Jesus of Nazareth

By Diogenes (articles ) | Aug 06, 2007

An interesting (and, considering the source, somewhat surprising) point made by Peter Steinfels in his Commonweal review of Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth:

One might expect that the Jesus of history would be a flesh-and-blood person, and the Christ of faith the more theoretical product of belief and doctrine. Instead, the Jesus of history turns out to be one (or several) of an array of scholarly constructs, whose shelf life may be quite limited -- hardly an individual to be personally and intimately known, loved, worshiped, and followed. By contrast, it is the Christ of faith who is concrete and enfleshed, embodied in centuries of saints and experienced in family, sacraments, and a lifetime of gestures, stories, and prayers. For many Catholics like myself, moments of intimate friendship or personal relationship with Jesus are more likely to occur in returning from Communion than in encountering Scripture.

Steinfels's remarks call to mind the arguments made (lefthandedly) by the senior demon in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Again, "the Enemy" is Screwtape's term for God :

You will find that a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong, and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early stage. Now this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a "historical Jesus" to be found by clearing away later "accretions and perversions" and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition. In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a "historical Jesus" on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new "historical Jesus" on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. In the first place they all tend to direct men's devotion to something which does not exist, for each "historical Jesus" is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new "historical Jesus" therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another ... In the second place, all such constructions place the importance of their Historical Jesus in some peculiar theory He is supposed to have promulgated. He has to be a "great man" in the modern sense of the word -- one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought -- a crank vending a panacea. We thus distract men's minds from Who He is, and what He did. ... Our third aim is, by these constructions, to destroy the devotional life. For the real presence of the Enemy, otherwise experienced by men in prayer and sacrament, we substitute a merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago. Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped. Instead of the Creator adored by its creature, you soon have merely a leader acclaimed by a partisan, and finally a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian.

On the more general question regarding the reliability of Scripture, Prof. James Hitchcock has explained the irony that renewed lay interest in the Bible has often been stymied rather than nurtured by the "assistance" offered by scholars fenced inside the historical-critical paddock: "Modern biblical scholarship is unable to explain why the Bible should be studied at all, except as an important historical document, or why it should be accorded any unusual respect. Only the Church can justify this, but it has been precisely the rule of modern scholarship to exclude the Church from any meaningful capacity to interpret Scripture." When the Bible is treated as an artifact (or an arbitrary collection of artifacts), what it ultimately says about Jesus will necessarily be presented as a scholarly conclusion. And as Newman said, no man ever died for a conclusion.

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  • Posted by: - Aug. 06, 2007 8:25 PM ET USA

    Based on my own home grown noodling, I think that the Tridentine Mass is modeled not on the Last Supper, but on the passage in Luke describing Jesus and the two disciples on the journey to Emaus. Steinfels' finding that ... "moments of intimate friendship or personal relationship with Jesus are more likely to occur in returning from Communion" ... bears an eery resemblance to the the cry, "Were not our hearts burning within us?" Maybe it's not about dancing girls.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 06, 2007 7:48 PM ET USA

    Since I'm not a theologian or extensively educated in Holy Scripture, Church history, the Early Fathers, etc. I find myself looking for more simple answers to the big questions. Why read or study the Bible? Very simply because it is the Word of God. If you want to know about someone, you take the time to learn something about that someone. So if you want to learn about God, pick up the book He has given us and read it. Don't worry about the story, let Him speak to you.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 06, 2007 3:12 PM ET USA

    Your vacation did you good, Di. These latest: manifesto, goldfish, girl talk &c., have been worth waiting for.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 06, 2007 2:18 PM ET USA

    Once upon a time the term "mystery" was used to denote that which was evident but could not be reduced to definition itself. Thus another person passing by is, in fact, in sum total a mystery even and especially to science. We are mysteries to ourselves--intuiting that there is more to us than is possible to know. Steinfels' comment on his personal relationship with Jesus upon receiving Communion precisely hits upon the need to resurrect the term mystery--in all its wonder and undefinability.