The Jesus Book of Benedict XVI
In the Light of the Old Testament
Some authors like it to date the preface to their book not only with sober numbers but to provide it with further data that are usually thought as program. Under the preface of the Jesus book is written: "Rome, at the feast of Saint Hieronymus, 30 September 2006. Johannes Ratzinger - Benedict XVI." The two names with which the preface is signed, first the civil and then the papal (in this order), are a first hint for reading. It is the personal book of the human being, Christian, theologian Joseph Ratzinger. But it is at the same time the book of Joseph Ratzinger, who is Pope. So it admittedly is not a book that has the teaching authority of the church and therefore from Catholics demands obedience in matters of faith, but it will nevertheless exert great influence, above all if it meets approval in what it says and through the way how it talks. A second hint for reading gives the dating on the feast of Saint Hieronymus, the probably most important Bible scientist of the old church. He was not only an ingenious translator and interpreter of the Bible but strove for a synthesis of Jewish-Christian theology and antique culture. Against Augustinus Hieronymus defended in the translation of the Bible the priority of the veritas Hebraica against the Graeca veritas. And at the beginning of his commentary to Isajah he formulates the hermeneutical basic sentence of Christian Bible reading: "ignoratio enim Scripturarum ignoratio Christi est", i.e. "not to know the Scriptures means not to know Christ." There is no question about it: With "Scriptures" Hieronymus here means the holy Scriptures of Judaism respectively the Christian Old Testament, which I myself like to call also "First Testament". The word of Hieronymus thus says: Not to know and understand the Old Testament means not to understand Jesus Christ. That is in my opinion also the central theme of the Jesus book of Benedict XVI. Since I am an Old Testament scholar, I read the book particularly with the eyeglasses of the Old Testament scholar. And I say it without restriction: I have liked to read it; with great approval but also with some serious queries.
A Very Personal Book of Seeking God
The Jesus book is a very personal book, to which the Pope, as he says in the first sentence of the preface, "has been for a long time inwardly on the way" (10). He began with writing as Cardinal in the summer vacation 2003. It was intended to become a great book on faith, as it were a Summa theologica of his life. It is true though not in the style of Thomas of Aquino, not in the objectivizing language of dogmatics, not in the elementarizing, general style of a catechism but in the liveliness of a personal faith testimony. He held on to this intention also after "his election for the seat of the bishopric of Rome" (23) and, as he says, "used all spare time to get the book going" (23).
An Almost Poetic Declaration of Love
Indeed: This is a very personal book, because - one feels it time and again when reading it - he personally has written it. There were no ghost-writers at work (as it is the case with many VIPs), and there were no drafts sketched by a staff and then finally edited by the boss. Anyhow that is the impression that I as exegete trained in literary criticism won while reading the book. I think Joseph Ratzinger wrote this book with inner joy. The Archbishop of Strasbourg, Joseph Doré, who was Ratzinger's disciple when Ratzinger taught at our Münster faculty, characterized this personal style of the Pope's book at the presentation in Paris as "sensitivity of a lover" and summarized this so: "He loves Jesus." Yes, this book is a scientifically founded and in parts even poetic declaration of love to Jesus of Nazareth.
As a professional interpreter of psalms I am understandably very pleased that the Pope summarizes the intent of his book with an allusion to psalm 27, in which is said: "I am looking for your face, living God. Do not hide your face from me. To see your face is my happiness" (Ps 27, 8-9, 13). Benedict XVI is looking for the face of God in Jesus of Nazareth, namely in the testimony of the gospels, as he reads and understands them.
