Pope Benedict Revises the Gospels

The Pope's view marks significant progress, even if some critics make point that it is inappropriate to attribute later Christian ideology to Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries.

IN THE RECENTLY published second part of his trilogy on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI deals with the highly-charged issue of Jewish deicide. As soon as the first excerpts came out, a relative from Miami wrote to me: “About the pope’s exoneration of the Jews for killing Jesus, I thought we’d been completely exonerated years ago?”
Many Jewish leaders thought so, and said as much. However, this was not the case. The key passage in the doctrinal “Nostra Aetate,” published in 1965 after Vatican Council II, which revised Catholic Church dogma on the Jews, runs as follows: “True the Jewish authorities… pressed for the death of Christ, still what happened in His Passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
In other words, Vatican II modified only the number of guilty Jews, not the guilt itself. Not all the Jews in Jesus’ time or those living today are guilty, but some Jews of that time were. Undoubtedly, Nostra Aetate represented a big step forward in the mutual understanding between Jews and Catholics. It followed hundreds of years of anti- Semitic doctrine, the innumerable devastating consequences of which culminated in Nazi ideology and the Shoah. But the Jewish leaders who spoke in the wake of Nostra Aetate of a complete exoneration, either did not read the full text or preferred to play down its less convenient nuances.
Now Pope Benedict XVI has taken a big step forward. While acknowledging that in the Gospel according to St. John, those who pressed for the death of Jesus were indeed “the Jews,” he argues that this does not mean all the people of Israel, but only the Temple aristocracy.
In the Gospel according to St. Mark, the public demand to put Jesus to death was wider and included the “ochlos,” the mob which supported Barabbas, but, says the pope, “not the Jewish people as such.”
Then, in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, “all the people answered: ‘Let his blood be on us and our children.’” Here Pope Benedict XVI objects: How could it be all the people gathered outside the residence of Roman governor Pontius Pilate? And he concludes with a telling theological point: that for Christians the blood of Jesus should not entail vengeance or punishment, but rather reconciliation.
The pope’s new insights are very important since they address an issue that has poisoned relations between Jews and Christians for centuries. His view marks significant progress, even if some critics make the point that historically it is inappropriate to attribute later Christian ideology to Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries.
Indeed, the pope’s chronology and ideological attributions seem strange to non-Christians. Jewish scholars, like David Flusser, saw Jesus as a good Jew whose doctrine was influenced by the rabbis of his time. Forty years after his death, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and the Gospels, which so accurately describe this destruction, must have been written later, probably towards the end of the 1st century or the beginning of the second.
Moreover, there were about 300 Gospels with very different accounts of the key events. For instance, the Coptic Gospel of Judas, which was found about three years ago, describes Judas Iscariot as Jesus’ best friend, and asserts that Jesus asked Judas to denounce him to the Romans to enable him to accomplish his divine mission. Also the fact that the language of the Gospels is literary Greek casts a shadow of doubt on the idea that they were written by Galilean Jews who knew Jesus during his life. The pope and the Church adopt a different chronology and attribute to the Twelve Apostles the philosophy of the New Testament and a message which is barely political and even less Jewish.
Nevertheless, a stumbling block has been removed from the road to Jewish-Catholic understanding. The pope’s new revisions have not yet been approved as an official Catholic doctrine, as Nostra Aetate was at the time, yet all Catholics will certainly respect ideas issued from the highest level of the church hierarchy.
Israelis, however, should have no illusions with regard to relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. On the contrary, it seems to me that the more conciliatory the stand toward the Jews, the more hostile the Vatican is towards Israel. For example, in May 2008, when he received the letters of accreditation of the new Israeli Ambassador to the Vatican, Mordechai Lewy, Benedict used the occasion to censure Israel. Later, in January 2009, he was highly critical of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza. And the recent Synod on the Middle East, in October 2010, took account of the suffering “especially of the Palestinians,” which it described as a consequence “of the Israeli occupation…”
Sergio Minerbi, a senior Israeli diplomat until 1989, specializes in relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews, and is the author of ‘The Vatican and Zionism’ (1990).