“There are innumerable books about Jesus.” So begins the preface of Gerhard Lohfink’s volume, Jesus of Nazareth, translated from the German original. So why another Jesus book? In the first place, Lohfink contends that every generation must encounter Jesus anew. Even more pressing, Jesus’ proclamation and practice of the reign of God represent “the only hope for the wounds and sicknesses of our planet.” The author thus presents his portrait of Jesus, the distillation of a lengthy and distinguished career of research and writing.
Lohfink makes clear from the outset that his approach is historical. He also acknowledges that the quest for the “historical Jesus” has produced both good results and bad results. Lohfink’s volume can be added to the list of good ones because he avoids two pitfalls.
First, he does not fall into the trap that insists that the quester check his or her faith at the door. To the contrary, Lohfink argues that “the real ‘historical Jesus’ cannot be grasped independently of faith in him.” He therefore takes seriously, as a historian, what the original witnesses believed about Jesus, as set forth in the canonical gospels. Faith is not inimical to knowledge; rather, it produces another kind of knowledge, the knowledge gained by personal encounter. In this connection, the author’s own faith, while not explicitly invoked, is at play throughout, making his portrait all the more compelling.
The second pitfall Lohfink avoids is falling prey to the tyranny of the “criterion of dissimilarity.” Using this criterion, some scholars attempt to discover Jesus’ uniqueness by focusing on words and actions of his that cannot be derived from the Judaism of his time or from the early church. To the contrary, Lohfink is completely sanguine about Jesus’ Jewishness. He portrays Jesus as an astute reader of Scripture, as one who with great sensitivity “discerned and drew out the scarlet thread of God’s will.” Particularly influential on Jesus’ thinking and doing was Isaiah 52:7<\a>9, which speaks of a messenger who brings good news (gospel!) and announces to Israel, “Your God reigns!”
Regarding Torah, Jesus drew out its center—”the commandment about the uniqueness and sole rule of God”—and insisted that its telos was to form a social order marked by solidarity, love, respect and mutual support. This social order was to reflect the love and holiness of God and thereby to draw the nations to God.
Just as Lohfink claims Jesus’ close connection with Israel, so he asserts his intimate relationship with the early church. Indeed, at several points the author catches himself talking about the early Christian community. Here we arrive at a crucially important element of this book. While explicitly about Jesus, lying just beneath the surface is a vision of what the church is called and empowered to be (a point to which I will return).
Taking up the first question raised in the book’s subtitle, what did Jesus want? Lohfink insists that everything Jesus said and did was to announce and make present the eschatological reign of God. Jesus’ parables announced and his healings enacted God’s salvation, making them present “today.” The banquet imagery in his teaching and in his provision of food for the crowds proclaimed God’s desire to share abundance of life—and to do so in the present.
In proclaiming and enacting God’s eschatological reign, Jesus performed a number of symbolic actions. Not the least of these, according to Lohfink, was his creation and institution of the Twelve. Jesus called the Twelve from a larger group of disciples in order to symbolize and enact his desire to gather all of Israel. The “gathering of Israel” had become a fixed concept that represented God’s eschatological salvation. It is thus no accident that Jesus’ ministry focused on Israel.
More specifically, it centered on the formation of a “new family,” a society that responded favorably to God’s plan as set forth in Torah. Such a society—in which members regarded one another as family, exercised loving service, provided hospitality, supported those in need and practiced mutual forgiveness (even 77 times a day) and non-violence—gave concrete expression to the reality and power of God’s reign.
This tangible manifestation of God’s reign, of living in the saving presence of God, was also enacted in the communities of the early church, according to Lohfink. While he is careful not to identify the church with the reign of God, he maintains that the church is a “visible sign” of that reign—or least it should be. As such, it is to be a light to all peoples, drawing them into the sphere of God’s rule. Here we find the prophetic edge of Lohfink’s presentation of Jesus. In this connection, it is worth pointing out that since 1986 the author has lived in and served as a theologian for the Katholische Integrierte Gemeinde (Catholic Integrated Community), an intentional community that strives to make the Gospel present in all aspects of life.
And what about the second question in the subtitle, who was Jesus? He is, for Lohfink, the one through whom God has come eschatologically for salvation. Although it was often only implicit in his ministry, Jesus spoke and acted as in God’s stead and was experienced as such by those who received him. He manifested God’s rule by coming to serve, not to be served. His atoning death, which revealed God’s reign in a climactic manner, was “not a substitute action but the cause and enabling of a process of liberation” that continues through the eschatological people of God, a forgiven people who are empowered to forgive and liberate others in turn. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are then the definitive revelation of who he is and always has been, the messianic Son of God and Son of Man.
Lohfink’s portrait of Jesus is very much worth reading. Because he looks to the Gospels with a sympathetic yet critical eye, he gives a faithful interpretation of Jesus. And because he is faithful, Lohfink offers a portrait that is challenging—especially for the church today.