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Jesus of Nazareth

30 November, 1999

This book by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is the first in a series. It is an attempt to give an inspiring account of Jesus. It looks at his baptism, his temptations, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, the sermon on the mount up to when he declares his identity in expressions like the Son of Man, the son and “I am”. He is already working on the sequel.


Publisher’s Note

Introduction: An initial reflection on the mystery of Jesus
The baptism of Jesus
The temptations of Jesus
The gospel of the kingdom of God
The sermon on the mount
The Lord’s prayer
The disciples
The message of the parables
The principal images of John’s gospel
Two milestones on Jesus’ way: Peter’s confession and the transfiguration
Jesus declares his identity



This book about Jesus, the first part of which I am now presenting to the public, has had a long gestation. When I was growing up—in the 193os and 1940s—there was a series of inspiring books about Jesus: Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Franz Michel Wiliam, Giovanni Papini, and Henri Daniel-Rops were just some of the authors one could name. All of these books based their portrayal of Jesus Christ on the Gospels. They presented him as a man living on earth who, fully human though he was, at the same time brought God to men, the God with whom as Son he was one. Through the man Jesus, then, God was made visible, and hence our eyes were able to behold the perfect man.

But the situation started to change in the 195os. The gap between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” grew wider and the two visibly fell apart. But what can faith in Jesus as the Christ possibly mean, in Jesus as the Son of the living God, if the man Jesus was so completely different from the picture that the Evangelists painted of him and that the Church, on the evidence of the Gospels, takes as the basis of her preaching?

As historical-critical scholarship advanced, it led to finer and finer distinctions between layers of tradition in the Gospels, beneath which the real object of faith—the figure [Gestalt] of Jesus—became increasingly obscured and blurred. At the same time, though, the reconstructions of this Jesus (who could only be discovered by going behind the traditions and sources used by the Evangelists) became more and more incompatible with one another: at one end of the spectrum, Jesus was the anti-Roman revolutionary working—though finally failing—to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was the meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief If you read a number of these reconstructions one after the other, you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has become obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold. Since then there has been growing skepticism about these portrayals of Jesus, but the figure of Jesus himself has for that very reason receded even further into the distance.

All these attempts have produced a common result: the impression that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him. This impression has by now penetrated deeply into the minds of the Christian people at large. This is a dramatic situation for faith, because its point of reference is being placed in doubt: Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air.

Rudolf Schnackenburg was probably the most prominent Catholic exegete writing in German during the second half of the twentieth century. It is clear that toward the end of his life, this crisis surrounding the faith made a profound impression on him. In view of the inadequacy of all the portrayals of the “historical” Jesus offered by recent exegesis, he strove to produce one last great work: Jesus in the Gospels: A Biblical Christology. The book is intended to help believing Christians “who today have been made insecure by scientific research and critical discussion, so that they may hold fast to faith in the person of Jesus Christ as the bringer of salvation and Savior of the world” (p. x). At the end of the book, Schnackenburg sums up the result of a lifetime of scholarship: “a reliable view of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth through scientific effort with historical-critical methods can be only inadequately achieved” (p. 3i6); “the efforts of scientific exegesis to examine these traditions and trace them back to what is historically credible” draw us “into a continual discussion of tradition and redaction history that never comes to rest” (p. 318).

His own account of the figure of Jesus suffers from a certain unresolved tension because of the constraints of the method he feels bound to use, despite its inadequacies. Schnackenburg shows us the Gospels’ image of Christ, but he considers it to be the product of manifold layers of tradition, through which the “real” Jesus can only be glimpsed from afar. He writes: “The historical ground is presupposed but is superseded in the faith-view of the evangelists” (p. 321). Now, no one doubts that; what remains unclear is how far the “historical ground” actually extends. That said, Schnackenburg does clearly throw into relief the decisive point, which he regards as a genuinely historical insight: Jesus’ relatedness to God and his closeness to God (p. 322). “Without anchoring in God, the person of Jesus remains shadowy, unreal, and unexplainable” (p. 322).

This is also the point around which I will construct my own book. It sees Jesus in light of his communion with the Father, which is the true center of his personality; without it, we cannot understand him at all, and it is from this center that he makes himself present to us still today.

To be sure, in the particular contours of my own presentation of Jesus I make a determined effort to go beyond Schnackenburg. The problem with Schnackenburg’s account of the relationship between New Testament traditions and historical events stands out very clearly for me when he writes that the Gospels “want, as it were, to clothe with flesh the mysterious Son of God who appeared on earth” (p. 322). I would like to say in response that they did not need to “clothe him with flesh,” because he had already truly taken flesh. Of course, the question remains: Can this flesh be accessed through the dense jungle of traditions?

Schnackenburg tells us in the foreword to his book that he feels indebted to the historical-critical method, which had been in use in Catholic theology ever since the door was opened for it by the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943 (P ix). This encyclical was an important milestone for Catholic exegesis. Since then, though, the debate about method has moved on, both inside and outside the Catholic Church. There have been significant new methodological discoveries—both in terms of strictly historical work and in terms of the interplay between theology and historical method in scriptural interpretation. Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, made a decisive step forward. In addition, two documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission communicate important insights that have matured in the course of debates among exegetes: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City, 1993) and The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (Vatican City, 2001).

I would like to sketch at least the broad outlines of the methodology, drawn from these documents, that has guided me in writing this book. The first point is that the historical-critical method—specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith—is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnates est—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.

