Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Friday, December 23, 2011

(Bp) Tom Write Reviews Pope Benedict 16's "Life of Christ"

The Pope’s Life of Jesus

Tom Wright

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection
362pp. Ignatius Press. £24.95.
978 1 58617 500 9

Maurice Casey
An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching
560pp. Continuum. Paperback, £22.99 (US $39.95).
978 0 567 64517 3

Bruce N. Fisk
Reading the gospels on the ground
287pp. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. £14.99 (US $22.99).
978 0 8010 3606 4

Published: 14 December 2011
A detail from El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ”, 1577–9A detail from El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ”, 1577–9 Photograph: COPYRIGHT (c) THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY
Jesus of Nazareth remains a disturbing presence, a question mark hanging over uneasy Western world-views. Some invoke him unquestioningly as the divine, redeeming Son of God. Others dismiss him as a minor figure whose followers invented stories about him and a religion around him. No serious historian doubts his existence, though some (noted and refuted by Maurice Casey in his trenchant introductory survey) still try. What we have, rather, in general and in the writings surveyed here, is a bewildering range of viewpoints, which with only a slight stretch could be described as pre-modern, modern and postmodern: in this case, a German, an Englishman and a North American. As Barack Obama said of a different trio (recent guest speakers in Westminster Hall), this is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke.
Curiously, the Pope features in both trios. As his visit to Britain last year confirmed, Benedict XVI is by no means the hard-nosed dogmatic disciplinarian many had assumed. Deeply orthodox, of course. But he makes it clear in the preface to the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (reviewed in the TLS, January 25, 2008) that he is not writing ex cathedra but contributing to discussion and devotion. Everyone is free to disagree with him. His project also reflects unflagging energy. For a man in his eighties to write a serious multi-volume work on Jesus (he promises a third instalment, on the infancy narratives) is remarkable enough. When the author happens to be the chief pastor of over a billion Catholics, it is truly extraordinary.
Reading Benedict feels more like being on retreat, pondering ancient and subtle wisdom Benedict’s venture has already been dismissed by many (including Casey) on the grounds that it treats the four canonical gospels as more or less straightforwardly “true”, whereas the entire modernist “quest for the historical Jesus” has wrestled with the challenges posed by H. S. Reimarus in the eighteenth century and a multitude ever since. The attempt to place Jesus historically (or the assumption of a particular answer to that question) has been a significant element within European and American modernism. But you would hardly know that from the Pope’s books, which proceed (as he says) more after the manner of Thomas Aquinas’s “theological treatise on the mysteries of the life of Jesus”. Reading Benedict feels more like being on retreat, pondering ancient and subtle wisdom, than attending a seminar to struggle with questions of history.
Yet he has not simply ignored history. He has read the great German exegetes of the past generation, Protestant as well as Catholic, and draws on them for particular points even though the format of his work does not make for detailed discussion. He denies the suggestion that he is producing a “Christology from above” (in which the orthodox theological cart is placed before the historical horse) by arguing that scholarly exegesis of the New Testament “must see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character”, forswearing popular but shallow positivism and combining a “faith-hermeneutic” with “a historical hermeneutic” so as “to form a methodological whole”.
The Pope suggests that this is a step forwards. Many, though, will inevitably see it as a step backwards, to a pre-modern, pre-critical reading which simply pushes the problems to one side and allows the great ecclesial tradition to rumble on as if there had been, after all, no real cause for concern about the reliability of the New Testament in the first place. The parallels between this approach and the stance that the Church is perceived to take on some other issues will, naturally, raise eyebrows. The business of whether theology and history can actually meet without a serious explosion is of course a question which, in one form or another (whether through debates on science and religion, or on faith and politics), has stood behind a good deal of intellectual conflict in the West over the past two centuries. Many will take more convincing than is provided in Jesus of Nazareth before they will readily accept such a marriage.
