Benedict’s Jesus: A Promise Fulfilled

Father Raymond J. de Souza analyzes Pope Benedict-Joseph Ratzinger’s book Jesus of Nazareth.

This spring, Pope Benedict XVI published a 10-chapter book titled Jesus of Nazareth. And while the Pope specifically instructed that the work is a personal project and not part of the magisterial teaching of the Church, his book is a profound reflection on Jesus authored by one of the greatest theological minds in the history of Christianity.

Father Raymond J. de Souza, the Register’s former Rome correspondent, analyzes the book’s contents and its significance in an exclusive five-part series for the Register.

Last May, Pope Benedict XVI published Jesus of Nazareth under the authorship of Benedict XVI-Joseph Ratzinger. It is a personal work of theology that carries the added weight of being written by a sitting pope, even if it does not constitute an official magisterial act.

Jesus of Nazareth is an impressive work of biblically-inspired theology, bringing decades of personal scholarship and prayer to the Holy Father’s “personal search for the face of the Lord.” Over the next few weeks, we will look in more depth at certain aspects of this book.

Benedict-Ratzinger writes explicitly that he “trusts the Gospels” to give an account of Jesus of Nazareth that is authentic. Not that the Gospels are exact historical records in the manner of a comprehensive diary, but rather that they present Jesus as he is, both a historical man and the Son of God.

Yet where Benedict-Ratzinger begins is not with the Gospels themselves, but with the entire biblical vision. Readers familiar with his theological work know that he often brings a fresh look to Old Testament passages, read in the light of Christ Jesus. That is where he begins Jesus of Nazareth.

A dominant theme of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological work has been that belief in the one God of Abraham required a definitive rejection of the many gods and supernatural forces that dominated the religious imagination of the ancient world. The revelation of God, first to the Jews, and then fully in Christ Jesus, constituted a clear break with all the religious traditions up to that point.

Benedict-Ratzinger begins in the same place, arguing that the biblical faith of ancient Israel already marked a novelty in the world of religion, a novelty that would come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the One who makes all things new.

“Religions all seek in some way to lift the veil that covers the future,” Benedict-Ratzinger writes. “For this reason, almost all religions have developed a form of foreseeing the future.”

The Holy Father then takes his starting point in the Book of Deuteronomy, indicating that God’s promise is different, as Moses tells the people of Israel:

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who cast spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. … Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people, and you shall heed such a prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:9-11, 14-15).

Moses is telling the people that all the ancient ways of lifting the veil on the future are abhorrent to God, who asks them instead to trust in him and his providence — he will in time raise up another prophet in Israel for them, one like Moses.

This is an extraordinary promise, but Benedict-Ratzinger points out that the Book of Deuteronomy (and thus the entire Pentateuch) ends on a note of unfulfilled hope: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

The Hidden God

Ancient Israel is thus presented with a prohibition, a promise and a problem. They are not to seek after the unknown in the manner of the other nations. They are promised another prophet, one who will tell them about God like Moses had, because this new prophet will speak to God face to face.

Yet this prophet has not appeared, and as Benedict-Ratzinger notes, even the model of Moses is lacking. He points out that Moses was told: “You cannot see my face. … You will see my back, but my face you cannot see” (Exodus 33:20, 23).

Shall the future, and the entire realm of the supernatural, remain then always hidden? Will the destiny of man be always veiled, so that he must always remain in a world of shadows and uncertainty regarding the ultimate things? If the God who alone can reveal all things refuses to reveal himself fully, what then is to be made of the revelation that began with Abraham?

Benedict-Ratzinger takes up these questions in the introductory chapter of this book, arriving against this background at the figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

“In this context one reads the end of the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18),” he writes. “In Jesus the promise of a new prophet is fulfilled. What was only imperfect in Moses is now realized fully in him: He lives in the sight of God, not only as a friend but as a Son; He lives in profound unity with the Father. Only from this point can one truly understand the figure of Jesus that meets us in the New Testament; all that is recorded — the words, deeds, sufferings and the glory of Jesus — has its foundation here.”

A Unique Person

This “foundation” with which Benedict-Ratzinger begins his book highlights that the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is someone entirely different from all that preceded him for those who sought after the mysterious, the mystical or the magical. He does not belong to the world of the ancient superstitions. He is not even one like Abraham or Moses, who were privileged receivers of God’s self-revelation.

On the contrary, Jesus of Nazareth is someone completely new and unique: the only-begotten Son who can fully reveal the face of the Father.

That is the claim of the Gospels — that the ancient promise is fulfilled in a manner exceeding even the expectations of Israel. Benedict-Ratzinger wishes to look closely at this Jesus of Nazareth as we meet him.

The book begins with the baptism in the Jordan, and concludes with Jesus’ own self-revelation in the Transfiguration. We shall take up some of those chapters in the following weeks.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

served as the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.

He writes from Kingston, Ontario.

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