If we push this history aside, Christian faith as such disappears and is recast as some other religion. So if history, if facticity in this sense, is an essential dimension of Christian faith, then faith must expose itself to the historical method—indeed, faith itself demands this. I have already mentioned the conciliar Constitution on Divine Revelation; it makes the same point quite explicitly in paragraph 12 and goes on to list some concrete elements of method that have to be kept “in mind when interpreting Scripture. The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document on the interpretation of Holy Scripture develops the same idea much more amply in the chapter entitled “Methods and Approaches for Interpretation.”

The historical-critical method—let me repeat—is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith. But we need to add two points. This method is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God. We will have to return to this point at greater length in a moment.

For the time being, it is important—and this is a second point—to recognize the limits of the historical-critical method itself. For someone who considers himself directly addressed by the Bible today, the method’s first limit is that by its very nature it has to leave the biblical word in the past. It is a historical method, and that means that it investigates the then-current context of events in which the texts originated. It attempts to identify and to understand the past—as it was in itself—with the greatest possible precision, in order then to find out what the author could have said and intended to say in the context of the mentality and events of the time. To the extent that it remains true to itself, the historical method not only has to investigate the biblical word as a thing of the past, but also has to let it remain in the past. It can glimpse points of contact with the present and it can try to apply the biblical word to the present; the one thing it cannot do is make it into something present today-that would be overstepping its bounds. Its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit.

This is connected with a further point. Because it is a historical method, it presupposes the uniformity of the context within which the events of history unfold. It must therefore treat the biblical words it investigates as human words. On painstaking reflection, it can intuit something of the “deeper value” the word contains. It can in some sense catch the sounds of a higher dimension through the human word, and so open up the method to self-transcendence. But its specific object is the human word as human.

Ultimately, it considers the individual books of Scripture in the context of their historical period, and then analyzes them further according to their sources. The unity of all of these writings as one “Bible,” however, is not something it can recognize as an immediate historical datum. Of course it can examine the lines of development, the growth of traditions, and in that sense can look beyond the individual books to see how they come together to form the one “Scripture.” Nevertheless, it always has to begin by going back to the origin of the individual texts, which means placing them in their past context, even if it goes on to complement this move back in time by following up the process through which the texts were later brought together.

We have to keep in mind the limit of all efforts to know the past: We can never go beyond the domain of hypothesis, because we simply cannot bring the past into the present. To be sure, some hypotheses enjoy a high degree of certainty, but in overall we need to remain conscious of the limit of our certainties—indeed, the history of modern exegesis makes this limit perfectly evident.

So far, then, we have said something about the importance of the historical-critical method, on one hand, and we have described its limit, on the other. Something more than just the limit has come into view, though, I hope: the fact that the inner nature of the method points beyond itself and contains within itself an openness to complementary methods. In these words from the past, we can discern the question concerning their meaning for today; a voice greater than man’s echoes in Scripture’s human words, the individual writings [Schrifte] of the Bible point somehow to the living process that shapes the one Scripture [Schrift].

Indeed, the realization of this last point some thirty years ago led American scholars to develop the project of “canonical exegesis.” The aim of this exegesis is to read individual texts within the totality of the one Scripture, which then sheds new light on all the individual texts. Paragraph 12 of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation had already clearly underscored this as a fundamental principle of theological exegesis: If you want to understand the Scripture in the spirit in which it is written, you have to attend to the content and to the unity of Scripture as a whole. The Council goes on to stress the need for taking account of the living tradition of the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic correspondences within the faith).

Let us dwell for the time being on the unity of Scripture. It is a theological datum. But it is not simply imposed from the outside on what is in itself a heterogeneous ensemble of writings. Modern exegesis has brought to light the process of constant rereading that forged the words transmitted in the Bible into Scripture: Older texts are reappropriated, reinterpreted, and read with new eyes in new contexts. They become Scripture by being read anew, evolving in continuity with their original sense, tacitly corrected and given added depth and breadth of meaning. This is a process in which the word gradually unfolds its inner potentialities, already somehow present like seeds, but needing the challenge of new situations, new experiences and new sufferings, in order to open up.

This process is certainly not linear, and it is often dramatic, but when you watch it unfold in light of Jesus Christ, you can see it moving in a single overall direction; you can see that the Old and New Testaments belong together. This Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole and learns from him how to understand the Bible as a unity, presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a purely historical method. But this act of faith is based upon reason—historical reason—and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of Scripture. By the same token, it enables us to understand anew the individual elements that have shaped it, without robbing them of their historical originality.

“Canonical exegesis”—reading the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole—is an essential dimension of exegesis. It does not contradict historical-critical interpretation, but carries it forward in an organic way toward becoming theology in the proper sense. There are two further aspects of theological exegesis that I would like to underscore. Historical-critical interpretation of a text seeks to discover the precise sense the words were intended to convey at their time and place of origin. That is good and important. But—aside from the fact that such reconstructions can claim only a relative certainty—it is necessary to keep in mind that any human utterance of a certain weight contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at the time. When a word transcends the moment in which it is spoken, it t carries within itself a “deeper value.” This “deeper value” pertains most of all to words that have matured in the course of faith-history. For in this case the author is not simply speaking for himself on his own authority. He is speaking from the perspective of a common history that sustains him and that already implicitly  contains the possibilities of its future, of the further stages of its journey. The process of continually rereading and drawing out new meanings from words would not have been possible unless the words themselves were already open to it from within.

