In the introduction to “Jesus of Nazareth: Volume II”, Pope Benedict reflects on the heritage of the historical-critical method. He is certainly not negative, but, like a modern day Oliver Twist, asks for “more” than the gruel that this method has served up to people hungry for “a personal relationship with Jesus” (yes, he, the Pope, actually uses this turn of phrase!). He writes:
One thing is clear to me: in two hundred years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit. If scholarly exegesis is not to exhaust itself in constantly new hypotheses, becoming theologically irrelevant, it must take a methodological step forward and see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character.
It must learn that the positivistic hermeneutic on which it has been based does not constitute the only valid and definitively evolved rational approach; rather, it constitutes a specific and historically conditioned form of rationality that is both open to correction and completion and in need of it.
It must recognize that a properly developed faith-hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limits, so as to form a methodological whole.
There has been, of course, the long history of the quest for the “historical Jesus”. It has become standard, in relating the history of the “Quest”, to mark out three stages, the first two predominately German protestant “Quests”, and the third… well, more about that in a minute. Ratzinger, the eminent German theologian, recommends a couple of other theologians to whom one might go for a “Life of Jesus” style book, Joachim Gnilka (an old favourite of Ratzinger’s, now available in English) and John P. Meier, a contemporary historian of the Gospels who is a part of that “Third Quest”.
I haven’t read much of Meier, tending to focus more on N.T. Wright, another “third Quest” author. Of course, the most infamous contribution to the “third Quest” is the Jesus Seminar of Don Dominic Crossan et aliter. Ratzinger and Wright – and Meier – could not be further from them in their conclusions, and in their ideology (which is, of course, the source of many of those very conclusions, no matter who the “Quester” may be!).
I was actually googling to try to find whether N.T. Wright had engaged in any way with Ratzinger’s books when I came across this article by John Meier: “The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain”. It is a terrific article and methodically evaluates the strengths and weaknesses, the “losses and gains” of the “Third Quest”. I recommend it. It has whet my appetite to read Meier’s “The Marginal Jew” – when I have finished or run out of N.T. Wright to read (which may not be this side of the eschaton or Wright’s demise, whichever comes first).
While doing the above googling, I also came across this entry on Ben Witherington III’s blog, where he actually does write about Pope Benedict’s book. Witherington is another of my favourite NT scholars, and I value his comments also – although I don’t agree with all of them, for instance, the comment that John’s Gospel is non-sacramental and the complaint that he wished the Pope could have had time to read “more of the best biblical scholarship that has emerged in the last 30 years” (John P. Meier is certainly within that time frame). He comments:
What is also true, however, is that the Pope is decidedly a post-Vatican II exegete. By this I mean, he does not just interact with older Catholic scholars (though he certainly has a predeliction for folks like A. Feuillet the great French exegete), he also interacts with a variety of Protestant exegetes as well. and furthermore, he is fully conversant with historical criticism of various forms (form, source, narrative criticism etc.) but he is concerned to get beyond such ways of analyzing the text and focus on its theological and also historical substance. This is to be commended. His approach is not pre-critical, nor is it done simply in the tradition of historical Catholic or patristic scholarship but in fact is post-critical in a helpful and healthy way. His judgment is that historical criticism, which should continue to go on, has nonetheless offered most of what it has to offer already. And at the same time, the Pope is concerned about the spiritual food that one can find in the text. His is not a dry abstract scholarly discussion. Indeed, a good deal of what he says will preach.
I find a great deal of joy in working with this material. Pope Benedict’s contribution, while not of the “Third Quest” but something completely in its own category, forms something like an “anchor” in my continued reading of “Jesus among the theologians”.