On 2 March, the final day of The International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ICJLC) meeting in Paris excerpts from the second volume of Pope Benedict’s life of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, were released to the press. According to the excerpts the pope agreed with the Vatican’s 1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostre Aetate) asking Catholics to not read the gospels as blaming present day Jews as guilty in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. According to the pope’s book, as with Nostre Aetate, today’s Jews are “exonerated” of the charge of deicide. Jewish leaders around the world, including Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman warmly welcomed the announcement.
In the excerpts the pope responded to the deicide charge appearing in the Matthew gospel (27:25), His blood is on us and on our children! "How,” the pope writes, “could the whole [Jewish] people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus'' death?" In other words guilt should only be attributed to those responsible at that time, and only to those Matthew represents as present before Pilate. In agreement with Nostre Aetate Benedict reminds his readers that, “Jesus'' death wasn''t about punishment, but rather salvation.” So according to this interpretation of the texts neither the Sanhedrin, accused of charging Jesus for blasphemy, nor the mob Matthew describes as demanding punishment should be held responsible for the crucifixion: God having created the event as a doorway to salvation makes all involved participants to God’s plan. There is no question of “guilt.”
If only absolution were that easy.
While all four canonical gospels generally agree in their portrayal of the trial, Matthew (25:27) is far and away the most dramatic and incendiary in damning “the Jews.” Its representation of the trial and mob scene before Pontius Pilate would one thousand years later inspire crusaders to slaughter entire Jewish communities en route to “liberate” the holy land; and four hundred years further on inspire also Martin Luther’s call to burn synagogues and holy books; to put to death any rabbi caught teaching Torah. Four centuries further on Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg would cite Luther as justification and model for the Final Solution.
Professor Irving Borowsky reminds us in his introduction to Father Flannery’s book, The Anguish of the Jews that, "In the past thousand years one out of every two Jews born into the world has been murdered [for the crime of being born a Jew]." The Vidal Sassoon International Center (SICSA) once estimated that, had Jews not suffered persecution in the West over the centuries, the number of Jews living today would have equaled that of the entire population of the British Isles.
Gospel anti-Judaism is the bedrock upon which centuries of theological anti-Judaism was built. This theology of hate developed into what, since the Age of Reason has come to be called the West’s Jewish Problem. The Holocaust with its nearly successful “final” solution to the Jewish Problem, led some Christian theologians to take a critical look at their scriptures for anti-Jewish content, as precedent and contributor to the emergence of secular antisemitism. One result of their studies was the Church’s 1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, its Nostre Aetate. Absolving the Jews of deicide, recognizing Judaism as an independent religion and not just a projection of Christian theology represented a beginning.
Unfortunately it did not mean that Christians would necessarily see Jews differently than they had been conditioned to by millennia of religious anti-Judaism and satanic stereotypy. And today, fifty-six years after Nostre Aetate, “antisemitic incidents in western Europe [are at] a level not seen since the close of World War II.”
So the lesson is that merely instructing the faithful not to read the gospels as anti-Jewish has little effect on the mind-set of the West, a culture conditioned by a very long tradition in which “the Jews” were represented as Christ-killers. The problem is not in the way the gospels are read, but in gospel text and context: the problem is the anti-Judaism of the words themselves.
If Christianity would seriously address its embedded anti-Judaism, and it is much in its interest to do so if it is indeed to live up to its ideal as a religion of “love” and “forgiveness,” then it is obliged to root out Jew hatred. But can Christianity eliminate, or even modify, gospel anti-Judaism? One possibility might be to retranslate those incendiary passages, to represent the events less aggressively. That would at least relieve the improbable task of requiring the average reader the counter-intuitive job “softening” the meaning of the texts as they are written.
This is not to suggest the gospels be rewritten to accommodate philosemitism. I am aware that these writings are considered by the faithful to be the inerrant word of God. Outright revision would lay open all texts considered holy to question, subvert the religion itself. But the earliest texts of the gospels were not written or transcribed in modern English, but in Greek and Latin. And translation is, by its nature, an intuitive art in its search for approximate meaning. Two excellent discussions of the problem of expunging anti-Judaism from the gospels are, Catholic theologian Rosemary Reuther’s, Faith & Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Antisemitism, and; Anglican minister and professor William Nicholls’, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate.
Another option that would leave the texts intact might be for the pope to issue a Papal Bulls. Such devices have, in the past, been used as instruments of punishment, leading even to excommunication. Pope Benedict might issue a bull forbidding antisemitism in word or act, with excommunication as threatened punishment. But again, faced with those gospel texts identifying “the Jews” as murderers of Jesus, such a threat would be difficult to justify and enforce.
Which leaves us precisely where we began: neither institutional nor personal guilt/ responsibility can substantively change the textual causes of Christian anti-Judaism, because anti-Judaism is integral to Christian belief. As Rosemary Reuther wrote, “Possibly anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure.”
So, as myself a member of our tiny minority, while I understand the need for those of us occupying positions of leadership in the Jewish world to express gratitude to the pope for his gesture, I suspect, no, hope that neither Israel’s prime minister, nor Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendents truly anticipate a substantive change in the Jewish-Christian matrix, truly believe we can now breathe easier in anticipation of a safer Jewish future.
Jewish survival should never be based in wishful thinking; the lesson of History is that we cannot afford the luxury of Denial.
For other writings on this and related topics please visit my other blog sites, Antisemitism and Jewish Survival and Antisemitism in Art.