On March 10 the second volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s magisterial work, Jesus of Nazareth, reached bookstands in the English-speaking world. It quickly showed up on the New York Times best-seller list, sitting at #8 last week and #14  this week. It is currently the #1 best-selling religious book on Amazon and #41 overall on that site. There is no doubt that this is a major event in the religious and publishing worlds and the editors of MercatorNet think it is fitting that we run two reviews — this one by Bishop Basil Meeking and a companion one by Francis Phillips.

* * * * *

Some serious commentators and observers of the European scene claim to detect a phobia against Christ and Christianity among certain political and intellectual leaders, opinion makers and sections of the media.That concern took on some substance a couple of years ago when the European Union, in providing itself with a charter, steadfastly refused any reference to Christianity either as part of European history and culture or as significant for daily life in Europe.

In Pope Benedict the Catholic Church, and indeed most other Christians, have a spokesman who can address this phenomenon in clear and reasonable language and in a manner that throws light on quite basic dimensions of Christian faith. He does so with a good deal of skill in official statements of the Church and in his many homilies and addresses.

As well, Benedict has taken occasion of the books he has written since becoming pope, namely the two volumes of Jesus of Nazareth, to respond and to open the way to dialogue with antagonists of good will. In these books he is not exchanging polemical blows or making apologetics for Christian faith. He speaks in a friendly tone and with sweet reasonableness, attributing to his readers the intellectual maturity and the academic integrity he himself brings to the exchange. Always he writes without making excuses for the truth.

Clearly all of this has its own appeal even to numbers of people who do not agree with Christian beliefs or with the Catholic faith. The second volume of Jesus of Nazareth came off the presses last month with 1.2 million copies. People who do not want to have anything to do with the Pope of Rome still seem interested to hear whatthe winsome scholar, Joseph Ratzinger, has to say.

“The figure and message of Jesus”

In volume one Benedict set out and explored a number of biblical themes that elucidate Jesus Christ, his life and his mission. In this second volume he deals in much more detail with the New Testament text and with certain words and passages, and interprets them. He does this, as he explains in his Foreword, in order to present “the figure and message of Jesus”; this is the underlying intention of the book.He says:

“In my book I set out to discover the real Jesus; if we look carefully at the events of the life of Christ, they only can be properly explained if he was indeed the Christ, the son of the living God.”

He goes to the heart of the question by reflecting on the events of the Great Week (as the Catholic Church calls it in her liturgy) –from Christ’s entry into Jerusalem through to his resurrection; he unfolds something of the mystery of Christ and the continuing presence of Christ in the world with power to transform human lives and to remake human history.

The whole book is an implementation and demonstration of the working principles Benedict sets for himself in the foreword. He has entered wholeheartedly into the discussion carried on by biblical scholars and exegetes on the methodology and hermeneutics of exegesis and on exegesis as both an historical and theological discipline. The book is really a practical guideline for a new exegetical approach to that includes aspects of the historical critical method which still have value. Along with a theological approach, it responds to the growing awareness of numbers of exegetes that historical criticism used by itself has become an exhausted project; it has now nowhere togo.

So Benedict challenges current scholarly exegesis to take a methodological step forward, without abandoning its historical character, lest it become irrelevant; as it stands it is open to correction and completion. He is proposing a combination of two quite different types of interpretation – that of the historical critical method and that of a theology that knows the Tradition and can give an ecclesial reading of the Scripture. He does not claim to present the ne plus ultra of such an integrated exegesis; he does suggest that his book considers the essential words and deeds of Jesus guided by an hermeneutic of faith which has a place for historical reason as a necessary component of that faith.

Those who work in the field as well as theologians and catechists will recognise the scale of Pope Benedict’s ambition and what he wants to do for biblical interpretation with this undertaking. He hopes the book will be a significant step in the direction of presenting a methodological whole that integrates meaning and history. Needless to say he does not offer any cosy little cubby hole to the Jesus Seminar.

The book is written on an academic level but it is much more:

“I have attempted to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to a personal encounter and that through collective listening with Jesus’ disciples across the ages can indeed attain some knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus.”

To the extent that Benedict succeeds it will be much due to his refusal to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, or to allow the validity of such a separation. In his intention this is a book for the soul as well as for the mind; here one has a reading of the New Testament in the Church with an interplay of faith and reason that could do much to deliver us from the rash of New Age effusions and humanistic self improvement that currently masquerades as Christian spirituality and are found in publications that claim to be Catholic.

