The Pope’s latest book shows he is the most learned man alive

Why does Pope Benedict XVI bother to write books? Long before his election to the See of Peter he was established as a leading theologian of his generation. Being universal pastor of the Church is a crushing job, so why add to it by embarking on a massive scholarly project?

Evidently the Holy Father enjoys writing theology. The deeper reason though is that Benedict knows, with all humility, that he is better at it than anyone else. Just as the soon-to-be-Blessed John Paul II knew that he had a special gift for leading massive, history-changing public manifestations of the faith, Benedict likely concludes that if the Lord wanted him as Pope then he should do what God gave him the talent to do.

Last week marked the release of Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. Together with Part One, released in 2007, Benedict has produced a 700-page work of profound biblical theology on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To put that in perspective, a full-time theology professor, teaching a few hours of class a week, would consider such a work the capstone of a career. That Joseph Ratzinger completed this project in his 70s and 80s, while being Pope, is simply staggering. Intelligence is not a prerequisite for being pope, or even to be a bishop or priest — evidence abounds! — but it is certainly a special grace of our time that the Holy Father is the most learned man alive.

And to what purpose is that prodigious intellect put in this massive study of Jesus? Nothing less than a revolution in biblical theology, or to put it more accurately, to make biblical studies theological again.

“One thing is clear to me: in 200 years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit,” declares Benedict in the foreword to Part Two. “If scholarly exegesis is not to exhaust itself in constantly new hypotheses, becoming theologically irrelevant, it must make a methodological step forward and see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character.”

That’s a mouthful. Exegesis is the technical term for the analysis of texts, and “historical-critical” exegesis is an approach to the Bible which studies the Scriptures according to the methods of history and literature. The goal which has dominated biblical studies for two centuries is the discovery of the “historical Jesus” who lies somehow hidden behind the “Christ of faith.”

The result has been catastrophic for biblical theology, as anyone who has been subject to academic biblical study in the last several generations can attest. My own undergraduate studies of the Scriptures at the Gregorian University in Rome — just steps away from the Pontifical Biblical Institute — were full of history and literary analysis, but included precious little theology. I remember in particular a course on John’s Gospel and letters that was worse than useless. So immersed were we in the linguistic analysis of chapter two — for years the result was a loathing for the wedding at Cana! — that the course never even informed us that, say, St. Augustine had written extensive commentaries on those texts. The dominant historical-critical approach actually avoids the question of why these texts were worth studying in the first place.

The deep flaw in an exclusively historical approach is that history remains always in the past and cannot invite us into a relationship in the present. Also, because historical research cannot proceed by the scientific method, it remains always in the realm of hypotheses — many of which are little more than rank speculation.

I remember reading a work on Paul by the celebrated scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Wondering how Paul’s attitudes toward women were formed, Murphy-O’Connor opined that, given the frequency of earthquakes in the region, perhaps Paul lost his wife in one and the grief soured him on marriage. I closed the book there, realizing that a discipline that could elevate elaborate fabrications into scholarship had descended into the irrelevancy of which Benedict speaks.

Consequently, he has set out to fix that problem by example. He acknowledges that Christianity is a historical faith and the Scriptures are literary works, so history and criticism are necessary — demanded by the faith itself. They have produced “essential fruit.” But that needs to be complemented by theology — reading the Scriptures with the eyes of faith in the tradition of the Church.

“I hope to have taken a significant step in that direction,” the Holy Father writes. “Fundamentally this is a matter of finally putting into practice the methodological principles formulated for exegesis by the Second Vatican Council, a task that unfortunately has scarcely been attempted thus far.”

It has been successfully attempted now.