A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Meier Magister

Sandro Magister (magister #3) has posted a chapter by chapter resume of Pope Benedict's book, Jesus of Nazareth, released in Rome today.

In the appendix Benedict XVI (magister #1) refers to works by scholars whose work he has found helpful. He singles out one in particular:

For each of the ten chapters, Ratzinger cites the main books to whichhe refers, and which can be read for further study. Furthermore, hepoints out some of the most important recent books about Jesus,including those of Joachim Gnilka, Klaus Berger, Heinz Schrmann,Thomas Sding, Rudolf Schnackenburg, and John P. Meier. Of the last ofthese, a work in three thick volumes entitled A Marginal Jew.Rethinking the Historical Jesus, he writes:This multi-volume work by an American Jesuit represents in manyways a model of historical-critical exegesis, and clearly displays boththe importance and the limitations of this discipline."

So Monsignor John P. Meier of the University of Notre Dame will henceforth be known among his admirers as "magister #2."

Happily, the Pope has already declared that the book is not an official act of the Church's magisterium. For Meier is not a Jesuit (nor even a Vincentian), but a priest of the Archdiocese of New York -- as are the non-monsignorial Joseph A. Komonchak and your humble scrivener.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Way to keep an eye out for those misattributions! After all, we Jesuits get blamed for enough already!

I guess I have to read Benedicts book. So far his book seems more a spiritual exercise than a serious attempt to examine the historical Jesus.Secondly, the issue should be framed correctly. Some say Jesus was merely human meaning that he had not divine mission, let alone a special mission.I hold that he is the personification of God in human form. Fully human not divine but the one who exemplifies the participation in divine life like no other. He is Lord because he brings God to us and exemplifies the way to God. No human in history is like him as he is the fullest expression of God on earth. Would that enough of us would follow him rather than platitude his divinity.

Bill,Your position seems similar to that of Roger Haight. Do you think that is a fair characterization? Given what you have said, can it be said that you worship Jesus? Or would worship be inappropriate?Do you believe the Resurrection occurred? If so, what is your conception of the Resurrection?Do your statements not beg the question of what divinity means?Tim

Tim,I am sure my language is not as clear as it could be. The thing to understand about this question is that at the time of Jesus it was quite normal in the Roman and Hellenistic world to ascribe divinity to a religious leader. More so in the Hellenistic regions.The Jewish religion was an exception. Some preachers even nowadays claim divinity.As far as I can see the concept of the Trinity is against, not above, reason. Even Augustine said he is proposing an explanation and that others may differ. Surely there is something to the fact that there was doubt on this matter for the first seven centuries.I believe it takes more faith to believe that Jesus did rise from the dead than to try prove that there was an empty tomb etc.I guess being a lawyer you cannot help the cross examination. Perhaps you can share what you believe.

Last week I wrote to Commonweal suggesting a thread at this blog on the two excellent articles on Scripture study in the current (at least print copy I have). I felt that the articles bridged a number of topics we've talked about including faith formation, current homiletics, and Vatican II and its aftermath.My experience is that preaching hardly ever breaks open all the scriptures but offers insteda reflections on the Gospel of the day taken as a "blow by blow" historical narrative.The articles point out that folks are yearning for more and better scriptural insrtruction and discussion.My view is that one bridge over the divide in our Church would be a quenching of that thirst.Apropos thereof, I think Tim doth protest too much about Bill's post, though I don't agree with all of it myself. The slap at Haight would be better thought through after reading Paul Lakeland's excellent apologetic for him in this magazine a frew issues back.

Oh, and one footnote: when talking about New York priest scholars, let's not forget the best:Fr. Dave Tracy

Apropos Mt. Nunz's footnote:Much as I respect the person and work of Father Tracy, alas, he can not be claimed as one of New York's finest. The long-time Chicago resident remains, as far as I know, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport.

Bill, Your say: "The thing to understand about this question is that at the time of Jesus it was quite normal in the Roman and Hellenistic world to ascribe divinity to a religious leader. More so in the Hellenistic regions."Can you give us some examples?

