The international media are abuzz over Pope Benedict XVI's forthcoming book, which contains a brief section affirming that the Jewish people bear no collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth II, the second volume of Benedict's examination of Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, lays immediate blame upon two groups: the "Temple aristocracy" anxious to forestall a Roman crackdown on the Jewish people, and a crowd that massed in support of Barabbas, shouting for the convicted rebel's release. The Pope goes on to place ultimate culpability for Jesus' death upon the sins of mankind.
While the charge of collective Jewish guilt has been an important catalyst of anti-Semitic persecution throughout history, the Catholic Church has consistently repudiated this teaching since the Second Vatican Council.
In the book, which is due to be published March 10 but which its publishers released excerpts of today, Benedict addresses the allegation of Jewish guilt in a chapter analyzing Gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest, trial, and sentencing:
[W]e 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.
The Pope turns next to the role of Barabbas' supporters:
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. … 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, as well as '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.
Nor, the Pope asserts, can Matthew's Gospel— which refers to Christ's blood "be[ing] on us and all our children"—be construed as implying collective guilt:
An extension of Mark's ochlos, with fateful consequences, is found in Matthew's account (27:25) which speaks of the "whole 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 clamour 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.