There is one topic that has dominated news stories so far about Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week—From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, as can be seen in these headlines from the past two days:
• Pope's new book says Jewish people not guilty of Jesus' death (USA Today)
• Settled After 2000 Years: Jews Not Guilty for Jesus' Death, Pope Says In New Book (The Daily)
• Jews in the clear on death of Christ (Sydney Morning Herald)
• Pope book says Jews not guilty of Christ's death (Reuters)
• Pope Benedict strikes welcome blow against rising world anti-Semitism with his new book about Jesus (New York Daily Times)
• PM praises Pope for clearing Jews of Jesus' death (The Jerusalem Post)
• Pope Benedict XVI Points Fingers on Who Killed Jesus (Christianity Today)
Each of these is referring to this section from chapter 7, "The Trial of Jesus" in which Benedict writes:
Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus’ accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death? We must take note of the different answers that the Gospels give to this question. According to John it was simply “the Jews”. But 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. 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, as the reference to Nicodemus (7:50-52) shows.
In Mark’s Gospel, the circle of accusers is broadened in the context of the Passover amnesty (Barabbas or Jesus): the “ochlos” enters the scene and opts for the release of Barabbas. “Ochlos” in the first instance simply means a crowd of people, the “masses”. The word frequently has a pejorative connotation, meaning “mob”. In any event, it does not refer to the Jewish people as such. In the case of the Passover amnesty (which admittedly is not attested in other sources, but even so need not be doubted), the people, as so often with such amnesties, have a right to put forward a proposal, expressed by way of “acclamation”.
Popular acclamation in this case has juridical character (cf. Pesch, Markusevangelium II, p. 466). Effectively this “crowd” is made up of the followers of Barabbas who have been mobilized to secure the amnesty for him: as a rebel against Roman power he could naturally count on a good number of supporters. So the Barabbas party, the “crowd”, was conspicuous, while the followers of Jesus remained hidden out of fear; this meant that the vox populi, on which Roman law was built, was represented one-sidedly. In Mark’s account, then, in addition to “the Jews”, that is to say the dominant priestly circle, the ochlos comes into play, the circle of Barabbas’ supporters, but not the Jewish people as such.
An extension of Mark’s ochlos, with fateful consequences, is found in Matthew’s account (27:25), which speaks of “all the people” and attributes to them the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion. 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.
Here we may agree with Joachim Gnilka, who argues that Matthew, going beyond historical considerations, is attempting a theological etiology with which to account for the terrible fate of the people of Israel in the Jewish War, when land, city, and Temple were taken from them (cf. Matthäusevangelium II, p. 459). Matthew is thinking here of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the end of the Temple: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken . . .” (Mt 23:37-38: cf. Gnilka, Matthäusevangelium, the whole of the section entitled “Gerichtsworte”, II, pp. 295-308).
In a piece for Headline Bistro, "Jesus of Nazareth and Anti-Semitism", Pia de Solenni makes this important point:
This time, the media find it newsworthy that the pope writes that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Christ. Ironically, what he’s saying really isn’t news. Sadly, it still needs to be heard.
I agree: it certainly does need to be heard. And part of the reason it needs to be heard is that many people, for various reasons, haven't noticed or don't know that the essential point made by Benedict XVI is a point that has been made many times over by the Catholic Church for several decades now. As de Solenni notes, the Vatican II Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), stated:
As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation,(9) nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.(10) Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle.(11) In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder" (Soph. 3:9).(12)
Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) 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. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.
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.
Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.
The significance of that passage cannot be overstated (and its roots can be traced back much further, to Popes Pius XI and XII). But there is more, for the pontificate of John Paul II focused often and intently on building bridges with Jewish leaders and communities; for example (just one of many), in a 1984 address to the Anti-Defamation League, the late pontiff said:
The Jewish community in general, and your organization in particular, as your name proclaims, are very much concerned with old and new forms of discrimination and violence against Jews and Judaism, ordinarily called anti-Semitism. The Catholic Church, even before the Second Vatican Council [cf. S. Congregation of the Holy Office, March 3,1928; Pius XI to a group of Belgian radio-journalists, September 6, 1938] condemned such ideology and practice as opposed not only to the Christian profession but also to the dignity of the human person created in the image of God.
