The True Jesus of the Gospels

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M Cap.


The True Jesus of the Gospels

Part 1

Commentary by Raniero Cantalamessa


Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book "Inchiesta su Gesù" (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce .

Parts 2 and 3 will appear Tuesday and Wednesday.

* * *

1. In the path of the cyclone

In the wake of Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" cyclone there have appeared, as always happens in these cases, new studies of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth whose intention is to reveal Jesus' true face which until now has been distorted by ecclesiastical orthodoxy. Even those who with their words distance themselves from such an undertaking show themselves to be influenced by it in many respects.

I think the book by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce, "Inchiesta su Gesù" (An Investigation of Jesus), published this year by Mondadori, is an example of this.

There are differences, as is natural, between the authors, the first being a journalist and the second a historian. But I do not wish to fall into the same error as this "investigation," which is to take account always and only the differences between the evangelists, and never their convergences. It is this error more than any other which I think compromises this "investigation." I will begin, therefore, with what is common to the two authors, Augias and Pesce.

It can be summed up thus: There existed at the beginning not one but many Christianities. One of these versions of Christianity won out over the others; it established, according to its own point of view, the canon of Scripture and imposed itself as orthodoxy, marginalizing the other versions as heresies and striking them from the record. However, thanks to the new discoveries of texts and a rigorous application of the historical method, today we are able to re-establish the truth and finally present Jesus of Nazareth as what he really was and as he intended to be, that is, as something completely different from that which the various Christian churches have up to now pretended he was.

No one questions the right of people to approach the figure of Christ historically, prescinding from the faith of the Church. Believing and non-believing historical criticism has been doing this with the most sophisticated instruments for at least three centuries now. The question is whether this current investigation of Jesus really gathers — though it be in a popular form accessible to the general public — the fruit of the work of these three centuries, or whether it operates from the beginning on the basis of a radical internal agenda and ends with a merely partial reconstruction.

I believe that, unfortunately, it is the latter that is the case. The thread that they have chosen is one which runs through Reimarus, Voltaire, Renan, Brandon and Hengel, and which today is taken up by literary critics and "humanities professors" such as Harold Bloom and Elaine Pagels.

What is completely absent is the contribution of the great Protestant and Catholic biblical exegesis developed after the war, in response to the theses of Rudolf Bultmann, which is much more positive about the possibility of reaching the Jesus of history through the Gospels.

To give one example, in 1998 Raymond Brown — "the most distinguished of American New Testament scholars, with few competitors worldwide," according to the New York Times — published a work of 1608 pages on the accounts of the passion and death of Jesus. It has been defined by specialists in the field as "the benchmark by which any future study of the Passion narratives will be measured," but in such a work there is no trace in the chapter dedicated to the motives behind Christ's death sentence, nor does it figure in the final bibliography which lists various English titles.

To the selective use of studies there corresponds an equally selective use of sources. The Gospel narratives are later adaptations when they falsify our authors' thesis, but they are taken to be historical when they are in agreement with it. Even the resurrection of Lazarus, although John's Gospel is the only one to attest to it, is taken into consideration if it can serve to corroborate the thesis of the political motivation of Jesus' arrest (p. 140).

2. But what do the apocrypha say?

But let us deal more directly with the book's basic thesis. Here we touch on the discovery of new texts that are supposed to modify the historical understanding of the origins of Christianity. Essentially these are certain apocryphal gospels found in Egypt in the middle of the last century, above all the Nag Hammadi codices. A subtle operation is performed here: The date of the composition of the canonical Gospels is pushed forward as far as possible while the date of the composition of the apocryphal texts is pushed back as far as possible so that the latter can be regarded as valid alternative sources to the former. But here we run up against a wall that cannot be easily gotten over: No canonical Gospel (not even that of John according to modern criticism) can be dated any later than 100 A.D. and no apocryphal text can be dated before that year. (The most daring suggest, by conjecture, dates of composition around the beginning of the third century or the middle of the second century.)

