Prof. Hays' review of Pope Benedict XVI's recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (August/September), illustrates the resistance of academic theology to reading the gospels as "an overall unity expressing an intrinsically coherent message," as Benedict puts it. Other than a few errors of detail, Hays mostly highlights omissions and seems to say that Benedict should not have taken up scholarly matters, such as the historical-critical method, if he was not going to say much more about them.
I did not find Benedict's discussion of critical scholarship to be "distracting," as Hays suggested it might be. On the contrary, it was refreshing. Benedict presents and defends his central themes by relying primarily on the gospel texts themselves, often drawing extensive support from saints and the Church Fathers. The scholarly sources and arguments are acknowledged and interwoven where they shed light on Benedict's readings and interpretations or are refuted by them. The book admittedly was not an exhaustive treatment of the "literature," so to speak. I have my doubts as to whether such a feat would be possible within manageable proportions; even if it were, it would be a different book for a narrower audience. Hays condemns Benedict's blending of his scholarly and meditative commentary with regular, albeit less than comprehensive references to scholarship. I applaud this approach and wish it would be more widely emulated.
Benedict's book renders the scholarship immediately accessible and relevant to the life of faith. My admiration for this feature is not a retreat into fideism or a refusal to take up the more patient and heavily footnoted examination to be found in a work intended only for a scholarly audience. If Benedict's discussion of the scholarship is so episodic or brisk as to lead him into error, then that is certainly something I want to know. The review may provide Benedict (or others) with a fine list of suggestions for further work, but that does not justify the review's occasionally harsh words and somewhat indignant air.
My problem with Hays' review is the suggestion, perhaps only implicit, that a "synthetic and harmonizing" reading of the gospels, as Hays characterizes it, is impossible or inherently ahistorical and inferior to more atomized readings. Benedict's book faces this issue squarely in many places. He argues that there is a bias often found in the academy against the coherent, unified understanding of Jesus that can be drawn from the gospels. He also argues that the rigid categorization that sometimes evolves in academic debates can do violence to the complex yet unified reality of the Incarnation and the subsequent events of Jesus' life. The book demonstrates that a coherent, unified understanding of Jesus via the gospels is possible. It does so not by ignoring the academic controversies but by showing that, while scholars may pull apart the individual pieces of data about Jesus and explore their context and subtle shades of meaning, those pieces can still be put together to form a...