I am ecstatic to announce the publication of my new book Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels. It is available now on Amazon.com. This one was a work of love, and I am grateful to the many people– especially my family and the staff at CUA Press–for making it happen.
In this sequel volume to his Dark Passages of the Bible (CUA Press, 2013), author Matthew Ramage turns his attention from the Old to the New Testament, now tackling truth claims bearing directly on the heart of the Christian faith cast into doubt by contemporary New Testament scholarship: Did God become man in Jesus, or did the first Christians make Jesus into God? Was Jesus’ resurrection a historical event, or rather a myth fabricated by the early Church? Will Jesus indeed return to earth on the last day, or was this merely the naïve expectation of ancient believers that reasonable people today ought to abandon?
In addition to examining the exegetical merits of rival answers to these questions, Ramage considers also the philosophical first principles of the exegetes who set out to answer them. This, according to Joseph Ratzinger, is the debate behind the debate in exegesis: whose presuppositions best position us for an accurate understanding of the nature of things in general and of the person of Jesus in particular?
Insisting upon the exegetical vision of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as a privileged avenue by which to address the thorniest issues in contemporary biblical exegesis, Ramage puts the emeritus pontiff’s hermeneutic of faith into dialogue with contemporary exponents of the historical-critical school. Carrying forth the “critique of the critique” called for by Joseph Ratzinger, Ramage offers the emeritus pontiff’s exegesis of the gospels as a plausible and attractive alternative to the mainstream agnostic approach exemplified in the work of Bart Ehrman.
As in the case of Benedict’s Jesus trilogy upon which he draws extensively, Ramage’s quest in this book is not merely academic but also existential in nature. Benedict’s scholarship represents the fruit of his personal quest for the face of Christ, a quest which involves the commitment to engage, critique, and learn from the most serious challenges posed by modern biblical criticism while arming the foundations of the Christian faith.
This book, building on his previous work, secures Matthew Ramage’s place among the most important theologians of our day. Through his balanced and brilliant readings of Ehrman and Ratzinger/Benedict, Ramage boldly addresses precisely the exegetical questions that are causing many laypeople, influenced by Ehrman and others, to lose their faith in Christ. Ramage’s solutions, rooted in Benedict’s but ably supplementing them, deserve the widest attention. I simply cannot praise this book highly enough.
– Matthew Levering, James N. and Mary Dr. Perry Jr. Chair ofTheology, Mundelein Seminary
Two of the best-selling authors on Jesus that are alive today are the agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. In this thought-provoking new study, Matthew Ramage puts these two seemingly diametrically opposed figures–Ehrman and Benedict–into extensive conversation with one another. The result is an in-depth exploration that should be required reading for any scholar interested in the historical Jesus and the truth of the Gospels.
– Brant Pitre, Notre Dame Seminary, New Orleans
“A timely and important book. For those tapped into religious discourse in popular culture today, Bart Ehrman is a household name, and his work has caused much confusion. Catholics very much need an approach to Scripture that is both faithful to the magisterium of the Church and at the same time honest about the difficulties found in the Bible. Ramage’s work does a great service.”
– Issac Morales, OP, Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC
In this post we’ll continue and conclude our discussion of the parousia with a few more words on the second volume of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. As we saw last time, the Holy Father described Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse as “perhaps the most difficult text in the whole of the Gospels.” On this subject we explored Benedict’s distinction between the “images” Jesus employed and the “realities” that comprise the “essential content” or “nucleus” of his teaching on the end times. Benedict argued that the intention of the Evangelists did not lie in describing the physical but rather the theological demise of the Temple. As to whether the sacred authors of Scripture thought the Second Coming would occur in their day, in some places he indicates that this was the case. Ultimately, however, he left the question open and deemed it a non-essential issue.
Today I would like to turn our attention to Benedict’s ensuing discussion which adds nuance to the foregoing argument. Immediately after elucidating what he considers to be the “nucleus” of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, he adds that “the nucleus of Jesus’ eschatological message includes the proclamation of an age of the nations.” This age is the time of the Church, which the Bible portrays as the intervening period following the time of Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage and preceding his return in glory.
