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The True Jesus of the Gospels - Part 3

Commentary by Father Raniero Cantalamessa

VATICAN CITY, MAY 17, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book "Inchiesta su Gesł" (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce.

Parts 1 and Part 2 appeared Tuesday and Wednesday on Catholic Online.

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5. Who is responsible for his death: the Sanhedrin, Pilate, or both?

The chapter of Corrado Augias' and Mauro Pesce's book on the trial and condemnation of Christ deserves a special discussion. The central thesis is not new; it began to be circulated after the tragedy of the Shoah and it was adopted by those who in the '60s and '70s proposed the thesis of Jesus who was a Zealot and a revolutionary.

On this view, the responsibility for Christ's death falls principally, indeed exclusively, on the shoulders of Pilate and the Roman administration, which indicates that the motive of Christ's condemnation was more political than religious. The Gospels acquitted Pilate and accused the Jewish leaders so as to pacify the Roman authorities in their regard and make friends with them.

This thesis was born from a just concern that today all of us share: To cut off at the root every pretext for anti-Semitism, which has procured for the Jewish people much evil at the hands of Christians. But the gravest mistake that can be made for the sake of a just cause is to defend it with erroneous arguments.

The struggle against anti-Semitism should be put on a firmer basis than that of a questionable (and questioned) interpretation of the Passion narratives. The innocence of the Jewish people, as such, of responsibility for the death of Christ rests on a biblical certainty that Christians have in common with Jews, but which, unfortunately, for many centuries has been strangely forgotten: "Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son" (Ezekiel 18:20). The doctrine of the Church knows only one sin that is transmitted by heredity from father to son, original sin, no other.

With this rejection of all anti-Semitism in place I would like to explain why the thesis about the complete innocence of the Jewish authorities of Christ's death and the essentially political nature of this death cannot be accepted. Paul, in the earliest of his letters, written around the year 50, gives the same fundamental account of Christ's death as the Gospels. He says that "the Jews have put Jesus to death" (1 Thessalonians 2:15), and he must have been better informed than we moderns about what took place in Jerusalem shortly before his arrival in the city, having once approved and "doggedly" defended the condemnation of the Nazarene.

During this earliest phase Christianity considered itself to be directed principally to Israel; converted Jews made up the majority membership in those communities in which the first oral traditions that came together later in the Gospels were formed; Matthew, as Augias and Pesce note, is concerned to show that Jesus came to fulfill, not abolish, the law. If there had been an apologetic worry, it would have been to present the condemnation of Jesus as the work of the pagans rather than the Jewish authorities with the scope of reassuring the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora about the Christians.

On the other hand, when Mark, and certainly the other Evangelists, write their Gospel, Nero's persecution had already happened; this would have made Jesus appear to be the first victim of Roman power and the Christian martyrs as sharing in the fate of the Master.

We have a confirmation of this in the Book of Revelation, written after the persecution under Domitian, where Rome is the object of a ferocious invective ("Babylon," the "Beast," the "prostitute") because of the blood of the martyrs (cf. Revelations 13ff.). Pesce is right to perceive an "anti-Roman tendency" in John's Gospel (p. 156), but John is also the one who more accentuates the responsibility of the Sanhedrin and of the Jewish leaders in Christ's trial: How do we reconcile these things?

We cannot read the accounts of the Passion while ignoring everything that precedes them. The four Gospels attest, we can say on every page, to a growing religious contrast between Jesus and an influential group of Jews (Pharisees, doctors of the law, scribes) on the observance of the Sabbath, on the attitude toward sinners and publicans, on the clean and unclean.

Joachim Jeremias has shown the anti-Pharisaic motivation present in almost all of Jesus' parables. The Gospel data is ...

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