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The Truth of the Gospels Vindicated

That the occupant of the Chair of Peter should also be a popular author goes against our usual ideas both of what popes do and who authors are. It was rather well known at the time, though, that when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith back in 1981, he got Pope John Paul II to agree that he could continue to write and publish as a working theologian, for which he was already well respected internationally. Now even as pope, Benedict XVI has not laid down his prolific pen.

In December 2012, the third installment of Pope Benedict’s series titled Jesus of Nazareth was published. This new volume is subtitled The Infancy Narratives. It is a slim but highly readable and illuminating book that was preceded in 2007 by an earlier volume subtitled From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration; and by another one in 2011 subtitled Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. In this trilogy Pope Benedict has produced a significant vindication of the truths about Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

The total work, Jesus of Nazareth, “is in not in any way an exercise of the magisterium,” the Holy Father explains, “but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8). Everyone is free to contradict me.” Nor is the work a “life “of Jesus, of which the pope notes that many are already available. Rather it is an effort by a knowledgeable theologian to show that what the Gospels record about Jesus really happened more or less as the Gospels say it did; that what the Gospels relate is “real history,” not inventions or fables or made-up stories; that, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the Gospels tell the “honest truth” about Jesus (Dei Verbum 19).

The historical-critical method of exegesis

As a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger has never himself been a Scripture scholar or specialist in biblical exegesis. Readers of his published theological writings, however, could never miss his love for the Scriptures, his habit of quoting them frequently to help make his points, and his vast personal knowledge of what is itself a vast field of study—namely, modern biblical scholarship (especially in the German language!).

For going on more than two centuries now, the dominant school of biblical scholarship has employed what is called the “historical-critical method” in studying the Gospels. This method is an approach to the Bible that employs the human sciences—including history, philology, linguistics, and archeology—and a close reading of the biblical texts to get at what modern scholars think “really happened” with respect to the life and times of Jesus—as compared with what some of them think the Gospel writers added or made up. Many practitioners of the historical-critical method are convinced that the Evangelists greatly elaborated on the supposed true facts about Jesus; that they embellished those facts with accounts of miracles and other happenings questionable on their face to the modern scientific mind.

In particular, over many decades, scholars aimed to discover the true “Jesus of history,” that is, the supposedly “real,” human Jesus behind the New Testament’s depiction of him as the “Christ of faith” affirmed by the Church on the basis of what the Gospels do recount about him—and what the first Christians came to affirm as necessary to believe. Not only does the historical-critical method not presuppose faith in Jesus; many of those employing it have consciously laid the faith aside as the only way, they believe, to arrive at the “real” truth about Jesus.

Such an approach calls into question, if it does not actually deny, such Christian doctrines as the divinity of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the institution of the sacraments by Christ, and so on. What is surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which even many professing Christian scholars nevertheless continue to rely almost exclusively on the historical-critical method.

Another method of scriptural interpretation

Pope Benedict XVI is not a critic of the historical-critical method as such. On the contrary, he recognizes its positive achievements and appreciates the important light it has shone on Gospel times. But he is also aware that such a purely scientific and skeptical approach to the New Testament is not the only way, or even the preferred way, to interpret its message properly. The historical-critical approach does not arrive at supposed independent truths that perhaps somehow supersede what the faith of the Church affirms about Jesus.

Moreover, as the pope well knows, a claimed purely “scientific” account of the Gospel narratives has contributed in significant ways to undermining supernatural faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of mankind. Such an account by its very nature cannot do justice to the extraordinary life, words, miracles, and mission of Jesus presented by the Gospels. The Gospels constitute a unique literary genre because Jesus was a unique historical figure.

The pope favors another method of scriptural interpretation, one that recommended by Vatican Council II. Scripture must be “read and interpreted,” the Council said, especially, “with its divine authorship in mind.” The Church believes and holds that the Gospel writers were inspired, and the historical-critical method does not and cannot prove that they were not. The texts of the Gospels are not just another set of “documents” dating back to antiquity.

Moreover, according to Vatican II, attention must constantly be paid “to the whole of Scripture,” both the Old and the New Testaments. Many of the words and acts of Jesus in the Gospels are presented as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies. The New Testament should thus not be studied in isolation. Finally, scriptural texts must always be read in the light of “the Tradition of the Church and the analogy of faith” (Dei Verbum, 12).

In other words, while not denying but indeed acknowledging every fact and truth discovered by modern scholarly methods, biblical interpreters must nevertheless try to read the Scriptures in accordance with authentic faith and not by imagining that this faith can just be set it aside. The books of the New Testament are practically the only historical sources we have for knowing and understanding the unique and unprecedented phenomenon that was Jesus of Nazareth, and if we want to understand him, we have to understand these books for what they are—not centuries after their composition require them to meet supposed modern standards of historical interpretation. They are books of faith and must be read in the light of faith, as the Fathers of the Church read them.

What the Gospels claim is true

This is what the three Jesus of Nazareth books by Pope Benedict XVI are all about. The pope methodically examines what the Gospel texts say about Jesus, and, time after time, he is able to show that what they say is perfectly compatible with modern knowledge. Contrary to what too many people believe today, modern science and scholarship have not discredited the Gospel accounts. On the evidence of his trilogy, Pope Benedict XVI, who is very knowledgeable about just what modern scholarship has discovered about Jesus, is able to place it all within the context of the faith of the Church. The pope amply demonstrates that Christians today can be confident that what the Gospels say about Jesus is true.

This is especially the case with this third volume in the series that has just been published. No parts of the Gospels arguably have been more doubted and contested than the infancy narratives at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We need think only of what they recount: singular and seemingly dubious genealogies, a birth in a stable, shepherds accosted by angels, a star in the East from whence “wise men” come to do homage, a mass slaughter of male children, a flight into Egypt . . .

Can such things be? In spite of the perennial popularity of the Christmas story, is it actually true? Did all these events really take place?

The pope thinks that, essentially, they did. He says that “we are dealing here with historical events.” And he is able to explain them—sometimes on the basis of what modern scholarship has discovered—as both true and credible and possible to affirm even in our skeptical times.

If you have not yet gotten into Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth series, this latest volume is a good place to start. The pope himself notes that “it is not a third volume, but a kind of small ‘antechamber’ to the two earlier volumes.” Even if you have read one or both of the earlier ones, that is all the more reason to check out this latest and really delightful small book of his on the infancy narratives.


Photo by Rvin88

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