Pope Benedict XVI has made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity in a new book.
In excerpts of Jesus of Nazareth-Part II that were released Wednesday, Benedict explains biblically and theologically why there is no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death.
Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.
While the Catholic Church has for five decades taught that Jews weren't collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said Wednesday the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff, who has had his share of mishaps with Jews, was a landmark statement from a pope that would help fight anti-Semitism today.
"Holocaust survivors know only too well how the centuries-long charge of 'Christ killer' against the Jews created a poisonous climate of hate that was the foundation of anti-Semitic persecution whose ultimate expression was realized in the Holocaust," said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
The pope's book, he said, not only confirms church teaching refuting the deicide charge, "but seals it for a new generation of Catholics."
The Catholic Church issued its most authoritative teaching on the issue in its 1965 Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, which revolutionized the church's relations with Jews by saying Christ's death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole at the time or today.
Benedict comes to the same conclusion, but he explains how with a thorough, Gospel-by-Gospel analysis that leaves little doubt that he deeply and personally believes it to be the case: that only a few temple leaders and a small group of supporters were primarily responsible for Christ's crucifixion.
That Benedict is a theologian makes "this statement from the Holy See that much more significant for now and for future generations," said Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman.
The book is the second installment to Benedict's 2007 Jesus of Nazareth.