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from issue no. 03 - 2011

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

The dividing line runs between trust and skepticism

“If today there are irreconcilable opposing views in the exegesis of the New Testament, they do not arise out of denominational differences. The dividing line now lies rather between the exegetes who approach the New Testament with substantial confidence or basic historical skepticism”. The review of a Lutheran theologian

by Rainer Riesner

Rainer Riesner, Professor of New Testament at the Protestant Institute of Theology of the Faculty of the Humane and Theological Sciences at the TU Dortmund University, at the launch of the book <I>Gesù di Nazaret. Dall’ingresso in Gerusalemme fino alla risurrezione</I> by Jospeh Ratzinger [Benedict XVI], in the theater of the Faculty of Theology of the Triveneto, Padua, 16 March 2011 [© Franco Capovilla]

Rainer Riesner, Professor of New Testament at the Protestant Institute of Theology of the Faculty of the Humane and Theological Sciences at the TU Dortmund University, at the launch of the book Gesù di Nazaret. Dall’ingresso in Gerusalemme fino alla risurrezione by Jospeh Ratzinger [Benedict XVI], in the theater of the Faculty of Theology of the Triveneto, Padua, 16 March 2011 [© Franco Capovilla]


The new book by the Pope is not a gift only for believers. It is a gift to all seekers of truth. Pope Benedict is the Christian voice most heeded around the world. This book does not discuss just any topic, but the center of the Christian faith. It is a matter of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. And specifically of two moments in His life when it is decided whether Jesus Christ has an un-renounceable significance for the twenty-first century also. At the heart of this second volume by Pope Benedict on the figure of Jesus are the cross and resurrection1.

It is not possible in such a short talk to bring out adequately the richness of the deep thinking found in this volume also. I can only highlight some features which I consider important in our postmodern, and partly post-Christian, situation.
The Last Supper and the historical-critical exegesis
The Pope’s book on Jesus is not, as he himself points out, a magisterium publication. This book was not prepared with committees of theologians, the Pope here presents his personal image of Jesus. In this way he has undoubtedly embarked on a risky undertaking. Presenting the first volume, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna coined a comparison. Like the Apostle Paul in Athens, the Pope has dared to go into the Agora, the marketplace of contrasting opinions2.
In this marketplace today there are not only philosophers, but also historical-critical exegetes. As in Paul’s time there were various opposing philosophical currents, namely the Stoics and the Epicureans (Acts 17, 18), so also the historical-critical exegesis is absolutely not a unitary discipline. If today there are irreconcilable opposing views in the exegesis of the New Testament, they do not arise out of denominational differences. The dividing line now lies rather between the exegetes who approach the New Testament with substantial confidence or basic historical skepticism. The Pope knows this and so does not refer to Catholic scholars only. The fact that in 2008 this Pope invited to Castel Gandolfo the Evangelical New Testament scholars Martin Hengel and Peter Stuhlmacher to discuss the second volume of his book on Jesus with them is an undeniable proof of his exceptional humility3. Both of these professors, who were my teachers, were colleagues of the young Professor Joseph Ratzinger at the University of Tübingen. With his invitation Benedict XVI launched an ecumenical sign of great import, that Christians of different denominations come close to each other in paying serious heed to Holy Scripture.
His discussion of the Last Supper shows clearly how seriously the Pope takes historico-critical exegesis, while at the same time indicating the ideological limits of certain scholars belonging to this school of thought. Thus, Benedict XVI admits that there are in the Gospels historical problems to which several scholarly answers are possible. That is why he leaves open the question of the relationship that exists between the farewell dinner of Jesus and the Jewish Passover meal. There is however another matter that the Pope absolutely does not leave hanging. Many exegetes today doubt that Jesus uttered the words attributed to Him at the Last Supper. They justify their skepticism on the grounds that the announcement of the Kingdom of God by Jesus would be difficult to reconcile with the thought of atonement. As example the parable of the prodigal son is often quoted, in which he gets forgiveness from his father without any atonement being made (Lk 15, 11-24). But the words of the Last Supper are already reported by Paul as a firmly established tradition that he himself borrowed from the first community of Jerusalem through the community of Damascus (1Cor 11, 23-24). Hence the Pope is absolutely right when he writes: “From the point of view of historical evidence, nothing could be more authentic than this Last Supper tradition. But the idea of expiation is incomprehensible to the modern mind. Jesus with his proclamation of the kingdom of God must surely be diametrically oposed to such a notion. At issue here is our image of God and our image of man. To this extent the whole discussion only appears to be concerned with history” (p.119).
The miracles of Jesus, Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the Baptistery of Padua