Joseph,Maybe I am getting too sensitive. Are you telling me you are not aware of this. As far as I can tell this is commonly accepted. Can you be more specific as to what you are looking for?

I'm looking for an answer to my question. I am wondering who you would cite as a "religious leader" in the Hellenistic or Roman world to whom divinity was attributed.

For whatever this may be worth...Apollonius of Tyana was said to be divine, although perhaps not until a couple hundred years after his death (pattern?).Most gnostic movements held to a kind of divinity/matter dualism for all humans (or at least a portion of them), but their leaders were held to display especially divine attributes.I understand that a common phrase for the Emperor was "Son of a God."What I think is not in doubt is the Jewish understanding of the phrase "Son of God." Such a person was NOT divine. Now, the "Son of Man," a rather enigmatic figure in Jewish religious life, was understood by some to have divine attributes, but not divine in the same sense as God.

I suspect the terms that are causing problems may be "Hellenistic or Roman" and "religious leader."I'm a little dubious about "Hellenistic/Roman" as categories for, say, 100 bc -- 200 ad in general, but in the specific context of deification of humans it's a cliche that the Hellenistic and Roman attitudes were quite different, hence the Western cult of the genius of Augustus, since emperor worship per se would have been unacceptable in Rome.And I'm not sure what a "religious leader" would be in the same context -- Augustus? Cleopatra? Both were heads of their state religions. Jesus, on the other hand, ranked as a "crucified sophist" in the eyes of Celsus's friend Lucian. On the other hand, Lucian had a certain grudging respect for the personal character of some Christians, as opposed to his disdain for Christian imitators like Peregrinus -- and probably he would have lumped Apollonius of Tyana, or the Apollonius cult, into the same category.

The Romans had the practice of calling their emperors gods and the Greeks worshipped many gods. While the Roman emperors ascribed divinity to humans the Greek gods were divine with limitations.My point about the 'religious leaders' which the Roman Emperors were, is that all heads of religions were considered divine. So it made sense for Christians to ascribe more than that or at least equal to Jesus. I suppose you can make an issue, Joe, of the term religious leaders which I used to refer to the gods of both religions. At any rate, it is important to have one's religion on an equal level in divinity to be credible in that world. Scholars describe this as "being in the air."

Divine honors were paid to Hellenistic rulers going back to Alexander and later to Roman emperors. What ordinary people made of this is not easy to discern. It is possible that some of the men who were honored in this way took it seriously. Antiochus Epiphanes and Caligula come to mind. Caligula seems to have been mentally unbalanced, and Jews called Antiochus Epimanes. Vespasian is said to have remarked when he saw death coming that he felt himself becoming a god. Most pepole take it as a joke. Seneca mocked the idea that Claudius was a god. It does not seem to me that any of this has much in common with the idea that Jesus was God because the Jewish and Christian conceptions are so different from the Gentile ones. As for the early Christians, they already had a god, the one Jesus called the Father. They had no need for a second one to keep up with the Romans. The understanding that the Father was G-d and that Jesus, while truly a man, was also G-d, is an extraordinary development. I know of no parallel. If you, Bill, find this incredible, so be it. I find the idea that the followers of Jesus claimed he was a god to keep up with the Romans quite preposterous.L. Flavius Philostratus was a member of the circle of Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus (Emperor 193-211). Philostratus at Julias behest wrote a bigraphy of Apollonius of Tyana a Neo-Pythagoras holy man whose lifetime included the reigns of Nero and Domitian. The biography is generally considered unreliable as history. It has been suggested that it was meant to portray Apollonius as a figure who could compete with Jesus.

Joe,Why is it difficult to see that if all religions are claiming many gods that the Christians would not be tempted to compete in this world? And remember we are talking about a mythical way of writing and thinking here. The Catholic Encylopedia relates some pertinent thoughts on the development of the logos. Seems to me this can be interpreted in many ways.

But, of course, David Tracy was educated for eight years in the Archdiocese of New York's seminary system, so we New Yorkers can really claim him.In the space of about ten years, that system produced the following scholars: Richard J. Dillon, William M. Shea, Thomas Shelley, Bernard McGinn, Philip Murnion, Joseph Komonchak, David Tracy, Robert Imbelli, John Meier. Not a bad record, even if I do say so myself, as I probably shouldn't.Someone once commented: There must have been something in the water!

