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George Wells, Emeritus Professor of German at Birkbeck, is the author of Can We Trust the New Testament? (Open Court, 2004).

Ratzinger's gospels: manipulating holy cows

Two striking features of today's scholarship are spirited defence of religious convictions, and what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes long ago called "the frequency of insignificant speech". That the two often go together is well illustrated by the recent book Jesus of Nazareth, written by Joseph Ratzinger, the present Pope.

Most of us who have spent years as pupils in Christian schools did not there learn what very many reputable Christian scholars have agreed on: that the four canonical gospels cannot be regarded as simple narratives of events written from the testimony of eyewitnesses, but are compilations from various sources arranged and edited in accordance with the various purposes of four unknown narrators. Ratzinger is well aware that even some Catholic exegetes have come to regard these gospels as "the product of manifold layers of traditions through which the 'real' Jesus can only be glimpsed from afar". Against such an assessment, his book is a sustained protest, summed up in the words "I trust the Gospels".

Ratzinger does not reject what he calls the "historical-critical method" which has come to be so suspicious of the gospels, but he insists on a "Christological hermeneutic" which sees Jesus Christ as "the key" to the whole Bible, to both Old and New Testaments. This, he allows, "presupposes a prior act of faith", which however is not to be dismissed as mere irrational defiance of the historical evidence, but is "based on reason – historical reason". The meaning of "historical" in this context is unclear. Unless what is meant is that, if we conclude that in certain cases faith must precede reason, this conclusion can itself be reached only by prior process of reasoning.

Ratzinger's "Christological hermeneutic" is heavily dependent on the doctrine of modern literary critics that a work of literature has what they call "a life of its own", in that readers can find meanings in it that were not intended by the author. As a brake on completely arbitrary exegesis, it is usually also supposed that these manifold new meanings are in some way implicit in the original texts. On this basis we can see that the Old and New Testaments "belong together", that Jesus Christ is "the key to the whole", and that the various books of the New Testament itself, "despite all their differences, exhibit a deep harmony". I'm afraid that, in practice, this has meant that for much of the New Testament the Jewish scriptures have become a book of riddles, to which the right answer in every case is Jesus the Messiah. As for the "unity in diversity" of the New Testament, it is a "common perception" of its scholars, says one of them, that its writers "constitute a choir of voices, harmonious indeed in their devotion and witness to Jesus, but cacophonous on almost everything else".

Particularly important for Ratzinger is the fourth gospel. Its speeches differ remarkably, both in style and in substance from those in the other three. It is plausible to allow that the fourth gospel represents an advanced theological development in which meditations on the status and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as though he himself had said them.

One might think of the speech in chapter 17 of John's gospel, where Jesus reminds the Father of their primordial life together, of "the glory which I had with thee before the world was" – a passage which drew from Strauss, in his final book of 1872, the comment that, if it is an authentic utterance, then Jesus must have been mad. But for Ratzinger, Jesus is "one and the same, the true historical Jesus'' in all four gospels.

Ratzinger's interpretation of scripture depends very largely on his overall philosophical conviction that "the highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality". "When you have lost God... you are nothing more than a random product of evolution." In fact, natural selection is anything but random.

But if we cannot do without God, what then is God? Ratzinger replies: "God is truth and love". Truth in normal discourse means true statements, true propositions. It is easy to make an abstract noun "truth" from the adjective "true", but what does it mean when predicated of God? God can hardly be equated with true propositions. Ratzinger's book is replete with vague talk of this kind, about "the ultimate source of our being", "the real ground of all things" and "love" as "the foundation of the world". Such talk results from an irresistible tendency, often encouraged by a university education in the humanities, to confuse words and ideas, so that people come to suppose that they are thinking when really they are doing no more than making sentences.

In normal communication there is never any doubt as to the distinction between the word "cow", the idea of a cow and the real cow. By an "idea", I mean some kind of mental representation of something or process or set of things which can be profitably manipulated and experimented with in the imagination. But in philosophical and theological discussions there is sometimes little sign of such ideas. The writers seem to suppose that the word is an idea, that the manipulation of words in the imagination is as useful as the manipulation of genuine ideas. Their emotions become linked to the words and they suppose these words denote things which really exist. The impossibility of representing things by any real idea suggests their "transcendent" character.

But if error is to be avoided, there must be a continual return to concrete ideas as a check on any process of reasoning with such words. If, however, it is desired to make a questionable proposition look plausible, then this conversion of the words into particular conceptions must be discouraged. This is not difficult, as the task of conversion is too laborious to be undertaken readily, even if it is recognized as advisable.

In literary criticism – and indeed in the humanities generally – what is propounded sometimes has no contact with reality except to be verbally repeated in various combinations. Strife in opinion there must always be, but the Basel theologian Franz Overbeck well expressed what is desirable when he wrote in a letter of 1869: "I favour sharp and uncompromisingly clear confrontation in matters of theory, while I want the peace kept in practice. And the more difficult it is to combine these requirements, the happier I am to make every attempt to do so."

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