Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Who killed Jesus?

Earlier today, excerpts from Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week became available. One of them includes the section of this fascinating volume on Christ's life in which Pope Benedict XVI addresses the controversial question, "Who killed Jesus?"

Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder and publisher of Ignatius Press, talks about it in this post:

Fr. Fessio with Cardinal Ratzinger, 1989

Who Killed Jesus?

Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ

At a critical point in the book (pg. 184) Benedict poses the questions simply, clearly, and without evasion: “Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus’ accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death?” And, with his customary directness, he answers the questions in the space of only three pages. He passes the Gospels in review in a way that beautifully exemplifies the fundamental purpose of the book: to present the “figure and message of Jesus” through the complementary use of scientific scholarship (a “historical hermeneutic”) and the vision of faith (“faith-hermeneutic”).

For John, the accusers were “simply ‘the Jews’”. But Benedict shows that in John’s Gospel that designation has a “precise and clearly defined meaning”, i.e. the Temple aristocracy, not the Jewish people as an undifferentiated whole.

 In Mark, there is a widening of the circle of accusers: the “ochlos”, the crowd, “the masses”. But Benedict points out that the crowd was mainly comprised of sympathizers of Barabbas, who wanted the customary amnesty to be granted to him. The followers of Jesus “remained hidden out of fear”. This crowd, therefore, does not represent the attitude or the actions of the Jewish people with respect to Jesus.

In Matthew, the “whole people” say: “His blood be upon us and on our children”, the famous “blood vengeance”. Here Benedict makes three incisive comments:

1.       He says without qualification: “Matthew is certainly not recounting historical fact here.” The reason is obvious: “How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus’ death?” He points out that Matthew is offering an explanation for the terrible fate of the Jews in the Jewish War, but there is a link between the message of Jesus and that of Jeremiah: punishment is not the last word; the New Covenant is promised. Benedict concludes: “ultimately it is a question of healing, not of destruction and rejection”.

2.       Jesus’ blood is different from the blood of Abel, crying out for vengeance. It brings reconciliation. “It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all.”

3.       Since we all stand in need of redemption, we all have sinned. And Just as the words of Caiphas (It is “expedient that one man should die for the people”.) have a different and deeper meaning when read with the eyes of faith, so here, when blood is invoked “it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”

Elsewhere in the book Benedict laments the suffering inflicted on the Jewish people in the course of history, based on a misunderstanding of these texts and the events they recount. Clearly his interpretation, mindful both of serious scientific exegesis and the illumination faith, is intended to help correct this misunderstanding.

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week - From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection releases worldwide on March 10. Visit the book's website at, and become a Facebook fan at

1 comment:

  1. I am so anxious to read the book and thank you for sharing this excerpt.