Q & A: Michael Peppard

by Michael Sean Winters

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We conclude our two weeks of examining the pontificate of Benedict XVI today with a contribution from Michael Peppard, Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University and, as mentioned, part of husband and wife team of new theologians who particiapted in the Fordham Conversation Project last August. Mr. Peppard was one of the principal organizers of that conference.

The question: What is one of Pope Benedict's principal contributions to the life of the Church?

Michael Peppard: On May 15, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI did something expected but extraordinary: he published a book of biblical scholarship. From where I sit—admittedly in a biased position, as a biblical scholar myself—this was his most significant contribution so far to Catholic theology.

Before addressing a few aspects of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, it is helpful to linger for a moment on the mere fact of its publication. Since the advent of modern biblical criticism, Catholics have not normally been prominent in the scholarly investigation of the Bible. A list of the major scholars from the 19th and 20th centuries looks thoroughly Protestant; it sounds like a phone book mash-up of Oxford and Tübingen. It was only in the late 20th century that Catholics entered the discussion in significant ways. It seems strange to me now—since Catholics have come to comprise an influential part of the scholarly guild—that there was a time where we, the largest member of Christ’s body, were actually on the margins of biblical scholarship. But that was certainly the case, and it was mirrored in broader Catholic culture. The adage that “Catholics don’t read their Bibles” remains mostly true, but the tides have been changing—and the Pope’s book has played a significant role. Having a Catholic bestseller about the Bible is no small feat; it would be a bit like having a Protestant bestseller about the Eucharist.

Pope Benedict’s book undoubtedly got the Bible off the shelf and into the hands of many Catholics around the world. More importantly, it got them thinking about the Bible in the right ways. The chief problem with how non-specialists engage the Bible is that their methods tend to fall into one of two categories, interpretive stances I would call fundamentalist-literalist and secular-skeptical. Jesus of Nazareth, however, provides a positive model of biblical scholarship for the laity because it avoids both of these common errors. The Pope would avoid a secular or skeptical position towards the Bible, of course, but it may not be so obvious to most Catholics that he would also avoid a fundamentalist or literalist position. Many Catholics wrongly assume that they are supposed to be literalist readers of the Bible, even though texts such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission explicitly teach otherwise. Now that the Pope himself has modeled a method both faithful and investigative, many Catholics have been able to learn how—as faithful Catholics—to ask questions of the Bible. (For an excellent, longitudinal survey of Pope Benedict XVI’s biblical theology, see my colleague Fr. Joseph Lienhard’s essay, “Pope Benedict XVI: Theologian of the Bible.”)

Don’t get me wrong: the Pope’s book is not cutting-edge biblical scholarship, but neither should it be. It offers a well-seasoned mix of historical criticism, literary criticism, and “reception history” in the theological writings of the Church Fathers. It frequently employs a typological method of interpretation (a favorite style of homilists through the ages), by which a person, thing, or event in the Old Testament (e.g., Moses, or the Exodus) is interpreted in the light of Christ in the New Testament. Typological readings aim primarily toward spiritual insight and poetic exhortation, and they are not going to gain anyone tenure at a university. The book’s methodological conservatism has therefore not yielded a wide readership among mainstream biblical scholars. But neither is the book reactionary or fundamentalist, and if mainstream biblical scholars take the time to read it, they will be pleasantly surprised at some of what they find.

For example, the Pope’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount offers a sustained engagement with the work of Rabbi Jacob Neusner. It is hardly news, in general, for Christian scholars to read the work of Jewish scholars. But for the Pope to use the work of a living rabbi as a means by which to interpret central teachings of Jesus—that certainly is of lasting importance to Catholic theology and Jewish-Christian relations. It manifests the spirit encouraged by the Pontifical Biblical Commission under the supervision of Cardinal Ratzinger (as Prefect of the CDF): namely, to regard the Jewish tradition of biblical interpretation as a living one.

New Testament scholars might also be surprised to discover non-canonical Christian texts quoted favorably by the Pope. For example, when interpreting the metaphorical imagery of the Gospel of John, Pope Benedict uses both the Gospel of Thomas and the Didache to illuminate aspects of John’s message. Despite the Pope’s championing of “canonical exegesis” (“reading the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole”), he does not in practice treat the canonical boundary as an impermeable wall. It is a barrier, to be sure, but more like a fence, through whose gaps the Spirit can still blow insightful seeds from beyond—whether from ancient apocrypha or modern-day rabbis.

Finally, Pope Benedict’s book has been influential by being open to criticism. In the foreword he writes, “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium. … Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.” I would argue that it did not “go without saying” how Catholic biblical scholars should respond to the book. We haven’t had many previous experiences such as this—a Pope writing non-magisterially about the Bible—and Catholic scholars are justifiably fearful of the consequences of contradicting the Pope. And so it was crucially important that Pope Benedict XVI told us how to situate his book in the larger mosaic of Catholic biblical scholarship. In Jesus of Nazareth we find a theological work that is open to multiple influences and melodies; in the words of Fr. Lienhard, it is “symphonic rather than dogmatic.” For Catholic theologians, he is not only a magister, but a maestro as well.

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