in Book Reviews, Books

Review: "Jesus of Nazareth" by Joseph Ratzinger

I had originally planned to include this review in a post on my “July Books” but, given its length, I thought I would post this separately. This review, like all my reviews, doesn’t claim to be comprehensive (or even adequate).
Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI (part one of a two volume series).
If I were to boil this review down to one sentence, I would say this: what Ratzinger has always gotten wrong, he continues to get wrong, and what he gets right has been done much better elsewhere. (To be honest, I can’t help but wonder if this book was such a big hit simply because most people haven’t read anything at all about the “historical Jesus” — a term I need to put into quotes, given that Ratzinger’s criteria for historicity are different than those generally accepted by Jesus scholars.) Of course, there is a two-edged sword to all of this. Because he is the current Pope, Ratzinger is guaranteed a much larger audience than pretty much all other Jesus scholars. So, even if what he gets right has been better explored and expressed elsewhere, chances are many of those who read this book wouldn’t bother reading any of the other (better) volumes on Jesus, and in this way Ratzinger’s book accomplishes some good. The problem with this is that this larger audience is also just as likely to swallow all of Ratzinger’s mistakes because they are not reading any of the other (better) volumes on Jesus.
So what was good about this book? First, Ratzinger’s ongoing emphasis on Jesus as the prophet that is like Moses and greater than Moses is excellent. This is really the leitmotif of the book — Jesus is the prophet who sees God face-to-face (whereas Moses only saw God’s back) and Jesus therefore makes God and God’s word known to us. Indeed, Ratzinger pushes this idea to its end-point, asserting that Jesus sees God face-to-face because he himself is God — the divine Son of the Father — and thus, as God, he himself is the fullest revelation of God. This, I think, will cause a bit of an uproar amongst historical Jesus scholars, even though, conversely, I think that this is also a major part of the reason why this book has been so praised in Christian circles (especially since other Christian Jesus scholars — even ‘evangelicals’ like Tom Wright — have been much more circumspect in how they have approached the issue of Jesus’ divinity). The scholars will argue that Ratzinger has imported “confession” into “history,” and they may be right (however, I wonder if all our attempts at doing history are confessional!). Regardless of the divinity debate, I found Ratzinger’s ongoing Moses/Jesus comparison to be insightful and worthwhile.
Secondly, I appreciated the way in which Ratzinger included the Gospel of John in his study of the historical Jesus. Most studies focus entirely on the Synoptics and reject John’s Gospel from the get-go, seeing it as a theological, and not an historical, portrait of Jesus. Similarly, Johannine scholars tend to neglect or ignore the Synoptics. I like the idea of reading the two together and bringing them into a much closer dialogue than they generally receive.
Thirdly, many of Ratzinger’s topical reflections on things like prayer, forgiveness, and suffering are quite insightful, and well-written. There is much of substance and much that is good to be found here.
So, what got me so frustrated while reading this book? First, I was very annoyed by Ratzinger’s incredibly shallow portrait of Marxism (this has always been one of his faults). in his discussion of Jesus’ first temptation in the wilderness (“turn stones into bread!”), Ratzinger argues that this is the core of Marxism’s promise of salvation — that no one should go hungry; that all should have bread. This, Ratzinger argues, ends up placing our focus on the wrong thing (i.e. one should focus on God who supplies us with bread that we should share with one another) and so “the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves.” The problem here is that Ratzinger is painting all Marxists with the same brush. To assert that all Marxism results in ruin, destruction, and the absence of concern for human suffering is about as absurd as asserting that all Christianity results in patriarchy, colonialism, and homophobia. Sure, some strands of Marxism ended disastrously (like the strands found in much of Eastern Europe) but other strands were destroyed before they had a chance to flourish (i.e. the reason why most of the strands of Marxism and socialism in Latin America resulted in ruin and destruction was because they were destroyed by fascist and totalitarian forces that were armed, funded, and protected by Western democratic States and their business interests). The fact is, there is much that we can learn from Marxism, and few other political philosophies exhibit the concern for human suffering that is found in Marxism.
Ratzinger’s reductionistic understanding of Marxism leads him to make absurd comments. For example, when commenting on the appeal for God’s kingdom to come (in the Lord’s Prayer), he writes the following:
This is not an automatic formula for a well-functioning world, not a utopian vision of a classless society in which everything works out well of its own accord, simply because there is no private property. Jesus does not give us such simple recipes.
Well, Marxism, socialism, and anarchism, also don’t give us such simple recipes. That Ratzinger thinks he can present such a caricature (in my line of work we would call this a “cheap shot”) as a real picture of any of these movements is ridiculous. That Christians reading this book might be nodding their heads to all this just shows how ignorant we are.
Secondly, I was bothered by Ratzinger’s seemingly arbitrary selection of passages to highlight or neglect. Of course, I use the word “arbitrarily” to suggest that Ratzinger has no good historical or textual reason to pick and choose passages the way that he does; Ratzinger’s choices seem to be motivated by an underlying ideology. Consequently, in his discussion on the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus — the good news that “the kingdom of God is at hand” — he focuses on inaugural passages in Mark (Mk 1.14-15) and in Matthew (Mt 4.23, 9.35) but completely neglects Jesus’ inaugural speech in Luke (Lk 4.14-20) which is full of socio-political language and implications, and chooses to skip on to Jesus’ much more enigmatic statement in Lk 17.20-21. Why does Ratzinger neglect Lk 4? Probably because it does not fit as comfortably with the highly Christological understanding he applies to the kingdom, and because it seems to support a political application of religion — just the sort of application that Ratzinger opposes and calls “utopian dreaming without an real content.”
