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.

11 Replies to “Vermes on Ratzinger”

  1. Kevin,

    Have you ever read N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2). And if so, how does does this book compare with Ratzinger

  2. Hi Ryan. I haven’t yet read NT Wright’s series. It’s on my to do list, so I’m sorry I can’t compare it.

    This Ratzinger book is certainly pastoral, but it also points a way similar to a direction that I’ve been going in a dialogue between critical and pastoral approaches, so to speak. There is one set of data, the writings and historical remnants, and the interpretation of these is multivalent. Depending upon one’s own presuppositions (on what reality is and the nature of knowledge, in technical-speak, ontological and epistemological presuppositions), one evaluates the evidence differently. Those open to a living experience of God of course find it gobsmackingly absurd to deny the Divine’s action in history. Others are adamant that such a thing is invention. It all comes down to that. Ratzinger’s criticisms of academic biblical criticism are entirely valid, and are actually necessary from a pastoral standpoint if one is interested in any kind of orthodoxy.

    Of course, modern Biblical criticism is a different animal. It is primarily done for its other practitioners, its own flock of the faithful, so to speak. The conferences, journals, papers, all these are paraphernalia of a kind of academic faith, with its own orthodoxy, its own fathers, and its own denominations. And this faith isn’t faring remotely as well as the above, judging by the disappearance of it from various universities, by drips and dribbles. Clearly its separation and distancing of itself from pastoral committment over the last century and more has led to its being, frankly, irrelevant, a series of ivory towers linked with glassine skywalks, all above the riff-raff that are the faithful that used to fund them and which supported their existence. It shouldn’t be too long before “Biblical Studies” as a field of study in secular academia will simply cease to exist, if trends continue.

    So in such an environment, Ratzinger’s book appears as a programmatic statement on how to salvage the best of what such criticism has accomplished, methodologically and otherwise, and not just to cherry-pick the conclusions for things with which the faithful agree, as has often occurred in the past. It is necessary for the Church, the Body of Christ, to be able to explain the past and the present, because this is a living faith in a living Person. It is necessary to appropriate and transform the field to something useful, relevant, and of permanent value to greater numbers of living people. The same transformation of individuals that is possible within that Faith is possible to effect on Biblical studies, and this is why I find Ratzinger’s book so important, as he points a direction with this stunning little book.

    I hope that helps.

  3. Quite enjoyed your post and your response above and added some remarks on my blog. “Edgecomb on Vermes on Ratzinger”
    We biblical scholars seem to get worried when a more pastoral approach is taken, but there has to be a way to do it well. I am not suggesting this book is that, but it could be a start to narrowing the chasm between theology and biblical studies.

  4. Thank you very much, Shawn. I enjoyed your post, as well.

    There are a few minor things I would quibble with in Ratzinger’s book, in the historical realm, but otherwise the book is precisely what you mention, a fine example of a new direction.

    Mike Aquilina at The Way of the Fathers had an advance copy of the book and told me that as he was reading it, every other page he thought, “Kevin is going to love this.” And he was right. It’s exactly the kind of approach that I’ve been focusing on. It’s good to have it expressed by someone who’s such a brilliant scholar as Ratzinger, and who is also such an amazing pastor as Pope Bendedict!

    I just read yesterday that the Greek edition of the book has an afterword by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, so I’m going to have to get a copy of that. It’ll be fascinating, I’m sure.

  5. I think there’s more than a chance of that….

    Actually, I don’t know modern Greek at all. I’m thinking to bump it up the list, though, since it’d be helpful to talk to alot of folks at church. But I’ll have plenty of help to get that translated, I’m sure.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the afterword and a translation were posted on this website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, though, beating me to the punch, as it’s specifically devoted to Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the Patriarchate, so that would be a good place for it to show up. Or the regular website. But I’ll definitely give it a shot.

  6. Hi Kevin,
    Enjoyed your comments on the new book. Although I’m not Catholic, and I don’t plan on being so anytime soon, I really, really respect Pope Benedict, and also love his “Jesus of Nazareth” so far. My only real familiarity with the ‘search for the historical Jesus’ is through A. Schweitzer and David Strauss, the former of whose autobiography I read in high school and the latter whom I read in college in a Victorian lit class (I was surprised to learn that George Eliot translated the dense German scholar). All that said, I find the Pope’s book incredibly moving – I get the feeling that he is trying to ‘redeem the scholarship’ without forcing it. I don’t know how accurate that premonition is, though.

