Yesterday the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Pope for his comments exonarating the Jewish people from blame for the death of Christ.
In a letter to the Pontiff, the Israeli leader said,
“I commend you for forcefully rejecting in your recent book [Jesus of Nazareth II] a false charge that has been a foundation for the hatred of the Jewish people for many centuries.”
He hoped the Pope’s,
“Clarity and courage will strengthen the relations between Jews and Christians throughout the world, and help promote peace and reconciliation for generations to come.”
With that aim, Biblical scholar Dom Henry Wansbrough looks at the wider points made by the Holy Father’s book, about the Jewish religious elite of Jesus’ time.
One of the striking features of Benedict XVI’s new book, is its peacefulness and openness towards Judaism.
He points out that Christians have no mandate during our present ‘period of the gentiles’ for proselytising the Jews: ‘in the meantime, Israel retains its own mission…Israel is in the hands of God’
The Jews are not blamed for insisting on the execution of Jesus, and the grounds for this accusation are cut away by (quite wrongly, to my mind) interpreting St. John’s controversial expression ‘the Jews’ as ‘the Temple aristocracy’
Interestingly, Benedict accepts St. John’s account that the Pharisees were involved in Caiaphas’ meeting at which, long before the Last Supper, it was decided to liquidate Jesus.
Apart from this, the Pharisees hardly appear in the book. According to the synoptic account, the Pharisees take no part in the condemnation, and do not appear at all in the Passion Narrative.
They are prominent enough in the legal controversies during the Galilean ministry, but it has often been suggested that these could be likened to in-house controversies about interpretation of the Law.
Jesus consistently advocates a different view, but argues from scripture with impeccable Pharisaic reasoning, making full use of the contemporary rules of scriptural exegesis, enshrined in the codification attributed to Rabbi Hillel, as John Meier makes clear.
The most striking feature of Jesus’ exegesis is his appeal to the most basic texts of scripture, such as the creation story and the ten commandments.
It cannot be denied that the Pharisees receive a very bad press in the gospels, especially in Matthew. Is this because, at the time the gospels were being written (after the Fall of Jerusalem in 70ad), the Pharisees were the only significant group of Jews to remain?
Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and the priestly aristocracy had all been destroyed in the Sack of Jerusalem.
So by this time the Pharisees wholly represent the Jewish opposition to Christianity. It is the Pharisees who will ‘scourge you in their synagogues’ (Matthew 10.17).
It is good to see Benedict’s insistence that the cry ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children’ is to be understood as a non-historical reference to the sufferings of the siege of Jerusalem in the next generation, rather than as a self-condemnation of the whole race of the Jews.
Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB is Chairman of the Trustees of the Catholic Biblical Association and served on the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
You can pre-order the book and read all the pre-publication extracts here.
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