Media Coverage of Jesus, Interpreted

It’s great to see my new book Jesus, Interpreted getting some media coverage!

First, my thanks to Tom Hoopes over at Aleteia for this nice review of my book.

Then, there are a couple radio appearances to note.  I will be talking about my book on EWTN Radio’s Sun Rise Morning Show bright and early July 5 at 6:45 central time.  Later on Sept. 20th at 6 PM central time, I’ll make a longer appearance on EWTN Radio’s program Catholic Answers Live.  In the meantime, Happy Fourth of July and God bless America!

PS: Probably due to its appearance on New Advent the other day, the book is sold out on Amazon.  It can still be bought there through third party sellers. Or you can get a copy directly from the publisher, CUA Press, here.

Jesus, interpreted: my new book is out!

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.

DESCRIPTION:

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?

51lyjb8gal-_sx331_bo1204203200_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.

REVIEWS:

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

Benedict XVI’s Hermeneutic of Reform: Towards a Rapprochement of the Magisterium and Modern Biblical Criticism

Even a cursory overview of Benedict XVI’s exegetical approach reveals dramatic contrasts with magisterial teaching of previous epochs.  With appropriate reservations and criticisms, Benedict strongly advocates the use of modern scholarly methods to help Christians better discern the face of Christ revealed in Scripture.  In adopting many of these modern findings, however, it almost seems as if Benedict has forgotten or neglected principles enforced by the magisterium no less than a century earlier.

Though one may argue that the Church’s stance on modern biblical scholarship only indirectly bears upon faith and morals, the issue remains timely today insofar as a divide persists in the Church concerning the extent to which it is appropriate to incorporate the tools and findings of modern exegesis in Catholic theology.  Aside from Benedict’s own comments on his project, it is difficult still today to find an adequate account of how exegesis under his pontificate is reconcilable with many of the venerable traditions which preceded it and, in particular, with a magisterial approach which generally viewed modern scholarship with skepticism.

The lack of such an account is what prompted me to author an article in Nova et Vetera which addresses this very topic.  In the piece I endeavor to face head-on patent discrepancies in the Church’s approach to the Bible over the past century and, so doing, offer the principles needed for a robust apologia of Catholicism in its relationship with modern biblical scholarship. You can download and read the article here!

Benedict XVI, Catholic Doctrine and the Problem of an Imminent Parousia

Look up the following texts and ask yourself whether they ring true:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
1 Corinthians 7:29 and 15:51-52
Mark 13:26-33

Today I am excited to share an article of mine that will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Josephinum Journal of Theology.  It is on the fascinating but very thorny topic addressed in these biblical texts: the New Testament’s ostensibly failed expectation that Christ’s second coming would occur within the first Christian generation.  I thought about this topic for years and never found a really compelling answer to until I read what Benedict XVI had to say on it.  Thus the point of my article is to tease out Benedict’s thought and draw it all together in one accessible piece. The article abstract can be found below:

In the effort to advance a more biblically sound theology within the Church, this paper shows how the theological principles and exegetical practice of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI provide an outstanding example of how to implement the above mandate of Dei Verbum as highlighted in the International Theological Commission’s recent work. The paper applies Ratzinger’s thought to concrete biblical texts involving the New Testament’s ostensibly failed expectation that Christ’s parousia would occur within the apostolic period.  The question that arises from a reading of these texts is quite simple: Why has Christ not come back yet like he seemed to say he would?  By searching out the intention of Scripture’s sacred authors in relation to the expectation of an imminent parousia, Ratzinger offers a compelling apology for the existence of thorny biblical texts and dogmatic formulas within the Catholic tradition.

If you wish to read the entire article, you can download it here.

Thoughts for December: The Dark Passages & The Birth of Jesus

This month I have a variety of thoughts to share with my readers which I am linking to below.

First, you can hear my short radio spot on EWTN’s Son Rise morning radio show which aired around 7:45 Eastern Time on 12/20.  It should be posted here within a few days.  The interview was about Benedict XVI’s biblical interpretation in general and his understanding of the Gospel infancy narratives in particular.

In the blogosphere there’s this interview I did with Brandon Vogt on my recent book Dark Passages of the Bible.

At Homiletic and Pastoral Review I recently authored a piece on reading Jesus’ infancy through the eyes of Pope Benedict XVI.  This piece discusses how and in what sense the Gospels record history and teach theology.

Today Brandon has published my article Common Ground for Catholics and Atheists?  Violence Is Contrary to God’s Nature on his wonderful site Strange Notions.  This site is dedicated to fostering dialogue between Catholics and atheists, serving as a “digital Areopagus.”

