What Excellent Exegesis Looks Like: Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth & the Parousia

If you want see what excellent Catholic exegesis looks like, there is no better place to look than the two (and soon to be three) volumes of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. Today we’re going to treat the problem of the parousia by following Benedict’s lead in his chapter entitled “Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse.” The discourse he has in mind covers roughly the same biblical passages discussed in my previous two posts on Benedict XVI’s Eschatology. If this is your first time reading this series on the parousia, I also recommend reading the first post to fully appreciate the problem at hand: namely, that it seems the early Church erroneously expected the Second Coming would take place in the first century (which we living two millennia later can safely say did not occur).

To give you an insight into Benedict’s mind on this matter, it is significant that he begins his discussion with these words: “This discourse, found in all three Synoptic Gospels with certain variations, could perhaps be described as the most difficult text in the whole of the Gospels.” This fear-inspiring claim should remain with us and keep us humble as we continue our work of exegeting Benedict’s exegesis.

One of the pope’s first paragraphs on the subject reveals striking similarities with his treatments of the Parousia we have already explored:

While this vision of things to come is expressed largely through images drawn from tradition, intended to point us towards realities that defy description, the difficulty of the content is compounded by all the problems arising from the text’s redaction history: the very fact that Jesus’ words here are intended as continuations of tradition rather than literal descriptions of things to come meant that the redactors of the material could take these continuations a stage further, in the light of their particular situations and their audience’s capacity to understand, while taking care to remain true to the essential content of Jesus’ message.

Here we find key terms and expressions that recur throughout Benedict’s writings and so offer a key to solving our problem. Whereas in Eschatology he distinguished “schema” or literary presentation from “reality,” in this text he distinguishes “images” from “realities.” The images or literary presentation, he observes, is bound up with the Gospels’ “redaction history”–a term used in historical-critical exegesis to denote the process by which the biblical books were gradually compiled, edited, and adapted until reaching their canonical form.

Like many historical-critical scholars, Benedict does not assume that the Gospels contain a word-for-word transcript of Jesus’ discourses at every point. Rather, Jesus’ words here represent “continuations of tradition…tradition that preceded Jesus and tradition which developed after his return to the Father. Thus he says that “the redactors of the material could take these continuations a stage further, in the light of their particular situations and their audience’s capacity to understand.”

How, then, do we know what the truth of the matter is? Do we really know what Jesus said concerning his Second Coming? What Benedict states–tersely but profoundly–is that the Evangelists took care “to remain true to the essential content of Jesus’ message.” Here again as we have seen elsewhere in his corpus, Benedict searches out the intention of a particular biblical passage in order to ascertain its essential content. He is clear that not every single word in Scripture is being asserted or taught for its own sake, and so difficult passages must be understood within the whole of each individual author’s work and in light of the entirety of Scripture.

As for the question of whether one particular statement can be verified as a direct quote from Jesus, Benedict is open to various answers, but he reminds his audience that this is really a peripheral issue. To draw a Theistic distinction, since we know the essence or substance of Jesus’ message, the extent to which we can verify its many features as issuing from Jesus’ own human mouth is an accidental matter. Hence he states, “The extent to which particular details of the eschatological discourse are attributable to Jesus himself we need not consider here. That he foretold the demise of the temple–its theological demise, that is, from the standpoint of salvation history–is beyond doubt.”

What is Benedict getting at with this talk of the Temple’s “theological demise”? Why not just speak of the physical demise it underwent at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70? I would be interested to have some discussion on this, but it seems to me that Benedict speaks in this way so as to leave open the question of whether or not Jesus foretold the destructive events in question.

[If you’re not familiar with the debate that lies behind this, let me just pause briefly to explain. Many modern scholars doubt that Jesus prophesied the end of the Temple. They believe that the Gospel authors sought to convey Jesus’ message by putting words into his mouth after the events had unfolded in history, and for this reason they would not say the words in question here represent true prophecies. Now, one of the criticisms that Benedict has leveled at certain scholars is their presupposition that miracles and prophecy cannot occur (on this see his Erasmus Lecture and his Introduction to Vol. 1 of Jesus, for example). Nevertheless, Benedict does not throw the baby out with the bath water. Not all scholars think this way, and in any case their scholarly conclusions may be correct even if their presuppositions sometimes are not. All truth, no matter what its source, is of the Holy Spirit.]

The Holy Father thus argues, “[T]he nucleus of Jesus’ prophecy is concerned not with the outward events of war and destruction, but with the demise of the Temple in salvation-historical terms, as it becomes a “˜deserted house.’ It ceases to be the locus of God’s presence and the locus of atonement for Israel, indeed, for the world.” This talk of a textual nucleus is another way of referring to its essential content or core. As far as I can tell, Benedict is indicating that the issue of whether Jesus prophesied the physical demise of the temple is an accidental issue. Maybe he did, but maybe he did not. Either way, the Gospel message remains the same. This is not stated out of indifference or lack of careful attention to the biblical text, but is rather Benedict’s way of drawing a distinction that makes sense out of what would otherwise be a contradiction.

In this we see that Benedict humbly welcomes the questions and observations of modern scholars which at first glance appear incompatible with the Christian tradition. His genius, however, does not lie in this charitable attitude alone. It consists in the fact that he entertains the best of modern thought while at the same time remaining true to the constant tradition of the Church, endeavoring a synthesis between the two at points where most people on both sides of the exegetical isle would say such harmony is impossible.


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