An odd headline came to my inbox yesterday: "Pope exonerates Jews for Jesus' death." It was from the Associated Press, and I found it odd not that the pope had made clear that Jews did not have Jesus' blood on their hands. It was odd that this was being reported as news now. After all, the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s had already reached this theological conclusion in Nostra Aetate. So it comes as no surprise that Pope Benedict XVI would reiterate such Catholic doctrine in his new book, to be published next week.
Here's how the AP relayed the news:
Pope Benedict XVI has made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity in a new book.
In "Jesus of Nazareth-Part II" excerpts released Wednesday, Benedict explains biblically and theologically why there is no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death.
Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.
While the Catholic Church has for five decades taught that Jews weren't collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said Wednesday the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff, who has had his share of mishaps with Jews, was a landmark statement from a pope that would help fight anti-Semitism today.
"Mishaps" seemed like a pretty poor word choice. It makes it sound like the pope has been dealing with Shylocks and Fagins as opposed to what the reporter meant: that the pope has, on a few occasions, upset Jewish communities. Among the occasions: when he softened restrictions on the Tridentine Mass; when he had nice things to say about Pope Pius XII; and when one of his bishops went rogue with Holocaust denial in South America.
More importantly, I think this nut graph undervalues the seismic shift that occurred in the Roman Catholic Church 45 years ago, one that many, many Jews are well aware of, and overstates the significance of what the pope has written. It's good news, but it's not really new -- or as Peter Smith of the Courier-Journal astutely put it in a blog post: "Not new, still welcomed."
The rest of the AP story does a pretty solid job of providing context and explaining what the pope said and who cares, even if it does turn to a lot of the usual suspect. (Abe Foxman? No way!)
This story from Time talks to some of the same voices, including Foxman. But it does a better job explaining why the pope's pronouncement matters. It largely says the same things that the AP story says -- primarily that the pope's words matter because he's more of a "celebrity" than the Nostra Aetate document -- but the structure, because it is from a newsweekly, is more analysis than the inverted-pyramid format that only the AP uses these days.
The difference this time is that rather than being buried deep in a document of dense text, where it can easily be overlooked or ignored, the argument is being laid out by a man whose every word is pored over as an indication of church doctrine. "Most Catholics don't read the church's documents," says Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the New York-based American Jewish Committee. "The book will certainly be far more widely read."
The Time story also does an effective job of quoting the relevant passages from Pope Benedict's new book and how he specifically addresses the passage in the Gospel of Matthew that describes Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Jesus' crucifixion. It's worth reading if you're wondering what the not-really-new exoneration is all about.