Thirdly, Ratzinger’s apolitical (i.e. conservative) and anti-material stance continues to surface in his exegesis of the passages that he does select. Thus, he makes it clear that the poverty that is praised in the Sermon on the Mount is not for everyone, but is for the “great ascetics” who are called to “radicalism” as they journey alongside of the Church (i.e. the important thing is not for you to be poor but for you to have a friend that is poor). Thus, he makes sure to emphasise the the Sermon on the Mount is “not a social program” and goes on to say that “discipleship of Jesus offers no politically concrete program for structuring society. The Sermon on the Mount cannot serve as a foundation for a state and a social order.” Of course, on the one hand, Ratzinger is correct to question the idea of a State imposing the Sermon on the Mount as a social program for society (lest we go down the road of Christendom). However, on the other hand, what Ratzinger altogether misses, or fails to mention, is that the Sermon on the Mount is precisely the social program of an alternate social order — the Church. Instead of grasping this point, Ratzinger prefers to go the road of Christian conservatism and thus he asserts: “The concrete political and social order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislation, and is transferred to the freedom of man.” In this way, he continues to push the old divide between “Church” and “State” — a divide that inevitably leads to the defeat of the Church. What Ratzinger fails to realise is that his apolitical theology is really a conservative political theology and so he contradicts himself when he argues that: “political theologies… theologize one particular formula in a way that contradicts the novelty and breadth of Jesus’ message.” What Ratzinger is really saying here is that “political theologies” (i.e. liberation theologies) contradict the conservative political theology that he has attached to Jesus. Consequently, when Ratzinger concludes that “Jesus stands before us neither as a rebel nor as a liberal” one can’t help but wonder: but does Jesus stand before us as a conservative? Why bracket out those two political categories and not this third one as well?
Indeed, it is the opposition to liberation theology that I suspect underlies Ratzinger’s comments on the fact that the Apostles are commissioned to preach, excorcise demons, and heal the sick (Mt 10.1). Ratzinger rushes to make it known that healing is “a subordinate element within the overall range of [Jesus’] activity, which is concerned with something deeper, with nothing less than the ‘Kingdom of God’: his becoming Lord in us and in the world.” Why healing is necessarily subordinated, why healing seems to have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God, with Jesus becoming Lord, I don’t know. At this point, Ratzinger is performing eisegesis, not exegesis.
Ratzinger’s conservatism also comes through in the reassurance he provides the reader by taking the edge off of Jesus’ more “radical” statements. Thus, while discussing the passages wherein Jesus assaults the traditional family unit (passages where Jesus calls his followers to “hate” their parents, to abandon their families, and to redefine their families around those who follow him), Ratzinger begins his discussion by quoting Ex 20.12 (“Honour your father and mother”) and quickly goes on to assure us that “from her very inception, the Church that emerged and continues to emerge, has attached fundamental importance to defending the family as the core of all social order.” Somehow, Ratzinger puts a “family values” spin on Jesus’ statements.
Furthermore, Raztinger’s conservatism also leads him, in his discussion of the “Our Father,” to reject the idea of referring to God as “Mother.” “Mother,” he argues, is used sometimes as an image for God in the bible, but never is it used as a title. The language of Father “was and is” far more appropriate to the biblical context and so he concludes: “the prayer language of the entire Bible remains normative for us.” Such a conclusion, from Ratzinger, is not surprising, even if it is disappointing. After all, this is the man who accused feminism of “imposing an ideology of gender” onto God, never realising the ways in which the patriarchal structure and theology of Roman Catholicism have already imposed an ideology of gender onto God (cf. for further comments on that).
Fourthly, I was somewhat bothered by Ratzinger’s ever-present Christological focus. It seems that everything Jesus did, or said, was really all about Jesus. Hence, as I mentioned above, talk of the kingdom of God is overwhelmingly Christological. Furthermore, all of the parables are to be understood Christologically — they are “hidden and multilayered invitations to faith in Jesus”! Such an understanding of the kingdom, and of the parables, is too simplistic, too reductionistic. Sure, Christ is an element of these things, and often plays an important, even central, role in them, but there is more to them than that. Some parables are really about Israel (the parable of the vineyard’s wicked tenants) some parables are about the imminent fall of Jerusalem (the parable of the of the green tree that becomes dry) some parables are about the return from exile (the parable of the prodigal son), and so on and so forth. As for the kingdom, well, sometimes the kingdom really does come in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick.
Finally, I also don’t think that Ratzinger spends enough time addressing, or wrestling with, the Jewishness of Jesus. Because he relies so much on the Christian tradition, and even John’s Gospel, he never really asks the question of how Jesus’ divinity can be placed within first-century Jewish monotheism. Furthermore, in his chapter on Jesus’ identity wherein he explores “three fundamental titles” (Christ, Lord, Son) he only devotes one paragraph to the first title — the most Jewish title — because it “ceased to function as a title and was joined with the name of Jesus… therein lies a deeper message: He is completely one with his office.” Now that’s all well and good, as far as it goes; it just doesn’t go very far, and leaves us with many unanswered questions.
So what do we get from all this? A half decent book about Jesus. Not great, not terrible, just so-so. There are some very stimulating passages but, not surprisingly, Ratzinger has also used this book to grind some old axes. His book about Jesus also becomes a part of his ongoing attack on anything hinting of marxism, socialism, feminism, or liberation theology.

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