For Benedict this point is relevant because it reveals that there is not merely one voice in the New Testament when it comes to the time of Jesus’ return. The Bible is like a stained-glass window with many different pieces that only make sense when looked at as a whole. It is therefore not as if the entire Church lay in a state of confusion and error in thinking the parousia was imminent. The pope writes, “It seems obvious to me that several of Jesus’ parables speak of this time of the Church; from the perspective of a purely imminent eschatology, they would make no sense.” He goes on to state, “From the content, it is clear that all three Synoptic Gospels recognize a time of the Gentiles: the end of the world can come only when the Gospel has been brought to all peoples.”
To be sure, the Holy Father reminds us that certain passages explicitly state that “this generation will not pass away” before the end (Matt 24:34). Other texts, however, affirm what he said above–namely that the parousia will not occur “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24) and that “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10; cf. Matt 24:14). To this he further adds, “Paul, too, recognizes an age of the Gentiles, which is the present and which must be fulfilled if God’s plan is to attain its goal.” In this way, one can see that drawing a one-to-one correspondence between Jesus’ use of eschatological imagery and his thought concerning the chronological end of the world would constitute a “superficial reading” of the Gospels.
Granted that the Gospels witness to a time of the Gentiles that must precede the parousia, we remain faced with a stumbling block–the perception that certain early Christians thought the Gospel had in fact already reached all the nations. As we read from Benedict’s Eschatology in a previous post, “Even in his own age, Paul believed that he had in fact offered the Gospel to the whole inhabited world. The demand that the Gospel would be preached to all the world seemed thus already fulfilled in the generation of the apostles, what the Markan Jesus calls “this generation.”
How are we to square such an observation with our discussion up to this point? The reality is that certain biblical authors may have assumed that the Gospel had reached unto the ends of the earth and that Jesus was about to return in glory in their day. We cannot prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt, but neither can we disprove it simply by saying that they could not have thought this way since it would be tantamount to admitting the presence of an error in Scripture. Pope Benedict’s approach is much more refined–and thereby challenging–than this. Rather than coming down on one side or another on this question, he shows that the very issue is peripheral and could go either way:
The fact that the early Church was unable to assess the chronological duration of these kairoi (“times”) of the Gentiles and that it was generally assumed they would be fairly short is ultimately a secondary consideration. The essential point is that these times were both asserted and foretold and that, above all else and prior to any calculation of their duration, they had to be understood and were understood by the disciples in terms of a mission.
The bottom line is that the Bible does not formally assert the precise time of the Second Coming. Although we find indications of what individual apostles thought concerning the matter, Benedict understands that for them this was “ultimately a secondary consideration.” Whether they thought the world was going to end within a day or a year or a decade, he tells us that the “essential point” they were asserting concerned the need for spiritual preparation, for mission, and for endurance in the face of persecution. It turns out that these are realities that must govern Christians’ lives regardless of the epoch in which they live and how much time remains in their earthly pilgrimage. They are the core message, the true key, to understanding the Bible’s parousia passages. I am sure we could add to this, but this is as much as Benedict says here.
And thus our ongoing discussion of the parousia draws to a close. What we have seen in the preceding posts is Benedict XVI offering a serious, thoughtful answer to the observation that the early Church apparently got it wrong in expecting the Second Coming to occur in the first century. Benedict follows many of his modern counterparts in acknowledging evidence to this effect, but he also is careful to note that it was not a universally-held belief among the authors of Scripture. Careful to safeguard the integrity of Scripture, he furthermore shows that the core messages affirmed therein remain intact regardless of whether or not the apostles had an accurate idea of when the parousia would take place. Not every word in Scripture is asserted or taught for its own sake, and it in no way violates the doctrine of biblical inerrancy if biblical authors at times hold less than exact ideas about issues that are of secondary importance and not being asserted as such.
The above understanding of biblical inerrancy may catch some Christians off guard, but that is because many are accustomed to reading Scripture as if every last sentence was dictated by God and making an infallible claim. To be sure, it is easy to swing too far in one direction and fail to bear in mind the inspiration, inerrancy, and divine authorship of the Bible. However, Pope Benedict’s treatment of the parousia reveals that we can only do justice to thorny Scripture texts if we also give due respect to the real claims made by their human authors. The brilliance of this balanced approach may not immediately click with everyone who is new to reading Benedict and these posts, but one of the main goals I aim to achieve in my writing is to continue presenting Benedict’s exegetical method anew in accordance with the myriad ways he has instantiated it over the years. You’ll thus be hearing a lot from me on other topics that deal with similar questions using similar methods.
