“Our union with the mind and will of Christ provides the foundation for a Christian theology of secularity.”
Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth poses a manifold challenge for theologians. Instead of articulating doctrinal theses as the supreme teacher of the Catholic Church, Benedict takes off the protective armor of his office and, addressing believers and unbelievers alike as a simple theologian, presents to the world his “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’”1 He makes it very clear from the beginning that his book is in no way an exercise of the Magisterium, but rather relies solely on the persuasive weight of its argument. He anticipates criticism and contradiction with the peaceful serenity of a veteran theologian who trusts fully in the power of truth. His evident sincerity and assurance proved appealing: Jesus of Nazareth sold 1.5 million copies within the first month of its publication on the European market.
1. Why such interest for the book?
In addition to the natural curiosity of people “to look at the emperor without his clothes,” which in this case means to look at the personal faith of the official guardian of the Faith, the book owes its attraction to the widespread confusion about, and lively interest in, the figure of Jesus. As Pope Benedict himself acknowledges, the purported effort to reach the “real” Jesus behind the crust of ecclesiastical dogma by separating “the historical Jesus” from “the Christ of faith,” a quest which began at the end of the eighteenth century in liberal German Protestant circles, has produced a confusing number of contradictory portrayals of Jesus. “At one end of the spectrum was the anti-Roman revolutionary working—though finally failing—to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was the meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief.” What Albert Schweitzer noticed in 1906, Pope Benedict extended also to the later stages of the quest: “If you read a number of these reconstructions one after the other, you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has become obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold.” The only point on which all reconstructions agreed was that the historical Jesus was not the Jesus of the Gospels, while the conflict of the contradictory portrayals of Jesus left the impression “that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him.” This kind of literature has created “a dramatic situation” for the faith of the Christian people because “intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air.”2 We should not be surprised, then, that so many people want to find out why this Pope, who is so aware of the contemporary intellectual landscape, is able to speak about Jesus with such consummate assurance and insight.
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1. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), xxiii.
2. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, xii. On the stages and details of the history of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, see John P. Meier, “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” in volume one of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 21–40; Roch Kereszty, Jesus Christ. Fundamentals of Christology, revised 2nd ed. (Staten Island: Alba House, 2002), 3–31.