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Confronting the historical Jesus





Benedetto XVI






Gesù di Nazaret





Rizzoli Editore







The book by Benedict XVI, Gesù di Nazaret, wants to be first and foremost a book that fills a gap. The author himself tells us that ‘When I was growing up – in the 1930s and 1940s – there was a series of inspiring books about Jesus’ (p. 7), but after all the attempts at a reconstruction of the historical Jesus that were produced beginning with the results of historical-critical research there remains ‘the impression that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him…This is a dramatic situation for faith, because its point of reference is being placed in doubt: intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air’ (p. 8). The aim of the book, therefore, is to help us to move out of this situation by offering an interpretation of the figure of Christ beginning with the data offered by the New Testament: ‘I wanted to try to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real “historical” Jesus in the strict sense of the word…I believe that this Jesus – the Jesus of the Gospels – is a historically plausible and convincing figure’ (p. 18).



The book opens with a long foreword (pp. 7-20) in which the author justifies the method that he has adopted. He states that he utilises the valuable results achieved by the critical historical method. He upholds the need for this method because the Christian faith is based upon historical events which it is right to investigate with appropriate methods. At the same time Benedict XVI, in the light of recent documents dedicated to Biblical interpretation as well (p. 11), upholds the need to go beyond the limitations of historical-critical research (a summarising and clear list of these limitations is to be found on pp. 12-14). The Christian event, in fact, has as its foundation the story of Jesus which constitutes, according to the testimony of the New Testament, an unicum which had never before taken place and which could never be repeated. The Christians texts, and in particular the Gospels, claim to announce this news; their words have an intrinsic deeper value. ‘There are dimensions of the word that the old doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture pinpointed with remarkable accuracy’ (p. 16). A theological exegesis is thus necessary. Benedict XVI observes here the new development represented by the method of canonical reading, which interprets a text by inserting it into the broader pattern of all the texts recognised by the community as inspired texts (the canon). In order to really understand the figure of Jesus it is necessary to go beyond what the historical method achieves, to trust the Gospels (p. 17), and to accept their belief that Jesus, as man, was also God. It is evident that the final step, namely accepting that Jesus is the son of God, is not the result of historical analysis, it is a decision of faith, but this decision is in continuity with reason because, specifically in the light of the testimony of the Gospels, it is the conclusion that is the most rational and the one that is most able to justify the effects that the person of Jesus has had in history. At the end of the foreword the Pope unveils the inner pathway of the book and makes clear that this volume is only a part – another will follow in which the accounts of the childhood of Jesus will be addressed.



After the methodological foreword (to which the select bibliography should be connected, pp. 409-421) the author, in the introduction, seeks to focus immediately on the mystery of the person of Jesus and his teaching. The secret of the identity of Jesus is his unique relationship with God called Father; ‘the Son’s word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption’ (p. 27).



The newness of this method may trouble some people who are used to dealing with texts that move exclusively in a spiritual, theological or exegetical field. But very many people will find in this book the testimony of a believer who justifies hope in Jesus; a testimony that draws upon rationality and is thus directed towards going beyond the division between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.