When Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth appeared, I commented favorably on the review by New Testament scholar, Richard Hays, published in First Things. I thought the review both appreciative and critical of the book.
Now, in the current (December) issue of First Things, a number of letters are printed that, for the most part, criticize the critic. Hays responds in a measured way, and, in the process, clarifies further both his appreciation and his critique.
Here is a portion of what he says:
The letter writers seem to share, to one degree or another, Mr. Kellner’s impression that my review of Pope Benedict’s book “illustrates the resistance of academic theology to reading the gospels as ‘an overall unity expressing an intrinsically coherent message.’” Nothing could be further from my intention. My review actually praised the book’s synthetic aims and, in part, its results. For example, I wrote: “Benedict’s synthetic reading of the canonical New Testament witnesses is both subtle and illuminating,” and I observed that “the book is full of luminous passages that offer a fruitful basis for meditation on the mysterious and gracious figure of Jesus.” I also gave accolades to Benedict’s constructive use of patristic sources and typological interpretation of the Old Testament.
Nonetheless, the letter writers are correct to discern a tone of disappointment in my review. The disappointment arises not because I am “indignant” that Benedict has attempted this task of synthesis or because I think the task impossible but because I think his actual performance of it is regrettably flawed. After reading the book’s foreword, I was rooting for him to succeed, but in my judgment he unfortunately fails to achieve the goals he sets for himself. He insists that “the historical-critical method . . . is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work,” and he wants to accept what “modern exegesis” tells us about the historical setting and composition of the gospels. Yet, recognizing the limits of the historical method, he also wants to integrate these historical findings into a trusting, synthetic reading of the gospels. The problem is simply that he fails to achieve real integration: His use of historical methodology is selective and inconsistent.