Between Theology & Exegesis

Jesus of Nazareth
From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI; Translated by Adrian J. Walker
Doubleday, $24.95, 374 pp.

Writing under his personal name as well as his ecclesiastical title, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, offers here the first half of a two-volume work whose stated rationale is twofold. His Jesus of Nazareth is to be, first, a work that “goes beyond historical-critical exegesis so as to apply new methodological insights that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible.” It is to be, second, “an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8).” “It goes without saying,” Ratzinger adds in his foreword, “that this work is in no way an exercise of the magisterium.... Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.”

In ten chapters, the author discusses, successively, the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the desert, his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, his Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, his disciples, his parables, the key images of the Gospel of John, the Transfiguration, and—in the final chapter—Jesus’ references to himself as “Son of Man,” “Son,” and, echoing the voice of God from the Burning Bush of Exodus, “I Am.” Ratzinger’s theme throughout—in conscious opposition to historical criticism’s long-running preoccupation with the historical Jesus and the language of his message—is that the Jesus of the Gospels is God incarnate and, as such, constitutes his own message in his person. He is God made known by being made human: the Word incarnate.

Against the views of many exegetes (though not against my own), Ratzinger finds this “high Christology” in the synoptic Gospels as well as in the Gospel of John. He welcomes the fact that in A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, the eminent rabbinical scholar Jacob Neusner sees a claim of divinity even in the Sermon on the Mount, though, of course, Neusner politely declines to recognize the claim. But since the Fourth Gospel (as scholars now often call it) insists most unmistakably on Jesus’ equality with God, Ratzinger is keenly interested in the “Johannine Question,” which addresses the authorship and historicity of that Gospel and the several other works that the New Testament attributes to “John.” Breaking with the more traditional identification of this John as John, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, Ratzinger identifies him as “Presbyter John,” a second-generation figure known to the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea as the author of the Second and Third Letters of John. Quoting German Scripture scholar Peter Stuhlmacher, Ratzinger concludes that Presbyter John presided over a Johannine school in Ephesus and was, in effect, the apostle’s “literary executor.”

Ratzinger is more sharply at odds, however, with a deeper and more structural element in the scholarly consensus about the Gospel of John (which he pointedly never calls “The Fourth Gospel”). I refer to the common view that, even when it preserves historical fact, the Gospel of John is a creative literary composition—a kind of extended theological poem (the Jerusalem Bible actually typesets much of it as verse). To Ratzinger, the phrase “Jesus poem” is (forgive the expression) anathema. In a tone frequently heard in this book, he sarcastically reproaches another German exegete, Ingo Broer, for going so far as to say that “the Gospel of John...stands before us as a literary work that bears witness to faith and is intended to strengthen faith, and not as a historical account.” Ratzinger vehemently objects: “A faith that discards history in this manner really turns into ‘Gnosticism.’ It leaves flesh, incarnation—just what true history is—behind.” Yet one may surely ask: In distinguishing the evangelist’s intentions from those of a historian, did Broer really mean to discard history? Ratzinger seems to have sharpened his opponent’s point, the more easily to reject it.

Such polemics aside, though they are common enough in this book, what, positively, does Ratzinger have in mind as a more “fleshly” or incarnate exegesis? The answer to this question may perhaps best be discerned in his treatment of the Transfiguration, the synoptic story of Jesus’ mountaintop meeting with Moses and Elijah, during which the Lord’s face, like that of Moses after the revelation on Mount Sinai, radiated a dazzling white light and the voice of God was heard saying from within a cloud, “This is my beloved Son. Hear him” (Luke 9:35).

I myself have used the Transfiguration more than once to illustrate the limits of historical criticism. For though historical critics, by an overwhelming majority, regard the episode as an unhistorical invention, it is clearly, in literary and theological terms alike, one of the high points of the life of Christ as told in the first three Gospels. Moreover, its un-historicity notwithstanding, the Transfiguration is the occasion for a brilliantly effective narrative assertion—not just that Jesus is the new Moses but also that suffering and divinity are not, or are no longer, mutually exclusive. For Ratzinger, to be sure, the episode is important for all these reasons. But he parts company with the critical majority in treating even this floridly mythological episode as a historical event no more problematical for open-minded historians than Jesus’ birth in Palestine. Any construction of it that would deny that it really happened, we are forced to infer, would be, in Ratzinger’s eyes, a disastrous descent into Gnosticism.