At this point we get a glimmer, even on the historical level, of what inspiration means: The author does not speak as a private, self-contained  subject. He speaks in a living community, that is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, nor even by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work. There are dimensions of the word that the old doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture pinpointed with remarkable accuracy. The four senses of Scripture are not individual meanings arrayed side by side, but dimensions of the one word that reaches beyond the moment.
This already suggests the second aspect I wanted to speak about. Neither the individual books of Holy Scripture nor the Scripture as a whole are simply a piece of literature. The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject—the pilgrim People of God—and lives within this same subject. One could say that the books of Scripture involve three interacting subjects. First of all, there is the individual author or group of authors to whom we owe a particular scriptural text. But these authors are not autonomous writers in the modern sense; they form part of a collective subject, the “People of God,” from within whose heart and to whom they speak. Hence, this subject is actually the deeper “author” of the Scriptures. And yet likewise, this people does not exist alone; rather, it knows that it is led, and spoken to, by God himself, who—through men and their humanity—is at the deepest level the one speaking.
The connection with the subject we call “People of God” is vital for Scripture. On one hand, this book–Scripture—is the measure that comes from God, the power directing the people. On the other hand, though, Scripture lives precisely within this people, even as this people transcends itself in Scripture. Through their self-transcendence (a fruit, at the deepest level, of the incarnate Word) they become the people of God. The People of God—the Church—is the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are always in the present. This also means, of course, that the People has to receive its very self from God, ultimately from the incarnate Christ; it has to let itself be ordered, guided, and led by him.

I feel that I owe the reader these remarks about methodology, because they govern my interpretation of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament (cf the introductory remarks included with the Bibliography). The main implication of this for my portrayal of Jesus is that I trust the Gospels. Of course, I take for granted everything that the Council and modern exegesis tell us about literary genres, about authorial intention, and about the fact that the Gospels were written in the context, and speak within the living milieu, of communities. I have tried, to the best of my ability, to incorporate all of this, and yet I wanted to try to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, “historical” Jesus in the strict sense of the word. I am convinced, and I hope the reader will be, too, that this figure is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions we have been presented with in the last decades. I believe that this Jesus—the Jesus of the Gospels—is a historically plausible and convincing figure.

Unless there had been something extraordinary in what happened, unless the person and the words of Jesus radically surpassed the hopes and expectations of the time, there is no way to explain why he was crucified or why he made such an impact. As early as twenty or so years after Jesus’ death, the great Christ-hymn of the Letter to the Philippians (cf Phil 2:6-11) offers us a fully developed Christology stating that Jesus was equal to God, but emptied himself, became man, and humbled himself to die on the Cross, and that to him now belongs the worship of all creation, the adoration that God, through the Prophet Isaiah, said was due to him alone (cf Is 45:23).
Critical scholarship rightly asks the question: What happened during those twenty years after Jesus’ Crucifixion? Where did this Christology come from? To say that it is the fruit of anonymous collective formulations, whose authorship we seek to discover, does not actually explain anything. How could these unknown groups be so creative? How were they so persuasive and how did they manage to prevail? Isn’t it more logical, even historically speaking, to assume that the greatness came at the beginning, and that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in the light of the mystery of God? Admittedly, to believe that, as man, he truly was God, and that he communicated his divinity veiled in parables, yet with increasing clarity, exceeds the scope of the historical method. Yet if instead we take this conviction of faith as our starting point for reading the texts with the help of historical methodology and its intrinsic openness to something greater, they are opened up and they reveal a way and a figure that are worthy of belief. Something else comes into clear focus as well: Though the New Testament writings display a many-layered struggle to come to grips with the figure of Jesus, they exhibit a deep harmony despite all their differences.

It is obvious that the way I look at the figure of Jesus goes beyond what much contemporary exegesis, as represented by someone such as Schnackenburg, has to say. I hope it is clear to the reader, though, that my intention in writing this book is not to counter modern exegesis; rather, I writewith profound gratitude for all that it has given and continues to give to us. It has opened up to us a wealth of material and an abundance of findings that enable the figure of Jesus to become present to us with a vitality and depth that we could not have imagined even just a few decades ago. I have merely tried to go beyond purely historical-critical exegesis so as to apply new methodological insights that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible. To be sure, this requires faith, but the aim unequivocally is not, nor should be, to give up serious engagement with history.

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.
As I said at the beginning of this foreword, the present book has undergone a long gestation. I was able to begin work on it during the 2,003 summer holidays. Then, in August 2004, I gave chapters 1-4 their final shape. Since  my election to the episcopal see of Rome I have used every free moment to make progress on the book. As I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given, I have decided to publish the first ten chapters, covering the period from the Baptism in the Jordan to Peter’s confession of faith and the Transfiguration, as Part One of this book.

In Part Two I hope also to be able to include the chapter on the infancy narratives, which I have postponed for now, because it struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him.
Rome, on the Feast of Saint Jerome
30 September 2oo6



An Initial Reflection on
the Mystery of Jesus

The Book of Deuteronomy contains a promise that is completely different from the messianic hope expressed in other books of the Old Testament, yet it is of decisive importance for understanding the figure of Jesus. The object of this promise is not a king of Israel and king of the world—a new David, in other words—but a new Moses. Moses himself, however, is interpreted as a prophet. The category “prophet” is seen here as something totally specific and unique, in contrast to the surrounding religious world, something that Israel alone has in this particular form. This new and different element is a consequence of the uniqueness of the faith in God that was granted to Israel. In every age, man’s questioning has focused not only on his ultimate origin; almost more than the obscurity of his beginnings, what preoccupies him is the hiddenness of the future that awaits him. Man wants to tear aside the curtain; he wants to know what is going to happen, so that he can avoid perdition and set out toward salvation.

