Bible scholar rips pope's book, warns of chilling effect

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Lugano, Switzerland

A leading New Testament scholar, and former Catholic priest, has criticized Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 book on the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth, saying that its insistence on identifying the historical Jesus with the Christ of traditional Christian faith has “turned back the clock” on modern scholarship.

The comments from Geza Vermes, author of the acclaimed book Jesus the Jew and a longtime professor at Oxford, came during a summit of leading Western intellectuals May 16-17 in Lugano, Switzerland, devoted to the theme of “truth.” The gathering was sponsored by the Balzan Foundation, which awards the Swiss-Italian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Vermes spoke as part of a panel on religious approaches to truth that also included Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, former theologian of the Papal Household under Pope John Paul II.

Vermes devoted his presentation to arguing that on the basis of the New Testament, the image of Jesus that emerges is that of a charismatic, wonder-working Jewish holy man, and thus not the divine Son of God claimed by later Christian tradition.

The Greek-influenced version of Christianity developed by St. Paul and elaborated across centuries of Christian theological reflection, Vermes said, “would have perplexed Jesus the Jew.”

In that connection he criticized the pope’s book, warning that it could have a chilling effect on Catholic Biblical scholarship.

“In Jesus of Nazareth, published under the alias of Joseph Ratzinger, the pope declares that the Gospels’ Christ of faith is the historical Jesus, thus turning the clock back by several centuries,” Vermes said.

“Pope Benedict bravely invites fellow scholars to contradict him, if they feel so inclined, but the big question is whether Catholic Biblical experts will have the courage to join Ratzinger’s independent critics,” he said.

Cottier did not directly respond to Vermes’ critique, though during his own remarks at the Lugano symposium Cottier said that some scholars have pushed the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith “to an extreme degree,” and said these issues were laid out in the “beautiful book” of Benedict XVI.

Cottier’s presentation was largely devoted to the Christian understanding of truth as grounded in the person of Christ, based on Cottier’s reading of the prologue to the Gospel of John.

During a later question-and-answer session, Vermes pointedly asked Cottier if he had even used the word “Jesus” during his speech – implicitly suggesting that the presentation was an example of dislodging the historical Jesus in favor of the Christ of faith.

Cottier replied that he referred to “Christ” because that’s the language of John’s Gospel, and that he did not intend to downplay the historical person of Jesus.

Vermes is a former Catholic priest. Born in Hungary to Jewish parents, his family converted when he was seven to evade rising anti-Semitism in pre-war Europe. Vermes lost both parents to the Holocaust, and after the war was ordained in the Order of Sion. He left the priesthood and the church in 1957 and returned to his Jewish roots, and later became the first professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford.

In the field of Biblical scholarship, Vermes is usually seen as a leading exponent of a movement that began to crest in the 1970s, seeing Jesus not in terms of the Greco-Roman religious context of late antiquity but rather in terms of first century Judaism in Palestine. Vermes was among the first scholars to write a doctoral dissertation on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which he completed in 1953 at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

I spoke with Vermes May 17 on the margins of the Lugano symposium.

In a nutshell, what’s your objection to the pope’s book?

I reviewed the book in the Times of London, where I called it “pre-Copernican.” It’s the way he approaches the problem. He claims to be following the historical method, but when it takes him somewhere he doesn’t want to go, it’s no good. He even criticizes Catholic New Testament experts.

He’s obviously fond of the work of the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, who seems to believe that the historical Jesus understood himself to be more or less what Christians think of as the Christ of faith.

Jacob Neusner is a very old friend of mine. We’re bosom pals. My impression, however, is that when it comes to the Gospels, Neusner is pulling our legs. Suddenly he becomes almost a fundamentalist Christian in the interpretation of the New Testament, only in order to disagree with it at the end. But it’s a very useful argument for the pope, because here’s this unbelieving Jew who’s acknowledging what the pope really thinks.

Would you give the pope credit at least for being conversant with modern Biblical scholarship?

As far as I can see, he’s conversant with the kind of scholarship he studied as a student. Apart from Neusner, however, he doesn’t seem aware of any scholarship that dates from after 1970. Of course, the pope was never trained as an exegete. I’m not sure how well he knows the languages involved. There are a few funny bits in the book that experts in Judaism at the time of Jesus wouldn’t say.

Can you give an example?

At one point the pope refers to Joachim Jeremias on the word talya, which means “lamb.” What Jeremias said was quite correct, but the pope misquotes him. He has Jeremias saying the word is Hebrew, when in fact it’s Aramaic. It doesn’t seem to me that he’s had any serious training in this area. I’m sure he had some Biblical Hebrew, because it was compulsory in German seminary training of his day.

We have to remember that the pope’s area is dogmatic theology and the church Fathers, not the interpretation of the New Testament from a historical point of view. … Another example is his identification of the author of the fourth gospel with the apostle John, which is something most scholars today wouldn’t accept. It’s important for the pope’s argument, however, because he wants to claim direct apostolic witness for that gospel.

The pope wants to reconcile traditional doctrinal beliefs about Christ with what we find in the New Testament. Are you saying that’s just not possible?

It’s possible, if you follow the reasoning. Historical scholars distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. If you admit this distinction, you can then argue that the Christ of faith is an interpretation of the historical Jesus. You can hold this point of view, as long as it can be argued in a rational way.

But you don’t think the pope succeeds?

He seems to claim that the Christ of faith simply is the historical Jesus. Even most Catholic Biblical scholars, however, admit that Jesus himself did not make many of the claims that later Christian interpretation would make about his person and his teaching.

You also asserted that the pope’s book will have a ‘chilling effect’ on Catholic Biblical scholarship, despite his invitation to criticize his work.

I think that must be the case, though I would be very pleased to be proved wrong.

Have you seen any evidence of such a chilling effect?

Well, I haven’t seen any Catholic Biblical scholars making critical pronouncements about the book. Maybe it’s too soon, but this is what I fear. I wonder if the bishops would consider it proper to allow their theologians to contradict the pope, even with the pope’s permission.

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