The first teaching Pope was Leo the Great, who wrote a cycle of sermons throughout the year on Christian doctrine. John Paul II was a saint and a media star. Benedict is a saint and a teacher, who still loves teaching.
It is amazing that he has managed to find time to write this second volume amid the press of endless audiences and reading papers on the Church throughout the world. He gave me a copy of the first volume on the day it was published, but that was in his first year as Pope!
Wide range of sources
His reading has been wide, not only Catholic authors but the great non-Catholic exegetes too. Not only in his own native German but in French, Italian and English too (the great English Protestant scholar Kingsley Barrett, and the great American Catholic John Meier). He also picks up on and discusses recent theories which he will have encountered in his previous job as head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cruelly nicknamed the papal Rottweiler.
The book covers the ground from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem till the Resurrection. It is historically-based but is not a life of Jesus. It picks and chooses, selecting the moments which Benedict finds most rewarding.
Listening to Jesus’ disciples
With masterly skill he uses the tools of the historico-critical method, but dry, factual history is not his primary aim. He wants to produce a ‘faith hermeneutic’ by what he calls “listening to Jesus’ disciples across the ages”, to make possible an encounter with Jesus in faith. So his primary interest is to show how the events were seen and described by Jesus’ disciples. He reads the events from within the Church tradition.
There is no such thing as brute facts; the facts are always described from one point of view or another, and the evangelists were describing the last days of their Lord and Master. With great delicacy Benedict picks up the allusions in the accounts which show how events were seen and understood in the light of the Scriptures.
The first two chapters are already captivating. The Entry into Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’ is presented as the joyful welcome of the Davidic Messiah, but avoiding all political or revolutionary overtones. Then the Cleansing of the Temple constitutes Jesus’ demonstration that the misuse of the Temple is destroying it, just as the prophet Jeremiah tried to show Israel that it was hell-bent on destroying its first Temple half a millenium earlier.
From now on the privileges of Israel were to pass to the gentiles. The second chapter jumps to Jesus’ final prophecy of the future in Mark 13, which Benedict considers the most difficult passage in all the Gospels. Brilliant, original and convincing, but above all, lucid, with the calm touch of the mature master.
And so on till the final chapter on the Resurrection. What can you say about the Resurrection in a short chapter of a dozen pages? But it is a masterpiece. Was the Resurrection a historical event? It ‘has left a footprint within history’, but it was an ‘evolutionary leap’ or an ‘ontological leap’ which opens up a new dimension. ‘Anyone approaching the resurrection accounts in the belief that he knows what rising from the dead means, will inevitably misunderstand those accounts’.
You can pre-order it here.
Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB is Chairman of the Trustees of the Catholic Biblical Association and served on the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
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