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Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

The following is a book review of the pope’s book on Jesus: Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007).  In this book Ratzinger applies a methodology he discusses more fully elsewhere, I have attempted to describe Ratzinger’s methodology before reviewing the book, asking whether he is true to his own methodology.  Thus a full bibliography and all footnotes appear at the end of the post.


The quest for the historical Jesus has led to a dizzying “jungle” of contradictory reconstructions that make the possibility of having friendship with Jesus seem like “clutching at thin air.”[1]  Ratzinger thinks there is an urgent need for “a criticism of criticism”—that is, a criticism of historical criticism.[2]  He offers an alternative approach that he hopes will, in the end, make Jesus more “intelligible”[3] than the litany of speculative reconstructions.  Ratzinger wants to take us from the quest for the historical Jesus to the request for authentic exegesis.    

Proposing the Methodological Synthesis

Ratzinger only articulates what he considers a viable alternative methodology for biblical interpretation after first criticizing what he considers to be the dominant methodology: the exclusive use of the historical-critical method.  Thus, his articulation has two aspects: a negative critique and a positive alternative.  The latter should be understood in light of the former.  The problem, as Ratzinger sees it, with the dominant methodology is at least twofold.  First, the historical-critical method, although yielding great insights, has an inherent limitation: it must limit itself only to the past, and therefore has an inability to speak to the present,[4] and 2) it excludes a priori the supernatural and thereby “determines in advance what may or may not be.”[5]  If the former negative critique is self-explanatory (the historical method is proper concerned, not with making a text “speak” to today, but only with history) the latter needs more explanation. 

Ratzinger believes that the dominant methodology in biblical interpretation, taking its direction from the historical-critical methodology, attempts to impose the scientific method of natural sciences on biblical interpretation.  He believes the most influential application of this methodology has taken the form of a “simplistic transferal of science’s evolutionary model to spiritual history.”[6]  Although the details of biblical interpretation are debated, Ratzinger believes the dominant methodology for modern exegesis is the same.[7]  The presupposition of this “scientific” (read: naturalistic) method is that all reports of supernatural phenomenon in the Bible must be assumed to be non-historical and explained by way of evolutionary development of some sort from the simple to the complex.[8]  That is, the Bible is divided into pieces that come from various hypothetical sources, which pieces contradict each other because they are snapshots of the different stages of the development of Christology.[9]  Because this application depends on the naturalistic presuppositions of the historical-critical method—and on the Kantian premise that “the other” is unintelligible or unknowable—the “debate” over exegesis is not so much about history, Ratzinger argues, but more about philosophy.  “Faith itself is not a component of this method, nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events.”[10] 

Once one understands this negative critique, Ratzinger’s proposal for an alternative methodology is more easily apprehended.  First, the exegete cannot exclude the possibility that God could “speak” in human words and also “act” in history.[11]  To do so would confuse the distinction between a naturalistic methodology (explaining history in purely naturalistic ways) and a naturalistic worldview (that excludes the possibility anything supernatural).[12]  Second, one must supplant the assumption of discontinuity (derived from the evolutionary model) with one of “organic continuity” between the Old and New Testaments.[13]  Ratzinger calls this the analogia scripturae (the analogy of scripture) in which one assumes that Bible is indeed a unified book, coherent and intelligible.  After all, this is the way the church—who accepted the canonical literature as a whole—understood it. 

With these principles at work, the process of exegesis is twofold.  First one must interpret the text in light of its historical origins and proper historical context.  This part of exegesis is indespensible because “it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events.”[14]  Second, one must go beyond this to understand the texts in light of what Ratzinger calls “the total movement of history” and in light of Jesus Christ as the center of that history.[15]  This second step involves what Ratzinger calls a “Christological hermeneutic.”[16]  It also involves the aforementioned analogia scripturae which Ratzinger understands to be based in practice of canonical exegesis.  He also believes this canonical approach allows for human utterances to have more meaning than what the human author may have been “immediately aware of at the time.”[17]  Only by combining these two steps in a methodological synthesis can one arrive at an authentic understanding of the Bible.[18]

I will now limit my critique to just three chapter’s of Ratzinger’s book.    

