The Pope's First Jesus Book— Final Chapter, Final Reflections

In the final chapter of this book  (pp. 319-55),  the Pope discusses the titles of  Christ.  Immediately he makes an interesting observation— that the title Christ became a name very quickly, and this was appropriate since Jesus and his office or tasks were inseparable.  In others words, he wouldn’t have been who he was if he had not done what he did.  Doing and being were deeply intertwined in Jesus.   For example,  had he not died on the cross, he would not have been the Savior of the world.   As the Pope goes on to say, the term Kyrios when applied to Jesus indicated he was worthy of having the divine name applied to him, for this is the word used for the divine name in the LXX.   On p. 320 the Pope also affirms the homo-ousios  term, the only philosophical term that makes it into a creed.  As he puts it, there is an eternal dialogue in the Godhead, between Father and Son.

The Pope is more concerned in this final chapter with the titles Jesus applies to himself directly,  which do not include the term ‘mashiach/messiah.    He has two terms in mind— Son of Man and just Son simpliciter.   The Pope repeats the oft made remark that we find the phrase Son of Man only on the lips of Jesus in the NT, except for the one time Stephen calls Jesus this in Acts 7.56.  This is not quite true— the blind man in John 9 calls Jesus this as well, but the basic point is right—- this term, which Jesus applies to himself 14 times in Mark is found almost exclusively on Jesus’ own lips— it was his preferred self designation, yet this term was not used in the early church’s proclamation of Jesus— why?

The Pope is well aware of the scholarly efforts to place Son of Man sayings in three distinct categories  (future sayings,  present sayings,  Passion and res. Sayings)  and then suggest only some of the future sayings, which seem to distinguish Jesus from the Son of Man are authentic.  As the Pope says, this dogma is wrong, not least because life is complex, but also because if Jesus never said anything remarkable about himself, it is hard to imagine why he ended up on a cross with a titulus King of the Jews.  Why should we predicate theological genius of the later writers of the NT or even of the anonymous first passers down of the tradition, and not of Jesus himself?  The Pope makes the good point that since Son of Man was not a common messianic title, its mysterious nature suited the mysterious proclamation of Jesus in parabolic form.

The Pope points out that Son of Man in its basic sense simply means a human being,  and when in a saying like the Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath he is making claims, he is doing so as the representative and perfect human being—- the Sabbath was made for all human beings, and they have a certain lordship over it, not the other way around.   The Pope’s exegesis of Dan. 7 on pp. 326ff. is worth close attention.   He rightly contrasts the beastly empires that lead up to the human and humane one of the Son of Man.  He also rightly contrasts the origins of those empires, from the depths of the chaos waters, as opposed to the Son of Man who comes down from heaven.   The Pope suggests that in Daniel the Son of Man is corporate or collective, it represents a kingdom or a people, but that it is Jesus who first refers it to a particular person— himself.

Turning to Mt. 25, the parable of the sheep and goats, the Pope makes the good point that here Jesus implies of the Son of Man that he was someone in need of food, clothing, visitation in prison, which matches up with various of the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head sort of present sayings.  The Pope’s point is that present, future, and passion sayings are all intertwined and shouldn’t be too radically dichotomized.    Furthermore, he is right that a saying like Mk. 8.38 makes clear that Jesus did indeed identify himself with the future coming Son of Man, as the Evangelists are clear about (cf. Mt. 10.32-33).   Why does Jesus speak in such obscure and indirect ways— the Pope’s answer is Jesus is “leaving the listener final step toward understanding.”  (p.  329).   This is correct.   In Mk. 14.62 Jesus is not so much correcting the high priest, as explaining that he is right, but needs to expand his understanding of the Christ in terms of the apocalyptic Son of Man figure.    The Pope stresses that Mk. 1.22 is a proper reaction to Jesus, only if he stands on the side of the one who gives the Law, God’s Word, not if he stands only on the side of a mere interpreter of the Law.   On p. 331,the Pope stresses that only God has the power to forgive sins, ergo Jesus stands in the position of God in Mk. 2.5.  But the problem with this is that Jesus himself later bequeaths the power to forgive sins to mere mortals like Peter.

