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  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?

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.


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.

In the Beginning: Reading Genesis with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas

Today our outstanding Benedictine College class of 2015 graduated, and with that summer begins for us here in Atchison, KS.

Just in time for summer, I have a new piece of scholarship to share.  The file I’m attaching here is a chapter I wrote for a book entitled Reading Scripture with Thomas Aquinas, forthcoming later this year.

cover pic

The chapter explores the respective exegetical methods and practices of Thomas Aquinas and Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as applied within the account of primeval history narrated in Genesis 1-3.  Before treating commonalities between Aquinas and Ratzinger, I address the latter’s critiques of neo-scholasticism first so as to make it clear that Ratzinger is not strictly speaking a Thomist.  With this initial caveat in place, there follows an overview of principles illustrating key points of contact in which Ratzinger implicitly (and explicitly at points) connects his exegetical programme with that of Aquinas.  Finally, the core of the chapter consists in illustrating how the shared principles of Aquinas and Ratzinger are applied to specific realities within the biblical text.

In sum, I aim to show that Ratzinger conducts his exegesis of Genesis in a way that is much in the spirit of Thomas and indeed shares many parallels with Thomas’ exegesis of the same texts.  At the same time, I endeavor to make it clear that Ratzinger makes significant advances beyond Aquinas with the help of the modern scholarly tools to which he is privy.  Thus I hope the reader will see that Aquinas’ exegesis continues today to exert its influence and to remain profitable even as it needs to be supplemented by the best scholarship currently available—precisely the view advanced by a leading biblical scholar who was to become bishop of Rome.

Download the chapter here!

Purchase the book here!

The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 3 of 3)

In today’s post I’m going to treat briefly the third question of the PBC in its document on the parousia. Then I’ll offer an extended treatment of how one might explain this document’s apparent discrepancy with the view of respected exegetes today who are open to the possibility that the early Church expected the Second Coming of Christ to occur in the first century. This is a critical issue because here we have an important biblical teaching which on the surface appears to be wrong. That said, here’s the last question:

Question 3: “Whether, after considering [the phrase “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” of 1 Thess 4:15] we may reject as far-fetched and unfounded the explanation traditional in Catholic schools–which explains the words of St. Paul in 1 Thess 4:15-17 without in any way implying the affirmation of a Parousia so imminent that the apostle added himself and his readers to those of the faithful who would survive to meet Christ.”

Response 3: “Negative.”

This question makes a helpful contribution to our discussion of the early Church’s seeming expectation of a first-century parousia, for it explicitly addresses a biblical text that has been a stumbling block for exegetes. 1 Thess 4 numbers among the texts I provided in my first post on the problem of the parousia, which I recommended reading first before reading on if you have not done so already.

If I am reading it correctly, here the PBC document is not demanding that Catholic exegetes reject the possibility that Paul thought the parousia would occur in his lifetime. Rather, the question is phrased so as to teach that the traditional explanation (i.e. the view that Paul did not expect the Second Coming in his day) is not to be rejected as far-fetched and unfounded. There is quite a difference between these two, and I think the PBC was exercising due prudence in avoiding a blanket condemnation of the view that Paul expected Christ to return in his lifetime.

So much for my brief commentary on the three questions of this PBC document. By way of transition to a fuller answer to the problem at hand, I now wish to turn our attention to the place this PBC document and others like it occupy today in the Church. The reality is that a great number of Catholic exegetes today have come to different conclusions from those of the PBC in its early-20th century documents. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the practice of Catholic exegetes today often displays little regard for Pius X’s 1907 motu proprio stating that all Catholics “are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission.”

In addition to being visible in the documents of the PBC published over the last half-century, the Church’s new perspective is abundantly clear also in the way Joseph Ratzinger has long spoken of and practiced exegesis, continuing to do so even now as Pope Benedict XVI.