Next time you hear from me, however, it will probably be a very different kind of post as I’ll be reporting from Greece and Turkey on a pilgrimage-class I am leading for Benedictine College.
Picking up where we left off at the end of my previous post on the problem of the parousia, we now turn to what Benedict describes as “the text which lies at the heart of the problem–Jesus’ eschatological discourse describing the fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13 along with its parallels in Matt 24 and Luke 21.
Benedict begins by pointing out that Matt 24 is the only of these texts to depict the coming of the Son of Man in sudden fashion: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (24:27). In fact, Matthew is the only gospel to employ the term parousia.
He then turns his attention to a trio of texts–Matt 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, and Luke 21:25–each of which uniquely connects the fall of Jerusalem and the parousia temporally. Benedict tells us, “So far as our problem is concerned, it is extremely important to note how these two aspects–the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia–are temporally related.” After pointing out that what Luke portrays “is not the end of the world but the start of a new stage in salvation history,” he turns his attention to Mark, the more challenging of the texts given the problem we have posed. “By contrast, Mark appears to present a direct temporal link between the fall of the city and the consummation of the world.” Benedict proceeds to explain that the issue is actually more complex than this, but he wraps up his discussion by acknowledging, “Nevertheless, the impression persists that the trials and tribulations entailed in the destruction of Jerusalem are connected in time with the events of the end of the world.” As a token of this, he adds later in the book, “Even in his own age, Paul believed that he had in fact offered the Gospel to the whole inhabited world. The demand that the Gospel would be preached to all the world seemed thus already fulfilled in the generation of the apostles, what the Markan Jesus calls ‘this generation.’”
As Benedict is always so good at doing, he moves to summarize and tell us what we ought to take home from his discussion: “What ought we to think of these internal divergences within the Synoptic tradition and the issue which they concern?…In the first place, the single Gospel is heard only in the quartet of the four evangelists (for John belongs there too!). The word of Jesus persists only as something heard and received by the Church.” We find Benedict stating here what he has said in many other places, which is but a echoing of Dei Verbum and the Catechism: the inerrancy of biblical texts is not to be found looking at them in isolation, but rather within the unity of the entire Word of God contained in Scripture and Tradition and lived by the Church. Hence, if Mark’s text seems to present problems, we need to look at what the other Evangelists say on the topic and evaluate Mark’s central purpose in light of that knowledge.
When it comes to the timing of the parousia and whether the early Church erred with an expectation that Christ would return in the apostolic era, Benedict argues, “The decisive point is surely that the New Testament writings leave open the nature of the difference between literary schema and reality in this connection: “Schema and reality are differently related by different authors, but none of them makes the bold claim to an identity between the two. Since what interests them is not the question of exact chronological succession or a possible causality of development but the inner unity of the whole, they are able to present their material in schematic blocs, united by schematic connections. It can only be laid out in some way that the governing affirmations of their message suggest.”
By distinguishing “schema” from “reality,” Benedict moves us away from a rigid literalism that would, in the name of reading the Bible “at face value,” miss its primary message conveyed through the literary artistry of the various sacred authors. “What interests them,” Benedict observes, is not the issue of what precise moment the Second Coming will take place. Rather, “the governing affirmations of their message” suggest something different, something we have seen in Paul’s writings on the parousia in previous posts. In dealing with the Second Coming, the biblical authors subordinate the question of timing to the question of how Christians ought to behave regardless of when Christ returns. For all we know, some biblical authors may really have thought Christ would return in their day, as many texts seem to indicate. But what Benedict helps us to see is that they are not asserting or teaching this issue of timing any more than the author of Genesis was trying to teach the timeframe of the world’s creation. Jesus may return today, or he may return millennia upon millennia from now, but Christians of all ages have to be awake and prepared no matter what. For, even if Christ doesn’t return to earth in our lifetimes, this fact remains: we each will be meeting him within a number of minutes to a number of decades, and the precise moment of this meeting will likely occur most unexpectedly.
