There has been a great deal of excitement – and cynicism – about Pope Benedict’s new book, “Jesus of Nazareth â€“ Part II,” which is being hailed for exonerating the Jewish people for deicide, the crime of killing Jesus.
Strictly speaking, the book breaks no new theological ground. It reflects the Church’s official teaching since the 1965 publication of Nostra Aetate, the encyclical of the Second Vatican Council concerning the Jews. As the 1997 catechism puts it, “Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus’ death.”
While one is tempted to ask what the excitement is all about, the book’s title is telling. Its simplicity speaks blockbuster and, at least within Catholic circles, it is likely to become one. “Jesus of Nazareth” can be expected to become the definitive interpretation of the Gospel for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. In Jewish tradition, interpretation is one of the strongest ways to convey an idea. In offering a verse-by-verse rejection of anti-Semitic interpretations of the New Testament, the pope is uprooting anti-Semitic teachings at their very source.
Still, we can’t help recall one dissenter from Nostra Aetate, the comedian Lenny Bruce, who famously wouldn’t let Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate take the blame for killing Jesus:
“Yes, we did it. I did it. My family. I found a note in my basement: ‘We killed him â€“ signed, Morty.”
Bruce even offered a motive.
“We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why.”
As amateur and philo-Semitic readers of the Christian Scriptures, we’re easily convinced by Benedict’s argument that our first-century ancestors were not responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
But even had the entire Sanhedrin united against Jesus, with the entire Judean community cheering them on, that still would not have been a valid reason for massacres, pogroms, and expulsions, then or especially centuries later.
As Bruce said: “We did it about 2,000 years ago, and there should be a statute of limitations with that crime.”
Why scapegoat an entire group for something their ancestors did or did not do?
Except, of course, there are always reasons to scapegoat people if one is so inclined.
We naturally want to divide the world into teams, our group versus the other. We want to impute all kinds of evil to others, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. And nothing rallies people to a cause like finding a common enemy.
“A Teaching of Contempt” is how French Jewish historian Jules Isaac titled his 1947 history of anti-Semitism, a phrase that had a major impact on how, in the wake of the Holocaust, Christians came to understand their theology and its consequences. The stark revision of theology that undergirds Benedict’s new book is only one piece of a broader process of dialogue and mutual humanization between the Church and the Jewish people that has continued to advance, particularly through the papacy of John Paul II.
The antidote to contempt is seeing the other group as human.
So when Jews are seen as members of a mythic group rather than as a collection of individuals – even by people who insist they love us – we find it disturbing. That’s why we have mixed feelings about Christian Zionists, even when they support Israel and help our neighbors make aliyah (or perhaps especially when they help our neighbors make aliyah).
By the same standard, we’re disturbed when Jews treat non-Jewish children as “a demographic threat” rather than as individuals – as have Israeli leaders seeking to deport Hebrew-speaking Israeli-born children of foreign workers.
And we’re worried when Congress starts seeing Muslim Americans as part of a globe-spanning conspiracy, rather than as individuals who are generally willing to call up the FBI when they discover their family members are plotting a terrorist act.
In Benedict’s reading of the last days of Jesus, there are no mythic villains. There are some Jews, and some Romans, who want Jesus executed. There are other Jews who don’t really care about Jesus, but would rather that their own hero – Barrabas – be pardoned. And there are the followers of Jesus, who hesitate to speak up on his behalf.
In short, there are individuals with their own private motivations.
In our book, that interpretation is a timely lesson for all of us.