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."