The miracles of Jesus, Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the Baptistery of Padua

Good Friday as great day of Atonement
Another objection to the historicity of the words of the Last Supper is that it would be unthinkable in a Jewish context. One of the strengths of the Pope’s book is the demonstration that the statements of the New Testament on Jesus’ death as atonement for human sin become comprehensible only with the help of the Old Testament and its explanation in ancient Hebrew. Here, too, great respect for Judaism is expressed by the Pope, which rightly found a very positive echo in the international press. The fact that certain exegetes highlight in particular fashion Jesus’ Jewish religiosity, but at the same time want to rid Him of almost all the references to the Sacred Scripture of Israel, belongs among those phenomena difficult to understand. The references are not limited to direct quotations. The words of Jesus are woven through with allusions to the Old Testament. If one wanted to delete them all, not much would remain. Jesus lived in the Holy Scripture of Israel, as indeed the Pope also. Not all his discoveries about references to the Old Testament could be dug out of the exegetical literature. Some things clearly derive from his meditation on Sacred Scripture throughout his life.
This approach enables the Pope to show, in the presentation he makes of Jesus, that there is an inner link in the unfolding of the events that occur between the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem up to His crucifixion on Golgotha. This link is both plausible from the point of view of history and highly significant in terms of theology. The so-called purification of the temple is not simply an act of social criticism of the class of high priests, who enriched themselves in the trade of offerings. With a simple prophetic symbolical gesture, Jesus instead announced that the end had come for the sacrificial cult in the temple of Jerusalem (Jn 2, 14-22). This is confirmed by the synoptic discourse on the last days and the prediction of the destruction of the temple (Mark 13, 14-17). However, the basic assumption is not represented by the opinion that the sacrifices of the Old Testament were always worthless. But that they referred, with the support of the affirmations of a prophet such as Jeremiah, to something that went beyond the sacrifices themselves, heralding the stipulation of a new covenant (Jer 31, 31).
The mysterious figure of the “Servant of God” suffering and dying in the Book of Isaiah makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that atonement is possible only through the vicarious function of a special envoy of God (Is 53). Jesus referred to Himself the prophecy of the Servant of God even in the formulation of the words of the Last Supper (Mk 14, 24). Also the high priesthood is in no way challenged by Jesus, but finds its full realization in Him. The so-called priestly prayer in John’s Gospel (Chapter 17) can be understood only in the light of the liturgy of the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur. Here the Pope follows the interpretation of the illustrious Catholic exegete André Feuillet4, whose works are often widely and wrongly ignored even by contemporary Catholic exegesis. On the occasion of the “great day of Atonement” the high priest crossed, for the only time in the year, the threshold of the Holy of Holies in the temple and cleansed the people of Israel from their sins by sprinkling the Ark of the Covenant with blood (Lev 16). In His reply to the high priest Caiaphas, who questions Him asking whether He be the Messiah (Mk 14, 62), Jesus proclaims Himself “a priest in the order of Melchizedek” referring to Psalm 110. The veil of the temple that rends in two at the moment of Jesus’ death refers symbolically to the fact that the great last day of Atonement has found fulfillment in the cross on Golgotha (Mk 15, 38). The interpretation of Jesus’ death as atonement thus goes back to Jesus Himself. Paul knew this interpretation from the first community in Jerusalem (Rom 3, 24) and the Epistle to the Hebrews then significantly developed this theme. In the life of the early Christians, this meaning of Jesus’ death going back to the first community of Jerusalem became a reality experienced through the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2, 42; 1Cor 11, 25).
Gethsemane and the two natures of Jesus
The wording of the Council of Chalcedon (451), whereby it was acknowledged that Jesus is “true man and true God” brings together Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Evangelicals. The Coptic and Syrian Churches have not accepted this doctrine, known as that of the two natures. They attribute to Jesus only a divine nature. Alongside this ancient Monophysism there is also a widespread modern variant, according to which Jesus had only a purely human nature. Through the Gospel story of the tempting and prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane Pope Benedict clarifies why both of the two visions of Jesus are not right. Gethsemane shows Jesus, especially in the reading of the Gospel of Luke (22, 44) and the Epistle to the Hebrews (5, 7-8), in all His vulnerable and frightened humanity. However, the Heavenly Father expects Him to drink “the chalice” (Mk 14, 36), that in the language of the Old Testament here means the destructive wrath of God (Is 51, 17). This indicates that Jesus must be more than just a man. Absolutely relevantly the evangelist Mark transmits here the intimate cry “Abba, Father” in its Semitic form, as it was heard from the mouth of Jesus. On this point the Pope draws on the research of the Evangelical scholar of the New Testament Joachim Jeremias5 who in the middle of the last century was one of the most prominent critics of the skeptical concept of Rudolf Bultmann. The evangelist Mark knew that prior to Jesus no pious Jew, nor any prophet, had addressed God so. Therefore, only He who was truly the Son of God could talk in that way. Pope Benedict comments as follows: “Because he is the Son, he experiences deeply al the horror, filth and baseness that he must drink from the ‘chalice’ prepared for him: the vast power of sin and death. All this he must take into himself, so that it can be disarmed and defeated in him” (p. 155). Gethsemane, however, also poses the following question: is there something that goes beyond the divine judgment of God on man’s guilt? It is the same question that arises when one questions the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus
The Crucifixion, Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the Baptistery of Padua

