Pope Benedict lets the Jews off the hook

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OK, OK, I really do appreciate Pope Benedict’s hermeneutical exoneration of the Jews in re: the case against Jesus. Never mind that Vatican II settled this half a century ago with Nostra Aetate. As Jim Martin and Michael Sean Winters among others contend, there are good reasons for the pope–this pope–to re-articulate the position in convenient narrative form for a new generation. And good of the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center to make gracious acknowledgement. And if it all sets the teeth of the SSPX-Men on edge, so much the better.

And yet, and yet, the historian in me cannot resist picking a bone–the bone of the Gospel of John, which has stuck in craw of good Jewish-Christian relations lo these many centuries. Here’s what Pope B has to say about its apparent targeting of my kind.

Now we must ask: who exactly were Jesus’ accusers?  Who insisted that he
be condemned to death?  We must take note of the different answers that
the Gospels give to this question.  According to John it was simply
“the Jews”.  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.  In John’s Gospel this
word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the
Temple aristocracy.  So the circle of accusers who instigate Jesus’
death is precisely indicated in the Fourth Gospel and clearly limited:
it is the Temple aristocracy – and not without certain exceptions, as
the reference to Nicodemus (7:50ff.) shows.

But if John meant the Temple aristocracy, why didn’t he say so? Why didn’t he point to the Sadducees or the high priest, to someone who might plausibly have been running the Temple show, rather than saying, as he does repeatedly, “the Jews”?

The late great biblical scholar (and Catholic priest) Raymond Brown–who Benedict elsewhere cites–laid out a different scenario. Basically, it’s that around the year 100 John and his followers, having failed to persuade their fellow Antiochian Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, and having been tossed out of synagogues as, well, non-Jews because of their messianism, were mighty pissed. They thought: Those Jews have rejected Jesus–just the way those Jews back in the day rejected Jesus. It stands to reason that some of the language John used was intemperate and accusatory. And it’s very unfortunate that, in canonical form, it led to a lot of persecution.

But the point is that John was writing at a difficult time for both communities. The Temple was destroyed, and the new rabbinic Judaism was getting its act together and extruding what didn’t fit–like the new thing that would become Christianity, which was trying to get its own act together. Does the contemporary Jewish-Christian relationship need to wrestle with the hard separation that the Gospel of John bears witness to? Maybe not. I can understand why it makes good sense for Benedict to treat John the way he does. I just can’t to buy it.