Religions do not aim merely to answer the question about our provenance; all religions try in one way or another to lift the veil of the future. They seem important precisely because they impart knowledge about what is to come, and so show man the path he has to take to avoid coming to grief This explains why practically all religions have developed ways of looking into the future.

The Deuteronomy text we are considering mentions the different methods used by the peoples surrounding Israel to open a “window” onto the future: “When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD” (Deut 18:9-12).

The story of Saul’s downfall shows how difficult it was, having renounced these things, to hold firm and to manage without them. Saul himself had tried to enforce this command and to banish sorcery from the land. But faced with the imminent prospect of a perilous battle with the Philistines, he can no longer bear God’s silence, and he rides out to Endor, to a woman who conjures the dead, asking her to summon the spirit of Samuel so as to afford him a glimpse into the future. If the Lord will not speak, then someone else will have to tear aside the veil that covers tomorrow (cf I Sam 28).

Chapter 18 of the book of Deuteronomy brands all of these ways of seizing control of the future as an “abomination” in God’s eyes. It contrasts this use of soothsaying with the very different way of Israel—the way of faith. It does this in the form of a promise: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you … him you shall heed” (Deut 18:15). At first glance this seems no more than a declaration that God will establish the prophetic office in Israel and assign its holder the task of interpreting present and future. The harsh critique of false prophets that occurs again and again in the prophetic writings underscores the danger that in practice prophets will assume the role of soothsayers, acting like them and being consulted like them. When this happens, Israel relapses into the very thing that the prophets had been commissioned to prevent.

The conclusion of Deuteronomy returns to the promise and gives it a surprising twist that takes it far beyond the institution of prophecy. In so doing, it gives the figure of the prophet its true meaning. “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses,” we read, “whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut 34:10). A curious melancholy hangs over this conclusion of the fifth Book of Moses. The promise concerning “a prophet like me” has not yet been fulfilled. And it now becomes clear that these words do not refer simply to the institution of prophecy, which in fact already existed, but to something different and far greater: the announcement of a new Moses. It had become evident that taking possession of the land in Palestine did not constitute the chosen people’s entry into salvation; that Israel was still awaiting its real liberation; that an even more radical kind of exodus was necessary, one that called for a new Moses.

And now we are told what set the first Moses apart, the unique and essential quality of this figure: He had conversed with the Lord “face to face”; as a man speaks to his friend, so he had spoken with God (cf Ex 33:11). The most important thing about the figure of Moses is neither all the miraculous deeds he is reported to have done nor his many works and sufferings along the way from the “house of bondage in Egypt” through the desert to the threshold of the Promised Land. The most important thing is that he spoke with God as with a friend. This was the only possible springboard for his works; this was the only possible source of the Law that was to show Israel its path through history.

It now becomes perfectly clear that the prophet is not the Israelite version of the soothsayer, as was widely held at the time and as many so-called prophets considered themselves. On the contrary, the prophet is something quite different. His task is not to report on the events of tomorrow or the next day in order to satisfy human curiosity or the human need for security. He shows us the face of God, and in so doing he shows us the path that we have to take. The future of which he speaks reaches far beyond what people seek from soothsayers. He points out the path to the true “exodus,” which consists in this: Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction that we must seek and find. Prophecy ‘in this sense is a strict corollary to Israel’s monotheism. It is the translation of this faith into the everyday life of a community before God and on the way to him.

“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses.” This judgment gives an eschatological flavor to the promise that “the Loth your God will raise up for you a prophet like me.” Israel is allowed to hope for a new Moses, who has yet to appear, but who will be raised up at the appropriate hour. And the characteristic of this “prophet” will be that he converses with God face-to-face, as a friend does with a friend. His distinguishing note will be his immediate relation with God, which enables him to communicate God’s will and word firsthand and unadulterated. And that is the saving intervention which Israel—indeed, the whole of humanity—is waiting for.

At this point, though, we need to recall another remarkable story that the Book of Exodus recounts concerning Moses’ relationship with God. There we are told that Moses asked God, “I pray thee, show me thy glory” (Ex 33:18). God refuses his request: “You cannot see my face” (Ex 33:2o). Moses is placed near God in the cleft of a rock, and God passes by with his glory. As he passes, God covers Moses with his own hand, but he withdraws it at the end: “You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Ex 33:23).

Thins mysterious text played an important role in the history of Jewish and Christian mysticism; it served as the basis for attempts to discern how far contact with God can extend in this life and where the boundaries of mystical vision lie. In terms of the present question, the main point is that although Moses’ immediate relation to God makes him the great mediator of Revelation, the mediator of the Covenant, it has its limits. He does not behold God’s face, even though he is permitted to enter into the cloud of God’s presence and to speak with God as a friend. The promise of a “prophet like me” thus implicitly contains an even greater expectation: that the last prophet, the new Moses, will be granted what was refused to the first one—a real, immediate vision of the face of God, and thus the ability to speak entirely from seeing, not just from looking at God’s back. This naturally entails the further expectation that the new Moses will be the mediator of a greater covenant than the one that Moses was able to bring down from Sinai (cf. Heb 9:11-24).

This is the context in which we need to read the conclusion of the prologue to John’s Gospel: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” Jn 1:18). It is in Jesus that the promise of the new prophet is fulfilled. What was true of Moses only in fragmentary form has now been fully realized in the person of Jesus: He lives before the face of God, not just ust as a friend, but as a Son; he lives in the most intimate unity with the Father.

