A number of my Jewish friends and colleagues were quite impressed with Pope Benedict XVI’s second volume of “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.” This second volume is the followup to his best-selling book, “Jesus of Nazareth – From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.” This volume deals with some interesting questions surrounding the life of Jesus such as: Who killed Jesus? Was Jesus a political revolutionary? Was he the Messiah, the Son of God? What did Jesus teach about the end of the world? Did Jesus establish a community of disciples – the Church – to continue his work? How did Jesus interpret his death? What does the evidence tell us about Jesus’ ultimate fate? Did he really rise from the dead? Did the early Christians believe Jesus would return immediately?
Rabbi Jacob Neusner, distinguished service professor of the history and theology of Judaism, senior fellow, Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College, said of the pope’s new book: “This theological masterpiece courageously confronts head-on two centuries of historical exegesis and establishes a fresh way of reading the Gospels as both biography and theology in a coherent way. Here we find a compelling model for the presentation of the life of holy rabbi, Hillel or Aqiba, in the same context as we account for the life of Jesus.”
What caught the attention of the majority of the Jewish world were the explanations that Pope Benedict gave concerning the death of Jesus and who was responsible for his death. The book focuses in on the Gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ and concludes that these presentations in Scripture cannot be used to justify anti-Semitism or to blame the Jews collectively for the death of Jesus. The part of the book most interesting to Jews is the section that deals with the details of Christ’s trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his sentencing to death. In that section he clearly repudiates the concept of collective guilt of the Jews at the time and of their progeny for Jesus’ death, a charge that has haunted Christian-Jewish relations for centuries.
With great detail and theological precision, Pope Benedict carefully dissects the Passion narratives and concludes that it was the “Temple Aristocracy” and not all Jews of the time who wanted Jesus condemned to death because he had declared himself king of the Jews and they believed he had violated Jewish religious law. In this he echoes the teaching found in the Second Vatican Council’s document, “Nostra Aetate,” which taught “what happened in (Jesus’) Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. … mindful of her common patrimony with the Jews and motivated by the Gospel’s spiritual love and by no political considerations, She (the Church) deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.”
Father James Martin, S.J., contends that the pope’s words are very important for the following reasons. Because he is the pope and an important theologian, he is teaching this view from the highest perch in the Church just at the time that we Christians will be hearing these Gospels during our Lenten and Easter seasons. His gift as a teacher brings the teaching home to the average reader and assures the world that the pope rejects the charge of “deicide” (God-killing) and the blaming of the Jews for the death of Jesus.
“Your Holiness, I commend you for forcefully rejecting in your recent book a false charge that has been the foundation for the hatred of the Jewish people for many centuries,” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a letter to the pope. He added, “My fervent hope is that your clarity and courage will strengthen the relations between Jews and Christians throughout the world and help promote peace and reconciliation for generations to come.”
I think we should all read the pope’s new book as part of our Lenten reflections. You may remember that I wrote a column about the film “Irena Sendler – In the Name of Their Mothers.” The film tells the true story of a Catholic social worker, who outfoxed the Nazis for five years during World War II and saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. The new date for the showing of the film is Tuesday, April 5, at 7 p.m. at Katz JCC, 1301 Springdale Road, Cherry Hill. Admission is $10 in advance and $12 at the door. RSVP at www.jcrcsnj.org or call 856-751-9500, ext. 1117.