Thursday, December 11, 2008

Who Was He?

Joseph Ratzinger
Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI has written a genial, thoughtful, scholarly, nuanced, in places moving, at times engaging, elsewhere disappointing book about Jesus Christ in which he aims to give expression to his ‘personal search “for the face of the Lord” (
cf. Psalm 27.8)’. His broadest aim is to bring the Jesus of history into harmonious alignment with the Christ of faith, the better to stand his ground against recent portraits of Jesus as the non-divine, observant Jew; Jesus the ‘anti-establishment’ radical, and Jesus the revolutionary.

Benedict’s approach is nowhere more forthright than when, after the Baptism, he follows Jesus into the desert, and considers at length the three temptations, beginning with ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’ (Matthew 4.3). Although he is hungry, Jesus’ response comes in the form of remembered scripture: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone…’ (Deuteronomy 8.3), and in discussing this extraordinary dialogue, the Pope transposes the Devil’s challenge, and Jesus’ brave rebuttal, to critics of the modern Church. Benedict’s effort to underline the point that here Jesus asserts the proper ordering of, first, spiritual, and only afterwards physical priorities—and that the mission of the Church in the modern world must follow suit—leads him to attack the degree to which
The aid offered by the West to developing countries has been purely technically and materially based, and has not only left God out of the picture, but has driven men away from God. And this aid, proudly claiming to ‘know better,’ is itself what first turned the ‘third world’ into what we mean today by that term. It has thrust aside indigenous religious, ethical, and social structures and filled the resulting vacuum with its technocratic mind-set. The idea was that we could turn stones into bread; instead, our ‘aid’ has only given stones in place of bread. The issue is the primacy of God.
Really? Is it true that the misdirected efforts of the industrialized west over the past two hundred years have created the grimmest realities of the third world? Maybe. But is it also true that ‘the issue is acknowledging that he [God] is a reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good’? Are Médecins sans Frontières, for example, hopelessly encumbered by a barren ‘technocratic mind-set’? Isn’t the alleviation of the suffering of starving children, desirable, good, and by any definition ‘godly,’ regardless of whatever ideological strings we presume may be attached to the aid dollars that are spent for that vital purpose? In what sense is the accomplishment of that task by all necessary means inconsistent with the ‘primacy of God’? How can we know it is? Is poverty, as Jesus refers to it in the Beatitudes, ‘never a purely material phenomenon’? And is freedom, in the sense of the ‘call to freedom’ in Galatians (5.13), really so ‘blind and arbitrary’ when it is, in theory, disengaged from ‘communion with Jesus’? Where does this leave the pious Jew, the self-denying Buddhist monk or, for that matter, the achievements of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development or, indeed, the committed atheist who works tirelessly in the fight against the social and economic injustices of the third world? In this depressingly familiar, round-and-round, utilitarian–secular versus high-doctrine, high-ecclesiological discourse, it is difficult to discern much, if any, common ground shared by the Catholic Church and its critics, though in his book Benedict at least shows himself willing to seek reasonable dialogue.

Who was Jesus of Nazareth? According to most existing branches of Christian belief, Jesus is the only son of the living God. A Galilean, he was said to have been born away from home, in Bethlehem, to a virgin, Mary, who was betrothed to a man called Joseph. Jesus lived a fully human life, maybe as a carpenter, and, from the age of thirty, when he was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, carried out a public ministry as a preacher, healer, exorcist, and mystic. He came into conflict with Jewish authorities, and was tried in Jerusalem by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. Jesus was tortured, condemned, and finally executed perhaps in 30/33 C.E., all on the same day, apparently a Friday following the Passover. He was buried in somebody else’s grave, and, three days later, raised from death. He appeared first to the women, then to his disciples, and afterwards ascended bodily into heaven, where he has ever since reigned at the right hand of God the Father, with the Holy Spirit, and will continue to do so until he comes again at the end of time.

This dogmatic account, upon many elements of which there is heated, faith-based debate, is nevertheless important to keep in mind, because ever since the fourth-century Church sought to impose some order on a rapidly developing Christology, and put the lid on an increasingly wacky pan-Mediterranean melting-pot of Christian and anti-Christian ‘errors,’ they have to some degree pushed and pulled at the Jesus of historical record, never more so than in our era: How does the itinerant Galilean rabbi who operated in Roman Palestine in the early first century C.E. converge with the Christ of faith? Can they be reconciled at all?

Encouragingly, Benedict believes that recent work in biblical textual scholarship, and what he describes as ‘historical–critical’ methodology remain ‘an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. ‘For,’ he continues, ‘it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing supra-historical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The
factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnatus est [‘And he was incarnate,’ the words come from the Nicene Creed]—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.’

