Studying Jesus historically brings new riches to faith

by Darrell Turner

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By José A. Pagola
Published by Convivium Press, $49.99

The Pharisees did not seek the death of Jesus. In the Last Supper, bread and wine did not symbolize his body and blood. Jesus did not interpret his death as a sacrifice.

One might expect to find such assertions in the work of an atheist or a religious skeptic but they appear in the latest book by José A. Pagola, a priest who is the vicar general of the Burgos diocese in northern Spain.

The author is no stranger to theological controversy. His 1981 book Jesus of Nazareth: The Man and His Message, had been criticized for allegedly questioning key teachings of the church. And when Pagola’s newest book was originally published in Spain in 2007, the doctrinal commission of the Spanish Episcopal Conference said he seemed to suggest that some key elements of Catholic doctrine have no historical foundation. Bishop Demetrio Fernández of Tarazona, Spain, charged, “The Jesus of Pagola is not the Jesus of the faith of the church.”

Pagola, a professor at San Sebastián Seminary and the Faculty of Theology of Northern Spain, in his new book counters the criticism by favorably citing the Pontifical Biblical Commission and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI on how to interpret biblical texts. In analyzing and comparing the work of a wide range of studies of the historical Jesus, he says, he has not found such work incompatible with his faith. To the contrary, he says, “setting aside the faith to study Jesus historically does not mean a negation of faith.”

Pagola contends that Jesus’ core message was to present the reign of God as one of compassion. This, he says, was a radical departure from the emphasis on the wrath of God that had inspired the prophets of Israel and John the Baptist. In contrast to encouraging believers to be holy as the Lord is holy, Pagola says, Jesus calls on his followers to be merciful as their heavenly Father is merciful. Yet the two are not mutually exclusive. “Jesus does not deny God’s holiness,” Pagola says, “but he defines holiness as compassionate love, not as separation from everything impure.”

According to Pagola, what most scandalized the religious authorities of Jesus’ time was that he “calmly invokes God in condemning or transgressing the religion that officially represents God, whenever that religion becomes an oppressive force rather than a principle of life.” He says the Pharisees were a minor social force in Jesus’ time and asserts that the Gospel accounts reflect later hostility between Jesus’ followers and the Pharisaic scribes who had survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. At the same time, Pagola cautions that because the arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees are “so strongly present” in all the Gospel sources, “we can hardly dismiss the possibility of such confrontations.”

This hedging of bets is characteristic of Pagola. Whenever he maintains that a particular saying attributed to Jesus was probably not authentic -- always citing the works of other scholars for such a conclusion -- he adds that the saying probably represented Jesus’ beliefs. Such cautions can be frustrating, particularly when Pagola fails to cite his own reasons for reaching such conclusions and for deciding that the work of one scholar is more persuasive than that of others.

One of Pagola’s most controversial stances is that Jesus never described his death in theological terms and did not understand it as a sacrificial atonement for the sins of humanity. “The Father doesn’t need to preserve his honor with anyone’s destruction,” Pagola writes. “His love for his sons and daughters is gratuitous, his forgiveness unconditional.” Rather, Pagola says, Jesus viewed his death as “a service to God’s reign for the benefit of all.”

Jesus: An Historical Approximation may frustrate conservatives, who fault Pagola for departing from traditional formulas of faith, as well as liberals, who wonder how a follower of Jesus can analyze the historical sources objectively. Scholars won’t find any groundbreaking assertions here, but the book will help non-specialists to gain a better understanding of historical criticism of the Bible.

[Darrell Turner writes the religion article for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.]

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