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Ratzinger on Jesus (Or: Sometimes We All See What We Want in the Text, Even If It’s Not Really There)

February 2, 2012

I do not make a habit of reading papal publications. It’s not that I have a particular bias against them, I just don’t find them particularly interesting for what I do. However, this semester I am making an exception. I am reading through Ratzinger’s two books on Jesus. I thought they might serve as  interesting and different supplemental reading for my course on the Life and Teachings of Jesus.

Let me provide a little context. I begin nearly every biblical course I teach with this statement: “I have a set of lenses you cannot see, but without which I cannot see.” This disclosure is meant to lead to a frank discussion of how our individual lenses guide, color, and even taint our interpretation of texts. In reality, what we bring to a given text is often as determinative in our interpretation (if not more so), than what we actually find in the text. I contend that we cannot do responsible exegesis, nor can we enter into intellectually-honest dialogue with one another unless we are honest about this fact. I take as my case in point, Ratzinger on Jesus.

His first book begins with a foreword that is essentially an overview of the methodology he will be using. This seems like a good place for him to start. Ratzinger makes it clear that he is using a historical-critical approach, guided by canonical criticism all set in the context of the Roman Catholic tradition. From there, he proceeds to an exposition of Jesus’ life and vocation, using the four canonical gospels as something of a “mosaic” from which to discuss these issues.

In his exposition of Jesus’ baptism and calling he writes:

A broad current of liberal scholarship has interpreted Jesus’ Baptism as a vocational experience. After having led a perfectly normal life in the province of Galilee, at the moment of his Baptism he is said to have had an earth-shattering experience. It was then, we are told, that he became aware of his special relationship to God and his religious mission. The mission, moreover, supposedly originated from the expectation motif then dominant in Israel, creatively shaped by John, and from the emotional upheaval that the event of his Baptism brought about in Jesus’ life. But none of this can be found in the texts [of the gospels] (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 23, emphasis added).

Everything Ratzinger affirms in this paragraph is true. Now, let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether it’s legitimate to speculate and make constructions based upon things that are not in the biblical texts (for the record, I think such extra-textual constructions are necessary). For Ratzinger, this critique becomes a criterion to dismiss a particular way of thinking about Jesus. If it’s not in the texts, it’s probably not a legitimate conclusion.

However, just a page earlier in the same chapter we find Ratzinger’s reconstruction of Jesus’ baptism, based on the four gospels. He discusses the baptismal scene in each of the Synoptic accounts. He then turns to the Fourth Gospel and goes directly to the Baptist’s pronouncement that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” (1:29, 36).  The Gospel of John says nothing about a baptism, yet Ratzinger ignores this and writes:

The reference to the Lamb of God interprets Jesus’ Baptism, his descent into the abyss of death, as a theology of the Cross, if we may so express it. All four Gospels recount in their different ways that, as Jesus came up from the water, heaven was ‘torn open’ (Mk 1:10) or ‘was opened’ (Mt 3:16; Lk 3:21); that the Spirit came down upon him ‘like a dove’; and that in the midst of all this a voice from heaven resounded (p. 22, emphasis added).

Ratzinger’s observation about the the testimony of “all four Gospels” is incorrect. At no point in his discussion does he make it clear that John’s Gospel has no baptismal scene. In fact, the evangelist goes out of the way to avoid the suggestion that the Baptist has baptized Jesus. Everywhere we see the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel he is informing everyone that he is simply an unworthy forerunner to Jesus. He must decrease while Jesus must increase.  This so-called “anti-Baptist polemic” of the Fourth Gospel has been a prominent discussion in Johannine studies for years, yet Ratzinger ignores this in favor of a more “catholic” interpretation of the literature.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not fault Ratzinger for having or even using his own interpretive “lenses.” What I balk at, however, is the double standard of suggesting that someone else must demonstrate his/her argument “from the text” when he does not always do the same. I am going to mention this to my class in today’s lecture as a means of fostering greater dialogue about the exegetical process. But for now, can we be honest and admit that there are times when all of us find what we are looking for in the text? This would make many of our conversations more enjoyable and much more intellectually-honest.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Casey permalink
    February 22, 2012 10:02 pm

    One thing about the Pope, or pretty much any Pope, is that he doesn’t write within the community of scholars who subject one another’s work to critical scrutiny. This is analogous to his manner of dress: you never see the Pope wearing anything but papal vestments so as to maintain the aura of otherworldliness and authority that his position must project. Similarly, the Pope does not take up in detail the arguments of other writers. I noticed that he failed to mention by name the scholars he refers to in the quoted passage. Perish the thought that they might be prompted to reply! Scholarly exchange has too much the quality of mud-slinging for the average Vicar of Christ. This is a common feature of papal writings in saecula saeculorum. I have come to believe that what it gains him in sheer authority by conjuring an aura of “above the fray” pronouncement, it negates in terms of persuasive power, at least to the eyes of a critical reader. The truth is that if the Pope entered into substantive exchange, his knowledge would be shown to be deficient relative to scholars specializing in the field. He would, at any rate, be called on things such as the inconsistency you called him on. This could never be allowed, since it would puncture the reputation of the papal office. Kudos to those who throw themselves headlong into the dialectic, I say.

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