Given the long and distinguished line of nineteenth and twentieth-century critics of the ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus for the historian, if not for the theologian or scriptural scholar, the Pope’s opening remarks foreshadow what becomes, throughout his book, something of an uphill slog. Slightly later he strengthens his opening remarks:
I trust the Gospels. Of course, I take for granted everything that the [Second Vatican] Council and modern exegesis tells us about literary genres, about authorial intention, and about the fact that the Gospels were written in the context, and speak within the living milieu, of communities. I have tried, to the best of my ability, to incorporate all of this, and yet I wanted to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, ‘historical’ Jesus in the strict sense of the word. I am convinced, and I hope the reader will be, too, that this figure is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions we have been presented with in the last decades. I believe that this Jesus—the Jesus of the Gospels—is a historically plausible and convincing figure.
The problem, here, is with ‘history’: how we might define, frame and write history; what we can or will recognize on the basis of firm evidence as being ‘historically intelligible,’ and the efficacy and limitations of historical reconstruction. Even though he freely acknowledges that his Jesus is necessarily a ‘portrayal,’ the Pope assumes that history is what happened, but even among relatively conservative historians today there is a general acknowledgment that while one may distinguish, for example, between what happened and what did not happen, there are plenty of not particularly radical historians who now argue that the formulation of either one will always be synthetic, laden with assumptions about the tale that gush ceaselessly from the teller, and occasionally we are told that nothing happened, except what we choose to knit together from ‘texts’ and that, in this respect, all there is is texts. This has been the contribution of nearly contemporary French philosophy, and as a historian I do not myself find it helpful. A man known as Jesus of Nazareth was tried and executed by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem some time between 29 and 34 C.E.—this seems to me to be a true or, at least, adequately defensible statement, certainly hard to disprove on the face of the available evidence.

What is generally agreed, however, is that the writing of history is a creative act. It requires the examination, assessment and filtration of evidence, often delicate, fragmentary documents, the limitations of which must be acknowledged and accepted with scrupulous honesty. It requires the imaginative use of archaeological and other non-verbal data, an understanding of any number of pertinent interpretative tools: in this case surviving information about the Roman administration of occupied Palestine, rabbinical thought, basic political–geographical developments, anthropological issues, or the lost or obscure meaning of words in ancient languages. The exercise of these skills by individual historians in possession of a life, and an education, and different ideas and attitudes, a capacity for memory, and human relationships, and (hopefully) deep convictions, will inevitably color, even order, the historical picture we strive to assemble. Of all the blind spots we must try to identify and compensate for in the sources, and to weigh in the minds of other historians, it is our own, deeply embedded, that can often be the hardest to detect and understand; and they are the most likely to give shape to our work. This is the central paradox of the historian’s craft.

These points apply as much to the hugely partisan first-century ‘eyewitnesses’, the slightly later transmitters of their oral testimony, and those to whom fell the awesome task of compiling what became the canonical Gospels, as it applies to modern exegetes and historians who seek to understand them, because the Gospels took the shape they did precisely because of what was believed to be the tremendous, imminent, supra-historical importance of the very events they recount. And to some extent these strands of historical record and theological speculation are so tightly interwoven that to pull too hard on one will merely cause the other to become hopelessly tangled. In an overriding sense, therefore, the Jesus who is said to enter ‘into real history’ must now consist of both strands, held in imperfect tension. And almost everybody who shows even a passing interest in closely examining either one has, to put it mildly, an almighty axe to grind.

Even so, there is a great deal that can usefully be said about the ‘historical’ Jesus, and about the things that the Gospel-writers swore his followers remembered him saying. Mnemonic aptitude was the indispensable intellectual tool throughout the ancient world. Without a prodigious memory practically no complicated public, semi-public or private acts were possible, and there are several places in John where the word
remember is clearly meant to add strong emphasis in the interest of clarity of detail, and veracity, and witness. Yet there is a considerable distance separating the putative historicity of, for example, the Sermon on the Mount and the remarkable, mystical ‘prayer event’ of the Transfiguration, with which Benedict concludes his book.

Here Jesus returns, as he regularly does, to a site of holy access, the mountain, and shines with divine light emanating from within himself. Moses and Elijah appear, and converse with him, then, afterwards, from a bright cloud the voice of God once more rings out, exactly as it did at the Baptism, and identifies Jesus to the ecstatic disciples: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ The text has strong associations with the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles, but it also builds a bridge to the incomparably beautiful prologue of John, with its cosmic imagery of word–life–light. In other words, the entire point of the Transfiguration, surely, is in a wholly positive sense ‘supra-historical,’ and poetic. Any effort to underline its historicity, to assert the literalness of such out-of-time phenomena and mystical experience runs the risk of weakening the tremendous power of those hieratic images, which later found such thrilling expression in the severe art of medieval Byzantium.

And it is, above all, the primacy in the text of the visionary over the mundane that strikes one most forcefully, a point that sits nicely with remarks that Benedict makes elsewhere about other ‘prayer events’, such as the calling of the disciples, and the deep wellsprings of prayer and mysticism that are so deeply embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. To question the idea that, in this sense, the Transfiguration is
factum historicum, is not necessarily to argue that it does not embody an altogether deeper factum mysticum, nor indeed that it is merely the colourful factum imaginarium of a proud, ancient tribe of middle-eastern subsistence goatherds. The parameters of the historian’s craft are insufficiently broad to make sense of the Transfiguration, other than that they may certainly embrace the full measure of real and amply documented mystical experience both in ancient Israel, and among the pioneers of the early Church.

In the end, all we have is what the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and a few other early documents tell us, and what the early Church fathers chose to make of that. Although he makes an impassioned case for reading the Gospels as far more than merely ‘Jesus poems,’ the Pope will not persuade many professional historians that we should see ‘
et incarnatus est’ as a pressing historical reality. For as long as the Jesus the Messiah shines with varying degrees of brightness, the Jesus of historical record will remain an indistinct, tantalizing shadow—immensely long, certainly, but largely unknowable except by faith.