All the apocrypha draw from or assume the canonical Gospels; none of the canonical Gospels draw from or assume the apocrypha. To take an example very much in vogue today, of the 114 sayings of Christ in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, 79 have parallels in the Synoptics, 11 are variants of synoptic parables. Only three parables are not attested to elsewhere.

Augias, in the line of Elaine Pagels, thinks he can overcome this chronological gap between the Synoptics and the Gospel of Thomas and the way that he tries to do this tells us something about the "historical rigor" with which these modern "investigations of Jesus" are conducted.

According to the author, in the Gospel of John we witness a clear attempt to discredit the apostle Thomas, a true persecution in his regard, comparable to that against Judas. The proof:
The insistence on Thomas' incredulity! Explanation: The author of the fourth Gospel wants to discredit the doctrines that already in his time were circulating under the name of the apostle Thomas and that come together later in the gospel that bears Thomas' name!

Thus we overcome the chronological gap. But what is forgotten is that John the Evangelist puts on Thomas' lips the most moving of declarations of love for Jesus: "Let us go and die with him" (John 11:16) and the most solemn profession of faith in Jesus: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). Many exegetes say that this profession constitutes the crowning moment of John's entire Gospel. If Thomas is persecuted in the canonical Gospels, what should we say of poor Peter and all that they say about him! Perhaps Peter too was maligned so as to discredit a future apocryphal gospel that would bear his name.

But the important point is not even about the dates, but about the content of the apocryphal gospels. They say the exact opposite of that for which their authority is invoked. Our two authors advance a thesis according to which Jesus completely identifies with Judaism and did not intend to bring about any innovations in its regard. But all the apocryphal gospels profess, some more some less, a violent rupture with the Old Testament, making Jesus the revealer of a different and superior God. The revaluation of Judas in the gospel that goes by his name unfolds in conformity with this logic: With his betrayal, Judas helps Jesus to free himself from the last vestige of God the creator — the body! In this vision the heroes of the Old Testament become the villains and the villains, like Cain, become the heroes.

Jesus is presented in the book as a man who was elevated to the status of God only by the Church that came after him. The apocryphal gospels, on the contrary, present a Jesus who is true God but not true man; he has only taken on the appearance of a body (Docetism). For them, that which causes problems is not the divinity of Christ but his humanity. Are our authors disposed to follow the apocryphal gospels on this point?

We could make an even longer list of the equivocations in the usage of the apocryphal gospels. Dan Brown uses them to support the idea of a Jesus who exalts the feminine, who does not have problems with sex, and who marries Mary Magdalene. And to prove this Brown has recourse to the Gospel of Thomas, where it is said that if a woman wants to save herself she must cease being a woman and become a man!

The fact is that the apocryphal gospels, especially those that are Gnostic in origin, were not written with the intention of narrating historical facts and sayings of Jesus but as means for conveying a certain vision of God, of themselves and the world of an esoteric and Gnostic nature. Taking these texts as a basis for reconstructing the history of Jesus is like taking "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" as a basis not for understanding the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche but as one for understanding the thought of Zarathustra himself. For this reason, in the past although almost all the apocryphal texts were known, at least from ample citations in other works, no one ever thought of using them as sources for historical information about Jesus. Only our era of mass media, always exasperatedly searching for the commercial scoop, is doing this.

There are other historical sources for Jesus besides the canonical Gospels and it is strange that these are practically left out of this "investigation." The principal of these sources is Paul, who wrote less than thirty years after the death of Jesus and after being a proud opponent of Jesus. His testimony is discussed only in regard to the resurrection and, naturally, only to be discredited. And yet what is there that is essential in the faith and in the "dogmas" of Christianity which is not found attested to (in substance if not in form) in Paul, that is, before it had time to absorb alien elements? Is it possible, for example, to claim that the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees with their legalistic mentality is non-historical and is a fruit of the later concern not to alarm the Roman authorities when Paul himself acknowledges having been a Pharisee and says that he doggedly persecuted Christians because of this? ZE07051619

Part 2


Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book "Inchiesta su Gesù" (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce.

