Now that the text is available in English, any reader familiar with the work of the theologian Joseph Ratzinger will immediately recognize the quiet insight and disciplined academic style that is a hallmark of the more than 50 books written by the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI.
The Holy Father tells us that "Jesus of Nazareth" is an examination of Jesus' public life. His second volume (when it appears) will focus on the birth of Jesus, His passion, death and resurrection.
The pope has given us a deeply personal expression of his own faith in the message of the Gospels. Since he is an intellectual giant whose entire life has been lived in an academic context, this expression is carefully nuanced by the concerns and controversies of contemporary Bible scholars.
But this text should not be restricted to students of the Scriptures. It has a broad appeal and reaches out to embrace a much wider audience. After he had read this book, one of my priest friends who is not an academician enthusiastically said to me: "Any Christian believer who reads this book will immediately accept the truth of the sacraments of the Catholic Church."
The Holy Father begins his presentation with a brief survey of the recent scholarly approaches to the figure of Jesus in the Gospels. The pope reminds us that the great Catholic authors writing before the mid-20th century presented Jesus as a man from Nazareth who actually walked the roads of Israel, gathered a following of disciples, and was eventually condemned by the leaders of traditional religion who portrayed him as an agitator against the occupying power of Rome. They perceived Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who made the Divine Being audible, tangible and visible to the people who knew him.
However, Pope Benedict says that a change of attitude developed in the 1950s. Influenced by the philosophy of postmodernism, many scriptural writers began making a distinction between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith." These authors say that the Gospels were written later than has been previously accepted and are not to be trusted as historical records.
This unfortunate trend has now culminated in the fact that many contemporary scholars hold that the Gospels contain only a small amount of actual historical material and that much of the inspired writing is not a record of what really happened in the life of Jesus. These authors say that the Gospels are primarily an expression of what Christians came to believe about Jesus after the passage of time. So, in this context, the Gospels are a presentation of "the Christ of faith," which developed later and influenced the sacred authors so deeply that they perceived and presented Jesus as divine.
The pope strongly rejects these interpretations, which create a difficult situation for Christian faith by giving the impression that we know very little about who Jesus actually was and what He actually said. Condemning such attitudes, the pope says they lead to a situation in which "intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air" (xii).
Benedict finds the foundation for his own interpretation in the Gospels' narration of the relationship that Jesus had with God. The pope contends that the connection Jesus had with His Father is the true center of His personality and we cannot understand Jesus unless we take this relationship seriously. He says that unless we take this relationship seriously, the Jesus of the Gospels makes no sense at all. Unless He is seen in the context of communion with His Father, Jesus remains unintelligible. Developing his interpretation from this simple but essential perspective, the pope maintains the historical context of the four Gospels in which Jesus is presented as the One sent by the Father and anointed by the Holy Spirit.
We are cautioned that Jesus was not merely a teacher of moral living or a preacher of social reform. Instead, the pope presents Jesus as the Son of God incarnate, who established a community of believers and enabled them to extend the truth of His word and the power of His presence through all time and place, through its preaching and its sacramental ministry.
The pope has decided to study the Gospels in a topical way, using the framework of the 10 topics that form the titles of the chapters of this book. The first thing he wants to make clear is his conviction that the Jesus of the Gospels and the real historical Jesus are one and the same. Once he has convinced the reader of this all-important truth, he then focuses on 10 aspects of Jesus' life that the Gospels present to us as an invitation to our belief. These are: The Baptism of Jesus, The Temptations of Jesus, The Gospel of the Kingdom of God, The Sermon on the Mount, The Lord's Prayer, The Disciples, The Message of the Parables, The Principal Images of John's Gospel, Two Milestones on Jesus'Way-Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration - and Jesus Declares His Identity.
One of the Holy Father's most important themes is to demonstrate the fact that Jesus is the key to our understanding of the entire Bible. He is the new Moses who leads His people to the Promised Land of true freedom and intimacy with God, our loving Father. This is the same God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush in the desert; the same God who divided the waters of the Red Sea and led His people to safety; the same God who fed His people with manna in their desert wandering.
Christ's prayerful intimacy with His Father is understood in the context of Moses having spoken "face to face" with God. In Jesus, the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New is complete and unequivocal. In the Beatitudes Jesus shows us that the Ten Commandments demand much more than an external conformity with the Law and bring us into intimate union with the One who legislates. The destructive anger of Moses in the face of his people's infidelity and idolatry is transformed by Christ's obedient acceptance of His Father's will. The treachery and venality of Judas, the utter brutality of the soldiers, the lack of compassion and the rejection by the people are all reversed by the constancy, generosity, sensitivity and compassion of Jesus. The fear and trembling induced by Sinai are transformed by the serene appearance of Jesus and the "do not be afraid" spoken to His disciples in the upper room after His resurrection.
Pope Benedict uses the principal images of John's Gospel to illustrate what John wants us to know and to believe, for our knowledge and for our faith. These images are straightforward and uncomplicated: the vine, water, wine, bread and the shepherd.
In Jesus, God's anointed has led the Twelve Tribes of Israel in the person of the 12 apostles out of slavery into the freedom of the Children of God, namely, the freedom to obey God's commandment of love and mercy. The waters of the Red Sea are an image of the waters of Baptism. Sent by the owner of the vineyard, the Son who was rejected and murdered becomes the vine and we become the branches. The wine and the bread are miraculously multiplied and become the food and drink of the world. The good shepherd leads his flock out of slavery and the desert of selfishness to the faithful obedience that leads to resurrection and life.
Anyone who desires to follow Christ more faithfully will find a wealth of insight in this book. I recommend the daily reading of a page or two in a quiet place. The Holy Father's words will quickly draw the mind and heart into prayerful meditation.
Let me close this brief review with some excerpts from the homily given by the Pope on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 2007. The Holy Father considers the Gospel of St. Luke and its account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. "It contains," he said, "an explicit invitation for each individual to make his or her own contribution. The five fish and the two loaves represent our contribution, poor but necessary, which He transforms into a gift of love for everyone.
"The Eucharist is, then, a call to sanctity and to the giving of self to others, because each of us is truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world. This is a mystery that is beyond our understanding, and we should not be surprised if even today many people struggle to accept the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
"The Eucharist remains a 'sign of contradiction,' and it cannot be otherwise, because a God who becomes flesh and sacrifices Himself for the life of the world throws human wisdom into crisis. Yet for each generation of Christians the Eucharist is the indispensable nourishment that sustains them as they cross the desert of this world, made barren by ideological and economic systems that fail to promote life; a world dominated by the logic of power and possession rather than by the logic of service and of love; a world in which the culture of violence and death often triumph. But Jesus comes out to meet us and gives us assurances: He Himself is 'the bread of life.'"
(Msgr. James M. Cafone, S.T.D., is a member of the Religious Studies Department of Seton Hall University, South Orange, and of the editorial advisory board of The Catholic Advocate.)