Christology Surfaces as Benedict's Core Concern

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2007 | Go to article overview

Christology Surfaces as Benedict's Core Concern


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


When people pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news, they generally aren't looking for a Sunday school lesson. This creates a challenge for journalists covering religious leaders since most of their public utterances are devoted either to expounding their faith or urging people to behave. The way reporters solve the problem is by combing through those utterances to find statements presumed to have broad, nonsectarian significance.

The result is that the real concerns of religious leaders, and the priority they assign to those concerns, often don't come across terribly clearly. Recent coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's new book, Jesus of Nazareth, offers a good example.

The first wave of stories focused on comments in the book about Africa and capitalism, even though they amount to asides in a 448-page treatise on the Gospels. Other stories styled the book as a rebuke to The Da Vinci Code. Still others seemed charmed by the fact that the pope wrote that because his book is not a magisterial act, "everyone is free to contradict me." Beyond those angles, there was little interest in follow-up, in large part because a pope discussing Jesus strikes most people as the ultimate in "dog bites man" developments--that is, the most normal thing in the world.

By the time anyone had actually read all 448 pages of Jesus of Nazareth, the moment for further analysis had already passed. Passed, that is, everywhere but here, where papal analysis never goes out of fashion.

In Rome recently, I set myself the task of studying Jesus of Nazareth. The key question is, "Why this subject, and why now?" Given Benedict's fascination with liturgy, one might have expected him to turn his pen to that theme if it were purely a matter of indulging his own interests, or settling old academic scores. Yet the pope himself hinted that something more urgent is involved in Jesus of Nazareth, writing that he devoted "all his free moments" to finishing the book after his election in April 2005.

What seems clear is that the motive for the book is also emerging as the core doctrinal concern of this pontificate: Christology. Put in a nutshell, Benedict's thesis in Jesus of Nazareth is that there can be no humane social order or true moral progress apart from a right relationship with God; try as it might, a world organized etsi Deus non daretur, "as if God does not exist," will be dysfunctional and ultimately inhumane. Jesus Christ, Benedict insists, is "the sign of God for human beings." Presenting humanity with the proper teaching about Jesus is, therefore, according to Benedict, the highest form of public service the church has to offer.

The English edition of Jesus of Nazareth goes on sale from Doubleday May 15, and an excerpt will be carried in the May 11 edition of Newsweek. (That should make the pope, for at least a week, no longer "invisible," as Newsweek described him April 16.) Jesus of Nazareth is the first installment of what Benedict has projected as a longer work; he decided to publish the first 10 chapters now, he wrote, "because I don't know how much time and how much strength will still be given to me."

Defending the Gospels

Intellectually, the aim of Jesus of Nazareth is, in the first place, to defend the reliability of the Gospel accounts; and secondly, to argue that that Gospels present Christ as God himself, not as a prophet or moral reformer. Over and over, the pope uses phrases such as "implicit Christology," "hidden Christology" and "indirect Christology," to argue that even where the Gospel accounts don't draw out the theological consequences of stories and sayings of Jesus, their message is nonetheless discernible.

On one level, Jesus of Nazareth reads like a running conversation with exegetes such as Adolf von Harnack, who argued that the Jesus of the Gospels was not yet "the Christ," and that turning him into a deity was a work of later Christian theologizing. …

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