Between Theology & Exegesis

By Miles, Jack | Commonweal, July 13, 2007 | Go to article overview

Between Theology & Exegesis


Miles, Jack, Commonweal


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. …

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