FATHER JOÃO LOURENÇO, PROFESSOR EMERITUS AT THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF PORTUGAL – “It is not possible to understand the true message of Christ in an abstract way”

Marco Carvalho

It’s called The Time of Jesus – The World and the Jewish Institutions. It was launched in late October and proposes a vast and comprehensive approach to the historical figure of Jesus Christ, through the analysis of the epoch in which the Son of God lived as a man. In his latest book, the first Rector of the University of Saint Joseph, João Lourenço, claims that it is not possible to understand Jesus Christ’s real message without understanding the time in which He lived. The opus, Father Lourenço explains in an interview with O Clarim is an invitation to rediscover the historical presence of Jesus Christ.

The Time of Jesus – The World and the Jewish Institutions (original title in Portuguese is O Tempo de Jesus – O Mundo e as Instituições Judaicas) was launched in Lisbon, on the 22nd October and proposes a deeper knowledge of Christ’s message through a greater understanding of the historical time in which He lived. How does this approach help the reader to better understand Jesus’ spiritual legacy?

First of all, it is important to emphasize that Jesus lived in a specific time and space and it is in response to the questions raised by that concrete space – questions of a cultural, social and religious nature – that we should situate his historical presence.  There is, sometimes, the temptation to think that Jesus is first and foremost a ‘spiritual’ being, with an existence that was not bound by time and space. That sort of thought is, in a certain sense, an attack to one of the foundations of our faith: the fundamental truth of the  Incarnation. But to talk about the Incarnation is not reduced to the Incarnation of Christ; it encompasses the entire history of salvation. The Word of God – Jesus Christ – Logos, as St John (1:1) says – was incarnated among a people, the people of the Covenant. This incarnation means that our history became his history, our culture his culture and our humanity his way of being among us. Therefore, it is not possible to understand the true message of Jesus Christ in an abstract way, outside the reach of a historical time or by being oblivious to the most relevant questions of his historical time. Each and every page of the Gospel is a clear proof of Jesus’ involvement in the history of his people. He doesn’t escape the issues of his time, including those that sometimes decide the fate of entire nations. He doesn’t escape the political landscape of the time he lived in and the proof of that is that he made the concerns and the expectations of his contemporaries his own. Nevertheless, Jesus’ time is not the time of the present; at that time, Judaism was, in a certain sense, at a crossroad. The interaction of his people with other peoples and cultures was a defining trait of that time, starting, as we well know, with the overwhelming tension with the Roman world, on one side, and with the Hellenistic culture, on the other.

You told Portuguese Catholic News Agency Ecclesia that it is important to study Christ’s life and legacy beyond an idealistic or ideological perspective. What sort of aspects should be taken into account when approaching Jesus Christ as a historical figure?

What I intend to say with those words – and the subtitle of this new book expresses it in a very clear way – is that Jesus cannot be studied today solely from spiritual or religious premises. Jesus’  existence, as a person, is framed by a very specific world and by a much broader scenario, where social, religious and political issues helped to shape his personality and, consequently, his message in a way that goes far beyond a merely theoretical or spiritual approach. When addressing the question of “Who was Jesus?” it is necessary to place it in a time, his time, and in a cultural and religious environment that was characterized by a pluralist vision of Judaism. It was a time in which different religious and cultural groups mingled together, with very different scenarios that are not always taken into account. The full scope of both his personality and his message only takes on a full meaning in this context. Studying the history of Jesus’ time should not be seen as an additional task. On the contrary: I would say it is a methodological priority and a scientific need, so that clarity and validity can be provided to any study that delves in this specific endeavor. I dare to say that, without this approach, any study on the person of Jesus will be little more than a set of good intentions. It will be an exercise in spirituality that will have little to do with the concrete nature of Jesus as a person.

How is this book structured? What sort of portrait did you draw from the time and circumstances in which Jesus Christ lived?

The Time of Jesus – The World and the Jewish Institutions has nine chapters, preceded by an introduction that aims to contextualize all the issues I try to deal with throughout the book. These nine chapters cover as many other areas or problems of that specific time, such as: the political world of the time, the economic and social coordinates, the Jewish institutions (namely, the temple, the Sanhedrin, the priesthood), the Jewish diaspora, the groups and movements of a social and religious nature, the theological coordinates of the so called Intertestamental period, worship and prayer, the synagogue and the community and, finally, a smaller chapter which I entitled “Looking at the Jewish world from a New Testament Perspective.” In a work of this kind, it is not possible to address all the issues of the time and there’s always more to say than what can be said. Many of the issues addressed here raise a number of questions. To make use of the historical sources of the time, which are quite scarce, opens up very wide horizons and one should include approaches that are difficult to summarize in a book with little more than 300 pages. Our aim is to provide the readers – be they believers or non-believers – with a better understanding of the person of Jesus from his vital context, that is, as they say in the exegesis of German tradition: from the Sitz-im-Lebel, his life context. I left out some questions that are also quite fundamental, such as a deeper study of Jewish literature from that period, which is one of the great sources for the study of that time. I had already done it in a previous work, which is already sold out, called The Jewish World in which Jesus lived. The focus of this work was in the ‘Jewish world.’ Now, the focus is in the person of Jesus and in the ‘tools’ available so we can develop a better understanding of his time.

What other studies are you involved in?

It’s a very opportune question. I have already finished a new book that delves on Prophets and Prophetism in Israel. The text was already delivered to my publisher for editing. In terms of magnitude, I would say it is more or less identical to this one. I am also the director of the Portuguese version of  Terra Santa Magazine, (The Holy Land Magazine) a quarterly publication that takes most of the time that I have left, apart from the load of classes and the research I have to do to prepare them. I don’t necessarily need any more work, but I would also like – I don’t know when or how – to publish something more profound and comprehensive about the Psalms. We will see, because right now the teaching load is as heavy as it was before.

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