Publisher: Pattloch Verlag, Munich, 2004
Although he is a Catholic, Klaus Berger teaches exegesis at the Department of Protestant Theology at the University of Heidelberg. When asked how this happened, he replies that most German Departments of Catholic Theology were taken aback by his criticism of large parts of modern exegesis. What fifty-years ago was considered the mainstream of Protestant theology, has become today characteristic of much of German Catholic exegesis. Moreover, he is a married layman: his wife, Christiane Nord, is a scholar who specialises in translation studies. In 1999 they together published The New Testament and Early Christian Writings [ISBN 3-458-16970-9] with the prestigious publishing house Insel. Besides being a scholarly commentary, the more than 1,400 pages of this work contain a translation of all Christian documents written before 200 AD. They are ordered according to the date of origin that Berger considers the most likely (thus after the letters of St. Paul comes the Gospel According to St. John). The translations follow a principle that Berger terms 'understood alienness', namely that the translation of texts of another age should not be unnecessarily smoothed out by contemporary phraseology but should rather make the reader aware of the time and cultural context of their origin.
His last book, published in 2004, bearing the simple title Jesus, has been the best-selling German non-fiction work for a number of months. The reason for this success is that this learned exegete has left behind the prejudices of the 'liberal' exegesis to be traced back to Harnack and Bultmann and has tried to read the Gospels in the way that their contemporaries would have understood them. In particular, he explicitly rejects the idea of 'demythologisation' with its assertion that everything that is not plausible to a modern reader is a reinterpretation derived from the myth that Jesus rose from the dead. Thus he considers the account of Jesus' transfiguration (Mt 9:2-9) 'the hidden axis of the Gospel'. Certainly, Jesus was a man as we are, but, Berger argues, before his death his divine reality was already literally bursting through. Claims, for example, that the Lord's walking on the sea or his bringing Lazarus back to life are mere symbols or invented legends completely miss the nature of the text: if one is unwilling to admit that there exist 'mystic facts' that were experienced by those who witnessed them, one cannot do justice either to the New Testament or to who Jesus really was.
Last but not least, Berger's book tries to correct the many dubious ideas about Jesus that some Western authors, who are often scarcely educated journalists, have developed in past decades. He also offers suggestions as to how a Christian might understand other religious founders. Jesus was the "Son of God" in so radical a sense that he could say of himself "Who sees me sees the Father", and he obviously wanted to establish, and give all of the Father's gifts to, an Ekklesia of those who believe in him. But this, Berger argues, referring to 1 Cor.14:26, does not in principle exclude, as indeed Nicholas of Cusa himself was to suggest, that parts of Mohammed's teaching were a special divine revelation for Arab culture.
Thus Berger's book is a rare example of a modern study that, even if in part it rejects them, incorporates all the details of modern exegetic research, but nonetheless arrives at conclusions that are consonant with traditional Christian, indeed Catholic, teaching. As it does not presuppose sophisticated scholarly knowledge on the part of the reader, the book will appeal to all those who are interested in the question of what Jesus really intended and who he really was.