A Review of “Two Milestones”

In this chapter of his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict attempts to present an in-depth analysis on the “Two Milestones” of Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration. Before getting at Peter’s Confession itself, Pope Benedict looks at the question prior, “Who do people say that I am?” and the response of the apostles. Pope Benedict explains that the responses of the “people” are not necessarily false but are “inadequate”. The “people” see Jesus as a great prophet but not as the Son of God. Like “people” today, the “people” of Jesus’ time just measure Jesus up with what they already know and fail to see his uniqueness. He is not merely another prophet, who’s earthly wisdom “people” can adopt according to what they like and discard what they do not like. Immediately, Peter’s Confession of Jesus as the “Christ”, the “Messiah”, the “anointed one”, or “the Son of the living God”, depending on how it’s found in the Gospels, is in stark contrast to what the “people” have said. What did Peter mean in this confession? Some scholars like Pierre Grelot argue that Peter was misled by notions of a historical Messiah and does not really mean his confession of Jesus as the “Son of God” in the theological sense because that concept would be unknown to him. Pope Benedict counters by offering evidence that the disciples surely knew that Jesus was truly God incarnate in front of them. “At certain key moments” … (i.e. the sermon on the mount, the calming of the storm at sea, the large catch of fish) “…the disciples came to the astonishing realization: This is God himself” (304). In the next event, the Transfiguration, Peter and a couple other disciples see this in a more profound way and “personally experience the anticipation of the Parousia” (318).

Boxall Characters and Setting in Matthew’s Story

In this chapter author, Ian Boxall stresses the importance of reading the Gospel of Matthew as narrative and explores characters and places to more effectively engage the text. He makes a distinction between “round characters”, those who possess a variety of character traits, and “flat characters”, those who behave in predictable ways, such as crowds. He identifies God as the main actor in Matthew’s story, if fact, the main character in the whole of salvation history. Jesus is the main protagonist in Matthew, his messianic credentials are identified, as well as his role as the perfect personification of God’s ‘son’ Israel.

Angels and demons are identified as key players in the narrative, and their role id expounded upon. Political and religious leaders are identified as a single “flat character” because their traits do not develop throughout the narrative. There have no traits other than their “evilness”. Boxall contends that the character, John the Baptist is the returned prophet Elijah from the old testament. The disciples are another character group who are part of the action, they contrast, and are more nuanced than the political and religious leaders. They listen and learn from Jesus, and are generally more receptive that the general crowds which are treated as individual “minor characters”.

Settings and geographical place offer great significance to the narrative. Places recall individuals and events from Israel’s past history and help link the past to the present. The settings of the narratives also have symbolic significance for Matthew’s audience.

JMason – Marshall on Jesus’ prayer

Marshall claims to want to do “not simply a word-study but a study of the concept of prayer” in the gospels.

From the outset of his article Marshall assumes that St. Matthew based his writing on Mark and a Q source (which was also used by St. Luke). From this he makes a variety of suggestions about who wrote what in the gospel and whether Matthew was likely to have inserted his own thoughts about prayer into the work. He concludes the “there is…nothing in any of this to suggest an independent development of the topic of prayer in Matthew’s gospel.”

My thoughts on this initial discussion are that no serious Christian should care what Marshall concludes, since the questions he asks are at best irrelevant to the reception of the inspired text, and at worst they are destructive to the piety of the faithful and seek to cast doubt on the received tradition of the Holy Church. I don’t blame Marshall in particular for this, since it seems simply to be the stock and trade of the “Scripture scholar”. I also confess that from this point I am skeptical about the value of any conclusions which Marshall will draw since they will evidently rely on forcibly treating divine revelation as if it were the meandering thoughts of middle-eastern peasants.

The remainder of the commentary has value mostly as a catalogue. Marshall notes where prayer is mentioned and the barest details about its context. With regard to Mark 1:35 “And rising very early, going out, [Jesus] went into a desert place: and there he prayed,” Marshall notes that it suggests that Jesus got up earlier that morning than the other people…

Some of Marshall’s comments suggest that he considers the gospels to be basically inventions: “Here Jesus is portrayed,” “the actual words [are] taken from Psalm 22,” and “Jesus is depicted as…”

It seems to me that more fitting language would be: “we see Jesus,” “the gospel informs us that Jesus does,” or “Jesus quotes from Psalm 22…”

Marshall combines his confident trust in the fallibility of the gospel narrative with a confidence in his own (and his peers) interpretation of the real meaning of words and events as well as the moral import of what they contain. He knows, for example, that prayers for divine blessing are “petitions for God to do good to other people” including those who crucified Jesus (although he isn’t sure who inserted the part about Jesus praying for his persecutors into Luke’s gospel). He suggests from a reference to certain hypocritical prayers in Mark 12:40 that long prayer in general is a questionable practice. (So much for the monastic life.) In reference to a lack of distinctions made in Luke 18 he makes claims as to the worthlessness of casuistic reckonings about morality.

