April 2017

The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ.  By Brant Pitre. Image. 242 pages. $23.

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.  By Richard B. Hays. Baylor University Press. 155 pages. $34.95.

Poor Brant Pitre. As an undergraduate, he began his Bible studies naïvely assuming that university courses would help him learn more about Jesus. The faith in Christ he had from reading the Bible got bushwhacked there, and in graduate school, by theories coming out of the scholarly boondoggle generally known as the “search for the historical Jesus.” Underlying these theories was the hypothesis that the Gospels were written too late in the first century to have been based on eyewitness reports and could not be trusted to provide accurate information; therefore, it was up to scholars to reconstruct the story of what had actually happened in the time of Jesus.

Fortunately for us, despite his angst, Pitre pursued his linguistic and original-source studies to the point where he escaped from the “historical Jesus” morass with his faith saved and with an understanding of the Gospels that led him to write The Case for Jesus as a broad defense of the reliability of the four Gospels in depicting what Jesus said and did. From his vantage point as a seminary professor of sacred Scripture, Pitre lays out impressive proofs for the following important propositions (thereby refuting the works of many other scholars):

- the Gospels were not written anonymously; they were written by the named authors;

- the pseudepigrapha (“lost gospels”) were the forgeries of heretics;

- the Gospels are historical biographies, not folklore;

- the late dating of the Gospels by most scholars is unjustified;

- Jesus’ frequent references to Himself as the Son of Man evoked the Book of Daniel, including the image of a heavenly king ruling over a heavenly kingdom;

- and, most importantly, by His actions and words, Jesus did claim to be God — and evidence of this appears in all four Gospels.

Pitre concludes by providing useful information about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, including an analysis of portions of the Book of Jonah, in light of Jesus’ response, when the crowds kept demanding a “sign” from Him, that their evil and unfaithful generation would receive none but the “Sign of Jonah” (Mt. 12:38-40). Pitre makes a convincing case that the usual reading of the Book of Jonah, from which we assume that Jonah was alive in the whale’s belly, is wrong. Rather, he contends, Jonah died, and it was his corpse that was vomited up by the whale and then resuscitated. This segues into Pitre’s point that the primary miracle was not Jonah’s return to life but rather the repentance of the Ninevites at Jonah’s preaching. Quoting Jesus: “At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Mt. 12: 41). The conclusion Pitre then draws, I think correctly, is that “according to Jesus, it is not just his resurrection from the dead that will be a reason for believing in him. It is also the inexplicable conversion of the pagan nations of the world — the Gentiles.”

As befitting a work of broad scope, The Case for Jesus furnishes only a few examples of how all four Gospels support the proposition that Jesus is divine. This is an important point because many scholars (and for many years) have disparaged the Gospel of John for its “high Christology” — that is, its clear and forceful depiction of Jesus as claiming divine status. These scholars seek to oppose the Synoptic Gospels to it, claiming that Jesus does not appear to be divine in them, and thus John’s Gospel must have been written many decades later as the product of theologizing, rather than being an eyewitness account of what Jesus actually said.

Richard Hays’s Reading Backwards is a must-read for anyone who wishes to learn the full details of how the Synoptic Gospels — and not merely the Gospel of John — all reveal the divinity of Jesus. The Synoptics do this not through the overt claims of Jesus (as in the Gospel of John) but through citations and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, and titles and events which need to be interpreted in light thereof. To explain them, Hays, dean of the Duke Divinity School, gets right down in the weeds with both the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts of the Old Testament and a few other ancient sources.

The Figural Christology in the book’s subtitle refers to Hays’s hermeneutical method of “figural interpretation,” which “establishes a connection between two events or two persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also a second, while the second involves or fulfills the first…. Figural reading need not presume that the Old Testament authors — or the characters they narrate — were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective…. Once the pattern of correspondence has been grasped, the semantic force of the figure flows both ways, as the second event receives deeper significance from the first.” This type of biblical exegesis, which considers the entire canon of Scripture, was recommended by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who referred to it as “a process in which the word gradually unfolds its inner potentialities, already somehow present like seeds, but needing the challenge of new situations, new experiences and new sufferings, in order to open up” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 2007).

Hays brings to light such a plethora of connections that I found myself thinking of the disciples walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, when, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures,” and they felt their hearts “burning” within them as He “opened the Scriptures” to them (Lk. 24:27-32). Reading backwards, from what was written about Jesus in the Gospels, Hays has indeed opened the Scriptures to the extent that he can “hope,” as he writes, that his exegetical observations “might actually promote constructive [Jewish-Christian] dialogue by clarifying how deeply rooted early ‘divine identity Christology’ was in Israel’s Scripture.”

- Hurd Baruch



God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith with Nicolas Diat.  By Robert Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat. Ignatius Press. 285 pages. $17.95.

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (Africa always brings us something new) — in this case, a new Ratzinger Report for our age. First published in French in 2015, and later translated into Italian and German, God or Nothing is now available in English. This book-length interview with African-born Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is a careful analysis of the problems facing the world and the Church today. Where the book scores over its predecessor — if such a thing is possible — is in the fascinating details it presents about the life of its subject, and in the deep spiritual advice it provides alongside its analyses.

