The Best Jesus Book I Know

I was led to buy, read, indeed try to absorb, Gerhard Lohfink's, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was (Liturgical Press, 2012) when I heard that Daniel Harrington S.J., dean of American Jesuit New Testament scholars, said of it: "Lohfink's Jesus of Nazareth is the best Jesus book I know"—this from an author, himself, of an excellent book about Jesus: Jesus: A Historical Portrait. Lohfink was also exceedingly lucky to get such a good translator in his former student, Linda Maloney, who renders crisp and very readable prose.

Lohfink's Jesus is the Christ of faith. As he shrewdly notes, "the real 'historical Jesus' cannot be grasped independently of faith in him," since what we know about Jesus comes to us in faith documents written by an interpretative community called the church. Moreover, Lohfink insists that we can not even remotely grasp Jesus' claim without knowing the Old Testament. His is a profoundly Jewish Jesus. As he says, "It is highly dangerous to separate Christianity from Israel and commit oneself to theological individualism." Jesus did not come to "save souls" but to inaugurate the end times and build a community which was placed under God's rule.


Jesus did not proclaim himself so much as to proclaim the reign of God which like every reign has to take place in a settled place (Israel) and time (now!). If for John the Baptist, the reign of God was soon coming, impending, for Jesus it is here, today. We often hear the phrase that the reign of God is both today, here and yet, "not yet," still to come. This "not yet" of the kingdom, pace Lohfink, comes from our hesitation to accept God. God does not hesitate to inaugurate his kingdom. The reign of God must have people and that people for Jesus was the reconstituted Israel which he creates by choosing twelve apostles to represent the reconstituted twelve tribes of Israel.

Lohfink makes much of Ezechial 36's promise. Ezechial has God say that he will prove the holiness of his own name by gathering in the scattered Israelites who will be a sign to all the nations when, in their sight, God proves the holiness of his own name by this gathering in of scattered Israel. Israel had often prayed for an eschatological gathering ot its scattered remnants (cf. Deuteronomy 30:15; Isaiah 11: 12-13; Ezechial 36: 19-38). Such a prayer is paramount in the Jewish prayer of 18 Benedictions, which sounds very similar to the prayer Jesus taught as the Our Father. For Lohfink, the phrase in the Our Father, "Hallowed be thy name" refers less to our making God's name holy than to God's hallowing his own name by that ingathering of Israel God spoken of through Ezechial 36.

Jesus was not really either a rabbi nor a zealot. He called disciples to follow him, not to come study Torah with him (the usual phrase for a disciple of a rabbi). Rabbis stayed in one spot and offered stability of place. Jesus did not. Their students were supposed to serve the rabbi. Jesus said he came as the one who served. Rabbinic students could change teachers but no one can assume that the disciples were free to change their commitment to Jesus.

Much has been made of the recent book by a Muslim scholar, Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazereth. Like some other scholars, Aslan makes Jesus close to the zealots. To be sure, as Lohfink argues, "the themes of the reign of God, the demand for faith, the call to discipleship to the point of endangering one's own life, unconditional surrender of property and goods for the cause of God," so clear in Jesus, was closer to the position of the zealots than to that of the scribes and rabbis. But there is a profound difference: Jesus' non-violence. His stricture to his disciples to take no staff with them (thus, left defenseless) and have no money in their belts (the zealots raised money for their cause) makes his call different from the zealots. The zealots sought a theocratic kingdom. Jesus, the follower of Torah, realized that the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) ended before the people reached the holy land or had any kings. Jesus sought a new people under God's rule but no theocratic kingdom. Jesus did not want a God-state but a new society under God. His revolution was neither armed nor directly political but involved a remaking of what power is: service, freedom, being a mere leaven in society.

Jesus said of himself that he was more than a prophet. He likened himself to the Son of Man found in Daniel 7--a clear evocation of the ingathering of Israel and of the final judgment as the inauguration of a newly reconstituted Israel. Even the resurrection passages refer not just  to the vindication of Jesus by God or his exaltation to the right hand of the father but evoke the eschatological expectation of  a general resurrection of the dead in the last days. His is the first of what will be the resurrection of the many. Matthew captures this Jewish eschatological expectation when he notes that when Jesus died, "tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep wre raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many." (Matthew 27:52-53).

Lohfink has fresh things to say about Jesus' teaching through parables, about his sayings about judgment and, especially, about understanding Jesus' miracles. The ancient world did not see miracles as a rupture of natural laws. Rather miracles bring nature to its own fulfillment. Unlike some other accounts of ancient miracle workers, Jesus never evokes some one else's name (e.g., Solomon). Nor does he use magical practices, such as amulets. Only in the gospels were miracles predicated on the faith of the one being cured. Jesus, moreover, never did anything miraculous to help himself.

Jesus' sovereign claim was not that he was prophet, even the end prophet. He never spoke, as the prophets did, by saying "The Lord spoke to me" or "Hear from me what I heard from the Lord" but, instead, said: "Amen I say to you." Jesus' scandalous "I" speak stands out. Moreover, "that Christians only a few decades after the death of Jesus, said that he was truly God and yet at the same time truly human is one of the most remarkable and exciting phenomena in the history of religions. Why? Because faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ arose within Israel, that is, within the sphere of the strictest monotheism, of the strictest belief in one God. And now, on the soil of this very Israel, in the midst of Judaism, Jesus is confessed and called upon as true God—and by Jews." No overt Hellenistic influence, argues Lohfink, brought about this Jewish acceptance of the divinity of Jesus.

For Lohfink, the reign of God Jesus preached and inaugurated is no utopia. Utopias refer most often to some distant place or time. Jesus' reign of God is here and now (and calls for us to go for broke to claim this pearl of great price). As Lohfink puts it: "Jesus' proclamation and practice of the reign of God is more radical than any utopia. It is more realistic. It is more critical. It knows more about human beings. It is the only hope for the wounds and sinfulness of our planet."

Having read and studied, Jesus of Nazareth (and squirreled it away as a rich resource for future preaching and having been truly moved spiritually by it), I can agree with Daniel Harrington S.J.: "Lohfink's Jesus of Nazareth is the best Jesus book I know."

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