Marshall seems determined to read the gospels (and sections within them) in isolation from each other and from the Old Testament: He says, for instance that “there is nothing in Luke 11:5-8 that suggests that importunity, or continued and intense effort, is required for prayers to be heard by God…” and goes on to make a page of conclusions based on that understanding.

Marshall is not just confident in his interpretation of the text, but also in which parts are late scribal additions (as for instance Mark 9:28: “And he said to them: This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”) It is somewhat curious, given his obvious certainty about its invalidity, that he spends a few paragraphs condemning this line as a “folk-memory” .

Marshall does not understand the perduring presence of Christ in the Eucharist, suggesting in reference to the Resurrection that Christ left his disciples from this point. He concludes based on this assumption that fasting does not have much value in relation to prayer. He also seems confused as to the implications of the Hypostatic Union (or at the least uses very imprecise language), claiming that at Gethsemane “Jesus had to be content that the Father’s will, rather than his own desires, would be fulfilled.”

In the end Marshall does draw some general points about Jesus’ prayer in contrast to traditional Jewish prayer: 1. Jesus shows, particularly in the exclusive company of his disciples, his special of relationship of Son to God the Father. 2. Jesus’ prayer revolves around the coming of the kingdom of God and its implications. 3. His prayer has to do with a transformation of the notion of the temple, the center of worship.
Marshall offers the conclusion that prayer is not solely about getting what we want or not, but that it involves coming into contact with the Divine will.

Resurrection in Jesus of Nazareth

In the chapter on the Resurrection in Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI focuses on the fact that the Resurrection is the foundation of the Christian message. It cannot be boiled down to an invention of the early Church nor is it a mystical experience of the Apostles. It is an event that is rooted in history, that is, it actually happened, yet it transcends history as we are confronted with an entirely new reality. He continues to examine this central theme through the use of two different types of testimony, the “confessional tradition” (which gives the essentials of the Easter faith in short phrases that establish the basics of what occurred) and the “narrative tradition” (which is the type of testimony used in the Gospels that gives content and shape to the faith through narrative).

The part of this chapter than I enjoyed reading the most was the section that talked about the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection. Someone of faith can sometimes be intimidated by “scientific” arguments against the Resurrection, and this often causes doubt. It is important to know that there is plenty of evidence to the historicity of the Resurrection, and this evidence can be comforting to someone of faith who is currently questioning if what they believe was a human invention or factually based.  

Jesus of Nazareth – Volume 2 Chapter 5 – The Last Supper

In this chapter, Ratzinger provides an excellent summary of scholarly thought on the events of the Last Supper. He harnesses the historical-critical method with finesse – deftly avoiding becoming bogged down in boring detail, and instead focusing on becoming more closely acquainted with the person of Jesus.

First, our Pope emeritus asks whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and gives a convincing “no”. He goes to lengths to show that John’s chronology, which places the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, is chronologically true to history, unlike the Synoptics. The Last Supper couldn’t have been a normal Passover meal, as it didn’t occur on Passover!

Benedict turns next to look at the words of institution. Words, he says, that militate against an image of “friendly Jewish rabbi” or “political revolutionary”. Rather, they include an anticipation of the cross and resurrection, of His death for the expiation of our sins. All Passover celebrations, all sacrificial lambs point to Him, and Benedict shows a beautiful sense of continuity in the relationship of God with His people before and after the events of Holy Week. In response to our sin Jesus gives himself freely, and the reality of evil is overcome, not ignored.

Benedict goes on to touch on many important nuances, like the “for all/for many” change we’ve seen in the new translation, and what the “this” of “do this in memory of me” refers to (more than the words of consecration, but not a whole Passover meal). Finally, he concludes with a section that deals with the importance of both the cross and the resurrection for our liturgy. All is useful knowledge for seminarian debates – and of course, for good liturgy.