Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth (Ratzinger)

Jesus of Nazareth, RatzingerPart of a three book series on the Historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism to the Transfiguration (Image, 2007) begins Joseph Ratzinger’s examination of the life and teaching of the founder of Christianity.† In this book Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) engages the major moments and messages from Jesus’ ministry, combining historical, literary, and theological insights into a masterful work not only on the ‘Historical Jesus’ of scholarship, but also on the ‘Living Jesus’ of Christian faith. Coming in at just over 350 pages, Ratzinger’s work stands at the pinnacle of contemporary Roman Catholic Historical Jesus research, and is a must read for those studying the Gospels and Early Christianity. Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Miracles

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.
Image of Jesus Healing the Gerasene Demoniac

Image of Jesus Healing the Gerasene Demoniac

Given Crossan’s general view of the world and the relationship between the natural and supernatural,[1] it is not entirely surprising that he grants little historical value to accounts of the miracles of the historical Jesus. Crossan argues that Jesus’ program of ministry focused more on the principles of open social commensality and radical egalitarianism.[2] Based on the prevalence of stories concerned with healing and demonic exorcism, Crossan concludes that Jesus was likely some form of peasant healer, though not in the typical western understanding of the term ‘healer.’[3] Focusing on the social implications of disease within first century Judaism, Crossan argues for a distinction between ‘illness’ and ‘disease.’ Whereas a disease consists of a medical condition, for example HIV/AIDS, an illness refers to the social ills of that disease, namely community ostracization and ridicule.[4] Crossan writes, “I presume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease [in his example ‘leprosy’] or any other one, healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization. Jesus thereby forced others either to reject him from their community or to accept the leper within it as well.”[5] Concerning demonic possession, Crossan argues that such claims likely reflect the impact of Roman Imperial colonialism and that Jesus may have healed from an entranced state.[6] Ultimately, Crossan’s presuppositions necessarily diminish the historical veracity of any and all miraculous events that have traditionally been ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth. To explain Jesus’ reputation as healer and miracle worker, Crossan argues that process was reinterpreted as event and that Jesus practiced healing in a social sense without ever performing the literally miraculous. Continue reading

Cultural Differences and Biblical Interpretation

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

One of the biggest challenges for those studying the Bible involves reading and interpreting the scriptures in a manner consistent with their original context. Modern readers are distanced from the earliest written messages of the Christian tradition not only by time and space, but also by key cultural differences. In their book Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, Dietmar Neufeld and Rochard E. DeMaris compile a number of sources from scholars concerned with discovering the cultural understanding and context of the social world from which the writings of the New Testament came.[1] In this post, we outline some of the most important differences between ancient Mediterranean culture and the modern North American life, as well as some examples of how this cultural understanding can contribute to the interpretation of the New Testament. Continue reading

God, Genocide, and Context

The Ancient Near East

The Ancient Near East

Several weeks ago I was chatting with some friends about the topic of God (Yahweh) in the Christian Old Testament. And, as is often the case, we ventured into the topic of whether or not Yahweh commanded genocide during the Old Testament period. While I am by no means an expert on this topic, I proceeded to suggest that God did not actually command genocide in the Old Testament, or at least what we would consider to be genocide in today’s context [1]. Thinking about this topic led me to think more about how we read and interpret the Bible.

Many Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Websters defines “literally” as “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” When applied to the interpretation of a written text, this type of reading would seem to indicate that you take the text at its simple face value. But there are many portions of the Bible that even those advocating a “literal” reading of the Bible do not suggest should be interpreted woodenly. For example, the parables of Jesus. Is it possible that the Parable of the Sower or the Good Samaritan were actual events that Jesus was merely repeating for his followers? Possibly. But most people who have read or heard these stories have understood them as parables–stories that Jesus told to make a point and teach a truth–and not as historical narrative. But parables are not the only parts of scripture that should caution our desire to read the Bible “literally.” The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (the central portion of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms are two additional chunks of Christian scripture that most people are hesitant to interpret “literally.” Continue reading