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Rev. James Martin, S.J.

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Why the Pope's Words on the Jewish People Matter

Posted: 03/ 3/2011 10:52 am

What is the importance of Pope Benedict XVI's sweeping statements in the latest installment of his book series, Jesus of Nazareth, about the need not to hold the Jewish people responsible as a whole for the death of Jesus?

After all, the Second Vatican Council's revolutionary document Nostra Aetate, which enjoys a somewhat higher level of authority than a pope's personal reflections (especially in a book series which Benedict introduced by saying, "Everyone is free, then, to contradict me"), stated more or less the same thing in 1964.

"[W]hat happened in [Jesus's] passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today," wrote the Council. "[M]indful of her common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the gospel's spiritual love and by no political considerations, she [i.e., the church] deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews, at any time and from any source."

That is a clear declaration of the contemporary church's stance. So what is the value of the pope's words? The importance, it seems to me, is fivefold.

First, Pope Benedict's book underlines even further the Catholic church's belief that "the Jews" are not responsible for the death of Jesus. That is, it is an important reminder from the pontiff, and an especially timely one, given the approach of Passover and Easter.

Second, the pope's book elaborates these ideas in ways that may be more helpful for the average reader than Nostra Aetate, which could not delve deeply into the lengthy textual analysis of the Gospels. (The documents of Vatican II also read like the definitive pronouncements they are, a style not as inviting to readers as a personal reflection.) Of course many other Biblical scholars before and since Vatican II have analyzed the Gospels to conclude that, in short, the Romans and a few Jewish leaders acting together were primarily responsible for the crucifixion.

You can find careful analyses of the Gospel accounts of the Passion in hundreds of scholarly books, academic treatises and Scripture commentaries; but many may not be as clear as the pope's presentation, nor are some written for the non-specialist.

Third, in all likelihood, many more people will read this latest volume of Jesus of Nazareth in the next few months than will read Scriptural commentaries in the next few years. In short, by virtue of his position, the pope has a far wider audience, and one made up not simply of specialists. Pope Benedict is also able to reflect on the New Testament in a way that is not overly academic.

Indeed, one of the pope's great gifts is as a teacher: he is able to communicate Christian theology in helpful, accessible and inviting ways. (Frankly, I think one of his most overlooked contributions to the world dialogue about Christianity are his weekly "Angelus" messages, in which he meditates not on any political or sociological matters, but on the Gospels and the lives of the saints.) This book is a kind of "theological exegesis," as well as a personal reflection on the life of Christ; and it is not simply his deft exegetical writing but the personal touch which makes the work so inviting to readers. In short, he writes well. In his new book, for example, the pope provides his explanation of the use of the word "the Jews" in the Gospel of John, and does so with admirable simplicity:

Now we must ask: who exactly were Jesus' accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death? 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.

Fourth, Pope Benedict is putting what might be called his own "personal stamp" on the matter. Anyone who thinks that Joseph Ratzinger, as a person, "blames the Jews" will have to grapple with his clear comments in this personal work.

Fifth and finally, this false charge of "deicide" (literally, "God-killing, a terrible idea that led to the church's persecution of Jews over the centuries) still endures in a few quarters of the church. So any commentary that serves to combat that idea, and to reaffirm the Second Vatican's Council's teaching, is useful and important, whether it comes from a Scripture scholar, a priest, a Catholic school teacher -- or even a pope.