The first point is that the historical-critical method—specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith—is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing supra-historical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: et incarnatus est—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.
Part One, Xv Nazareth
Reflection – When Pope Benedict did the unusual act of publishing a work of theology under his own name after his election to the papacy, lots of people were excited. Popes, once they get poped, tend to limit themselves to magisterial statements bearing the weight of papal authority; Pope Benedict wanted to say some things about scripture and Jesus that were his own personal reflections; this was unusual.
Jesus of Nazareth has been a best seller for sure, but I suspect a lot of people who bought it may have gotten a bit bogged down by passages like the above one from the preface. It’s too bad, since most of the heavy sledding, academia-wise, comes early on and can even be skipped without losing his train of thought. Once he gets into the body of the book, there’s little of that stuff.
But meanwhile, he is making a crucial point here. The historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture is all about putting the text into the historical context. What did this mean when it was written? What is the culture that produced this text? What was the human author trying to accomplish? Who was he writing for? Since we do not believe that God ‘dictated’ the Bible to his scribes, but that it was a genuine human composition done under a special grace of divine inspiration, concerns about the historical process of that composition are relevant in shedding light on its meaning.
But Pope Benedict makes a more essential point in this. Namely: our faith is not a faith in myths. One can have a mythological faith, where the stories of the gods and their doings reflect deeper truths about humanity and the world; the Greeks raised this kind of mythological religion to great heights. But this is not the nature of Judaism or Christianity.
Essential to our religious worldview is the unshakeable dogma that God has acted in time and history, that right in the midst of the messy political and military conflicts, the ugliness of human sin and the beauty of human striving, God acted. For real, directly. Whether it is Abraham called to leave his home and people for a new land, Moses called to lead the people from slavery, David raised up as a king, the prophets raised up as bearers of divine Truth, we believe that God acted in the midst of it all.
And the conception, birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ is a historical fact, not a nice story or a symbolic whatever. It happened, and this is essential to the Christian religion.
This is crucial. To put it in personal terms, if God did not act back then, He cannot act right now, for me. If God is somehow up there, outside, passive, only accessible through some kind of symbol or mythology or vague intuition, then He cannot really help me, or you. Only a God who appears on the stage of the world, who enters the drama, who is an actor, an agent—only this kind of God can reach down and save me, or you.Only this kind of God can forgive me my sins, and restore me to life, and feed me his spiritual food and drink. Only a God moving in history can teach me certain truth and empower me to actually love. God has made himself available to us, for real, in time, now, and so you and I can make ourselves available to everyone else by laying down our lives, for real, now. And this is the fundamental point the Pope is making.