Jesus of Nazareth Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI

Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism to the Transfiguration

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives


Pope Benedict XVI

A priest I know who also happens to be a professor of theology alluded to one of the volumes of the Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy by Pope Benedict XVI. They also got very respectable reviews.

I happen to love his DEUS CARITAS EST, his first encyclical released in 2005, aka “God Is Love.”

I keep telling people that this encyclical s is as heavy a statement about love as a Bob Dylan record. Oh, it has that archaic language of official Church documents, an acquired taste that I’ve acquired but does not make for smooth sailing. But if you can get over that, as well as any preconceptions you have about the source, it is a compelling, provocative read. It seriously engages ideas about love, exploring where romantic love, erotic love, spiritual love and compassion meet. It’s the only encyclical I whole heartedly recommend and it’s because of what it says about Love, or more astutely, the ideas about love that you ponder after reading.

Benedict always fascinated me as a pope. I always felt he got a bad rap. Such a striking contrast with the warm and paternal John Paul II. Benedict was always called conservative, even before he was pope, yet all the homophobic statements and other conservative (for lack of a better term) sentiments attribute to him, where Vatican observers saying it about him. They were saying what he was thinking. There’s a dearth of direct quotes from Pope Benedict supporting the short-hand criticism of conservative. Actual statements by him reflecting these thoughts – or the assertion he wanted a smaller, more orthodox pure church, for example – were made on his behalf by “Vatican observers.” It was second hand, a quote by somebody supposedly paraphrasing the pope. It didn’t help that Benedict lacked charisma, was uncomfortable in front the camera. The fact though is that he is one of the leading Catholic theologians of our time, perhaps of the last half-millennia. He’s a Christian intellectual, essentially an academic, unsuitable for the sound bite, and his real interest was theology, studying and explaining scripture, not in terms of reaching a specific policy, but explicating the world.

These are works of exegeses, that is, commentary on scripture and he engages not just scripture but other works of exegeses. For academic writing, which is usually written for an inner cabal of academics who basically write only for each other, it is immensely readable. It is the rare work that sustains academic muster yet is obviously for general readers as well. Both exegeses nerds and neophytes (I am somewhere in-between) will find these books engaging. He focuses on the gospels, the ministry, death and birth of Jesus. Aside from his references to other books of scriptural commentary, the core of this book examines the gospel’s relationship with the Torah, the law of the Moses, as well as other Old Testament books.

The main thesis is that Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses by being the human face of God. The human face reminds us that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Believers and non-believers know all this, and what I liked about this book most was not the recitation of what we already know. To make his case as he unpacks the life of Jesus documented in the Synoptic Gospels and John, Benedict keeps going back to the Old Testament, daring you to keep up with this rapid referencing. It’s intellectual Ping-Pong, from old to new testament and back again, to a selection of other works of exegeses, then to his own interpretation of all these sources. The fun is not so much about your faith, but keeping up with this original, highly intelligent and well-read mind. He keeps you at the edge of your intellectual seat.

In the Infancy narratives, the shortest of the three, he also engages an issue that has been bandied about in academic and atheistic circles for years, the Virgin birth. Turns out virgin births were common in myths of the time, in Egypt, Persia and elsewhere. Benedict points a clear difference between these myths and the gospels. The myths always have an impregnation of a god-figure with a mortal woman, the Christ story features an omnipresent power over matter itself, a miracle only possible if you happen to be the creator of matter. What impressed me about the argument was how Benedict seriously engaged these ancient myths. He did not dismiss them as tale of ignorant and backward cultures. He gives them the respect of a devoted scholar, then expounds on where the differences are, and those differences are significant.

Christianity: The First 3000 Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose scholarship on the ancient world from which Christianity emerged is unsurpassed, as well have other books on the era I am familiar with, discuss the other virgin birth narratives in the vicinity of Bethlehem in detail. But I have yet to see anyone examine the actual mythology with the depth of the German Pontiff. Yes, of course, he’s going to be pro-Nativity Story, but I have yet to see this level of analysis by anyone who dismisses the Jesus Nativity story because of virgin births stories existed elsewhere in in the ancient world. If you know of one, email me, I’d love to read it. Give Benedict credit for his intellectual honesty, he is both knowledgeable and fair towards these ancient myths and the cultures that believed them.

I was so taken with these books, which I read in succession and was enraptured by, that I read through two collections of his other writings, mainly homilies as well as some biographies. For more than a week, I couldn’t get enough Benedict. His other writings are pretty dry, but not the conservative demagogue the media might have us believe. One of his most conservative positions is about how only traditional music be played, and it turns out his brother, also a priest, is a major choral master in Germany. Anyway, his other writing may not have justified allegations against him, but they simply were not as inspired or as strongly written. The Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy reads like sharp literary criticism as much as it does compelling theology. The prose bristles with energy.

Reporters are lazy, audiences have short attention spans and basically everybody has made up their mind about the Catholic Church already. Benedict being a real ivory tower theologian was an impediment to coverage. He unknowingly invited caricature. To be fair, the scandals and controversies surrounding the church were better and more important stories than theological treatises that enhanced current doctrine and charted a new understanding of scripture.

My Benedict immersion was confusing too. There wasn’t just distance between his public person and the writer of the God is Love encyclical and the trilogy, these two men seemed like polar opposites. I wanted to find out why, which I didn’t really find out, but it was worth pondering even inconclusively,.

The Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy was such a rewarding read that reading the other writings and biographies, enhanced the reading experience. My last Benedict book was a collection of homilies one night, then woke up the news that he was going to be the first pope in 800 years or so to retire. More than a month of Pope news followed, and then we got Pope Francis, who is camera-friendly, ultra-liberal and unlike Benedict, charming. Now the pope news is a constant stream. Pope Francis’s statements on the economy and the poor are so right on. But all his statements echo the compassion Benedict reveals in his exegesis. God is love. Jesus is the human face of God. The extroverted Francis owes much to the introverted Benedict, which he has stated many times and if you read B-XVI’s trilogy, you see why. Benedict provides a scriptural and supernatural justification for Francis’s liberalism.