Reading the New Testament with Pope Benedict XVI
I am starting to read Pope Benedict XVI's new book, "Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection" (Ignatius Press, $25). This is the second volume of our Holy Father's proposed trilogy on the life and message of Jesus. It is a scholarly work that is beautifully written, deeply spiritual, and inspires meditation and prayer. I recommend it highly, especially to theologians, Bible scholars, religious educators, pastors and seminarians. Along with the pope's 2010 exhortation Verbum Domini ("The Word of the Lord"), the two volumes of "Jesus of Nazareth" are essential for all of us. These works help us appreciate how important the Scriptures are for our work of the new evangelization. The pope's method for reading the Scriptures is as important as the insights he draws from them. His interpretations reflect what the best scholars have discovered about where the texts came from, their historical background, and the literary styles the biblical authors use. But he does more than study the texts' historical and literary meaning. He reads in light of the Church's teachings and tradition. He employs the spiritual interpretation methods found in the New Testament, the writings of the Church Fathers, and in the Church's liturgy. The pope's method has rich possibilities for those of us who must prepare homilies or study theology. But we all need to read the Bible with his same diligence and reverence. The Scriptures are the Word of God. They are written, as St. Peter said, "by men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke by God" (1 Pet. 1:21). The Church has always believed that the Bible is both divine and human - just as Jesus Christ is both true God and true man. In Verbum Domini, the pope writes beautifully: "As the Word of God became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the same Spirit." We can't speak about Jesus as if he is an ordinary man. And we can't read the Bible as we would read an ordinary book. Unfortunately, that has been the trend for at least two centuries now. As Pope Benedict points out, most Bible scholars today take a "secularized" and "scientific" approach to the Bible. This leads them, for instance, to reject any biblical events that can't be explained by the laws of science, such as Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes or raising Lazarus from the dead. Many scholars today simply presume these events could not have happened. Also as the pope has noted, scholarship based on these kinds of assumptions has led to bad consequences for the Church's faith, worship and preaching. Our Catholic faith is not mythology. It's based on true historical events. We believe that at a certain moment in history in a certain place in the world, a man named Jesus was born of a Virgin named Mary. We believe that this Jesus was the Son of God, that he worked miracles, and that he rose from the dead. We believe that Jesus continues to live in the Church and that he changes the lives of we who believe in him. We believe that he continues to work miracles in the Eucharist and the sacraments. We believe these things based on his first followers' testimony, handed down to us in the Church in the inspired Scriptures. That's why Pope Benedict's project is so important. For many years, beginning when he was a young theologian, he has quoted St. Jerome: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." The Church has always known that if we don't read the Scriptures right, we won't meet the living Jesus Christ in their pages. This is the tragedy of our age. As the pope has noted, the crisis of faith in Christ is rooted in this "scientific" way of reading the Bible. In "Jesus of Nazareth," he gives us a new way of reading that is a path into the heart of God's Word. This method is scholarly, but is at the same time guided by faith and prayer. Reading the Bible this way, we can come to a sure knowledge of the historical Jesus. And we can come to a personal encounter with the Christ who is our Savior. In a letter to the world's bishops in 2009, Pope Benedict said: "Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: This is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time." This must be the priority of everyone in the Church. "Jesus of Nazareth" helps to show us the way. Let us pray for one another this week. And let us ask Our Lady of Guadalupe for the grace to allow ourselves be shaped by the Word of God - through our listening, reading, study and prayer.