Chapter 1: The Baptism of Jesus

The first thing to note about Ratzinger’s first chapter in Jesus of Nazareth on Jesus’ baptism is that Ratzinger has certainly employed a Christological hermeneutic.  He understands the genealogies, as well as the baptism of Jesus, to have a universal scope—and this places Jesus as the centerpiece of real history.  Ratzinger makes the case that Jesus’ baptism should be understood as a repetition of all of world history (both past and future) where Jesus wins a cosmic battle with the Devil who holds all people captive.[19]  Since his baptism is an anticipation of the cross and resurrection, it is Jesus’ descent into the inferno (the underworld) and his taking on the sins of the whole world as one who is equal with God[20] which also makes him and “the true Jonah.”[21] 

Ratzinger gets to these sorts of conclusions, however, by a complicated series of claims and associations that he does not sufficiently ground.  He himself appreciates how easily it could appear that he has strayed from the text, for he asks “Has this ecclesiastical interpretation and rereading of the event of Jesus’ Baptism taken us too far away from the Bible?”  He then seeks to show how this is not the case by arguing that John’s “lamb symbolism” includes all this.[22]   He appeals to Joachim Jeremias briefly in support.  To be fair, the imagery that connects Jesus with the Passover lamb may establish Jesus as the one who, through his death, saves Israel, and on Isaiah and John the Baptist’s words, “the whole world.”  Yet it is not clear how this necessarily entails the gospel writer’s wanting us to see Jesus’ baptism as a recapitulation of all of world history and a descent into hell.  There is a considerable gap, then, between the ambitious exegetical points that Ratzinger wants to make here, and the legwork he exercises to establish his points well.  Other problems appear with his exegesis.  For example, he supports his claim that Jesus descended into hell by citing Cyril of Jerusalem,[23] but this is neither a responsible Christological hermeneutic or historical-critical method—it is an appeal to a church father.      

Ratzinger also fails to seriously engage the historical-critical method.  When he seeks to support his claims by appealing to others scholars, this is the exception.  In fact, it is so rare that it appears random.  Why, for example, does he appeal to Gnilka to support his association of the Spirit with the dove of Jesus’ baptism, but not offer any scholarly backing on the rest of his analysis of the symbolism of John’s baptism or his suggestion that Jesus and John were possibly close to the Qumran community?  For the most part, he simply makes all sorts of associations and claims about the text without taking the time to carefully explain how he is confident that his interpretation is well supported.  For example, he tells us the key to understanding Jesus’ response to John (about fulfilling all righteousness) is in understanding the word “righteousness” as this: Jesus’ “Yes to God’s will” and his expression of solidarity with all mankind—even a “confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness.”[24]  Exactly how Ratzinger knows all this is unclear, for he does not offer any lucid exegetical argumentation. 

He bases a great deal of his analysis on his understanding of the ritual of Baptism during Jesus time.[25]  He asserts that baptism, through its water symbolism, had at least six different meanings (death, life, purification, liberation, new beginnings, resurrection).  He does not take the trouble to give the reader indication of whether there are differences or uncertainties among biblical critics about the symbolism of baptism in Second Temple Judiasm or among the Essenes.  The way he makes so many claims about the meanings of John’s baptism one is left to assume Ratzinger must believe there is simply unanimous agreement about such questions.  He treats them as certain and uncontroversial, then bases his further conclusions on them.  He simply tells us that the water of baptism was a symbol of death because the waters were associated with the destructive powers of ocean floods, and yet it was also a symbol of life since rivers were a source of life.  But how do we know that this is how John the Baptist was likely to understand his baptism?  How likely is it that John the Baptist—possibly being an Essene—would have incorporated all these possible symbolisms (some of which are opposite in meaning) into his water baptism?  Ratiznger gives us no confidence that he is grounding what he says on careful study.  He simply continues to add more and more meaning to the symbolism—it also means “purification” (in what sense?), liberation from the past (how do we know?), and therefore new birth.[26]

Finally, in terms of the more critical questions about the legitimacy of gospel authorship, the authenticity of the texts he quotes from, whether the gospel writers might be giving a “supernatural” spin to natural events—all these sorts of critical questions are ignored.  The answers to these questions, however, are assumed: the gospel writers are to be trusted.  Not once does Ratzinger really call into question the truth of their accounts. For example, he makes passing mention of Jesus being equal to God.[27]  He simply notes in passing (and with excitement) that all the anticipations of Jesus baptism have “now become reality”![28]  While Ratzinger remains faithful to his promise to go beyond the historical-critical method and take a faith-posture to the text, those who expected a serious engagement with the historical-critical method are likely to be very disappointed by his neglect to establish his assumptions.