We have to start here if we are truly to understand the figure of Jesus as it is presented to us in the New Testament; all that we are told about his words, deeds, sufferings, and glory is anchored here. This is the central point, and if we leave it out of account, we fail to grasp what the figure of Jesus is really all about, so that it becomes self-contradictory and, in the end, unintelligible. The question that every reader of the New Testament must ask—where Jesus’ teaching came from, how his appearance in history is to be explained—can really be answered only from this perspective. The reaction of his hearers was clear: This teaching does not come from any school. It is radically different from what can be learned in schools. It is not the kind of explanation or interpretation that is taught there. It is different; it is interpretation “with authority.” Later we will ponder Jesus’ words, and then we will have to return to this judgment on the part of his hearers and delve more deeply into its significance.

Jesus’ teaching is not the product of human learning, of whatever kind. It originates from immediate contact with the Father, from “face-to-face” dialogue—from the vision of the one who rests close to the Father’s heart. It is the Son’s word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption. That is just what the learned men of Jesus’ time judged it to be, and they did so precisely because they could not accept its inner grounding: seeing and knowing face-to-face.

Again and again the Gospels note that Jesus withdrew “to the mountain” to spend nights in prayer “alone” with his Father. These short passages are fundamental for our understanding of Jesus; they lift the veil of mystery just a little; they give us a glimpse ‘into Jesus’ filial existence, into the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang. This “praying” of Jesus is the Son conversing with the Father; Jesus’ human consciousness and will, his human soul, is taken up into that exchange, and in this way human “praying” is able to become a participation in this filial communion with the Father.
Adolf von Harnack famously claimed that Jesus’ message was about the Father, not about the Son, and that Christological therefore has no place in it. The fallacy of this argument is evident from what we have been saying. Jesus is only able to speak about the Father in the way he does because he is the Son, because of his filial communion with the Father. The Christological dimension—in other words, the mystery of the Son as revealer of the Father—is present in everything Jesus says and does. Another important point appears here: We have said that in Jesus’ filial communion with the Father, his human soul is also taken up into the act of praying. He who sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). The disciple who walks with Jesus is thus caught up with him into communion with God. And that is what redemption means: this stepping beyond the limits of human nature, which had been there as a possibility and an expectation in man, God’s image and likeness, since the moment of creation.

Chapter One
The Baptism of Jesus

Jesus’ public activity begins with his Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. While Matthew merely gives a formulaic indication of the date of this event—”in those days”—Luke very deliberately puts it in the larger context of secular history, which enables us to assign it a very precise date. That said, Matthew does provide a dating of a sort, in that he places Jesus’ family tree at the beginnings of his Gospel. This genealogy is arranged to show lineal descent from Abraham and David, and it presents Jesus as the inheritor both of the promise made to Abraham and of God’s pledges to David, to whom God had promised—through all of Israel’s sins and all of God’s chastisements—an eternal kingdom. As this family tree presents it, history is divided into three groups of fourteen generations, fourteen being the numerical value of the name David. The history it recounts breaks down into the period from Abraham to David, the period from David to the Babylonian Exile, and an additional period of fourteen generations. The very fact that yet another fourteen generations have elapsed is an indication that the hour of the definitive David, of the renewal of the kingdom of David that is the establishment of the Kingdom of God himself, has now come.

As one would expect from the Jewish-Christian Evangelist Matthew, this family tree is also a genealogy of Jewish salvation history, which at most offers an oblique perspective on secular history, insofar as the kingdom of the definitive David, being the Kingdom of God, obviously concerns the world as a whole. The actual dating remains therefore vague. This also has to do, of course, with the fact that reckoning of the generations depends less on any historical scheme than on the triple phasing of the promise and so is not intended to establish a precise chronology.

Let us observe here at the outset that Luke does not place his genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel, but connects it with the story of Jesus’ Baptism, to which it forms a conclusion. He tells us that at this point in time Jesus was about thirty years old, which means he had attained the age that conferred a right to public activity. In contrast to Matthew, Luke uses his genealogy to journey from Jesus back into past history. Abraham and David make their appearance, but without any particular emphasis. The family tree goes back to Adam, and so to creation, for once Luke comes to the name Adam, he adds: “of God.” This is a way of underscoring the universal scope of Jesus’ mission. He is the son of Adam—the son of man. Because he is man, all of us belong to him and he to us; in him humanity starts anew and reaches its destiny.

Let us return to John the Baptist. Luke has already supplied two important time references in the infancy narratives. Recounting the beginning of the Baptist’s life, Luke tells us that it took place “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Lk :5). The time reference in the Baptist’s case thus remains within the bounds of Jewish history. By contrast, the story of Jesus’ infancy begins with the words “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (Lk 2:1). The wider history of the world, represented by the Roman Empire, forms the backdrop.

Luke picks up this thread again when he introduces the story of the Baptist, which marks the beginning of Jesus’ public activity. At this point he tells us both solemnly and precisely that it was “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachoniris, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Calaphas” (Lk 3:1-2). Once again the mention of the Roman emperor serves to indicate Jesus’ chronological place in world history. We are not meant to regard Jesus’ activity as taking place in some sort of mythical “anytime,” which can mean always or never. It is a precisely datable historical event having the full weight that real historical happenings have; like them, too, it happens once only; it is contemporary with all times, but not in the way that a timeless myth would be.