    I’d be very interested in reading that afterword by Patriarch Bartholomew as well.

  7. Thanks again, Taylor. Schweitzer was amazing, wasn’t he? The man was a true polymath. I’ll recommend Monsignor John Meier’s recent three volumes of A Marginal Jew, of which there’s supposed to be another volume coming still. His coverage of the historical Jesus phenomenon is full enough to bore to tears, but more than thorough. It really is the fullest coverage of the subject. I find its importance to lie precisely in showing the limitations of a purely “historical” approach for the reconstruction.

    Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, has been one of my favorite writers for quite some time, particularly because of his work on Biblical interpretation. I’m very much enjoying this book, too. I think you’re spot-on with the “redeeming the scholarship” idea. He’s very much doing that, it seems. And just as the universal tools of artists have in the past been taken up for the glorification of the Church, so Pope Benedict has taken up the universal tools of the scholar to make a new work of art. Those tools exist, and can be used well or poorly, though usually it’s the latter. His is a good lead to follow!

  8. Yes, Schweitzer was quite an amazing man – theology, medicine, missionary work, organs, Bach – you name it, he was somehow making his mark.

    As a literature person, I understand that the search for any ‘reality’ behind the texts of the gospels is misguided (if it does this in an attempt to discredit the Jesus of the Gospels), not because there’s no reality out there – ‘il n’y a pas de hors texte’ as Derrida would say – but because the search is for a kind of rationalistic, scientific certainty that does not apply when we are talking about the human personality. Perhaps I’m beating up a straw man of historical criticism rather than the real thing – as I said, my familiarity is slight and right now I’m thinking of the Jesus Seminar, which I know is also discredited in many academic circles. But, to me, even the basic idea of ‘uncovering the real Jesus by stripping away those old-fashioned ideas about divinity and the miraculous’ betrays the movement’s 19th-Century, ‘scientism’ roots.

    However, if we believe that Jesus was God come down in history, then the historical method also has tremendous potentiality, as long as it doesn’t attempt to ‘lock up’ Christ in history, so to speak – which seems to be what Ratzinger is realizing.

    There’s lots more that could be said about this, but I’d like to hear what you think of my characterization. Is it accurate?

  9. Sounds good to me, Taylor! I think that’s a consistent perspective of Ratzinger in this book, that of the God in history, as opposed to God vs. history. I’m completely with him on that, as would have been the OT prophets and the NT apostles, and the Church Fathers without a blink.

    I think a book that you might enjoy, which describes the development of modern Biblical Studies as a field and the way that the historical-critical method was born, is What Have They Done to the Bible? — A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation, by John Sandys-Wunsch. He doesn’t cover the twentieth century, but the (sometimes very silly) foundations of the entire edifice of modern biblical criticism are explained very nicely, sometimes in summary, sometimes at greater length. Two recent books to deal with the development of the “Numbered Fads of the Historical Jesus” (which I think I’ll start calling them now, rather akin to the Second Age of the Pogo Stick, or Third Era of the Hula Hoop) that I found to be good and not too technical were Jesus of Nazareth: Millennarian Prophet by Dale Allison, and Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium by Bart Ehrman. Much more detailed (and expensive) is John Meier’s still incomplete three volume A Marginal Jew, volumes One, Two, and Three. Another interesting pair of books is one directed precisely against the pseudo-scholarship of the Jesus Seminar itself, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, and the other explaining, along the lines of Ratzinger’s book, how the Jesus of the Gospels is the historical Jesus, titled Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, are both by Luke Timothy Johnson. My first foray into the whole Historical Jesus thing was with C. Stephen Evans’ The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (I bought mine in 1998 or 1999, so perhaps this Amazon listing is for a new edition, or they simply have the date wrong; Amazon.co.uk has 1996). Evans is trained in philosophy, and picks apart the assumptions behind many of the historical Jesus faddists’ work quite effectively, but it’s a bit dense, and not as directly informative of the issues if you don’t already know them, so you might want to save that for later.

    I hope those help!

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