In an old post I mentioned how excited I was to hear about a new book from Matthew Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels (CUA Press, 2017). Ramage is a bright Catholic scholar whose writings focus on the intersection of biblical scholarship with faith. I enjoyed his earlier work Dark Passages of the Bible, so I was pretty sure his latest work on the would be of equally high quality.
As one may tell from its title, the book especially focuses on engaging the work of Bart Ehrman. This is firmly established in the first few chapters, where Ramage introduces his project of reconciling tradition and biblical studies (in this book’s case, more specifically historical Jesus studies) and contrasts the approach and results of Ehrman with the approach and results of Pope Benedict, whom Ramage finds the more balanced and sound of the two. I have little to say about the first few chapters, as acquaintance with biblical studies and Ramage’s other works makes most of it familiar. I will add, though, that I appreciate how it explicitly criticizes apologists who too quickly dismiss biblical studies.
I will focus this post more on chapters six and seven. Chapter six (entitled ‘The Problem of an Imminent Parousia’) opens by outlining Ehrman’s view of first century Christian apocalyptic hope, which for Ehrman involved the expectation that the End would take place very shortly (see, for example, St. Paul’s statement that he would be alive at the resurrection in 1 Thess 4). This itself is founded on Jesus’s own prophecy that the Second Coming would be experienced by “this generation” (Mk 13:30). Ehrman describes this so (God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, HarperOne, 2008, p. 247; cited by Ramage on pp. 198-199):
When the author of Revelation expected that the Lord Jesus “was coming soon” (Rv 22:20), he really meant “soon” – not two thousand years later. It was only a later bit of sophistry that devised the idea that “soon” with God meant “the distant future” – that “with the Lord a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day,” as the author of 2 Peter put it (2 Pt. 3:8).
Ramage follows this by showing that the expectation that “the time is short” is a sentiment found throughout the New Testament (he cites 1 Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 7:29, 10:11, 15:51-5; Mark 9:1, 13; Matt 24 and Luke 21). In other words, this is not a problem easily brushed aside.
Ramage proceeds (but not before a consideration of early Pontifical Biblical Commission documents on the topic) to the main bulk of the chapter, where he offers a solution to the above problem, using “principles […] drawn from magisterial and curial texts as well as from the corpus of Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger” (p. 207). Benedict (then known as Joseph Ratzinger) confronts the problem head-on: “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the New Testament does contain unmistakable traces of an expectation that the world will end soon. Where do these traces come from? Do they go back to Jesus?” (Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, tr. Michael Waldstein, CUA Press, 1988, p. 35; cited on p. 211). As we will see, Benedict’s main principle is to search for the essential meaning of a passage and not incidental details. Something that is not asserted for its own sake cannot be erroneous. We must therefore try to determine what the sacred authors primarily intended when they wrote those passages, so troubling to believers, that suggest an imminent parousia.
We begin with the Apostle and the troubling passage of 1 Thess 4:13-18. For Benedict, the essential message is about comforting Christians, and “regardless of whether or not Paul expected an imminent parousia, he was not intending to make a claim or assertion on the subject of its timing” (p. 208). If 1 Thess 4 does express sentiment on its timing, this is only an obiter dictum.
After considering St. Paul, Ramage then leads us to a consideration of Benedict’s remarks on an imminent parousia in the gospels. It begins with a criticism of the notion that the earliest texts are characterized by a strong emphasis on an imminent parousia, while older texts are characterized by a diminished emphasis (supposedly downplaying them due to the failure of the prediction). The Bavarian theologian notes that the gospels of Luke and Matthew were written roughly at the same time, yet Matthew’s gospel has a much greater emphasis on an imminent eschatology than Luke’s (indeed, the Magnificat in Luke implies that there will be multiple generations following that of Christ: “henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”). This suggests that the differences across the gospels stem not necessarily from a cover-up, but more from the evangelists creatively using the material handed down by tradition to different ends – Mark and Matthew greatly emphasizing the parousia, Luke and John emphasizing the time of the Church (or the adventus medius, ‘middle coming,’ as Benedict calls it elsewhere, following Bernard of Clairvaux), which is no less a core part of Jesus’s message than is the message of the final Judgment. Certainly, the evangelists used in different ways those images given to them by tradition to express the realities of the Second Coming and the time of the Church, yet “none of them makes the bald claim to an identity between [the images and the realities]” (Eschatology, p. 41). He confirms this in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press, 2011): “it is clear that all three Synoptic Gospels recognize a time of Gentiles: the end of the world can come only when the Gospel has been brought to all peoples” (p. 42, cited on p. 221). Some scholars, of course, argue that the early Christians assumed that they had already preached the gospel to the ends of the Earth. Benedict admits this is possible, but he writes that even if this is so, it is “a secondary consideration.” The main point is that there is a time of preaching to the world, and so, in Ramage’s words, “the Bible does not formally assert the precise time of the Second Coming” (p. 223). Therefore, the reader of the gospels would be misguided to focus on the eschatological ’emphasis’ of each. Instead they should focus on the ends for which these chronologies were put to use, i.e., those truths which they were used to express. “For Ratzinger this is the critical point: in dealing with the second coming, the biblical authors subordinate the question of timing to the question of how Christians ought to behave regardless of when Christ returns” (p. 217).
