The Pope, the Jews, and the Passion

The Pope’s new book confronts some of the anti-Jewish libels surrounding the Gospel which led to the persecution of Jews for almost 2000 years. But perhaps the Holy See should be far more vocal in denouncing the many voices that incite the people of Israel on a daily basis.

pope doing the roof is on fire 311 Reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
pope doing the roof is on fire 311 Reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The virus of Jew-hatred at the heart of Western civilization is rooted in ingrained attitudes, many of them to be found in Christian theology, scriptural interpretation, art and literature. That legacy, which came to a climax in the Holocaust, has been the object of increasingly serious reflection by the Vatican and the Catholic Church during the past 50 years. Pope John XXIII initiated the first steps that culminated in the 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which stated that “what happened in Christ’s passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living without distinction or upon the Jews of today.”
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Twenty years later, another important Catholic document about how to present the Jews and Judaism in Church teaching, noted that “Christian sinners are more to blame for the death of Christ than those few Jews who brought it about.” Pope John Paul II went a step further in robustly condemning anti-Semitism as a sin and by visiting Jerusalem in 2000 as part of his historic act of repentance towards the Jewish people.
So, at first sight the media publicity surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s second volume about the life of Christ (“Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection”) released last week, may seem surprising. What exactly is new here in the light of earlier Church pronouncements? Does the present Pope really offer an unprecedented or sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus? Is his book a significant contribution to the struggle against anti-Semitism?

I believe that the answer must be a qualified yes. Albeit Pope Benedict does not provide a sweeping absolution of all Jewish “guilt” for the Passion. The Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time and the supporters of the insurrectionary, Barabbas, still bear some responsibility for the crucifixion but it is relative and very much attenuated. More importantly, the cry of the Jerusalem crowd as presented in the Gospel of Matthew (27:25) – “His blood be upon us and on our children” (a somewhat implausible Jewish self-accusation for the death of Jesus with appalling historical consequences) is effectively contextualized by the Pope. So, too, are some of the passages in the Gospel of John which portray “the Jews” as sons of the Devil and sworn enemies of Christ. Benedict XVI does indeed seek to neutralize the potentially toxic anti-Semitism in these and other statements that resulted over the centuries in the savage persecution of Jews. Since his book will undoubtedly reach a wide audience (probably much greater than that of official Vatican documents like Nostra Aetate), that is surely to be welcomed.
For all too long there has been a serious discrepancy between what most Christian scholars would write today about the New Testament and what many lay Catholics and even some clergy – still influenced by long-standing anti-Judaism of the Church – continue to believe. Pope Benedict XVI’s most important contribution may well be to have begun the process of confronting (in a scholarly way) this considerable gap and refuting some of the anti-Jewish libels that have been constructed around the Gospel for nearly two thousand years. Not all these stereotypes are likely to disappear in the immediate future but the Pope has at least reaffirmed to Catholics world-wide not only that Jesus and his disciples were Jews but that there should be no room in Christianity for any denigration of the people of Israel.
No one can seriously doubt Benedict XVI’s commitment to improving Christian-Jewish relations despite a number of regrettable decisions and errors of judgment he made earlier in his papacy. There is still, however, a great deal that needs to be done. Parts of the New Testament, especially relating to the Passion narrative, despite the Pope’s new book, will doubtlessly remain a source for anti-Semitism.
More importantly, hatred for Israel has spread far and wide in our own day, well beyond the confines of the Church. The Islamic world, in particular, has become deeply infected by anti-Jewish stereotypes and myths like the blood libel, whose sources lie in the Christian Middle Ages. Some sections of the secular Left, too, have been contaminated by a crude hatred of Jews masquerading as “anti-Zionism.”
Perhaps the time has come for this Pope to speak out with the full authority of his office and his moral conscience, to denounce the almost daily incitement and slanders directed at the people of Israel from so many sources outside the Church. This would surely be consonant with the universal mission and concerns of the Holy See, as well as its desire for rapprochement with the Jewish nation. It would indeed be a timely jolt for the cause of Middle Eastern and world peace as well as promoting deeper understanding between peoples of different faiths.       
Robert S. Wistrich is professor of European history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 2010).