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Daniel J. HarringtonApril 04, 2011
Jesus of Nazarethby Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVIIgnatius Press. 384p $24.95

This volume is a sequel to Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, in which Pope Benedict covered the baptism of Jesus, the temptations, the kingdom of God, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the disciples, the parables, images of Jesus in John’s Gospel, Peter’s confession and the transfiguration, and the titles of Jesus. He also made clear his principles of biblical interpretation: The portrait of Jesus in the Gospels is trustworthy, and so it (and not some modern historian’s reconstruction) is the proper object of study and devotion. Jesus is the key to the Scriptures, and so the Bible as a whole may and should be read from a Christological/canonical perspective. The historical-critical method is foundational and indispensable for this kind of study but is not completely adequate for understanding Jesus and the Scriptures.

The pope’s first volume (reviewed in America, 6/4/07) was favorably received by most exegetes and theologians. He was, however, criticized by some for his excessive reliance on John’s Gospel and some antiquated biblical scholarship, selective use of patristic material, a too-easy assumption of the hermeneutic of acceptance or generosity regarding the Gospels, and a somewhat narrow and conventional theological outlook. Whatever else it may have accomplished, the pope’s first volume illustrated both the positive value and the difficulties of doing theological exegesis.

In his second volume the pope continues his project to integrate the historical hermeneutic practiced in much biblical scholarship today and a properly developed faith or theological hermeneutic and thus to restore biblical study to its identity as a theological discipline. Focusing on the Gospel accounts of the events of Holy Week, he treats Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple, the eschatological discourse, the washing of the feet, Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the trial of Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, his resurrection from the dead and his ascension. To complete the project, the pope intends to write soon a small monograph on the infancy narratives.

This volume carries on the methodology, format, tone and style the pope developed in the first Jesus of Nazareth. However, he does seem to make even more (and very effective) use of Old Testament texts as a means of understanding Gospel passages. Thus he takes seriously the traditional method of interpreting Scripture by Scripture, known today as intertextuality. He also offers more explicit engagement with the works of contemporary biblical scholars. His exegetical dialogical partners are mainly German Catholic and Protestant professors, though he seems to have grown some in his positive appreciation for the work of the Rev. John P. Meier of the University of Notre Dame. And he does much more with the sacramental (especially eucharistic) and liturgical implications of his interpretations of biblical texts, which has long been one of his special interests. The theme of Jesus replacing or superseding worship at the Jerusalem temple runs through the book.

The genre of these volumes is best categorized as theological exegesis. This approach to biblical interpretation takes seriously the texts as not only the words of human authors but also (and especially) the word of God. The danger in relying only on the historical-critical method is that the Bible can be treated as merely another book about the past. Indeed, the pope wonders whether this approach, while fundamental and indispensable, may be becoming exhausted and thus no longer fruitful. However, his abundant and generally positive use of historical scholarship and his treatment of the critical questions it raises will have the ironic effect of introducing the general public to matters generally covered only in very technical works.

In carrying out his theological exegesis of the Gospels, the pope joins historical exegesis, patristic theological insights, more recent theological concerns, liturgical practice and contemporary experience. The dangers involved in theological exegesis include trying to do too many things at once, blurring the distance between the ancient text and life today and moving too quickly from textual study to homiletics. Following the lead of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitutioin on Divine Revelation” (1965) and other official Catholic documents on biblical interpretation, the pope uses as his points of reference the unity of Scripture, the living tradition of the church and the analogy of faith—that is, coherence with the paschal mystery.

Joseph Ratzinger long ago wrote an excellent commentary on the council’s revelation document and has maintained a lively interest in the relationship between the Bible and theology. He presided at the sessions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission that produced the 1993 document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” In response to the 2008 synod on the Bible in the life and mission of the church, he has recently issued an extensive summary of Catholic documentation on biblical interpretation under the title “Verbum Domini.” Clarifying and encouraging Catholic biblical interpretation is an important element in his legacy as both theologian and pope.

It is crucial to read the pope’s two Jesus books for what they are. They are not a biography of Jesus, an exegetical exposition of the Gospels or a systematic treatise on Christology. Rather, they are a form of biblical theology, a series of learned reflections on various aspects and episodes of the four Gospels. The pope is well known for his love of music, and his theological method has sometimes been compared to a symphony in which the different instruments blend together to form a pleasing and persuasive whole. My best advice is to read these books for what they are, and by all means to enjoy the symphony and learn from a great maestro. The second volume is obviously appropriate reading for Holy Week, since it breaks open the passion narratives and provides useful historical information about them, offers challenging and often fresh interpretations and makes connections with theology and liturgy.

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