We can now, with the Vatican’s permission, publish for the first time a pre-publication extract from Jesus of Nazareth Part Two: Holy Week, by Pope Benedict XVI. This passage deals with the controversial subject of Jesus’ Jewish accusers at his trial, and the real meaning of this crucial part of Scripture.
Taken from chapter 7, part 3 of the book, here is what the Holy Father writes.
“Now we must ask: who exactly were Jesus’ accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death? We must take note of the different answers that the Gospels give to this question. According to John it was simply “the Jews”.
But John’s use of this expression does not in any way indicate – as the modern reader might suppose – the people of Israel in general, even less is it “racist” in character. After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers. The entire early Christian community was made up of Jews.
The Temple aristocracy
In John’s Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the Temple aristocracy. So the circle of accusers who instigate Jesus’ death is precisely indicated in the Fourth Gospel and clearly limited: it is the Temple aristocracy – and not without certain exceptions, as the reference to Nicodemus (7:50ff.) shows.
In Mark’s Gospel, the circle of accusers is broadened in the context of the Passover amnesty (Barabbas or Jesus): the “ochlos” enters the scene and opts for the release of Barabbas. “Ochlos” in the first instance simply means a crowd of people, the “masses”. The word frequently has a pejorative connotation, meaning “mob”. In any event it does not refer to the Jewish people as such.
Effectively this “crowd” is made up of the followers of Barabbas who have been mobilized to secure the amnesty for him: as a rebel against Roman power he could naturally count on a good number of supporters. So the Barabbas party, the “crowd”, was conspicuous while the followers of Jesus remained hidden out of fear; this meant that the vox populi, on which Roman law was built, was represented one-sidedly. In Mark’s account, then, as well as “the Jews”, that is to say the dominant priestly circle, the ochlos comes into play, the circle of Barabbas’ supporters, but not the Jewish people as such.
“His blood be on us and on our children”
When in Matthew’s account the “whole people” say: “his blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation.
It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all. ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … God put [Jesus] forward as an expiation by his blood’ (Rom 3:23, 25). Just as Caiaphas’ words about the need for Jesus’ death have to be read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith, the same applies to Matthew’s reference to blood: read in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood.
These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”
Extract taken from Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week by Pope Benedict XVI
More extracts and comment in the coming days so watch this space.