Indeed, in his press release of the CDF Instruction Concerning the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, this theologian spoke of the PBC’s past decrees as “anti-modernistic decisions at the beginning of this century.” He had in mind here statements made on the topics of historical narratives (1905), the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (1906), the authorship and historicity of the Gospel of John (1907), the character and authorship of the Book of Isaiah (1908), the historicity of the first three chapters of Genesis (1909), the authorship and time of composition of the Psalms (1910), Matthew (1911) Mark and Luke (1912), the Synoptic question (1912), Acts (1913), the Pastoral Epistles (1913), Hebrews (1914), and, among others, the parousia discussed here. The question taken up in these decrees deals with the extent to which Catholics could have recourse to the modern historical-critical approach for insight into the Scriptures, and the response given by the PBC was, in general, “very little.”

But if Catholics today do not consistently heed the pronouncements of the PBC concerning the appropriateness of modern exegesis, this begs the question: what was the main point of these decrees, and does their substance remain valid today? In the same document just mentioned, Benedict observes that, “as warning calls against rash and superficial accommodations, they remain perfectly legitimate,” since they “performed the great service of saving [the Church] from foundering in the bourgeois-liberal world.” For example, from our privileged vantage point a century later, we can see that the principal goal of the PBC’s decree on Matthew did not actually consist in its assertions concerning when and by whom the Gospel was composed. Rather, the substance of what the Magisterium intended to convey at the time and which remains true today is the need to safeguard the authority of the Scriptures, the historicity of Jesus, and the Church’s divine foundation in the wake of deconstructive intellectual currents which would undermine the faith.

Be that as it may, immediately following the words of Benedict cited above, he soberly acknowledges, “Nevertheless, with respect to particular aspects of their content, [the early 20th-century PBC decrees] were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time.” Here we find Benedict implicitly distinguishing the substance of the PBC’s teaching from its accidental features which were “superseded” over time, a reality observable in the way Benedict himself elsewhere speaks of the relationship of exegesis and the Magisterium.

Addressing the PBC as its president on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, Benedict wrote that this delicate issue was “one of the problems of my own autobiography.” While vigorously defending faith’s role in exegesis, he admits:

It remains correct that by making the judgments that we have mentioned, the Magisterium overextended the range of what faith can guarantee with certainty and that, as a result, the Magisterium’s credibility was injured and the freedom needed for exegetical research and interrogation was unduly narrowed.

It is striking to witness in this passage the humility and boldness of a Church official who recognizes that a frank appraisal of the limits of the Magisterium’s authority is a necessary step towards arriving at a deeper understanding of its nature and relationship to exegesis.

Also revelatory of Benedict’s stance towards modern exegesis is the evocative portrait this document, entitled Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church, paints of his intellectual predecessors, who yearned, “like Moses on Mount Nebo, to gaze upon the Promised Land of an exegesis liberated from every shackle of magisterial surveillance.” He tells the story of Friedrich Wilhelm Maier, whose flowering academic career was dealt a sharp blow by the Magisterium. The latter decreed that the commentary into which Maier had been pouring all his energy had to be “altogether expunged from the education of the clergy” since it defended the so-called two-source theory, which Benedict countenances by telling us that today it is “almost universally accepted” as an account of the Synoptic problem. In light of this situation, he therefore sympathetically states, “It is perfectly understandable that, in the days when the decisions of the then Pontifical Biblical Commission prevented them from a clean application of the historical-critical method, Catholic theologians should cast envious glances at their Protestant colleagues.”

How, then, are we to explain the about-face in the Church’s attitude toward the modern historical-critical method today? Benedict offers a vivid comparison to make his case:

The process of intellectual struggle over these issues had become a necessary task can in a certain sense be compared with the similar process triggered by the Galileo affair. Until Galileo, it had seemed that the geocentric world picture was inextricably bound up with the revealed message of the Bible, and that champions of the heliocentric world picture were destroying the core of Revelation. It became necessary fully to reconceive the relationship between the outward form of presentation and the real message of the whole, and it required a gradual process before the criteria could be elaborated. Something analogous can be said with respect to history. At first it seemed as if the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses or of the Gospels to the four individuals whom tradition names as their authors were indispensable conditions of the trustworthiness of Scripture and, therefore, of the faith founded upon it. Here, too, it was necessary for the territories to be re-surveyed, as it were; the basic relationship between faith and history needed to be re-thought. This sort of clarification could not be achieved overnight.

