Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by (former) Pope Benedict XVI is perhaps the best book on Jesus that I have read in a long time. This was the first book I’d read by Pope Benedict, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised by a very personal and scholarly reflection on the Gospels and the life of Jesus.
In the foreword, Pope Benedict writes about the struggle in modern scholarship to discover the ‘historical’ Jesus. He notes that various incompatible and equally unlikely portraits of Jesus have emerged from modern scholars determined to discover a ‘new’ Jesus; a whole spectrum from an extreme anti-Roman revolutionary to a “meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief.” He goes on to give an overview of 20th century scholarship on Jesus, and sketches his own ideas about how to discover the historical Jesus as part of his “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.'”
So what makes this book so good? Firstly, new insights and parallels from within Scripture. I was familiar with Scriptural and theological parallels between Jesus and Adam and Messianic prophecies such as the Davidic promises, but Benedict chooses to start with Moses, and parallel Moses to Jesus in a way I’d never seen done before. Not only was it very interesting, it also shed light on who Jesus is. This book is chock full of little Biblical insights and parallels – don’t be fooled by the title, Pope Benedict draws from almost every part of the Bible throughout this book and even a seasoned Biblical scholar will walk away with some little new insight.
Secondly, a thorough explanation of why Jesus was different: he claimed to be God. Benedict makes extensive use of A Rabbi Talks With Jesus by Jacob Neusner, and is this scholar who provides some historic context to Jesus’ message. There are people who read the Gospels and somehow walk away with the impression that Jesus was just an angel or something less than God. Popular books by non-Christians have surfaced recently trying to find a Jesus who didn’t claim to be God in the Gospels. Jesus of Nazareth, through Neusner, does an excellent job of showing how a faithful Jew would have understood Jesus’ message. As Jesus was of and speaking to this audience, this is what we ought to have in mind when examining who the historical Jesus was. This absolutely refutes attempts to recast Jesus as a ‘nice moral teacher.’
Thirdly, the book ends with an explanation of the unity of the Gospels with the early Christian church’s Christology. It examines and explains Jesus’ various ways of speaking of himself “I am”, “The Son” and “The Son of Man.” These three phrases all point to who Jesus claimed to be. It gives the reader an understanding of how this Jesus of the Gospels is related to this global movement focused on him.
This book is not written to convince anyone who doubts the authenticity or reliability of the Gospels. It isn’t even particularly apologetic in nature. What it does do is reflect – from the standpoint of both a man who is both a faithful Christian and a faithful scholar – on who Jesus is. This book is for anyone interested in what the Gospels say about Jesus, what Christians believe, and how the two fit together.
+ Easy to read and get into; very well written
+ Appropriate balance of faith and scholarship
+ A joy to read through, very personal
– Would have been nice to get all of Jesus’ life into one book