In his new book, the second volume of “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict XVI demonstrates again that “scientific” study of the Scriptures can be joined with a prayerful attitude to yield penetrating spiritual insights.
The Vatican press office unexpectedly released portions of the book on March 2 – a week ahead of the scheduled publication date. Ignatius Press will publish the book March 10 in the United States.
The book, the second in a proposed three-volume scholarly work on the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life, studies his final weeks – from his entrance into Jerusalem to his resurrection from the dead.
The Vatican released excerpts concerning Judas, the dating of the Last Supper, and Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate.
Jesus’ Blood and the Jews
In his section on Jesus’ trial scene, the Pope explains that in the Gospel of John, “the Jews” who instigated Christ’s death should not be interpreted as “racist” or as a blanket condemnation of the people of Israel.
“After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers,” the Pope notes. “The entire early Christian community was made up of Jews. In John’s Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the Temple aristocracy.”
The Pope argues from a close scholarly reading that passages speaking of Jesus’ “blood” being upon the Jewish people and their children (Matt. 27:25) must be “read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith.”
“The Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation,” the Pope writes. “It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. … Read in the light of faith … these words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”
Betrayal of Judas
In writing about Judas, the Pope says the story of Christ’s betrayer is relevant for Christians in every age.
“Judas’ betrayal was not the last breach of fidelity that Jesus would suffer … The breach of friendship extends into the sacramental community of the Church, where people continue to take ‘his bread’ and to betray him,” the Pope writes.
While Judas was aware that he had sinned in handing Christ over, what made his life tragic was that he could “no longer believe in forgiveness,” he writes. “His remorse turns into despair. … He shows us the wrong type of remorse: the type that is unable to hope … Genuine remorse is marked by the certainty of hope born of faith in the superior power of the light that was made flesh in Jesus.”
Timing of the Last Supper
In taking up the date of the Last Supper, the Pope wades into a controversy that has dogged scholars and saints since the earliest days.
All four Gospels agree that Jesus died on a Friday, before sundown and the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. According to John’s Gospel, however, Jesus was condemned at the moment when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. That would mean that he died before Passover, contrary to the reports in the other Gospels.
The Pope recommends “with certain reservations” the solutions proposed by Father John Meier, an American biblical scholar and author of the four-volume work, “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.”
Meier concludes that none of the four Gospels present Jesus’ Last Supper as a traditional Passover meal. In other words, it is likely that Jesus was crucified before the Passover meal would have been celebrated that year, consistent with John’s account.
The Last Supper, the Pope writes, “was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out – when their time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning.”