It was a gorgeous setting for an argument. The Swiss journalist and I were lunching in a hillside restaurant overlooking the sparkling volcanic lake that lies below the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Unexpectedly, he asked me how the first volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s projected two-volume study Jesus of Nazareth had fared in the United States. Very well, I replied.
“Too bad he came out so strongly against the historical-critical method,” my Swiss friend said. I demurred — a bit strongly, in fact.
The historical-critical method, for those who may not recognize the term, is an approach to studying the Bible. It stresses understanding the social and historical circumstances of the sacred writers and the literary forms they used, in order to grasp the reality presumably lying behind the redacted surface of the text. It has occupied a prominent place in Scripture studies for many years. With certain important reservations, the Catholic Church accepts it as valid in principle.
That, I told the Swiss journalist, was clearly what Pope Benedict had done in his book. The journalist disagreed. We batted that around for a while, and then — neither of us having a copy of Jesus of Nazareth at hand — dropped the subject and returned to lunch.
But the issue we disputed that day has particular timeliness just now, a few weeks later, against the background of the world Synod of Bishops underway in Rome. Some 250 bishops, under the presidency of the Pope, are discussing the Bible’s place in Christian life. While that’s a much bigger topic than the historical-critical method alone, one can hardly speak intelligently about reading the Bible these days without at least being aware of this dimension of the question, which Benedict himself specifically addressed in a September 14 talk to the synod.
So, what is the Pope’s view?
To begin with, in his book he calls the historical-critical method “indispensable.” So much for the excessively negative reading by my Swiss friend.
But he also says more. The method, though valuable, has serious limits. Like historical studies in general, on many important matters it must fall back in the end on “hypothesis.” When done only in this light, Benedict told the synod, reading the Bible becomes an exercise in “historiography.”
More important, the method can’t reach the insight — fundamental to the Church’s understanding of Scripture — that the Bible as a whole is rightly read in reference to Christ. This is not a datum of historical investigation but part of the Christian tradition that stretches back to the Fathers of the Church.
In the last two centuries some biblical critics drew a sharp dividing line between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” The historical Jesus, it was said, is the man from Nazareth as he really was; the Christ of faith is a construct-an interpretation of a remarkable individual developed by his second- and third-generation followers.
And Pope Benedict? “I trust the Gospels,” the Holy Father writes. Recognizing the usefulness of the historical-critical method, but not exaggerating it, he has no trouble in the end understanding the Jesus of the Gospels as both the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith. Which essentially is what the Church always has done.
Considerations like these set the method in perspective as a useful tool but not a final word. For that, we must turn to Christian tradition. If he hasn’t grasped that point yet, I trust my Swiss friend eventually will. Meanwhile — that was a good argument and an excellent lunch that we shared.