Part 1 appeared Monday. Part 3 will appear Wednesday.

* * *

3. Jesus: a Jew, a Christian, or both?

I come now to the main thing which our authors share. Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian; he had no intention of founding a new religion; he understood himself to be sent only to the Jews and not to the pagans; "Jesus is much closer to the religious Jews of today than to Christian priests"; Christianity was "born only in the second half of the second century."

How can the last claim be reconciled with the report from Acts 11:26, according to which, no more than seven years after Christ's death, around 37 A.D., "at Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians"? Pliny the Younger (hardly a suspicious source!), between 111 and 113 speaks repeatedly of "Christians," and describes their life, their worship, and their faith in Christ "as in a God."

Around the same time, Ignatius of Antioch at least five times speaks of Christianity as distinct from Judaism. He writes: "It was not Christianity that believed in Judaism, but Judaism that believed in Christianity" (Letter to the Magnesians, 10, 3). In Ignatius, that is, at the beginning of the second century, we find that not only the names "Christian" and "Christianity" are attested to, but also the content of these names: faith in the complete humanity and divinity of Christ, the hierarchical structure of the Church (bishops, priests, and deacons), and even a first clear hint of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, "called to preside in charity."

Before the name "Christian" became standard usage, the disciples were conscious of their own identity and expressed it in terms like "the believers in Christ," "those of the way," or "those who invoke the name of the Lord Jesus."

But among the claims of the two authors which I have just mentioned there is one that deserves to be taken seriously and considered on its own. "Jesus did not intend to found a new religion. He was and remained a Jew." Quite true. In fact neither does the Church, strictly speaking, consider Christianity a "new" religion. She considers herself together with Israel — there was a time when it was mistakenly said "in the place of Israel" — the heir of the monotheistic religion of the Old Testament, worshippers of the same God of "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (After the Second Vatican Council, the dialogue with Judaism was not carried on by the curial office that dealt with dialogue with other religions but by the one that concerned itself with unity among Christians!)

The New Testament is not an absolute beginning, it is the "fulfillment" (the fundamental category) of the old. Besides, no religion was started because someone intended to "start" it. Did Moses intend to found the religion of Israel, or Buddha Buddhism? Religions are born and only afterward become aware of themselves among those who have gathered up the teaching of the master and have made it a rule of life. To say that Christ was not a Christian is as evident and as misleading a statement as saying that Hegel was not a Hegelian, nor Buddha a Buddhist. Nobody can be a follower of himself.

But once this clarification is made, can it be said that in the Gospels there is nothing that makes us think that Jesus did have the conviction that he was the bearer of a new message? And what about his antitheses — "You have heard it said that ... but I tell you that ..." — with which he reinterprets even the Decalogue and puts himself on a level with Moses? They fill up an entire section of the Gospel of Matthew (5:21-48), that is, the same evangelist whom are authors claim wanted to affirm Christ's pure Jewishness!

4. Did he come for the Jews, the Pagans, or for both?

Did Jesus intend to establish his community and foresee that his life and teaching would have a continuation? The indisputable fact of the choosing of the Twelve Apostles seems to indicate precisely this. Even if we leave aside the great commission — "Go into all the world, preach the gospel to every creature" — (someone could attribute this command, in its formulation, to the post-Easter community), all those parables whose original core contains the idea of an expansion toward the Gentiles can only imply that Jesus had in mind a future for his community. One thinks of the parables of the murderous vinedressers, the workers in the vineyard, the saying about the last being first, of the many who "will come from the east and west to sit at the feast with Abraham," while the others will be excluded, and countless other sayings.

True, during his life Jesus did not leave the land of Israel, except for an occasional foray into the pagan territories in the North. This is explained by his conviction that he was sent above all to Israel to bring her, once converted, to embrace all the Gentiles, following the universalistic vision proclaimed by the prophets. It is curious: There is a whole school of modern Jewish thought (F. Rosenzweig, H.J. Schoeps, W. Herberg) that holds that Jesus did not come for the Jews but only for the Gentiles; instead, according to Augias and Pesce, he came only for the Jews and not for the Gentiles.