The Crucifixion, Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the Baptistery of Padua

The reality of the Resurrection
Also in dealing with this issue, the Pope shows that he is very aware of the historical and exegetical problems posed by the texts of the New Testament. He does, however, make a distinction between minor matters of detail and the main issue on which everything depends. Here Benedict writes with great clarity: “Only if Jesus is risen, has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind. Then he becomes the criterion on which we can rely. For then God has truly revealed himself. To this extent, in our quest for the figure of Jesus, the Resurrection is the crucial point. Whether Jesus merelywas or whether he also is– this depends on the Resurrection. In answering yes or no to this question, we are taking a stand not simply on one event among others, but on the figure of Jesus as such” (p. 242). In this inevitable either/or, the Pope has on his side the apostle Paul who, in his first epistle to the Christian community of Corinth, wrote: “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ” (1Cor 15, 14-15).
But how credible is the apostolic witness of the Resurrection? The Pope raises both the historical and philosophical question. He rightly criticizes the fact that the wording “Jesus rose on the third day” (1Cor 15, 4) is a pure and simple derivation from the Old Testament. The “third” day is an indication of a historical date. On the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, His tomb was found empty. The Pope notes in this regard that “ the empty tomb as such, while it cannot prove the Resurrection, is nevertheless a necessary condition for Resurrection faith, which was specifically concerned with the body and, consequently, with the whole of the person” (p. 254). On the “third day” Jesus met in His living person witnesses with a name, such as Peter or the Lord’s brother James, and women witnesses such as Mary Magdalene. In this sense, the Pope notes, “it is also important that the encounters with the risen Lord are not just interior events or mystical experiences – they are real encounters with the living one who is now embodied in a new way and remains embodied” (p. 268).
The Pope also deals with the philosophical objection that the Resurrection of Jesus goes against the laws that govern nature. He urges us not to rule out new experiences in history that go beyond what we are accustomed to so far. He writes: “The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented –  a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been?... If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human reality, a new dimension of reality altogether?” (pp. 246-247). And thus, to question the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus is to question the reality of God.
With the Resurrection of Jesus the question of God does not remain confined within the limits of intellectual speculation, but presses on us as question on the historical reality of the body. The Pope rightly reminds us that the apparitions of the risen Jesus “in the mysterious combination of otherness and identity” have their closest parallel in the theophanies of the Old Testament (p. 267). Here we find a compelling reason for the fact that already from Easter it emerges clearly that Jesus belongs to the mode of being of God (cf. Jn 20, 28). The Pope concluded the discussion with the words: “Jesus’ Resurrection points beyond history, but has left a footprint within history. Therefore it can be attested by witnesses as an event of an entirely new kind”. Benedict goes on to say: “Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic teaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculation or inner, mystical experiences. In all its boldness and originality, it draws life from the impact of an event that no one had invented, an event that surpassed all that could be imagined” (p. 275). But how can this event reach people in the twenty-first century?