In this passage, Benedict sheds insight into the reason certain features of the PBC decrees in question stood in need of correction: those who crafted the statements were under the (false) assumption that the trustworthiness of Scripture–and thereby the faith itself–would be undermined if the Church entertained findings of historical-criticism that contradicted ancient traditions concerning such matters as the authorship and dating of biblical books. Over time the Church came to see that this premise was incorrect, but Benedict regrets that in the meantime the research of many scholars like Friedrich Maier was halted in its tracks and “much real wheat was lost along with the chaff.” He incisively indicates that this problem was symptomatic of an “anti-Modernistic neurosis which had again and again crippled the Church since the turn of the century,” an attitude which led to “an almost neurotic denial of all that was new.”

Despite his frank criticisms of certain aspects of past magisterial pronouncements, Benedict’s approach is worlds apart from an attitude that would conclude from such observations that the Magisterium has erred in an essential matter and thereby abdicated its authority to teach Christians today. For, while he does not shy away from facing the most alarming challenges to the Magisterium’s teaching authority, he writes in work Theological Highlights of Vatican II, “Yet, neither do we lightly condemn the past, even if we see it as a necessary part of a process of knowing.”

To be sure certain accidental elements of magisterial teaching have been superseded over the centuries, but we saw above that Benedict offers a framework within which to ascertain the substance of the decrees which was and remains sound doctrine today despite the ostensible change in the Church’s attitude towards “modernism.” At their core, these early statements of the PBC were warning cries against an indiscriminate application of the historical-critical method which would undermine the authority of Scripture. They are necessary to counter what he describes in his essay Biblical Interpretation in Conflict as the Kantian “ready-made philosophy” that would use historical criticism to draw false and destructive conclusions from the premise that God cannot intervene in history and reveal himself to man. Benedict tells us that such a being “is not the God of the Bible,” and proceeds to offer some examples of teachings which, in contrast with the subjects treated by the PBC, could never be altered as the result of historical-critical findings: the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.

Concerning this last point, Benedict tells us that Jesus’ bodily resurrection “is the meaning of the empty tomb,” as if to preempt any objectors who would claim that the essence of the empty tomb lay in a spiritual experience of the apostles and not a direct encounter with the Son of God in his glorified flesh. In short, Benedict emphasizes that the Christian faith requires us to profess “that Jesus–in all that is essential–was effectively who the Gospels reveal him to be.”

Wrapping up this post, I want to say a word about why I spent so much time on the PBC when our main discussion is supposed to be the parousia.

First, the PBC’s statements on the topic are one of the few (if not only) documents to address the particular problem at hand.

Second, it is a big problem if the magisterium today seems to contradict the magisterium of yesterday, so I believe that a compelling answer needed to be offered.

Finally, as we will see in blog posts beginning next week, Pope Benedict makes statements which seem to contradict the teaching of the PBC discussed in the last few posts. I therefore want to provide a justification for the development of doctrine that has taken place within the Catholic Church on this subject.

With that said, thanks for reading. I welcome comments and suggestions. For a fuller treatment of today’s topic, you can download my talk The Substance of Catholic Doctrine I: The Church & Exegesis.



The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 2 of 3)

In the last post we treated the first of three points in the PBC’s teaching concerning the Second Coming of Christ. Today we turn to the second part of the document. I have abbreviated the question due to the fact that its grammatical structure is somewhat convoluted.

Question 2: “Whether it is fitting to affirm that the apostle Paul certainly declared in his writings nothing that is not in perfect harmony with that ignorance of the time of the Parousia, which Christ himself proclaimed to obtain among human beings.”

Response 2: “Affirmative.”

