Friday, August 10, 2007

Ben Myers on Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth

A few days ago, Ben Myers posted a review of Gerd Ludemann's book on "The Pope's Jesus."

While I appreciate the fairness of the review to Benedict, I do take issue with a few things, mostly from this portion of the article.

Lüdemann’s longest chapter (pp. 95-120) is devoted to Benedict’s use of the Fourth Gospel, and it is here that some of the central problems in Benedict’s methodology are brought into view. Benedict privileges the Fourth Gospel and freely uses it as a source of historical information about Jesus, but he offers “no convincing arguments against the scholarly consensus that the Johannine discourses have nothing to do with what Jesus himself actually said” (p. 120). Of course, some scholars are more optimistic about identifying historically authentic layers in the Fourth Gospel; but it is nevertheless rather baffling to hear Benedict assert that “[t]he Jesus of the Fourth Gospel and the Jesus of the Synoptics is one and the same: the true ‘historical’ Jesus” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 111).

Such methodological shortcomings should be taken seriously in any evaluation of Benedict’s book. Indeed, the fact that Benedict presupposes the divine “inspiration” of the biblical texts is already a significant obstacle to historical understanding. Lüdemann is surely right to insist that the texts cannot be properly understood on the basis of any “supposed divine inspiration”: “Whoever has given a little finger to the historical-critical method must give the whole hand” (p. 151). Of course, I myself think it is still possible to confess the “inspiration” of the canon – but this confession should arise subsequently from an encounter with the witness of the texts, and should not be introduced as a methodological presupposition which guarantees the texts’ reliability in advance.

(Bold is my emphasis. Italics are in the original.)

I am not at all "baffled" by the pope's treatment of John as a legitimate source of knowledge about the historical Jesus, though I am a bit confused by Myers' bafflement. It seems to me rather as if his critique of the use of John introduces the same sort of faith/history dichotomy as Ludemann's, albeit in a less radical form.

That the Gospel of John tells us about the Jesus of faith is, I take it, relatively uncontroversial. Whether it tells us about the Jesus of history is not. But Benedict's basic point (as Myers seems to understand elsewhere in his review) is that the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are the same Jesus.

This being the case, it would appear that Myers' objection only makes sense if he is privileging the Jesus of history over against John's Jesus of faith. But this is the very thing that he takes issue with in Ludemann.

The relation between scripture and witness in my (and Benedict's?) understanding seems to be quite different from Myer's as well.

In my understanding, the primary witness to Christ is the church as a whole. Included in this, of course, is scripture (written by the early church). But scripture does not stand by itself as witness to it's authenticity and inspiration. The past and present of the community of faith also constitutes a witness to the inspiration of scripture.

Thus it makes sense to me that doing theology and exegesis within the community of faith (rather than engaging in "pure apologetics" or "academic theology") not only can, but should presuppose the inspiration of scripture.

I'm not sure whether this is a Catholic/Protestant difference, or whether certain forms of Protestantism can adopt a similar approach. I suspect that they can.