As a work serving the first of the two rationales mentioned at the start of this review—namely, the presentation and application of “new methodological insights”—Jesus of Nazareth is oddly published. It contains no index of scriptural passages cited, no general index, no general bibliography, and no footnotes. By comparison with it, Ratzinger’s 1988 lecture, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today” (not to speak of longer works) is both more cogent and more ambitious, specifically with regard to what would qualify as “incarnational” exegesis. In the published form of the address, accessibly written but bolstered by copious endnotes, Ratzinger sketches “The Basic Elements of a New Synthesis” between historical and theological exegesis.

Key to this synthesis is his assertion that events can be meaningful prior to, and even without, human interpretation. When God enters human history, the resulting events are meaningful in and of themselves and therefore deserve to be heard as history, and humbly. They require no completion by anybody’s overweening literary creativity, even an evangelist’s. To the properly prepared hearer, in short, the events are capable of speaking for themselves, just as they did for the evangelist, but exegetical preparation is indeed the key. The exegete “should not approach the text with a ready-made philosophy, nor in accordance with the dictates of a so-called modern or scientific worldview, which determines in advance what may or may not be.”

In my own way, I have argued that historical criticism’s way of writing about the Bible etsi deus non daretur (“as if God did not exist”—a Latin phrase that Ratzinger brandishes in judgment), though liberating in its day, has left us with a Bible that, to speak only of its impact as literature, has been Hamlet without the Prince. To that extent, I am in sympathy with Ratzinger’s theocentric exegetical agenda. His richly allusive reading of many passages, focused always on the Incarnation as the key to interpretation, can reward any serious reader. But it is one thing to reread the Bible in a way that makes God or God incarnate once again its central literary character and subject. It is another to claim that unless God’s actions as reported in the Bible—his Incarnation, for one; the Transfiguration of his incarnate person, for another—are historical, they are theologically meaningless. To do that is to make biblical interpretation a subject suitable only for those who approach history without any developed (“ready-made”) philosophy and who are prepared, in addition, to break with science and modernity (the “so-called modern or scientific worldview”). Few, even among the many who freely grant a connection between history and theology, will want to meet these conditions.

And even those who are so willing may be disappointed that in this book, Ratzinger has so little to say about God, other than that he became incarnate as Jesus. There is, in the plainest sense of the word, rather little theology here; the word God remains largely an unexamined term. “God is the issue,” Ratzinger writes in his chapter on the temptations of Jesus: “Is he real, reality itself, or isn’t he? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence.”

But beyond the assertion of the reality of God and mankind’s need for him, Jesus of Nazareth generally is content to repeat, again and again, that the Incarnation is an act of ongoing divine revelation. As for what the Incarnation reveals about God’s character that the Old Testament did not know, this we are never quite told, nor does this book ever confront the unsettling ways in which God as we encounter him in the Old Testament seems decidedly unlike God incarnate as we encounter him in the New. In the scriptural index to the book that I prepared for my own use, I note not a single quotation from the Book of Joshua, though Jesus was named for the warrior hero of that book. At issue, I submit, is the relative importance, within Christian revelation, of God’s incarnation and his renunciation of violence. God might have become a man without renouncing (or suffering) violence. He might have renounced violence without becoming a man. What matters more: the metaphysical wonder or the categorical reversal?

If theology is a surprising omission in this book, Ratzinger himself is a more surprising one, and here I turn to the second of the announced motivations for this book. As already noted, Ratzinger’s foreword speaks of a “personal search,” but past an early paragraph in which he briefly mentions the lives of Christ he read as a child, his book contains not the slightest trace of autobiography. Nothing from his decade and more as a professor and academic administrator. Nothing from his brief tenure as archbishop of Munich, or his several decades as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Nothing by way of personal reminiscence about John XXIII, Paul VI, or John Paul II.

More to the point, as regards the promised search for the face of God, Ratzinger reports no struggle, no ordeal, no narrative of how his thinking may have changed over the years, much less any confessional testimony about a moment when Scripture mattered in a personal way either to himself or another. Ratzinger entered the seminary at age twelve, seems never to have looked back, and was directed onto academic paths so early that he has had little experience as a working pastor. In its rather bland serenity, his book reflects his reading rather than his life.

This is at least a bit surprising because, in other works, Ratzinger has had at times a decidedly un-bland way of defending his conservatism in matters of church discipline and even a startling candor about his early career. “[Karl] Rahner and I lived on two different theological planets,” he said to one interviewer.

Despite [Rahner’s] early reading of the fathers, his theology was totally conditioned by the tradition of Suarezian scholasticism and its new reception in the light of German idealism and Heidegger. His was a speculative and philosophical theology in which Scripture and the fathers in the end did not play an important role and in which the historical dimension was really of little significance. For my part, my whole intellectual formation had been shaped by Scripture and the fathers and profoundly historical thinking.”