This is not a view that Protestants normally expect popes to hold. Some Roman theologians, I suspect, will be surprised as well Benedict’s book, for all that, is full of surprises. There is a welcome emphasis on the rootedness of Jesus and his followers in Israel’s Scriptures, something which older exegesis, both Protestant and Catholic, often passed over. The heart of the volume is an exposition of Jesus’s vocational understanding of his own death in terms of the Psalms and Isaiah, particularly the “servant songs” of Isaiah 42–53, leading to a clear statement of the cross as the moment of vicarious, substitutionary atonement. This, Benedict writes, “constitutes the most profound content of Jesus’ mission”. This is not a view that Protestants normally expect popes to hold. Some Roman theologians, I suspect, will be surprised as well.
There are plenty of details to keep the reader alert. Benedict’s own tradition shows through here and there, for instance on Mary. It is fascinating to watch him treading carefully through minefields: “the Jews” who demand Jesus’s death are not the nation as a whole, but only the Temple hierarchy on the one hand, and the supporters of Barabbas on the other. And the historical detail sometimes needs attention: first-century Jewish corpses were anointed for burial not (as Benedict suggests) to keep corruption at bay, but in order to offset the stench of decomposition as more bodies were placed in the same cave-tomb before secondary burial of the fleshless bones.
Two major linked emphases indicate the underlying strength and weakness of this book. First, Benedict stresses that Jesus believed he was constituting himself and his followers as, in some sense, a new Temple. This, I believe, is historically correct, and is near the heart of the Christology of all four gospels. But, second, Benedict insists that, with this, Jesus “achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world”. This, he says, “is what truly marks the essence of his new path”. Jesus “had inaugurated a non-political Messianic kingdom”. The cross indicates a radical stripping away of all power. This results in “the new community”, which Benedict describes as “the new manner of God’s dominion in the world”.
The problem with this is that the Jesus of the gospels (which, on Benedict’s principles, ought to be determinative) insisted that through his own work, Israel’s God was becoming King “on earth as in heaven”. The Pope’s proposed disjunction (reflecting, perhaps, a measure of penitence for earlier ecclesial power politics?) plays into that modernist split-level world which Benedict’s whole project is designed to outflank. The integration of history and theology that the Pope is proposing at the level of exegetical method stands in tension with the separation of politics and religion he is endorsing at the level of meaning.
Benedict offers, inevitably, an exegesis of the gospel passages that deal with Daniel 7, and the strange prophecy of “one like a son of man” who “comes on the clouds of heaven”. He takes the normal view, that these passages are predicting the “second coming”. But the scholar who in recent times has made the question of “the son of man” his own is the modernist critic, Maurice Casey. With Casey (recently retired from a chair in Nottingham), we are emphatically back in the seminar room, led by a cheerfully cantankerous “independent historian” not given to taking prisoners. The “independence” shows up in many surprising judgements (Mark’s Gospel is written in the 40s of the first century, Matthew’s in the 50s; Luke was the companion of Paul; Jesus really did heal and exorcise people, and really did see his forthcoming death as redemptive) as well as many swipes and jabs which indicate (in case there were any doubt) that these conclusions have nothing to do with a covert “Christian” or “conservative” reading. Indeed, Casey tells us that he left the Christian faith in 1962 and now does not belong to any religious or anti-religious group. He seems to think that this makes him impartial, and rails against those who reflect the “cultural circle” of their own faith commitments. But the reader will not be surprised to learn that Casey’s own conclusions regularly reflect the position of one who once believed and now does not.
Casey is always interesting, frequently infuriating, shrewd and naive by turns Casey’s massive learning is hard to summarize (just as his book, lacking a proper index and bibliography, is harder to use than it should be). Casey is always interesting, frequently infuriating, shrewd and naive by turns. His main criterion for historicity comes not from source-analysis but from (his estimate of) historical probability, in particular coherence with first-century Judaism, which is itself, of course, a highly complex and slippery subject. He follows most modernist critics in discounting John’s Gospel as a historical source, and disagrees sharply with some fashionable American critics by ruling out the Gospel of Thomas and similar documents as well.
