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Pope's 'Passion of the Christ': Don't Blame Jews for Death of Jesus

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In a new book on the historical Jesus set for release next week, Pope Benedict XVI forcefully argues that the Jewish people cannot be blamed for Christ's death on the cross and that even the most historically loaded Gospel phrases -- such as when the crowd shouts, "His blood be on us and on our children" -- are "not a curse, but rather redemption."

The blood of Jesus, Benedict writes, "does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all...[R]ead in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood."

Jewish groups welcomed the pope's remarks, with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League calling the book "an important and historic moment for Catholic-Jewish relations" and saying Benedict has "rejected the previous teachings and perversions that have helped to foster and reinforce anti-Semitism through the centuries."

The Vatican on Wednesday published excerpts of the book, "Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two," the second volume of the pope's take on the gospels. The book is to go on sale on March 10, the day after Ash Wednesday and the start of the six-week season of Lent that will culminate with the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus on Good Friday and Easter Sunday -- the period that Benedict focuses on in this second volume.

The Vatican also chose to highlight Benedict's analysis of one of the most controversial aspects of the Passion narrative -- the trial and crucifixion of Jesus -- namely, the role and responsibility of the Jewish people in condemning Christ to death. Benedict's arguments expand on what church leaders at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s wrote in a historic document exonerating Jews of the past or present for collective responsibility in the death of Jesus.

The pope's comments are also likely to focus attention on the volatile state of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, an area that has proved especially problematic for the German-born pontiff during his nearly six-year papacy.

Countless times during the 2,000 years since the events recorded in the Gospels, Christians have cited verses from the Passion episodes to justify violence and oppression and the charge of "deicide" against Jews. The tradition of Gospel-based anti-Semitism has been linked to brutal pogroms of the Middle Ages and the genocidal campaign against the Jews in the Holocaust during World War II, a tragedy that helped push the Catholic hierarchy to issue a clear rejection of deicide and anti-Semitism in a 1965 document, "Nostra Aetate," Latin for "In Our Age."

The topic remains so sensitive, however, that any attempt to revisit the passages can explode in controversy, as happened in 2004 with Mel Gibson's flashpoint film, "The Passion of the Christ," which many Jewish and Catholic leaders saw as reviving some of the anti-Jewish elements of the Gospels.

In his examination of the events of Holy Week, Benedict goes out of his way to reject any theories of Jewish responsibility for Christ's death. As John Thavis, veteran Vatican correspondent for Catholic News Service, put it, the book is "in effect offering Pope Benedict's version of 'The Passion of the Christ.' "

Benedict often relies on the Gospel of John, which is generally considered the last of the four Gospels to have been written, and was long considered perhaps the least reliable Gospel in terms of historical accuracy. It also was viewed as the most problematic in terms of its apparent denigration of Jews as a way to elevate Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited Messiah who the Jews rejected.

But recent scholars have begun to revise those views of the dubious historicity and anti-Jewish elements of John, and building on their work, Benedict argues that the evangelist should not be understood as impugning all Jewish people when he refers to "the Jews" as having condemned Jesus to death.

"John's use of this expression does not in any way indicate -- as the modern reader might suppose -- the people of Israel in general, even less is it "racist" in character," Benedict writes. "After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers. The entire early Christian community was made up of Jews."

"In John's Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the Temple aristocracy. So the circle of accusers who instigate Jesus' death is precisely indicated in the Fourth Gospel and clearly limited: it is the Temple aristocracy -- and not without certain exceptions."

The pope also argues that when the Gospel of Mark refers to the crowd clamoring for the death of Jesus, it is largely referring to partisans of Barabbas, the Jewish rebel who the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, offers to execute in place of Jesus. Those partisans prefer that Barabbas -- who Benedict refers to as a "terrorist or freedom fighter" -- be released, which Pilate does, thereby sentencing Jesus to death.

Benedict then notes that Mark's invocation of "the crowd" is extended in the Gospel of Matthew "with fateful consequences" -- an apparent reference to historical anti-Semitism in later centuries -- to the "whole people" and attributes to them the demand for Jesus' crucifixion.

But the pope says that "Matthew is certainly not recounting historical fact here: how could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus' death? It seems obvious that the historical reality is correctly described in John's account and in Mark's. The real group of accusers are the current Temple authorities, joined in the context of the Passover amnesty by the "crowd" of Barabbas' supporters."

Benedict's first volume on Jesus, in 2007, won praise from many Jewish scholars, such as the esteemed bible scholar Rabbi Jacob Neusner, and it seems likely, based on these few excerpts, that the pontiff's reading of Christ's Passion could also be well received, especially coming during the holy season for Jews and Christians of Passover and Easter.

"This is a critically important and timely statement by his Holiness, particularly at a time of increased mainstream anti-Semitism," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"Pope Benedict took his signature strength -- the power of his intellect -- and trained it on the Gospels to provide Catholics and other Christians with the Scriptural evidence to back up the position the Church took against the charge of deicide in Nostra Aetate," added Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center.

It is possible that Benedict's argument, effectively pinning the blame for the death sentence for Jesus on Temple authorities, will raise some eyebrows, as will his rather traditional reading of Pilate as a Roman official caught in a difficult situation between the desires of Jewish leaders to see a blasphemer -- Jesus -- dispatched, and the demands of justice.

"He [Pilate] knew that this Jesus was not a political criminal, and that the kingship he claimed did not represent any political danger -- that he ought therefore to be acquitted," the pope writes.