Pesce deserves credit for not denying the institution of the Eucharist as a historical fact and for recognizing its importance for the early community. Here is one of the places where what we said at the beginning of the article about the problem of taking account only of the differences, and not of the convergences, has particular relevance. The three Synoptics and Paul all attest to the fact of the institution and almost with the same words. But for Augias this counts less than the fact that John's Gospel is silent about the institution and that in reporting it, Matthew and Mark have "This is my blood," while Paul and Luke have "This is the chalice of the new covenant in my blood."

Christ's words "Do this in memory of me," pronounced on such an occasion recalls Exodus 12:14 and discloses his intention to give new content to the paschal "memorial." It is not for nothing that very soon Paul will speak of "our Paschal Lamb" (1 Corinthians 5:7) distinct from that of the Jews. If to the Eucharist and to Passover we add the incontestable fact of the existence of a Christian baptism immediately after Easter which progressively substituted circumcision, we have, if not a new religion, a new way of living the religion of Israel.

In regard to the canon of the Scriptures, Pesce rightly affirms (p. 16) that the definitive list of the present 27 books of the New Testament was determined only with Athanasius in 367, but we must not be silent about the fact that its essential nucleus, composed of the four Gospels along with the thirteen Pauline epistles, is much more ancient; it was formed around the year 130 and at the end of the second century it already enjoyed the same authority as the Old Testament (cf. the "Muratorian Fragment").

Augias and Pesce say that "even Paul, like Jesus, is not a Christian but a Jew who remains in Judaism." This also is true. Does he himself not say: "Are they Jews? So am I! Indeed, more than them!" But this does no more than confirm what has just been revealed about the faith in Christ as "fulfillment" of the law.

On one hand Paul feels himself to be in the very heart of Israel (of the "remnant of Israel" he himself makes clear); on the other hand he distances himself from her (from the Judaism of his time) by his attitude toward the law and his doctrine of justification by grace. It would be interesting to hear what the Jews themselves think of the thesis of a Paul who is "Jewish and not Christian." ZE07051519

Part 3


Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book "Inchiesta su Gesù" (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce.

Parts 1 and 2 appeared Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

* * *

5. Who is responsible for his death: the Sanhedrin, Pilate, or both?

The chapter of Corrado Augias' and Mauro Pesce's book on the trial and condemnation of Christ deserves a special discussion. The central thesis is not new; it began to be circulated after the tragedy of the Shoah and it was adopted by those who in the '60s and '70s proposed the thesis of Jesus who was a Zealot and a revolutionary.

On this view, the responsibility for Christ's death falls principally, indeed exclusively, on the shoulders of Pilate and the Roman administration, which indicates that the motive of Christ's condemnation was more political than religious. The Gospels acquitted Pilate and accused the Jewish leaders so as to pacify the Roman authorities in their regard and make friends with them.

This thesis was born from a just concern that today all of us share: To cut off at the root every pretext for anti-Semitism, which has procured for the Jewish people much evil at the hands of Christians. But the gravest mistake that can be made for the sake of a just cause is to defend it with erroneous arguments.

The struggle against anti-Semitism should be put on a firmer basis than that of a questionable (and questioned) interpretation of the Passion narratives. The innocence of the Jewish people, as such, of responsibility for the death of Christ rests on a biblical certainty that Christians have in common with Jews, but which, unfortunately, for many centuries has been strangely forgotten: "Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son" (Ezekiel 18:20). The doctrine of the Church knows only one sin that is transmitted by heredity from father to son, original sin, no other.

With this rejection of all anti-Semitism in place I would like to explain why the thesis about the complete innocence of the Jewish authorities of Christ's death and the essentially political nature of this death cannot be accepted. Paul, in the earliest of his letters, written around the year 50, gives the same fundamental account of Christ's death as the Gospels. He says that "the Jews have put Jesus to death" (1 Thessalonians 2:15), and he must have been better informed than we moderns about what took place in Jerusalem shortly before his arrival in the city, having once approved and "doggedly" defended the condemnation of the Nazarene.

