Monday, January 15, 2007

Preface to Pope's "Jesus" Book

From Sandro Magister's chiessa:

I came to this book about Jesus - the first part of which I now present to the public – after a long interior journey. In the time of my youth – during the
1930’s and ‘40’s – there was published a series of exhilarating books about
Jesus. I recall the names of just a few authors: Karl Adam, Romano Guardini,
Franz Michel Willam, Giovanni Papini, Jean-Daniel Rops. In all these books, the
image of Jesus Christ was outlined beginning with the Gospels: how He lived upon
the earth and how, although He was truly man, He at the same time brought God to
men, being one with God as Son of God. Thus, through the man Jesus, God became
visible, and beginning with God one could see the image of the just man.
Beginning in the 1950’s, the situation changed. The rift between the “historical
Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” became wider and wider; the one pulled away
from the other before one’s very eyes. But what meaning can there be in faith in
Jesus Christ, in Jesus the Son the of living God, if the man Jesus is so
different from how the evangelists present Him, and from how the Church
proclaims Him on the basis of the Gospels? Progress in historical-critical
research led to increasingly subtle distinctions among the different levels of
tradition. Behind these layers, the figure of Jesus, upon whom faith rests,
became increasingly more uncertain, and took on increasingly less definite
outlines. At the same time, the reconstructions of this Jesus, who had to be
sought behind the traditions of the Evangelists and their sources, became
increasingly contradictory: from the revolutionary enemy of the Romans who
opposed the established power and naturally failed, to the meek moralist who
permitted everything and inexplicably ended up causing his own ruin. Those who
read a certain number of these reconstructions one after another will
immediately notice that these are much more the snapshots of the authors and
their ideals than they are the unveiling of an icon that has become confused. In
the meantime, distrust has grown toward these images of Jesus, and in any case
the figure of Jesus has withdrawn from us even more. All of these attempts have,
in any case, left behind themselves as their common denominator the impression
that we know very little for sure about Jesus, and that it was only later that
faith in His divinity shaped His image. This impression, in the meantime, has
deeply penetrated the general consciousness of Christianity. Such a situation is
dramatic for the faith because it renders uncertain its authentic point of
reference: intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends,
threatens to become a groping around in the void.
* * *I felt the need to provide the readers with these indications of method because these determine the route of my interpretation of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament. For my presentation of Jesus, this means above all that I trust the Gospels. Naturally,I take for granted what the Council and modern exegesis say about the literary genres, about the intention of various expressions, about the communitarian context of the Gospels and the fact that they speak within this living context.
While accepting all this as much as possible, I wanted to make an effort to
present the Jesus of the Gospels as the real Jesus, as the “historical Jesus” in
the real sense of the expression. I am convinced – and I hope that I can also
make the reader aware of this – that this figure is much more logical, and from
the historical point of view also more understandable, than the reconstructions
we have had to confront in recent decades. I maintain that this very Jesus – the
Jesus of the Gospels – is an historically sensible and convincing figure. His
crucifixion and the impact that he had can only be explained if something
extraordinary happened, if the figure and the words of Jesus radically exceeded
the hopes and expectations of his time. Around twenty years after the death of
Jesus, we find already in the great hymn to Christ in the Letter to the
Philippians (2:6-8) the full expression of a Christology, in which it is said of
Jesus that He was equal to God but stripped Himself, became man, and humbled
Himself to the point of death on the cross, and that to Him is due the homage of
creation, the adoration that in the prophet Isaiah (45:23) God proclaimed as due
to Himself alone. Critical research quite rightly poses this question: what
happened in those twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus? How did this
Christology develop? The action of anonymous communitarian formations, whose
representatives are being sought out, in reality doesn’t explain anything. How
could unknown groups be so creative, how could they be convincing and impose
themselves? Isn’t it more logical, even from the historical point of view, to
suppose that the great impulse came at the beginning, and that the figure of
Jesus burst beyond all of the available categories, and could thus be understood
only by beginning from the mystery of God? Naturally, to believe that even as a
man He was God, and made this known by concealing it within parables while
nevertheless making it increasingly clear, goes beyond the possibilities of the
historical method. On the contrary, if one begins from this conviction of faith
and reads the texts with the historical method and with its openness to what is
greater, the texts open up to reveal a way and a figure that are worthy of
faith. What then becomes clear is the multilevel struggle present in the
writings of the New Testament over the figure of Jesus, and despite all the
differences, the profound agreement of these writings. It is clear that with
this view of the figure of Jesus I go beyond what Schnackenburg, for example,
says in representation of a good portion of contemporary exegesis. I hope,
however, that the reader understands that this book was not written against
modern exegesis, but with great recognition of all this has given and continues
to give to us. It has made us familiar with a great quantity of sources and
conceptions through which the figure of Jesus can become present to us with a
liveliness and depth that we couldn’t even imagine just a few decades ago. I
have sought only to go beyond mere historical-critical interpretation, applying
the new methodological criteria that allow us to make a properly theological
interpretation of the Bible that naturally requires faith, without thereby
wanting or being able in any way to renounce historical seriousness. Of course,
it goes without saying that this book is absolutely not a magisterial act, but
is only the expression of my personal search for the “face of the Lord” (Psalm
27:8). So everyone is free to disagree with me. I ask only that my readers begin
with that attitude of good will without which there is no understanding. As I
said at the beginning of the preface, my interior journey toward this book was a
long one. I was able to begin working on it during summer vacation in 2003. In
August of 2004, I gave definitive form to chapters 1 through 4. After my
election to the episcopal see of Rome, I used all of my free moments to carry
the project forward. Because I do not know how much more time and strength will
be granted to me, I have now decided to publish the first ten chapters as the
first part of the book, going from the baptism in the Jordan to the confession
of Peter and the Transfiguration.
Rome, the feast of Saint Jerome September 30,2006