Pastoral Interpretation in Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth

As a pastoral rather than an academic work, Jesus of Nazareth preaches a Gospel that is centered in the person of Christ.

Much has been said both in praise and in criticism of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. Fergus Kerr, a theologian writing in the The Tablet, calls it Joseph Ratzinger’s best book. Peter Steinfels, a journalist writing in Commonweal, finds it “persuasive and deeply helpful.” Richard Hays, a biblical scholar writing in First Things, criticizes it, especially for not providing “a more careful explanation of how he proposes to reconceive the practice of historical criticism.”

The Pope’s book was also considered by biblical scholars at the annual meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association (CBA) at Santa Clara University from a perspective more closely related to Benedict’s pastoral intentions for the work. The discussion occurred in a seminar on the topic of “Biblical Scholarship with a Pastoral Purpose” convened by Daniel Harrington, S.J., Scott Hahn, and myself.

The premise of the seminar was that the presuppositions, goals and interests of biblical scholarship differ, depending on whether it is oriented toward the academy or toward the Church’s pastoral ministry. For example, biblical studies directed to the non-confessional academy do not presuppose Christian faith, while those directed to the Church’s life begin with faith and seek to deepen its understanding. While the aim of academic biblical study is to extend the boundaries of verifiable knowledge about the Bible, the aim of biblical study in the Church is to transform people through a relationship with God. Our seminar sought to clarify these differences and to develop a deeper understanding of how to make biblical scholarship as fruitful as possible for building up the body of Christ, especially by forming ministers of the word.

What follows is a revised version of my presentation about Jesus of Nazareth, incorporating some of my colleagues’ observations. In this essay I briefly examine the Pope’s genre and pastoral goal, his approach to history and faith, his canonical exegesis and theological interpretation, his use of ancient tradition, and the correlation of Scripture with the life of the Church.

In a winsome manner, Pope Benedict’s foreword makes clear that his book is “in no way an exercise of the magisterium,” and that “everyone is free…to contradict me” (xxiii-xxiv). He describes his book as “solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8).” Richard Hays confesses to being puzzled about the genre of the work and expresses dissatisfaction with its seemingly diverse topics. Agreeing with Hays, one of our seminar members also described is as a “mishmash” lacking a clear methodology. However, most participants agreed that the Pope’s unifying purpose was the care of souls and that the description of the work as his “personal search” suggests the genre of personal theological testament as the means chosen to achieve that end.

The pastoral concern that had long vexed Joseph Ratzinger and that moved him to begin work on this book in 2003 before his election as pope was the disconnect between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” that he saw arise in the 1950s (his formative years as a Catholic theologian) through the influence of Rudolf Bultmann and the subsequent quests for the historical Jesus. Not only did scholars draw excessively fine distinctions between layers of tradition in the Gospels, they also drew quite contradictory conclusions that tended to obscure the figure of Jesus and made it seem impossible to know what he is really like. According to Benedict, this threatens the “intimate friendship with Jesus” that is essential to Christian life (xii).

The Pope’s pastoral purpose leads him to direct this work at a general readership, rather than to bishops, theologians or biblical scholars. It is also the reason that he moves so easily between biblical exegesis and various contemporary topics (something that perplexed Richard Hays) and includes very practical teaching, such as that about prayer at the beginning of the chapter on the Our Father.

As a pastoral rather than an academic work, Jesus of Nazareth unabashedly preaches the Gospel that is centered in the person of Christ. Early in the book Pope Benedict asks and answers the question, “What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? … The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God.” Richard Hays correctly notes that the “single most dominant theme…is Jesus’ ‘intimate unity with the Father.’… The entire aim of Jesus’ teaching and activity is to reveal his own union with God and to invite all humanity to share in an intimate, loving relation with God.” Benedict writes not merely as a theologian but as an evangelist, who also invites his readers to enter into that relationship. In doing so he offers, in his own reserved manner, personal testimony to the realities he describes. He likewise invites his readers to love others, in union with Christ’s self-giving love revealed in the cross.

At the heart of Pope Benedict’s project are biblical hermeneutics and an effort to find a better way to relate Scripture and history for the life of the Church. He reports the judgment of Rudolf Schnackenburg, “probably the most prominent Catholic exegete writing in German during the second half of the twentieth century” (xii-xiii). Schnackenburg came to see the inadequacy of historical-critical methods for presenting a clear portrait of Jesus, concluding that Jesus can only be understood in relation to God, who lies outside the purview of historical methods. According to Benedict, not only does historical criticism not have the resources for understanding Jesus’ relationship to God, it cannot satisfy the Church’s need to know the meaning of the biblical word for the present; nor can it recognize, as the Church does, the unity of the Bible as one divinely inspired corpus. Finally, historical study cannot produce more than probable hypotheses, which can buttress but not support the full weight of Christian faith. Nevertheless, Benedict insists, Christianity must expose itself to historical-critical study since it makes claims about events; this distinguishes Christianity from Gnosticism, the New Age or other religion systems based either on esoteric worldviews or ethical reflection.

