Article Review – The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians

Summary of Article

Kereszty opens by describing Pope Benedict’s book as an expression of the pontiffs personal opinion, rather than an exercise of the magisterium.1 He goes on to describe the intellectual climate in which the book has been written and released, namely, the prevailing view which has infiltrated the ranks of both academics and laypeople that “the Jesus of history” is a different person to “the Christ of faith”.2

Kereszty describes Pope Benedict in his book as being comparable to Augustine in his writings: The book is more of an expression of his personal devotion rather than a strict exegesis or theological treatise.3 Kereszty goes on to make the point that earlier in the history of the church, theologians were equally as much pastors and ascetics/mystics as they were trained theologians, whereas today people tend to specialise into only one of these domains at a time, resulting in segregation and isolation of the theologians of the church from the pastors of the church.4

Kereszty mentions how Pope Benedict aims to show through his book that, contrary to popular opinion, the historical Jesus is the same person as “the Christ of Faith” portrayed in the New Testament scriptures.5

Kereszty goes on to comment on how the scientific method of historical criticism is often approached as if it is an infallible key to penetrating to the truth of the scriptures, and yet in practice it always leads to “a continual discussion of tradition and redaction history that never comes to rest”.6

In his book Pope Benedict avoids reducing Jesus merely to simple human archetypes – for example prophet, preacher and teacher – but he also avoids getting completely bogged down in an abstract theological account of Christ.7 As an example, instead of talking about Jesus in light of the theological doctrine of the Chalcedonean Hypostatic union, he emphasises the personal relationship between Jesus the man and God the father, stating that communion with the Father was the true center of his personality”.8

Academic Comment

Kereszty’s article, and the book about Jesus written by Pope Benedict which Kereszty is reviewing, are the product of a fundamental tension that has arisen in the modern era between two different epistemologies, where an epistemology is defined asA theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity”.9

On the one hand there is the classical Christian understanding which is most fully developed in Catholicism and described using the analogy of a three legged stool. The three legs represent the written scriptures, the lived tradition(s), and the interpretive authority exercised by the institutional hierarchy of the Church. Scripture, tradition and magisterium are together presented as a complete solution which can be used to determine one’s beliefs about what is true and establish what are the most important aspects of reality.10

On the other hand, there is the modern scientific method, which is an epistemological approach developed during the enlightenment in direct response to the traditional dogmatically-based Christian understanding.11 At it’s most extreme, this approach becomes a sort of radical scepticism which completely denies that personal testimony carries any epistemological weight, and proposes that nothing should be accounted worthy of belief by someone unless they have directly observed it for themselves.12

In practice, most people hold to some combination of these two alternatives. Atheists who lean more towards the scientific approach nevertheless still depend on the testimony and authority of professional scientists when choosing what to believe, and Christians who submit to a more dogmatic framework nevertheless still think for themselves and shape their beliefs by examining evidence and argument.

When the dogmatic approach is taken to the extreme, it results in a sort of fundamentalism in which a person has entirely forfeited their right and responsibility to exercise critical thinking and make independent judgements. When the scientific approach is taken to the extreme, it leads to epistemological paralysis wherein a person is unable to trust any testimony whatsoever (including their own) and they get bogged down in a radical scepticism in which they can’t be certain of anything.

The true epistemology must lie somewhere between these two extremes, respecting scientific evidence and historical analysis, but also simultaneously taking into account the testimony of tradition, scripture and institutional authority. This is what Pope Benedict aims to do in his book: he aims to demonstrate that the Christ of the classical Catholic epistemology is the same Christ as the Jesus that we discover through scientific and historical analysis.13 In other words, Pope Benedict aims to show that the depiction of Christ that we have received via tradition in the New Testament is the real Christ, miracles and all, and that there is not another “historical Jesus” hiding behind the Jesus that we discover in the pages of scripture.14 Pope Benedict does an excellent job at this, but whether he ultimately succeeds is something that must necessarily be left up to the judgement of the individual.

One particularly interesting way Pope Benedict shows that the “historical” Christ and the “traditional” Christ are the same is when he discusses why there is such a drastic difference in the presentation of Jesus between the synoptic gospels and the Johannine literature. The usual explanation is that the synoptic gospels were written earlier, and therefore represent a more accurate and humanised picture of Jesus, with less miracles and a “lower” Christology, whereas the Johannine literature was written later after myths and legends had accrued and developed, and thus is less “historical” and more “theological”:

John’s Gospel is different: Instead of parables, we hear extended discourses built around images, and the main theater of Jesus’ activity shifts from Galilee to Jerusalem. These differences caused modern critical scholarship to deny the historicity of the text—with the exception of the Passion narrative and a few details—and to regard it as a later theological reconstruction. It was said to express a highly developed Christology, but not to constitute a reliable source for knowledge of the historical Jesus. The radically late datings of John’s Gospel to which this view gave rise have had to be abandoned because papyri from Egypt dating back to the beginning of the second century have been discovered; this made it clear that the Gospel must have been written in the first century, if only during the closing years. Denial of the Gospel’s historical character, however, continued unabated.15

Pope Benedict instead proposes the radical idea that the higher Christology presented in Johns gospel can be accounted for by the fact that the author of this gospel was closer to the historical Jesus, and therefore Johns gospel is equally as historical as the synoptic gospels but represents an “insiders perspective” into who Jesus “really was”, whereas the synoptic gospels are written more from the perspective of an outsider who doesn’t immediately know what to make of Jesus, and has to judge on the basis of his external life and teaching:

… there are grounds for the conjecture “that the Johannine school carried on the style of thinking and teaching that before Easter set the tone of Jesus’ internal didactic discourses with Peter, James, and John (as well as with the whole group of the Twelve)…While the Synoptic tradition reflects the way in which the apostles and their disciples spoke about Jesus as they were teaching on Church missions or in Church communities, the Johannine circle took this instruction as the basis and premise for further thinking about, and discussion of, the mystery of revelation, of God’s self-disclosure in ‘the Son’”.16

Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy is a brilliant contribution to the dialogue over who Jesus really was and a wonderful example of intellectual humility and charity. As he discusses the figure and significance of Christ, rather than dismissing the scientific approach or distancing himself from the traditional approach, Pope Benedict successfully does justice to both. His trilogy should be taken into consideration by all future commentators on the issue.

Bibliography

Kereszty, Roch. “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” Communio 34, (Fall 2007): 454-474. http://www.communio-icr.com/files/kereszty34-3.pdf

Second Vatican Council. “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 18 November, 1965,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975.

Bristow, William. “Enlightenment.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, Fall 2017. Article published August 20, 2010; last modified August 29, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/.

Comesaña, Juan and Klein, Peter. "Skepticism." In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, Winter 2019. Article published December 8, 2001; last modified December 5, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/Skepticism/.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. 1st ed. United States: Doubleday, 2007.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. 1st ed. United States: Doubleday, 2011.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. 1st ed. United States: Doubleday, 2012.

1Roch Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” Communio 34, (Fall 2007): 454. http://www.communio-icr.com/files/kereszty34-3.pdf

2Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 455

3Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 456

4Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 457

5Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 458-459

6Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 459

7Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 472

8Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 473

9Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “epistemology,” accessed May 4, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epistemology.

10Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 21 November, 1964,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975), sec. 10 (hereafter cited as DV).

11William Bristow,Enlightenment.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Stanford University, Fall 2017), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/.

12Juan Comesaña and Peter Klein, “Skepticism,” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Stanford University, Winter 2019), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism/.

13Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (United States: Doubleday, 2007), xxi

14Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, xxi.

15Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 218

16Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 227

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