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.