By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Perhaps the member of the College of Cardinals with the greatest claim to Biblical expertise, not to mention a history of occasional theological tension with the pope, has weighed in on Benedict XVI’s new book Jesus of Nazareth, calling it “very beautiful” and saying that in some ways it’s the book on Jesus he had hoped to write.
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the emeritus archbishop of Milan, and a figure popularly seen as a liberal alternative to the conservatism associated with Benedict XVI, spoke as part of the French launch of Jesus of Nazareth in Paris on Wednesday. His comments were published on Thursday, in full, by Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper.
“In my view, the book is very beautiful,” Martini said. “It’s easy to read, and it helps us to better understand Jesus, the Son of God, and at the same time the great faith of the author.”
“I also thought that, towards the end of my life, I would write about Jesus as the conclusion of the studies I’ve done of the texts of the New Testament,” Martini said. “Now, it seems to me that this work of Joseph Ratzinger corresponds to my desires and to my expectations, and I’m very happy that he’s written it.”
Martini is a Biblical expert with a long-standing interest in Christology. A Jesuit, he completed a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in 1958 with a thesis on “The Problem of the Resurrection.” He later earned a doctorate in Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, this time writing on “The Problem of the Recension of Codex B in light of the Bodymer Papyrus XIV.” He served as rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute from 1969 to 1978. He was the lone Catholic on the ecumenical working group which prepared a new critical edition of the New Testament in Greek.
Martini phrased his comments on Jesus of Nazareth as a response to five questions:
•tWho is the author of this book?
•tWhat subject does he talk about?
•tWhat are his sources?
•tWhat is his method?
•tWhat overall judgment should we give of the book?
The author of Jesus of Nazareth, Martini said, is not Pope Benedict XVI, but rather Joseph Ratzinger, “who was a professor of Catholic theology in various German universities beginning in the 1950s, and, in this capacity, followed the evolution and the different vicissitudes of historical research on Jesus, a research which developed among Catholics in the second half of the century.”
Martini noted that Ratzinger himself in his preface wrote that the book is not a magisterial act and hence everyone is free to contradict him. All Ratzinger asked from his readers was a benevolent spirit.
“We’re certainly ready to give him this benevolence, but we think it won’t be easy for a Catholic to contradict what is written in this book,” Martini conceded, speaking in the plural on behalf of Ratzinger’s readers. Nevertheless, Martini said, he’ll proceed in a spirit of liberty.
Martini noted that Ratzinger is a theologian, not an exegete, “and although he moves easily through the exegetical literature of his era, he’s not done any first-hand studies, for example, on the critical text of the New Testament.” In fact, Martini observed, “he almost never cites the possible variants of texts, nor does he enter into debates over the value of manuscripts, accepting on this point the conclusions that most exegetes regard as valid.”
As for the book’s subject, Martini said that while the official title is Jesus of Nazareth, he believes the real title should be Jesus of Nazareth, Yesterday and Today.
“The author passes easily from consideration of the facts about Jesus, to the importance of these facts for the following centuries and for our church today,” Martini said. This capacity to make the New Testament material relevant, Martini said, “gives the book a flavor and a breadth that other books on Jesus, generally preoccupied with meticulous discussions of isolated events in his life, don’t have.”
Among other things, Martini, a longtime veteran of Jewish-Christian dialogue, said that Ratzinger “is very concerned to anchor the Christian faith in its Jewish roots.”
Martini summarized Ratzinger’s approach as a “reciprocal interweaving of historical knowledge and the knowledge of faith, where each of these approaches maintains its dignity and its liberty, without mixtures and without confusion.”
In the main, Martini said, Ratzinger’s sources are the four gospels of the New Testament themselves, as well as a wealth of secondary literature. In the end, Martini said, Ratzinger’s conclusions are close to those of the German exegete Martin Hengel, “although with a different balance and order.”
Best known for his work on Judaism during the Hellenistic period, Hengel is an emeritus professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, where Ratzinger himself once taught. Hengel takes the New Testament authors seriously, frequently criticizing modern scholars who are more skeptical.
In passing, Martini said that while he appreciates Ratzinger’s treatment of the Gospel of John, many experts would not recognize themselves in the assertion that “modern research perfectly supports” the conclusion that John, the son of Zebedee, is “the eyewitness” who is the “true author of the Gospel.”
Martini said that Ratzinger clearly rejects what some critics, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, call “the imperialism of the historical-critical method.” According to Martini, Ratzinger regards historical-critical work as important, but by itself it runs the risk of “fracturing the text” and rendering its content “incomprehensible.”
Instead, Martini said, Ratzinger chooses to read the Bible as a unity, through a “Christological hermeneutic” – recognizing that this presupposes an “act of faith” rather than a result of historical scholarship.
Yet, Martini said, that act of faith is not irrational. In fact, he said, Ratzinger stresses that the Christ of the church’s faith is a far more historically convincing figure than skeptical modern reconstructions. Something big had to have happened, Ratzinger argues, for Jesus’ disciples to have recognized in him the presence of God.
Ratzinger’s bottom line, Martini said, is that the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, is not simply a collection of texts with their own history, content, and perspective. It is a unified whole, which expresses “a coherent message.”
Martini noted that Jesus of Nazareth is fast becoming a global best-seller, but cautioned that “all things considered, this is not a particularly significant index of the book’s value.”
Instead, Martini said, the importance of the book is that it is the “mature fruit of meditation and study that has occupied an entire lifetime.”
The book, Martini said, “is a great and ardent witness to Jesus of Nazareth and his significance for human history, and for our perception of the true figure of God.”
“It’s always comforting to read testimonies such as this,” Martini said.
Further, Martini said, Jesus of Nazareth does not stop at presenting the figure of Christ. Ratzinger also pushes his readers to recognize that love of Jesus necessarily flows into love of one’s neighbor, and hence into service to others.
“I hope that many will have the joy that I experienced” in reading the book, Martini said.