Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The Pope's Jesus: Gerd Lüdemann and Benedict XVI

Gerd Lüdemann, Das Jesusbild des Papstes: Über Joseph Ratzingers kühnen Umgang mit den Quellen (Springe: zu Klampen Verlag, 2007), 157 pp. (review copy courtesy of zu Klampen)

Just months after Benedict XVI released Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann has produced this spirited book-length critique of “the Pope’s Jesus.” Lüdemann writes both as a post-Christian who is deeply sceptical about the claims of church doctrine, and as a rigorous advocate of the historical-critical method. A central contrast between Benedict and Lüdemann thus lies in their respective attitudes towards the biblical texts: while Benedict approaches the texts with basic trust and theological commitment, Lüdemann insists that it is “a blind alley” to privilege these texts and to assume that they are historically or theologically trustworthy (p. 23).

Indeed, for Lüdemann it is precisely the integrity of the texts that is at stake in all this. For instance, against Benedict’s overtly christological interpretation of Jesus’ parables, Lüdemann protests that, in this reading, the texts themselves are “bypassed” in the interests of church doctrine (p. 94).

Lüdemann is right to observe that Benedict’s work suffers from many historical flaws. Methodologically, Benedict tends to treat the gospel records like independent and reliable historical witnesses, so that his approach amounts to an implicit repudiation of the two document hypothesis (i.e. that Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q as sources) on which historical analysis rests. Lüdemann also observes that Benedict frequently cites Old Testament texts “as predictions of Christ,” even though this is historically illegitimate and “scientifically impossible” (p. 151).

Lüdemann’s longest chapter (pp. 95-120) is devoted to Benedict’s use of the Fourth Gospel, and it is here that some of the central problems in Benedict’s methodology are brought into view. Benedict privileges the Fourth Gospel and freely uses it as a source of historical information about Jesus, but he offers “no convincing arguments against the scholarly consensus that the Johannine discourses have nothing to do with what Jesus himself actually said” (p. 120). Of course, some scholars are more optimistic about identifying historically authentic layers in the Fourth Gospel; but it is nevertheless rather baffling to hear Benedict assert that “[t]he Jesus of the Fourth Gospel and the Jesus of the Synoptics is one and the same: the true ‘historical’ Jesus” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 111).

Such methodological shortcomings should be taken seriously in any evaluation of Benedict’s book. Indeed, the fact that Benedict presupposes the divine “inspiration” of the biblical texts is already a significant obstacle to historical understanding. Lüdemann is surely right to insist that the texts cannot be properly understood on the basis of any “supposed divine inspiration”: “Whoever has given a little finger to the historical-critical method must give the whole hand” (p. 151). Of course, I myself think it is still possible to confess the “inspiration” of the canon – but this confession should arise subsequently from an encounter with the witness of the texts, and should not be introduced as a methodological presupposition which guarantees the texts’ reliability in advance.

Lüdemann’s critique of Benedict’s historiography is thus of considerable value, since it helps to make explicit some of the basic methodological criteria of a properly “historical” study of Jesus.

But the acuteness of Lüdemann’s understanding of history is matched only by the heavy-handedness of his treatment of theology. He offers the bald assertion, for instance, that “whenever there is a contradiction between faith and knowledge, the latter has priority” (p. 151) – even though such a rigid dichotomy between “faith” and “knowledge” rests on assumptions that are simply foreign to much Christian scholarship. So too, the recurring complaint that Benedict’s real subject is not the Jesus of history but the Christ of faith imports assumptions about faith and history that are foreign to Benedict’s entire approach – foreign, indeed, to a good deal of contemporary biblical scholarship. To presuppose an irreconcilable gulf between Christian faith and secular historiography is simply to decide in advance that a distinctively Christian interpretation of the historical Jesus can never be legitimate.

In my view, this highlights the central shortcoming of Lüdemann’s critique: he is insufficiently sensitive to the possibility of genuine consonance and coherence between theology and history, faith and knowledge. The fact that (historical flaws notwithstanding) Benedict wants to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of faith is simply inconceivable to Lüdemann, since his own assumptions drive an absolute wedge between the spheres of faith and history. But the fact that the gospel texts are also the canonical texts of a believing community – canonical precisely as historically conditioned texts! – demands something more than just the construction of narratives about the past.

This “something more” was Benedict’s aim in Jesus of Nazareth. Even if Benedict fails to give historical criticism its due, he is right to observe that the historical method itself has only a limited capacity to grasp the identity of Jesus. Of necessity, the historical method must interpret Jesus “in terms of the past, in terms of the predictable and the possible,” with the result that Jesus’ sheer uniqueness and singularity can easily be effaced (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 292).

Further, Benedict notes that historical criticism cannot perceive the canonical unity of the diverse biblical texts. He thus argues that the historical method must be supplemented by other methods of canonical or theological exegesis. The purpose of “canonical exegesis,” he argues, is not to contradict the findings of historical-critical interpretation, but to carry such interpretation forwards so that historiography is transposed into theology (pp. xviii-xix).

It seems to me that historical Jesus research invites precisely such theological transposition. As scholars like Martin Hengel and Marinus de Jonge have demonstrated, we can ultimately make sense of Jesus’ mission only when we raise the question of Jesus’ unique relationship to the God whom he calls “Father.” Historiography reaches a limit here (since “God” can hardly be a historical datum), so that a theological interpretation of Jesus’ life and acts becomes indispensable.

In spite of the historical flaws in Benedict’s presentation, therefore, his central claim is of great importance – namely, the claim that Jesus must be understood in light of his unique relationship to God. The mystery of Jesus’ relation to the Father, Benedict writes, “is ever present and determines everything” in the Synoptic portraits of Jesus (p. 218); in the life and acts of this man, “God’s will is wholly done” (p. 150), so that the entire existence of Jesus must be understood as a “filial existence” vis-à-vis God (p. 7).

Since his own interpretation of Jesus can find no place for the question of God, Gerd Lüdemann must finally throw up his hands and protest that the Pope’s book “is steeped in a mystery that only faith can understand” (p. 149). In my view, however, this sense of “mystery” is the best – not the worst – aspect of Benedict’s book. After all, the gospel sources are themselves also “steeped in mystery.” They are steeped in the mystery of Jesus’ transparency to the will of God – the mystery that this same Jewish man who was put to death has now become the risen one whom the community proclaims as Lord and Christ.

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