But the point is not just the chronology: The emperor and Jesus represent two different orders of reality. They are by no means mutually exclusive, but their encounter does have the potential to spark a conflict that has implications for the basic questions facing humanity and human existence. Jesus will later say “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17), which is a way of expressing the essential compatibility of the two spheres. But when the imperial power interprets itself as divine, as Augustus’ claim to be the bringer of world peace and the savior of humanity already implicitly does, then the Christian has to “obey God more than men” (Acts 5:29). It is then that Christians become “martyrs,” witnesses of Christ, who himself was “the faithful witness” who died on the Cross under Pontius Pilate (Rev 1:5). Luke’s mention of Pontius Pilate casts the shadow of the Cross over the beginning of Jesus’ public activity. The names Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas also foreshadow the Cross.

But a further point comes to light in the fact that Luke lists side by side the emperor and the princes among whom the Holy Land is divided. All these princedoms are dependencies of pagan Rome. The kingdom of David lies broken in pieces, his “hut” in ruins (cf. Amos 9:11f). His descendant, Jesus’ legal father, is a carpenter in the half-paganized province of Galilee. Israel is living once more in n the darkness of divine absence; God is silent, seemingly forgetful of the promises to Abraham and David. The old lament is heard once more: We no longer have any prophets, God seems to have abandoned his people. For that very reason, though, the land was full of unrest.

Conflicting movements, hopes, and expectations shaped the religious and political climate. At around the time of Jesus’ birth Judas the Galilean had called for an uprising, which was put down by the Romans with a great deal of bloodshed. Judas left behind a party, the Zealots, who were prepared to resort to terror and violence in order to restore Israel’s freedom. It is even possible that one or two of Jesus’ twelve Apostles—Simon the Zealot and perhaps Judas Iscariot as well—had been partisans of this movement. The Pharisees, whom we live are constantly meeting in the Gospels, endeavored to live with the greatest possible exactness according to the instructions of the Torah. They also refused conformity to the hegemony of Hellenistic-Roman culture, which naturally imposed itself throughout the Roman Empire, and was now threatening to force Israel’s assimilation to the pagan peoples’ way of life. The Sadducees, most of whom belonged to the aristocracy and the priestly class, attempted to practice an enlightened Judaism, intellectually suited to the times, and so also to come to terms with Roman domination. The Sadducees disappeared after the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), whereas the pattern of life practiced by the Pharisees found an enduing  form in the sort of Judaism shaped by the Mishnah and the Talmud. Although we observe sharp antagonism between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, and although his death on the Cross was the very antithesis of the Zealot program, we must not forget that people came to Christ from every kind of background and that the early Christian community included more than a few priests and former Pharisees.

An accidental discovery after the Second World War led to excavations at Qumran, which brought to light texts that some scholars have associated with yet another movement known until then only from literary references: the so-called Essenes. This group had turned its back on the Herodian temple and its worship to withdraw to the Judean desert. There it created monastic-style communities, but also a religiously motivated common life for families. It also established a productive literary center and instituted distinctive rituals, which included liturgical ablutions and common prayers. The earnest religiosity of the Qumran writings is moving; it appears that not only John the Baptist, but possibly Jesus and his family as well, were close to the Qumran community. At any rate, there are numerous points of contact with the Christian message in the Qumran writings. It is a reasonable hypothesis that John the Baptist lived for some time in this community and received part of his religious formation from it.

And yet the Baptist’s appearance on the scene was something completely new. The Baptism that he enjoined is different from the usual religious ablutions. It cannot be repeated, and it is meant to be the concrete enactment of a conversion that gives the whole of life a new direction forever. It is connected with an ardent call to a new way of thinking and acting, but above all with the proclamation of God’s judgment and with the announcement that one greater than John is to come. The Fourth Gospel tells us that the Baptist “did not know” (cf. Jn 1:3o-33) this greater personage whose way he was to prepare. But he does know that his own role is to prepare a path for this mysterious Other, that his whole mission is directed toward him.

All four Gospels describe this mission using a passage from Isaiah: “A voice cries in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”‘ (Is 40:3). Mark adds a compilation of Malachi 3:1 and Exodus 23:20, which recurs at another point in Matthew (Mt 11:10) and Luke (Lk 1:76, 7:27) as well: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way” (Mk 1:2). All of these Old Testament texts envisage a saving intervention of God, who emerges from his hiddenness to judge and to save; it is for this God that the door is to be opened and the way made ready.  These ancient words of hope were brought into the present with the Baptist’s preaching: Great things are about to unfold.

We can imagine the extraordinary impression that the figure and message of John the Baptist must have produced in n the highly charged atmosphere of Jerusalem at that particular moment of history. At last there was a prophet again, and his life marked him out as such. God’s hand was at last plainly acting in history again. John baptizes with water, but one even greater, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, is already at the door. Given all this, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Mark is exaggerating when he reports that “there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mk 1:5). John’s baptism includes the confession of sins. The Judaism of the day was familiar both with more generally formulaic confessions of sin and with a highly personalized confessional practice in which an enumeration of individual sinful deeds was expected (Gnilka, Mattäusevangelium I, p. 68). The goal is truly to leave behind the sinful life one has led until now and to start out on the path to a new, changed life.

