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Critical and devotional?

12 April 2011

Anthony Harvey finds tensions in the Pope’s study of the Passion


Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the resurrection
Pope Benedict XVI
Catholic Truth Society £14.95
Church Times Bookshop £13.45

THE first half of the Pope’s study Jesus of Nazareth (Books, 15 June 2007), proclaimed a new methodology: it was to combine the fruits of two centuries of historical-critical work on the New Testament with a theological discipline by which the ascertainable facts about Jesus would be confirmed by their coherence within a framework of faith. This would make possible “a personal encounter”, such that, “through collective listening with Jesus’ disciples across the ages”, we might attain “sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus”.

This laudable aspiration, which lay behind much critical, but at the same time faith-inspired, exegesis in the first book, received a warm response in many quarters. The sequel follows the same method, but — appropriately perhaps for a narrative of Holy Week — adopts at times a more devotional tone.

At the very start, the entrance to Jerusalem is described as an “ascent”: “As pilgrims we go up to him; as a pilgrim he comes to us and takes us up with him. . .” Geth­semane is “the critical moment of decision in human history”, with its personal corollary (derived from Pascal), “my own sin was present in that terrifying chalice” — and much more of the same.

Devotional language of this kind inevitably leads the critical reader to ask how faithful the author has been to the scholarly discipline that he pro­fesses. He has certainly taken ser­­iously many of the historical prob­lems posed by the last days of Jesus, not least that of the responsi­bility of the Jewish people for the crucifixion (about which there is much sensitivity). To this his an­swers range from the historically plausible to the theologically specu­lative.

On the meaning of “the Jews” in John’s Gospel, he makes the obvious point that in a Gospel written en­tirely about Jewish people by a Jew­ish writer, the word cannot be in­tended to apply to all Jews, but in this case must mean the adversaries of Jesus among the Jewish author­ities. So much will be agreed by the majority of critics today.

But (turning to the Synoptic Gos­pels) what of the “crowd” that de­mands his death? Here he goes in for historical speculation: these were presumably the “rabble” who had been partisans of Barabbas; had more of those sympathetic to Jesus been present, their cry might well have been different. And what of the people’s acceptance of responsibility in Matthew’s account: “His blood be upon us and upon our children”? Ah, but this was not any ordinary person’s blood: it was the blood that takes away the sin of the world. The blood of Jesus “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment: it brings reconciliation”.

A theologically sophisticated Christian may perhaps read it like that; but it can hardly be said that Matthew’s text is innocent of a more sinister interpretation.

We may ask, then, how the Pope approaches the various “Quests of the Historical Jesus”, and the histor­ical uncertainties arising from them. There is no doubt that he has pon­dered them carefully, and he ac­know­ledges a debt to some quite recent critical studies of Jesus. Never­theless, much of his argument relies on earlier publications. On Jesus’s use of Abba, for example, he uncritically adopts Joachim Jere­mias’s famous view (first advanced in 1953) that Abba was an intimate family word (like “Daddy”), never before used in prayer to God — a view that has come under vigorous attack in recent years.

More disturbingly, he shows no interest in the intricate literary rela­tionships between the Gospels, and seldom distinguishes between differ­ent sources lying behind the gospel narratives. His account of Jesus’s words draws indiscriminately on the Synoptics and John’s Gospel, and even when he is explicitly quoting from just one of them, he leaves us in some doubt about the Evangel­ist’s contribution: on the same page, commenting on the words of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel’s “equivalent” to the Gethsemane prayer (12.27–28), he has both “John is clearly indicating . . .” and “[Jesus] sees with total clarity”. Which of them is speaking, Jesus or the Evan­gelist?

In general, the Pope seems to as­sume the literal truth of the narra­tive. He accepts without question that the heavy curtain before the temple was literally rent in two at the moment of Jesus’s crucifixion, even though this was evidently seen as a metaphor (as surely it should be) as early as the Letter to the Hebrews.

He takes Luke’s report of Jesus’s words to those crucified beside him (in which most scholars see the hand of Luke) as literal reporting — but how could anyone have heard them when they were looking on “from a distance” (Luke 23.49)?

In Jesus’s Gethsemane prayer, he does not discern (as scholars gen­erally do) different strands of tradi­tion emerging from the differing accounts in the Gospels, but treats them as if they were a verbatim re­port. And if one were to ask how this could have been recorded and handed down when the only witnes­ses were a stone’s throw away and asleep, one would find that the de­vo­tional tone takes over again: what the disciples were suffering from was not sleep but “drowsiness”: such drowsiness “deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the Evil One at work in the world . . .”. So perhaps they were not really asleep at all?

The undoubted strength and appeal of the book is the firm an­chor­ing of the narrative in a theolo­gical framework consisting of New Temple and Priesthood — New Passover ritual — New sacrificial Atonement — all rooted in Old Testament concepts and practices that are given new form and new life by Jesus.

The key to it all, amply evidenced in subsequent Christian reflection (though not easy to trace to any utterance by Jesus himself), is the deliberate and transformative enactment by Jesus of the role of the Suffering Servant. Given the strength and coherence of this doc­trinal tradition, the Pope argues that, so long as they are consistent with it and historically plausible in themselves, the essential facts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as recorded in the Gospels may be con­fidently believed, and believed with such understanding as may make possible a personal encounter with the living Lord.

In his foreword, the Pope claims, with regard to his method, to have “taken a significant step” towards a new combination of critical and theological interpretation. But nearly 50 years ago a study of the same Gospel passages was pub­lished by a fine and faithful Domin­ican scholar, Pierre Benoit, Director of the École Biblique in Jerusalem: The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Benoit showed an equal zeal to combine critical with theological exegesis, and achieved it with much greater attention to the critical problems raised by the Gospel texts and their literary interrelationships. But, though much of his interpreta­tion was unashamedly theological, he also stated firmly: “This is not a devotional work” (pieuse médita­tion), and studiously avoided the kind of devotional elaboration which may be valued by some read­ers, but which to others may seem to blur the outlines of the advance that the Pope claims to be making in critical and theological method.

Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.

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