Pope Benedict XVI has made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity in a new book.
In excerpts from "Jesus of Nazareth-Part II" released yesterday by the Vatican publisher, Benedict explains biblically and theologically why there is no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, which revolutionized the church's relations with Jews by saying that Jesus' death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole at the time or today.
Popes since that time, particularly in recent years, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have strictly supported the teaching. However, Jewish scholars said yesterday the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff, who has had his share of mishaps with Jews, was a landmark statement that would help in the fight against anti-Semitism today.
Rabbi David Rosen, head of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee and a leader of Vatican-Jewish dialogue, said the pope's book may make a bigger, more lasting mark than Nostra Aetate because the faithful tend to read Scripture and commentary more than church documents, particularly old church documents.
"This is a pedagogical tool that he's providing, so people will be able to interpret the text in keeping with orthodox Vatican teaching," he told the Associated Press.
Rosen also said the tendency humans have to accept things at face value sometimes leads to a decline in the awareness of anti-Semitism, and the book leaves no doubt as to Benedict's personal belief in the matter.
Benedict, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a child in Nazi Germany, has made improving relations with Jews a priority of his pontificate. He has visited the Auschwitz death camp in Poland and Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
But he also has made missteps that drew the ire of Jewish groups, most notably in 2009, when he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist Catholic bishop who had denied the extent of the Holocaust by saying no Jews were gassed during World War II.
Benedict has said that had he known Bishop Richard Williamson's views about Jews he never would have lifted the excommunication, which was imposed in 1988 because Williamson was consecrated without papal consent.
Williamson is a member of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which has rejected many Vatican II teachings, including the outreach to Jews contained in Nostra Aetate.
Separately, Jewish groups have expressed outrage that Benedict is moving Pope Pius XII closer to beatification, the first main hurdle to possible sainthood. Jews and historians have argued the World War II-era pope should have acted to prevent the Holocaust.
Holocaust survivors know only too well how the millenia-long charge of 'Christ killer' against the Jews created a poisonous climate of hate that was the foundation of anti-Semitic persecution, said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
The pope's book, Steinberg said, not only confirms church teaching refuting the deicide charge but seals it for a new generation of Catholics.
In his book, Benedict comes to the same conclusion as Nostra Aetate, but he explains how with a thorough, Gospel-by-Gospel analysis.
That Benedict is a theologian makes this statement from the Holy See that much more significant for now and for future generations, said Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham H. Foxman.
In a statement, Foxman hailed Benedict for rejecting the previous teachings and perversions that have helped to foster and reinforce anti-Semitism through the centuries.
He said the pontiff's book translates Nostra Aetate down to the pews.
The book is the sequel to Benedict's 2007 "Jesus of Nazareth," his first book as pope, which offered a personal meditation on the early years of Jesus' life and teachings.
In this second book, set to be released March 10, Benedict re-enacts Jesus' final hours, including his death sentence for blasphemy, then analyzes each Gospel's account to explain why Jews as a whole cannot be blamed for it. Rather, Benedict concludes, it was the Temple aristocracy and a few supporters of the figure Barabbas who were responsible.
How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus' death? Benedict asks.
He deconstructs one particular account that has the crowd saying, "His blood be on us and on our children" - a phrase frequently cited as evidence of the collective guilt Jews bore and the curse that they carried as a result.
The quote was so incendiary that Mel Gibson was reportedly forced to drop it from the subtitles of his 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ," although it remained in film's Aramaic dialogue.
But Benedict says in his book that Jesus' death wasn't about punishment, but rather salvation and that Jesus' blood does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit who writes frequently about spirituality, said the pope's new book was a ringing reaffirmation of Nostra Aetate, which was passed during the Second Vatican Council, with the pope putting his personal stamp on it in a way that's irrefutable.
"A Vatican Council is the highest teaching authority of the church," Martin said. "Now that you have the pope's reflections underlining it, I don't know how much more authoritative you can get."
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