Jesus of Nazareth
by Pope Benedict XVI
(Doubleday, 400 pages, $24.95)
We all think we know him, or at least we’re forever trying. Every Christmas and Easter, documentary makers seek to redefine him, or simply to find him. But who is the real Jesus Christ? In the Catholic Church’s tradition of sharpening doctrine by answering its critics, Pope Benedict XVI has taken on the task of pushing back decades of reconstruction of the “historical” Jesus with Jesus of Nazareth, his first book since his election to the episcopal see of Rome.
At the age of 80, when most men are taking a well-deserved rest, Pope Benedict — who in 2005, after a half-century of service to the Church desired only to retire to a quiet life in his beloved Bavaria — has released these first ten chapters of a two-part work that has been four years in the making, because, as he states, “I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given.”
His urgency stems from his fear that modern historical-critical attempts at finding Jesus have resulted in the common belief that “we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus.” He laments that recent scholarship has detached Jesus from God so that he has been reduced to an “anti-Roman revolutionary working — though finally failing — to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was the meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief.”
Students of the Baltimore Catechism know why we were created: to know, love and serve God. But who is he? Mankind has always feared the unknowable, how much more so the unknowable Creator? How can man possibly approach such power and majesty as he sees daily in the created nature of the world? How can we love a God of pure power unless we are convinced that he is also pure love?
This book, taken in conjunction with his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), is Pope Benedict’s answer. This work, he stresses, is not one of official teaching but the culmination of his “personal search for the face of the Lord,” and one that is intended for the illumination of all those who also seek him. As such, although there is a glossary included, it resounds not with complex theological jargon but sings in the language of love.
He begins by explaining that Jesus is new; the new Adam, and even the new Moses. He cites the Old Testament pledge that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brethren — him you shall heed” (Deut 18:15). He then recounts that although Moses had friendship with God, he was not allowed to see his face (cf. Ex 33:18-23), implying that the promised “prophet like me” will be granted what Moses was denied: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18).
With this new Moses comes a new Torah; the essence of which is contained in the Beatitudes. And in delivering them in the Sermon on the Mount, he alarms the people because he was “teaching them as one having authority, and not as their Scribes and Pharisees” (Mt 7:29). In other words, he is not only proclaiming the law but claiming equality with the Lawgiver. At this point, Benedict begins a fascinating discourse; almost a dialogue with the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, author of A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.
Neusner’s book is itself a dialogue where he is present at the Sermon on the Mount and then follows Jesus to Jerusalem where he speaks with him about what he feels are exhortations to ignore two or three of God’s commandments concerning the Sabbath and familial relationships, both of which are at the heart of the Jewish social order. The pope’s response — which fills 25 pages — is a must-read for Jews and Christians alike and makes one ardently wish to be a fly on the wall at a mythical sit-down between Benedict and Neusner.
There are many such exchanges and references to writers such as Rudolf Bultmann, Joachim Jeremias, Pierre Grelot, Romano Guardini and Hans-Peter Kolvenbach that fill this book with insights and inspirations from all sides of the exegetical spectrum. And all these Pope Benedict explores with the utmost humility and compassion in this 355-page volume. Yet he returns over and over to the main thrust of the question of the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth:
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 Godâ€¦.Now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love.
Christian teaching suggests that Jesus Christ was either everything he said he was — most notably the son of God — or the world’s most prolific and pathological liar. Those for whom this question remains unanswered would do well to begin their search anew by sharing in this profound meditation of the “Servant of the Servants of God.”
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