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Pope relies heavily on the historical Jesus

How is this for a pope with a different attitude? In the introduction to his new book, "Jesus of Nazareth," Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, writes: "Everyone is free to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial good will without which there can be no understanding." For readers who will buy this book, this is not a major hurdle. "Jesus of Nazareth" is clearly and simply written, a great success.

The pope, realizing that he is nearing the end of his life at age 80, decided to chronicle what he calls "my personal search 'for the face of the Lord.'" Pope Benedict XVI did not make his personal views part of the magisterium of the Roman Catholic faith. For Catholics, this will be no surprise. Popes can be fallible most of the time. It is only when they are teaching ex cathedra from the chair of Peter on matters of faith and morals that, according to church doctrine, they avoid error. (They don't do this often.) Thus, the magisterium -- not a matter of concern here -- is comprised of issues of faith that must be accepted by reason of the church's teaching authority.

Instead, Joseph Ratzinger is anxious to document his personal reflections of a life's work as scholar, theologian and pilgrim-soul in search of the Jesus of the Gospels, whom he calls "a historically plausible and convincing figure." This soft-spoken Bavarian is an introspective pontiff, very different from his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Karol Wojtyla was a compelling world figure and an actor at heart.

"Jesus of Nazareth" will have two parts, according to the pope. Part One, the present book, includes the period of Jesus' life from "the Baptism in the Jordan to Peter's confession of faith and the Transfiguration." The Pope writes that he chose to begin as he has to "help foster the growth of a living relationship" with Jesus for readers.

The pope has another reason for writing this book, and it is related to his first reason. Joseph Ratzinger observed a change that began in the 1950s that he says created a gap between what he calls the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith." About this, Ratzinger asks rhetorically: "But what can faith in Jesus as the Christ possibly mean, in Jesus as the Son of the living God, if the man Jesus was so completely different from the picture that the Evangelists painted of him and that the Church, on the evidence of the Gospels, takes as the basis for her preaching?"

Ratzinger says that if one reads enough of these reconstructions of Jesus in the historical-critical scholarship of the last 60 years, one ends up with an icon that becomes more obscure, not clearer. It is as if, he says, the portrayals of Jesus are like photographs of what their authors think Jesus should be, not as he is. All this adumbration is far from the Jesus of the Gospels.

The pope's conclusion about the importance of recognizing the real Jesus, is stark: "Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air."

How then does Joseph Ratzinger see Jesus Christ? He sees Jesus "in light of his communion with the Father, which is the true center of his personality; without it, we cannot understand him at all, and it is from this center that he makes himself present to us still today."

It may surprise some readers to know that pope Benedict XVI relies heavily on the importance of Jesus as a historical figure. The Pope's view of Jesus of Nazareth is not a gauzy, out-of-focus idealization. He predicates his knowledge of Jesus "on history, not history as an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands .... we acknowledge God's actual entry into history."

Michael D. Langan is a former vice president of Canisius College and headmaster of Nardin Academy.


Jesus of Nazareth

By Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

Doubleday, 374 pages, $24.95

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