Pope's New Book Offers Vivid Portrait of Jesus

Interview With Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius Press

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By Genevieve Pollock

SAN FRANCISCO, MARCH 22, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI's newest book, which hit the New York Times bestseller list days after its release, paints a vivid portrait of Jesus for believers and nonbelievers alike, says Mark Brumley.

The president of Ignatius Press, the publishing company that released the English-language version of "Jesus of Nazareth Part II: Holy Week -- From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection" on March 10, explained to ZENIT that this book holds something for everyone.

In this interview with ZENIT, Brumley underlined the Pope's insights in this book that "refresh" the image of Jesus, and offer a new perspective to believers, nonbelievers, scholars, and all people.

He explained how the Pontiff challenges us to study the Bible from the viewpoint of faith, and not just historical-critical scholarship. In this way, Brumley affirmed, readers are offered the chance to know Jesus of Nazareth on a deeper level.

ZENIT: In what way should this text be read? As a meditational companion for Lent? A scholarly presentation?

Brumley: There is something for everyone in this book.

Certainly, this is a great book for anyone to read for Lent, especially for Holy Week.

Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians will find a presentation of the final week of the Lord's earthly life from which all can benefit and grow closer to Christ.

Believers who meditate on what Benedict says about the key moments in Holy Week will find their reading of the Gospel accounts transformed and deepened.

Unbelievers will be challenged to reassess their assumptions about Jesus of Nazareth.

Scholars can benefit from reading the book because the Pope has some profound interpretations of the Gospels and his basic method -- integrating faith and historical reason -- is the next step in the development of fruitful study of the Bible. It's the direction scholarship needs to move if it intends to remain relevant.

ZENIT: Benedict XVI likens his work to St. Thomas Aquinas' theological treatise on the mysteries of the life of Christ. What are the relevant points of comparison that can help us understand the Pope's purpose in writing this book?

Brumley: Just to be clear: Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two isn't really a theological treatise.

The Holy Father likens his book to St. Thomas' treatment of the mysteries of the Lord's life, but the style and mode of presentation are very different. The goal of both treatments is to help the reader understand the meaning of the various mysteries of the Lord's life.

In Benedict's case, though, his purpose is to make it easier for the reader to have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ through reflection on the biblical message.

St. Thomas is trying systematically to reflect on the mysteries of the life of Christ to provide an overall synthesis of theology. That goal presupposes that the reader already has personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.

ZENIT: Could you say something about the Pope's treatment of the controversial question, "Who is responsible for Jesus' death?"

Brumley: Pope Benedict's treatment reflects the established Catholic teaching that the Jewish people as a whole are not responsible for the death of Jesus.  In this sense, what he writes is not new.

What is new is his treatment of New Testament passages commonly cited as blaming the whole Jewish people for Christ's death.

He shows how it is a misreading of these texts to assign collective responsibility to the Jewish people. He also shows how Matthew's description of Jesus' blood being on the whole people and their children (Mt 27:25), doesn't, from the Christian perspective, refer to a call for vengeance but for redemption.

Jesus' blood, Benedict insists, isn't poured out "against" anyone but "for" all.

ZENIT: What were some of the more striking insights into Jesus' life and message that you encountered in this book?

Brumley: Benedict manages to refresh the image of Jesus, so to speak.

Among the most interesting insights, in my view, is the Holy Father's treatment of the Last Supper. Scholars debate whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal.

Benedict follows the view that the Last Supper occurred on the evening before the Passover meal would have been eaten.

The Lord and the disciples did not eat a conventional Passover meal. But Jesus transformed the meal into "his" Passover, anticipating that he would offer himself on the cross, on the following day, as the true Passover Lamb.

Another insight is the Holy Father's insistence that we take seriously the idea of Jesus offering an atoning sacrifice, an idea many modern theologians unjustifiably reject.

The Holy Father doesn't simply rehash ideas here; he points out that atonement is not simply something God demands in order to be appeased; it is something God himself does, in taking upon himself the sins of the world.

The Holy Father also underscores the centrality of the Resurrection: If Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is, as St. Paul notes, in vain, because we cannot take Jesus and his teaching as the standard by which we measure our lives. He is simply a human being, with a human message.

Only if Jesus rose from the dead has the human situation been transformed.

ZENIT: In this book, Benedict XVI encourages a certain method of hermeneutics, of studying and deepening in the figure and message of Jesus. Could you say something about this?

Brumley: He thinks that we need a way of interpreting the Bible that combines historical-critical scholarship and what he calls the "hermeneutic of faith" -- a way that casts light on the biblical text from the larger perspective of Christian faith and from the way the Bible has been read through the centuries by other believers.

Historical-critical scholarship is helpful, the Holy Father insists, but it has limitations. If those limitations are not appreciated, then distortion results.

The Holy Father thinks that Bible interpreters can overcome some of those limitations by incorporating a faith-based element of interpretation.

Of course he knows that someone who uses his method might come up with different interpretations of this passage or that. Still, the Holy Father thinks the basic image and message of Jesus will emerge by using this method, unlike what happens when the historical-critical method alone is used.

ZENIT: What in your opinion are some of the most important contributions of Benedict XVI in this book?

Brumley: The most important contributions of the book are, in my opinion, Benedict's method of reading the Bible -- combining a faith perspective and a historical-critical method -- and, ultimately, the vivid, personal portrait he paints of Jesus.

Believers and unbelievers alike can read this book and come away with the sense that they know Jesus in some way.

The believer, of course, will find this "knowing" to be a matter of knowing better someone he already knows and with whom he has a relationship.

The unbeliever will know something about Jesus as a person of history, but the unbeliever may also be challenged to consider whether Jesus is only a figure of the past or whether he is the living Son of God.

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On the Net:

"Jesus of Nazareth Part II": www.ignatius.com/promotions/jesus-of-nazareth