A Pointed Bible-theological Book
I am simply impressed by it: The Pope loves the Bible and lives with the Bible. And this Pope reads and explains the Bible on a high Bible-scientific level (although with very limited perception of the newer specialist literature). It fascinates me that the Bible and the study of the Bible became consistently "the foundation" and "the soul" of Ratzinger's late theology. Both metaphors date from article 24 of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation ("Dei Verbum") of the Second Vatican Council and were in 1967 by the at that time teaching in Tübingen Joseph Ratzinger, who as theologian of Cardinal Frings together with Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and Edward Schillebeeckx played an important role in the quite controversial genesis of the document, explained in the corresponding comment volume of the LThK [Encyclopaedia for Theology and Church] as follows: "Article 24 refers to the function of the Scriptures for theology. This function is described first with the picture of a foundation, in which the moment of stability has priority" (LThK II, 576). What Ratzinger then says about the metaphor "soul" explains in my opinion his ambivalent relationship to the current Bible science, which finds expression in the Jesus book. Ratzinger wrote in 1967: "In the previous manuals of dogmatics the respective church doctrine was the starting point of the consideration. After it a proof from the Scriptures and the tradition was given and then a theological treatment was tried. In consequence the Scriptures were on principle regarded only under the aspect of a proof for existing statements. Where new questions were negotiated they usually resulted from the work of systematic theology; they were not initiated by the Scriptures" (LThK II, 577). I myself studied from 1958 to 1966 in Rome and indescribably suffered from this Bible-hostile theology.
Disappointment about the Historical-critical Exegesis
In the retrospective view it is obvious: As consequence of the Second Vatican Council at that time in many regions of the Catholic Church a "Bible Spring" broke out, both in the life of the parishes and in the theological science. Long since a frosty, wintry hoar-frost of disappointment has covered that Bible Spring beginning soon after the Council. More and more the modern Bible science is no longer seen and experienced as inspiring but as destroying faith. The not completely unjustified main reproach reads: It analyzes and interprets with fascinating and fascinated erudition the Biblical texts as historical documents, but it has forgotten that the Bible is a book of faith and of the church. Or, to say it even more clearly: Many Bible scientists present the Bible only as documents of the history of the old-oriental and the Hellenistic-Roman religion and society but not also as formative and normative life book of today's Christianity. Many exegetes leave this relevance of the Bible to dogmatics or practical theology.
Is it surprising that the Bible science loses more and more in influence in theology and church? Is it surprising that recently there are again Catholic dogmatists who are proud to get along with their drafts without the Bible? Is it surprising that people who want to live with the Bible look for and practice new ways and methods, to which - despite all variability - the renunciation of the modern exegesis is common.
I have the impression: Benedict's XVI Jesus book is very substantially affected by this ambivalence of the Bible's role in scientific theology and in the life of the church. It is obvious that those doubts about the theological efficiency of the modern Bible science worry the Pope. I want to clarify this further with two references:
(1) In the preface he describes the situation just outlined by me as follows: "The progresses of the historical-critical research led to more and more refined distinctions between layers of traditions, behind which the figure of Jesus, to which faith refers, became more and more indistinct and lost more and more contour. At the same time the reconstructions of that Jesus became of course … more and more conflicting: from the anti-Roman revolutionary working for the overthrow of existing powers and of course failing up to the gentle moralist who approves of everything and with it inexplicably goes to the dogs. Who reads several of those reconstructions together will soon notice that they are rather photographs of the authors and their ideals than the uncovering of an icon blackened by centuries of smoke. In this respect in the meantime the distrust of those Jesus pictures has grown, but the figure of Jesus himself has gone away from us all the more" (10f).
(2) The disappointment about the modern exegesis, yes, even a deep distrust of it becomes apparent in a passage of the book that actually is not worthy of its other level. It is that passage where the Pope alludes to the in 1899/1900 published "Short Tale of the Antichrist" of the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Solowjew who tells in it the Antichrist had as a great Bible scholar been awarded with the honorary doctor of theology by the University of Tübingen. Whether the Pope's association was inspired by memories of his time in Tübingen I do not know. In the Jesus book he furnishes the reference with the following commentary: "With this tale Solowjew drastically expressed his scepticism about a certain type of exegetical erudition of his time. It is not a 'No' to scientific Bible interpretation as such, but a most salutary and necessary warning of its possible errors. Bible interpretation can indeed become the instrument of Anti-Christ" (64). Despite the disappointment about the modern exegesis the Pope still regards it as indispensable and expressly states that he himself owes it many insights; and he now presents his book, which wants to show that and how the Bible and scientifically reflected handling of it can be the "soul" of theology.
