Do Mormons Need a “Nostra Aetate” of Their Own?

In 1965 the Second Vatican Council produced a declaration on the relation of the Catholic church with non-Christian religions. In this document, “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Age), the Catholic Church revolutionized its relations with Jews by saying Christ’s death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole at the time or today.

A forthcoming book by Pope Benedict XVI supports and furthers this doctrine. In the second volume of “Jesus of Nazareth”, which will be released by Ignatius Press on March 10, the Pope explains that although scripture has the Jewish crowd shouting, “Let his blood be on us and on our children,” as they demand that Pilate execute Jesus, the crowd should be read to represent all humanity. News sources are hailing this excitedly with headlines like: “Pope Exonerates Jews…” and “Pope Absolves Jews…” For the interest of FPR readers, I am going to include a lengthy excerpt from the book, which has been released as a “trailer” from the publishers. Pertinent information to this post is in bold type.

Jesus’ interrogation before the Sanhedrin had concluded in the way Caiaphas had expected: Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy, for which the penalty was death. But since only the Romans could carry out the death sentence, the case now had to be brought before Pilate and the political dimension of the guilty verdict had to be emphasized. Jesus had declared himself to be the Messiah; hence he had laid claim to the dignity of kingship, albeit in a way peculiarly his own. The claim to Messianic kingship was a political offense, one that had to be punished by Roman justice. With cockcrow, daybreak had arrived. The Roman Governor used to hold court early in the morning.

So Jesus is now led by his accusers to the praetorium and is presented to Pilate as a criminal who deserves to die. It is the “day of preparation” for the Passover feast. The lambs are slaughtered in the afternoon for the evening meal. Hence cultic purity must be preserved; so the priestly accusers may not enter the Gentile praetorium, and they negotiate with the Roman Governor outside the building. John, who provides this detail (18:28–29), thereby highlights the contradiction between the scrupulous attitude to regulations for cultic purity and the question of real inner purity: it simply does not occur to Jesus’ accusers that impurity does not come from entering a Gentile house, but rather from the inner disposition of the heart. At the same time the evangelist emphasizes that the Passover meal had not yet taken place and that the slaughter of the lambs was still to come.

In all essentials, the four Gospels harmonize with one another in their accounts of the progress of the trial. Only John reports the conversation between Jesus and Pilate, in which the question about Jesus’ kingship, the reason for his death, is explored in depth (18:33–38). The historicity of this tradition is of course contested by exegetes. While Charles H. Dodd and Raymond E. Brown judge it positively, Charles K. Barrett is extremely critical: “John’s additions and alterations do not inspire confidence in his historical reliability” (The Gospel according to Saint John, p. 530). Certainly no one would claim that John set out to provide anything resembling a transcript of the trial. Yet we may assume that he was able to explain with great precision the core question at issue and that he presents us with a true account of the trial. Barrett also says “that John has with keen insight picked out the key of the Passion narrative in the kingship of Jesus, and has made its meaning clearer, perhaps, than any other New Testament writer” (ibid., p. 531).

Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus’ accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death? We must take note of the different answers that the Gospels give to this question. According to John it was simply “the Jews”. But John’s use of this expression does not in any way indicate—as the modern reader might suppose—the people of Israel in general, even less is it “racist” in character. After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers. The entire early Christian community was made up of Jews. In John’s Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the Temple aristocracy. So the circle of accusers who instigate Jesus’ death is precisely indicated in the Fourth Gospel and clearly limited: it is the Temple aristocracy—and not without certain exceptions, as the reference to Nicodemus (7:50–52) shows.

In Mark’s Gospel, the circle of accusers is broadened in the context of the Passover amnesty (Barabbas or Jesus): the “ochlos” enters the scene and opts for the release of Barabbas. “Ochlos” in the first instance simply means a crowd of people, the “masses”. The word frequently has a pejorative connotation, meaning “mob”. In any event, it does not refer to the Jewish people as such. In the case of the Passover amnesty (which admittedly is not attested in other sources, but even so need not be doubted), the people, as so often with such amnesties, have a right to put forward a proposal, expressed by way of “acclamation”. Popular acclamation in this case has juridical character (cf. Pesch, Markusevangelium II, p. 466). Effectively this “crowd” is made up of the followers of Barabbas who have been mobilized to secure the amnesty for him: as a rebel against Roman power he could naturally count on a good number of supporters. So the Barabbas party, the “crowd”, was conspicuous, while the followers of Jesus remained hidden out of fear; this meant that the vox populi, on which Roman law was built, was represented one-sidedly. In Mark’s account, then, in addition to “the Jews”, that is to say the dominant priestly circle, the “ochlos” comes into play, the circle of Barabbas’ supporters, but not the Jewish people as such.