After examining Pope Benedict’s thought on the parousia in his catechesis on St. Paul, today we’ll look at the problem of an imminent Second Coming as treated in Benedict’s work Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, published before he became pope. This work is pivotal because its central purpose is to treat the “Last Things” or End Times (Greek eschaton).
It is revealing–and perhaps startling–to read the very first sentence of the book’s section entitled “The Expectation of an Imminent End.” Benedict plainly states, “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the New Testament does contain unmistakable traces of an expectation that the world will end soon. Where do these traces come from? Do they go back to Jesus?” In this way he sets up the problem we began discussing in my first post on problematic biblical texts that apparently got it wrong with regard to their expectations concerning the time of Christ’s Second Coming.
In the ensuing discussion, Benedict flexes his historical-critical muscles as he explores hypotheses that attempt to date the various New Testament texts that deal with the topic of the parousia. The standard maxim, he relates, is “the greater the stress on expectation of an imminent end, the older a text must be.” As evidence for this, he observes that Matthew and Luke, composed (according to the view of Benedict and most modern scholars) later than Mark, speak of a “delay of the arrival” of the Bridegroom whereas Mark does not. Benedict tells us, “In such texts the waiting Church retrojects its own experience of the “˜delay’ of the parousia into the earlier sayings of Jesus.”
Next Benedict turns his attention to 2 Peter, a later text than the foregoing. He observes, “In this epistle, one sees even more clearly how a later period reached a compromise between imminence and remoteness, and explained the parosuia’s delay in theological fashion.” 2 Pet 3:4 confronts the argument of those would scoff and ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” To this Peter responds, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:8-10). Peter emphasizes that we cannot know the precise day or hour, and so Christians are to “be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet 3:14).
At this point, however, Benedict critiques and tweaks the preceding argument. “In themselves the examples given are doubtless cogent evidence for the thesis [that the older the biblical text, the greater the stress on an imminent end to the world]. Nevertheless, it is open to question whether one can infer from this anything like a general chronological principle whereby Christian origins are marked by an eschatology of radical imminence which would then be gradually toned down until one finally arrives at John, where, for Bultmann at least, temporal eschatology has been wholly eliminated in favor of its existential counterpart.”
If you read enough of Benedict’s writings on the topic of historical-critical scholarship (especially as exemplified in his work Jesus of Nazareth), you’ll frequently see that he at once gives great respect to its findings and at the same time soberly acknowledges its limitations–in this case our inability to claim we have offered a strict chronology of biblical texts dealing with the parousia. Not without a touch of irony does Benedict thus state, “Naturally, [the person who believes that later texts are more accurate with regard to the timing of the parousia] has to claim that John understood Jesus better than Jesus understood himself.”
Adducing evidence contrary to the idea the later means less imminent when it comes to the early Church’s expectations of the parousia, Benedict writes that one commentator “has shown that the gospel Matthew, composed contemporaneously with Luke’s (or perhaps even later) contains an undiminished imminent eschatology which may even be described as heightened in comparison with Mark.” How is this to be explained? “In some circumstances, an extreme form of temporal expectation might well be the product of a re-Judaizing process. The Judaism of Jesus’ day had an overwhelming expectation of the imminent end. Such an expectation cannot be regarded, then, as something peculiarly characteristic of Jesus. The schema of linear development simply does not correspond to the facts.”
What Benedict achieves here both helps our cause and simultaneously makes it more difficult. On the one hand, he makes it pretty clear that the New Testament does contain an “imminent eschatology” at various points and does not merely appear to do so. On the other hand, he hasn’t yet offered an explanation for how such an admission does not violate the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In other words, if we can’t respond to problematic texts by saying, “You’re reading it wrong–the apostles didn’t really think that the world was about to end,” then how are we supposed to respond to this challenge? Benedict’s thought also introduces a new problem: that not only the early Church, but Jesus himself, apparently expected the consummation of the world to be at hand in his day.
And thus we must keep marching towards a resolution to our problem as we continue our exploration of Benedict’s work Eschatology next time before turning to his discussion of the topic in volume 2 of his more recent Jesus of Nazareth.