Joe,Why is it difficult to see that if all religions are claiming many gods that the Christians would not be tempted to compete in this world? And remember we are talking about a mythical way of writing and thinking here. Bill,Now you change it. You say that if all other religions were polytheistic, Christians would be tempted to be also. To that extent you are finally clear. But you are begging the question. You suppose that followers of Christ had no good reason for believing that he was divine. You then suppose that they felt embarrassed by having only G-d as a deity and thought they would be more competitive if they added Christ, and, I suppose, the Holy Spirit. Hence, if I understand you, the origin of Christian tritheism. But your suppositions are just that. Christians believe that the followers of Christ did have excellent reasons for believing that he was divine, and that the Holy Spirit was divine, and that the theologoumenon of the Triune G-d was the way they came to formulate their understanding of what had been revealed. As for your second supposition, it has no point unless the first supposition is true. There is also no historical evidence for it. There are those, no doubt, who believe that Jesus married Mary of Magdala and settled in the south of France. There is no evidence for that either.

I should think that Acts 14 was enough to disprove the notion that Christians were somehow compelled to "compete" in a world full of gods -- or, perhaps better, that they competed by denying the whole of the assumptions about divinity of that world..If I may carp at one of Professor Gannon's statements, I'm not sure that "divine honors" quite covers worshipping a man as a god and believe that the latter was a good deal less "Roman" notion.

Gene,Your reference to Acts 14 raises a few issues for me. First, it highlights one of the important differences between Luke's portrayal of Paul and Paul's own portrayal of himself; that is, Paul himself never indicates that he preached in a synagogue. By his letters, his audience seems to be exclusively pagan gentiles. Yet, for Luke, the rejection by the Jews of Paul and his message was essential to explain why it was necessary now to turn to the Gentiles. (There are other interesting differences such as whether or not Paul went immediately to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles after his conversion; Luke says he does Acts 9:10-30 (which makes sense), Paul, however, inists that he did not meet with the apostles for three years after his conversion Gal 1:15-18).Acts 13 is loaded with fascinating texts. 13:33 suggests that the decisive moment for Christians is the resurrection, and that on this day (today), he became the Son of God (compare this to Romans 1:4, almost certainly part of an early confession that Paul used to begin his letter which also suggests that it was the resurrection that led Jesus to be declared Son of God). These texts suggest to me an honorific use of the title Son of God, not a metaphysical one, and they also raise fascinating questions about how Jesus was understood prior to the resurrection. Also, the emphasis later in 13 is on the non-corruption of risen Jesus, not on his divinity.Not sure anyone will be reading this thread anymore (far more heated stuff going on above), but I enjoy these kinds of conversations more than ones about who should have charged a guy with a gun. Peace.

By "divine honors" I meant the honors only extended to a divinity and I think that can be fairly taken as synonymous with "worship". How the ancient Romans took all this and what their notion of divinity was is very hard for us to judge.

Well, since some people seem to enjoy this rather than discussing the bizarre claims about what people should do when faced with a gun (who knows?), here goes.I'm aware of the problems with the portrayal of Paul in Acts vis a vis the Pauline letters and other issues, but I still think Acts 14 is a pretty revealing portrait of what Greco-Roman polytheism was about and why Christianity is better seen as a rejection of it than an adaptation. Of course the other problem it highlights, going back to the original discussion, is just what we mean by "Roman."And in regard to divine honors the same idea occurred to me after I posted my comment. On the other hand, the Romans were really good at extending honors, attributes, insignia to certain people without including them in the class that was intrinsically entitled to those honors -- consular insignia, proconsular imperium, etc. Who knows if Antony really thought he was Bacchus or like Bacchus or just wanted to create an image? And what was Alexander doing with Zeus Ammon's horns? -- which gets back to the point about this being hard for us to judge. But not hard to avoid a reductionist reading of Christianity to its cultural background, I would think.

