Miles on Benedict’s Book
An intriguing comment on one of the posts below mentions Jack Miles’ review of Jesus of Nazareth in the current Commonweal.
I thought a wider discussion of the piece might be useful.
For myself, a number of points in the review puzzle me.
Firstly, and sensibilities may differ here, I found a strain of editorializing that does little to illuminate the actual contents of the book. The procedures of the CDF are evoked to suggest the heavy hand of the Inquisitor under the velvet glove of the inquirer.
Secondly, one receives the impression that Benedict is critiqued for not writing the book that Miles himself would have/has written. Thus the lament that the book “contains not the slightest trace of autobiography.” Simply put: why should it?
More substantively, Miles critiques Benedict for finding the phrase “Jesus poem” ambiguous (Miles’ own word is “anathema”). Thus supposedly slighting the literary genre that is the Gospel of John. He cites Benedict’s passing allusion to the exegete Ingo Broer, but does not engage Benedict’s more sustained discussion and criticism of Martin Hengel (a scholar the Pope clearly respects).
In the course of this discussion Benedict is clearly not taking a naively fundamentalist approach to the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Pope writes:
If “historical” is understood to mean that the discourses of Jesus transmitted to us have to be something like a recorded transcript in order to be acknowledged as “historically” authentic, then the discourses of John’s Gospel are not “historical.” But the fact that they make no claim to literal accuracy of this sort by no means implies that they are merely “Jesus poems” that the members of the Johannine school gradually put together, claiming to be acting under the guidance of the Paraclete. What the Gospel is really claiming is that it has correctly rendered the substance of the discourses, of Jesus’ self-attestation in the great Jerusalem disputes, so that the readers really do encounter the decisive content of this message and, therein, the authentic figure of Jesus (p. 229).
Now, one may not find this position completely adequate. But it at least shows more fully the intent and nuance of the author. (For both appreciation and critique see the incisive review by the New Testament scholar Richard Hays in First Things [August/September 2007]).
A final puzzle. On p. 20 of his review Miles writes that Ratzinger “pointedly” never calls the Gospel of John, “The Fourth Gospel.” When I first read this I was unsure of the import of the observation. I became even more befuddled when I found that, from pages 220-238 of the book, Benedict uses the term, “the Fourth Gospel,” six times.
Obviously, Jack Miles is a talented writer; but I confess to being left disappointed in this review.