Christian interpretation begins with an act of faith in Christ that is consistent with historical reason but transcends it. In Jesus of Nazareth the Pope presents a portrait of Jesus that goes beyond what historical criticism can offer since it draws on the resources of Christian faith, but that is “much more logical, and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions” (xxii) provided by the historical quests of recent decades. For instance, Benedict points out the implausibility of a Jesus who made no divine claims. Such an interpretation of Jesus does not adequately explain the impact of Jesus on the New Testament authors or on subsequent generations. The Jesus whom Benedict seeks to present is the Jesus of the four Gospels, which, the Pope maintains with the Christian tradition, “exhibit a deep harmony despite all their differences” (xxiii). “What is distinctive today about the Pope’s interpretation of the Gospels,” remarked Daniel Harrington of Weston School of Theology, “is the way Benedict identifies the divinity of Christ as the hermeneutical key for unlocking the Gospel depictions of Jesus.”

Clearly the Pope recognizes the importance of historical scholarship to understand the Bible. Jesus of Nazareth is thoroughly imbued with discussions of biblical scholars about the Kingdom of God, parables and the historical background of the Gospels. The Pope shows a considerable familiarity with exegetical works and should be pardoned for dialoging primarily with somewhat older works in his own language. How many theologians can boast Benedict’s familiarity with exegesis? How many exegetes demonstrate such familiarity with theological writings?

Benedict regards canonical exegesis, which interprets individual texts in the light of the whole Bible, as a necessary complement to historical-critical study. This method accords with the teaching of Dei Verbum §12 that proper interpretation requires attending to the content and unity of Scripture as a whole. The Pope acknowledges that the unity of Scripture based on its divine inspiration is a datum of faith, although contemporary exegesis has also shown a considerable basis for the unity of Scripture in the progressive rereading of prior biblical writings.

This canonical perspective enables the Pope to see—in company with the New Testament authors and the Christian tradition—a single divine plan unfolding in the Old and New Testaments. So he affirms the continuity of Jesus with the Old Testament (101-102), and the permanent value of the law of Moses. Canonical exegesis enables Pope Benedict to interpret the Synoptics in light of the Gospel of John and the Beatitudes in light of the experience of Paul (2 Cor. 4:8-11; 6:8-10) and in the light of John’s theology of the cross as exaltation. Some of my CBA colleagues go further: rather than read the Synoptic Gospels through a Johannine lense, Benedict finds traces of the Johannine Jesus that truly are present in the Synoptics but that might have passed unnoticed were it not for the fourth Gospel.

Richard Hays, representing the interests of critical historiography, objects to Benedict’s Johannine portrayal of Jesus and his “harmonizing reading of the texts.” But Benedict’s concern is religious and his hermeneutic is theological—his ultimate focus is not the texts themselves but the reality to which the texts refer, not the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of John, but the one Jesus Christ who is portrayed in both. In the words of the Biblical Commission’s document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, “Biblical knowledge should not stop short at language; it must seek to arrive at the reality of which the language speaks” (II.A.1.d). Certainly it is religiously enlightening and theologically legitimate to attend to the distinctive narrative shape and theological perspective of each of the evangelists. But from the vantage point of the Church, the one Jesus of “the fourfold Gospel”—to use St. Irenaeus’ phrase—will always have priority.

This point provoked some discussion in our seminar. Gary Anderson of Notre Dame recalled his graduate studies of “Mark’s Jesus,” “Luke’s Jesus,” and so on; he wondered at the time, how does biblical scholarship inform the Jesus to whom we pray and bow our knee in worship? Certainly this figure must be something other than the special portrait of one of the Gospel writers. Others noted that every Christian draws on the four Gospels and his or her own prayer and experience to form a personal understanding of who Jesus is. Felix Just of Santa Clara University added, “I have problems with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ if I have to consider it the Jesus of the Gospels. But if I regard the film as depicting Mel Gibson’s understanding of Jesus, that problem goes away. Jesus of Nazareth gives us Benedict’s Jesus.”

