11) Jesus of Nazareth, September 15th, 2008
Pope as “Non-Pope” Author?
No one would dispute Pope Benedict’s prolific writing ability nor would anyone doubt his theological genius, but people were surprised for a couple of reasons when he released his first installment of his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy.
1) People were first of all surprised that the Holy Father would write it “not as Pope, but as a theologian. This was surprising to many because most don’t understand what the papacy is, and thus also don’t understand what the papacy isn’t. Pope Benedict used the release of “Jesus of Nazareth” as a teaching moment to say the Pope can wrestle in the realm of theology and search for truth without it being necessarily ready-for-dogma tried and tested.
Pope Benedict notes in his foreword: “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord.”” That’s called humility!
2) People were surprised by the “theological stiffness” of the book. I’ve even had seminarians tell me they’ve tried reading the book, but have found it inaccessible. I would imagine that the average lay person, not blessed with the gift of receiving 6-8 years of theological formation in the seminary, would pick up the book, give it a go, and put it back down again shortly thereafter.
So why is the book so dense? His foreword tells us everything we need to know about what he was doing in writing this book. In a phrase, Pope Benedict was trying to show the world that biblical scholarship can be redeemed by Catholicism.
What is biblical scholarship? Biblical scholarship is the researching of archaeology, culture, language, etc. and analyzing and deconstructing every word in the Bible for its original meaning. Biblical scholars, especially in the last two hundred years or so, have advanced to the point where they can literally write PAGES about even just a single verse from the Bible. This approach to analyzing Scripture for every last detail is known as the “Historical Critical Method.” The Historical-Critical Method has been largely ignored by Catholics, mostly because we believe the Church helps us understand what the Bible is speaking to us anyway. It makes more sense for Protestants to be more caught up in each word when the Bible is their sole source for discerning God’s voice.
Pope Benedict, as a scholar himself, wrote Jesus of Nazareth to show Protestants and Catholics how to do the “Historical Critical Method” the right way. He explains:
“As historical-critical scholarship advanced…the figure of Jesus became increasingly obscured and blurred...the reconstructions of this Jesus…became more and more incompatible with one another…Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air.”
Indeed, having had to read and study some of the “Historical-Critical scholarship” in the seminary, I can tell you it is often very cold, scientific, and often the understanding of who Jesus is and so forth varies wildly from one “researcher” to the next. It also gives the impression that you have to speak Aramaic, Greek, and Latin if you really want to know what the Bible is saying.
Pope Benedict doesn’t rain on the parade of the folks who love the “historical-critical method” and who never seem to leave the library; he notes “The historical-critical method – let me repeat – is an indispensable tool…but it does not exhaust the interpretive task.” Translation: the “historical-critical method” give us an important part of the picture, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture.
He finally notes “I have merely tried to go beyond purely historical-critical exegesis so as to apply new methodological insights that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible. To be sure, this requires faith, but the aim unequivocally is not, nor should be, to give up serious engagement with history.”
Whereas most of Pope Benedict’s writings and works, before, during, and hopefully after his papacy, are written to the average lay Catholic, this Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was written specifically towards theologians to help show them a way out of the trap of simply trying harder and harder to be “historically critical” and to remind them that Faith in Jesus is always just as important in the endeavor of reading the Bible as the science, history, and language in which the texts were written.
Catholicism is a Faith for peasants and scholars alike.
Pope Benedict wrote two further installments in the series a few years later. In 2011, he released “Holy Week: from the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” just in time for Lent (to the relief of many priests who are always looking for help in writing Lenten homilies!).
He like-wise bailed out preachers with his 2012 release of “The Infancy Narratives” in the run up to Advent.
The Church will be mining these works for centuries to come, and the books will forever be considered ground-breaking moments in Catholic biblical scholarship.
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