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Jesus of Nazareth: Baptism to Transfiguration | Book Review

Part of a three book series on the Historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism to the Transfiguration (Image, 2007) begins Joseph Ratzinger’s examination of the life and teaching of the founder of Christianity. In this book Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) engages the major moments and messages from Jesus’ ministry, combining historical, literary, and theological insights into a masterful work not only on the “Historical Jesus” of scholarship, but also on the “Living Jesus” of Christian faith. Coming in at just over 350 pages, Ratzinger’s work stands at the pinnacle of contemporary Roman Catholic Historical Jesus research, and is a must read for those studying the Gospels and Early Christianity.

joseph_ratzinger_jesus_of_nazareth_smBeginning with a forward and introductory reflection on the mystery of Jesus, Ratzinger launches his project with an overview of methodology, and the influences upon his own study of the life of Jesus. He especially highlights “canonical exegesis” (xix), where portions of the text are read within the context of their whole. Paradigmatic for his foray into the Gospels involves understanding Jesus as the new Moses, an important key to making sense of the Synoptic Tradition (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Chapters one and two follow the canonical chronology of baptism and temptation, and in these chapters Ratzinger seeks to contextualize the arrival of Jesus within the historical and theological setting of ancient Palestine. After engaging Jesus’ message of the “Kingdom of God”, chapter four turns to a lengthy treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, by far Ratzinger’s longest and most involved chapter, and includes considerable treatments of the Beatitudes and Jesus’ use of the Torah—suffice it to say that there is enough material here for several lengthy sermons. Chapter five, on the Lord’s Prayer, reads very much like an extension of Ratzinger’s engagement with the Sermon on the Mount, and it is here that Benedict XVI’s pastoral emphasis on prayer comes across most clearly.

Chapters six and seven engage the disciples and Jesus’ parables, respectively, with specific examinations of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. While there is relatively little that is new here for those immersed in parable studies, the synthesis of principle and practice, history and theology, are superb in their presentation. Until this point Ratzinger has been dealing primarily with the Synoptic Tradition, but in chapter eight Jesus of Nazareth turns to the Fourth Gospel (John), including both an excellent foray into the literary context and production of this work, as well as noting numerous “canonical” insights on how John’s Gospel supplements the Synoptic Tradition. In chapter nine Peter’s confession of Christ and the transfiguration are considered, with Ratzinger drawing out several important contextual factors which cast these events into their Jewish and salvation contexts in important ways. Finally, in chapter ten Ratzinger considers the identity of Jesus, specifically the titles which he applied to himself and those which were applied to him by his disciples.

The highlight of Jesus of Nazareth is the way in which Ratzinger synthesizes historical research and theological exegesis. Reading neither like a typical examination of the historical Jesus (i.e., John D. Crossan) nor a devotional reading of the gospels (i.e., Max Lucado), Ratzinger’s work demonstrates the methodology and practice of doing justice to both sides of the proverbial “faith and reason” paradigm, showing that there does not necessarily have to be a divide between authentic faith and serious scholarship. The paradigm of this book is unashamedly historical, theological, and canonical, leading to a balanced portrait of the historical Jesus which does justice to Church and Academy alike.

Ratzinger’s Catholicism does come through strongly at points in this book (no surprise there—the pope is Catholic, after all). But there are rich, valuable insights into the life and teaching of Jesus for Christians of all denominations. This might also be worth a look for those outside of Christianity hoping to become more familiar with the life of Christ, though the Christian grammar Ratzinger presupposes throughout might make it a better second read. If there is a critique of this book, it is that it could have been structured for more extensive use by scholars. Certainly the materials present themselves in a scholarly way, but it would have been nice to see the scholar-pope include more extensive notes and references in an end section.

Overall, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism to the Transfiguration is an excellently written treatment of the life and teaching of Jesus, which does a superb job of considering both historical and theological concerns. This is a must read for those involved in scholarship during this time period, and would be a worthy read for Christians of all backgrounds. We shall conclude as Ratzinger does:  this book does a fine job of confessing with the Church and Peter, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (355).


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Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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