Jesus of Nazareth
Benedict's Academic Meditation
on the Divine Human
"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)
We learn early on that Jesus of Nazareth is not to be shelved under "Magesterium" in the Vatican library. (It does not carry the teaching authority of the Church.) No, this is a personal work--a journey and contemplation--which Benedict hopes to have just begun in this first of a potential two-volume work. This presents a challenge. We are not simply being spoon-fed by the Vicar of Christ, we are being invited alongside Joseph Ratzinger--fellow pilgrim and sojourner--on his intimate, yet academic quest. We are also invited to question and critique? "Everyone is free to contradict me," he writes in the forward. I'm not sure I accept the challenge to...challenge, but I accept the invitation to the journey.
This "personal search for the Face of the Lord" begins where Jesus' own public ministry begins: His baptism. From here, Benedict follows Jesus into the desert, as the Spirit compels Him. The chapters continue in a somewhat chronological ordering, as he next explores the Sermon on the Mount (including the Beatitudes, Lord's Prayer and "But I say to you..." teachings. Following this, Benedict examines the disciples, the parables, John's gospel and images. Two major glimpses of the Divine Human--Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration--prepare us for the grand finale, Chapter Ten: Jesus Declares His Identity, which serves as a beautiful summary of Benedict's quest, and springboard for the second leg of the journey.
Benedict the scholar makes many references to other writers and thinkers, especially those of the last century, and especially those from Germany. He cites them for reinforcement and clarification of his points, but he also questions and challenges their assertions. This seems fair, as Benedict invites us all to do the same with his text.
Benedict poses questions asked for centuries, and submits strong and grounded responses. At these points in the work, he writes with great clarity and impact. For example, in regards to Jesus we are always searching for the distinction between Him and other great teachers. Here Benedict is clear and certain as he summarizes his points in the end of the second chapter, "What did Jesus actually bring?...He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings must take in this world." This work is quite concerned with wrestling with the Jesus of the historical-critical exegesis (which does have value, he asserts, but is confined and limited) and the Christ of the gospels, the new Moses, the Son.
Additionally, the author draws the separation between Jesus the Christ and the greatest of rabbis in a variety of other ways. The titles of Christ are explored, most notably Lord, Messiah, Savior, New Moses, Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, and the Johannine images in chapter eight. Benedict also employs the many connections between the two testaments of scripture. He is always looking to the Old Testament through the lens of the New...or vice versa. Every chapter contains this approach in support of his assertions. Another example is the connection between the "I am" of the book of Exodus, and the "I am" or "I am He" statements of Jesus, which the author discusses in two categories...the stand-alone "I am" and the "I am" which is followed by an image or title.
In terms of criticism (which was invited, right?), I found the chapter on the disciples lacking...although I'm not sure in what way. It seems it could have been incorporated into other chapters. It seems skimpy by itself, but could strengthen chapters before it. This is a stylistic criticism, however.
What concerned me more was something else I found lacking. Noticeably absent--and painfully so, for me--are the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. As I reread the forward, I see that "Part II" will include these. I do not see how the infancy narratives could be "postponed for now," despite his explanation. Benedict states that Jesus' public ministry is the "most urgent priority." Looking back, one might argue that Mark seems to agree, while Matthew and Luke might not. Perhaps I am impatient, as most of my Advent is spent exploring the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke with junior high students. And perhaps Benedict's (forthcoming?) chapter would have made a powerful and substantial supplement (if not an anchor) to his other chapters. I wonder what it would have added to the themes of the New Moses, the Son of God, John's Prologue, etc.
In Jesus of Nazareth we meet the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith in each of the ten chapters, from Jesus' baptism to the transfiguration. Ultimately, Peter's confession that Jesus is "Christ" and "Son of the living God," may also be our confession and our conclusion. If he is only a teacher who lived in a moment of history, then he is only a man. Through study, contemplation, prayer and faith, we can know He is a man, and He is the Son. The Son of Man.
I found this book to be a refreshing, faith-building journey...leaving me ready for more. And although this book will inspire and have an impact on people of all backgrounds, it left me proud, once again, to be Catholic.
This is what I believe Benedict begins to accomplish: Jesus is the Christ. He is the Messenger. And he is the Message. He is the Sower, and He is the Seed. He is the Teller of the Parable, and he is the Truth of the Parable. He is the Revelator, and He is the Revelation. He is the Teacher, and he is the Teaching. He points the Way, and he is the Way.