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The True Jesus of the Gospels - Part 2

5/16/2007 - 6:00 AM PST

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Commentary by Father Raniero Cantalamessa

VATICAN CITY, MAY 16, 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.

Part 1 appeared Tuesday. Part 3 will appear Thursday.

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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 ...

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