Conflicting movements, hopes, and expectations shaped the religious and political climate 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 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 enduring 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.
Order Jesus of Nazareth, by Pope Benedict XVI.
Also from Newsweek, "Who Was Jesus? Pope Benedict's Answer" by Lisa Miller, who appears to be stuck in the "Second Quest" for Jesus, not to mention the "Yeah, the Pope seems to be a smart guy, but he's so, like, mean" approach to covering Benedict and the Catholic Church:
Liberal Catholics worry that, in spite of assurances to the contrary, Benedict is writing an "official" biography, and they have cause for concern. Benedict has been notoriously disapproving of unauthorized views of Jesus; he helped John Paul II crush the liberation theologists in Central America in the 1980s and more recently suspended an American priest for writing a book about Jesus that he said did not give sufficient credence to the resurrection. But for orthodox Christian believers, Benedict's book is a gift—a series of homilies on the New Testament by a masterful Scriptural exegete. In NEWSWEEK's exclusive excerpt, the pope explicates Jesus' baptism by John—a story that appears in all four Gospel accounts and that modern historians believe is at least partially grounded in fact. Benedict starts by describing the social and historical backdrop of the time, and the common use of ritual ablutions among first-century Jews. His picture of John the Baptist reflects the scholarly consensus in most respects; the Baptist was an ascetic who likely spent time with the Essenes, a group of Jews who lived in the desert awaiting the imminent arrival of the Messiah.(Benedict is notably silent, though, on the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher and on the probability that Jesus also believed that the world was about to end in flames. In a discussion elsewhere in "Jesus of Nazareth," Benedict goes to lengths to show that when Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is at hand," he didn't mean the apocalypse. What he meant, the pope writes, is that "God is acting now—this is the hour when God is showing himself in history as its Lord." This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict's Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate.)
Why, oh why, do we have to care what "liberal Catholics" think? After all, it's not as though they don't have a couple of hundred books about a Jesus who is (pick one or two) a cat-friendly vegan, a registered Democrat, a social worker, a Jewish pen pal, a warm feeling in the tummy, a personal guru, a personal trainer, an inspirational man who didn't actually exist, a neo-Marxist, an old-fashioned Marxist, a John Lennon fan, etc., etc.
And you've gotta love the vague appeal to "modern historians." Yep, all "modern historians" agree that the Gospel's description of the baptism of Jesus by John is partially true; that is, John may have existed, Jesus may have existed, and the Jordan River may have existed. Beyond that, we really don't know much of anything because, hey, an unnamed group of men supposedly say so, according to a Newsweek reporter with a bachelor's degree in English. I don't doubt that Miller is a smart lady. I just wish she were smart enough to know when she doesn't know what she pretends to know. Ya know?
As for the statement, "This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict's Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate," Miller would do well to catch up a bit on the world of biblical scholarship, a field—dare I point out the obvious?—that a certain Joseph Ratzinger has been following closely (and has often been involved in, in various ways) for a number of years now, probably more years than Miller has been alive.
The condescension continues:
"Jesus of Nazareth," then, will not bring unbelievers into the fold, but courting skeptics has never been Benedict's priority. Nor will his portrait join the lengthy list of Jesus biographies so eagerly consumed by the non-orthodox—the progressive Protestants and "cafeteria Catholics" who seek the truth about Jesus in noncanonical places like the Gnostic Gospels. Moderates may take "Jesus of Nazareth" as something of a corrective to fundamentalism because it sees the Bible as "true" without insisting on its being factual. Mostly, though, "Jesus of Nazareth" will please a small group of Christians who are able simultaneously to hold post-Enlightenment ideas about the value of rationality and scientific inquiry together with the conviction that the events described in the Gospels are real. "This is about things that happened," explains N. T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham who is perhaps the world's leading New Testament scholar. "It's not just about ideas, or people's imaginations. These are things that actually happened. If they didn't happen, you might still have interesting ideas, but it wouldn't be Christianity at the end of the day."
Funny that Miller quotes Wright here since he is not among those "many scholars" who would disagree with Benedict's assessment of Jesus' proclamation of "the kingdom," since it is a perspective that he has endorsed and argued for in great detail in a monumental trilogy. And even if Miller didn't have time to read those books (understandable enough), she could have either asked Wright, or peeked at one of his shorter works, such as The Challenge of Jesus (IVP, 1999), in which Wright states:
"The kingdom of God, [Jesus] said, is at hand. In other words, God was now unveiling his age-old plan, bringing his sovereignty to bear on Israel and the world as he had always intended, bringing justice and mercy to Israel and the world. And he was doing so, apparently, through Jesus." (p 37)
"His aim was to be the means of God's restitution of Israel. He would challenge and deal with the evil that had infected Israel herself. He would be the means of Israel's God returning to Zion. He was, in short, announcing the kingdom of God—not the simple revolutionary message of the hard-liners but the doubly revolutionary message of a kingdom that would overturn all other agendas, including the revolutionary one. ... [H]e was thereby claiming both the role of Messiah and the vocation of redemptive suffering. ... [H]e was claiming that this was the vocation of Israel's God himself." (pp 52-53)
In other words, the "world's leading New Testament scholar" agrees with Benedict's Christ-centered message, not with the outdated and unsatisfactory views of Schweitzer and Co., aka, "many scholars."
Finally, Miller makes it even harder for readers to take her comments seriously when she trots out this silliness, revealing the actual depths (or lack thereof) of her study:
Nevertheless, in the last 30 years the speed and intensity of that search has escalated—starting with the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who, like Jefferson, tried to weed the authentic sayings of Jesus from the inauthentic and ending most recently with the largely discredited "discovery" of Jesus' family tomb in a Jerusalem suburb.
It seems evident that she is interested only in the sort of biblical "scholarship" that is self-serving, self-promoting, and isn't taken seriously by truly serious biblical scholars. As a friend of mine—who actually renounced Christianity while working on a PhD in biblical studies, and now has a doctorate in continental philosophy—told me recently, "The Jesus Seminar was a complete and utter joke." (He also said that if he ever came back to Christianity, he'd have to become Catholic, in part because of his admiration for Catholic biblical scholarship. Go figure.) And need we address the stupidity of the "Jesus family tomb" nonsense? (No, because Mark Brumley already has.)
But, to give Miller some credit, it is probably true that Benedict's book isn't for skeptics—that is, those who renounce everything except their own (supposedly) intellectual superiority—or "liberals" or people who want any and every kind of Jesus except the one described in the Gospels. His book is for those who are open to truth—to the One who is Truth—and he has written it as a theologian and scholar as well as a pastor and pope. How many others can say the same?
• The New Yorker on Benedict XVI (April 4, 2007)
• That's more like it (April 11, 2007)
• And this week's winner... (More Newsweek nastiness; April 12, 2007)