A very important work that treats of many of these issues was recently published by Larry Hurtado, "Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity" (Eerdmans 2003). In his Introduction he says he has three main points to make: "First, ... a noteworthy devotion to Jesus emerges phenomenally early in circles of his followers, and cannot be restricted to a secondary stage of religious development or explained as the product of extraneous forces. Certainly the Christian movement was not hermetically sealed from the cultures in which it developed, and Christians appropriated (and adapted for their own purposes) words, conceptual categories, and religious traditions to express their faith. But devotion to Jesus was not a late development. So far as historical inquiry permits us to say, it was an immediate feature of the circles of those who identified themselves with reference to him."Second, devotion to Jesus was exhibited in an unparalleled intensity and diversity of expression, for which we have no true analogy in the religious environment of the time. There is simply no precedent or parallel for the level of energy invested by early Christians in expressing the significance of Jesus for them in their religious thought and practice. The full pattern of devotion to Jesus that we examine in this book is not one example of a class of analogous religious phenomena in comparable groups, but is instead a truly remarkable in the history of religions, justifying (indeed requiring) a special effort to understand it in historical terms...."The third thesis is that this intense devotion to Jesus, which includes reverencing him as divine, was offered and articulated characteristically within a firm stance of exclusivist monotheism, particularly in the circles of early Christianity that anticipated and helped to establish what became mainstream and, subsequently, familiar) Christianity." The book has 653 pages of text and 47 pages of bibliography of works cited. It is well worth the read.

Joseph,Thanks for the reference. I think this book will make it on to my must have list when I shop at the American Academy of Religion's book sale at their next annual meeting.My only immediate thought regarding the text you cite is its reference to diversity of devotion. I do not think historical argument will be decisive one way or the other in debates about who Jesus was/is. Rather, I think they can open some room for theological reflection that is at least not vulnerable to charges of clearly being contrary to established fact. I think the Jesus of history/Christ of faith distinction is still important, but the two obviously remain only distinct, not separate.

I agree. Historical interpretation is not going by itself to settle issues of faith decisively.Further on in his Introducation, Hurtado locates his book as between two positions. The first is the view that Jesus himself was aware of his Messiahship and divinity and taught both to his disciples, so there really is no need to apply historical analysis to the development that led to the later creedal developments.The other view was a reaction to this view, considered naive and unhistorical. On this view, "the divine status of Jesus in early Christianity was the result of a thoroughly historical process and was thus subject to the same sort of historical investigation that one would apply to any other historical phenomenon." The result, and, Hurtado wonders, perhaps the intention, of this "History of Religions" approach was the conclusion that "the emergence of devotion to Christ as a divine figure was essentially a simple and really rather unremarkable process of syncretism. Essentially, devotion to Jesus as divine resulted from the influence of 'pagan' religions of the Roman era upon 'Hellenistic' Christians supposedly more susceptible to such influence than were 'Palestinian' Jewish Christians." Hurtado thinks both views are far too simplistic. With regard to the second method he notes a recent German study of that School that uncovers the theological presuppositions that underlay the work of some of his greatest contributors, especially visible in the distinction between "a supposedly original ethicizing party of Jesus... and the 'Christ-cult' of the 'Hellenistic Christian community'; this distinction permitted the scholar "to posit an ideal, original Christian piety with which he couild more comfortably associate himself as a liberal Protestant of his time." Finally, Hurtado points out a logical mistake made by both of the two views mentioned, namely the idea that "the validity of a religious belief or practice is called into question if it can be shown to be a truly historical phenomenon, and the product of historical factors and forces that we can attempt to identify and analyze." The first view fears historical investigations for this very reason; the second also believes that to expalin is to explain away.

Fr. Komonchak: Thanks for the good leads to further reading--very helpful. That must have been quite a decade in the New York seminary system. I hope the eminent graduates of that era maintain an interest today in a system that appears to need all the help it can get. It was nice to see that you were back in Westchester for a lecture on Vatican II last week. It was definitely on our calendar. . . . but then the rains came. We hope to have another chance at an opportunity like this in future.

I'm sorry to have missed you at Briarcliff Manor. There was a large crowd, with a few people there from a couple of my prior incarnations.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment