Pope Benedict's book warms Catholic-Jewish relations

Pope Benedict XVI (2ndL) in Rome's main Synagogue (January 17, 2010)
Image caption The Vatican says the Pope has worked hard to mend fractured relations

Pope Benedict's absolution of the Jews for the death of Jesus is not unprecedented in Roman Catholic teaching.

A decree issued in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council rejected the age-old charge that the Jews bore collective responsibility for the decision by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion.

But Pope Benedict's intervention is significant for two reasons - first because it is the most detailed examination of the issue by a pope, and second, because he has personally had occasionally tense relations with Jewish leaders.

The notion of Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death has dogged relations between Christians and Jews for centuries.

In the second volume of his book about Jesus' life, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict directly addresses the controversial questions raised by the Gospel accounts of his condemnation to death.

They variously describe Pilate as being reluctant to condemn Jesus, but responding to pressure from Jewish authorities and their supporters in the crowd, who accused Jesus of breaking Jewish religious law by claiming to be the King of the Jews.

Gospels analysed

According to the Gospels, Pilate, after washing his hands of responsibility, sentenced Jesus to crucifixion.

A particularly controversial account comes in St Matthew's Gospel, when he describes the crowd shouting, "Let his blood be on us and on our children". Pope Benedict points out that the group in Jerusalem was only a small proportion of all Jews.

In what is seen as the most detailed analysis and comparison of New Testament accounts of Jesus' death on the cross, the Pope asks, "Who were Jesus' accusers?", adding that the Gospel of St John says simply that it was "the Jews".

Image caption Pope Benedict courted controversy by advancing wartime Pope Pius XII towards sainthood

He goes on: "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," he says.

He concludes that the "real group of accusers" was the Temple authorities, rather than all the Jews of the time.

This may have been the general teaching of the Church since 1965, but its amplification by the leader of the Church is significant. For a start, the charge of "deicide" has been a source of tension, because it has been used as an excuse for persecution of Jews.

Unresolved issues

But it also comes from a pope who has had his fair share of disagreements with Jewish leaders.

The Vatican lists Pope Benedict's visits to synagogues and other sites important to Judaism, and his meetings with Jewish leaders - including Britain's Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks - as examples of the efforts he has made to mend fractured relations.

However, several issues remain unresolved.

The Pope advanced Pope Pius XII towards sainthood despite accusations that Pius did too little to help Jews during World War II. The Vatican says Pius worked quietly behind the scenes because to speak out would have risked reprisals for both Catholics and Jews.

But Jews were angered when Pope Benedict said the wartime pope was "one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else".

There was further tension when, earlier in 2009, the Pope lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop, Richard Williamson, despite the bishop's claim that no Jews were killed in gas chambers during the war.

Image caption Bishop Richard Williamson, whose excommunication was lifted by the Pope

There have also been disagreements over Roman Catholic prayers - used on Good Friday - for the conversion of the Jews among other non-Christians.

But Jewish scholars, while acknowledging "the setbacks that we have seen in the past few years", have welcomed the Pope's book as a "major step forward".

In a world of religion and politics where words make such a big difference, the reiteration of the Church's official teaching about this critical event in Christianity will be seen as a landmark statement.

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