Did the Jews really kill Jesus? Pope Benedict says no
Pope Benedict XVI
You know, sitzfleisch really pays off, even after 2,000 years. Last week, Pope Benedict XVI explicitly repudiated the Jewish people’s responsibility for killing Jesus Christ. In the second volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth, entitled From His Transfiguration Through His Death and Resurrection, which is appearing just in time for Easter on March 10, the pontiff rather sensibly asks: “How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus' death?" Come to think of it, that bit has always bothered me too.
The Pope’s new book isn’t exactly revolutionary. His statements essentially reinforce the Nostra Aetate document, which the Second Vatican Council issued back in 1965. This document regulates the Church’s relations with other religions. It denied collective Jewish guilt and opened up Jewish-Catholic dialogue after centuries of distrust and open anti-Semitism. The document states in part:
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. […] Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, also worked to improve Jewish-Catholic relations, and was the first pope to visit the synagogue of Rome back in 1986.
Benedict’s book is a popular work intended to be read by the Catholic faithful, not just by ecclesiastical scholars. According to the Rev. James Martin, an author and Jesuit, "A Vatican Council is the highest teaching authority of the church. Now that you have the pope's reflections underlining it, I don't know how much more authoritative you can get."
The Pope pays particular attention to the fateful line in the Gospel of Matthew (27:25), which says: “His blood be on us and on our children.” He looks at anti-Jewish statements in John. Benedict argues that this statement was by no means a curse that justified centuries of pogroms and persecution, but more like a blessing. After all, John himself was ethnically Jewish, as was Jesus himself. Instead, the statement “means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is His blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.” And Jesus’ blood, the pontiff reminds us, “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.” And that, it would appear, includes the Jews. So who was responsible for Jesus’ death? The Romans, the priestly hierarchy, the followers of Barabbas, but no Jews currently walking upon this earth.
Will Benedict’s words have any impact on lingering anti-Semitism among Catholics? Well, the Anti-Defamation League is buying it. In a statement issued on March 2, National Director Abe Foxman said:
The fact that this Pope is a theologian, and has served as a defender of the faith, makes this statement from the Holy See that much more significant for now and for future generations. He is continuing in the storied tradition of Pope John Paul II in rejecting the calumny of those charges and in taking Nostra Aetate and Vatican II to the next level.
I’m glad we’ve finally got that cleared up. Now can we please see some action on gender equality, celibacy and the married priest issue, and particularly the pedophile scandal? It’s time to take those issues to the next level. I know that the Church moves slowly when it comes to making decisions, but electronic communications and rising literacy rates have shrunk both the world and our attention spans enormously in recent decades. Another 2,000 years is longer than most of us are willing to wait.