Pope's New Book, Jesus of Nazareth, Published in English

Author: Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P.

Pope's New Book, Jesus of Nazareth, Published in English

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P.
Archbishop of Vienna, Austria

Jesus of Nazareth; from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, is the title of Pope Benedict XVI's new book, which was published in English on 15 May [2007]. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P., Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, presented the Italian edition of the Holy Father's book to Journalists at the Press Office of the Holy See on Friday afternoon, 13 April.

The Pope has said that his book, a study he began two years before his election and finished last September, should not be considered as part of the official Magisterium. The 10 chapters of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Father, says in his Foreword to the book, make up Part One, the first of two volumes; the Pope intends in Part Two to examine the birth of Christ, his Crucifixion and his Resurrection.

The following is a translation of Cardinal Schönborn's press conference intervention, which was given in Italian.

The Pope in the 'Agora'

It comes as no surprise that the Pope should speak of Jesus. That the Successor of the Apostle Peter should perpetuate Peter's confession to Jesus is the very essence of his task.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16): this solemn confession of Jesus of Nazareth's identity is the rock on which Christ's Church is founded.

How wonderful it is that the Successor of Cephas, Peter, the man-"rock" on which Jesus promised to build his Church, should repeat, should renew, this confession and proclaim it today in the Church.

That the Pope should speak of Jesus is in no way surprising. This is the, first and most important of his duties. Rather, it is how he does so that comes as a surprise.

To begin, the name "Benedict XVI" does not appear on the cover, but quite simply, "Joseph Ratzinger". The name "Benedict XVI", which the Pope chose on 19 April 2005 after his election, takes second place. It is not the Pope who is speaking here, nor the former Cardinal, Bishop, professor or priest, but the simple believer, Joseph Ratzinger, a Christian.

To make this clear from the outset, he ends the Preface to his book with the simple recommendation:

"It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the Magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord' (Ps 27:8)" (Foreword, p. xxiii).

Thus, it is a very personal "book about Jesus" (p. xi). The author says at the beginning that it was written after "a long gestation" (p. xi).

However, Joseph Ratzinger, the man and the Christian, is at the same time Pope Benedict XVI. He also signed his Preface with this, so to speak, "double-named" name and his book, advertised by the media, is published with it.

The book is read as the Pope's book on Jesus. And why not? He is not the president of a worldwide multinational organization but the Successor of the one whom Jesus asked: "Simon,... do you love me?" (Jn 21:15).

Why should not the Pope himself, who has a special vocation, speak of his Teacher and Lord? Is it not he, more than anyone, who should be overflowing with friendship with Christ? As will be seen, this is the centre of gravity, the inner core of his book on Jesus. He calls it: "intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything" he says "depends" (p. xii).

So is this proof of an "intimate friendship"? Is it a totally subjective approach? Is it that kind of personal witness for "outsiders" of which many examples exist, a form of devotional literature more often than not indigestible?

This type of literature would not be recognizable as Ratzinger's. He is reluctant to show any kind of subjectivism and, shrinks from exhibiting his own personal interiority in any form. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, the flame of his faith life is hidden; it is not on display for the curiosity of biographers.

What strikes one in the first place is his tireless intellectual confrontation, his effort of conception, the force of his arguments, his passion for an objective quest for the truth, his endeavour to provide an answer to all who are asking and seeking to account for the hope that is in them (cf. I Pt 3:15).

For this reason, the Pope goes out into the "Agora", the square of public debate. In the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17:22) of the plurality of different opinions that exist today, he expounds on his vision of Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI tells his readers what ought to be obvious in the areopaghi of public discussion in our time and accompanies what he says with a lofty criterion for quality: "Everyone is free, then, is free to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding" (p. xxiv).

Contradictions are plentiful indeed. In every respect, Jesus is "a sign that is spoken against" (Lk 2:34) from the outset. Is his figure "coherent"? Is not the rock of Peter's confession to Jesus as Israel's Messiah, as the Son of the Living God, likely to crumble? Do we really know anything certain about the man from Galilee? What sort of friendship can one have with a ghost? One that "is in danger of clutching at thin air" (p. xii).

Thus, the question of historical credibility is vitally important, particularly for the one person among the 2 billion Christians who has the honour of being entrusted by Jesus with "the keys of the Kingdom" (Mt 16:19).

