In May, Pope Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth” will appear in English translation. This first of two expected volumes will examine the public ministry of Jesus from his Baptism in the Jordan to his Transfiguration. Begun while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, this work is not intended to be an “official” exercise of his teaching authority as pope; but, much along the same lines of Pope John Paul II’s books, Crossing the Threshold of Hope and Memory and Identity, this book is the author’s personal reflections on the face of Jesus Christ.
The figure of Christ even in a secular world still fascinates. However, the secular world rather cynically dismisses the possibility that one can really know the “historical Jesus”. Much of modern scholarship has sought to drive a wedge between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith alleging that later generations of Christians made Jesus into someone he never claimed to be. Because of this hermeneutic of doubt, many contemporary attempts to “reconstruct” Jesus have fallen so short. Some, like the “Jesus” presented in Brown’s “The daVinci Code” or in the History Channel’s “The tomb of Jesus” because they are so little based on solid scholarship would be laughable – if they were not so blasphemous. Even the best attempts are often merely imaginative and anachronistic exercises that remake Jesus in the author’s own image. Thus in recent years we have seen biographies of Jesus as “political revolutionary”, “anti-establishment hippie”, and even as “C.E.O.”
Of course, the challenge of Christianity is not to remake Jesus in our own image but to remake ourselves into his own. For this reason, how we understand Jesus is important; and equally important is to rid ourselves of secular biases that may distort image of Jesus in our minds with infelicitous effects on our spiritual lives.
For this reason, Benedict XVI’s book may prove to be an important contribution to the perennial question Jesus put to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8: 27) Through his book he seeks to engage not only a Catholic or Christian audience but a much wider one. To those a bit skeptical of “devotional” or pietistic portrayals of Jesus as well as to those a bit distrustful of serious Biblical scholarship, Joseph Ratzinger will no doubt show how faith and critical research are not necessarily antagonistic. And he does so by affirming that, rather than being a construct of later generations of Christians, the Christ of faith, the Incarnate Word of God, is in fact the Jesus of history.
But more importantly, “Jesus of Nazareth” will remind us that Christianity is not about faith in an ideology or in a serious of propositions. Christianity is fundamentally about a person, Jesus, who invites into a relationship of friendship with himself – and with those who walk with him. Benedict XVI is a theologian of unique accomplishments beginning with his masterful Introduction to Christianity written in the 1960’s. He takes the “science” of theology very seriously and his scholarship is evident to all who seriously engage his writings. And so he writes as a theologian; but, he is also a man of faith and his theology is grounded in that faith. But, he also writes as one who has a deep and intimate friendship with the one of whom he writes. For this reason, “Jesus of Nazareth” promises the reader the opportunity to encounter a living Jesus, one who can be known, loved and imitated. Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, gives his own answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am”, and in doing so, he echoes that given by Peter whose successor he is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matt 16: 16)