pope - Reuters - March 2 2011
Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican March 2, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Pope Benedict XVI has made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ in a new book, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity.

In 'Jesus of Nazareth' excerpts released Wednesday, Benedict uses a biblical and theological analysis to explain why it is not true that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death.

Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.

While the Vatican has for five decades taught that Jews weren't collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said Wednesday the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff, who has had his share of mishaps with Jews, was significant and would help fight anti-Semitism today.

"There's a natural human tendency to take things for granted, and very often this tends to lead to a lapse in awareness and consciousness about the risk of anti-Semitism," said Rabbi David Rosen, head of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee and a longtime leader in Vatican-Jewish dialogue.

He noted that the Vatican issued its most authoritative document on the issue in 1965, Nostra Aetate, which revolutionized the Catholic Church's relations with Jews by saying Christ's death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole at the time or today.

Rosen said the pope's words might make a bigger, more lasting mark because the faithful tend to read Scripture and commentary more so than church documents, particularly old church documents.

"It may be an obvious thing for Jews to present texts with commentaries, but normally with church magisterium, they present a document," he said. "This is a pedagogical tool that he's providing, so people will be able to interpret the text in keeping with orthodox Vatican teaching."

The book is the second installment to Benedict's 2007 Jesus of Nazareth, his first book as pope, which offered a very personal meditation on the early years of Christ's life and teachings. This second installment, set to be released March 10, concerns the second half of Christ's life, his death and resurrection.