During this earliest phase Christianity considered itself to be directed principally to Israel; converted Jews made up the majority membership in those communities in which the first oral traditions that came together later in the Gospels were formed; Matthew, as Augias and Pesce note, is concerned to show that Jesus came to fulfill, not abolish, the law. If there had been an apologetic worry, it would have been to present the condemnation of Jesus as the work of the pagans rather than the Jewish authorities with the scope of reassuring the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora about the Christians.

On the other hand, when Mark, and certainly the other Evangelists, write their Gospel, Nero's persecution had already happened; this would have made Jesus appear to be the first victim of Roman power and the Christian martyrs as sharing in the fate of the Master.

We have a confirmation of this in the Book of Revelation, written after the persecution under Domitian, where Rome is the object of a ferocious invective ("Babylon," the "Beast," the "prostitute") because of the blood of the martyrs (cf. Revelations 13ff.). Pesce is right to perceive an "anti-Roman tendency" in John's Gospel (p. 156), but John is also the one who more accentuates the responsibility of the Sanhedrin and of the Jewish leaders in Christ's trial: How do we reconcile these things?

We cannot read the accounts of the Passion while ignoring everything that precedes them. The four Gospels attest, we can say on every page, to a growing religious contrast between Jesus and an influential group of Jews (Pharisees, doctors of the law, scribes) on the observance of the Sabbath, on the attitude toward sinners and publicans, on the clean and unclean.

Joachim Jeremias has shown the anti-Pharisaic motivation present in almost all of Jesus' parables. The Gospel data is just that much more credible insofar as the contrast with the Pharisees is not at all prejudicial or general. Jesus has friends among them (Nicodemus is one of them); we find him at dinner in one of their houses; they are willing at least to dispute with him and to take him seriously, unlike the Sadducees.

Without denying therefore that the later situation did something to further the contrast, it is impossible to eliminate every opposition between Jesus and an influential part of the Jewish leadership without completely unraveling the Gospels and making them historically incomprehensible. The ill will that the Pharisee Saul bore against the Christians did not come from nowhere and he did not bring it from Tarsus!

Once the existence of this contrast has been demonstrated, how can it be thought that it did not play any role at the moment of the final rendering of accounts and that the Jewish authorities, almost against their will, decided to denounce Jesus to Pilate only because of their fear of a Roman military intervention.

Of course Pilate was not so sensitive to the demands of justice to be worried about the fate of an unknown Jew; he was a hard and cruel type, ready to suppress with blood the tiniest hint of rebellion. All of that is true enough. However, he did not try to save Jesus out of compassion for the victim but only to score a point against his accusers with whom he had been in a cold war since his arrival in Judea. Naturally, this does not at all diminish Pilate's responsibility in Christ's condemnation. He was just as responsible as the Jewish leaders.

After all we should not aim at being "more Jewish than the Jews." From the accounts of Jesus' death present in the Talmud and in other Jewish sources (however late and historically contradictory they may be) one thing emerges: The Jewish tradition has never denied the participation of the religious leadership of the time in Christ's condemnation.

It has never defended itself by denying the fact but rather by denying that the fact constituted a crime and that it was an unjust condemnation: A version compatible with that of the New Testament sources which on the one hand highlight the participation of the Jewish authorities (of the Sadducees more than the Pharisees) in the Christ's condemnation, and on the other hand often excuse them, attributing their actions to ignorance (cf. Luke 23:34; Acts 3:17; 1 Corinthians 2:8). Raymond Brown also comes to this conclusion in his 1608 page book on "The Death of the Messiah."

A marginal note, but one that touches on a very delicate issue: According to Augias, Luke attributes to Jesus the following words: "And my enemies who did not want me to be king, bring them in and slaughter them before me" (Luke 19:27). Augias says of this line that "it is with such passages that the supporters of 'holy war' and armed struggle against unjust regimes seek to legitimate their actions."