The actual ritual of Baptism symbolizes this. On one hand, immersion into the waters is a symbol of death, which recalls the death symbolism of the annihilating, destructive power of the ocean flood. The ancient mind perceived the ocean as a permanent threat to the cosmos, to the earth; it was the primeval flood that might submerge all life. The river (Jordan) could also assume this symbolic value for those who were immersed in it. But the flowing waters of the river are above all a symbol of life. The great rivers—the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris—are the great givers of life. The Jordan, too, is—even today—a source of life for the surrounding region. Immersion in the water is about purification, about liberation from the filth of the past that burdens and distorts life—it is about beginning again, and that means it is about death and resurrection, about starting life over again anew. So we could say that it is about rebirth. All of this will have to wait for Christian baptismal theology to be worked out explicitly, but the act of descending into the Jordan and coming up again out of the waters already implicitly contains this later development.

The whole of Judea and Jerusalem were making the pilgrimage to be baptized, as we just heard. But now something new happens: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mk 1:9). So far, nothing has been said about pilgrims  from Galilee; the action seemed limited to the region of Judea. But the real novelty here is not the fact that Jesus comes from another geographical area, from a distant country, as it were. The real novelty is the fact that he—Jesus—wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. We have just heard that the confession of sins is a component of Baptism. Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do? How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one? This is a question that Christians could not avoid asking. The dispute between the Baptist and Jesus that Matthew recounts for us was also an expression of the early Christians’ own question to Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14). Matthew goes on to report for us that “Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness: Then he consented” (Mt 3:15).

It is not easy to decode the sense of this enigmatic-sounding answer. At any rate, the Greek word for “now”- in a specific, temporary árti—implies a certain reservation: This is situation that calls for a specific way of acting. The key to interpreting Jesus’ answer is how we understand the word righteousness: The whole of righteousness must be fulfilled. In Jesus’ world, righteousness is man’s answer to the Torah, acceptance of the whole of God’s will, the bearing of the “yoke of God’s kingdom,” as one formulation had it. There is no provision for John’s baptism in the Torah, but this reply of Jesus is his way of acknowledging it as an expression of an unrestricted Yes to God’s will, as an obedient acceptance of his yoke.

The act of descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning.  In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness. The significance of this event could not fully emerge until it was seen in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Descending into the water, the candidates for Baptism confess their sin and seek to be rid of their burden of guilt. What did Jesus do in this same situation? Luke, who throughout his Gospel is keenly attentive to Jesus’ prayer, and portrays him again and again at prayer—in conversation with the Father—tells us that Jesus was praying  while he received Baptism (cf. Lk 3:21). Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping  into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, “Take me and throw me into the sea” (Jon 1:12). The whole significance of Jesus’ Baptism, the fact that he bears “all righteousness ” first comes to light on the Cross: The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out “This is my beloved Son” over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death (cf. Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50).

Only from this starting point can we understand Christian Baptism. Jesus’ Baptism anticipated his death on the Cross, and the heavenly voice proclaimed an anticipation of the Resurrection. These anticipations have now become reality. John’s baptism with water has received its full meaning  through the Baptism of Jesus’ own life and death. To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus’ Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point  where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising again with him. Paul develops this inner connection in his theology of Baptism (cf Rom 6), though without explicitly Mentioning Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan.

The Eastern Church has further developed and deepened this understanding of Jesus’ Baptism in her liturgy and in her theology of icons. She sees a deep connection between the content of the feast of Epiphany (the heavenly voice proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God: for the East the Epiphany is the day of the Baptism) and Easter. She sees Jesus’ remark to John that “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15) as the anticipation of his prayer to the Father in Gethsemane: “My Father … not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt 26:39). The liturgical hymns for January 3 correspond to those for Wednesday in Holy Week; the hymns for January 4 to those for Holy Thursday; the hymns for January 5 to those for Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

These correspondences are picked up by the iconographic tradition. The icon of Jesus’ Baptism depicts the water as a liquid tomb having the form of a dark cavern, which is in turn the iconographic sign of Hades, the underworld, or hell. Jesus’ descent into this watery tomb, into this inferno that envelops him from every side, is thus an anticipation of his act of descending into the underworld: “When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man” (cf. Lk 11:22), says Cyril of Jerusalem. John Chrysostom writes: “Going down into the water and emerging again are the image of the descent into hell and the Resurrection.” The troparia of the Byzantine Liturgy add yet another symbolic connection: “The Jordan was turned back by Elisha’s coat, and the waters were divided leaving a dry path. This is a true image of Baptism by which we pass through life” (Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, p. 296).

Jesus’ Baptism, then, is understood as a repetition of the whole of history, which both recapitulates the past and anticipates the future. His entering into the sin of others is a descent into the “Inferno.” But he does not descend merely in the role of a spectator, as in Dante’s Inferno. Rather, he goes down in the role of one whose suffering-with-others is a transforming suffering that turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss. His Baptism is a descent into the house of the evil one, combat with the “strong man” (cf. Lk 11:22) who holds men captive (and the truth is that we are all very much captive to powers that anonymously manipulate us!). Throughout all its history, the world is powerless to defeat the “strong man”; he is overcome and bound by one yet stronger, who, because of his equality with God, can take upon himself all the sin of the world and then suffers it through to the end—omitting nothing  on the downward path into identity with the fallen. This struggle is the “conversion” of being that brings it into a new condition, that prepares a new heaven and a new earth. Looked at from this angle, the sacrament of Baptism appears as the gift of participation in Jesus’ world-transforming struggle in the conversion of life that took place in his descent and ascent.

