Monday, June 14, 2010

Jesus of Nazareth: Foreword

Pope Benedict begins his book Jesus of Nazareth with some thoughts on the historical-critical method. The past century has produced numerous reconstructions of the figure of Jesus, however, they have ultimately only achieved an "obscured and blurred" image of him (xii). This has been the result of an increased skepticism by the exegete, combined with an ever-continuing attempt to 'discover' layer after layer of traditions in the Gospel. The Pope quotes from the German Catholic exegete Rudolf Schnackenburg, who ends his last great work by saying: "'the effort of scientific exegesis to examine these traditions and trace them back to what is historically credible' draws us 'into a continual discussion of tradition and redaction history that never comes to rest (xiii).'" This tendency, Pope Benedict will try to avoid in this book. As he lays out his method for the book, he anchors his understanding of Jesus "in light of his communion with the Father, which is the true center of his personality; without it, we cannot understand him at all (xiv)." That is his basis for this work, from which the use of all important exegetical tools flow from.

For the Pope, the tools of the exegetical trade, like the historical-critical method, must be guided by that understanding of the relationship between Father and Son. Yet, it would be a mistake to accuse the Pope of dismissing the important advancements in Biblical scholarship over the past century. He clearly accepts and encourages the use of modern exegetical methods. As the Pope says twice: "The historical-critical method, let me repeat, is an indispensable tool (xvi)." It is important to remember that Pope Benedict is an academic at heart, who embraces the Church's teachings in such documents as Divino Afflante Spiritu, Dei Verbum, and obviously The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The historical method, thus, is an essential help in discovering the foundations on which Biblical faith stands. For Christianity is not a faith based on symbolic "suprahistorical truths", but rather is centered in history. Christian faith is Incarnational, because God himself has become flesh and dwelt among us.

Yet, there are limits to the historical-critical method. While it attempts to understand the past, it cannot, by its very nature, bring the Biblical world to the present. It can only treat the words found in the Sacred Text as merely a human word, and not as an Eternal Word (xvi-xvii). It, therefore, cannot see the unity of the Scriptures as a whole. For Pope Benedict, the key is then to utilize the historical-critical method where it is most useful, but to recognize that to come to the fullest meaning of the Scripture, other ways of reading the text must be included.

The Pope says: "The aim of this exegesis is to read the individual texts within the totality of the one Scripture, which then sheds light on all the individual texts (xviii)." This means reading the Scriptures in the spirit in which it was written, and recognizing the content and unity of the Scriptures as a whole (canonical exegesis). Of course, this methodology is in union with what is set forth in Dei Verbum, so that should not be a surprise. Going forth, then, the Pope will use both the historical-critical method in cooperation with canonical exegesis. In this way, one can recognize that while the Gospels present a many-layered approach to answering the question of who Jesus is, there still remains a deep harmony which unites them (xxiii).

One of the more charming moments in this short foreword to the book comes near end. He concludes his foreword by stating: "It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magesterium, but solely an expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord'. Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding (xviii-xviv)." As he has clearly set forth his modus operandi for this work, perhaps we too can agree with this request from the Pope as we proceed.

I think that is enough to start us off. While there are a few other things I could cover, I don't want to do a complete review of each section, in hopes that discussion can be encouraged on both the issues I have covered, as well as those which remain uncovered in each section.


Diakonos said...

Don't know if this is the place to ask or not...but what STANDING does a document like "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" hold? I like the document and find it very helpful but I have long wondered WHERE such documents from a commission fit into the "official" Catholic position on interpretation. Thanks.

Athanasius said...

I started re-reading Jesus of Nazareth myself a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the next instalment. I think that going through this text on your blog, Timothy, in dialogue with whoever may engage, is a great idea.

It's interesting that you draw attention to the Holy Father's contention that this very same species of 'dialogue' with the text can only approach understanding through 'goodwill'.

It seems that this 'goodwill', that the Pope speaks of, is what certain people would maintain is lacking, on the Pope's part, in his dialogue with secularism.

Critics such as Habermas and Flasch bemoan the fact that he himself does not approach this dialogue with anything other than a fully-loaded judgement devoid of what they would deem either 'goodwill' or 'reason'. Criticisms arising from his Regensburg address, of course.

Maybe this is something we can look into as we progress through this text, and enter into a dialogue informed by the Pope's 'search for the face of Christ', with those who would reject any form of dialogue which demands parity for a religious dimension?