Chapter Six: The Disciples

Chapter six is full of digressions that do not appear to relate to the text Ratizinger hopes to exegete.  After pointing out that Jesus sent the disciples to preach and cast out demons, he somehow winds up making the point that when we belong to Jesus the allure of everything else in the world looses its power.[29]  Ratzinger then makes the point that to “exorcise” the world is to establish “reason,” which reminds him of a passage from one of Paul’s letters and a quote from Heinrich Schlier about the threat of the “anonymous atmosphere.”[30]  These points all seem miles away from the concern of the text.  They are more like devotional meditations than an exegesis of the passages under consideration.  That is not to say that I cannot see the purported connections that Ratzinger is trying to make—they just do not seem appropriate for someone attempting an exegetical approach to scripture (read: they are not, strictly speaking, points from the text). 

I find him in a similar excursion when after noting that Jesus gave the apostles power to heal the sick and blind, he explains how becoming spiritually one with God is true healing, which is a process.[31]  One must also, in this process of healing, use her power of “reason.”[32]  Now is all that really the point of Jesus’ giving the disciples power to heal the deaf, dumb, and blind in the gospels?  If so, it is not obvious, and Ratzinger does not make any such argument. 

This is not to say that Ratzinger makes no effort at interacting with scholarly work in this chapter.  For example, he appeals to recent scholarship to clarify that “the Cananaean” means “the Zealot”; he shows knowledge that some manuscripts have Christ sending out seventy two disciples to preach and heal (rather than seventy); he dismisses some scholars who argue that “Boanerges” indicates that John and James were associated with the Zealot movement, etc.[33]  However, overall, his treatment of the text does not seem very focused.  He deviates from the exegetical task so often and for so long that he has to keep writing: “Let us return to our text” (because there is no other smooth transition back to the text![34]).  This makes his engagement with exegesis superficial.  One sometimes gets the impression that he only interacts with exegetical points long enough to springboard into a devotional thought. 

Chapter Nine: Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration

Chapter nine betrays a more sustained focus and better interaction with historical-critical scholarship.  The gospel writers, Ratzinger argues, want us to see Peter’s confession only in tandem with the his suffering on the cross.  He grounds this premise in the structure of the synoptic gospels, and therefore in the text.[35]  He also places his understanding of the confession in John on the structure of John’s gospel.[36]  I find his meditation about world religions having a “correct” but inadequate understanding of Jesus much closer to the text than some of his other detours.[37]  He sustains a meaningful interaction with Pierre Grelot in which he gives arguments and reasons for concluding that Grelot’s historical reconstruction is “on the wrong track” and asserts that “scholarship overplays its hand” in such reconstructions.[38]  Also, Ratzinger gives us an idea of different ways people have interpreted the time references in the story of the transfiguration before revealing which understanding he favors.[39]

Nevertheless, pieces of the exegesis in chapter nine are still debatable, and some of them lack serious interaction with the historical-critical method.  His assumption that the disciples understood Jesus’ divinity before his resurrection is debatable, and engagement with differing opinions of scholars on this issue would have been more helpful.[40]  In his discussion of the Feast of Tabernacles, he does not give his sources for the three aspects of Jewish feasts.[41]  Is this threefold designation the way Jews summarize the meaning of all their feasts or is this simply expedient for making a Christological point?  One is left to wonder.  Also, his point that Jesus’ glow during the Transfiguration came from “within” whereas Moses came from “without” is not in the text.[42]          

Conclusion: Practicing The Methodological Synthesis

One might agree with Ratzinger’s methodological proposal as stated above, yet be unhappy about the way he performs this method.  One can understand the “rules” of a game and still loose that game by not playing well.  Whether Ratzinger has the right rules for properly authentic exegesis is one question, whether he has played the game well by them well is quite another.  In order for Ratzinger to play well by the rules he has set out, he must first do justice to the insights of the historical-critical method (step one) and then surpass these insights through a faith-wrought Christological hermeneutic that does justice to the analogia scripturae.  As my analysis shows, Ratzinger delivers on his promise to employ a Christological hermeneutic (step 2).  Still one might wish at times that he would employ this hermeneutic more responsibly, and it should be clear that there will be a wide range of understandings about how this part of his synthesis is to be executed. 

