The greatness of a great man is not always recognized in his own time. Although some figures are so incredible that everyone immediately realizes their significance, others are only later recognized for their full import. This is true for popes as well. When Pope John Paul II reigned from the chair of Peter, almost everyone realized what a world-changing man he was. But when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope, few considered him as much more than a “place-holder” pontiff. Now that he has been pope for almost six years, most pundits would still dismiss his achievements on the stage of Church history.
Yet Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — is one of the greatest theologians to ever hold the office of the papacy, and his impact on the life of the Church — especially in theological studies — can hardly be overstated. Centuries from now, his works will still be studied and examined, and will be impacting Catholic theology in ways we cannot today imagine. He is one of the great minds of our day, despite the fact that the unthinking still paint him as a hard-line “conservative” Catholic.
Yet for all Pope Benedict’s immense scholarship and learning, he is a pastor at heart — one who is still shaped by the simple piety of his Catholic Bavarian upbringing. He is, before all else, a priest who wishes to bring Jesus Christ to others. Furthermore — and perhaps surprisingly to those who have only a superficial knowledge of his life’s work — he is a mystic, one who sees beyond this world and seeks to gaze on the face of God.
Scholar. Pastor. Mystic. All of these facets of our Holy Father come to light in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius, $24.95), the second volume of his “Jesus of Nazareth” series.
Pope Benedict has lived his entire professional life among scholars. At the age of 25 he was already a professor of fundamental theology, and his academic star rose quickly. He was appointed a peritus (theological adviser) to the Second Vatican Council and was influential in shaping Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. This important document clearly outlined the Catholic understanding of divine revelation, detailing the interdependence among Scripture, tradition and the magisterium. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible also animates tradition and protects the teachings of the magisterium, so that the three form a unified whole presenting to us God’s unfolding revelation, which reaches its climax in Jesus Christ.
Because revelation occurs within human history, Dei Verbum acknowledged the importance of historical studies, encouraging Catholic scholars to engage in the latest methodologies in order to uncover the historical circumstances that surround the unfolding of salvation history. However, in many ways the quest to discover these historical circumstances has become a playground where scholars impose their own presuppositions and preconceived beliefs, shaping the biblical text and the figure of Jesus into images of their own choosing. Just a cursory glance at the latest works of biblical scholarship reveal how far afield these works can get from the world of the Gospels: Jesus is a radical feminist; he is a failed revolutionary; he is an egalitarian teacher.
Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” addresses these issues head-on. Without denying the importance of the historical-critical methodology, Pope Benedict nonetheless exposes the faulty underpinnings of much of modern scholarship. Like a home inspector who enters a beautiful, immaculate home and uncovers a weak foundation, Pope Benedict incontrovertibly reveals that much of modern biblical scholarship is based on false, unproven and often contradictory presuppositions.
But Pope Benedict does more than just criticize the critics — he presents an image of Jesus Christ that is faithful to the Gospels and the totality of Catholic teachings. The Jesus of “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” is the true Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Unlike many scholars, Pope Benedict does not study the Gospels as a scientist dissects a lab animal, but approaches these texts as a man would his beloved — with respect and love. He interprets the totality of revelation handed on to us through Scripture and tradition — and in the light of the teachings of the magisterium — to present an image of Jesus Christ which is consistent with the historical record and faithful to the Catholic tradition.
Pope Benedict’s respect for the sources of revelation also means that he does not try to reduce the biblical texts in a literalistic fashion. Contrary to his image in some circles, he does not approach the Scriptures as a fundamentalist; he acknowledges the contradictions and mysteries found in the text.
When discussing the events recounted in the original ending of Mark’s Gospel (see 16:8), which does not include any appearances of the Risen Christ, Pope Benedict does not try to force a solution that the text does not support, but rather is willing to accept the enigma as a mystery we will not resolve on this side of heaven.
In every way, Pope Benedict in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” engages the Scriptures with honesty and forthrightness. He does not shy from controversy, nor from interpretations that might challenge his own preconceptions. He also takes seriously the context in which these texts were written — the life of the Church. As any true scholar would.
It would be a mistake to classify “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” as an academic book, however. Although it is rich in scholarship, it is in many ways a pastoral book. Pope Benedict wants more than anything for every person to encounter Jesus Christ in a personal way. He does not read the Gospels primarily as a scholar, but as one who seeks intimate knowledge of their subject, Jesus Christ.
This deft pastoral touch can be seen throughout the work. When discussing Peter’s refusal to have Jesus wash his feet, Pope Benedict does not simply recount these events, but reminds us that throughout history, many Christians (and perhaps we too?) have been mortified by the image of a humble Jesus who lowers himself to serve us. But we must recognize that God’s power is not like the human conceptions of power; it finds its strength in self-donation.
The pope wants to release the power of the Scriptures into the world so that we might be transformed. These sacred texts, if approached properly, lead us into a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ — an encounter that Pope Benedict is begging us to have.
The combination of scholarly and pastoral features makes “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” a uniquely powerful book. But it is even more. It also represents the pope’s quest to gaze into the mysteries of God.
This second volume of “Jesus of Nazareth” concludes with the most important event that has ever occurred in human history. It is, in fact, the only “new” event to happen since the dawn of man: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The Resurrection is like no other event, and more than any other event plunges us into the depths of the mysteries of God.
The Resurrection was no mere resuscitation of a dead corpse, but was instead the entry of Jesus Christ into a new form of living — a new form that we too will one day be able to share. In his chapter on the Resurrection Pope Benedict reveals the mystical side of his personality — he goes beyond a mere apologetic defense of the historicity of the Resurrection to delve deeply into what this event entailed in the life of Jesus and what it means for mankind’s destiny. The pope, like the Gospel writers, recognizes that human words fail to do justice to the Resurrection, and so he approaches the mystery in contemplation and reverence. By doing so, he reminds his readers that Christianity is ultimately a religion of mysteries before which each follower of Christ must humbly bow.
The “Jesus of Nazareth” series can be considered Pope Benedict’s opus. He combines his immense intellect and decades of scholarly work with his pastoral heart and mystical insights to give us a loving and full presentation of the figure of Jesus Christ — a figure with whom we all are called to have a life-changing encounter.
Eric Sammons writes from Maryland.
Pope forgives Jews? (sidebar)
Many Catholics scratched their heads at the furor surrounding the release of excerpts of the pontiff’s new book, like this report from The Associated Press: “Pope Benedict XVI has made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ.” In doing so, the pope was “tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity.”
The idea that the Jewish people are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus was put to bed definitively decades ago in the Second Vatican Council, so why is this presented as “news”?
That being said, there is something significant in the pope’s comments about the death of Jesus that many mainstream pundits missed. In combating the fallacy of an anti-Semitic reading of the death of Jesus, Pope Benedict points out the Jewishness of Jesus himself and his followers. But then he goes further into the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion. In interpreting the famous passage from Matthew in which the Jewish leaders cry out, “His blood be on us and on our children!”, Pope Benedict reminds the reader that “Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel.”
The blood of Jesus is not a vengeful blood, looking for someone to blame and upon whom to take revenge. Instead the blood of Jesus is that of redemption and salvation. It is through the blood of Jesus that each one of us is saved. Thus no one should look to another as the one who killed Christ. For in truth, we are all responsible for the death of Jesus.