To the same interviewer, he then confided that his career had taken a sharp turn when friends advised him that he was not cut out for philosophical theology. “Dogma was the correct road for me,” they told him, “because it would open up a much wider sphere of influence than fundamental theology. They also argued that my formation in Scripture and the fathers could be applied much more effectively in the area of dogma.”

Ratzinger’s friends clearly knew their man. Their prediction has come true with a vengeance. But this early glimpse of a not unfamiliar academic tension between philosopher and historian, or theologian and exegete, may be a clue to his longstanding irritability with claims made on theoretical grounds that the Gospels do not speak for themselves. The relatively few contemporary citations in his book are largely to quite recent German-language exegetes rather than to philosophers or theologians, much less to contemporary thinkers beyond theology or Bible scholarship. He is clearly happiest citing devotional passages from the fathers of the church, especially Cyprian of Carthage.

In this connection, it seems naive not to observe that Ratzinger’s thinking tracks positively with his Introduction to Christianity, now in its third edition, and negatively with his condemnations through the CDF of fellow theologians like, most recently, Jon Sobrino, SJ. In his foreword, the pope writes expansively, as quoted above, “Everyone is free...to contradict me.” But we must assume that if another Catholic theologian were to exercise this alleged freedom to contradict Ratzinger by taking positions like those of Sobrino, he would risk similar punishment. At the limit, he might be barred, as others have been, from teaching in a Catholic institution. It is not quite true, then, or at the very least—against the language of the foreword—it does not go without saying, that everyone is free to contradict this author.

Commonweal has frequently lamented the fact that the deliberations of the CDF are secret. To a considerable extent, the extensive bibliography of Ratzinger’s published work has already lifted that veil of secrecy. Reading him, during the long decades when he headed the congregation, his fellow Catholic theologians could easily enough have learned to what standard they were to conform. This book, however, the first since his election as pope, lifts the veil further and makes inescapable the reflection that the official exercise of the magisterium is always a personal exercise on the part of the magistri, whoever they happen to be at a given point in time.

I belabor the obvious only because the tone taken in the foreword to this book tends to disguise the obvious. Ratzinger pays surprisingly generous tribute to the historical-critical exegesis that the Roman Catholic Church condemned for two hundred and fifty years, starting with Père Richard Simon in the seventeenth century and continuing until Divino afflante spiritu in the middle of the twentieth century. More surprising still, and more encouraging, his proposal for a reconciliation of historical-critical with theological exegesis bears at least prima facie comparison with the postmodern critical dethronement of the individual author in favor of the larger “author-izing” power of (though the phrase is not used in English departments) the church of literature. At a few provocative moments, Ratzinger’s theology of the Word is consonant with the literary theory of a Wolfgang Iser, the influential creator of “reader reception theory,” or a Michel Foucault, who famously dismissed the author as “the ‘dead man’ in the game of writing.”

Wittingly or not, Ratzinger talks a version of their critical language in a few passages like the following:

One could say that the books of Scripture involve three interacting subjects. First of all there is the individual author or group of authors to whom we owe a particular scriptural text. But these authors are not autonomous writers in the modern sense; they form part of a collective subject, the “People of God,” from within whose heart and to whom they speak. Hence, this subject is actually the deeper “author” of the Scriptures. And yet likewise, this people does not exist alone; rather, it knows that it is led, and spoken to, by God himself, who—through men and their humanity—is at the deepest level the one speaking.

All this sounds promising enough. All the more regrettable, then, that once Ratzinger begins to engage the actual text, he seems unable to relinquish a cripplingly precritical understanding of the relationship between history and literature.

Because Joseph Ratzinger is now Benedict XVI, none of these reservations may matter much to the sales of his book. It may even be that they will matter positively rather than negatively to some segments of the book’s critical reception. A remote, impersonal pope offering an exegesis built on the conviction that, behind all the exegetical folderol, yes, it all really happened—this is surely what some want to hear.

This is not, however, what a substantial majority of American Catholic Bible scholars wants to hear. I venture to guess that their silent question about this book is: “What would Raymond Brown say?” Brown, deeply pious but at ease with historical criticism in a way that Ratzinger is not, is never cited in this first of Ratzinger’s projected two volumes. In the second, however, given its subject matter, Brown’s great works The Birth of the Messiah and The Death of the Messiah may be unavoidable. And thereon, if the moment ever does come (Ratzinger hints that it may not), will hang a distinctly interesting exegetical tale.

 


Read more: Peter Steinfels reviews Jesus of Nazareth

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About the Author

Jack Miles is Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs for with the Pacific Council on International Policy.