It must be pointed out that Luke does not attribute these words to Jesus but to the king in the parable he is telling and we know that we cannot transfer the burden of the parable in all its details to reality, and in any case the parables must be transferred from the material plane to the spiritual plane. The metaphorical sense of those words is that accepting or rejecting Jesus has its consequences; it is a question of life or death, but spiritual life and death, not physical. Holy war has no place at all here.

6. A balance

It is time to end my critical reading with some concluding reflections. I do not share many of Pesce's views, but I respect them, recognizing their full right to citizenship in historical research. Many of them (on Jesus' attitude toward politics, the poor, children, the importance of prayer in his life) are indeed illuminating. Some of the problems raised — Jesus' place of birth, the question of his brothers and sisters, the virgin birth — are objective and are likewise discussed by some believing historians, but these are not problems with which the Christ of the Church stands or falls.

In regard to the place of birth, however, it seems strange to me to recognize that Mary constituted "for some early Christian writers, and Luke in particular, an important source of information" (p. 122) and then to deny Luke's report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (p. 10). Mary should have known where her son was born!

Less justified it seems to me in a historical investigation of Jesus is the care with which Augias gathers all the insinuations about presumed homosexual relationships existing among the disciples, or between Jesus himself and "the disciple he loved" (was he not supposed to have been in love with Mary Magdalene?), and the detailed description of the scandalous incidents involving some of the women present in Christ's genealogy.

It seems we move sometimes from the investigation of Jesus to gossip about Jesus. However, there is an explanation for this phenomenon. There has always been the tendency to clothe Jesus in the garb of one's own epoch or ideology. In the past, though questionable, they were serious and relevant causes: Christ the idealist, socialist, revolutionary. ... Our time, obsessed with sex, cannot think of him except in connection with certain emotional problems.

I think that this putting together of a consciously alternative vision of a journalistic bent with a historical vision that is also radical and minimalist has led to a result that is on the whole unacceptable, not just for the man of faith but also for the historian. The claim according to which there is no relationship between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of the Church arises because of a failure to take account of the idea of development which should be familiar to the historian.

To confront the Christianity of the Gospels with that of later times and to conclude that they are two completely different things is to ignore that Christianity is life and that life is subject to growth. If we compare the photograph of an embryo in the maternal womb with the one of the ten-year-old child who has come from it, they will appear as two totally different realities, and yet everything that the person has become was contained and programmed in the embryo.

In the end one must ask the question: How did Jesus, who did not bring anything at all new to Judaism, who did not want to start any religion, who did not perform any miracle, and who is not risen save in the altered mind of his followers, how did he, I repeat, become "the man who changed the world," as the subtitle of the book defines him? A certain type of criticism begins with the intention of wiping away the veneer with which the ecclesiastical tradition has covered Jesus of Nazareth, but in the end the treatment reveals itself to be so corrosive as to dissolve the person beneath as well.

In trying to clear up the "mysteries" about Jesus to reduce him to an ordinary man, we end by creating a still more unexplainable mystery. A great English exegete, speaking of the resurrection of Christ, says: "The idea that the imposing edifice of the history of Christianity is like an enormous pyramid balanced upon an insignificant fact is certainly less credible than the assertion that the entire event — that is, the event plus the meaning attributed to it — really did occupy a place in history comparable to the one that the New Testament attributes to it" (C.H. Dodd).

Does faith condition historical research? Undeniably, at least to a certain extent. But I think that unbelief conditions it a great deal more. If one comes to the figure of Christ and to the Gospels as a non-believer (this is the case, as I understand it, of Augias at least) the essential is already decided: The virgin birth can only be a myth, the miracles are the result of suggestion, the resurrection is the product of an "altered state of consciousness," and so on.

One thing, nevertheless, consoles us and allows us to continue to respect each other and pursue dialogue: If the faith divides us, we are compensated by having "good faith" in common. Augias and Pesce claim to have written the book in good faith and I have certainly read and discussed it in good faith. ZE07051618

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