Sunday, August 10, 2008

reading Jesus of Nazareth

This week I started reading Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth. I thought I'd give a few of my first impressions, and then make a few comments as I read the book.

Up to this point (I've read the Introduction and the first four chapters) this book doesn't strike me as a particularly academic book, though I am impressed by Ratzinger's reflectiveness and, for lack of a better word, sheer poeticism. It's easy to forget, as I read this book, that these are the thoughts of the man who epitomizes, for many people across the globe, the kingdom of God on earth. Ratzinger's writing is far from dogmatic, which came as a pleasant surprise given media reports, at the time of his appointment to the papacy (and since), that emphasized Ratzinger's nickname, God's Rottweiller. Some reviewer's on Facebook have referred to Ratzinger's humility, which I think goes a bit too far. That is, I'm not denying Ratzinger's humility, but I think the welcoming tenor in which Ratzinger wrote Jesus of Nazareth is more a function of his having written a legitimate contribution to the on-going conversation about Jesus taking place in the academy and the church. Ratzinger recognizes (and interacts with) this on-going conversation, and, to his credit, he doesn't hide behind the magisterium to silence that conversation or privilege his voice within it.

Otherwise, much of Ratzinger's comments on Jesus of Nazareth are fairly standard within the arena of historical Jesus research and do not necessarily advance the academic discussion of the historical Jesus very far. He makes some intriguing connections from time to time. For example, in his discussion of Jesus' third temptation (according to Matthew), Ratzinger connects Satan's taking Jesus "to a very high mountain" and offering him all the kingdoms of the earth (Matt. 4.8–9) with Jesus' taking his disciples to a mountain in Galilee and announcing, "All authority in heaven and upon the earth has been given me" (Matt. 28.16–20). Similarly, Ratzinger reads the temptation to "command these stones to become loaves of bread" (Matt. 4.3) in light of two other events in Jesus' ministry involving bread: the feeding of the five thousand and the Last Supper. These, I think, are insightful connections. At other times, Ratzinger's discussion avoids difficult issues. For example, his discussion of Jesus' baptism rightly stresses John's baptism as a rite of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but he too quickly assumes that Jesus sets out to assume humanity's sin in his baptism in order to "fulfill all righteousness" (cf. Matt. 3.13–15). This too-quick assumption raises questions about the necessity of Jesus' crucifixion for humanity's sin, if his baptism already "fulfilled all righteousness" in this sense.

Even so, I'm excited as I read this book and am glad that I have assigned it for some of my freshmen Gospel Narratives students. Everyone should read the Foreword and the Introduction, especially as Ratzinger, in these sections, reveals his heart and pastoral intentions to a greater extent than he does in the book's actual chapters. For example, at the conclusion of his methodological discussion in the Foreword (which is well worth the read even if beginning students will sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about), Ratzinger nearly exclaims, "I trust the Gospels" (xxi; my emphasis). This affirmation of faith is all the more poignant for coming, as it does, at the end of a discussion in which he accepts as necessary and helpful the historical-critical analysis of these sacred texts (cf. Fitzmyer's similar discussion in The Interpretation of Scripture, which I have reviewed in a forthcoming volume of the Stone Campbell Journal). Whatever we ultimately think of Ratzinger's detailed utilization of the historical-critical method, he is certainly at least attempting to keep his portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth from being merely an exposition of the Nicene Creed.

As I've suggested above, the Foreword and the Introduction alone are worth the price of the book. I'd like to finish by interacting with two of Ratzinger's comments, one from the Foreword and one from the Introduction. First, in his discussion of the unity of Scripture, Ratzinger writes:
Modern exegesis has brought to light the process of constant rereading that forged the words transmitted in the Bible into Scripture: Older texts are reappropriated, reinterpreted, and read with new eyes in new contexts. They become Scripture by being read anew, evolving in continuity with their original sense, tacitly corrected and given added depth and breadth of meaning. This is a process in which the word gradually unfolds its inner potentialities already somehow present like seeds, but needing the challenge of new situations, new experiences and new sufferings, in order to open up." (pp. xviii–xix)

Ratzinger's subject here is in dire need of more attention, but his point is well taken. He states in theological terms (which we best understand in terms of the doctrine of the fourfold meaning of Scripture) what I think is more accurately and helpfully explained in terms of sociolinguistics and Immanent Art (for the latter, cf. the works of John Miles Foley, esp. 1991; 1995). That is, language that invokes one particular meaning (or set of meanings) within a given community will invoke another meaning (or, again, set of meanings) within another community. This happens as texts move geographically, but it also happens as texts move temporally, through history. But in the latter case, social memory theorists such as Barry Schwartz (Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory) and Michael Schudson (Watergate in American Memory) challenge us to account for the ways that the new contexts in which texts find themselves being read are already shaped by those texts. The issue here isn't simply how old texts accrue to themselves new meanings in new contexts (though this is, obviously, an important issue), but also and at the same time how those new contexts have already and even subconsciously been framed by those old texts. If we can modulate the question half a step (to use a musical metaphor), the issue isn't simply how the early Christians began to reinterpret Israel's biblical traditions in light of Jesus of Nazareth, but also how they already understood Jesus of Nazareth in terms of their biblical traditions.

Second, Ratzinger begins in the Introduction by framing Jesus in the context of Moses (though later he will make a predictable move and insist that Moses is woefully inadequate for understanding Jesus), which I think is one of a couple exactly right moves. If the Evangelists say anything at all about Jesus, they say that we cannot understand Jesus if we haven't first understood Moses (and vice versa, especially in John's gospel). Ratzinger is gold here:
The most important thing about the figure of Moses is neither all the miraculous deeds he is reported to have done nor his many works and sufferings along the way from the "house of bondage in Egypt" through the desert to the threshold of the Promised Land. The most important thing is that he spoke with God as with a friend. This was the only possible springboard for his works; this was the only possible source of the Law that was to show Israel its path through history. (p. 4)

This, I think, is exactly right and well worth exploring. I'm especially impressed with Ratzinger's correct assessment of Moses' miracles and their significance. These were not offered as proofs that Moses was who he claimed to be or that legitimated his assumption of considerable power from among the people of Israel (even appointing his brother's family as the nation's priests). Rather, these were themselves instances of God achieving the relationship with his people that he had always intended and which he had more concretely with Moses. The same point goes for Jesus: the healings, exorcisms, and miracles did not "prove" anything about Jesus' identity or legitimate his claim to stand at the head of the restored twelve tribes (as symbolized in his gathering around himself twelve disciples). Rather, they were themselves instances of the gospel working in power to restore humanity to the creator God. This is precisely the point of traditions such as Matt. 11.2–6||Luke 7.18–23, and Jesus says as much in Luke's account of his response to the accusation of collusion with Beelzebul (cf. Luke 11.20; the language of "the finger of God" is significantly more relevant in this specific instance than is the otherwise similar language in Matt. 12.28 regarding "the Spirit of God").

The next chapter I have to read is on the Sermon on the Mount. Given that, to this point, the longest chapter has been the 21-page discussion on Jesus' temptations (pp. 25–46), the 64-page chapter on Jesus' inaugural sermon (according to Matthew, for which gospel Ratzinger seems to have a penchant; cf. pp. 64–128) promises to be the most comprehensive discussion thus far. I'll let you know what I think, assuming what I think rises to the level of worthy to be mentioned on this blog (a scandalously low standard, indeed).

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