It was this very grave problem that led the theologian Ratzinger to undertake his work on Jesus of Nazareth. What innovation does this work represent in the context of modern exegesis? In other words, in what sense can we state that it is to be placed at the end of a historical parabola that goes from distrust of to trust in the Gospels? To answer this question forces us to present the two axes on which is based the originality of this book: its methodological foundation and, beginning with this foundation, the practical exercise of exegesis.
Concern with the methodological aspect of exegesis is not new in Ratzinger. The paper given by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in New York in 1988, which was subsequently published as Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations
and Approaches of Exegesis Today, soon became one of the milestones in a hermeneutic debate which since then has grown enormously. The Cardinal in that work illustrated the philosophical premisses of a large part of dominant exegesis, calling into question its claim to be a scientific discipline with results that could be compared with exactitude to those of the scientific world. He also stressed another question which with time became central – how to unite in a balanced way the two methodological principles of exegesis presented by the dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum in its number 12: a historical and at the same time theological exegesis?
In the second part of Gesù di Nazaret, the Pope goes back to laying emphasis on the dual methodological dimensions of exegesis. Although exegesis has taken great strides forward as a historical discipline, one cannot same the say about its theological dimension. Here, in the premiss to this second part, Benedict XVI shows himself to be especially incisive: ‘If biblical exegesis does not want to finish in always new hypotheses, becoming theologically insignificant, it must take a methodologically new step and once again see itself as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character. It must learn that the positivistic hermeneutics from which it begins is not an expression of exclusively valid reason that has definitively found itself but constitutes a specific kind of historically conditioned reasonableness capable of correction and additions and in need of them’. Here the observation about reason is significant. Dominant exegesis does not suffer from a lack of instruments or skill in using them, but from an inadequate use of reason which, it is evident, impedes an adequate understanding of Scripture. This is what in his famous speech at Ratisbon the Pope defined as the ‘modern self-limitation of reason’ because of which it is affirmed that ‘only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy that derive from it are universal.’ Pope Ratzinger here is at the end of another historical parabola, that followed by modern reason over the last three centuries in the West. It is no accident that these two historical parabolas have gone forward together: understanding this close tie is what allowed Ratzinger to produce a lucid outlook on the problem of exegesis. There is no doubt that we need a theological foundation which demonstrates the structured unity of exegesis which is at one and the same time critical and theological. But it is equally evident that the practice of an exegesis which in practical terms demonstrates the modality by which both these dimensions contribute in a fertile way to the study of the only subject – Scripture – is decisive in persuading us of the soundness of this unitary approach.
It would not have been possible to engage in an undertaking of this importance without running the risk of descending ‘into the arena’ of the interpretation of texts, entering the most discussed problems and issues. If instead of this project the Pope had conceived of a work of ‘spirituality’, a Life of Jesus which, taking the Gospels as its point of departure, recreated the interior world of the Pope, without other ambitions, we would be faced with the umpteenth recreation of the figure of Jesus, beginning with faith, destined to fill the gap left behind by cold exegetic studies of the Gospels. But the dualism between scientific exegesis and believing theology would have remained intact.
In his discussion of concrete exegetic questions Ratzinger has instead placed in the ring an exegesis that is at one and the same time critical and theological, bringing out on very many occasions the philosophical or cultural premisses that limit modern reason applied to Scripture. For example, one of the most debated questions of New Testament exegesis concerns the Last Supper: the dating, the intentions of Jesus, its nature, the words establishing the Eucharist, etc. The Pope addresses these problems through a rigorous exercise of reason which is open to taking on board all the factors at stake. All those factors, including those of liturgical tradition, which have un undeniable historical weight. And in practical terms he illustrates the reasonableness and the historical plausibility of the account, as it has come down to us, in the multiple testimonies about it. But with great intelligence Ratzinger also demonstrates that in this discussion one is not dealing only with data and arguments. Cultural assumptions enter the picture that prejudice an correct interpretation of the text. Indeed, ‘one no small part of current exegesis maintains that the words of this institution really go back to Jesus…The principal objection…can be summed up as follows: there would be an irresolvable contradiction between the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God and the idea of his expiatory death as a vicarious function.’ In other terms, modern exegesis is said to identify two different conceptual worlds that must belong to two different strata that are different and subsequent to tradition. ‘Are they really two different conceptual worlds?’, Ratzinger asks. In his view, the ultimate reason why many theologians and exegetes argue that the words of the institution are original: ‘does not lie in historical data: as we have seen, the texts on the Eucharist belong to the most ancient tradition. On the basis of the historical data nothing can be more original in them than specifically the tradition of the supper. But the idea of an expiation is something inconceivable for the modern sensibility. Jesus in his preaching of the kingdom of God must be at the beginnings of this. There is here our image of God and man. For this reason, all of the discussion is only apparently a historical debate’ (p. 143); ‘the mystery of the expiation must not be sacrificed to any presumptuous rationalism’ (p. 279).
We can thus well understand the curious historical parabola followed by exegesis over the last two and a half centuries: from Reimarus, who starting with reason and rejecting dogma in its name, ventured into a search for the historical Jesus at the margins of the Gospels, until the Jesus of Nazareth of a theologian Pope who, upholding a suitable use of reason, reconfirmed the historical truth and the reasonableness of the Jesus of the Gospels. The Pope has rendered a great service to faith by showing in his results the truth of his hermeneutic principle. In other words, he has become an example of what he himself asks of Christians so that their contribution may become decisive in today’s world: that ‘intelligence of faith becomes intelligence of reality.’