Benedict’s interpretation of Jesus also draws upon his deep familiarity with post-biblical Christian tradition, whether the writings of the fathers, dogmatic decisions of councils, liturgical traditions or Christian art. This is an important way in which interpretation directed to the life of the community of faith differs from interpretation oriented to the non-confessional academy. In order for biblical interpretation to serve a community whose understanding and practices inevitably develop through time, it is necessary for pastoral exegesis to relate the sacred texts to the continuing life of the community. Jon Levenson, writing in The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism , poses a question: “May commentators rest from their labors without having correlated the written text with its classical and medieval rabbinic expositions?” He answers, “Christians may and almost always do; Jews may not.” But Catholic exegesis directed to the life of the Church, like Jewish exegesis, cannot leave out its community’s history of interpretation. According to Dei Verbum §12, it must “take into account the living Tradition of the Church.”

Pope Benedict justifies interpretation in the light of tradition not by citing decrees of Church councils but by theological reasoning: the Church is the interpreter par excellence, the “subject” who interprets Scripture; the Church is the Bride of Christ to whom the Scriptures are addressed and to whom they belong. This subject is a community that exists through time, and her understanding is guided into all the truth by the Paraclete whom Christ promised and sent.

Some of the scholars at our seminar expressed caution about how tradition sometimes functions in interpretation. John R. Donahue, S.J., professor emeritus of St. Mary’s Seminary and University (Baltimore) and Craig Morrison of the Pontifical Biblical Institute pointed out that sometimes traditional interpretations are inadequate or mistaken. Critical exegesis can serve the ministry of the word by purifying traditional interpretations; for instance, historical study clarifies the meaning of many parables and corrects the misidentification of Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman of Luke 7.

A detailed look at Pope Benedict’s interpretation of the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus illustrates the strengths of his hermeneutic, and in particular shows how he draws on the Christian tradition. He begins by discussing the different ways the Synoptic evangelists begin their Gospels and introduce Jesus’ baptism, each yielding different insights into Jesus and his mission. He then elaborates on the historical background of the event, both political (the Roman empire) and religious (the various sects in Judaism including the community of Qumran). Then Benedict introduces John the Baptist, referring to his possible association with Qumran and to the Old Testament texts the Gospels employ to describe his mission. He provides some historical background to the practice of confession of sins in Judaism of that time. All of this is standard critical exegesis.

Edging in a theological direction, the Pope then reflects on the symbolism of John’s baptism as the beginning of a new life. Immersion into the waters symbolizes death. Yet the flowing river can symbolize life, since rivers like the Jordan sustain life in arid regions. Immersion is also about cleansing from the filth of the past, about purification and liberation, about death and resurrection, about rebirth. Aware, perhaps, that he has claimed quite a bit for the significance of John’s baptism, he acknowledges, “All of this will have to wait for Christian baptismal theology to be worked out explicitly, but the act of descending into the Jordan and coming up again…already implicitly contains this later development” (16).

Benedict then lingers briefly over the question of why Jesus should be baptized, including the exchange between John and Jesus in Matthew 3:14-15: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” He concludes that Jesus’ baptism is his “unrestricted Yes to God’s will” and an expression of solidarity with human beings “who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness” (17). Acknowledging that “the significance of this event could not fully emerge until it was seen in the light of the Cross and Resurrection” (17), Pope Benedict interprets John’s baptism of Jesus in light of Christian baptism. Just as baptismal candidates confess their sin and seek to unburden themselves of guilt, so Jesus, in prayer at his baptism, “loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders…[and] bore it down into the depths of the Jordan” (18), anticipating the cross. The Father’s affirmation, “This is my beloved Son” anticipates the Resurrection. Benedict offers Jesus’ use of the term “baptism” in reference to his death in Mark 10:38 and Luke 12:50 (“I have a baptism to be baptized with…”) in support of this interpretation.

Then, in circular fashion, Benedict affirms, “Only from this starting point can we understand Christian baptism” (18). The anticipations in Jesus’ baptism have become reality through the Paschal Mystery. To be baptized “is to go where [Jesus] identifies with us and to receive there our identification with him…. Paul develops this inner connection in his theology of baptism (cf. Rom. 6), though without explicitly mentioning Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan” (18-19).

Benedict then describes how the liturgy, iconography and patristic teaching of the Eastern Church “developed and deepened this understanding of Jesus’ baptism.” Hymns and icons link Epiphany, the liturgical celebration of Jesus’ baptism, with Thursday through Saturday of Holy Week, with the tomb and Hades. He cites Cyril of Jerusalem: (“When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man” [cf. Luke 11:22]) and Chrysostom (“Going down into the water and emerging again are the image of the descent into hell and the Resurrection”).