The paschal mystery

The topics treated in the book take us to the heart of faith in Jesus Christ. It is nothing less than the paschal mystery as it unfolded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and as it is made present to us today in the Church’s liturgy. Already in looking at the Last supper as it anticipates Calvary under signs, the book goes to the heart of Christ’s work of our salvation (see Secret Prayer for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost in the 1962Roman Missal) and the notion of his vicarious expiatory death.

In a good deal of Catholic theological, catechetical and spiritual writing the words and concepts of expiation, atonement and reparation have simply been dropped. Yet, as Benedict shows, a critical reading of the New Testament text in light of Tradition shows “the vicarious self-offering of Jesus, including the idea of expiation is clearly there; his death he said is ‘for you – for the many’”; the eucharistic texts where this occurs “belong to the earliest strand of tradition.” The historical evidence is irrefutable. The real problem is that expiation and atonement are incomprehensible to the modern mind; this is the achievement of the secular humanism that knows not God or sin and which has infiltrated the teaching of Christian theology; “at issue here are our image of God and our image of man.” (p.119)

The ideology driving those who reject the notion of expiation holds that we human creatures have developed religiously beyond an idea of God as judge and that now we need to move on. Yet the New Testament texts if read rightly articulate an understanding of expiation which contradicts that message. (p.119) The question is, what is expiation?

In the Old Testament the idea of vicarious atonement occupies a central place. Moses suffered vicariously for the people. In more developed form the figure of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, takes upon himself the guilt of many and thereby makes them just. Jesus the Lamb of God(John 1, 29) takes upon himself the sins of the world and wipes them away. He is the one man who dies for the nation (John 11 52) In the New testament there are various attempts to explain Christ’s Cross as the new worship, the true atonement and the true purification of this corrupted world (p.251) People today want to say it must be a cruel God who demands atonement. But,

“It is not the case of a cruel God demanding infinite expiation. It is exactly the opposite. God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation and, in the person of his Son, takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants his infinite purity to the world. God himself ‘drinks the cup’ of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love which,through suffering, transforms the darkness.” (p.232)

This understanding is present in St John’s Gospel and in theletter to the Hebrews.

It all becomes possible because the Son of God took on a human body. This was a new obedience that surpasses all human fulfilment of God’s commandments. “The Son of God made himself a servant and took all human disobedience upon himself in his obedience even unto death, suffered it right to the end and conquered it.”(p.132) On the Cross the perfect obedience of the Son is the new sacrifice, the basis of the New Covenant, the obedience by which he draws all to himself and at the same time wipes away all our disobedience through his love. (p.233)

This is a completely positive kind of expiation or atonement; it is an act of enormous love on the part of Christ in which he takes us in all our weakness and sin up into his living and holy sacrifice so that we become truly his body, the Church. Here Pope Benedict gives full weight to the meaning of sacrifice in its Old Testament and New Testament contexts.The mystery of atonement is the meaning of the revelation of God in Christ and of the salvation he has won for us. This becomes contemporary and accessible in the Church, in her sacrament; that is what is meant by the sacrifice of the Mass.

The role of the Jewish nation

Vatican II in its Constitution on Divine Revelation had given us three principles for reading and using Scripture; one is to read the Bible whole, as a unity — all the books of the Old and the New Testaments read together show God’s plan for our salvation. Benedict is at ease in doing this because of his understanding of the role of the Jewish nation and its significance as we read the Bible today.

In passing he notes that the Jewish religious leaders who undertook the trial of Jesus did so with care to observe the legal requirements. Jesus was not brought before some kind of “kangaroo court” as we Christians might be inclined to imagine. Two layers of Jewish legal concern came together in the trial of Jesus — the concern to protect the Temple and the nation on the one hand and the ambitious power seeking of the ruling group on the other.(p.170)

