The True Jesus of the Gospels (Part 2)

Commentary by Father Raniero Cantalamessa

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 15, 2007, Zenit.org - Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book "Inchiesta su Gesù" (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce.



Part 1 appeared Monday. Part 3 will appear Wednesday.

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3. Jesus: a Jew, a Christian, or both?

I come now to the main thing which our authors share. Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian; he had no intention of founding a new religion; he understood himself to be sent only to the Jews and not to the pagans; "Jesus is much closer to the religious Jews of today than to Christian priests"; Christianity was "born only in the second half of the second century."

How can the last claim be reconciled with the report from Acts 11:26, according to which, no more than seven years after Christ's death, around 37 A.D., "at Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians"? Pliny the Younger (hardly a suspicious source!), between 111 and 113 speaks repeatedly of "Christians," and describes their life, their worship, and their faith in Christ "as in a God."

Around the same time, Ignatius of Antioch at least five times speaks of Christianity as distinct from Judaism. He writes: "It was not Christianity that believed in Judaism, but Judaism that believed in Christianity" (Letter to the Magnesians, 10, 3). In Ignatius, that is, at the beginning of the second century, we find that not only the names "Christian" and "Christianity" are attested to, but also the content of these names: faith in the complete humanity and divinity of Christ, the hierarchical structure of the Church (bishops, priests, and deacons), and even a first clear hint of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, "called to preside in charity."

Before the name "Christian" became standard usage, the disciples were conscious of their own identity and expressed it in terms like "the believers in Christ," "those of the way," or "those who invoke the name of the Lord Jesus."

But among the claims of the two authors which I have just mentioned there is one that deserves to be taken seriously and considered on its own. "Jesus did not intend to found a new religion. He was and remained a Jew." Quite true. In fact neither does the Church, strictly speaking, consider Christianity a "new" religion. She considers herself together with Israel -- there was a time when it was mistakenly said "in the place of Israel" -- the heir of the monotheistic religion of the Old Testament, worshippers of the same God of "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (After the Second Vatican Council, the dialogue with Judaism was not carried on by the curial office that dealt with dialogue with other religions but by the one that concerned itself with unity among Christians!)

The New Testament is not an absolute beginning, it is the "fulfillment" (the fundamental category) of the old. Besides, no religion was started because someone intended to "start" it. Did Moses intend to found the religion of Israel, or Buddha Buddhism? Religions are born and only afterward become aware of themselves among those who have gathered up the teaching of the master and have made it a rule of life. To say that Christ was not a Christian is as evident and as misleading a statement as saying that Hegel was not a Hegelian, nor Buddha a Buddhist. Nobody can be a follower of himself.

But once this clarification is made, can it be said that in the Gospels there is nothing that makes us think that Jesus did have the conviction that he was the bearer of a new message? And what about his antitheses -- "You have heard it said that ... but I tell you that ..." -- with which he reinterprets even the Decalogue and puts himself on a level with Moses? They fill up an entire section of the Gospel of Matthew (5:21-48), that is, the same evangelist whom are authors claim wanted to affirm Christ's pure Jewishness!

4. Did he come for the Jews, the Pagans, or for both?

Did Jesus intend to establish his community and foresee that his life and teaching would have a continuation? The indisputable fact of the choosing of the Twelve Apostles seems to indicate precisely this. Even if we leave aside the great commission -- "Go into all the world, preach the gospel to every creature" -- (someone could attribute this command, in its formulation, to the post-Easter community), all those parables whose original core contains the idea of an expansion toward the Gentiles can only imply that Jesus had in mind a future for his community. One thinks of the parables of the murderous vinedressers, the workers in the vineyard, the saying about the last being first, of the many who "will come from the east and west to sit at the feast with Abraham," while the others will be excluded, and countless other sayings.

True, during his life Jesus did not leave the land of Israel, except for an occasional foray into the pagan territories in the North. This is explained by his conviction that he was sent above all to Israel to bring her, once converted, to embrace all the Gentiles, following the universalistic vision proclaimed by the prophets. It is curious: There is a whole school of modern Jewish thought (F. Rosenzweig, H.J. Schoeps, W. Herberg) that holds that Jesus did not come for the Jews but only for the Gentiles; instead, according to Augias and Pesce, he came only for the Jews and not for the Gentiles.

Pesce deserves credit for not denying the institution of the Eucharist as a historical fact and for recognizing its importance for the early community. Here is one of the places where what we said at the beginning of the article about the problem of taking account only of the differences, and not of the convergences, has particular relevance. The three Synoptics and Paul all attest to the fact of the institution and almost with the same words. But for Augias this counts less than the fact that John's Gospel is silent about the institution and that in reporting it, Matthew and Mark have "This is my blood," while Paul and Luke have "This is the chalice of the new covenant in my blood."

Christ's words "Do this in memory of me," pronounced on such an occasion recalls Exodus 12:14 and discloses his intention to give new content to the paschal "memorial." It is not for nothing that very soon Paul will speak of "our Paschal Lamb" (1 Corinthians 5:7) distinct from that of the Jews. If to the Eucharist and to Passover we add the incontestable fact of the existence of a Christian baptism immediately after Easter which progressively substituted circumcision, we have, if not a new religion, a new way of living the religion of Israel.

In regard to the canon of the Scriptures, Pesce rightly affirms (p. 16) that the definitive list of the present 27 books of the New Testament was determined only with Athanasius in 367, but we must not be silent about the fact that its essential nucleus, composed of the four Gospels along with the thirteen Pauline epistles, is much more ancient; it was formed around the year 130 and at the end of the second century it already enjoyed the same authority as the Old Testament (cf. the "Muratorian Fragment").

Augias and Pesce say that "even Paul, like Jesus, is not a Christian but a Jew who remains in Judaism." This also is true. Does he himself not say: "Are they Jews? So am I! Indeed, more than them!" But this does no more than confirm what has just been revealed about the faith in Christ as "fulfillment" of the law.

On one hand Paul feels himself to be in the very heart of Israel (of the "remnant of Israel" he himself makes clear); on the other hand he distances himself from her (from the Judaism of his time) by his attitude toward the law and his doctrine of justification by grace. It would be interesting to hear what the Jews themselves think of the thesis of a Paul who is "Jewish and not Christian."

[The final part of this commentary will appear Wednesday.]