A Pointed Book
An additional number of viewpoints could be pointed out by which the personal profile of the author of this Jesus book becomes recognizable. I mention only one more aspect, because it seems to be particularly relevant to me. As very personal book it is a one-sided and pointed book. What applies to all Jesus books applies also here (even if the author would contradict that): The respective picture of Jesus is (almost) always the most personal, subjective and one-sided picture of their authors. This Jesus book is a great religious testimony of a theological philosopher. But I notice that it has not the passion that is shaken by the inexpressible sufferings and concrete needs of human beings, by their justified doubts, yes, by the seriousness of their being unable to believe in God. I want to formulate it very emotionally: This Jesus book is written not in the arena of suffering, but in the study of a scholar. It is a spectacularly perfect book about God, but in my opinion its message is altogether too little earthed. Time and again the concern, yes, the fear becomes visible between the lines that the God message of the Bible could be socially or politically misunderstood or abused. It is the concern that looking for God and the message of God's devotion no longer take the first place in the preaching of the church and in the life of the individual.
Probably the suffering from God and the deep anguish of being forsaken by God, that is the whole drama of the theodicy problem will be discussed in the second volume in the context of the Passion of Jesus. But does Jesus of Nazareth, who is challenged by the real hunger of human beings, by their real diseases and by their mental sufferings and who gives them bread as food without asking after their faith, who heals their bodies and souls and so reveals the face of the unconditionally loving God, not belong so centrally to the public work of Jesus that I am after all surprised that those quite real life stories do not occur in the Jesus book - respectively only in the perspective of Saint John's gospel where they highly reflected are presented as theological "signs"? At least in the Old Testament the starving and thirsting are saved from death first of all by bread and water. The biblical God wants a society worthy of human beings, because he is in a very concrete sense a philanthropic God. Does here not become visible after all that the Jesus of this Jesus book is first of all and deeply "word" and only in a derived way God's "deed"? May here not, to say it carefully, the theologian and priest Ratzinger a little be the model for further discussion his book is based on? Would he write the book also in such a way when he - like Jesus of Nazareth - had to share, respectively was allowed to share the everyday life of human beings in concrete terms? After reading this Jesus book I can understand (although not agree from the perspective of the Bible as a whole), why the Pope has problems with political theology and with liberation theology and why he can little do with Jon Sobrino's Christology.
The Hermeneutical and Methodical Program
Today no serious Bible scientist would still want to write a Jesus biography. A biography or a psychograph of Jesus of Nazareth fails first because of the scanty sources. As primary sources for it we would have the gospels and as secondary sources references in Tacitus, Sueton and perhaps Flavius Josephus. But the actual problem are the gospels themselves, which do not want to be historical reports on Jesus' life. They are strongly moulded by the post-Easter faith, which they witness and preach. And they have a complicated, multilayered history of origin. On the other hand we know today a good deal about the time and the area in which Jesus lived. For that reason there are excellent historical-critical works that investigate Jesus as a figure of Judaism and the Jesus movement as an inner-Jewish revival movement. The historical-critical Jesus books of Martin Ebner and Gerd Theissen are everything else but subverting faith; but they do not want to and cannot reach the in Jesus revealed mystery of God, of which the Biblical texts give testimony and which matters to Benedict XVI in his Jesus book.
An Ambitious Counter-Program to the Historical-Critical Jesus Research
Strictly taken there is more at stake for him: He wants to prove that these testimonies of faith are historically reliable. He wants to overcome the common distinction respectively separation between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Whereas the predominant majority of the exegetes of the New Testament holds that the unfolded Christology of Saint John's gospel or the Christ Hymn of the Letter to the Philippians (2, 6-11), according to which Jesus is equal to God respectively God's Son or God himself, is a later theological creation of the Christian communities the Pope asks the counter-question: "Why could unknown groups be so creative, so convince and become generally accepted? Is it not also historically much more logical that the great event stands at the beginning and that the figure of Jesus indeed broke up all categories and could only be understood from the mystery of God?" (21f).