The need for a new evangelization
With his interpretation of Jesus’ words: “But the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mk 13, 10), Pope Benedict recalls a significant episode in the history of the Church (p. 44). Bernard of Clairvaux had to chastise the then Pope, Eugenius III. Bernard wrote to him: You are “indebted also to the infidels, the Jews, the Greeks and the pagans... I admit that, with regard to the Jews, you are excused by time; for them a determined moment has been established, that cannot be hastened. First must come the pagans as a whole [cf. Rm 11, 25-27]. But what do you say about the pagans themselves? ... What had your predecessors in mind ... to halt evangelization, while disbelief is still widespread? Why has ... the word that runs fast stopped?”6.
Pope Benedict does not need to be chastised on the subject of evangelization. As the interview-book Light of the world shows, inter alia, he has a very realistic view of things7. He well knows that in large parts of Europe and North America there has been a dramatic decline in the Christian faith. Benedict XVI is not only aware of the need for a new evangelization, but also has taken organizational steps in that direction. With his book on Jesus, however, he offers a very personal contribution to the spreading of the faith. Christians should help him in this effort. One possibility would be to give his book about Jesus to friends whose faith is faltering or who are seeking a way to faith. The important thing is that this gift should become an opportunity for a dialogue in which we, too, discuss our faith. A particular strength of the Pope’s book lies in the fact that it brings together two things. Readers will find a historically credible image of Jesus Christ, one relevant to their lives. But they will also find an indication of the personal faith of Pope Benedict. In the first volume, he referred to “intimate friendship with Jesus on which everything depends”8 as “its point of reference” for the Christian faith. I am convinced that with the second volume the Pope has managed to achieve what in the introduction he indicates as his desire. He has actually been enabled to approach “the figure of Our Lord in a way that can be helpful to all readers who seek to encounter Jesus and to believe in him” (p. xvii).
1 Jesus of Nazareth. From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrectio n, Vatican City 2011.
2 Der Papst auf der Agora, in: “Jesus von Nazareth” Kontrovers, Berlin 2007, pp. 9-17.
3 Gespräche über Jesus: Papst Benedikt XVI. im Dialog mit Martin Hengel und Peter Stuhlmacher Ed. P. Kuhn, Tübingen 2010.
4 Le sacerdoce du Christ et de ses ministres: d’après la prière sacerdotale du quatrième Evangile et plusieurs données parallèles du Nouveau Testament, André Feuillet, Paris 1972.
5 Abba. Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Göttingen 1966.
6 De consideratione III, 1, 2-3.
7 Benedict XVI, Light of the world. The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the times. An interview with Peter Seewald, Vatican City 2010, p.xvii.
8 Joseph Ratzinger [Benedict XVI], Jesus of Nazareth, Vatican City 2007, p.xii.

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