the Scriptures. Scripture emerged for and from the "living subject of the People of God." Initially we have a single author or a group of authors to whom we attribute a particular book. However, these are not autonomous writers in the modern sense of the word, but rather belong to the common subject of the People of God. They speak from and to this People, to the extent that at a deeper level the People is an author of Scripture. However, this People is not self-sufficient, but is guided and directed by God himself who speaks to men in their humanity. Therefore, the relationship between the Church and the Scriptures is essential. The Bible is the criterium which comes from God to guide this People, and lives only within this People.
In summary, Benedict explains that on the basis of these methodological indications, he trusts the Gospels in their picture of Jesus. Whilst accepting the fruits of modern biblical scholarship, he intends to present the "Jesus of the Gospels" as the real Jesus, that is the "historical Jesus in the real and proper sense." He is convinced that this Jesus is more historically convincing and logical than the various reconstructions which have been offered in previous decades. Only if something extraordinary happened can we understand the figure and words of Jesus in all their efficacy. The question is posed how we can explain the early history of the Church in any other way. In presenting things like this, Benedict is aware of that he is going beyond much of what contemporary exegesis says. However, he asks that it be understood not as written in opposition to modern exegesis, but rather with recognition of the many things that this form of exegesis continues to offer. The Pope explains that moving beyond mere historical-critical interpretation, he has sought to apply new methodological criteria which allow for a properly theological reading of the Bible, which demands faith, without wishing to or being able renounce historical seriousness.
The Necessary Disclaimer
Pope Benedict explains that he offers this book, not as a magisterial act, but has an expression of his personal search for the face of the Lord.
My Initial Assessment
That, in summary is what the foreword of the book has to say. It is interesting to note what exactly the Pope is doing here. Firstly, the fact that he decided to publish a book like this whilst Pope indicates something about his understanding of the Church's teaching mission. One can hardly doubt that Pope Benedict appreciates the magisterium’s authority to definitively set forth dogma and to define it in such a way that the Church can bind the intellect of the faithful and propose unalterable truths. However, this does not exhaust the teaching office of the Church, and as we have seen from his preaching, he sees that it is also essential that the Church be convincing in her teaching. He has faith in the strength of Christ's Gospel to convince and convert the minds and hearts of men, if only it is preached with clarity and authenticity.
Secondly, in his outline of the method that he employs, he is providing us with an example of what Vatican II sets out as being authentic biblical interpretation. He makes use of the best scientific research, without allowing himself to become so fascinated by it that he cannot see beyond it. The historical nature of Christianity means that we have nothing to fear from authentic historical and textual research, as long as it is understood within the context of the faith of the Church. Historical-critical exegesis is indispensable, but only in the context of a broader understanding of biblical interpretation that takes the tradition of the Church, the magisterium, the unity of the Scriptures and other methods of exegesis into account.
Thirdly, in his desire to present us with Jesus as the Gospels show him, Pope Benedict is making a statement in favour of the faith of the ordinary Christian. The truth about Christ is not confined to those who share in the gnosis of biblical criticism, but is accessible to the ordinary believer who (with the guidance of the Church) takes up the Gospels in good faith.
Finally, the book very obviously promises to be an expression of the centrality of Jesus Christ in the thought and life of Joseph Ratzinger.