Pope Benedict does raise directly the question: Who exactly were the accusers of Jesus? Who insisted he be condemned to death? Examining the texts very carefully, he notes that the Gospels give varied answers. St John’s Gospel says: “The Jews.” This has been much misunderstood. For John it has a precise and clearly defined meaning — the Temple aristocracy.Mark names the dominant priestly group plus the followers of Barabbas. St Matthew speaks of “The whole people” who say, “His blood be upon us and on our children.” (27, 25) The blood of Jesus speaks a different language; it does not cry out for vengeance but brings reconciliation; his blood is not poured out against anyone but is shed for the many, for all.”All have fallen short of the glory of God….God put Jesus forward as an expiation by his blood.” Romans 3; 23, 25)

Jesus has the last word. He begs the Father to forgive those who condemned and crucified him, excusing them “for they know not what they do.” St Peter, after Christ’s resurrection took up the theme when he said in a sermon to the crowd: “You killed the Author of life whom God raised from the dead.” He goes on: “Now brothers I know you acted in ignorance as did your rulers.” (Acts 3,17) St Paul in one of his autobiographical reflections tells how he had “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” (1 Tim 1,13) Benedict comments: “Yet his very ignorance is what saved him and made him fit for conversion and forgiveness.” (p.207) The Pope is clear: the Jewish nation cannot be held responsible for the death of Christ.

However he does look at the combination of “expert knowledge and deep ignorance” which allowed them to put Christ to death and relates it to those who today are learned but unable to see the truth. He asks:

Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognising the Truth itself which tries to reach us through what we know? (p.208)

Ignorance can reveal a deadening of heart that resists the call of truth.

The truth of the resurrection

Is that not what we see at this time each year when an influential sector of the media choose to float various hypotheses which undermine faith in the veracity of Christ’s resurrection? Quite bluntly Benedict notes that, “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.”(p.241) He does not waste time with the feeble hypotheses of those who try to have it both ways by claiming belief in a “resurrection” while reducing it to “interior events or mystical experiences.” (p.268) He agrees that the resurrection of Christ is not the same kind of historical event as the birth of Christ or his crucifixion butis “a new type of event”.However it is an event that “has its origin in history,” but goes beyond where history can take us.”Jesus’ resurrection points beyond history but has left a footprint in history.”

Those who became witnesses of the resurrection had experienced a real encounter with Christ; it was not the resuscitation of a corpse.

“Jesus’ resurrection was about breaking out into a new form of life,into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming but lies beyond it — a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.” (p.244)… “This explains the unique character of the resurrection accounts; they speak of something paradoxical, of something that surpasses all experience and yet is utterly real and present.”

It is something new, unprecedented; it goes beyond, not against, human science; there is a further dimension of reality, “the union of the finite with the infinite, the union of man and God for the conquest of death.” (p.247)Perhaps a little mischievously the Pope asks, “Is not creation actually waiting for this last and highest ‘evolutionary leap’?”

A loss of nerve has led Christian exegetes and apologists largely to give away any probative value of the empty tomb for the resurrection. Jesus died and was buried. Did he remain in the tomb; or was it empty after he had risen? (p.253) Of itself the empty tomb does not prove the resurrection.With the voice of common sense the Holy Father notes:

“While the empty tomb cannot prove the resurrection, it is nevertheless a necessary condition for resurrection faith which was specifically concerned with the body and consequently with the whole person….the empty tomb is a strongly scriptural element of the resurrection proclamation.” (p.257)

Jesus did not decompose; in him life truly conquered death.

Both believers and unbelievers from time to time come outwith the question: “If God wants us to believe these things, why does he not overwhelm us with the proclamation and proofs of them?” Benedict’s answer is, “It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently. He doesnot overwhelm with external power but gives freedom to offer and elicit love.” (p.276). Because the power of truth was at work as the apostles preached the resurrection, it elicited faith and the amazing growth of the Church.

Is that not consonant with the “thoroughly new concept of kingship and kingdom” that Jesus revealed and put to Pontius Pilate? Benedict shows Jesus on trial before Pilate basing his concept of kingship and kingdom on earth on truth. “Though Pilate’s response is the sceptical one of the politician, the question of truth is bound up with the fate of mankind.” (p.191) Following St Thomas Aquinas Pope Benedict guides us to the conclusion that, “God is truth itself, the sovereign and first truth.”

That is why he keeps reminding us that the task of Christians is to bring God to the world. So he keeps showing us that “the world is true to the extent that it reflects God; man becomes true, he becomes himself when he grows in God’s likeness… God is the criterion of being.” (p.192)

Bishop Basil Meeking is Bishop Emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand, where he lives.