During Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, I had breakfast in Jerusalem with an immensely learned and kindly rabbi, an American who had moved to Israel and was the friend of an NBC colleague. The rabbi, author of a beautiful Jewish defense of natural family planning, admired the Pope greatly and asked what I thought John Paul had in mind for the next phase of Catholic-Jewish relations. I said that the Pope was grateful for the achievements that had taken place since Vatican II, which had cleared out the accumulated rubbish of centuries, and now wanted to move the conversation to a new, theological level.
The rabbi became obviously uncomfortable. I asked whether I had just heard alarm bells going off in his mind; he smiled and said that indeed I had. Why, I asked. Because, he replied, the kind of theologically enriched dialogue John Paul II envisioned was impossible. When I asked why that was the case, he replied, without rancor, “Because your sacred text is anti-Semitic.”
The obvious next question was what that meant, and the rabbi, again without rancor, cited the Gospel of John and its references to “the Jews” in their confrontation with Jesus. I replied that contemporary biblical scholarship had taught us that parts of the Gospel accounts were formulated in the polemical context of a bitter family feud, one that eventually led to the “parting of the ways” between what became Christianity and what became rabbinic Judaism. Moreover, I suggested, the phrase “the Jews” in John’s Gospel couldn’t be read as if this were the minutes of a blackballing at a 1928 meeting in an upscale New York men’s club. The rabbi seemed struck by this way of putting it, but then said that, while he accepted what I just reported, surely this was not the way the majority of Catholics read the New Testament. I assured him that, when the people of my parish heard “the Jews” during the Good Friday liturgy, they weren’t hearing what he feared they heard. The rabbi seemed intrigued, if not completely persuaded, and the conversation moved on to other matters.
I’ve thought about this exchange a lot recently, because some of the more intemperate reactions to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” suggest that my Jerusalem interlocutor’s fears were not idiosyncratic. Were I to meet the Jerusalem rabbi again, I’d suggest that he – and indeed everyone who shares his fears – take the trouble to read a small book by the Anglican biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus.
In The Challenge of Jesus, Wright demonstrates that Jesus conducted his ministry at a time of extraordinarily heightened messianic expectation in the Roman-occupied Holy Land. The expectation was not of an imminent end of the world, but of a liberation of the Jewish people from their bondage. Some expected this liberation to come through a purified Temple cult; others, through an intensified living-out of the Mosaic law. Jesus’s proclamation of a liberation that was breaking into history, here and now, through his message, his gathering of disciples, his distinctive way of living Israel’s faith, and, ultimately, himself was a profound and, evidently, profoundly disturbing, challenge to some among his people. That Jesus, a Jew, was perceived as a threat, and in some cases a mortal threat, by some of his people is not anti-Semitism; it’s historical fact.
The settled teaching of the Catholic Church – which does not date from the Second Vatican Council but was given vigorous expression by the 16th century Council of Trent – is that the sinfulness of all humanity was the cause of the death of Christ. Vatican II nailed the point down by insisting that the Jewish people could not be held corporately responsible for the death of Christ; that some Christians had held this was a defect of their faith, a heresy, not an expression of core Christian conviction.
Because of Gibson’s film, an extraordinary number of people are talking about the meaning of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews and Christians alike might read Dr. Wright’s book as a primer for continuing the conversation in a way that advances, rather than retards, the Jewish-Christian dialogue.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.