This one has a double negative that makes it grammatically challenging, but take that out and you find that the PBC teaches it is “fitting” to affirm that what Paul taught concerning the parousia was “in perfect harmony” with what Jesus said on the topic–namely that we know neither the day nor the hour when he will come again. The underlying reference here is to Mk 13:32.

The choice of the word “fitting” (Latin oporteat) here is perhaps significant. I would want to verify this with a classicist, but the word may be translated variously as “necessary,” “proper,” or “becoming” in addition to other renderings. Did the PBC deliberately avoid using a strong word like necesse (“necessary,” “essential”) in favor of a softer word so as to avoid requiring Catholics to affirm that Paul’s teaching on the time of the parousia is perfectly consonant with that of Jesus? I don’t know, but I would welcome input as it could potentially help exculpate this document if one were to conclude that Paul did in fact think that the end of time was near in his day. To my mind, however, when one takes into account the overall tenor of the PBC documents in this period, one good argument against this is that it seems unlikely the PBC would have been open to the possibility of a discrepancy between the thought of Paul and Jesus, respectively.

In summary, in this question we find the PBC teaching that Paul and Jesus both affirmed the impossibility of knowing when the time of the Second Coming will be. Good, but does this sufficiently deal with the problematic texts raised in the my first post on the parousia? And does it still leave room for the possibility that Paul thought Christ would return in his lifetime even if Paul himself did not know the precise hour?

As we will see in a later post, this PBC document served primarily a practical purpose. It was not concerned with providing sophisticated arguments but rather with giving concise, concrete guidance to Catholic exegetes in the early 20th century. For our purposes, that means we still need to give an argument that confronts the problem of the early Church apparently erring in its expectations concerning the Second Coming.

Before making this argument, however, we need to examine the PBC’s third and final question concerning the parousia. This is the topic I will address next time.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 1 of 3)

This post is the second in a series which deals with Scripture apparently erring in its expectation that the Second Coming of Christ would take place in the first century. As a first step toward resolving the problem of an imminent parousia of Jesus, we actually need to throw in another wrench. Today’s post is the first of a short series concerning a 1915 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, an office that served as an organ of the Magisterium in that epoch. This document can be found in Italian and Latin on the Vatican site and in English in the book entitled The Scripture Documents. Like the other documents of the PBC at the time, this document is in Q & A format, with the answers being the magisterium’s teaching on the matter in question. Today we’ll treat the first of the document’s three questions.

Question 1: “Whether it is permissible for a Catholic exegete, in solving difficulties that occur in the Letters of St. Paul and the other apostles, where the so-called ‘Parousia’ or Second Coming of our Lord Jesus is mentioned, to assert that the apostles, although they teach no error under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless do express their own human views, into which error or deception can enter.”

Response 1: “Negative.”

This answer combats the notion that Scripture contains certain statements which issue from the pen of human authors who are liable to err when they are not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, what is condemned here is the attempt to preserve biblical inerrancy by saying that problematic biblical passages merely constitute the expression of a human point of view and are not as such inspired. From this perspective rejected by the PBC, only parts of the Bible are inspired.

In line with the PBC, Vatican II would later reaffirm the Church’s traditional teaching that “the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author” (Dei Verbum 11).

In the same section of Dei Verbum just cited, the council goes on to teach that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum 11). To give a hint of the argument which I will be making, one of the keys to addressing the riddle of the imminent parousia lies precisely in the correct understanding and application of this text. A few blog posts from now, we will take a look at how Pope Benedict XVI endeavors to ascertain the “fundamental message” and “essential points” being made in texts which appear to contradict the facts of history.

The reason why this PBC document constitutes another wrench for us is that it is not immediately apparent how Benedict’s approach is reconcilable with that of the PBC we’re dealing with here. We’ll get to that in due time, but for next time we’ll continue with this PBC document and examine its second question. If you’re interested in how Benedict approaches the early documents of the PBC, I recommend downloading my talk The Substance of Catholic Doctrine I: The Church & Exegesis.