New pope book says Jews not guilty of Jesus Christ’s death

March 2, 2011
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(Pope Benedict XVI waves during his Wednesday general audience at the Vatican March 2, 2011/Tony Gentile )

Pope Benedict, in a new book, has personally exonerated Jews of allegations they were responsible for Jesus Christ’s death, repudiating the concept of collective guilt that has haunted Christian-Jewish relations for centuries. Jewish groups applauded the move. The Anti-Defamation League called it “an important and historic moment” and hoped that it would help complicated theology “translate down to the pews” to improve grass roots inter-religious dialogue.

The pope makes his complex theological and biblical evaluation in a section of the second volume of his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” which will be published next week. The Vatican released brief excerpts on Wednesday.

The Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated the idea of collective Jewish guilt for Christ’s death in a major document by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. It was believed to be the first time a pope had made such a detailed dissection and close comparison of various New Testament accounts of Jesus’s condemnation to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

“Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus’ accusers?” the pope asks, adding that the gospel of St John simply says it was “the Jews.”

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(Pope Benedict XVI stands with Italian rabbis at Rome's main synagogue January 17, 2010/Max Rossi)

“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,” he writes. “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,” he writes.

Benedict says the reference was to the “Temple aristocracy,” who wanted Jesus condemned to death because he had declared himself king of the Jews and had violated Jewish religious law. He concludes that the “real group of accusers” were the Temple authorities and not all Jews of the time.

Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, welcomed the pope’s words. “This is a major step forward. This is a personal repudiation of the theological underpinning of centuries of anti-Semitism,” he told Reuters.

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