Pope Benedict’s new book earns far-reaching acclaim

With the release of Pope Benedict XVI’s  “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius, $24.95) what has been most striking is the unanimous acclaim the book has received, not merely from Catholic scholars, but from Protestant and Jewish biblical scholars as well. 

Part of this is due to the book’s sheer uniqueness. Brant Pitre of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans pointed out: 

“As a Catholic I have to admit that one of the things that struck me most about this work is how unprecedented it is. Never before in the history of the Church have we had a reigning pope write a full-length study of the life of Jesus,” he said. 

“So, just on that level this is truly a historic publication, and for me as a Catholic, it is very gratifying to be able to listen to the pope work through and meditate on the mysteries of the life of Jesus, especially these mysteries of Holy Week.” 

Moreover, no pope has had at his disposal the tools for biblical study that Pope Benedict has, nor the prodigious gifts for knowing how to wield them with skill. 

Pastoral approach 

Pope Benedict’s concern is deeply pastoral as well as scholarly. As he himself says: 

“The quest for the ‘historical Jesus,’ as conducted in mainstream critical exegesis in accordance with its hermeneutical presuppositions, lacks sufficient content to exert any significant historical impact. It is focused too much on the past for it to make possible a personal relationship with Jesus. 

“I have attempted to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to personal encounter and that, through collective listening with Jesus’ disciples across the ages, can indeed attain sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus.” 

His point is that Scripture scholarship that diverts us away from the encounter with the living Christ who is being presented to us in the inspired word of Scripture by the biblical authors and into endless deconstructions of the text cannot nourish faith. Scholarship that perpetually distracts us with attempts to saw its central figure into the “Jesus of History” and the so-called Christ of Faith often does grave violence to the whole message of Scripture. He proposes instead to insist on the point the New Testament authors insist upon: That there is only one Jesus Christ, and that this historical man is the Christ who has invaded our history as God incarnate, not some unknowable rabbi who has been buried under layers and accretions by myth-making disciples. As Pitre puts it, what Pope Benedict is doing is showing scholars the way forward by answering the question: 

“How do biblical scholars study the text using the tool of historical criticism, historical reason, and yet do it from a perspective of faith? How can faith and history go together? And I think that in his book Benedict has very successfully shown us how to do that, and then applied it to what are arguably some of the most difficult — but also rich — exegetical and historical questions in the Gospel. Things like what did Jesus teach about the end of the world? How did he understand his own suffering and death? Did he see his death as an atonement for the sins of Israel and of the nations? Why was he put to death? What were the reasons for his execution as the King of the Jews in Jerusalem?” 

Courageous reading 

Touching this last point, Pope Benedict avoids the twin pitfalls of an anti-Semitic reading of the New Testament, but also of the attempt to explain away the record by claiming that biblical writers simply invented such events as the mob screaming “His blood be on us and on our children” to reflect the rift between Church and synagogue that appeared decades after Jesus. Instead, the pontiff maintains the historicity of the record, but points out that the purpose of the Evan-gelist is to point to the divine irony at work by which even Jesus’ enemies point to his power to save, reconcile and heal: 

“When in Matthew’s account the ‘whole people’ say: ‘His blood be on us and on our children’ (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. ... God put [Jesus] forward as an expiation by his blood’ (Rom 3:23,25). Just as Caiaphas’ words about the need for Jesus’ death have to be read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith, the same applies to Matthew’s reference to blood: read in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.” 

Jacob Neusner, senior fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College, notes: “That’s a very courageous and very learned allegation which I think is going to have a lot of impact. It’s a book from which a Jewish reader can benefit and which I think will do a lot of good in general.” 

Gift for communicating 

Protestant scholars are also expressing unreserved admiration for the book — and noted the synergy that the pope has tapped into by making judicious use of the insights of Protestant, Jewish and Catholic biblical scholarship in creating a profoundly faith-filled and deeply Catholic portrait of Jesus Christ. Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and at St. Andrews University in Scotland, pointed out how this is uniquely a fruit of the collaboration between biblical scholars enabled by Second Vatican Council: 

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Jesus scholarship and writing books about Jesus, and one of the things I have seen in the guild of biblical scholars worldwide is that Catholic and Protestant exegetes have come closer and closer together in their understanding of both the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, and then worked together to better understanding,” Witherington explained. “And I think this book is a very significant book that does precisely that, it helps us both with our knowledge and understanding of Jesus from a historical and critical point of view, but also with our faith. You see knowledge and vital piety in this book, and it’s a very welcome sight indeed.” 

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter likewise remarks that the book once again demonstrates that Pope Benedict is “his own best spokesperson” and “almost universally acknowledged as a gifted communicator.” With the book debuting March 27 on the New York Times best-seller list, it would appear that the reading public agrees. That’s a welcome sign that even a culture that took “The Da Vinci Code” can approach the New Testament seriously and rediscover its riches. 

Mark Shea writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at markshea.blogspot.com. He writes from Washington state.