On the public media market there is a constant effort to sell apparently new "finds" that claim to reveal a completely different history about Jesus of Nazareth. The biblical and ecclesial portrayal of the figure of Jesus is purported to be a fraud on the part of priests and a swindle on the part of the Church. The "truth" about Jesus is supposedly masked by enigmatic conspirators, preferably located particularly in the Vatican.

The doubt about the historical credibility of the image of Jesus in the Gospels, however, also comes from "the line he takes". The critical history of the Bible has disputed almost everything about Jesus that can be found in the Bible for more than 200 years. From time to time, his figure has seemed to dissolve like a shadow into the mist, like "an icon that has become obscured" (p. xii).

So it is that faith in the Church of Jesus Christ appears as a later "divinization" of a Jesus of Nazareth about whom, to tell the truth, we really have very little certain knowledge. "This impression has by now penetrated deeply into the minds of the Christian people at large. This is a dramatic situation for faith, because its point of reference is being placed in doubt" (p. xii).

And what if it were possible instead to demonstrate the historical credibility of the Gospels and the image of Jesus they present? Our author is convinced that this is possible. His own life has equipped him with the very best means for doing so.

For him, the Bible has always been the heart and centre of theology. In the many years during which he was my professor, and then the Bishop who was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I never saw him without his "Nestle", the critical edition of the New Testament in Greek. I know of no other theology professor who has such deep familiarity with the Bible.

For 24 years he was President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which is made up of first-rate Catholic Biblical scholars. He knows the "historical-critical" method of biblical exegesis. And if he is critical of it, it is not out of fear but because of his well-grounded and fully argued conviction that it should recognize its own limitations.

"I hope", he writes, "it is clear to the reader, though, that my intention in, writing this book is not to counter modern exegesis; rather, I write with profound gratitude for all that it has given and continues to give to us" (p. xxiii).

The Pope knows what he is talking about. Every page of his book shows how conversant he is with the work of today's biblical sciences.

It is this mastery which has strengthened his conviction that the Gospels can be trusted. He wanted to try "to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, 'historical Jesus' in the strict sense of the word. I am convinced, and I hope the reader will be, too, that this figure is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions we have been presented with in recent decades. I believe that this Jesus — the Jesus of the Gospels — is a historically plausible and convincing figure" (p. xxii).

Our author starts from this assumption. Keeping it in sight, he interprets Jesus' life from his Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. The span of his public life is treated in this first volume in expectation of the second, which should deal with the beginning and end of Jesus' earthly pilgrimage.

On the basis of this trust in the historical dependability of the Gospels and in the image of Jesus, an even more radical question arises concerning the authentic focus of the discussion on Jesus.

If the Gospels present Jesus as he really was, is he a credible figure? Can we trust the understanding he had of himself as we find it in the Gospels? Might it not be an excessive overestimation of himself, an arrogant presumption?

After 200 years of historical criticism of the Bible we can start out with assurance, together with Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI, from the presupposition of the sound historical reliability of the Gospels.

The countless imaginary images of Jesus as a revolutionary, a humble social reformer, a secret lover of Mary Magdalene, etc., can be calmly deposited in the ossuary of history. Yet, the great question remains: is Jesus consistent in himself? Is not the understanding he has of himself and of his own identity an enormous error that Christianity has been following for 2,000 years?

It was this very claim that Judaism and Islam found shocking.

Is finding a response to it the true challenge that confronts the Successor of Peter (and of Paul) in the public areopagus today? Is Jesus himself credible? And if so, what has he brought? (p. 44). Why was he to be more than a prophet? This "addition" was not a discovery of his followers who would have made him God. This is the most genuine understanding that he has of himself.

He himself declared that he was "the Son" (pp. 340-346) in an absolute sense, specific to him alone. Was the reason for this that he could not, or did not, wish to withdraw into the more modest role of the founder of one religion among many?

This is the true scandal. It is far more radical than the many other scandals which his disciples were already causing, even at the outset.

Jesus, the Rabbi, the Pope

Is Jesus himself consistent, is he credible?

According to Pope Benedict's personal testimony, one motivation to write this book came from his encounter with the work of "the great Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner" (p. 69): A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial Interfaith Exchange (Doubleday, New York, 1993).

Thus, what Pope Benedict says about this book is so essential to understanding his own book on Jesus that I would like to cite Jacob Neusner a little more extensively here.

