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Impressions of “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration,” by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

I think it is a literal miracle that Joseph Ratzinger was named Pope. His writings on the Bible and the Christian religion are incredible. And his writing style is warm and inviting – he makes you want to learn more about the topics, and when you follow up and read more, you see how well he prepared you for them.

This is the third book by Ratzinger I read. In Principles of Catholic Theology, he appears to resolve the Counter/Reformation with an off-handed comment. Because of that book I read Testing the Boundaries, a history of the Lutheran churches that extended Ratzinger’s comments. Then, in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, he emphasized that the beginning of the Gospels is The End of the previous, as its reference to Enoch makes clear.

With Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Ratzinger does it again. This book is structured as a series of interlocking essays, covering vignettes over most days of Christ’s public ministry: from the baptism by John to just before his entrance into Jerusalem. To share just a few of Ratzinger’s thoughts, his discussion on Christ as the Torah, the Lord, and the Son, are particularly interesting

Torah Incarnate

The Catholic Church teaches that the Bible is the “written word of God,” but the “word of God Himself” is Christ (Dei Verbum, Second Vatican Council, 1965). Catholics often think of this as meaning that the Bible is Jesus in written form, but Ratzinger shows the opposite perspective is shared by Christ to the Jewish audience of the Gospels: Jesus is the Torah-Incarnate. Ratzinger’s discussion builds on Jacob Neusner’s similar work, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.

For instance, Christ’s statements placing himself “above” the commandment to honor your father and mother:

He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.
Matthew 8:37-38

As Neusner pointed out, this is allowed in Rabbinical Judaism, conditional on the teacher being a better Torah master than the father. But this is conditional on Torah mastery.

If his father and his teacher were in captivity, he first redeems his teacher and thereafter redeems his father. And if his father is a Torah scholar, he first redeems his father and thereafter redeems his teacher.
Mishnah-tractate Baba Mesia 2:11

Christ’s statements do not allow for the condition of a father being a better Torah scholar than He is. And the reward is not knowledge of the Torah as it was previously known, but knowledge of “me” – the living Torah. Christ.

Ratzinger goes beyond Neusner’s evaluation though in looking also at the collective Torah teachings of Christ. Just as God speaks, not only to individual believers but to the community

Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you – ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Deuteronomy 6:3-4

While Neusner says there is no equivalent in Christ’s words, Ratzinger disagrees. He ties together the Sermon on the Mount and the Our Father prayer in a way that Neusner doesn’t. Not only does Christ grant himself importance that belongs to the Torah proper, He does so in a way that’s both unique to individual believers and to Israel, the believing church, in general. But the Torah is now not spoken to the Church, but speaks with the Church, in eternal dialog with God:

In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name…

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Matthew 6:9,11-13

Ratzinger points out the Transfiguration likely occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles, when the Divine Name would be spoken by the High Priest. While Ratzinger does not make this point, after reading Jesus of Nazareth it seems like the Transfiguration is the presentation of this. The Law, the Prophecy, and the sources of the Gospels are there together with Jesus, but they see Jesus only

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Matthew 17:1-8

The Lord

Christ is often more explicitly, using phrases that are typical or expected of God while allowing the listening to take the next step in naming Him as God. For instance, the term for “Lord” is the same as the word used in place of the Tetragrammaton

But Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read this, what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God, took and ate the showbread, and also gave some to those with him, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat?” And He said to them, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
Luke 6:3-5

The same term is used by the Gospel writers both to refer to God as known in the Jewish Bible:

Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Luke: 2-22-24

As well as to refer to Jesus:

After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He said to them, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.
Luke 10:1-2

It is this Lordship that is referred to in the phrase “Kingdom”, or “Kingdom of Heaven.” Properly, the term used for “Kingdom” in Greek is not an abstract legal entity, but the direct rule of a monarch. Christ promises not a Kingdom, but a sort of Anarcho-Monarchism where the Sovereign is above (or at least, the actual incarnation) of the Law that established Him as sovereign. It is this sense of “Kingdom,” this Anarcho-Monarchism in which the Law Himself will inherit power, that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven.
Matthew 6:10

The Son

Along with the discussion of Christ as the Torah Incarnate, I was fascinated by Ratzinger’s description of the title “The Son.” The phrase “Son of Man” could literally mean “a man.” Ratzinger even interprets the phrase “One like a Son of Man” in Daniel to mean “One like a man”

“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Daniel 7:13

and he considers the similar references in Enoch and 4 Esdras to have been written after the Gospels, and so influenced by later Christology.