The heart of Casey’s work for many years has been the attempt both to reconstruct Aramaic sayings of Jesus and to argue for (or against) historicity on that basis. Casey writes as if he is one of a tiny handful of scholars who can read Aramaic, and as if this gives him privileged access to the answers to key questions. Neither of these suggestions, of course, is true, and the amount of contemporary Aramaic available (mostly in a few Dead Sea Scrolls) hardly justifies repeated claims of the form “there is no word for this in Aramaic, so Jesus couldn’t have said it”. Granted, there are some passages in which a hypothetical back-translation might help. In a few manuscripts of Mark 1:41, Jesus is strangely “angry” with the leper who asks for healing. Casey first insists, against most critics, that this is the correct reading, and then suggests that the underlying Aramaic word had a larger range, including “compassion” as well as “anger”. From this he draws three conclusions: first, that “all bilinguals suffer from interference” (the influence of one of their languages on another); second, that this passage must be “an unrevised literal translation of an Aramaic source”; third, that the story therefore embodies trustworthy eyewitness testimony. Every element in this seems to me questionable. Even supposing Casey’s textual proposal and back-translation are correct, that doesn’t mean that Mark was incompetent in Greek; and it certainly doesn’t mean that the story actually happened. Were Aramaic-speakers incapable of making things up?
In fact, if some New Testament scholars suffer from lack of Aramaic, Casey seems to me to suffer from lack of imagination. There are several parts of the world – the Low Countries, the Middle East – where many “uneducated” people are happily multilingual. The little boy selling postcards on the Mount of Olives will switch not only between Hebrew and Arabic, but between four or five European languages as well. No doubt loan words and “interference” are plentiful. But Greek was as ubiquitous in Jesus’s world as English is in much of the world today, and there is every reason to suppose that Jesus was more or less fluent in it (thus able, for instance, to argue with Pontius Pilate). This complicates the question, to be sure. But it should warn us against any simplistic attempt to use our scanty contemporary Aramaic sources as a yardstick for what Jesus could and couldn’t have said.
At the heart of Casey’s Aramaic hypothesis lies the phrase “son of man”. Casey’s main point stands: this phrase is normally an indirect, periphrastic way of referring to oneself, or to “someone in my position”. Thus “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13 (in one of the rare passages of biblical Aramaic) means “a human figure”. But this tells us nothing whatever about the way in which the whole chapter (Daniel 7) was read in the first century. That chapter describes a dreamvision in which this “human figure” ascends, “coming on the clouds of heaven”, to sit beside God himself, and is given sovereignty over the world. The vision is then interpreted in terms of God’s people currently suffering but expecting vindication and world dominion. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing late in the first century, was almost certainly referring to this passage when he mentioned an oracle predicting that a world ruler would arise from Judaea. In 2 Esdras, around the same time, the key figure in the vision has become a (messianic) lion, confronting the (Roman) eagle. That is how Daniel 7 was understood. When Luke adapts Mark’s sayings about “the coming of the son of man”, it is clear that he understands it in this sense of “vindication”. Despite both Casey and normal Christian interpretation (including that of the Pope), there is good reason to suppose that Mark took it that way, too. The Aramaic idiom is merely the gateway; the narrative must then speak for itself. When allowed to do so, it offers a credible first-century scenario: a prophet, facing death for his scandalous message, interpreting the situation through a well-known, evocative scriptural narrative, and claiming thereby that God would vindicate him.
But was Jesus vindicated? One of Casey’s least satisfactory chapters is his account of Easter. After surveying the (admittedly knotty and tricky) evidence, Casey offers his own version of the “postbereavement visions” theory that purports to explain away the resurrection. Such visions (of a recently dead person) were, however, as well known in the first century as they are today, and were interpreted, then as now, not as meaning that the person was alive again, but that they were well and truly dead. And if, as Casey suggests (without citing any evidence), the Aramaic qum can mean “immortality” as well as “resurrection” (which I doubt), why should anyone, including Jesus, have spoken of its happening “on the third day”? Casey is indeed fascinatingly independent, in his methods and his results. But the line between being brilliantly independent and merely quirky may be more blurred than his own “cultural circle” would care to admit.
