When I received Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth I had previously written that in reviewing such a book "I am not worthy." Exactly how do you go about reviewing a book by a scripture scholar and theologian of the magnitude of the Holy Father? Well the task is easier than I thought it would be. For one this isn’t a book addressed to a limited audience of scripture scholars and exegetes, but one that everybody can benefit from. I have read several of his books and I found this one the easiest to read. I am tempted to say something as cliche as "If you only read one book this year …" if I didn’t find this phrase personally quite scary and I suspect the Holy Father would have the same view on this.
"Jesus of Nazareth" is not a life of Jesus in the style of Romano Guardini’s "The Lord", Frank Sheed’s "To know Christ Jesus", or Archbishop Sheen’s "Life of Christ." The Pope does not set to piece together the Gospels and present the story of Christ in specific chronological order. After the foreword and introduction the first of ten chapters deals with the Baptism of the Lord and ends with the Transfiguration and discussion of Son of Man, Son of God and Jesus’ I Am statements. After reading the introduction and getting to the last chapter I was surprised to find that it is obvious that the Holy Father will be continuing the subject in a subsequent book. He mentions a part two in the introduction and I had originally thought that this was a delineation in his current book.
The main part of the book runs 358 pages and over the four days I read it I stayed up late into the night because I did not want to stop reading it. The foreword and introduction covers information such as his approach in writing this book and how problematic many previous works attempting to get at the "real Jesus" have been in the past. Throughout the book he comments on approaches like what the Jesus Seminar took and there is even one rather humorous short quip towards the end of the book on this that made me laugh when I read it. In the foreword he says "they are much more like photographs of the authors and the ideals they hold." No doubt you will not be surprised to learn that the Pope believes the "Jesus of History" and the "Jesus of the Gospels" are not two separate things.
"…The main implication of this form my portrayal of Jesus is that I trust the Gospel. Of modern exegesis tells us about literary genres, about authorial intention, and about the fact that the Gospels were written in the context, and speak within the living milieu, of communities. I have tried, to the best of my ability, to incorporate all of this, and yet I wanted to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, "historical" in the strict sense of the word. …"
My own humble opinion is that is has achieved this in spades. At another point he writes "This book is my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’" and he certainly has illuminated the face of Jesus in his writing. One of the common themes in this book and really in his whole life is "listening" to the scriptures. Those who know him have reported that he is a good listener in that he allows others to make a case. His listening of scripture is not just to a specific verse, but all of scripture and throughout the book he shows this capability in showing specific scriptures as being in harmony with the whole. He has criticism of some theories that fail to pass this test where exegetes try to pass off a theory that just doesn’t fit the whole of scripture. At the Transfiguration God the Father instructed the three Apostles, and really all of us, to listen to his Beloved Son. Pope Benedict takes this seriously as he fleshes out Jesus of Nazareth.
This book is packed with information and his insights into scripture. He is also quite willing to use modern biblical scholarship and tools such as the historical-critical method when it is properly guided and not used as an end to themselves to justify a exegetes original pretext. He is also quite willing to take the insights of some he identifies as liberal scholars and he take the good of what they have to offer and in many cases to tease the truth of their idea and to more fully develop it. In the chapter on the Sermon of the Mount he talks about the book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus by Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner which he says he was greatly helped by and he also tries to answer some of the questions raised. Over and over again it is quite evident he is quite aware of the modern currents of biblical studies and accepts some hypothesis where he thinks they are plausible and also to critique those ideas which are false.
The chapter on the Our Father prayer is worth the price of the book alone. This is not just an academic exegesis of the Our Father prayer line-by-line, but a deep meditation into this prayer. Often we can repeat a prayer so often that it looses its freshness and his meditation on this prayer can shock us back into reality of what the prayer that Jesus gave us really means and indicates. The chapter on the message of the parables starts out by working through the definition of a parable and what it is and then he focuses on meditations on three specific parables. Also fascinating is the chapter on the principle messages of John’s Gospel. Up to this point he had been mostly working with the texts of the synoptic Gospels and he principally explores the use of water in John’s Gospel and then then explores other elements.
What is wonderful about the Pope Benedict’s book is the way he combines scripture scholarship, meditation, and insights. Often he laments the problems of poor translation of the original texts and then explores the actual meaning giving a greater depth to verses that you might normally pass by. The book is soaked with scripture references as you would expect and I often resorted to my Logos Bible Software to be able to note these references and his translation of some of the words.
The text of the book is the most important part, but I was also quite happy with the physical printing of this book. The paper is very high quality as is the binding and cover of the book. In short this is a great book that will be fruitful for anybody. In the meantime please pray for the Pope and for him to have sufficient time to write its follow up.