Jesus embodies the new humanity, and is the last Adam, Adam gone right, starting the human race over again in himself.   The Pope rightly points out that Jesus draws on a whole series of texts to explicate what the Son of Man is and does— including Is., 53 in Mk. 10.45, various of the Psalms, including Ps. 110 and 118.22.  The Son of Man term becomes the umbrella term to which all sorts of Scriptures apply in the case of Jesus.

On p. 335, the Pope points us to his book  Introduction to Christianity for a fuller exposition of the title ‘the Son’.    The Pope says the term applied to a ruler in the ANE refers to either adoption when one becomes king, by a deity, or in Egypt perhaps even origins in a god of that individual.  In the first instance the ‘son’ terminology was applied in Exod. 4.22-23 to the whole nation— Israel is God’s son, and then to the individual king of Israel  ( 2 Sam. 7) and then for the coronation ritual—Ps. 2.7ff.   Israel’s privileged status as the son of God is embodied in the king.   The myth of divine begetting,  in Hebrew literature is replaced with a theology of election— they are chosen.    But the hope of a true king who would truly rule in the world,  became just a hope.  Later to be applied to Jesus in his resurrection which in Acts 13.32ff. is said to be the day when the true king is coronated as the true ruler of the world.

On pp. 338-39 the Pope points out that the claim of the risen Jesus being the true ruler, not in the sense of a political ruler on earth, but one who superintends from above,  came into conflict with the imperial cult, where Caesar claims to be the son of the divine Augustus ruling even during his lifetime on earth.   Caesar takes the ANE claim of divine kingship and applies it to living Emperors beginning with ‘the god’ Caligula. Thus a clash with Christianity was inevitable when a ruler demanded worship as a god by all his subjects.

The Pope makes much of distinguishing between the title Son of God, and the simple phrase ‘the Son’  which is found in both the Synoptics, John, Paul, and Hebrews.  Mt. 11.25-27 becomes a key text.   This saying indicates the Son alone has perfect knowledge of and perfect communion with the Father.   “Unity in knowing is possible only because it is unity in being.”  (p. 340).   The Son conforms his will perfectly to that of the Father, and so the Son wills to bring into communion with God  all those the Father wills should have such communion.    The beatitude about purity of heart lets us know how a person can really see and know God.  It is not through great erudition, which can even get in the way,  but by being simple, being pure in heart.  We have to give up our own individual will, and so become dependent, like a child, on God.   The Pope appeals to Jeremias’ classic study of Abba to point out that in some sense, Jesus shares his sonship with us, so that we can be bold to call God Abba as he did, and have intimacy of the sort Jesus had with the Father.  Sonship and its benefits apparently can be shared.   We become sons and daughters of God through the intimacy made possible through Jesus, the Son.

The Pope finishes this helpful study by examining ‘I am’ sayings  both in John and the Synoptics  (pp. 345-55).   Here he rightly places them in two categories—absolute statements like John 8.24— ‘I am he’  and statements with predicates— I am the genuine vine.     Exod. 3.14 is pointed to as the background of such a saying— where God claims he simply ‘is’—I am that I am.   More clearly we have Is. 43.10-11–  ‘I am he’ and there is no other god.   The lesson here is that Israel’s God doesn’t have to have a land, a temple, a sacrifice to be a real god.  Israel’s God, is God over all lands, and he simply exists, without need of sacrifice, temple, and land.   Jesus is able to say I am he because he also says I and the Father are one.  He who has seen Jesus has seen the Father (John 14.9).   When the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross,  then people will know  ‘I am he’ (John 8.48), namely that Jesus is the true revelation of the identity and character of God, most clearly seen on the cross.    When Jesus says before Abraham was, I am, he is not merely claiming to be older in origins than Abraham, he is claiming to have an entirely different order and category of being than Abraham, a divine one.   Mk. 6.50-51 does not allow us to take ‘I am he’  as merely a self identity marker, because while the disciples feared when they first saw Jesus walk on the water, they became even more afraid when suddenly the storm was stilled when Jesus got in the boat.   Their fear is that of the fear when one is part of a theophany, an encountering of God.