An extension of Mark’s “ochlos”, with fateful consequences, is found in Matthew’s account (27:25), which speaks of “all the people” and attributes to them the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew is certainly not recounting historical fact here: How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus’ death? It seems obvious that the historical reality is correctly described in John’s account and in Mark’s. The real group of accusers are the current Temple authorities, joined in the context of the Passover amnesty by the “crowd” of Barabbas’ supporters.

Here we may agree with Joachim Gnilka, who argues that Matthew, going beyond historical considerations, is attempting a theological etiology with which to account for the terrible fate of the people of Israel in the Jewish War, when land, city, and Temple were taken from them (Matthäusevangelium II, p. 459). Matthew is thinking here of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the end of the Temple: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken . . .” (Mt 23:37–38: cf. Gnilka, Matthäusevangelium), the whole of the section entitled “Gerichtsworte”, II, pp. 295–308).

These words—as argued earlier, in the chapter on Jesus’ eschatological discourse—remind us of the inner similarity between the Prophet Jeremiah’s message and that of Jesus. Jeremiah—against the blindness of the then dominant circles—prophesied the destruction of the Temple and Israel’s exile. But he also spoke of a “new covenant”: punishment is not the last word; it leads to healing. In the same way Jesus prophesies the “deserted house” and proceeds to offer the New Covenant “in his blood”: ultimately it is a question of healing, not of destruction and rejection.

When in Matthew’s account the “whole people” say: “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .God put [Jesus] forward as an expiation by his blood” (Rom 3:23, 25). Just as Caiaphas’ words about the need for Jesus’ death have to be read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith, the same applies to Matthew’s reference to blood: read in the light of faith, 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. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.

In this excerpt the Pope points out that it was the “Temple aristocracy” and a few supporters of the figure Barabbas who were responsible for Christ’s death. He also reinterprets the watershed verse in Matthew to take the onus off the Jewish people and place it upon sinful humankind. You may be aware that within our LDS texts also appears a “watershed verse”:

Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they shall crucify him—for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God. (2 Ne 10:3)

Now, I don’t believe that Latter-day Saints would consider themselves anti-Semitic. We describe ourselves as the “covenant people” and call non-Mormons “Gentiles.” We identify with the Jews in many ways. Most of us even support Jewish Zionism. We are sometimes surprised to learn of the feelings of offense that many Jews take from Mormons’ actions and attitudes. This came to the fore during a debacle over the posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims a couple of years ago.

Could it be that we need a “Nostra Aetate” of our own?

9 Replies to “Do Mormons Need a “Nostra Aetate” of Their Own?”

  1. I always figured one of the following verses, “But because of priestcrafts and iniquities, they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified,” always put the blame squarely on the priest-leaders of the Jews, not on the people as a whole.

  2. Yeah, this seems a cure is search of a disease.

    Funny aside though, back when SLC had a Jewish mayor in 1932 joked that Salt Lake City was the only place where he would be considered the Gentile.

    Jews may not like our baptism for the dead but it’s hardly just them and it’s hardly anti-semetic. Mormons have had pretty close ties with Jews for quite a long time. There were Jewish settlers in SLC from quite early on and the first Orthodox synagogue was paid for by the Church way back in 1903. Not only did SLC have a Jewish major when anti-semitism was rampant in the US but the first Jewish govenor in the country was in Utah (1916).

  3. Well, I guess this comes out of my admiration for the Catholics’ attempt to improve their relations with non-Christian religions. I know that we have a public relations department and public relations callings in some wards, however it seems that they are more focused on making us look good than any ecumenicism.

  4. I was also very impressed by the scholarship of the Pope. Before reading this passage from his forthcoming book, I knew exactly zip about him. I especially liked his paragraph #3 above, where he discusses the historicity of Jesus’ trial. He is careful to include three opinions on the subject, even quoting from one exegete who is critical of the historicity of this tradition. Remarkable.

  5. It doesn’t matter if the Jews had anything to do with Jesus’
    Crucifixion, It’s all history and God don’t hold it against them. They are still a chosen people and the atoning sacrifice of the Lord covers all people. We should all look forward to the second coming with no ill feelings towards any group of people. Let our judge be the righteous judge of all. God loves all his children and he has the ultimate power to forgive.

  6. I think that part of the reason for the “need” in Catholicism for such a document has to do with the particular history, especially 20th c. history, of Catholic relations to Jews. WWII casts a pretty long shadow, and thinking theologically about the causes of Catholic involvement, and repudiating the theological background for such involvement, are important steps. LDSs have a lot shorter history, and one a lot less directly in contact with Judaism. That isn’t to say that we don’t partake in broader Christian anti-Judaism (and philo-Judaism), but we also didn’t collaborate with Hitler.
    That said, I do envy the kind of close reading of texts and direct engagement with previous ideas in a scholarly, thorough way.

  7. I’ve never understood why it was necessary for anybody. Yes, there’s the “his blood be upon us and our children” bit but Jesus Himself said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

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