English translation to be released in U.S. in May
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In his new book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict XVI said Christ must be understood as the Son of God on a divine mission, not as a mere moralist or social reformer.
Re-emphasizing Christ’s divine nature is especially important in a world that tends to ridicule religious faith and that is experiencing a “global poisoning of the spiritual climate,” the pope said.
While Christ did not bring a blueprint for social progress, he did bring a new vision based on love that challenges the evils of today’s world — from the brutality of totalitarian regimes to the “cruelty of capitalism,” he said.
The 448-page book was presented in its Italian, German and Polish editions at the Vatican April 13. It was to go on sale April 16, the pope’s 80th birthday, with subsequent editions in English and 18 other languages.
The book, the first of two planned volumes on Christ’s life, covers the public acts of Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan River to the transfiguration before his disciples. Its 10 chapters analyze Scriptural passages, but also explore commentary from early church fathers and modern scholars.
In a preface, the pope makes an unusual disclaimer, saying the book should not be read as an expression of official church teaching, but as the fruits of his personal research.
“Therefore, anyone is free to contradict me,” he said.
Throughout the text, the pope cites Old and New Testament passages to show that to understand Christ one must understand his “union with God the Father.”
Even at his baptism, Jesus appears as the divine savior, not as an ordinary man who perhaps had a vocational or psychological crisis that led him to the Jordan River, he said.
Likewise, the pope said, Christ’s radically different teaching does not come from any human school but from direct contact with God. That is seen clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ summarized Christian virtues in the Eight Beatitudes, he said.
The idea that the meek or the poor are particularly blessed has struck some — including the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche — as a resentful complaint against the world’s more fortunate or successful people, the pope said.
But recent decades have demonstrated the lasting value of this Christian vision, he said.
After witnessing the way totalitarian regimes of the modern era have trampled human dignity and beaten the weak, “we understand once again those who have hunger and thirst for justice,” he said.
“Faced with the abuse of economic power, faced with the cruelty of capitalism that downgrades man to a commodity, we have begun to see more clearly the dangers of wealth and understand in a new way what Jesus meant when he warned against wealth,” he said.
The pope said the widespread modern expectation that religion should act as a recipe for earthly peace and justice finds an echo in Satan’s temptation to Christ — to change the stones of the desert into bread to relieve his hunger.
Still, many people may ask “what Jesus really brought, if not peace in the world, well-being for everyone, a better world,” the pope wrote.
“The answer is very simple. He brought God,” he said. By revealing himself as the Son of God, Christ lets people know that God is close to their lives and at work in human history, he said.
Especially in the modern era, there is resistance to accepting God as anything more than a subjective reality, the pope said. The idea of “removing God” is the nucleus of every temptation, he said, and is seen in the modern approach to problems like global poverty and hunger.
Foreign aid to Third World countries, for example, has imposed a materialistic and technical solution on populations, ignoring their religious beliefs, he said.
Africa in particular has been “robbed and looted,” he said, and like the man on the roadside in Christ’s parable, is in need of good Samaritans.
Instead of giving these populations God, he said, “we have brought them the cynicism of a world without God, in which the only things that count are power and profit.”
The pope warned that some of the “reconstructions” of Jesus offered by biblical scholars have also diminished his divinity and end up depicting Christ as simply one among many founders of religions. In this sense, he said, “the interpretation of the Bible can effectively become an instrument of the Antichrist,” by denying that God acts in human history.
The Christian faithful need to know that the New Testament is more than a collection of symbolic or allegorical stories, and that this is not just another myth of death and rebirth, he said.
“Yes, it really happened. Jesus is not a myth, he is a man of flesh and blood, a real presence in history. … He died and rose again,” he said.
In one chapter, the pope focused on the importance of prayer as taught by Jesus in the Our Father. He posed the question: “Isn’t God also mother?”
While there are expressions of God’s maternal love in the Bible, and while God cannot be said to be either male or female, the pope concluded that the image of the father was appropriate at that time to express the transcendent “otherness” of the creator.
For Christians today, that language remains the norm, he said.
“Mother is not a title of God nor a name with which one prays to God,” he said. “We pray as Jesus did … not as it occurs to us or how it pleases us.”
The pope said that when Christ’s followers prayed “deliver us from evil,” they sometimes had a concrete danger in mind: the Roman political power that threatened to swallow them.
But the phrase has lost none of its relevance today, he said.
“Today, too, there are on one hand the powers of the market, of arms trafficking, of drugs and men — powers that oppress the world and drag humanity in chains that are impossible to escape,” he said.
“On the other hand, there is also today the ideology of success, of well-being, that tells us: God is only a fiction, he’s only a waste of time and he robs us of the desire to live,” he said.
The pope explained in his preface that the book was the product of a “long inner journey,” and that he had begun writing it in 2003. He said he was concerned that the figure of Jesus was becoming increasingly unclear, even for believers.
He decided that he could offer a portrait of the “historical Jesus” that was “more logical and understandable than reconstructions we have seen in recent decades.”
Naturally, he said, to believe that Christ was God and that he revealed this in his public life goes beyond the possibilities of the historical method. In this sense, he said, the Scriptures should be read in the light of faith.
At the Vatican presentation, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna said the pope’s book should act as a corrective to the “innumerable fanciful images of Jesus as a revolutionary, as a meek social reformer, as the secret lover of Mary Magdalene,” which have appeared recently in the mass media.
Doubleday, the U.S. publisher of the pope’s book, plans to release the volume in English in May.