“Quirky” is certainly how many will see Bruce Fisk’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus, but in this case it is deliberate. Almost every page is decorated: a small photograph here, a sketch map there, a (picture of a) Post-it note with a scribbled quotation, or what appear to be pages torn from a loose-leaf notebook containing lists, charts or diagrams. When ancient authors are cited, they often appear in the form of a photocopied paragraph from a Penguin Classic, with Fisk’s underlinings and marginal jottings. The book is obviously designed for today’s student world, and as such it works superbly. If I were teaching a course on Jesus and the gospels, this would be at the top of the reading list.
But the book is far more than a mere postmodern collage. As the preface explains, it is part autobiography, part fiction (with no visible seams): a first-person account of a young North American making his first trip to the Middle East and encountering, simultaneously, today’s complex problems and the challenges of reconstructing who Jesus really was. The major questions are well presented, with good endnotes and bibliography (but, again, no index). Our hero sends messages to his friendly but sceptical professor back home (we see the emails) and receives cryptic hints: what to read, whom to talk to, how the issues stack up. New Testament scholars, including myself, pop up as characters, saying what you might expect us to say. There are some well-written funny scenes, and some poignant and disturbing ones (including a confrontation between Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers). Contemporary problems illustrate firstcentury ones. Like Benedict, Fisk highlights Jesus’s action in the Temple: Jesus saw himself as the new, true Temple. This, and much besides, is fresh and convincing.
Perhaps the problem is that wherever you are in Western culture today the dreaded word theocracy, even when radically redefined around Jesus and his cross, is a bridge too far Eventually the traveller arrives at a place where “history meets hope, where seekers of knowledge must settle for narrative, where faith accompanies uncertainty but does not replace it”. Not for Fisk the smooth assurances of the pre-modern reading, or the brisk, critically approved “facts” of the “independent” modern critic. History and faith are part of life, and life is complex and messy. If this reflects the “cultural circle” of postmodernity, it also has a ring of humility about it, inviting people to join the quest rather than accept someone else’s answers.
Despite their radical differences, these three books share one positive feature and one disturbing one. First, all stress (against one recent strand of opinion) that Jesus and his followers were steeped in the Jewish Scriptures, and understood what they were doing in relation to the intricate web of meaning thereby available. Second, however, in no case do we really face the central question of the gospels: what did Jesus mean by “God’s Kingdom”, and was he or wasn’t he successful in launching it? Pope Benedict highlights the “kingdom of truth” announced by Jesus to Pilate, but it looks as though this “kingdom” is, effectively, the Church, those who (supposedly) live under Jesus’s rule. Maurice Casey suggests that Jesus picked up the notion of “kingdom” that was around at the time, but then says that he told “pretty stories” about it, which we now find difficult to interpret because “we do not always understand the aspect of God’s kingship which they were intended to illustrate”. Bruce Fisk, who focuses on the standard questions (can we trust the gospels? was Jesus God incarnate? did he die for our sins? and did he rise again?), gives plenty of hints about “God’s rule” breaking in, but never provides the full-on discussion he gives to other topics. Perhaps the problem is that wherever you are in Western culture today – pre-modern, modern or postmodern, German, British, American or anything else – the dreaded word theocracy, even when radically redefined around Jesus and his cross, is a bridge too far. But until we’ve been round that loop, we have not really been paying attention to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Or, arguably, to Jesus.
Tom Wright is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews. His most recent books are Simply Jesus: A new vision of who he was, what he did, and why he matters and a translation of the New Testament, both of which appeared earlier this year.

1 comment:

Italia said...

Jesus of Nazareth' by Pope Benedict xvi is a very special book. It gives a great overview of what christ came into this world to truly do for us and the great love that he has for us. What I found special in this book was the pope seems to show how our savior really cares for each person no matter who they are. In this publication the pope says that christ thinks every human being is unique. I think this is comforting because it shows that this bestseller shows that the savior truly cares no matter who you are.