VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, in his first book since becoming Pontiff, shares his "personal search for the face of the Lord" and indirectly dismisses popular speculative versions of Christ's life like "The Da Vinci Code".
"Jesus of Nazareth," released on Friday, is a highly complex theological treatise on Christ as both God and man in which the Pope dissects and analyzes scripture passages like the old university professor he once was.
Benedict says the reader should not consider the 450-page work, a study he began about two years before his election and finished last September, as an infallible part of official Church teaching, writing: "Anyone is free to contradict me."
The book is sprinkled with hundreds of Biblical references, citations, and quotes of people as disparate as Karl Marx and Mother Teresa, Socrates and Confucius, Dante and Nietzsche.
"I have tried to present the Jesus of the Gospels as the real Jesus, as the historical Jesus in the true sense," writes Benedict, the Vatican's top theologian for nearly 25 years before his election to the papacy in 2005.
Recently, Christian churches have fought against depictions or interpretations of Christ which have worked their way into works of fiction such as "The Da Vinci Code", which claimed that Jesus married, had children and never rose from the dead.
"NOT A MYTH"
As if to confront these, Benedict writes:
"Yes, it really happened. Jesus is not a myth. He is a man made of flesh and blood, a totally real presence in history ... he died and rose from the dead."
In presenting the book to the media, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna was more direct in his criticism of recent interpretations of Christ's life.
"The innumerable fanciful images of Jesus as a revolutionary, as a timid social reformer, as the secret lover of Mary Magdalene, can be put to rest in the ossuary of history," Schonborn told a news conference, adding that the book was based on "the solid, historical credibility of the Gospels."
For over a century, Biblical scholars have used new critical analytical methods and newly found documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls to portray Jesus as more human than divine. This scholarship reached popular audiences with The Da Vinci Code.
The book, a first volume in a larger work, concentrates on Christ's public ministry. Mostly an academic work blended with personal touches, it starts with his baptism in the Jordan River when he was already an adult and ends with the Transfiguration.
While the book is mostly a theological study, at times the Pope offers contemporary relevance to some Biblical accounts.
After analysing the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Pope says rich countries bent on power and profit have "plundered and sacked" Africa and other poor regions and exported to them the "cynicism of a world without God".