That is an ambitious scientific project the Pope embarks on by simply turning round the question. He does not ask: What can we to some extent reliably know about the historical Jesus by means of historical research, and how do we come from this historical Jesus to the faith in Christ? On the contrary he asks: In what do the various testimonies of the gospels about Jesus converge, and is this testimony of faith about the historical figure of Jesus convincing? Against the doubts and reservations of the historical-critical analysis he sets his option, formulated almost in a way of bearing witness (konfessorisch): I trust the gospels, even Saint John's gospel, particularly just it, as historically reliable witnesses.
Thus the book has a double task: On the one hand it has to unite the many and contradicting voices of the gospels about Jesus to a harmony, what needs an almost ingenious conductor or interpreter in view of the well-known discord between the synoptists Matthew, Mark, Luke on the one side and Saint John's gospel on the other side, if out of it a common, although polyphonic song is finally to become. And then the still much more difficult and arduous attempt must be undertaken to trace that polyphonic song back to a prime-melody that the historical Jesus himself was respectively is.
The first project, the bringing together of the many voices to a common song has succeeded outstandingly. I doubt that the second project has succeeded: the scientifically plausible tracing back to Jesus as historical figure. I am even of the opinion that is not or only quite fragmentarily possible.
Three Hermeneutical Options
The Hermeneutics with the help of which Benedict XVI reads the Biblical texts is determined by three options, which I would call in my terminology syn-chronological, canonical and receptive-aesthetic reading.
(1) First interpretative option: Syn-chronological reading. The historical-critical exegesis of the last two centuries was to a large extent fixed on exploring the origin of the Biblical texts and on explaining the reconstructed text layers as documents of their assumed time of origin; often the background to it was the romantic thesis that the oldest text stage - since it was next to the event told - was also the historically most reliable one. With texts with a complex history of the origins one was particularly interested in it, and the final shape of the text often remained even unnoticed. Those questions are thrilling for the exegete and they are by no means unimportant for the understanding of the texts. But not hypothetically deduced preliminary stages, the final shape of the texts is holy and normative for Judaism and Christianity. To it the historical-critical exegesis with its dia-chronical reading gave too little attention. Now the syn-chronological reading concentrates on the final shape of the texts, although the methodical relation between dia-chronological and syn-chronological reading is at present a violently discussed problem. The Pope does not worry about those problems in his book. His option for the syn-chronological reading can be Bible-scientifically substantiated, but the observations of the dia-chronological reading have to do with the very characteristic of the texts. Should the Pope not have more seriously reflected the fact that we have not one gospel but four gospels?
(2) Second hermeneutical option: Canonical reading. This reading is a consequence of the history of the origins of the Bible as Bible. The name "Bible" records that the Bible is a special book: It is based on the plural of the Greek word biblion, i.e. "book role", document, letter". As technical term for the Holy Scriptures the word biblia characterizes the Bible as a collection of books or a book made of many books. In the view on the Christian Bible this is the two-one Bible of the two parts Old Testament and New Testament, which form a canonical unit. Methodically the canonical reading is a specific form of the inter-textual reading. We call it canonical reading because it takes into account as hermeneutically relevant corpus of texts only those texts respectively writings - and even their arrangement in the structure of the Bible - that belong to the canon of the Bible. About the relevance and the methodical procedure of the canonical reading there is at present a violent Bible-scientific discussion. I belong to its determined supporters.
It is not completely correct when it is said (also by the Pope; see Preface, P. 17), the canonical exegesis had been developed about 30 years ago in America. Strictly speaking it is the classical hermeneutics of the rabbis and Church Fathers and it has been a characteristic of the Jewish interpretation of the Bible until today.
The canonical perspective was also through centuries a usual way of reading in Christianity; its basic axiom read: Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius interpres. There is a danger in this method that it finds in the Biblical texts what it wants to find, i.e. it mutates to eisegesis. The triumphant progress of the historical-critical exegesis in the modern age is also the result of such abortive developments of this method. Its current resumption by the Christian Bible science was on the one hand triggered by the Christian-Jewish dialogue, on the other hand it is not only concerned with the outlined assessment of the complex process of fixing the canon of the Holy Scriptures but also with the new insights of the humanities about the function of holy and canonical texts in general. Unfortunately I cannot describe here all this more broadly and more in detail. But I would like to state that the Pope's option for the canonical reading can be substantiated both by the Bible science and the cultural science.