Jacob Neusner, our author says, "takes his place, as it were, among the audience of the Sermon on the Mount and, having listened to Jesus, attempts a dialogue with him.... More than other interpretations known to me, this respectful and frank dispute between a believing Jew and Jesus, the son of Abraham, has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus' words and to the choice that the Gospel places before us... then, I would like as a Christian to join in the rabbi's conversation with Jesus, so as to be guided toward a better understanding of the authentic Jewishness and what constitutes the mystery of Jesus" (p. 69)

Cardinal Ratzinger was already thinking of this tripartite conversation when he described Rabbi Neusner's book as "the far most important paper for Jewish-Christian dialogue that has been published in the last decade". His book on Jesus, now published, fulfils this promise.

Rather than discussing exegetical methods, he has at heart the conversation with the rabbi. The former, in a certain way, belong to preambles, to prefaces. Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI explains them rapidly and sums them up in his own Foreword, pointing out the merits and limitations of historical-critical approaches to Jesus.

From the introduction, however, Joseph Ratzinger offers "an initial reflection on the mystery of Jesus (p. 1); he is there in the centre, where the Person of Jesus himself is situated. Here, in the heart of his meditation on Jesus, the rabbi is crucially important to him".

"Let us try to draw out the essential points of this conversation in order to know Jesus and to understand our Jewish brothers better" (p. 104).

"In his interior dialogue Neusner has just spent the whole day following Jesus, and now he retires for prayer and Torah study with the Jews of a certain town in order to discuss with the rabbi of that place — once again he is thinking in terms of contemporaneity across the millennia all that he has heard" (p. 104).

They then compare the teachings of Jesus with those of the Jewish tradition. The rabbi asks Neusner whether "Jesus' teaching is the same as the Prophets"'. Neusner: "Not exactly, but close". "What did he leave out?". "Nothing". "Then what did he add?". "Himself".

This is the imaginary dialogue. At this exact point in his encounter with Jesus that is so full of respect, Neusner, taking fright, recoils.

He is alarmed at the sentence Jesus addresses to the rich young man: "If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have and come, follow me" (cf. Mt 19:21). It all depends, Neusner says, on who is meant by this "me" (cf. A Rabbi Talks with Jesus... p. 114). And our author concludes: "This is the central reason why he [Rabbi Neusner] does not wish to follow Jesus, but remains with the 'eternal Israel' (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 105).

"The centrality of Jesus' 'I' in his message" (p. 105) is therefore the reason why, as Rabbi Neusner writes in the Preface to his book, had he lived "in Israel in the first century A.D." he would not have joined the "circle of Jesus' Apostles" (op. cit., p. 7). And he would have taken this decision "for good and important reasons"; he would have explained why he did so logically, "with arguments and facts", Rabbi Neusner says at the very beginning of his book (ibid., p. 7).

Is Neusner's refusal to follow Jesus, which he expresses with such deep respect yet also with great clarity, motivated primarily by faith or by reason? By both, it would seem.

He considers his refusal to identify Jesus with God as evidence of faith, whose reasonableness is also explicable "with arguments and facts". Both religious and social reasons justify Neusner's courteous refusal. What Jesus asks of his followers, "God alone can ask of me" (A Rabbi Talks with Jesus..., p. 70).

And what he asks of them leads in the end to endangering the social structure of Israel as it is prescribed by the Torah: "The Sermon on the Mount cannot serve as a foundation for a State and a social order" (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 114). Rabbi Neusner is so important to the book of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI precisely because, with a clear-cut refusal, he opposes all attempts to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of the Church's dogma.

It was neither the Church nor even the Apostle Paul who raised to the rank of Son of God an itinerant preacher in Galilee who was gentle, liberal, prophetic, apocalyptic or whatever else he may have been, but Jesus himself, who claimed that all he said or did derived from God alone.

This is the central theme of the book. It addresses Jesus' question at Caesarea Philippi: "But who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15).

What did Jesus bring?

A new social order? His Kingdom is not of this world, Jesus himself explained. He would have already said his "no" to a purely immanent and earthly expectation of salvation in his refusal to be tempted, in other words, to the tempter. This has something to do with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's frequently misunderstood criticism of "liberation theology".

