Jesus, the Pope and Anti-Semitism

10/03/11 | Posted by MattPage

The Pope's new book goes on sale today, part 2 of his series "Jesus of Nazareth". The first book tackled the period "From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration" so naturally part two goes "from the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection". The work covers a number of key issues such as the meaning of Jesus' death and the evidence about his resurrection. But one aspect that has caught the headlines is Pope Benedict's declaration that it was not all of the Jewish people who were responsible for Jesus' death, but only the "Temple aristocracy" and "the followers of Barabbas".

image
 Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week—From the
Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection

At first glance this might not seem particularly revolutionary, but Benedict’s statement is actually critical in the battle against anti-Semitism.  Historically most persecution of the Jewish people has been motivated by misinterpretation of the gospels, misinterpretations that persist even today. In some places it was almost traditional that a Good Friday passion play would be followed by acts of violence and brutality against the local Jews, punishing them for being “Christ-killers”. Churches taught that Jewish people had accepted their responsibility for killing Jesus in Matthew 27:25, when the author has them say “his blood be on us and our children”, and so generations of Jews suffered. If you’ve ever wondered just what led to Hitler’s genocidal rage against the Jewish people then such teaching was certainly a critical component. The church’s anti-Jewish teaching laid a foundation of anti-Semitic sentiment upon which was built the atrocities of the holocaust.

The horrors of the gas chambers led the Catholic church to rethink its interpretation of the passion stories and to make key pronouncements on the issue. Two decades after the end of the Second World War one of Benedict’s predecessor’s, Pope Paul VI, made an official declaration that Jesus’ death “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today”.  The current pope’s book goes a step further laying the blame for Jesus’ death solely with the temple leaders and Barabbas’ followers.

Hopefully a statement such as this coming from a high-profile church leader like Pope Benedict will gain a sympathetic ear amongst other church leaders. Whilst there are few violent attacks against Jewish people by Christians at the moment, much of the church has yet to reject those interpretations of the passion stories which laid the foundation for such acts in the past. The controversy over Mel Gibson’s film Mark’s Gospel, written closest to the events it describes, depicts a crowd of Barabbas’ followers attempting to persuade Pilate to release their leader. Benedict understand Matthew 27:25 as a theological statement rather than one of guilt, and talks about how the word in John all too often translated “the Jews” should really be translated “the temple aristocracy”.

Hopefully the Pope will gain the ears of those who wouldn’t listen to Gibson’s critics. A better interpretation of the events leading to Jesus’ death is desperately needed before bad theology gives birth to bad actions.

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Your comments

I think that the Pope needs to go further.
I regularly go lead assemblies at a primary school and have been rather surprised by the number of times children have laid the blame for Christ’s crucifixion firmly at the feet of Jewish people.
I always point to the belief that Jesus went to the cross for the sins of all humanity so I put him on that cross just as much as anyone else.
That stops any of us pointing the finger.

#1. By HughB on March 11, 2011

I find this very strange- maybe things are different here, but growing up in America the emphasis was on the temple leaders, not “the Jews”- Jesus’ disciples and family were Jewish!
Also, I have not yet been to Holy week services in the UK yet, but growing up when we read the Passion gospels, the entire congregation got to read the parts calling for Jesus’ death- a reminder that it is on OUR heads, because of our sins. 

I find it shocking that the old view still holds anywhere.

#2. By Aine on March 14, 2011

Aine, you can be confident that in the UK it’s also the case that the entire congregation reads those parts, calling “Crucify, crucify”, with grief in our hearts that we are implicated in His death.

#3. By Andrew on March 19, 2011

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