That is why the objection raised by several critics that in the Pope's book with the project of canonical exegesis a very doubtful instrument to solve problems was activated is neither convincing nor justified. The canonical method is based on the specific character of the Bible and is as old as the Bible the reasonableness of which could in my opinion be easily be developed from the concept 'truth' in the Hebrew Bible. It reads, as is well known, emet, i.e. reliability, stability, loyalty. The Bible has developed as collection of those writings that testify God's loyalty - despite everything. The truth of the Bible is a truth that has stood the test and so proved to be true, and that in its
theological, canonical wholeness. If that can be shown, in my opinion the message of the Bible is reasonable. I have the impression that Benedict's XVI Jesus book is an important voice to the project "reasonableness of the Bible".
(3) Third hermeneutical option: receptive-aesthetic reading. The newer literary discussion very strongly emphasizes that literary texts are not unambiguous but ambiguous (polysem); that great importance in giving the text sense is attached to the reader of a text, and that one must differentiate between the intention of a historical author and the meaning of the text written by him. The multiple meanings of a text result from the different contexts in which it is delivered and received. In the case of the Bible it is above all the religious community that accepted and accepts the Bible as its canon. Because of that there is, as the last document of the Papal Bible Commission "The Jewish People and its Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible" (2001) rightfully emphasized, a legitimate Jewish way to read the Bible of Israel and a Christian way different from it of reading the Old Testament.
Biblical texts thus have a potential of sense that goes beyond the intention of their first writers. That is quite important for the Pope, who wants to expound a biblically given context between the statements of the New Testament about the figure of the Jesus of Nazareth and the christological statements of the first Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). The openness of the biblical texts, the meaning of which is variously interpreted in the process of adoption, is not to be confused with arbitrariness and unlimitedness. In the case of the Council the formulation Jesus was of the "same nature" (homoousios) as the Father, he was really "true God from true God" can adoption hermeneutically be made clear as result of the process of reading of the church adoption community in conflict with other possible ways of interpretation. That is a main objective of the Jesus book. It wants to reject the reproach the early Christian Christology was an alienation and misrepresentation of the biblical testimony about Jesus.
In the preface the Pope explains and justifies this adoption hermeneutical aspect of his reading the Bible as follows: It is "important to keep present that already every word of some weight spoken by a human being has more in it than the author at that moment may have immediately been aware of. All the more this surplus of the word that goes beyond the moment of being spoken, applies to the words that developed in the process of the history of faith. There the author does not speak simply from himself and for himself. He talks from a common history that carries him and in which at the same time the possibilities of its future, its further way are already secretly present" (18f).
Both the Jewish and the Christian tradition always knew of this sense potential of the Bible. Both developed specific programs for the presentation of the multiple senses of the Scriptures. Gregory the Great writes in his homilies about Ezekiel (1, 7, 8): "As much as every Saint wins from the Holy Scriptures, just as much this Holy Scripture wins by him. … The divine words grow with the reader (divina eloquia cum legente crescunt)" (M. Fiedrowicz, Prinzipien 106).
High Respect for Judaism
At present this method of handling the Bible is violently discussed. At least the Church Fathers' interpretation of the Scriptures shows how problematic it can be, if it proceeds from a theologically wrong basic option. Since most of the Church Fathers hold - regarding the relationship Israel - Church - the substitution- respectively the rejection thesis according to which the Church replaced Judaism, which had not accepted the Messiah Jesus, many texts of the New Testament are interpreted by them in this sense, i.e. decidedly anti-Jewish. The Pope, who by the way was as young theologian substitution-theologically infected, as the article "Church" in the second edition of the LThK of the year 1961 shows, in his Jesus book, where he often also takes up the exegesis of the Church Fathers, decidedly does not follow their anti-Judaist way.
