Canon Anthony Harvey, a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey reviewed Jesus of Nazareth II for the Church Times. It’s worth looking at what he has understood about the Holy Father’s work.
He argues that the Pope’s proposal for a new reading of the New Testament combining the theological and historical-critical methods is a laudable one and is what made the first volume a well-received success.
Yet after accepting that the tone of Volume II, given its subject matter, was bound to be more reflective, Canon Harvey has a problem with Benedict XVI’s literal reading of the Gospels, for example:
“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)?”
This and other criticisms of the kind wish to point out that the Pope has failed in his desire to be both historically and theologically truthful – yet it is not necessarily so. To take issue with Luke’s Gospel seems strange, since it is the one that goes to most pains to shows its historical accuracy and Church tradition has held that since Luke’s Gospel contains the Bethlehem narrative, the Virgin Mary could well have been one of his sources – she was there under the cross too, so could that be where Luke got his quotes from?
“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.”
It seems then, that if one accepts the Gospels to be historical as well as theological one is not being “critical” enough. Surely it is more likely that the understanding of large swathes of the Gospels as “metaphor” happened after centuries of exegesis had taken place, not before?
The plus side
Yet the former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey does point out the book’s good sides too:
“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.”
An anchoring that has been of undoubted service to all Christians and “Men of goodwill” who have been reading the book over the Easter period.
Of related interest: