Wow. Awe-inspiring. This first in a series of volumes that Pope Benedict XVI plans to publish is at times very deep and at others quite academic. General readers may have a hard time with it; this book is not meant to be rushed - it requires some reflection and even, at times, prayer.
The pope discusses and quotes various theologians and Fathers of the Church as he examines topics of the period of Jesus’ life from His baptism to the Transfiguration. Many of the theologians he quotes are German - an incentive to investigate these theologians’ work since they made an impact on the pope. He does not agree with all of them, though. In fact, he refutes what some of them present. Some theologians he quotes include Rudolf Schnackenburg, Peter Stuhlmacher, Rudolf Pesch, Joachim Jeremias, Pierre Grelot, Jurgen Moltmann, Joachim Gnilka, and many others. The pope also quotes Church Fathers like St. Augustine, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Origen, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyprian, and others, as well as bringing in Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox authors to help accentuate his points. Using Scripture from both Old and New Testaments, he also refutes various philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and others who deny Christianity’s benefit to the world.
The pope in his foreword encourages others to enter into a discussion or dialogue with him on the life, works and ministry of Jesus Christ. He also states (which received various news media notice) that this book is not infallible and that he is not writing this book as part of his office as pope. He states the book is his “personal search for the face of the Lord.” In the foreword, he presents the history of the development of the understanding of the Scriptures through time, especially during modern times with the various developments of Biblical studies like the historical-critical method. He also shows that the Second Vatican Council encourages scripture scholars and theologians to investigate the Scriptures to help the Church to have a better understanding of what God is saying to us today. The introduction sets the stage from a Scripture point of view for the Gospels and the life of Jesus.
As stated above, this is the first in an intended series, but since the pontiff is 80 years old, he wanted to be sure that what he has already prepared is published in case he cannot complete the set. That is why his first volume starts with the Baptism of the Lord rather than the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke. He hopes to complete his writings on that and have that volume published as well.
Benedict examines what baptism was and why Jesus had to be baptized when John the Baptist thought that Jesus should baptize him instead of him baptizing Jesus. A discussion of the temptation of Jesus by the devil addresses not only what is happening but also the symbolism of the event, too. Ensuing chapters cover the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (including the meaning of “kingdom”) and the Sermon on the Mount. The pope examines the Sermon and its differences in Matthew compared to Luke, as well as the various beatitudes and what they mean based on other Scriptures and what Church Fathers and others have commented as to their meaning. This chapter is very involved, but worth reading patiently.
The pope moves on to examine the Lord’s Prayer petition by petition. There is much material here on this beloved prayer, which most people pray at great speed without really thinking or reflecting on what they are praying. The pope encourages people to slow down and realize what they are saying, and his examination of this prayer is a wonderful meditation. The calling of the Twelve Apostles, but also the calling of the 70 or 72 Disciples, the pope shows, reflects back to the 12 sons or tribes of Israel and the 70 elders who helped Moses during the Exodus journey in the desert. Chapter seven is an extensive examination of the message of the parables - what parables are and a closer look at a select few, such as those of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. These are great reflections.
Benedict next examines the principal images of John’s Gospel; up to this point, he has been examining the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). He discusses the possible identity of the author and agrees with the traditional view that the author is St. John the Apostle. He then discusses the principal images in John: water, vine and wine, bread, and the shepherd.
Peter’s confession is in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, in similar form in each. The Pope also says that it is in John’s too, but in a different form. He shows the primacy of Peter among the Apostles from these verses as well as from other Scriptures, and he also examines Jesus’ remonstration with Peter about his view of what the messiah was to be. Peter and others of his time thought that the messiah would be a worldly king and only for Israel. Benedict examines how Peter and the others came to realize who Jesus really was and that His titles developed from teacher and rabbi to Lord – and, ultimately, to Lord and God. The pope also discusses when the Transfiguration happened in time. Was it during the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, or when? He shows that the Transfiguration was a theophany similar to the theophany on Mt. Sinai.
Chapter ten is a wonderful reflection on the true identity of Jesus. The Apostles and the disciples slowly came to realize who Jesus is, that he is the Son of God. The early Church had to grapple and define what this meant, which lead to the Nicene Creed. Many could not accept that Jesus is God, and many today think of him as a good religious person but do not accept him as God.
The pope refutes modern day fallacies throughout this book in connection with each topic he discusses, bringing the reader along with him on his personal search for God. He shows that life has meaning and that there is an afterlife, arguing that Jesus is still with us and concerned about us. He shows Jesus to be the Son of God, not merely a human or angel, who came to save us from sin and death, taking on our very flesh at the Incarnation to be like us in everything but sin.
The publisher provides a glossary of terms with very short definitions and there is a bibliography. Many reviews have been written about the Pope’s new book; this reviewer decided not to read them to avoid being influenced by what others have to say about it, coming to an independent conclusion that this book is highly recommended.