Scholars praise Pope’s new book for promoting biblical studies renewal

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Pope Benedict XVI’s new book “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” addresses misunderstandings about Jesus and helps renew the study of the Bible, a panel of scholars said at a March 9 preview event.

Dr. Brant Pitre, a Catholic professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, La., said he was “very excited” about the “unprecedented” nature of the work.

“Never before have we had a reigning Pope write a full-length book of the life of Jesus,” he commented at a March 9 telephone press conference with scholars from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish backgrounds.

The book, released by Ignatius Press on March 10, is the second volume in an intended series of three. It examines the final week of Jesus’ earthly life and the historical and theological questions surrounding his death.

Pitre said that “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” brings together faith and history, which have often been set at odds in how people try to understand Jesus. Pope Benedict works to put into practice the renewal of biblical studies called for by the Second Vatican Council, which the pontiff says is “a task which has, unfortunately, scarcely been attempted thus far.”

This aim contradicts depictions of the Pope as someone who wishes to “roll back” Vatican II, Pitre noted.

Ignatius Press founder and publisher Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. said that the Pope is trying to present the figure of Jesus “in a way that can lead the reader into a personal encounter with him.”

People with different perspectives can find value in the work, added Mark Brumley, president and CEO of Ignatius Press. He suggested that the book helps overcome “unnecessary differences” arising from misunderstandings and misreadings, while also clarifying real differences among Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

“This actually serves the cause of unity, when we are clear about the places where we disagree,” he said.

Dr. Craig A. Evans, an evangelical who is a biblical studies professor at Acadia Divinity College, said he enjoyed the book both as an academic and as a Christian.

“It’s a remarkable achievement, the best book I’ve read on Jesus in years,” he commented. “This is a book that all Christians should read, be they Protestant or Catholic. Any Jewish person who is interested in the Christian story and who Jesus was, I think, will profit.”

He especially praised Pope Benedict’s assessment of the lead-up to the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple, which was “very clear” that the death of Jesus was not the responsibility of the Jewish people in general.

Commentators discussed at length the Pope’s treatment of the Jews in Christian interpretations of Scripture. They focused on Matthew 27:25, where the crowd before Pontius Pilate calls for Jesus’ crucifixion with the words “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

“The Holy Father stresses that the blood of Christ is not the same as the blood of Abel. It does not cry out for vengeance or punishment. It brings reconciliation. It is poured out for many, for all,” Fr. Fessio explained.

Jacob Neusner, a Jewish religion and theology professor at Bard College, noted that his own work with Pope Benedict dates back 25 years to when he wrote then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about his article criticizing the quest for the historical Jesus.

“He and I began a correspondence on how we can turn an ancient text into a biography of a living human being.”

The book addresses how believers can transcend critical history’s “paralyzing obstacles to theological affirmation,” Neusner continued.
“It’s a book which the reader can benefit from, and which I think will do a lot of good in general.”

Another prominent Catholic on the panel praised the Pope’s “profound understanding” of scripture and suggested that parish priests, religion teachers and catechists can learn from the book how to bring together Catholic doctrine and scripture.

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Pope Benedict is not “just doing an academic exercise,” remarked Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., the executive director for the U.S. bishops’ conference’s Secretariat for Doctrine.

“He sees Jesus as someone the world is longing to meet, and he’s doing his best to try to provide that opportunity.”

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