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from issue no. 03 - 2011

JESUS OF NAZARETH. From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection

Faithful to the declaration Nostra aetate

In his latest book, dealing with responsibility for Jesus’ death, Benedict XVI explains with authoritative teaching what the Second Vatican Council solemnly declared. The reflections of the Chief Rabbi of Rome

by Riccardo Di Segni

Riccardo Di Segni [© Tania/Contrasto]

Riccardo Di Segni [© Tania/Contrasto]


Much has been said these days about the Pope’s new book, and that is normal and due. But the strange thing, though not unusual, is that the chapter which discusses the Jewish responsibility in the death of Jesus was talked about almost exclusively. This is not unusual, because often the media give prominence to a fact that could be marginal compared to others which deserve more attention; it happens in information in general and even more so in that which deals with this pope, whose major doctrinal positions are ignored whereas details that arouse curiosity are dwelt on. But the matter is in any case strange, because of all this fuss created around an issue that should by now be settled and taken for granted. The revolution in Christian-Jewish relations has its symbolic reference in an official text, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council: the declaration Nostra Aetate, in which it is explained, or rather it is solemnly declared, that the responsibility for the death of Jesus can not be attributed to all the Jews of his time, and much less to those of later generations. Thus the terrible charge of deicide which was prolonged for centuries, constituting one of the foundations and justifications of hatred and persecution of Christians against Jews, collapsed. After more than forty-five years since that statement, a book about the history of the Passion of Jesus, bearing the most influential signature of the Catholic world, cannot but endorse those ideas, and at most can explain them by authoritative doctrine. This is precisely what has happened with the Pope’s book. We would have been surprised if things had gone another way, with other views and other arguments. Or if a Pope had written them before the Council. So why all the fuss? The possible answers are dissimilar, and not mutually exclusive; I will suggest two. First, the launching of a publicity campaign always requires an attractive bait, and when the news does not exist, it must be invented. The second response demonstrates that what should be simple and obvious is not at all so; in the sense that despite the past decades, the widespread educational commitment and the real change in the climate of Christian-Jewish relations, the question of deicide still seems to remain always and in any case an unresolved knot at least in the deepest part of the consciousness. And that therefore the problem needs to be tackled daily with new tools. The fuss does not depend on whether the Pope proposed a certain explanation, but on the fact that there is a need of this explanation. And if things are really like this there is need to be worried about it.

One of the problems at the origin of the matter, difficult to resolve, is the harshness of the Gospel texts, each of which in its own way, sends the message that together make up the traditional framework of the hostile Jews shouting “crucify” and assuming responsibility for themselves and future generations. Much is due to the climate in which these texts were created, reflecting what was initially only a controversy within the Jewish world. But a simplified reading of the Gospel texts without commentary risks presenting them as anti-Jewish texts and endorsing a negative image of Jews, which could lead to hostility and hatred. One of the tasks of dialogue is precisely to combat the teaching of contempt. In parallel, Catholic biblical scholars are trying to deny or ridimension the apparent anti-Judaism of the Gospels. An important official document to that effect, produced ten years ago, in 2001, by the Pontifical Biblical Commission bears the significant title Il popolo ebraico e le sue Sacre Scritture nella Bibbia cristiana [The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible] and the preface is signed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. Again, this demonstrates the non-novelty of the present contribution and the continuation of a consistent line. However, this does not diminish its importance. To avoid the dramas of the past it is necessary to remove the old conclusions and hostile approaches, to comment, distinguish, explain every phrase and every detail inserting them in the appropriate context. An operation that Professor Ratzinger knows how to execute masterfully. An attentive observer such as Professor Ugo Volli suggested that this work of exegesis, before being a defense of the Jews is a defense of the Gospels from the accusation of being anti-Jewish. However it may be, it is significant. As it is significant that certain techniques of commentary that overturn apparently obvious meanings of the texts, and which are characteristic of the rabbinic tradition, should enter and become part of the research methods and expression of the Catholic tradition.

Those who frequent the blogs and the traditionalist sites can easily see how these pages of the Pope are unheard, challenged, rejected, in favor of the classical view of Jewish deicide. It remains to be seen, with a little curiosity, if not anxiety, which ideas, in this regard, are truly more rooted in the Catholic world.

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