But we are not meeting each other just for ourselves. We certainly try to know each other better and to understand better our respective distinct identity and the close spiritual link between us. But, knowing each other, we discover still more what brings us together for a deeper concern for humanity at large: in areas, to cite but a few, such as hunger, poverty, discrimination wherever it may be found and against whomever it may be directed, and the needs of refugees. And, certainly, the great task of promoting justice and peace [cf. Ps. 85:4], the sign of the messianic age in both the Jewish and the Christian tradition, grounded in its turn in the great prophetic heritage. This "spiritual link" between us cannot fail to help us face the great challenge addressed to those who believe that God cares for all people, whom he created in his own image [cf. Gen. 1:27].
A 1993 declaration, "Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel", stated:
§ 1. The Holy See and the State of Israel are committed to appropriate cooperation in combatting all forms of antisemitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance, and in promoting mutual understanding among nations, tolerance among communities and respect for human life and dignity.
§ 2. The Holy See takes this occasion to reiterate its condemnation of hatred, persecution and all other manifestations of antisemitism directed against the Jewish people and individual Jews anywhere, at any time and by anyone. In particular, the Holy See deplores attacks on Jews and desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, acts which offend the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, especially when they occur in the same places which witnessed it.
But perhaps most striking (especially from a theological and historical perspective) is this long passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
595 Among the religious authorities of Jerusalem, not only were the Pharisee Nicodemus and the prominent Joseph of Arimathea both secret disciples of Jesus, but there was also long-standing dissension about him, so much so that St. John says of these authorities on the very eve of Christ's Passion, "many.. . believed in him", though very imperfectly.378 This is not surprising, if one recalls that on the day after Pentecost "a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" and "some believers. . . belonged to the party of the Pharisees", to the point that St. James could tell St. Paul, "How many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; and they are all zealous for the Law."379
596 The religious authorities in Jerusalem were not unanimous about what stance to take towards Jesus.380 The Pharisees threatened to excommunicate his followers.381 To those who feared that "everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation", the high priest Caiaphas replied by prophesying: "It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish."382 The Sanhedrin, having declared Jesus deserving of death as a blasphemer but having lost the right to put anyone to death, hands him over to the Romans, accusing him of political revolt, a charge that puts him in the same category as Barabbas who had been accused of sedition.383 The chief priests also threatened Pilate politically so that he would condemn Jesus to death.384
Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus' death
597 The historical complexity of Jesus' trial is apparent in the Gospel accounts. The personal sin of the participants (Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate) is known to God alone. Hence we cannot lay responsibility for the trial on the Jews in Jerusalem as a whole, despite the outcry of a manipulated crowd and the global reproaches contained in the apostles' calls to conversion after Pentecost.385 Jesus himself, in forgiving them on the cross, and Peter in following suit, both accept "the ignorance" of the Jews of Jerusalem and even of their leaders.386 Still less can we extend responsibility to other Jews of different times and places, based merely on the crowd's cry: "His blood be on us and on our children!", a formula for ratifying a judicial sentence.387 As the Church declared at the Second Vatican Council:
. . . [N]either all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his Passion. . . [T]he Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture.388
All sinners were the authors of Christ's Passion
598 In her Magisterial teaching of the faith and in the witness of her saints, the Church has never forgotten that "sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured."389 Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself,390 the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus, a responsibility with which they have all too often burdened the Jews alone:
We must regard as guilty all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for he is in them) and hold him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, "None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." We, however, profess to know him. And when we deny him by our deeds, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on him.391
Nor did demons crucify him; it is you who have crucified him and crucify him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.392 (pars. 595-98)
The similarities between this nearly 20-year-old writing and the pope's new book are pretty obvious (not surprising, of course, since then-Cardinal Ratzinger was a co-editor of the Catechism). And, again, it's understandable and important that the Holy Father address the issue in a chapter about the trial of Jesus Christ. Yet is not so understandable why so many news outlets (not all, but many) are presenting Benedict's statements as somehow new and surprising, even unprecedented.
It's important that people understand that the Catholic Church—in conciliar and magisterial documents—has addressed this vital issue directly, and that Benedict is fleshing out and remarking in more detail on what has already been established by previous pontiffs.
• Visit www.JesusofNazareth2.com for more about Pope Benedict XVI's new book, available March 10th.