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The True Jesus of the Gospels - Part 1

5/15/2007 - 5:45 AM PST

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Commentary by Raniero Cantalamessa

VATICAN CITY, MAY 15, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book "Inchiesta su Gesł" (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce .

Parts 2 and 3 will appear Wednesday and Thursday.

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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 Gesł" (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 ...

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