The details of Sarah’s biography alone make this book a worthwhile read. He was born into dire poverty in 1945 in a tiny village in Guinea to parents who were converts to Catholicism from tribal animist beliefs. Since Guinea was then a French possession, he received a French-style education under French missionaries and entered the seminary at age 13. His education would then take him far: the Ivory Coast, Senegal, France, Rome, and Jerusalem. After his ordination in 1969, Sarah returned to Guinea to serve as a parish priest. Those were the days when Guinea was under the control of Marxist tyrant Sékou Touré. Sarah’s task was not easy: He spent long hours ministering to the faithful and reaching out to nonbelievers, often traveling considerable distances on foot — all in a nation that was and still is predominantly Muslim. The unstable Touré kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured the local bishop. To Sarah’s surprise, in 1978 Bl. Pope Paul VI made him a bishop (then the youngest one in the Church) and later an archbishop. Pope St. John Paul II called Sarah to Rome in 2001 to serve as secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal and prefect of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (dealing with charitable relief). In 2014 Pope Francis made him prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. For a man with such a humble background to rise so high is a sign of both great talent and an “African moment” within the Church herself.

But God or Nothing is more than just biography. Cardinal Sarah has never been shy about witnessing to and defending the Catholic faith, and much of God or Nothing consists of his insights on problems in the contemporary world. His words are clear, firm, and refreshing. He has this to say on these hot-button issues:

- “With Islam, there can be no theological dialogue, because the essential foundations of the Christian faith are very different from those of the Muslims…. But we can promote a dialogue that might lead to an effective collaboration at the national and international level.”

- “Atheism does not exist. Paradoxically, the very fact of not believing is already the declaration of a repressed faith.”

- “Some Western governments, with great disdain for God and nature, are passing insane laws about marriage, family, and human life…. Behind this Promethean vision…there is the mark of the devil. The chief enemies of homosexual persons are the LGBT lobbies. It is a serious error to reduce an individual to his behavior, especially sexual behavior. Nature always ends up having its revenge.”

- “Many expect, as something normal, that God should pour out his mercy on them while they remain in sin…. What good is it to know that the pope’s Twitter account is followed by thousands if people do not change their lives concretely?”

- “Without a Christian reference, in ignorance of God, a democracy becomes a sort of oligarchy, an elitist, inegalitarian regime.”

- “Paradoxically, modern materialist societies are based on magical beliefs. Men make false gods for themselves.”

- “The immense economic, military, technological, and media influence of a godless West could be a disaster for the world.”

- “Western colonialism continues today, in Africa and Asia, more vigorously and perversely through the imposition of a false morality and deceitful values.”

The good cardinal is not one to mince words, and his criticism of the West is particularly pointed. What is wrong with the world is its lack of belief in God, and what it needs is to return to Him. It really is “God or nothing,” as far as Cardinal Sarah is concerned.

What does this mean for the Catholic Church? Several things. Sarah’s desire is to implement what the Second Vatican Council actually said, not what the Spirit-of-Vatican-II types say it said. Sarah also stresses the need for a better-formed clergy while criticizing clericalism, ambition, worldliness, and the “heresy of activism.” Instead, the Church needs to stress the basics. Sarah, who grew up in a one-room hut, stresses the importance of holy poverty as a Christian value. (He recounts his disgust with the slogan of a Catholic relief agency, “Let us fight for zero poverty,” as insulting to the poor and to history.) For both clergy and laity, Sarah stresses the importance of “chastity, virginity, consecrated celibacy, and fasting,” particularly as witnesses to a modern world that rejects these things.

Above all, Sarah desires for Catholic clergy to have a strong interior life, and he spends much of this book stressing the absolute necessity of silence and deep prayer in the religious life. Even the most active religious needs to maintain the spirit of the contemplative life. (In addition to an active prayer life, Sarah himself goes on contemplative retreats every other month; he calls monastics “shining stars that silently guide mankind toward the paths of the interior life.”) These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas; they were part of his own priestly formation in Africa and have been part of his own attempts to form clergy. Early in his career, when Sarah served as rector of a seminary, some seminarians protested his reforms by setting fire to the chapel. Sarah responded by closing the seminary for a year rather than accept as priests men of less-than-absolute integrity.

Sarah is both influenced by, and proud of, his African background, and he is at pains to remind the world that Africa is no backwater. “If I may make a historical reference,” he says, “in the fourth century, the Church of Africa and the Council of Carthage decreed priestly celibacy. Then, in the sixteenth century, that same African Council served as the foundation on which Pope Pius IV based his arguments against pressures from the German princes, who asked him to authorize the marriage of priests. Today, too, the Church of Africa is committed in the name of the Lord Jesus to keeping unchanged the teaching of God and of the Church about the indissolubility of marriage: what God has joined, let no man put asunder.”

Africa is no longer mission territory — instead, it has begun sending out missionaries, of which Robert Cardinal Sarah is a fine example. Dare we hope that this noble son of Africa will enjoy the same reward that the subject of the original Ratzinger Report did before him?

- Christopher Beiting





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