In his Preface, Pope Benedict relates his own interior journey, starting with the time of his youth -- during the 1930’s and ‘40’s -- when "a series of exhilarating books about Jesus" (he recalls just a few names, he says -- Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Franz Michel Willam, Giovanni Papini, Jean-Daniel Rops). In all of these books, says Benedict, God became visible through image of the earthly man, Jesus, and vice versa; there was no dichotomy.
But beginning in the 1950's, he says, the situation changed:
The rift between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” became wider and wider; the one pulled away from the other before one’s very eyes. But what meaning can there be in faith in Jesus Christ, in Jesus the Son the of living God, if the man Jesus is so different from how the evangelists present Him, and from how the Church proclaims Him on the basis of the Gospels?Historical-critical 'reconstructions' of Jesus became "increasingly contradictory," he says, evidencing that they are "much more the snapshots of the authors and their ideals than they are the unveiling of an icon that has become confused." In the meantime, "distrust has grown toward these images of Jesus, and in any case the figure of Jesus has withdrawn from us even more."
The common denominator left in the train of these attempts has been the skeptical "impression that we know very little for sure about Jesus, and that it was only later that faith in His divinity shaped His image." This impression -- he significantly points out -- has in the meantime "deeply penetrated the general consciousness of Christianity." Think of of what the implications of this development have meant for this "general consciousness of Christianity"! The upshot would entail (1) skepticism about the ability of the historical data to support the Church's historical claims, and (2) a fideistic embrace of Christ as savior that is at bottom irrational -- as Benedict describes it, "a groping around the void."
None of this should be taken to suggest that Benedict means to ignore or discredit the legitimate developments in historical-critical scholarship. What it does suggest is that he means to show, by his reading of the Gospels, how one can use these historical-critical tools in service of the Church's historical understanding of Jesus Christ. He wishes to eschew the flawed, ideologically-motivated dualizations between the "Jesus of history" (who, on anti-supernaturalistic assumptions, is taken to be nothing more than a marginal Jew who lived and died over 2000 years ago) and the "Christ of faith" (who, on the same assumptions, is taken to be an historically unsupportable fideistic fiction fabricated by the "believing community" generations after the death of the "historical Jesus").
Benedict, in other words, wants to turn this traditional historical-critical distinction on its head, much as C. Stephen Evans does in the fantastic wording of his title, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford UP, 1996). "For my presentation of Jesus," says Benedict, "this means above all that I trust the Gospels." While accepting the legitimate techniques of historical investigation as much as possible, he says, "I wanted to make an effort to present the Jesus of the Gospels as the real Jesus, as the 'historical Jesus' in the real sense of the expression." Putting the matter another way, he writes: "I have sought only to go beyond mere historical-critical interpretation, applying the new methodological criteria that allow us to make a properly theological interpretation of the Bible that naturally requires faith, without thereby wanting or being able in any way to renounce historical seriousness."
Finally, he concludes by distinguishing the nature of his own scholarly inquery from a magisterial act. It is only the expression of his "personal search for the 'face of the Lord' (Psalm 27:8)," he says, so "everyone is free to disagree with me." He adds, however: "I ask only that my readers begin with that attitude of good will without which there is no understanding." I have little confidence that he will be able to count on such good will from the guild of Catholic biblical scholars, who, for the last two generations, have firmly entrenched themselves as part of the problem. As to his invitation to disagree with him, however, I have no doubt that it will be accepted with vociferous howls.
This volume is the first of two envisioned parts. He began work on the project during his summer vacation of 2003, gave difinitive form to chapters 1 through 4 in August of 2004. After his election as Pope, he says he has used all his free time to carry the project forward. "Because I do not know how much more time and strength will be granted to me, I have now decided to publish the first ten chapters as the first part of the book, going from the baptism in the Jordan to the confession of Peter and the Transfiguration."
Pre-orders are being accepted by Amazon.com for Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007, 256 pp.) for the hardback price of $21.95. Amazon offers a pre-order price guarantee: "Order now and if the Amazon.com price decreases between your order time and release date, you'll receive the lowest price." This title will be released on April 10, 2007. I don't know about you, but if anyone wanted to buy me a copy, I certainly wouldn't object!