Benedict then sums up and enlarges upon this theology by describing Jesus’ baptism as a repetition of all of history, recapitulating the past and anticipating the future. Jesus’ descent symbolizes a “suffering-with-others,” an “identity with the fallen,” a taking on of all the sin of the world and suffering it through to the end, which only he can do because of his equality with God. Jesus thus transforms suffering, defeats death, frees human beings from the evil one and all that holds them captive, and converts all that exists and “prepares a new heaven and a new earth.” Thus the sacrament of baptism becomes “the gift of participation in Jesus’ world-transforming struggle” accomplished in his descent and ascent. (Benedict’s use of “descent and ascent” without mention of the Jordan waters now evokes the descent and ascent of John 3:13 and of Eph. 4:9-11.) He finds biblical confirmation of this theology of the cross at Jesus’ baptism in John the Baptist’s words early in the Gospel of John, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Aramaic word for “lamb” recalls both the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and the Passover Lamb.

This is powerful stuff—a rich imaginative theological interpretation that builds on critical exegesis, draws on tradition and relates it to the sacramental life of the Church. It places Jesus’ baptism in relation to his divine identity and the Paschal Mystery with an undeniable potential for preaching and teaching.

On the other hand, it raises questions. Benedict himself inquires: “Has this ecclesiastical interpretation and rereading of the event of Jesus’ baptism taken us too far away from the Bible?” Although the Pope has not taken us away from the Bible, I believe he does take us beyond the Bible. While the Gospel depictions of the baptism of Jesus, especially in Luke-Acts, suggest that we understand Jesus’ baptism by John and reception of the Spirit as an anticipation of Christian baptism, I am not familiar with any indication that the baptism of John was understood by the biblical authors as a symbolic dying and rising. The Gospel accounts leave unanswered and open to prayerful reflection the questions of why it was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness” for Jesus to receive John’s baptism of repentance, and whether or how Jesus’ baptism, like Christian baptism, was essentially related to his dying and rising. Building on the interpretation of the liturgy, iconography, and fathers of the Eastern Church, Pope Benedict has given us inspiring and edifying answers to these questions that are consistent with “the rule of faith” and that merit pondering and relishing.

Although Benedict writes as a pastor and theologian rather than as an exegete, in many respects his pastoral hermeneutic is one that biblical scholarship oriented to the life of the Church can and should imitate. It is fitting that faith serve as the starting point of Christian interpretation. It is fitting that interpreters make use of historical-critical methods. It is fitting that Catholic exegetes supplement a historical approach with canonical exegesis and that they correlate exegesis with tradition and the life of the community of faith. It is fitting that they keep the pastoral goal in view—proclaiming Jesus Christ, building up the body of Christ, and fostering faith, hope, and love. This will require them at times to actualize Scripture—to speak of its contemporary application as the Pope does—and to bring the witness of their personal faith to the enterprise. Those who teach Scripture in Church institutions either for faith formation or to prepare ministers of the word cannot neglect any of these aspects of a pastoral hermeneutic. If pastoral ministers must interpret Scripture in all these ways, biblical professors who form them must provide an example of sound exegesis with a pastoral purpose.

On the other hand, it is important to preserve the distinction between the disciplines of exegesis and theology—between the task of exegetes on the one hand, and the task of pastors and theologians on the other. Theologians aim to present a comprehensive understanding of the biblical word in light of tradition and in view of the questions posed by contemporary thought. Pastors apply the word to the lives of their flocks through preaching and teaching. The task of the Catholic exegete is to explain what the Holy Spirit has said and is saying through the human authors of sacred Scripture and to teach their students how to do the same. To do this well they must be acquainted with and help their students to see the Spirit-led development of doctrine and tradition sprouting from the seeds of biblical revelation. Exegetes help the Church to distinguish between what Scripture itself teaches and what arises from later tradition, to embrace traditions and interpretations that are consistent with the biblical word and to criticize those that are not. But distinguishing these roles ought not to mean keeping them hermetically sealed from one another. On the contrary, the best formation of ministers of the word arises from collaboration among the theological disciplines; members of our seminar spoke of team-teaching as a means of doing this.

The seminar participants had their share of criticisms of the Benedict’s book: it does not pay sufficient attention to the difference between Jesus’ historical ministry and the disciples’ post-resurrection understanding; it does not say enough about Jesus’ eschatological understanding; the publisher should have provided an index. Nevertheless, there was general appreciation of the theological and spiritual depth of the Pope’s biblical interpretation. Many found it too rich to simply read through like any other book. Dennis Hamm of Creighton University was typical, deciding to read a portion each day as spiritual reading.

In Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI has shown how a man of faith and reason, a Christian scholar, can find the face of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, and how others can do the same. Biblical scholars have been given a fine example of a pastoral hermeneutic capable of building up the life of the Church that is grounded in faith, reads Scripture canonically and theologically, and that draws both on the resources of critical exegesis and of the Christian tradition.

Dr. Peter S. Williamson About Dr. Peter S. Williamson

Dr. Peter S. Williamson is associate professor of sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He is the author of Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002) and a general editor of the forthcoming seventeen-volume Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Baker Academic).