"Yet ultimately it was the pragmatic concept of law that won the day with him: more important than the truth of this case, he probably reasoned, is the peace-building role of law, and in this way he doubtless justified his action to himself. Releasing this innocent man could not only cause him personal damage -- and such fear was certainly a decisive factor behind his action -- it could also give rise to further disturbances and unrest, which had to be avoided at all costs, especially at the time of the Passover."

"In this case," he concludes, "peace counted for more than justice in Pilate's eyes."

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12 Comments

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e33

jesus was very liberal

March 03 2011 at 9:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
orangeb1811

As in the present day, a vocal minority made evil things happen. Mob mentality, plus the plots of the temple hierarchy against Jesus. And good people doing nothing, not wanting to get involved. People fear the truth when it confronts their comfortable ways of accommodation with sin.

March 03 2011 at 9:55 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Calcontractor10

Holy Smoke, How many days till Easter? Who ever kill him changed the course of History. How many days till Christmas, Call Joyce Myers she will give you the correct answer.

March 03 2011 at 12:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John

He is spot on in many regards. The Jewish Religious Leaders instigated it, they plotted agains the Apostles afterward. Yet many Jews including the Apostles were his followers - So to condem the entire Jewish Race is ignorant. Salvation was to the Jew first then the Gentile, so if it weren't for those Jews who believed and spread it we wouldn't be having the discussion. God throughout the scriptures has been consistant - he comes to the creation he loves, offers grace, and requires blood attonement combined with repentance. He stated to Abraham that through him all Nations would be blessed, he told the Israelites he was doing with them what was needed not because of their righteousness, but for his glory. To look at the people involved from Abraham all they way up to Christ the messiah, is a look in the mirror So anyone who wants to throw a rock at them can ask themselves if they were alive at the time, and did not know what they know now, would they have rejected him? By the way, God lifted the Israelites up from barbarism with the law of Moses. Up to that point, if someone stole your camel, you might chase them down with your family and kill everyone in their family - that is what was going on! An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth means if they stole your camel, they owe you a camel! Not their life or anything else! That was for the time radical! Look at the law's of Hamurabbi (I think that's how it's spelled) , a theif gets his hand cut off! Gee, now the guy can't make a living as a craftsman with one hand and has no choice but to be a thief! Marked for life, little chance of changing. All of the Temple layout and ceremony were about the Messiah. As usual, the focus on tradition and the prestige of office as opposed to the purpose - our weakness - killed the truth after mocking it. Again, consitency in the scripture, as all the one's who God used to his purpose were brought low and given a big dose of humility before they were lifted up. The Pope's statement's about Pilate's role are also spot on.

March 02 2011 at 8:47 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
andre10056

As the pope says very sensibly, it wasn't "the Jews" who condemned him to death. Jesus was Jewish, all his followers were Jewish, etc., etc. And not many people were even there except for special interest groups. Yes, some of Jesus' followers were there but they did NOT want to see him condemned. Apparently also, the temple heierachy was there and they may have wanted him condemned because he was a rival. And Barabbas' buddies were there who just wanted Barabbas to go free. So how is it that the hundreds of thousands of Jews in "Israel" at the time would have all advocated Jesus" condemnation? Obviously, aside from a handful of people, all other "Jews" either (1) did not want him condemned (like his followers and others not in support of Romans killing Jews) or (2) didn't even know what was going on (probably the vast majority of "Israel's" residents) or (3) were indifferent to whether or not Jesus was condemned, especially since they weren't going to challenge Roman authority.

March 02 2011 at 7:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dennis Wayne

Since no one living now was living then,Just Whom did he forgive?If I were A jew today,I would feel no responsibility at all.Should we be blamed for the sins of our fathers?

March 02 2011 at 6:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
snrar

It was the Romans who did the deed but it was the Jews who clearly asked for his death so it is written and so it is told over the centuries .

March 02 2011 at 5:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
patcherd67

It was the people that Jesus died for that put him there.

March 02 2011 at 4:58 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
efleishman

Moonwind [REPLY]
THERE WERE ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE THERE, JEWS, ROMANS, ESSENES, NOMADS OF ALL KINDS, PROBABLY AFRICAN SLAVES BUT BASICALLY TRIBAL MEMBERS. THE QUESTION IS WHO WOULD WANT JESUS DEAD? CERTAINLY THE ROMANS....HE WAS A POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS LOOSE CANNON.
THE JEWISH PRIESTS IN THE TEMPLE WERE NOT CRAZY ABOUT HIM EITHER GIVEN THEIR GRAFTING WAYS WHICH HE CONDEMNED. ONE THING IS CERTAIN...THERE WERE NO PROTESTANTS THERE. THE ROMANS PUT HIM TO DEATH BECAUSE THEY FELT THEY HAD THE SUPPORT OF ANY NUMBER OF ZEALOTS
WHO WANTED JESUS OUT OF THE PICTURE. DURING THE CRUSADES THERE WAS A CHILDREN'S CRUSADE . MANY CATHOLIC CHILDREN WENT TO THE HOLY LAND TO FIGHT THE SARACENS. MOST OF THOSE CHILDREN DIED. THEY WERE SENT BY CATHOLIC KINGS IN EUROPE. AGAIN, WHO KILLED THEM,
CANADIANS? FINDING BLAME IS GREAT FUN WHEN YOU AREN'T THERE.

March 02 2011 at 4:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mtduchess

Sorry, Moonwind, it was the Romans who put Jesus to death. Crucifixion was Roman capital punishment. If the Jews had put Jesus to death, it would have been through stoning, their capital punishment. End of conversation.

March 02 2011 at 4:02 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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