Last week, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, thanked Pope Benedict for making it clear – in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth part II – that there is no basis in Scripture for the accusation that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’s death. “I commend you for rejecting in your new book the false claim that was used as a basis for the hatred of Jews for hundreds of years,” Mr Netanyahu wrote to the Pope; he added that he hoped that “the clarity and bravery” shown by Benedict XVI would strengthen relations between Jews and Christians worldwide and promote peace in the next generations.
This reaction is certainly to be welcomed, and I certainly hope that this will be one outcome. I have to say, all the same, that I don’t quite see that the pope needed any particular bravery to assert what Catholics have taken for granted for generations. It is surely odd that anyone could suppose (as Mr Netanyahu seems to) that what the Pope has said is any sort of breakthrough, that it represents a new teaching, or creates a new situation. In my lifetime, certainly (and I would have thought for a lot longer than that) it has been normative Christian teaching that the mob who called out “Crucify him”, though in fact Jewish (they had to be something after all), represented humanity as a whole, then and now – that it was ultimately our own sins which led to Our Lord’s sacrifice on Calvary. None of us, surely, was taught that the cry from the crowd “his blood be on our head and those of our children” was intended to imply that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the crucifixion: on the contrary, so far as those who actually encompassed his death and surrounded him jeering as he died, was concerned, the words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” was far closer to the central meaning of Christ’s Passion and death.
Many Jews simply do not and will not accept this. When Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ (from which the cry “his blood be on our heads” was deliberately cut from the English subtitles) appeared, the writer Melanie Phillips – normally a model of well-informed common sense – wrote this:
As a Jew, I left the screening of The Passion in a state of shock. In the course of two hours, the ancient calumny fuelling centuries of Jewish persecution is boosted by the turbocharge of Hollywood’s most sophisticated form of emotional manipulation.
After decades of decent Christian attempts to interpret the Gospels in a way that does not blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, this horrific film resurrects the core charge against the Jews of deicide…
Among others, images of the Jewish mob screaming for Jesus’s death will simply be an incitement to hatred. At a time when Jew-hatred has been revived and attacks on Jews are rising around the world, such a film could have an incendiary effect.
Of course, it did nothing of the sort. As the Irish Independent noted:
…as word got out that Mel Gibson intended to direct a film about the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, some Jewish groups, allied with some Bible scholars, moved to stymie it. They feared it would re-ignite barely latent anti-Semitism.
They have been proven wrong… The chief reason for this is that ordinary people are simply not seeing anti-Semitism in it. What they are witnessing instead is the religious authority of the day … moving against a person they regard as a heretic and a blasphemer. The fact that the Sanhedrin is Jewish is incidental… Why have the predictions that The Passion would provoke anti-Semitism fallen so far short of the mark? The answer is that the movie’s critics are badly out of touch with modern Christian opinion.
Am I saying that some Jews are paranoid about the Church: not just the Church, but about the New Testament account of the Passion itself? I suppose so, though that can hardly be an accusation of any kind –the Jews have a lot, after all, to be paranoid about. But I do think that it would be good if more Jews were to recognise that this has led to unjust accusations on their part (such as those against Pope Pius XII) and that if Mr Netanyahu’s hopes for strengthened relations between Jews and Christians (a development for which we should surely all hope and pray) are to be realised, it would be good if this were recognised more often than it is. That, too, is no kind of accusation: but it is an aspiration I think I am entitled to express.