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from issue no. 03 - 2011

JESUS OF NAZARETH. From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection

“A look at the Jesus of the Gospels and a hearing of His words”

by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP

Cardinal Georges Cottier

Cardinal Georges Cottier


The second part of the book Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger [Benedict XVI] is certainly an important work. Because of its complexity it is not an easy read. The author develops a close and detailed dialogue with the ambience of the exegetes, though he is not himself an exegete. This aspect already has its importance, because sometimes, in the theological world, a certain distance between exegetes and dogmatic theologians seems to perpetuate itself. But there is no reason to dwell too much on this if one wants to go beyond pure erudition. The author explains in the opening pages that this was not his intention. He simply wanted to write something “helpful to all readers who seek to encounter Jesus and to believe in Him” (p. xvii).

At the core of the book is the acknowledged fact that the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are the same person. A bold statement, since the rationalist tendency that opposed what one can know of Jesus Christ in scholarly fashion and what the Church teaches has penetrated, with disastrous effects, even among believers. According to this line of thought, the Church’s teaching on Christ is a later addition, a mythical construction created by the Christian community regardless of the facts.

The book by Benedict XVI, with the constant reference to the historicity of Christ, also rebuts the opposite temptation of gnosticism that transpires today in the writings of various theologians. When we read the Gospel – the author points out on many pages – we are dealing with facts, which remain so even when they are as mysterious as the redemptive efficacy of the Passion and Resurrection. “Many details”, writes Joseph Ratzinger on page 105, “may remain open. Yet the ‘factum est’ of John’s Prologue (1, 14) is a basic Christian category, and it applies not only to the Incarnation as such; it must also be invoked for the Last Supper, the Cross and the Resurrection”. God has entered history. The Bible speaks of God’s history with humanity. But not in the Hegelian sense of a gnosticism that absorbs the historical fact into a theologico-logic construction. Speaking of the resurrection, the author stresses that “The third day is not a ‘theological’ date, but the day when an event took place that became the decisive turning point for the disciples after the calamity of the Cross” (p. 258).

In this historical perspective, Joseph Ratzinger takes the same attitude as the early Church, which looked at the facts of Christ in the light of the Old Testament. The unity of the two Testaments seems to me one of the fundamental lines of argument along which the book develops.

The early Christians had the Old Testament as Sacred Scripture. For them it was a surprise and a confirmation of faith when they realized that the  mysterious texts of the ancient Scriptures were unveiled in full by the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. The author often efficaciously sets the Christian reading of the Old Testament alongside the rabbinical one, without obscuring the differences.

Deeper down, the intimate union between the Old and New Testaments is captured in the person of Jesus Himself. Jesus prayed with the Psalms. Even the most intimate relationship of the Son with the Father comes about through the prayers of the poor of Israel. The author writes: “In the  Passion too – on the Mount of Olives and on the Cross – Jesus uses passages from the Psalms to speak of Himself and to address the Father. Yet these quotations have become fully personal; they have become the intimate words of Jesus himself in his agony. It is he who truly prays these Psalms; he is their real subject. Jesus’ utterly personal prayer and his praying in the words of faithful, suffering Israel are here seamlessly united” (p. 153).

Jesus lived in the Holy Scripture of Israel. While the book excludes all reduction of the facts to symbols in gnostic fashion, it brings out the foreshadowing link that exists between the facts of the Old and New Testament. This relation, interior to the history of salvation, is not an immanent and progressive development of a pre-arranged saving principle, in the manner of Hegel. It is God Himself who intervenes and, in the continuity of the history of salvation, prepares and carries through to completion with, so to speak, gratuitous “qualitative leaps”, that is through acts that are always new. This intertwining of the Old Law and the New Law of the Gospel patterned by the gratuitous acts of God is a weave that runs throughout the book. For example, in the chapter on the priestly prayer of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI quotes from the exegete André Feuillet to emphasize that such prayer “can be understood only against the background of the liturgy of the Jewish Feast of Atonement (Yom ha-Kippurim). The ritual of the feast with its rich theological content, is realized in Jesus’ prayer  – ‘realized’ in the literal sense: the rite is translated into the reality that it signifies. What had been represented in ritual acts now takes place in reality and it takes place definitively” (p. 77).

Finally, the “methodological issue”, that had already been addressed in the first volume, with the criticism – which is not a rejection – of the historical-critical method, also emerges in this volume. Again, Benedict XVI highlights that the exaggeration of the question of method can easily lead to a form of methodological superstition. In the natural sciences, if the method is applied well, it works almost by itself. But not so in the humanities, where the method, if it meets the requirements of rigor, has its own criteria. In fact the object has its own uniqueness and the interpreter, historian or exegete, commits himself in person. In the case of the Word of God, the interpreter, assisted by the Spirit, beyond the scholar, is the Church as living subject.

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