Vermes on Ratzinger

Geza Vermes has written a short review article on Joseph Ratzinger’s (alias Pope Benedict XVI) recently released book Jesus of Nazareth. I have always found great value in the writings of Vermes, but I find this short review to be hasty and entirely too superficial for this important work. I expected better, but instead found a review that reads like a caricature of pontificating professorship in high dudgeon. In fact, this rather snide, tossed-off little review has quite changed my opinion of him.

It appears that Vermes has skipped over entirely Ratzinger’s critique of the historical-critical method found in the foreword to the book, a critique that quite obviously, if implicitly, includes the historical Jesus research of Vermes. Considering that fully three-quarters of the article presents Vermes’ review of Jesus scholarship, marking rather arbitrarily the “quests” (“fads” would be a better word, if biblical studies weren’t such a boys’ club that always requires cool-to-boys terminology) for the historical Jesus, the time Vermes spends “reviewing” Ratzinger’s book itself is negligible. Indeed, I see no evidence of an actual reading of the book itself in the form of extensive interaction with Ratzinger’s stated goals in the foreword. He doesn’t even mention that it’s only the first volume of a two-volume work, or give much more detail than a peek at the table of contents would reveal. Vermes certainly doesn’t address Ratzinger’s critiques of the historical-critical method’s epistemological failings, but rather implies that Ratzinger simplistically brushed them aside, which is decidedly not the case. Did he even read the book?

I just love this from Vermes:

As a final comment, may I, after a lifetime of study of Judaism and early Christianity and in the light of hundreds of letters inspired by my books, voice the conviction that the powerful, inspirational and, above all, real figure of the historical Jesus is able to exercise a profound influence on our age, especially on people who are no longer impressed by traditional Christianity.

Pope Vermes of the Church of the Disaffected Hundreds? Over a billion and a half people are still impressed by “traditional Christianity” and find value in Pope Benedict’s approach, one billion of them finding value in him as a teacher in a way that Vermes has never experienced and will never experience. And those people actually find more value in the living Christ of the Gospels than in the often ridiculous entities proposed by modern “questers.” Not a single one of those inventions draws the interest that the Jesus of “blind faith in the literal truth of the Gospels” draws, nor will ever, including Vermes’ rather boring version, who is little different from Honi the Circle-Drawer, who of course must have a couple billion followers today, too, right, because he was so extraordinary? Oh wait…. Tiresome anti-Christian bigotry and an inept review: what a cocktail.

One thing I think is clear. This book Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict (Ratzinger) will come to be recognized as a watershed in a way that none of the other Jesus books ever has been or ever could be, a flaming sword between the Paradise of a faithful reading and application of all the Biblical texts fully informed by Patristic writings and Church Tradition yielding an image of the Living Jesus Christ, and the desert of academic historical-critical and other fads seeking a new and different contemporary Jesus to pad curricula vitae.

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

Just this last weekend, we had our annual Festival of Greece at our church, Ascension Cathedral in Oakland. I got to know some really great people from the church better over the weekend, for which I’m very thankful.

There was an odd little incident that stuck with me. A lady came into the icon booth, where I was helping out (inside the windmill, if you happened to be there; I was the guy with the baseball cap on) with her cute little son, probably on the short end of three years old, at most. The top of his head barely came up to the tables on which the icons were all laid out. But he reached up and held one up and put it back down, and then another and another, until he seemed to settle on one that really struck him, which he’d hold onto, all the while his mother was there looking on, making comments on the icons, and pointing out details and things like that. So far, so good. It was a really charming scene, seeing what looked like a pious little kid looking for a particular icon, which we’d seen a few times that day already, believe it or not. And then, it turned. The little boy kept going, picking up more icons, and more of them, too many for his little hands to hold, so they were about to fall all over the place. So his mom started taking them and putting them back, telling him one was enough. At that point the kid had a little tantrum, so she bought the one icon, and then took him out and away. Later on, he showed up again, starting to have a tantrum because his mother wouldn’t buy him a particularly shiny icon of the Theotokos. She said to me, “Sometimes you just have to tell him no,” and then she took him away. I thought, “Lady, that’s not my job.” But in a way it is.

Because later, I thought to myself, I’m that kid, and the Church is that lady. I want all these things, books, crosses, icons, whatever, that I justify my desire for through their connection with the Faith. What a spoiled little brat! There’s some hungry little collector inside that wants to amass all this stuff, exquisite as each piece may be. But one aspect of this Way is gaining control of the passions, and a passion for religious stuff is certainly part of that continuum of things needing control, lest it grow completely out of control into insatiable greed. The lesson is there to be learned, if we have eyes to see.

So, oddly enough, I’ve learned a very important lesson in the least expected of times from the least expected of directions: a child not even waist high yet. Sometimes, I just have to tell my internal acquisitive little pest, “No!”

Thanks, kid, and thanks, lady.