In the valuable chapter on the temptations of Jesus, we read: "No kingdom of this world is the Kingdom of God, the total condition of mankind's salvation... and anyone who claims to be able to establish the perfect world is the willing dupe of Satan and plays the world right into his hands" (pp. 43-44).

But what then? What did Jesus bring if not a better world?

"This leads to the great question that will be with us throughout this entire book: What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity and a better world? What has he brought?

"The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God" (p 44).

Is this all? "It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little" (p.44).

"The fundamental commandment of Israel is also the fundamental commandment for Christians: God alone is to be worshipped" (p. 45). This is the presupposition for the commandments of love of neighbour. Without the primacy of God, the dignity of the human being does not resist for long. "Jesus: has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny" (p. 44).

What does all this mean?

Did not all founders of religion bring knowledge and wisdom from Above? In the introductory "initial reflection on the mystery of Jesus" (p. 1), our author addresses the problem of how Jesus "brings God" (pp. 3-8).

In the Old Testament, Moses is the mediator of the knowledge of God, the will of God. He was not the soothsayer who predicts a dark future but a friend and confident of God, "whom the Lord knew face to face" (Dt 34:10). Only in this way could he become the mediator of the Torah, of God's will.

Moses announced "a prophet like me" (p. 3), one who had "conversed with the Lord 'face to face'; as a man speaks to his friend, so he had spoken with God" (p. 3-4). A real, immediate relationship with God is a sign of recognition of the promise, of the Messiah. Jesus is the new Moses who had been promised.

"He lives before the face of God, not just as a friend, but as a Son; he lives in the most intimate unity with the Father" (p. 6). "This is the central point, and if we leave it out of the account, we fail to grasp what the figure of Jesus is really all about, so that it becomes self-contradictory and, in the end, unintelligible" (p. 6).

Can this direct relationship of Jesus with the Father be demonstrated? Has his being Son of God been, as it were, "ascertained"?

Basically, the entire book of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is a single "symphonic" attempt to prove the "coherency" of the figure of Jesus as the One who is in an absolute and immediate relationship with God.

To support this demonstration, it is necessary to understand and meditate step by step on the book itself. Only the fullness of the individual impressions can shape an overall vision.

As a reader, I always feel that the proof of Jesus shines forth from this. Is my impression purely subjective? Or does it come from my faith a priori, which causes me already from the very outset to interpret everything about Jesus in the sense of Christological dogma?

One thing is certain: "that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in the light of the mystery of God" (pp. xxii-xxiii).

From the very first it was the simple people who remarked: the One who is speaking here is not delivering learned discourses: "No man ever spoke like this man!", the crowd said to the scholars of Israel (cf. Jn 7:46). "Jesus' teaching is not the product of human learning, of whatever kind. It originates from immediate contact with the Father, from 'face-to-face' dialogue.... It is the Son's word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption" (p. 7)

From 'Agora' to 'sequela'

"The disciple who walks with Jesus is thus caught up with him into a communion with God" (p. 8). The author of this book on Jesus is undoubtedly one of those whom Jesus has drawn into this communion with God. Broad-minded and endowed with a brilliant intelligence he brings to his book the harvest of his long journey with Jesus Christ.

It might seem tragic that such a theologian, who without any doubt belongs among the most important theologians of recent decades, should have received the burden of ecclesiastical office (28 May was the 30th anniversary of Prof. Ratzinger's episcopal ordination).

However, the ways of the Lord are not our ways. Those who seek to take in Cardinal Ratzinger's works at a glance will note with deep admiration how fruitful and abundant have been these years of his pastoral service, precisely from the theological viewpoint.

What kindled enthusiasm among the readers of Introduction to Christianity (1968), that unmistakeable combination of the compenetration of faith and reason and existential openness, has acquired more weight through his pastoral service. His perspective of society, of the intellectual, social and political challenges of our time, has thus become universal, just as the universality of his current pastoral office requires.

Yet, over and above the splendour of the analyses, of the great wealth of his insights and views which fill this book, everything is motivated by the passion he feels for the One whom he is now responsible for representing here on this earth.

His book is now on the "Agora" of the "public market", it is offered for debate in the areopaghi of our society. The simple desire of its author is not primarily to spark discussions, although he knows that there will be no lack of controversy.

He wants only one thing: "to foster the growth of a living relationship with him [Jesus of Nazareth]" (Jesus of Nazareth, p. xxiv).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 May 2007, page 8

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