Today we continue our series on the problem of the parousia as we turn to a sure guide in matters of biblical interpretation: our Holy Father Pope Benedict. In the following posts, we will be exploring how he deals with the problem of the early Church apparently erring in the expectation that Christ would return in glory during the apostles’ lifetimes. If you have not read my first post which sets up the problem at hand in light of the biblical evidence, I recommended perusing it first before reading on.
In his book of Catecheses on St. Paul, Pope Benedict takes up the text of 1 Thess 4:13-18 discussed in my previous post: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
The Holy Father begins by observing that this text–the first of Paul’s letters and what some have deemed the earliest New Testament document–was likely written around 52 A.D. He indicates that the context and purpose of the letter was to aid the Thessalonian church being “beset by doubts and problems.” This purpose will play an important role in our discussion in a moment.
If you read Pope Benedict enough, you will not be surprised at some of his ensuing observations which may afflict the comforted Catholic. He describes this text as replete “with symbolic imagery, which, however, conveys a simple and profound message.” Benedict does not view 1 Thess 4 as a literal depiction of the Second Coming but rather as conveying theological truth through symbolic imagery. The “essential message,” he says, is that “our future is to be with the Lord.” What we can learn from this is that, regardless of whether or not Paul thought the end was imminent, this was not the claim or assertion of Paul’s text.
Moreover, the sense of the text is not changed even if Paul literally thought that the Second Coming would be ushered in with an angel blowing a trumpet (actually, who can verify this won’t be the case?). In the marvelous chapter of his book Miracles entitled “Horrid Red Things,” C.S. Lewis has a great treatment of the type of imagery that often disturbs the modern Christian. He says, “Even if it can be shown, then, that the early Christians accepted their imagery literally, this would not mean that we are justified in relegating their doctrines as a whole to the lumber-room.” The early Christian belief concerning the parousia and other doctrines like it “would survive substantially unchanged” even after “the falsity of the earlier images had been recognized.”
Like Benedict, Lewis affirms that images of how or when the parousia will take place are not the purpose of the biblical teaching concerning it. They are not errant because they are not asserted or taught for their own sakes in the first place. As Benedict and Lewis show time and again in their writings, Christians should not be afraid to admit the presence of symbolic imagery or myth in the Bible. Ask Lewis, Tolkien, or Chesterton, and they will tell you that myth does not equal falsehood. Now, in a way, this makes the Christian apologist’s task more difficult, as one now has to search out the essential message of biblical texts and show forth the enduring core meaning of it as distinct from accidental features that are not de fide. This requires more patience and skill than simply saying it is all literally true and needs no qualification. On the other hand, following the approach of Benedict and Lewis is liberating because Christians can be confident that there is a core message God wants to convey to us in the Bible and that this remains unchanged even if we grant the presence of certain difficulties in the text.
Getting back to Benedict’s catechesis, he next turns his attention to 2 Thess 2:1-4, which reads: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”
Paul here warns his church lest they be deceived in thinking an imminent Second Coming can be determined based on human calculations. He reminds his audience that “man of lawlessness” must come first, and that he plainly has not. The pope for his part tells us that “the intention” of this text “is primarily practical.” How so? Paul wrote this because he needed to correct Thessalonians who were rationalizing their neglect of worldly duties with the claim that the end was approaching soon anyway: “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (2 Thess 3:11).
Teasing out Paul’s thought, Benedict teaches that the expectation of Jesus’ parousia does not dispense Christians of any epoch from working in the world but rather increases our responsibility to work in and for the world while not being of the world. This is but one of several examples in this catechesis of how Benedict characteristically follows his careful and critical exegesis with a spiritual exhortation for Christians to apply God’s word to our lives (see here for a brief overview of Benedict’s exegetical method). He concludes by teaching that, while Christians today might not pray for the end to come soon in the same way St. John did (Rev 16:22), we can truly pray for the Lord to put the injustices of the world to an end. We can also work for the world to be “fundamentally changed” into a “civilization of love.”
That said, Benedict’s catechesis does not completely resolve the problem of the early expectation of the parousia, but it does help us to see that teaching the precise moment of the Second Coming was not Paul’s real point in the theologically thorny text of 1 Thessalonians. To get a better grasp of the way Benedict approaches this, we will need to examine more of his writings in the next few posts.