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.
Ultimately, Benedict affirms, the pouring out of Christ's blood brings salvation, and not a curse:
When in Matthew's account the "whole people" say: "his blood be on us and on our children" (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus' blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24): it 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. … Read in the light of faith, [Matthew's reference to Jesus' blood] means that we all stand in the need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew's Gospel take on its correct meaning.
Benedict's reflections follow in the tradition of Nostra Aetate ("Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions"). In this Second Vatican Council document, Pope Paul VI declared that, while "the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ," the crucifixion "cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today." The Jews, Paul VI wrote, "should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures." The declaration "decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."
Like Benedict's book, Nostra Aetate firmly places Jesus' death in the context of his messianic mission, proclaiming that "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."
In a statement reacting to the Pope's repudiation of collective Jewish guilt, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham H. Foxman emphasized the continuity between Nostra Aetate and the Vatican's current stance, applauding Benedict for having "rejected the previous teachings and perversions that have helped to foster and reinforce anti-Semitism through the centuries."
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A 2004 poll from The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 26 percent of Americans believe that Jews were responsible for Christ's death.
Earlier Christianity Today articles on who killed Jesus include:
Who Killed Jesus? | After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? (Apr. 9, 1990)
'The Longest Hatred' | Evangelicals must fight the resurgence of anti-Semitism. A Christianity Today editorial (April 2004)
Weblog: U.S. News points fingers at Jesus' killers (April 2000)