Marquette Scripture Project

Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus of Nazareth”

The second volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth will appear during Lent of 2011, according to the American distributor, Ignatius Press. This volume will discuss Jesus’ passion and resurrection, which helps to explain the book’s timing (even as the pope is currently finishing the third volume). More information on the book and some possible expectations can be found here. Since the first volume of the book (published in 2007) has produced heated debate in numerous circles, especially biblical circles, I will summarize the book’s basic shape in preparation for the second volume. Then, I will briefly summarize scholarly response to this volume.

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration proposes to be a Scriptural portrait of Jesus Christ. It is at once meant to be a Catholic appropriation of Scripture, showing how it can be employed with a regard for history as well as faith, and at the same time a Catholic appropriation of Christ. These two intentions, toward Scripture and toward Christ, are bound inextricably in the book. To ask which comes “first” is to ask the wrong question. Thus, Joseph Ratzinger – writing, notably, as a private theologian and not in his capacity as pontiff – gives the essential thesis of his book as follows:

It [my book] sees Jesus in light of his communion with the Father, which is the true center of his personality; without it, we cannot understand him at all, and it is from this center that he makes himself present to us still today. (xiv)

His thesis draws from Scripture and from the faith of the Church, a faith inherited from Israel. Ratzinger argues that “Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject – the pilgrim People of God – and lives within that same subject” (xx), making Scripture at once the subject of history and of faith. He insists that historical-criticism ought not be abandoned, and yet that it has serious limits: the face of Christ shows us the face of God, and Scripture functions in a similar manner by giving us a portrait of Christ.

What follows in Ratzinger’s deceptively short book is a complicated synthesis of theological reflection, detailed Scriptural reading, and historical analysis. He presents this synthesis in the form of a basically Synoptic chronology of distinct topics: from Jesus’ Baptism, into the Temptation, forward through his ministry into the Transfiguration. Most of the book is spent in the Synoptics, with a shift toward John later in the work. He makes good on his promise to see Jesus in light of his communion with the Father, and that relationship dominates Ratzinger’s interpretation of texts. Presupposing the overarching unity of Scripture, as well as faith’s ability to “read” the contours of this unity, Ratzinger frequently weaves together the multiple Synoptic accounts. He accomplishes this intertextuality in varying ways, depending on whether he discuses a specific topic (as in “The Lord’s Prayer,” which more freely associates the passages underneath the unifying heading), or whether he discusses the unique qualities of a book in the canon (as in his section on “Three Major Parables from the Gospel of Luke”). The book is not at all a display of papal hyper-intertextuality, as for example with some of the more dizzying passages in John Paul II’s encyclicals, though it is not without such moments.

Notable in Ratzinger’s exegetical “style” here, and this is not always typical of him (see more rigorous exercises such as Principles of Catholic Theology), is the ability to draw out further implications from the text in what might be called a more spiritually aware variant of reader-response criticism. This is the “pastoral” bent of the book, often maligned among scholars. But this tendency does not, as far as Ratzinger appears concerned, deviate from the essential thrust of the book – which is indeed a hybrid of spiritual and exegetical rigor. He sees no opposition between the “Christ of faith” and the “Jesus of history,” and is determined to indicate the possibility of such a unity in his own exegesis.

Ratzinger displays a profound concern with the New Testament’s relationship to the Old, and he cites texts from the prophets and the Torah with notable frequency. He appears at least partially influenced by Paul’s writings in this regard (along with a strongly liturgical sensibility), and in his citations reveals frequent reliance upon Paul’s view of the relationship between the Old Law and the New. It is therefore not surprising that, a year later, he as pope would proclaim the Year of St. Paul, a year for ecumenical endeavors and – it should not be forgotten – a long series of homilies on the Pauline letters (here is the very last).

Ratzinger thus reveals himself to be immensely concerned with the direction of Scripture in modern scholarship and among ordinary Catholics, and in this book he attempts to address both.

Scholarly reaction to the book is easy to summarize: abject hatred. The book was almost universally derided by scholars, and I will not attempt critique their fairness or unfairness here. Instead, I will offer a quote from Luke Timothy Johnson, who in his review manages to be eloquent whether or not I agree with him:

It is, in short, a book that falls between the worlds of scholarship and devotion, contributing little of substance to either and noteworthy primarily because of the office held by its author. (Modern Theology, 24 no 2 Ap 2008, p 318-320)

That is certainly damning, and a good example of the scholarly reaction to the work. Fair reaction or not, the pope managed to hit a nerve, causing a quite entertaining level of hostility. So I must wonder: where is this nerve, what does it mean…and do I also want to strike it?

[Book in discussion: Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by Joseph Ratzinger, translated by A. J. Walker (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2007)]


About maximustheconfessor

Assistant Professor in Catholic Systematic Theology.

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This entry was posted on August 28, 2010 by in Theology and tagged , , .
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