Ramage deserves to be congratulated for weaving together Benedict’s works to form an impressive response to a challenge to the faith. That said, some objections immediately arise: (i) how can we be so sure that the sacred writer’s remarks on the timing were only incidental? (ii) if we only accept as true the main point the sacred author was trying to make, that seems to throw into doubt scriptural verses that the Church has traditionally used in support of dogmas. After all, when the Apostle wrote “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8), his primary intention clearly was to state that the rulers of this age failed to grasp the divine mystery. That they “crucified the Lord of glory” seems then only incidental to this. However, this remark about the Lord of glory was important in overthrowing Nestorianism in the 5th century. Admittedly, this verse was not the only support for the Orthodox position, yet we still are left wondering if Benedict’s proposed solution does not undermine the truths of the faith.
A weakness of Ramage is that he does not directly consider these natural objections. True, his arguments touch on them, but a more explicit rebuttal would have been appreciated. In response to (i) it could be said if the scriptures do seem to speak of a near parousia, they at least as readily reject a strict timetable approach and place greater emphasis on watchfulness (Mark 13:32, Matt 24:36, Acts 1:7, 1 Thess 5:1-2, Rev 3:3), which supports the supposition that directly timing the parousia was not the early Christians’ intention but rather ensuring spiritual readiness whenever it should come. Further, as Ramage points out in Benedict’s exegesis of the gospels, that the evangelists felt free to creatively use the material they had inherited in different ways, one emphasizing the imminence of judgment, another not so much, shows that such an imminence was not central to their faith. This, in fact, is the strategy taken (in more explicit form) by Raymond Brown in his book Jesus God and Man: Biblical Reflections (Bruce Publishing Company, 1967), pp. 59-72.
Nevertheless, the second objection remains, and it is heavier. Ramage does well to say, in the words of Dom Celestin Charlier, “Two things are required for error: first a judgment, something formally affirmed and taught, and secondly an explicit intention to express that precise aspect of truth which is in fact not expressed” (The Christian Approach to the Bible, tr. Richards and Peters, Newman Press, 1958, p. 216). Yet he should have also followed Charlier in saying that not only is scripture infallible in its primary intention, but it is also infallible in those statements whose veracity – taken in a broad sense – is necessary for the primary intention. This more robust view of the ‘infallibility of the primary intent’ harmonizes with common sense and safeguards scriptural support of dogmas, while avoiding commitment to every obiter dictum in the Bible. One may object that it seems necessary, e.g., for the Apocalypse’s message of encouragement and exhortation that Jesus’s seeming promise to come soon really be true; however, this intuition loses it strength when one takes into account the New Testament’s aforementioned disregard for setting an exact time on the parousia and emphasis on the adventus medius (especially in the Johannine literature), and (even more importantly) the strongly non-literal role time plays in Revelation and in a lot of apocalyptic literature more generally.
One last thing I would add is that, although Ramage is writing from a Catholic perspective and so uses “principles […] drawn from magisterial and curial texts as well as from the corpus of Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger,” I think more explicit patristic testimony would greatly benefit its audience; Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox included. I hope to sketch what an Orthodox approach may look like in a future post, using writings from modern Orthodox authors in addition to the fathers.
Moving into chapter seven (‘“To Whom Shall We Go?” Toward an Apologia for the Christian Approach to Jesus’), which for space I will have to review briefly, Ramage treats the philosophical presuppositions underlying Ehrman’s and Benedict’s interpretative strategies. He does well to point out the error of Christian apologists thinking that Christ’s resurrection can be proved from historical argument. In his discussion of the problem of evil, I like his use of Scripture to support Aquinas’s point that God allows certain evils for the sake of a great good (Rom 5:20, Gen 50:20). I also enjoyed his use of Brian Davies’s The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, but I was less impressed by the uninspired argument he draws, that atheists cannot call anything ‘evil’ since without God and/or Christian faith they have no way of knowing what goodness is, or in what God’s goodness consists. The first point (that without God all values are relative) is simply not true from the Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective to which Ramage presumably adheres. Better off is the second point (that it is only by Christian dogma that we know in what God’s goodness consists and so atheists need to rely on Christianity to try to refute it), but still the atheist could claim that although he cannot disprove the existence of God with the problem of evil, he could still use it to show Christianity’s claims about God’s goodness are false. Additionally, Ramage could have pointed out Ehrman’s inconsistency in (a) holding that the world is full of evil when trying to refute theism, while (b) saying “that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency, but just the contrary […] We should do what we can to love life – it’s a gift and it will not be with us for long” (God’s Problem, p. 278; cited by Ramage on p. 239).
After considering the problem of evil, Ramage moves onto using the evolutionary argument against naturalism and brings up some good responses to the common objection that evolution selects for knowing the truth because this helps survival, remarking that many materialists (e.g., Freud, Marx) see religious illusions as evolutionary useful. Ramage concludes his book with some fair-minded reflections on miracles and death.
All in all, Jesus, Interpreted is a very solid book that I recommend to anyone seeking to reconcile traditional faith with modern historical-critical exegesis. Chapter six is, in my view, its best part, but the importance and complexity of the problem it treats makes me wish it had been a bit longer, even if this occurred at the expense of the other chapters, which are (to me) less important.