The divine life of God is in Jesus in its fullness, and so he can give life and be the resurrection. The seven I am plus predicate sayings are all suggesting Jesus is the source of divine life.   Jesus has come so we might have true life in abundance.   But Jesus gives us life because he gives us God, which is our deepest need.  More than we need God’s benefits, we need God in our lives, in order to be our best selves.  Thus Jesus is not merely the giver, he is the gift— the life itself.   The Pope concludes that the Nicene Creed does no more than explicate what is inherent and implied in this Gospel material— the Son is of one nature with the Father.

This book is an excellent study, balanced, and rich,  of Jesus, and the meaning of his existence and words and actions.  With the second book in this series, it presents us not only with a clear picture of a human and also divine Jesus, but also with a clear picture of a Pope who has studied deeply, thought hard, and is indeed a Bible scholar and a theologian.  Perhaps, in times such as these, he is precisely what both Christendom and the world needed as a Pope— someone who has not merely plumbed the depths of  NT scholarship, but someone who has drunk deeply from the well of the waters of life known as Jesus,  and is able to share that with us with clarity and verve.   Thanks be to God.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 5
Finding Jesus– Review of Part One
Forward Thinking about “Reading Backwards’ Conclusions
Kingsman– The Secret Service
  • barobin

    Dr. Witherington,

    I really enjoyed your reviews on the Pope’s two books on Jesus. I appreciate Catholic Theology and Philosophy, but as I open the door in my studies of theology more and more, I can’t help but notice that many on especially of more reformed persuasion and Evangelical persuasion, who believe Catholicism to be a false church; filled with idolatry and everything anti-Scripture/Christian. So much so, that a large part of their apologetic ministries, blogs, and things of those sorts, seem to be trying to debunk Catholicism. Are there books/studies out there from an Evangelical perspective, that give a good analysis of the Catholic Church?

    Also, I was curious if you had a commentary on Luke available? I have not been able to locate one if so.


  • ben witherington

    Hi Barobin:

    The Luke commentary is in the works. You could look at Scott Hahn’s stuff on Catholicism.



  • Ryan Collins

    Dr. BW3,

    Thank you very much for the review. Your insights into the book has led me to purchase this book for my own reading. This is a book that I probably would not have considered or even attempted to look up if it were not for the reviews.

    When you say the book is “balanced,” do you mean that it is balanced in doctrine, as far as not leaning too much one way or the other from Catholicism and Protestantism? Or should this not even concern me? Haha.

    Thank you again and hope you had a blessed holy week!

    In Him,
    Ryan C.

  • ben witherington

    Ryan I mean he is fair to the exegetical and theological issues involved and the historical ones as well.


  • Douglas Beyer

    Thank you for your extended book review of the Pope’s study of Jesus. Now I know Jesus, the Pope and you better and am richer for it.

    Douglas Beyer

  • Elliot

    Thank you for your book review. As Prefect of the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger also authored “Dominus Iesus,” a Declaration On The Unicity And Salvific Universality Of Jesus Christ And The Church. There are three sections which warm my heart, stir my soul and make me want to join in. They are titled: I. The Fullness And Definitiveness Of The Revelation Of Jesus Christ; II. The Incarnate Logos And The Holy Spirit In The Work Of Salvation; and, III. Unicity And Universality Of The Salvific Mystery Of Jesus Christ. They embody clear thinking to which your words may aptly be applied – “an excellent study, balanced, and rich, of Jesus, and the meaning of his existence and words and actions.”

    But Cardinal Ratzinger was something like Longfellows “little girl”: “And when she was good, she was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid.”

    Why do I say that? Well, Cardinal Ratzinger went on to write the section: IV. Unicity And Unity Of The Church. In that section he wrote: “Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.”

    It’s good to have a bishop in Rome who understands something of who Jesus is and is able and willing to declare it forthrightly, but what am I to do with his understanding of the Body of Christ and his clear marks of exclusion? Am I out or am I in? I believe that according to Cardinal Ratzinger, I’m out!

  • Griet

    @Elliot. No, you’re not “out” and that is not at all what that document to Catholic priests ( by the way) was implying.
    From the Catholic point of view the key word here is “subsists” and I have read explanations on its use in this context which makes clearer – but don’t ask me where I got it fromk on the web. Can’t remember.
    Anyhow, the splintered state of Christ’s Church, is not what He wanted. There is no way in which we can ignore this anymore.