From Joseph Ratzinger's "Jesus of Nazareth"
"A Historically Honest and Convincing Figure"
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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 23, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of excerpts from the Preface of the first volume of the book "Jesus of Nazareth," which Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI will publish next spring. The excerpts were made available by Rizzoli, the publishing house that has been given the international rights.
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I have come to the book on Jesus, the first part of which I now present, following a long interior journey. In the period of my youth -- the thirties and forties -- a series of fascinating books were published on Jesus. I remember the name of some of the authors: Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Franz Michel Willam, Giovanni Papini, Jean Daniel-Rops. In all these books, the image of Jesus Christ was delineated from the Gospels: how he lived on earth and how, despite his being fully man, at the same time he led men to God, with whom, as Son, he was but one. Thus, through the man Jesus, God was made visible and from God the image of the just man could be seen.
Beginning in the fifties, the situation changed. The split between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith" became ever greater: One was rapidly removed from the other. However, what meaning could faith in Jesus Christ have, in Jesus the Son of the living God, if the man Jesus was so different from the way he was presented by the evangelists and the way he is proclaimed by the Church from the Gospels? Progress in historical-critical research led to ever more subtle distinctions between the different strata of tradition. In the wake of this research, the figure of Jesus, on which faith leans, became ever more uncertain, it took on increasingly less defined features.
At the same time, reconstructions of this Jesus, who should be sought after the traditions of the evangelists and their sources, became ever more contradictory: from the revolutionary enemy of the Romans who opposed the established power and naturally failed, to the gentle moralist who allowed everything and inexplicably ended up by causing his own ruin.
Whoever reads a few of these reconstructions can see immediately that they are more photographs of the authors and their ideals than a real questioning of an image that has become confused. Meanwhile, mistrust was growing toward these images of Jesus, and the figure itself of Jesus was ever more removed from us.
All these attempts have left in their wake, as common denominator, the impression that we know very little about Jesus, and that only later faith in his divinity has formed his image. Meanwhile, this image has been penetrating profoundly in the common consciousness of Christianity. Such a situation is tragic for the faith, because it makes its authentic point of reference uncertain: intimate friendship with Jesus, from whom everything depends, is debated and runs the risk of becoming useless. [...]
I have felt the need to give readers these indications of a methodological character so that they can determine the path of my interpretation of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament. With reference to my interpretation of Jesus, this means first of all that I trust the Gospels. Of course I take as a given all that the Council and modern exegesis say about the literary genres, the intention of their affirmations, on the communal context of the Gospels and its words in this living context. Accepting all this in the measure that was possible to me, I wished to present the Jesus of the Gospels as the true Jesus, as the "historical Jesus" in the true sense of the expression.
I am convinced, and I hope the reader will also realize, that this figure is far more logical and, from the historical point of view, also more comprehensible than the reconstructions we have had to deal with in the last decades.
I believe, in fact, that this Jesus -- the one of the Gospels -- is a historically honest and convincing figure. The Crucifixion and its efficacy can only be explained if something extraordinary happened, if Jesus' figure and words radically exceeded all the hopes and expectations of the age.
Approximately twenty years after Jesus' death, we find fully displayed in the great hymn to Christ that is the Letter to the Philippians (2:6-8) a Christology which says that Jesus was equal to God but that he stripped himself, became man, humbled himself unto death on the cross and that to him is owed the homage of creation, the adoration that in the prophet Isaiah (45:23) God proclaimed is owed only to Him.
With good judgment, critical research asks the question: What happened in the twenty years after Jesus' Crucifixion? How was this Christology arrived at?
The action of anonymous community formations, of which attempts are made to find exponents, in fact does not explain anything. How would it be possible for groups of unknowns to be so creative, so convincing to the point of imposing themselves in this way? Is it not more logical, also from the historical point of view, that greatness be found in the origin and that the figure of Jesus break all available categories and thus be understood only from the mystery of God?
Of course, to believe that though being man He "was" God and to make this known shrouding it in parables and in an ever clearer way, goes beyond the possibilities of the historical method. On the contrary, if from this conviction of faith the texts are read with the historical method and the opening is greater, the texts open to reveal a path and a figure that are worthy of faith. Also clarified then is the struggle at other levels present in the writings of the New Testament around the figure of Jesus and despite all the differences, one comes to profound agreement with these writings.
Of course with this vision of the figure of Jesus I go beyond what, for example, Schnackenburg says in representation of the greater part of contemporary exegesis. I hope, on the contrary, that the reader will understand that this book has not been written against modern exegesis, but with great recognition of all that it continues to give us.
It has made us aware of a great quantity of sources and concepts through which the figure of Jesus can become present with a vivacity and profundity that only a few decades ago we could not even imagine. I have attempted to go beyond the mere historical-critical interpretation applying new methodological criteria, which allows us to make a properly theological interpretation of the Bible and that naturally requires faith, without by so doing wanting in any way to renounce historical seriousness. I do not think it is necessary to say expressly that this book is not at all a magisterial act, but the expression of my personal seeking of the "Lord's face" (Psalm 27:8). Therefore, every one has the liberty to contradict me. I only ask from women and men readers the anticipation of sympathy without which there is no possible understanding.
As I already mentioned at the beginning of this Preface, the interior journey to this book has been long. I was able to begin work on it during my vacation of 2003. In August 2004, Chapters 1 to 4 took their final form. Following my election to the episcopal See of Rome I have used all the free moments I have had to carry on with it. Given that I do not know how much time and how much strength will still be given to me, I have decided to publish now as the first part of the book the first ten chapters that extend from the Baptism in the Jordan to Peter's confession and the Transfiguration.
[Translation by ZENIT. The official translation will be published in the book]