A Final Note on Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth
It is worthwhile offering one final comment on Benedict XVI’s book. In addition to the serious theological scholarship and profound spiritual insight characteristic of the work, Benedict occasionally aims some well-deserved jabs at the academic abuses characteristic of Catholic Biblical scholarship in the modern period.
He does this with a certain scholarly gentleness which tends, I think, to make his points more forceful. One such case occurs near the end of the book when the Pope is discussing the term “Son” as it is applied to Jesus by the authors of the New Testament. In Chapter 10, “Jesus Declares His Identity”, Benedict offers a deep consideration of the meaning of the three ways in which Jesus identifies himself: “Son of Man”, “Son” and “I am”.
After a scholarly exposition which demonstrates the uniqueness of Jesus’ claim that his relationship to God is that of “Son”, the Pope concludes that this term gives us “a true glimpse into the inner being of Jesus” because it “has no prehistory”. It comes out of nowhere; it is uniquely new. He then comments on the attempt some scholars have made to use postbiblical literature (such as the Odes of Solomon, which date from the second century AD) as a source for constructing a pre-Christian, Gnostic prehistory of the term “Son”. Thus these scholars argue that in using the term “Son”, the New Testament was really simply drawing upon an earlier tradition.
Though the Pope doesn’t say so, this is one of many cases in which so-called scholars are eager to prove that Scripture drew upon earlier material in describing Jesus rather than saying anything new, because they refuse to come to grips with the uniqueness of Jesus’ person, claims and impact. What the Pope does say is simple, scholarly and understated: “If we respect the possibilities and limits of the historical method at all, this attempt makes no sense.”
Clearly it makes no sense to claim to use the historical method to prove that there must have been a tradition of the Son of God before the New Testament because we can find the same idea after the New Testament. It is in fact, absurd. But Benedict doesn’t hammer the point. He simply makes his delicate observation and moves on, leaving such tendentious scholars swinging at the ends of their own ropes. My point, I guess, is that it is delightful to find them there.
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