Jesus of Nazareth - 1

On March 10 the second volume of Pope Benedict XVI's magisterial work, Jesus of Nazareth, reached bookstands in the English-speaking world. It quickly showed up on the New York Times best-seller list, sitting at #8 last week and #14  this week. It is currently the #1 best-selling religious book on Amazon and #41 overall on that site. There is no doubt that this is a major event in the religious and publishing worlds and the editors of MercatorNet think it is fitting that we run two reviews -- this one by Francis Phillips and a companion one by Bishop Basil Meeking.

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Dealing with the events of Holy Week until the Resurrection, this newly published book completes the Pope’s study of the life of Christ. In Book 1 he presented “the figure and message of Jesus”; here we “encounter the decisive sayings and events of Jesus’ life.” Those people, both inside and outside the Christian faith, who pick up this volume on the assumption that it provides arguments to“prove” the truth of Christianity, are likely to be disappointed. It is a scholarly book, written by an exegete who has pondered, sifted and balanced the writings of other exegetes, both Catholic and Protestant. These, not surprisingly, are often other German Biblical scholars. For the sake of ordinary readers a glossary has been provided by the publisher.

Having stated that this volume is not light devotional reading or a work of apologetics, there is much to be said in favour of reading it. Jesus’ life and teachings have affected more people in history than any other figure; in this respect, no other religious leader is comparable to him. And it has been written by someone of international repute as a theologian, yet also a man who has prayed and reflected about the person he writes about every day of his adult life. Here, reasoning and love go hand in hand.

Writing as someone who has often read the Gospels without making any attempt to compare them or draw conclusions about what each evangelist has included or omitted, I learnt much from this book that I did not know. For instance, the Pope explains that the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday were not the inhabitants of Jerusalem but rather the throng of people who accompanied Jesus and who entered the Holy City alongside him. Thus they were different from the (supposedly ‘fickle’) crowd that later demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. The tragedy of the inhabitants of Jerusalem was, according to Benedict, their “indifference and fear.”

There are also interesting reflections on the chronology of Holy Week, for long disputed among scriptural scholars. The Holy Father agrees that we cannot know for certain whether certain events took place earlier or later in the week,although long tradition places the Last Supper on the night before the Crucifixion; he suggests that St John was probably using a different calendar from the synoptic authors and the “Passover” that St John describes in his account of the Last Supper was not the traditional Jewish Passover. These are a matter of debate but they do not alter the essential drama of the Holy Week events.

The Pope’s stated aim in this book has been to “take a closer look at the Gospel accounts with the intention of gaining a better knowledge and understanding of the figure of Jesus”. At the forefront of his study is a wish to show that the events cohere with the prophecies and the teachings; above all, to show how Jesus transformed the nature of love: “agape” means “stepping outside the limits of one’s closed individuality – breaking through into the divine.” This is something so new and extraordinary that we cannot do it alone: “Only by letting ourselves be repeatedly cleansed, “made pure” by the Lord himself, can we learn to act as he did, in union with him.”

Advance publicity about the book has seized on one aspect of it: the Holy Father’s repudiation of the seeming “curse” on the Jewish people throughout the centuries as a result of the crowd’s cry, “His blood be upon us and on our children.” He carefully differentiates between the “Jews” who accused Jesus –the Temple aristocracy, but without Nicodemus; the Jews who called for the crucifixion, who were part of the circle of Barabbas’ supporters rather than the Jewish people as such; and the “blood” itself, which was “not the blood of Abel”, i.e. the blood of vengeance, but the blood of redemption and of reconciliation. They are words signifying hope rather than a curse and bring anew perspective to Christian-Jewish relations.

In every passage of the Gospels that is analysed and explained, the Holy Father seeks the symbolic meaning behind the actual event and its link with the Old Testament. Jesus, he writes, presents a unique combination of fidelity to tradition – the writings of his Jewish forbears of the Old Testament – and novelty, bringing as he does, new life to those who choose to follow him.  The Pope asks, “Is it not the case that our need to be reconciled with God – the silent, mysterious, seemingly absent, yet omnipresent God – is the real problem of the whole of world history?”

This leads one on to the most problematic of the events in the life of Jesus for those who see him as a transparently good man – but in no way divine; this is the Resurrection. For the Pope it has to be seen as the final purpose of Jesus’ mission and something “that opens up a new dimension of human existence.” He likens it, using scientific language, to “an evolutionary leap” and asks rhetorically, “If there is a God, is he not able to create... a new dimension of reality?”

He makes three significant points about the Resurrection: Jesus did not return to normal, biological life (like Lazarus, who would die a second time); he did not appear as a ghost – he ate and drank with his friends and disciples; and his appearances were not the same as a mystical experience. What happened was an historical event that “nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it.”

The Holy Father is sympathetic to those Christians throughout the ages, me included, who have often felt tempted to ask “Why?” to God: Why did you reveal yourself only to a small flock of disciples? Why only to Abraham? Why only to Israel? He provides the only answer possible: “It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently...” He adds, “Is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom to offer and elicit love.”

Such an explanation, and indeed such a precise yet reverent treatment of the person of Christ as this book demonstrates, will never satisfy those who demand scientific proof of the existence of God. For Christians, no attempt to penetrate the mystery of the events of Jesus’ life, culminating in the Resurrection, is necessary; for unbelievers, no explanation is possible.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in England.


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