The second volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth” has already created a splash. Even before the book’s release, numerous Jewish leaders lavished effusive praise on Benedict for the volume’s exculpation of the Jews in Jesus’ crucifixion.
But is anything new here? Has Benedict broken any ground regarding how Catholics need to understand their faith and relations with their Jewish elder brothers and sisters? After all, the 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate insisted that “what happened in [Christ’s] passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living without distinction nor upon the Jews of today.” And in 1985, another Catholic document, “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church,” went further, stating that “Christian sinners are more to blame for the death of Christ than those few Jews who brought it about — they indeed ‘knew not what they did.’”
In our age, however, media and context are everything. The sad truth is that few Catholics read Catholic theological pronouncements, and fewer still could tell you what Nostra Aetate says. But because of both the media hoopla and its deliberate analysis, Benedict’s book gives these Catholic teachings significantly greater prominence.
Not only is the reach greater, but Benedict provides an extensive rationale and a close biblical analysis of why Jews bear no blame for Jesus’ death. In his reading of the Gospels and Catholic theology, it is clear that no one should be blamed for Jesus’ death, since, as he argues, the crucifixion was necessary for God’s plan of universal redemption. In Benedict’s keen hermeneutic, even the hitherto toxic cry of the Jewish mob, “His blood be upon us and our children” (Matthew 27:25), is a plea for purification and salvation because that is what Jesus’ blood signifies in Christian teachings. It is a cry for reconciliation, not of vengeance or admission of guilt.
Meanwhile, in passages so far overlooked by Jewish commentators, Benedict sensitively touches upon a major problem that has plagued Catholic-Jewish relations all throughout history: converting Jews. This topic has been the focus of considerable discord in Catholic-Jewish relations in recent years. In 2008, Benedict upset many Jews with his reauthorization of the Latin Mass containing a prayer for the conversion of the Jews. And in 2009, a statement by American Catholic Bishops endorsing the evangelization of Jews nearly destroyed their interfaith dialogue. (The bishops later retracted the offending claim.)
As a theological conservative, Benedict has written previously that the Jewish covenant at Sinai has been superseded. But his supersessionism has always been focused on the end of time, and he has maintained that Jewish unification with the church is “hardly possible, and perhaps not even desirable before the eschaton.” In his latest book, he expands this idea, insisting that for now “Israel retains its own mission” and that saving Israel “is in the hands of God” — meaning, presumably, not in the hands of Christian missionaries. Had Christians followed this doctrine throughout the millennia, less Jewish blood would have ran in the streets, and Jews would have been freer to practice their faith with dignity.
Benedict’s expectation of the future acceptance of Christian faith by everyone takes the practical threat out of Christian supersessionism for Jews today. And if some Jews still object to his eschatological supersessionism, they should remember that it is not far from what most traditional Jews believe will occur in the “end of days,” when gentiles will accept Judaism’s God and, as Jews proclaim regularly in our Aleinu prayer, “In that day, the Lord will be One and His name One.”
Benedict has chosen to stress these teachings not because of Jewish pressure nor to be politically correct. He wrote the book for Catholics around the world, not to win Jewish minds and hearts. Evidently Benedict understands that purging the New Testament and Catholic thinking of all traces of the Adversus Judaeos motifs so prevalent in early and medieval Christian theology is essential if he is to purify the faith of Christian believers. This makes the most recent installment of “Jesus of Nazareth” an all the more important and impressive work.
Rabbi Eugene Korn is American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat and Jerusalem and editor of Meorot: A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.