[Pilate] took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.These lines from chapter 27 of the gospel of Matthew are notorious in history for their use as warrant for the persecution of Jews. The supposedly inerrant word of God has put self-condemnation in the mouths of the Jewish people who called for the death of Jesus. Anti-Semites thus justified their characterization of Jews as “Christ-killers.”
The Roman Catholic Church did not scruple to join in the persecution of the Jews, although popes like John XXIII and John Paul II took particular pains to disavow this less savory aspect of past centuries. Benedict XVI is eager to follow in the footsteps of his distinguished predecessors. While John convened the Second Vatican Council (which declared that the Jewish people were not to be held responsible for deicide) and John Paul paid his respects at the Great Synagogue of Rome, Benedict intends to outshine them both. He figures to do so by rewriting the plain language of Matthew's gospel. One has to admire the German pope's boldness.
Of course, “rewriting the Bible” has long been charged against the popes of Rome by those who disagree with the centuries-old accumulation of Catholic dogma and tradition. It seems unkind to single out the papacy for this practice, given that all branches of Christianity regularly indulge in it. As an unchurched materialist, I don't feel any particular need to choose sides. However, Benedict's new gloss on Matthew 27 seems exceptionally egregious and worthy of note.
The pope's reinterpretation of Matthew is included in the second volume of his treatise Jesus of Nazareth, recently published in the United States by Ignatius Press. Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine, waxed ecstatic in an article in the April 2011 issue.
Did you follow that? According to Moynihan, the pope is arguing that the first-century Jews were inadvertently calling for their salvation—asking to be bathed in the blood of the Lamb. Of course, that's not usually what someone intends when calling for a person's blood, but what a nice thought to contemplate the happy circumstance of accidental salvation.
Contemporary Christians who avoid the sin of anti-Semitism usually deal with Matthew by acknowledging that it's improper to blame the entire Jewish race for the blood-lust of those who screamed in favor of crucifixion. They still treat the gospel as a historical account, but try not to read too much into it. Benedict has instead decided to read more into Matthew than anyone has ever done before, finding a novel slant on bloodthirstiness. As Moynihan puts it, “This is a profound religious and mystical insight on the Pope's part, and, as far as I know, completely original.”