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Benedict’s New Book

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | May 18, 2007

My parish church is blessed to have a very enthusiastic priest who recommends many excellent books from the pulpit. At morning Mass on the day on which Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth was to be released, he described how he had tried to get an advance copy the evening before at the local Barnes & Noble. But it hadn’t yet arrived, so it wasn’t until the next day that he began his homily by kissing Benedict’s book.

My own copy had been on advance order from Amazon for some time, and it arrived on my doorstep just an hour too late for me to hold the book up gleefully from the front pew while our priest was explaining how hard he had tried to get it. (Oh well, into every life, a little rain….) But I share his enthusiasm for this wonderful book.

Part One: The Public Ministry

The foreword of Jesus of Nazareth discusses, among other things, the Pope’s methodology. While very good, this can readily be skipped by those uninterested in the various twists and turns of Biblical scholarship over the past century. However, Benedict also tells us in the foreword that this is the first volume of what he hopes will be a two-volume work:

As I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given, I have decided to publish the first ten chapters, covering the period from the Baptism in the Jordan to Peter’s confession of faith and the Transfiguration, as Part One of this book.

In Part Two I hope also to be able to include the chapter on the infancy narratives, which I have postponed for now, because it struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him.

After the foreword, the book opens with “An Initial Reflection on the Mystery of Jesus” before entering into its ten chapters, which cover the following topics: Jesus’ Baptism, His temptations, the Kingdom of God, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the Disciples, the Parables, John’s gospel, two milestones (Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration), and Jesus’ declaration of His identity.

Chapter One: The Baptism

I will have more to say in future columns about this important book, combining as it does impressive scholarship, deep faith, and pastoral care, but let me provide an inkling of its riches here from the very first chapter. In his exploration of Jesus’ baptism alone, Benedict touches on several themes which already begin to unlock the richness of our relationship with Christ. For example, he notes that unlike Matthew, who begins his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, Luke couples the genealogy with the baptism, tracing Jesus back to Adam. “This is a way of underscoring the universal scope of Jesus’ mission,” Benedict points out. “He is the son of Adam—the son of man. Because he is man, all of us belong to him and he to us; in him humanity starts anew and reaches its destiny.”

A reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ baptism is, of course, the centerpiece of this chapter. When John objects that Jesus has no need to be baptized, Jesus replies, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Benedict traces the meaning of “to fulfill all righteousness” to the Torah, where it signifies the acceptance of God’s will or, as one expression has it, the bearing of the “yoke of God’s kingdom.” He then offers this beautiful reflection on what it means for Jesus to have undergone John’s baptism of repentance:

The act of descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning. In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness. The significance of this event could not fully emerge until it was seen in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Descending into the water, the candidates for Baptism confess their sin and seek to be rid of their burden of guilt. What did Jesus do in this same situation? Luke, who throughout his Gospel is keenly attentive to Jesus’ prayer and portrays him again and again at prayer—in conversation with the Father—tells us that Jesus was praying while he received Baptism (cf. Lk 3:21). Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what had happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, “Take me and throw me into the sea” (Jon 1:12). The whole significance of Jesus’ Baptism, the fact that he bears “all righteousness,” first comes to light on the Cross: The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out “This is my beloved Son” over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death (cf. Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50).

A Papal Book?

“It goes without saying,” Benedict remarks near the end of his foreword, “that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium…. Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.” A papal book is a relatively new means of communication, begun by John Paul II, in which popes publish their own works of scholarship and personal reflections as private persons. One can, I suppose, doubt the wisdom of this development, as it provides something of a key to a pope’s thought without having any magisterial right to be used even as an interpretive tool. On the other hand, the same issue exists with any pope’s private comments or allocutions to individual groups, since magisterial authority extends only to what the pope intends to teach by virtue of his office to the whole Church.

In reality, there is no new blurring of the lines of authority here, but rather a great benefit in permitting some of the most brilliant and faith-filled Catholics to continue offering their human wisdom to the Church even after their election as pope. Except when the papal office has been tied to secular politics, the human quality of the popes has been consistently and remarkably high. Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth is a great gift which, precisely because it has been written as a private person by one who is also the pope, will have a disproportionate influence on how other scholars approach Sacred Scripture and the person of Christ. One can read this profound book either for scholarship or for faith, for study or for meditation. It should in fact be read for both reasons. It is truly Athens and Jerusalem all in one.

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