Pope Signals Rabbi: He's Done With 2nd Volume on Jesus

Wednesday, 20 Jan 2010 12:16 PM

By Edward Pentin

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Pope Benedict XVI has completed his second book on Jesus, according to an American rabbi who is a close friend of the Pope.

Once published, the book will mark the Pope's most recent attempt to try to help people encounter Jesus in their everyday lives and enter into a relationship with him.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that the Pope informed him of the book's completion during a 20-minute meeting at the Vatican on Monday.

Neusner, a prolific and highly respected author of books on Judaism and Jewish interreligious relations, said the two "talked about our books, and he told me he had finished writing the second volume on Jesus."

The first volume of "Jesus of Nazareth," published in 2007, covered Jesus' life from his baptism in the River Jordan to his transfiguration. This second volume is expected to feature Benedict's reflections on the mysteries of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, and include a chapter on the nativity.

In the foreword to the previous volume, Benedict gave reasons for writing the book, saying he had long been concerned about a general trend among scholars to separate the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith."

The aim of these works, he said, is therefore to salvage the person of Jesus from recent "popular" depictions and to restore Jesus' true identity with the overall goal of helping people "to foster the growth of a living relationship" with Jesus Christ. The series, he wrote, had had "long gestation," going back to 2003 when he was still a cardinal.

In September, Benedict said he was able to make "a little bit of progress with the book" during the summer holidays, despite breaking his wrist in a fall while vacationing in the Italian Alps.

"I still have much to do," he said. "I think that, with the bibliography and everything that is still to be done, 'Deo adjuvante,' it could be finished next spring. But this is a hope!"

The fact that he revealed the news to a rabbi first is significant and may, in a minor way, help calm recent Catholic-Jewish tensions. But Rabbi Neusner's involvement in the announcement is not as surprising as it might seem. His 1993 book, "A Rabbi Talks With Jesus," figured highly in the first volume of "Jesus of Nazareth," and the two have known each other many years.
Neusner since has been nicknamed "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi."

In "A Rabbi Talks With Jesus," Neusner imagines himself among the crowds when Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount, hearing the Beatitudes for the first time. Neusner's challenge is to listen to Jesus but without all the misunderstandings and prejudices that inevitably have accumulated in the 2,000 years of Christianity's history. He admires Jesus' greatness but in the end decides not to follow him, remaining, as he puts it, "with the eternal Israel."

The Pope included the work to show how the rabbi's dialogue with Jesus "highlights the differences in all their sharpness, but it also takes place in great love." The rabbi, he added, "accepts the otherness of Jesus' message, and takes leave free of any rancor; this parting, accomplished in the rigor of truth, is ever mindful of the reconciling power of love."

As has been shown in recent weeks, Benedict XVI sees this as the path of true dialogue between Jews and Christians: not to hide their respective claims to truth but to shed light on them in reciprocal understanding and respect.

Neusner said that, during his recent meeting with Benedict he was struck by the Pope's "gentlemanly ways, full of kindness and humility."

These characteristics were on show when the Pope made his historic visit to Rome's synagogue on Sunday, Neusner said, adding, "It was a great event: The participation was enormous, everyone was tense and agitated, it gave me hope for the future."

It's not clear how much Neusner's works will figure in the new volume, nor exactly when it will be published. However, Benedict XVI's prediction of sometime in the spring probably still stands.

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