Pope Benedict XVI has made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity in a new book.
In Jesus of Nazareth-Part II excerpts released on Wednesday, Benedict explains biblically and theologically why there is no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death.
Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.
While the Catholic Church has for five decades taught that Jews weren’t collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said on Wednesday the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff, who has had his share of mishaps with Jews, was alandmark statement from a pope that would help fight anti-Semitism today.
“Holocaust survivors know only too well how the centuries-long charge of ‘Christ killer’ against the Jews created a poisonous climate of hate that was the foundation of anti-Semitic persecution whose ultimate expression was realised in the Holocaust,” said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
The Pope’s book, he said, not only confirms church teaching refuting the deicide charge “but seals it for a new generation of Catholics.”
The Catholic Church issued its most authoritative teaching on the issue in its 1965 Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, which revolutionised the church’s relations with Jews by saying Christ’s death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole at the time or today.
Benedict comes to the same conclusion, but he explains how with a thorough, Gospel-by-Gospel analysis that leaves little doubt that he deeply and personally believes it to be the case: That only a few Temple leaders and a small group of supporters were primarily responsible for Christ’s crucifixion.
The book is the second instalment to Benedict’s 2007 Jesus of Nazareth, his first book as pope, which offered a very personal meditation on the early years of Christ’s life and teachings. This second book, set to be released March 10, concerns the final part of Christ’s life, his death and resurrection.
In the book, Benedict re-enacts Jesus’ final hours, including his death sentence for blasphemy, then analyses each Gospel account to explain why Jews as a whole cannot be blamed for it. Rather, Benedict concludes, it was the “Temple aristocracy” and a few supporters of the figure Barabbas who were responsible.
Benedict said Jesus’ death wasn’t about punishment, but rather salvation. Jesus’ blood, he said, “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.”
Benedict, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a child in Nazi Germany, has made improving relations with Jews a priority of his pontificate. He has visited the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
But he also has had a few missteps that have drawn the ire of Jewish groups, most notably when in 2009 he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist Catholic bishop who had denied the extent of the Holocaust by saying no Jews were gassed during World War II.