The Pope on Jesus, a review in First Things

The October edition of First Things, which I have just had a chance to look through, has a review of Pope Benedict XVI's second volume of Jesus of Nazareth ("Reading the Gospels with Benedict XVI", pp. 35-40). The review by Bruce Marshall is a good read, especially given that I do want to read Ratzinger's work on Jesus. There are a number of things about the review that could be mentioned, but I do want to note a discussion that comes toward the end of the review about the relationship between Biblical Studies and Theology.

What sparks these comments by Marshall is the "frosty reception" that the he says the pope's book has been given by biblical scholars. He states that among other things: "...the book was dismissed as a misbegotten hybrid of critical scholarship and Catholic devotion..." (p. 39). And yes, that would cause some problems for the more historical-critically minded biblical scholar.

Marshall continues, "Undeterred by such criticism from the guild of professional exegetes, the pope clearly has no intention of reading, say, the Gospel of Matthew simply as an independent literary artifact but accepts it as one of the canonical gospels--very much including John and not limited to the synoptics." In relation to this, Marshall notes that the pope reads the Gospel texts with Romans 3:25 and Psalm 22, for example.

"Some in the biblical guild embrace this way of reading particular New Testament texts in light of the whole canon, while others resist it. Either way--and this is the point of which Benedict insists--the interpreter of the gospels makes a decision of which no amount of historical evidence can relieve him. Nothing affects our interpretation of a text more than our convictions about what is most relevant to reading the text rightly. The decision to read the gospels as Christian scripture--or not to read them in this way--is ineluctably infiltrated with the reader's convictions about God, about God, about what God may (or may not) be doing with these texts, about the nature of authority of the communities that have held these texts to be sacred Scripture, and much more. It is, in short, a religious decision, which historical considerations alone cannot compel the reader to make one way or the other" (p. 39).

"...But he insists that historical criticism, while a necessary component in an intellectually responsible interpretation of the Bible, must be taken up into a 'hermeneutics of faith' and not the other way around. He deliberately subordinates the methods and results of modern biblical scholarship (historical-critical or otherwise) to the complex ways of reading long practiced by the Church" (p. 40).

Given that these are Marshall's comments on the pope's book and I haven't read either volume of Jesus of Nazareth, I am not in a place to respond apart from some general comments on the topic. I find myself, even though open to a theological reading, leaning toward the textual side of biblical study. Theology needs to arise from the text, and theology informs our reading of Scripture. However, I don't think that theology should dominate the reading of Scripture. Maybe more on that another time.

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