Pope Benedict’s trip to Brazil last week (May 2007) revived a very old retelling of the Christian story in which Jesus is cast as a social revolutionary determined to overthrow the established order. The massive success of “The Da Vinci Code” reflected the hunger of millions to see Jesus as a regular person--—a man with a wife and a child, a popular teacher whose true life story was subverted by the corporate self-interest of the early church. A look at any best-seller list reveals a thriving subcate ory of readable scholarly and puesdo-scholarly books about the “real” Jesus: he was, they claim, a sage, a mystic, a rabbi, a boyfriend. He was a father, a pacifist, an ascetic, a prophet. In some parts of the Christian world, the aspects of Jesus’ story that most strain credibility---—the virgin birth and the physical resurrection---—have become optional to faith.

One can almost hear Pope Benedict XVI roaring with frustration at this multiplicity of interpretations. Benedict, a theologian by training with an expertise in dogma, has been fierce in his condemnation of the creep of Western secularism, and the promiscuity of recent Jesus scholarship must seem to him another symptom of the same disease, all ill-founded and subjective claims.

“We are building a dictatorship of relativism:’ he declared at the beginning of the 2005 enclave that elected him pope, that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires?

Benedict’s answer to secularism is Christ, and this week the American publisher Doubleday releases ‘Jesus of Nazareth.” Benedict’s portrait of his Lord. It is an orthodox biography--—one that acknowledges the role of analytical scholarship while in fact leaving little room for a critical interpretation of Scripture. This approach is not surprising, given Benedict’s job description, but in a world where Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and other proponents of secularism credit belief in Jesus as one of the sources of the world’s ills, Benedict offers an unvarnished opposing view: belief in Jesus, he says, is the only thing that will save the world.

And so, in a way, in the big bookstores and rankings, the ancient war between believers and nonbelievers begins anew. Liberal Catholics wony 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 any unauthorized views of Jesus; he helped John Paul II crush the liberation theologists in Central America in the 1980 s 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 modem 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.)

In one of the excerpt’s most affecting scenes, Benedict describes the hordes of sinners he imagines standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting for baptism. Jesus waits among them. Morphing from historian to pastor, Benedict asks the question that so many Sunday-school teachers have asked before him: as the Son of God, why would Jesus need to be purified? “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,” writes Benedict . “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?”

With that, the senior theologian steps in, the man whose job for two decades was to defend Catholic doctrine to the world .Jesus’s descent into the water is a symbolic foreshadowing, Benedict explains, of his death and resurrection----—and the resurrection he promises to all his followers. In the ancient Middle East, water represents death; it also represents life. With his baptism, ‘Jesus loaded the iburden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. Benedict writes. “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’.”

What of the next part of th e story? The part where Jesus rises from the water, the heavens part, the Spirit descends on his shoulders (in the shape of a dove) and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Docs Benedict believe, as the fundamentalists do, that this literally happened? George Weigel, the theologian and papal biographer, imagines that something very important happened that day—what, exactly, he does not know. Bcnediet is asking readers to see Scripture as inspired hut not dictated by God, Weigel explains, and to see the New Testament narrators as real people grappling with “the extreme limitations of the describable.” For Benedict, the starting point is faith.

“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.

Mosfly, 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.”

Faith may actually be the most productive approach to finding truth in Scripture; the historical method has so far gleaned very little in the way of facts. Jesus left no diaries, and he had no contemporary Boswell. The best accounts of his life, the Gospel stories, were written at least 30 years after his death by men who believed he was God; other corroborating evidence of his life is scanty at best. For more than 1,500 years, no one even thought to seek the “truth” about Jesus. For Christians, Jesus was the truth.

The Enlightenment saw the revolutionary beginnings of the 300-year quest for the historical Jesus . For the first time, scholars began to look at the Bible critically, as a senes of stories written by time-bound people with biases and agendas of their own.

Thomas Jefferson announced that the “true” sayings of Jesus were as easily distinguishable “as diamonds in a dunghill7 and set to work in the evenings sorting them out. Nineteenth- and 20th-century scholars tried to unearth the facts of Jesus’ life by studying the first-century Roman-Jewish world. New Testament stories were true, they decided, if they “fit” into the first-century context. Stories were also true, the scholars said, if they didn’t fit at all---—if they so strained credibility that no sane and pious narrator would include them unless he had to.

Using these and other more conventional methods of verification, scholars came up with a few spindly facts about the man so many people call Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, ministered in Judea sometime between 28 and 33. He was baptized; a member of his own band betrayed him. He was charged with a political crime: the Romans put KING OF THE JEWS on his cross. He was buried and followers said he appeared to them after his death. No one saw him rise again, though there are reports his tomb was empty. “We learned from the search for the historical Jesus that the search for the historicalJesus is not going to take us very far,” says Alan Segal, professor of religion at Barnard College.

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.

Archeology is the new frontier--—untold dollars are being spent digging in Israel, looking for evidence of Jesus and his times . Not all these efforts can be said to be futile: while the search for the historical Jesus has given us very little about Jesus, it has given us a rich picture of the world in which he lived, a multicultural world of elites and peasants, of tyranny and impulses for freedom, a world where people struggled to balance their instincts for assimilation against their own religious roots---—a world, in other words, very much like our own.

Benedict’s portrait may contribute little to our historical understanding of Jesus, but what he does give is a window into his own, passionate and uncompromising faith, a faith that faces constant challenge in the world of ideas?

Let the battles begin.


Jesus Baptism




 It is even possible that one or two of Jesus’ twelve Apostles---—Simon the Zealot and perhaps Judas Jscariot 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.

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 Esscnes. 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 very 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” 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’.” Mark adds a compilation of Malachi 3:1 and Exodus 23:20, which recurs at another point in Matthew and Luke as well: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way.”

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 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’ 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. 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 explicifly, hut the act of descending into the Jordan and coming up again out of the waters already impliciily 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.” 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?” 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.”

It is not easy to decode the sense of this enigmatic-sounding answer. At any rate, the Greek word for “now”—drti-—implies a certain reservation: This is a specific, temporary 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 . Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all 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.” 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 haptismal 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.

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, 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” as the anticipation of his prayer to the Father in Gethsemane: “My Father ...... not as I will, but as thou wilt.” The liturgical hymns for January 5 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---~’ 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.”

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” 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 eing 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.


NEWSWEEK magazine

May 21, 2007 (pgs. 43-45) Volume CXLIX No. 21

P. O. Box 5571, Harlan, IA 51593.

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