Likewise, Ratzinger sees “Son of God” to be a political term, with “Begetting” referring to the day of either adoption or enthronement as King. While Mark begins by stating this as a response to Caesar’s false claim, the rest of the uses of “Son of God” in that Gospel (For example) are either by demons:

And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, “You are the Son of God.” But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known.
Mark 3:11-12

or a possessed man:

And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit… When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I imploreYou by God that You do not torment me.”
Mark 5:2,6-7

or a gentile

Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 3So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”
Mark 15:38-39

… perhaps not reliable sources!

Rather, Ratzinger emphasizes the term “the Son,” as a phrase that breathed new meaning into both “the Son of Man” and “the Son of God.” Ratzinger sees the phrase as emphasizing intimacy. The formal or legal phrase “Son of God” implied an essentially legal relationship, a begetting based solely on adoption, merit, or grace, analogous to the legal “Friend of the King” – a title that Antiochus offered a man he was torturing:

Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his fathers, and that he would take him for his friend and entrust him with public affairs.
2 Maccabees 7:24

Rather, “Son of God,” like “Friend of the King,” used superficially intimate titles to denote a political reality. But Christ is “the Son,” the abruptness and almost informality of the title pointing to a greater level of intimacy, and a reality beyond the political. For instance, Jesus is only begotten, in a way that denies the earthly kings (whether gentiles like Caesar or Jews like David) are sons of God at all…

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
John 3:16-18

God has sons, including Israel, but such as son is merely first-born, and not “Begotten” in the same way:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ’Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn.
Exodus 4:22

And the supernatural beings of God’s court are merely invisible creatures analogous with the stars and present at the founding of the world – not “the Son”:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:4-7

Of Mary and Philosophy

Ratzinger sees even the Nicene Creed, with its philosophical term “consubstantial,” to mean merely that the Sonship is not just political or mythical, but actual. Hence Son being “consubstantial” with the Father is not (as Mormons fear) a subjugation of Christianity to western philosophy, but the use of a Western philosophical term to indicate that Jesus, really and truly, is the Son.

Such a formulation may be compatible with Arianism (in which the Word is the perfect thing, and Jesus the begotten Son of God), but taken with Christ’s role as Torah Incarnate, it is not compatible with the Qur’an. Christians who read the Qur’an initially may take the following as an attack on abstract Trinitarian consubstantiality:

O People of the Book! Do not exceed the bounds in your religion, and do not attribute anything to God except the truth.

The Messiah,
Jesus son of Mary,
was only an apostle of God, and
His word that He cast toward Mary, and

a Spirit from Him.

So have faith in God and His apostles, and do not say “Three,” Relinquish! That is better for you.

God is but the One God.
He is far too immaculate to have any son.
To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens
and whatever is on the earth,

and God suffices as trustee.
Qur’an 4:171

But perhaps the Qur’anic author’s real attack is against the intimacy between God and “the Son.” The implication of Ratzinger’s argument is that even a post-sacramental Arian could not accept the Qur’an, because Jesus’s central claim of being “the Son” is so strongly rejected by the Qur’an. The Qur’anic author seems to strenuously deny the close relationship, the “unicity,” of the Father and Christ.

It’s striking the Qu’ran focuses so prominently on Mary in its inversion of the Nicene Creed. Probably because Mariology is ultimately Christology: understanding the Mother and Father of Christ helps explain who Christ is. And in this book, Ratzinger off-handly presents a fascinating idea, that the Burning Bush is the true Cross. I re-read the description of the bush in [Exodus], and multiple details seem to fit – the presence of the “Angel of God” (the only “angel” in the Hebrew Bible who accepts worship from men), the bush as the site of the theophany, the announcement of identity, and the apostolic onlooker:

And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”

So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Moreover He said, “I am the God of your father – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.
Exodus 3:2-6

compare with:

Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet:

“They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.”

Sitting down, they kept watch over Him there. And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him:


And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.

Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Matthew 7:35-37,50-54

The identification of Burning Bush with the Cross is even more interesting because the Burning Bush is already identified with Mary. Like the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple, the Burning Bush was the passive medium for the LORD to appear, the origin of His Glory on earth. If the Cross is also an appearance of Mary, if she also lifted up high the Lord and was the origin of His Glory, I wonder if it could be said that the Cross is in some way the perfect Tree, as Mary is the perfect woman?


Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration is a set of interlocking essays by Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) about the preaching ministry of Jesus. Christ is presented as Torah-Lord-Son, really and truly born of God and of Mary, in a manner compatible with the widest variety of Christian traditions, and expressed in terms comprehensible to rabbinical scholars, but incompatible with the Qur’an.

I read Jesus of Nazareth in the Audible edition.

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