By the way, here's a link to a series of talks given by Fr Peter Damian M. Fehlner - a Franciscan Friar - on each individual chapter of Jesus of Nazareth:

Theophrastus said...

I am glad you are doing this because I have some questions.

Indeed the realization of the last point some thirty years ago led some American scholars to develop the project of "canonical exegesis."

Can you give me some examples of this work; preferably in English -- authors and book titles, perhaps?

Rudolf Schnackenburg ... Jesus in the Gospels: A Biblical Christology.

Can you tell me more about this work? I see it is still in print in English translation.

When I was growing up -- in the 1930s and 1940s -- there were a series of inspiring books about Jesus: Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Franz Michel William, giovanni Papini, and Henri Daniel-Rops.

Can you tell me more about these authors? Which of their books is the Pope referring to? Can you tell me more about these books?

More questions later....

Timothy said...


While not holding the same authoritative place as a Papal encyclical, nor certainly any dogmatic ex-catherda statement or canon from an ecumenical council, documents like this one show the 'mind of the church' on various issues. I think they are primarily helpful to bishops, teachers, and catechists.

Timothy said...


I will have to think about your question some more. I think Pope Benedict has always been one, since he is an academic, who considers a means of true dialogue can be accomplished through the publication of works and ideas into the public sphere. Let's not forget that one of the first things he did as Pope was to invite Hans Kung over for a visit to the Vatican. Of course Kung is a very polarizing figure in the church and has in the past been less than charitable in refering to the then Cardinal Ratzinger.

Timothy said...


I would recommend, although I have suspicion that you probably have read it, but to check out the section on canonical exegesis in 'The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church' document. In it, it specificallyists the works of Brevard Childs and James A Sanders as example of the American canonical approach.

As for the other authors you mentioned, I can tell you that I do own Adams' book 'the roots of the Reformation' which is a slim, but fair assessment of the reasons for the Reformation. It is available through the Coming Home Network website. Guardini, in my mind, is most know. For his books 'The Lord' and 'The Spirit of the Liturgy' which are often referenced in Ratzingers work. In particular, 'The Spirit of the Liturgy' is clearly stated as a direct influence on Ratzinger's book of the same name. Guardini's 'The Lord' has been recommended to me by a number of people, both Catholic and Protestant, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

As for Schnackenburg, I have come into contact with his writings more so in reference by other authors. He is another, in an ever growing list of Biblical scholars who I need to read.

Of the other

tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tim said...

Check out this series of podcasts I found where Fr. Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I. gives a lecture on each chapter of the Pope's book.

Athanasius said...


Yes, you're absolutely right. However, I believe that 'academia' may be the problem here, to some degree (I actually agree with Heidegger on this - there are huge numbers of 'academics' and very few scholars), and that 'dialogue', as understood by modern academics, is not quite what the Pope is engaged in here. I recently had a brief discussion with Jacob Neusner about this very thing. I asked him if he thought that what the Pope was engaged in, generally, in his writings etc, fell more within the parameters of classical disputation than dialogue, and Professor Neusner thought that this was very possibly the case. He (Neusner) certainly considers the on-going 'discussion' between himself and the Pope, within the pages of Jesus of Nazareth, as disputation, as he clearly expressed in the Jerusalem Post (29th May 2007):

Disputation went out of style when religions lost their confidence in the power of reason to establish theological truth. Then, as in Lessing's Nathan the Wise, religions were made to affirm a truth in common, and the differences between religions were dismissed as trivial and unimportant. An American president was quoted as saying, "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're a good man." Then disputations between religions lost their urgency. The heritage of the Enlightenment with its indifference to the truth-claims of religion fostered religious toleration and reciprocal respect in place of religious confrontation and claims to know God. Religions emerged as obstacles to the good order of society...But now His Holiness... has answered my critique in a creative exercise of exegesis and theology. In his Jesus of Nazareth the Judeo-Christian disputation enters a new age. We are able to meet one another in a forthright exercise of reason and criticism. The challenges of Sinai bring us together for the renewal of a 2,000 year old tradition of religious debate in the service of God's truth.

Someone once called me the most contentious person he had ever known. Now I have met my match. Pope Benedict XVI is another truth-seeker.

We are in for interesting times.

Interesting times indeed!

Timothy said...


Thank you for that long quote from Neusner. I think most people should find it very helpful as we proceed, particularly when we get to the section of the book where the Pope engages him. It is probably one of the most fascinating parts of Jesus of Nazareth.