The question of whether he delivers on his promise to give serious attention to the historical-critical method is more debatable.  Since according to Ratzinger’s own categories, the historical-critical method does not require faith, it should be noted that the majority of Ratzinger’s insights assume and require faith on the part of the interpreter.  This indicates that the bulk of his book is an attempt to harvest the fruits of his understanding of the Christological hermeneutic.  Since whatever insights appear to require faith, according to his terms, should not be counted as insights proper to the historical-critical method, it should be clear that while Ratzinger has included this step in his methodology, he has used it only sparsely. 

This raises a further question.  Does Ratzinger intend to ground his Christological method in some way on the historical-critical method?  Since the methodology as Ratzinger lays it out has numbered steps, we should be inquiring about whether he applies these steps in their numerical order.  In fact, however, it does not appear that he has even remotely attempted to systematically begin with the historical-critical method before moving to draw his Christological insights.  Therefore, either he has failed his own method or—what is more likely—the numbering of his steps was not intended to be understood as an ordering of the steps.  If this is the case, given Ratzinger’s performance as evaluated above, it seems appropriate to ask: Can the authentic exegete get carried away with drawing all sorts of Christological points in his exegesis while paying scarce attention to the historical-critical method?



Crandall, G. Allan. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Dialog 47, no. 1 (2008): 82 – 84.

Hays, Richard B. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. First Things, no. 175 (Ag-S 2007): 49 – 53.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 318 – 320.

Morgan, Robert. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Expository Times 119, no. 6 (2008): 282 – 283.

Ratzinger, Joseph. “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today.” This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life. Reprint N.p., Summer 1988.

________. Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.  



[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), xvi.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, Reprint N.p. (Summer 1988): 6. 

[3] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xxii.

[4] Ibid., xvi.

[5] Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 16. 

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 8. “It goes without saying that the form-critical works of Dibelius and Bultmann have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in their details.  But it is likewise true that their basic methodlogical approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis.  Their essential elements underlie more than their own historical and theological judgments and, to be sure, these have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.” 

[8] Ibid, 13. 

[9] Ibid., 14. “It is with this basic conviction that Bultmann, with the majority of modern exegetes, read the Bible.  He is certain that it cannot be the way it is depicted in the Bible, and he looks for methods to prove the way it really had to be.” 

[10] Ibid., 4. 

[11] Ibid., 16. “He may not exclude a priori that (almighty) God could speak in human words in the world.  He may not exclude that God himself could enter into and work in human history, however improbable such a thing might at first appear.”  This also corresponds to Ratzinger’s language about giving equal weight to both “word” and “event.” Ibid., 17.   

[12] Ibid.  “Such evidence is admissible only under the presupposition that the principle of scientific method, namely that ever effect which occurs can be explained in terms of purely immanent relationships within the operation itself, is not only valid methodologically but is true in and of itself.” 

[13] Ibid., 17. 

[14] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xv.

[15] Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 17.

[16] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xix. 

[17] Ibid. 

[18] Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 17. 

[19] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, 20. 

[20] Ibid., 20. 

[21] Ibid., 18. 

[22] Ibid., 21. 

[23] Ibid., 19. 

[24] Ibid., 17.

[25] Ibid., 15-16.

[26] Ibid., 16. 

[27] Ibid., 20. 

[28] Ibid., 18. 

[29] Ibid., 174.

[30] Ibid., 174 – 175.

[31] Ibid., 176 – 177. 

[32] Ibid., 177. 

[33] Ibid., 177 – 179. 

[34] Ibid., 172, 177.

[35] Ibid., 287. 

[36] Ibid., 289. 

[37] Ibid., 291. 

[38] Ibid., 303. 

[39] Ibid., 306. 

[40] Ibid., 304 – 305. 

[41] Ibid., 307. 

[42] Ibid.,310.


1 Comment

  1. […] Book Review: The God of Jesus Christ by Pope Benedict XVI The following is a book review of Pope Benedict XVI’s book, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God (see below for bibliographic information).  For more reviews on Pope Benedict (previously known at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before taking the office of papacy) click here. […]

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