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Pope pens book about Jews and Jesus' accusers

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 7:35 a.m. MDT

In Pope Benedict XVI's new book, he doesn't just absolve Jews for the death of Jesus.

He tells who did it.

As the book, "Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week—From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection," goes on sale today, many are seeing it as not only a scholarly exposition of the last days of Jesus Christ, but also savvy move by a modern religious leader who knows that his words affect not only Catholics, but people of many faiths.

"Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus' accusers?" Pope Benedict writes. "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."

Pope Benedict, writing the book under his name Joseph Ratzinger, then identified the "Temple aristocracy" as those who instigated Jesus' death. He said it was "precisely indicated" and "clearly limited."

Jeffrey R. Chadwick found the pope's explanations impressive — in part because the Pope's conclusions aligned with Chadwick's research. Chadwick is an associate professor of church history and doctrine at BYU and professor of archaeology and Near Eastern Studies at the BYU Jerusalem Center — and in 2005 wrote a chapter in the book "The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ" about who killed Jesus.

"What caught my eye was who the Pope identified as the guilty party: The Temple aristocracy," Chadwick said. "'The Jews' of the Gospel of John are in fact the Judean political establishment which was run by and controlled by the Sadducees."

Chadwick said many commentaries on the life of Jesus pair the Sadducees together with Pharisees, another party of Jewish leaders. But the New Testament tells a different story. "For the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, the Pharisees drop off the radar screen. They don't even appear to have been involved after the arrest of Jesus," Chadwick said. "The Pharisees and Sadducees were much further apart than, say, the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are today. They just didn't work together on anything. To pair them up as a bi-partisan opposition to Jesus is just simply not supportable."

However, Colleen McDannell, author of "The Spirit of Vatican II" and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah, thinks that Pope Benedict is engaged in more than just a scholarly examination of the death of Jesus. She sees a push by conservative Catholics, such as Pope Benedict, to downplay the revolutionary ideas that came four decades ago from the Second Vatican Council — and how that move could have unintended consequences. "There is a cultural war going on. Not so much on the parish level, but among Catholic writers and intellectuals," she said. "The Pope and his ilk have been downplaying the importance of the second Vatican council. But if you downplay the council, you are also going to downplay the major change, which was the attitude of the Catholic Church as an institution towards the Jews. And so what is happing now, is that the Pope is in some ways, with the conservatives, reaping what they sowed. ... If you don't take the second Vatican council seriously, you have to reiterate those parts of the documents that you think are important."

One of the Vatican II documents McDannell is referring to is the Nostra Aetate, a proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in 1965. It said that although Jewish authorities pushed for the death of Christ, "still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today." It also said that "the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God."

Robert P. George, a leading conservative Catholic intellectual and author who teaches at Princeton(and a member of the Deseret News editorial board), said Nostra Aetate wasn't really a new declaration. "The teaching of the church had always been that the responsibility for the death of Christ ultimately lay with each sinner, and that means every human being … and it was for our sins that Christ died," George said. "But certainly the prejudice against Jews historically associated with Christian teaching was taught, in many cases even by church men. But that doesn't mean it was the teaching of the church. It was just the individual beliefs of some that the Jews had special responsibility for the death of Christ. And that was formally and decisively repudiated at the Second Vatican Council."

George said Pope John Paul II, who spoke Yiddish, had a special bond with Jewish people and went beyond Nostra Aetate. Pope John Paul declared anti-Semitism as a grave sin and called the Jews "our brothers" in the faith.

George also said that Pope Benedict "is looking to make gestures of his own." The Pope has issued the new book in his own name as author and not as an official Papal document — thus making it a more personal expression. "He found a way to make a personal gesture — speaking in his own name, Joseph Ratzinger, not as Pope."

David Elcott, is the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University and has worked in the past on interreligious dialogue for the American Jewish Committee. He sees the Pope's gesture as an acknowledgement that he doesn't just write for the Catholic Church but realizes that his words are also significant for those outside the church. "When the Pope writes this book, he understands this very well," Elcott said. "He is doing a beautiful homiletic on the text. This is exactly what I would expect to see. Of course, the power is that he is the Pope. And in doing this, this becomes normative for the Catholic community."

Chadwick said there is one more way that his and the Pope's identification of the Sadducees adds a new twist to the debate. At the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in A.D. 70, the Sadducees were virtually wiped out as a result of the Jewish uprising against the Romans. "The only Jewish party that survived the war with Rome were the Pharisees," Chadwick said. "What that means is that there are no Jews today anywhere who are descendants of the Jews who plotted against and essentially brought about the death of Christ."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com Twitter: twitter.com/degroote

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