With first book as pope, Benedict seeks to enrich views on Jesus

 “Jesus of Nazareth” by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, translated by Adrian Walker. Random House/Doubleday (New York, 2007). 374 pp., $24.95.

Reviewed by Wayne A. Holst
Catholic News Service

Pope Benedict XVI believes that a serious gap has developed between two classic and complementary ways of describing Jesus. His new book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” the first he has published since his election as pontiff two years ago, attempts to close that gap and to reclaim what he considers to be a proper understanding of Jesus.

At the outset, the pope makes it clear that this book (one of two he plans to write on the subject) reflects his own opinions which are not necessarily those of the magisterium — the church’s official teaching office. The book is solely “an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial good will without which there can be no understanding.”

“Jesus of history” and “Christ of faith” have long served as parallel terms for describing Jesus, Pope Benedict writes in the foreword. The first affirms his humanity while the second asserts his divinity.

The author feels deeply that too much modern theology (a lot of it well-intentioned) has had the effect of downplaying the supernatural reality of God and the divinity of Jesus.

Over the past 50 years, the historical-critical approach to Scripture studies (while a great gift to biblical scholarship) has weakened our experience of Jesus as the core of our faith.

Much has justifiably been made of the man Jesus as moral teacher, social revolutionary, inspired religious founder, prophet and sage. But this has also blurred our encounter with Jesus as personal lord and savior who reveals God to us — a conviction that permeates the Gospels.

The scientific approach to the Scriptures was an attempt to make God more accessible and Jesus more amenable to modern Christians and non-Christians alike. But it has also led to a relativization of God and a humanization of Jesus at the expense of their ideal natures.

When the church fails to communicate the powerful “otherness” of God revealed through Jesus, the pope concludes, its highest public service is compromised.

Pope Benedict believes that there can be no true civil society or genuine moral progress apart from a right understanding of God.

For that to occur, the church needs to proclaim to the world a divine vision. Jesus Christ offers this vision. He is “the sign of God for all humans.” Jesus is the one to whom all Scripture — Old and New Testaments alike — bears witness. We need to reclaim this Jesus as the word of God, revealed to us throughout the Bible.

By writing this book, the pope hopes to foster in his readers “a living relationship with Jesus.”

“Jesus of Nazareth” combines pastoral and theological vigor. It demonstrates the author as a man of faith, a refined theologian and a sincere servant of God’s people. It reveals this octogenarian as an astute, enthusiastic student of the Scriptures who lives personally with the Bible and continues to exercise his remarkable theological skills.

The book contains 10 spiritual/theological reflections, and deals with themes like the baptism and temptations of Jesus; his message of the “kingdom of God” presented in his Sermon on the Mount; the Lord’s Prayer; and his parables. He called his disciples to accompany him and to carry on his mission. The concluding chapters comment on images of Jesus in John’s Gospel, the significance of Peter’s confession and the meaning of the Transfiguration. In the concluding reflection Jesus reveals his true identity.

The content of each chapter will enrich personal meditation, homily and talk preparation and ordinary conversation. Reading this book is not unlike having its author engage you personally in a college dorm discussion, or other informal exchange. Agreement is not so much his goal as stimulating engagement and debate.

“Jesus of Nazareth” portrays the pope as someone who cares deeply and personally about what we believe.

The author concludes on this reflective note. “In the end, man needs just one thing; but he must first delve beyond his superficial wishes and longings in order to learn to recognize what it is that he truly needs and truly wants. He needs God.”

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Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary, in Canada’s Alberta province, and helps facilitate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary.

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