Has this ecclesiastical interpretation and rereading of the event of Jesus’ Baptism taken us too far away from the Bible? It will be helpful to listen to the Fourth Gospel in this context. According to John, when the Baptist first sees Jesus, he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). These words, which are spoken before the distribution of Communion in the Roman Liturgy, have been the occasion of much puzzlement. What does “Lamb of God” mean? Why is Jesus called the Lamb, and why does this Lamb take away the sins of the world, so thoroughly vanquishing them as to rob them of any substance or reality?

Thanks to the work of Joachim Jeremias, we have the key to understand these words correctly and to regard them—even from the historical point of view—as genuine words of the Baptist himself First of all, they contain two identifiable Old Testament allusions. The Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah compares the suffering servant of God with the lamb that is led to the slaughter: “Like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7). Even more importantly, Jesus was crucified on the feast of the Passover, and from that moment on could only appear as the true Passover lamb, in whom is fulfilled the significance of the Passover lamb at the time of the Exodus from Egypt: liberation from the dominion of death in Egypt and release for the Exodus, for the journey into the freedom of the promise. In light of Easter, this lamb symbolism takes on a fundamental importance for understanding Christ. We find it in Paul (cf. 1 Cor 5:7), ‘in John (cf. Jn 19:36), in the First Letter of Peter (cf. 1 Pet mg), and in the Book of Revelation (for example, Rev 5:6).

Jeremias makes the further observation that the Hebrew word talia means both “lamb” and “boy” or “servant” (TDNT, I, P. 339). In the first instance, then, the Baptist may have meant his words as a reference to the Servant of God who bears the sins of the world by his vicarious atonement. But this reference also identifies him as the true Passover lamb who expiates and wipes away the sin of the world: “The Savior, dying  on the Cross, went to his vicarious death patiently like a sacrificial lamb. By the expiatory power of his innocent death he blotted out…the guilt of all mankind” (TDNT, I, p. 340). If at the extreme hour of Israel’s oppression in Egypt, the blood of the Paschal lamb had been the key to its liberation, now the Son who became a servant—the shepherd who became a sheep—no longer stands just for Israel, but for the liberation of the world—for mankind as a whole.

This brings us to the great theme of Jesus’ universal mission. Israel does not exist for itself, its election is rather the path by which God intends to come to all men. This idea of universality will turn up again and again as the real core of Jesus’ mission. By referring to the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, the Fourth Gospel places this idea right at the beginning of Jesus’ journey.

The reference to the Lamb of God interprets Jesus’ Baptism, his descent into the abyss of death, as a theology of the Cross, if we may so express it. All four Gospels recount in their different ways that, as Jesus came up from the water, heaven was “torn open” (Mk 1:10) or “was opened” (Mt 3:16; Lk 3:21); that the Spirit came down upon him “like a dove”; and that in the midst of all this a voice from heaven resounded. According to Mark and Luke, the voice addresses Jesus with the words “Thou art .. .”; according to Matthew, the voice speaks about him in the third person, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). The imaged of the dove may be a reminiscence of what the creation account says about the Spirit brooding over the waters (Gen 1:2); the word like (“like a dove”) suggests that it is “a simile for something that ultimately cannot be described” (Gnilka, Matthäusevangelium, 1, P. 78). The same heavenly voice sounds out again at the Transfiguration of Jesus, though with the addition of the imperative to “listen to him.” When we come to the Transfiguration, we will have to consider the meaning of these words more closely.

At this point I would merely like to underscore briefly three aspects of the scene. The first one is the image of heaven torn open: Heaven stands open above Jesus. His communion of will with the Father, his fulfillment of “all righteousness,” opens heaven, which is essentially the place where God’s will is perfectly fulfilled. The next aspect is the proclamation of Jesus’ mission by God, by the Father. This proclamation interprets not what Jesus does, but who he is: He is the beloved Son on whom God’s good pleasure rests. Finally, I would like to point out that in this scene, together with the Son, we encounter the Father and the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinitarian God is beginning to emerge, even though its depths can be fully revealed only when Jesus’ journey is complete. For this very reason, though, there is an arc joining this beginning of Jesus’ journey and the words with which he sends his disciples into the world after his Resurrection: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). The Baptism that Jesus’ disciples have been administering since he spoke those words is an entrance into the Master’s own Baptism—into the reality that he anticipated by means of it. That is the way to become a Christian.

A broad current of liberal scholarship has interpreted Jesus’ Baptism as a vocational experience. After having led a perfectly normal life in the province of Galilee, at the moment Of his Baptism he is said to have had an earth-shattering experience. It was then, we are told, that he became aware of his special relationship to God and his religious mission. This mission, moreover, supposedly originated from the expectation motif then dominant in Israel, creatively reshaped by John, and from the emotional upheaval that the event of his Baptism brought about in Jesus’ life. But none of this can be found in the texts. However much scholarly erudition goes into the presentation of this reading, it has to be seen as more akin to a “Jesus novel” than as an actual interpretation of the texts. The texts give us no window into Jesus’ inner life—Jesus stands above our psychologizing (Guardini, Das Wesen des Christentums). But they do enable us to ascertain how Jesus is connected with “Moses and the Prophets”; they do enable us to recognize the intrinsic unity of the trajectory stretching from the first moment of his life to the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus does not appear in the role of a human genius subject to emotional upheavals, who sometimes fails and sometimes succeeds. If that were the case, he would remain just an individual who lived long ago and so would ultimately be separated from us by an unbridgeable gulf Instead, he stands before us as the “beloved Son.” He is, on one hand, the Wholly Other, but by the same token he can also become a contemporary of us all, “more interior” to each one of us “than we are to ourselves” (Saint Augustine, Confessions, III, 6, 11).

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