Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI). Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. New York and London: Doubleday, 2007. xxiv + 374 pp. $24.95. ISBN 978-0-385-52341-7.
"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). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding" (pp. xxiii-xxiv). Remarkable words from a sitting pope, who signs his Foreword like the cover and title page with his birth name before his papal name.
This book is remarkable in many other ways as well. It is a contribution to the ongoing quest of the historical Jesus, abreast of a good swath of recent German scholarship, including more conservative writings from Martin Hengel and Peter Stuhlmacher, and selected bits from other countries. It takes the case for the historical reliability of the Gospels as broadly persuasive, while recognizing with critical scholars the full range of redactional and literary techniques employed with the historical material. It deliberately brackets all the controversial doctrinal questions about other characters in Jesus' life, most notably Mary and Peter, to focus on Jesus. It occasionally quotes Church Fathers and writers from other eras of Christian history and, among these references, occasionally cites an allegorizing interpretation that goes beyond what historical criticism would allow, but always tips its hand that it is doing so and knows that it is doing so. In short, there are only very brief affirmations here and there that only Roman Catholics could make and very little that sympathizes with the various waves of liberal scholarship in the modern era. Almost all of the book could have been written by informed evangelical New Testament scholars and almost all of the major positions taken agree exactly with what those scholars increasingly agree is the heart of what a certain teaching or deed of Jesus means.
The pope's book is the first in a projected two-volume series. Benedict XVI had hoped to publish it all at the same time but realized that, with age, he could not presume to know how long he would live, and he wanted the first part to see the light of day--a wise choice, indeed. His thesis, most simply, is that, in the midst of everything else Jesus does and says, his primary purpose was to reveal God to humanity.
Beginning with Jesus' baptism that marked the opening of his public phase of ministry, Ratzinger sees hints of the cross and resurrection already in the words of God from heaven as well as in the act of immersion itself. Jesus also puts his imprimatur on John's ministry: "In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness" (p.17). Instead of embarking on his powerful mission immediately, he must confront Satan in the wilderness temptations to determine what kind of Savior (if any) he will be. Here appear in a nutshell all human temptations to dictate and manipulate God's plan of salvation.
When he does go public, Jesus announces the arrival of the gospel of the kingdom--good news set against the competing backdrop of similar imperial claims. The "kingdom" would better be understood of as God's "lordship" or "being-Lord" (p. 56). "God is now the one who acts and who rules as Lord--rules in a divine way, without worldly power, rules through the love that reaches 'to the end' (Jn 13:1), to the Cross" (p. 61).
Not surprisingly, Ratzinger treats the Sermon on the Mount in more detail than any other section of Jesus' early ministry, with special attention to the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer. This manifesto does not set down Jesus' entrance requirements for the kingdom but how disciples are to live out their lives of faithful service to the King. Protestants would do well to remember the place for asceticism in the Christian life, but Ratzinger refuses to generalize this to all believers or to revert to the common medieval Catholic two-tier gradation of holiness between (celibate) clerics and the rest of Christianity. Concern for the poor punctuates Jesus' teaching, as do the commands to imitate him in numerous walks of life. But fundamentally, Jesus' ethical injunctions and personal claims, here and throughout the Gospels, point people to himself.
In this context, Ratzinger interacts in detail with Jacob Neusner's excellent little work, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. Neusner has hit the nail on the head. Jesus' program is more than a reformation or restoration of Judaism; it involves the recurring claim that all meaningful rituals and Laws of the Hebrew Scriptures are fulfilled in him. Christ is the true Sabbath offering eternal rest. Jesus' community of disciples forms the new Israel and his true family. One obeys the Law by following Jesus, free from the responsibility to literally perform the 613 commandments of Torah. Neusner correctly recognizes that only one who is God has the right to make such claims of people, but he cannot accept Jesus' deity. Ratzinger insists on it.
In introducing the Lord's Prayer, the pope captures the right balance between liturgical and impromptu praying: "Our praying can and should arise above all from our heart, from our needs, our hopes, our joys, our sufferings, from our shame over sin, from our gratitude for the good. It can and should be a wholly personal prayer. But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experienced both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church. For without these aids to prayer, our own praying and our image of God become subjective and end up expressing ourselves more than the living God" (p.130).
As with most scholars today, the pope recognizes that the Gospels' miracles are not primarily about meeting human need but disclosing the arrival of the kingdom of God and therefore of the King himself. Parables, too, reveal the kingdom, but only to those who are willing to receive it. At first appearing as innocuous stories, they draw people in until they are convicted by them. Neither detailed allegory nor utterly non-allegorical, parables communicate their central truths particularly through the actions of the main characters. French Catholic scholar Pierre Grelot becomes an important conversation partner with the pope here, and elsewhere, just as he first gave me the idea in my doctoral studies to develop the thesis of one main point per main character in the parables!
Although John's Gospel reflects a more developed tradition of theological reflection on the teaching of Jesus and its significance, it nevertheless conveys in its distinctive idiom the heart of what Jesus was about. Again we see key rituals and institutions of Judaism fulfilled, especially in the imagery of new vines and wine, along with new heavenly bread, foreshadowing the Eucharist, and new water and new birth, correlating with baptism. Jesus as Good Shepherd is much more an image of Jesus as the righteous ruler, the true Shepherd-King of Ezekiel 34, than merely a rescuer of lost sheep as in Luke 15, though he is that, too.
Peter's confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, in its Gospel contexts, refutes those who would place Jesus merely as one (even if the best) among many through whom a profound experience of God can be channeled. The Transfiguration, likewise, places Jesus in the context of the great prophets but as one who is much more than just a prophet. Both of these episodes lead to the question of Jesus' identity and the meaning of the titles used by and of him. "Son of Man" cannot be limited to just an earthly figure, even a suffering servant figure, but must include the heavenly individual of Daniel 7 as well. "Son of God," like the unqualified "Son," goes one step further to add perfect communion in knowledge and being into the mix. The "I am" sayings of John merely make explicit what is already implicit in the comparable sayings in the Synoptics, particularly in Christ's walking on the water and before the Sanhedrin, that Jesus is the disclosure of the living God himself.
There are plenty of places where one might quibble with this or that minor point of exegesis. But they pale in comparison with the number of pages on end where the reviewer finds himself underlining, agreeing with, and including exclamation points, thank you's, and even smiling faces in the margins of his copy of the book. I am indebted to our graduate, Jon Haley, long-time church worker in Spain, for first calling this book to my attention and suggesting that it was worthy of review. Evangelical readers can derive considerable encouragement from the pope's positions and devotional inspiration from his applications.