Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth, from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

Jesus of Nazareth, by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVII stumbled across Joseph Ratzinger’s first volume of Jesus of Nazareth in a local public library a couple of years ago, and thumbed through it, at first, in idle curiosity. Hmm, I wonder what the Pope has to say about Jesus?

I read a few paragraphs. Hey, this is good. This is really good…

What struck me immediately was the book’s tone. This didn’t read like some ponderous declaration of ancient dogma from the Papal Throne. It was like reading something my late father-in-law might have written, gentle and welcoming, as if to say, “Do you have a moment? This is my friend. Let me tell you about him.”

I put it back on the shelf, making a mental note to return soon, check it out, and read the whole thing, a mental note I promptly misplaced. As I was stocking my new Nook with books I’ve been meaning to read, this one came to mind again, and I’m glad it did.

Scholars on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide acknowledge that Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most gifted theologians of his generation. It might make a book such as this seem a bit intimidating on its face, something that promises pages and pages of arid exegesis of obscure Scripture passages. It’s nothing of the sort.

This is a work simultaneously ambitious and humble, scholarly and accessible, broad in scope and intimate in detail. Here is a summation of the life of Jesus in the words of a man who has made the study of Jesus his own life’s work. Ratzinger takes pains to inform the reader that this text is not an exercise of the Catholic Church’s teaching authority but rather an expression of his “personal search for the face of the Lord.”

He begins in his foreword with a critique of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship—a method he finds useful but limited because its search for the “historical Jesus” can yield a picture only as complete and precise as the historical knowledge and assumptions that form its lens. It has context, but lacks content. Instead, Ratzinger proposes we start from a simple statement of faith: Jesus Christ is as the Gospels present him—fully man and fully God, communicating his divinity “veiled in parables, yet with increasing clarity.” Starting from this benchmark reveals, he says, “a way and a figure that are worthy of belief,” a person whose undeniable impact on the world makes perfect sense, rather than posing the conundrum of an obscure Jewish carpenter possessed of extraordinary influence, far beyond anything the collection of historical facts about his life could predict.

Ratzinger’s journey through the early ministry of Jesus begins in the Book of Deuteronomy, at first glance an odd place to start, but he ties the advent of Jesus together with God’s promise to Israel of another prophet like Moses, “whom the Lord knew face to face.” Moses had led his people into the Promised Land, but not into complete liberation or salvation. They were still in need of “an even more radical kind of exodus,” one that required a new Moses, someone who possessed an intimacy with God that exceeded Moses.

This idea sets the stage for the rest of the book, and it frames the examination of every episode in the life of Jesus from the beginning of his ministry at the Jordan River to the revealing of his divine glory at the Transfiguration. Jesus’ intimate unity with God the Father, constantly beholding the face of God, enables him to reveal that face to us in a way mankind could never before imagine. His communion with God models the relationship God wants to reestablish with us. And more than this, Jesus becomes the embodiment of the Kingdom of God, God present with us, acting “concretely in the world and in history.”

This is just scratching the surface. In the course of his journey alongside Jesus, Ratzinger shows how Jesus’ life reveals the essential harmony of Scripture as a whole, from Genesis to Revelation, and among the four Gospel accounts in particular. While very readable, it’s dense with Scriptural cross-references and perspectives drawn from an array of Biblical scholars from the beginning of Christian history to the present day. He concludes with a dialogue on the identity of Jesus, focusing on three titles Jesus applied to himself—“Son,” “Son of Man,” and “I am he.”

We have found three terms in which Jesus at once conceals and reveals the mystery of his person…All three of these terms demonstrate how deeply rooted he is in the Word of God, Israel’s Bible, the Old Testament. And yet all these terms receive their full meaning only in him; it is as if they had been waiting for him.

This is a book best read slowly and with care, perhaps a chapter at a time, with ample time for reflection between readings. If you’re unacquainted with Jesus, if you want to understand him a little better, or even if you think you know everything about Jesus you need to know, this book’s for you. Give it a read.


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