One must say even more: The Pope tries to understand more deeply the Jews' 'No' to Jesus, which continues until today. That becomes particularly apparent when he in the fourth chapter of the book about the Sermon on the Mount, where he develops his view (which is altogether important for the book in all) that Jesus was the "Torah in Person", writes the following: I would like to consider in my interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount "the revised version of the Torah given to us by Jesus. Here Jesus conducts a conversation with Israel's traditions. In an important book the great Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner joined, as it were, the listeners of the Sermon on the Mount and subsequently tried a conversation with Jesus under the title: A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. That reverent and frank dispute of the faithful Jew with Jesus, the Son of Abraham, opened more than other interpretations I know my eyes for the greatness of Jesus' word and for the decision which the gospel demands of us" (99). What then follows is to a certain extent a Christian-Jewish dialogue in which the Christian Joseph Ratzinger let himself be led by the Jew Jacob Neusner to a deep understanding of Jesus' claim to be God and to an understanding of the Jewish 'No' to this claim.
The Bible of Israel / the Old Testament as Foundation of Christianity
In that dialogue the Christian Ratzinger recognizes, what he - for many probably surprisingly - time and again emphasizes in the book, that the content of Jesus' message was identical with the message of the Bible of Israel. Jesus did not abolish the Torah of Moses. "The Beatitudes are not seldom represented as the New Testament's opposite to the Decalogue, as it were the higher ethics of the Christians compared with the commandments of the Old Testament. With such a view one completely misjudges the sense of those words of Jesus" (100). Jesus' announcement of God's rule is as regards content not something new compared with the Old Testament. Jesus does not preach a different God but the one of the Old Testament. That is shown in the Jesus book by the intensive correlation of the New Testament texts to texts of the Old Testament. What the Papal Bible Commission formulated as program in its document "The Jewish People and its Holy Scripture in the Christian Bible", the Pope implements in his book: "Without the Old Testament the New Testament would be a book that cannot be deciphered, like a plant without roots is condemned to dry up" (No. 84).
As exegete of the Old Testament I am understandably glad that with the Pope's Jesus book the Old Testament as foundation of Christianity is finally again given due attention. I would however emphasize more strongly the lasting intrinsic value and also the relevance of the special message of the Old Testament. For me there is in the relation of the two parts of our Bible nevertheless what we call the promise surplus of the Old Testament; as a result Jesus as fulfilment is at the same time the confirmation of the promises not fulfilled yet. In my opinion the Jesus book too one-sidedly puts stress on God's rule taking place already with Jesus' coming.
I would like to stress the intrinsic value of the Old Testament also as regards Judaism where it as Israel's Bible is the foundation of the Jewish identity and, as the Pope himself in the literary discussion with the Jew Jacob Neusner emphasizes, substantiates the 'No' to Jesus as staying in the loyalty to the God of Israel. With high respect for this Jewish standing by the Jewish way of reading Israel's Bible Benedict XVI refers to the in Luke handed down context, which is often quoted by Christians as proof for the radical new of Christianity, the metaphor of the new wine that belonged into new skins. In the Jesus book one can read about it the following: "In Mark is said: 'Nobody will fill new wine into old skins; when he does it nevertheless the wine tears the skins up, so that wine and skins are lost. No, new wine belongs into new skins' (Mk 2, 22); the text in Matthew reads similarly (9, 17). Luke hands down to us the same discussion, but at the end he still adds: 'And nobody who drinks old wine wants new one; he says: The old wine is good' (Lk 5, 39) - what one can probably interpret as a word of understanding for those who want to stay with the 'old wine' (218f).
The main question: What new has Jesus brought?
Finally the Pope exposes himself to the main question to this day put up by Jews to Christians: "What then brought your "Messiah" Jesus? He did not bring world peace and did not overcome the misery in the world. Hence he can probably not be the true Messiah of whom just that is expected. Yes, what has Jesus brought?" (149). "The answer quite simply sounds: God. He brought God, brought … the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the true God to the peoples of the earth" (73).
In my opinion the Jesus book is serious about the fundamental insight: Source and standard of all Christian talking about God and to God are neither council texts and encyclicals nor the works of Luther, Calvin or Zwingli but the Bible in its two parts. In its multiplicity, in the fascinating polyphony of its melodies, and in its sometimes even literary inconsistency it lets us become aware that we will never grasp completely this simple message but only approximately and in a fragmentary way.