Why the Pope's Rejection of Jewish Blame Matters

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Tony Gentile — Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI waves during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on March 2, 2011

When Pope Benedict XVI writes that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus, what's important is less the passage itself than the man who set it down on paper.

By tackling the subject in a book to be published March 10, Benedict, who has struggled in his relations with the Jewish community, doesn't so much state something new — the affirmation that the Jewish people as a whole were not responsible for the crucifixion is an old one, uncontroversial in the modern Catholic Church — as lend the idea the ecclesiastical equivalent of a celebrity endorsement. "The significance is in the author," says Joseph Sievers, professor of Jewish history at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. "He brings together an awareness of the issues in the texts themselves with the history of how these texts have been interpreted through the last 2,000 years."

Indeed, the Catholic Church has considered the Jewish people free from blame since at least 1965, when the Second Vatican Council wrote that while "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."

The difference this time is that rather than being buried deep in a document of dense text, where it can easily be overlooked or ignored, the argument is being laid out by a man whose every word is pored over as an indication of church doctrine. "Most Catholics don't read the church's documents," says Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the New York–based American Jewish Committee. "The book will certainly be far more widely read." Benedict's most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, was a best seller when it was published in 2007. The passage about the crucifixion will appear in its sequel, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.

In excerpts provided to the press this week, the Pope walks the reader through the gospels to explore who Jesus' accusers really were. Noting that the Gospel of John describes them as "the Jews," Benedict explains that there's no way the writer meant the entire population of Israel. After all, he notes, John himself was a Jew, as were Jesus and the rest of his followers. "This expression has a precise and rigorously limited meaning," Benedict concludes: "the temple aristocracy." The Gospel of Mark expands the circle of accusers to "the masses," who Benedict explains were supporters of Barabbas, the brigand chosen by the crowd to be released instead of Jesus. "In [the Second Vatican Council's text], this was all said in one sentence, but here it's spelled out and worked out in great detail," says Sievers.

The Pope pays special attention to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that is often used to stir up anti-Semitism. In that passage, Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect overseeing the crucifixion, washes his hands and declares himself to be innocent of the death of Jesus: "Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!' " Benedict argues that the phrase "the people as a whole" is ahistorical. "How would it have been possible for the entire population to have been present at that moment to ask for the death of Jesus?" he writes. The blood of Jesus, he adds, should not be seen as a call for revenge, but spilled in the name of reconciliation: "Not a curse, but redemption, salvation."

The Pope's statements have been broadly welcomed by Jewish organizations. "It deepens and gives historians context crucial in having the doctrine expressed in [the documents from the Second Vatican Council] translated down to the pews," said Abraham H. Foxman, U.S. director of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement. "Pope Benedict has rejected the previous teachings and perversions that have helped to foster and reinforce anti-Semitism through the centuries." On Thursday, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, called on the Pope to take a step further, reinforcing what he's written in an official letter, or encyclical. "Many in the Catholic world have continued to espouse ideas of Jewish guilt," Lauder said in a statement. "Refuting their fallacious arguments in a personal book, whilst right, is probably insufficient. This must become official church doctrine, from top to bottom."