Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 374pp.
For over a century, the historical-critical study of Scripture has been pre-occupied with the chasm separating what we can reliably know about the Jesus of history and the Christ of post-Easter faith. Efforts have been made to identify layers of traditions, with contradictory results but widespread agnosticism about the historical Jesus. Ratzinger believes that the historical-critical method is an "indispensable dimension of exegetical work," but he also insists that the method has its limits and is not, therefore, sufficient by itself. Despite the wide variation of texts in the Bible, he assumes "a prior act of faith" that believes in "a single overall direction" or "overall unity" of the Bible. "I trust the Gospels," he says.
After his short methodological introduction, Pope Benedict offers a comprehensive survey of the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus was not just a rebel rabbi or an enlightened teacher of "prudential morality." In one of the most interesting portions of the book (pp. 103-127), he uses as a friendly foil the book by the acclaimed Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner called A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. Neusner gets it right, he thinks, even though he cannot commit himself in faith to Jesus, because he understands that Jesus substituted his very own self for all that Jewish history and theology holds dear. Jesus himself, in this view, is the new Torah, the new Temple, the new Sabbath, the new Israel. Benedict shows this to be the case as he works through chapters on the baptism and temptation of Jesus, his proclamation of the kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, the Disciples, the parables, the Johannine material, Peter's Confession, and the Transfiguration.
There are few surprises in this book by the leader of global Catholicism. He aims to write in a personal and pastoral style but sometimes digresses into more scientific theological jargon, much of it about older German thinkers like Bultmann, Harnack and Julicher. This gives the book a distinctly Eurocentric feel. The book is "in no way an exercise of [his] magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord' (Psalm 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me."