There has been a profound shift in the center of gravity in scholarly discussions of Jesus of Nazareth and of Christology. What has been called a low-ascending Christology, or a Christology from below, is no longer ascendant, or as ascendant as it was in the 1970’s and 80’s. A high-descending Christology is again being taken seriously by the academic theological community. One may say that the high-descending Christology may once again become ascendant. Of course, the ecclesial theological community, aka the magisterium of the Church, continued to take it seriously. With the work of N. T. Wright, it is possible to see that the integrity of low-ascending Christology can reach to a high-descending Christology. Wright notes of his own work that someone “who spends most of his time studying Paul and the synoptics, rather than John, may come to feel like the Alpine climber who from time to time hears tales of the Himalayas. I am aware that there is a large range of mountains still waiting for me; aware, too, that they may offer views, prospects and of course risks yet more breathtaking than the ones I habitually climb” [Jesus and the Victory of God , p. xvi].
Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth, after the work of Borg, Crossan, Schillebeeckx, and Haight, is like moving from the Alps of the Synoptics to the Himalayas of John. He finds the Jesus of the Gospels taken together “a historically plausible and convincing figure” [p. xxiii], one compatible with the dogmatic tradition of the Great Church. It is obvious that Ratzinger is engaged in a canonical exegesis which “does not contradict historical-critical interpretation, but carries it forward in an organic way toward becoming theology in the proper sense” [p. xix]. This canonical exegesis is akin to the analogy of faith where individual doctrines, i.e., the individual insights of the individual New Testament authors, co-inhere with the whole of Revelation, with the whole of the New Testament. The interpretation of each author must be made in the co-inherent light of the other authors. This canonical interpretation then takes the historicity of the Jesus represented in the texts seriously. Like Wright, whom he never cites, Ratzinger looks to the twenty years from the death of Jesus to the letters of Paul as the fulcrum for understanding Jesus. A low-ascending Christology, in his view, cannot explain what is on its own premises the absolutely surprising and full-blown high Christology of the Letter to the Philippians.
The Jesus who would explain this development is a Jesus in whom “we come to know the mind and will of God himself” [p. 128]. Jesus is the chosen prophet [cf. Deut. 34:10] who has seen God face to face, as the word of God himself. Chapter Four on the Sermon on the Mount includes the most interesting part of the book, a long dialogue with Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. Ratzinger and Neusner agree to disgree about whether to accept the divine authority with which Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel and thus whether to accept the self-assumed divine identity that Jesus assumed in so speaking. Ratzinger finds a high-descending Christology in Matthew; Neusner agrees that that is Matthew’s presentation of Jesus, but as a Jew he cannot accept it. Of course, acceptance is at the heart of Ratzinger’s historical Christian faith.
Jesus of Nazareth is unique and uniquely interesting as the work of a homilist, of a theologian, of a Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now of a Pope. It shares in a mixed ways all four of the perspectives of Ratzinger’s experience. He disclaims that his book is a work of the papal magisterium. It “is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8). Everyone is free then to contradict me” [p. xxiii-xxiv]. Regardless of what one make of it, this book has an unusual social location, and probably sets a precedent for future papal publications. Ratzinger says that another book will follow if he has time remaining in his life. The present book omits the infancy narrative and takes the story of Jesus down to the Transfiguration, although Ratzinger does not always abide by this. We look forward with interest to the next book.