Finally, Crisis Magazine has published an article of mine, Benedict XVI on the Christmas Readings.  It helps us make sense of the seemingly boring genealogies in the Gospels.

Happy Advent and Merry early Christmas to you and yours.

Good Exegesis in Two Steps

I knew Pope Benedict’s third volume of Jesus of Nazareth was going to fulfill my expectations already by the second paragraph of its foreword. One of the major themes in Benedict’s exegesis over the years has been his insistence on the necessity of a two-pronged approach to interpreting Scripture, an approach which is relatively little known and all too rarely practiced in the Church. In the foreword to his third installment treating the life of Jesus, he insisted on this same method just as he had insisted upon it in the forewords to his previous two books. In the words of the Pontiff:

I am convinced that good exegesis involves two sages. Firstly one has to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through their text in their own day–the historical component of exegesis. But it is not sufficient to leave the text in the past and thus relegate it to history. The second question posed by good exegesis must be: is what I read here true? Does it concern me? If so, how? With a text like the Bible, whose ultimate and fundamental author, according to our faith, is God himself, the question regarding the here and now of things past is undeniably included in the task of exegesis. The seriousness of the historical quest is in no way diminished by this: on the contrary, it is enhanced.

The governing idea of Benedict’s exegetical plan is really quite simple, but by no means simplistic. First, to understand the Bible, you first have to appreciate what it meant within its original context. Scripture was written by the Holy Spirit, but it was also written by human authors who had particular aims within their unique historical context. According to the Holy Father, we do violence to Scripture if we forget its place within the history of salvation, what God wanted to achieve for his Chosen People through it, and what challenges the sacred word presents for us now looking back on that history.

Second, for Benedict good exegesis requires that we let the Bible speak not only for itself within its original context, but that it speak also to us today. Here the things of the past which we encounter in the first step of exegesis take on significance in the here and now. We bring the Bible to prayer and patiently meditate on it. We ask how its message applies to our lives today, how it can transform us in the concrete circumstances of our daily existence.

In this post, I am simply articulating the basic principles at stake here. I have an entire book forthcoming on the subject, and on this blog you will see me talk about it quite a bit as I continue my posts on Jesus of Nazareth. For now, let me conclude this first post by offering you some other examples of Benedict teaching the same principles in other works:

You can call the patristic-medieval exegetical approach Method A. The historical-critical approach, the modern approach, is Method B. What I am calling for is not a return to Method A, but a development of a Method C, taking advantage of the strengths of both Method A and Method B, but cognizant of the shortcomings of both. (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis)

The historical-critical method–let me repeat–is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith. This method is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretative task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God. The inner nature of the method points beyond itself and contains within itself an openness to complementary methods. In these words from the past, we can discern the question concerning their meaning for today; a voice greater than man’s echoes in Scripture’s human words. (Jesus, Vol. 1)

[A] properly developed faith hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limitations, so as to form a methodological whole. Naturally, this combination of two quite different types of hermeneutic is an art that needs to be constantly remastered. I would not presume to claim that this combination of the two hermeneutics is already fully accomplished in my book. But I hope to have taken a significant step in that direction. Fundamentally this is a matter of finally putting into practice the methodological principles formulated for exegesis by the Second Vatican Council, a task that unfortunately has scarcely been attempted thus far. (Jesus, Vol. 2)

The historical-critical method will always remain one dimension of interpretation. Vatican II made this clear. On the one hand, it presents the essential elements of the historical method as a necessary part of access to the Bible. At the same time, though, it adds that the Bible has to be read in the same Spirit in which it was written. It has to be read in its wholeness, in its unity. And that can be done only when we approach it as a book of the People of God progressively advancing toward Christ. What is needed is not simply a break with the historical method, but a self-critique of the historical method; a self-critique of historical reason that takes cognizance of its limits and recognizes the compatibility of a type of knowledge that derives from faith; in short, we need a synthesis between an exegesis that operates with historical reason and an exegesis that is guided by faith. (Light of the World)

[I]t would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery.” (Verbum Domini)

Scientific exegesis and lectio divina are both necessary and complementary in order to seek, through the literal meaning, the spiritual meaning that God wants to communicate to us today. (Angelus, October 26, 2008)

Examples abound where Benedict goes on to put these ideas into practice in his various works. If you have any other examples of him speaking in similar terms, please post them.

 

Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth & the Problem of the Parousia (conclusion)

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.

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.