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Blame Pilate, Not The Jews

By T. R. Reid

Tuesday, April 25, 2000; Page A23

LONDON—In a moving and courageous display of human decency, Pope John Paul II rose from his sickbed last month to travel to Israel and ask forgiveness of the world's Jews. The pope offered humble apologies for centuries of anti-Jewish activities by the Roman Catholic Church.

A central element of this historic appeal was an apology for the ancient Catholic teaching that "the Jews killed Christ." Since time immemorial, that accusation has been hauled out as an excuse for discrimination, pogrom and Holocaust. It is a complete distortion of history, and the pope's generous apology means it should never be repeated.

And yet, between noon and 3 p.m. last Friday, in Roman Catholic churches around the world, the prosecution's case against the Jews for the murder of Christ was played out once again. As happens every year, the Good Friday litany included a long recitation of the passion and death of Jesus. Drawn primarily from chapters 18-19 of St. John's Gospel, this version of the passion declares plainly that the Jews did it.

In the gospel story of Good Friday, Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a weak, frightened leader. Poor powerless Pilate wants to set Jesus free ("I find no fault with this man,") but is hounded by the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, to hand him over. ("Crucify him! Crucify him!") The Good Friday passion even relates the old canard that the Jews' chief priest, Caiaphas, wanted to sacrifice Christ to curry favor. "It is better for one man to die for the people," the cunning Caiaphas is supposed to have said. Under intense pressure, the litany tells us, "Pilate handed him over to the Jews to be crucified."

It's a dramatic story. Biblical scholars say it probably served a political purpose for the early Christians by steering blame away from the Romans. But everything we know about the Roman government of Judaea and about Pontius Pilate himself tells us that this scenario is probably bunk.

It was Roman governing practice to let provincials follow their standard customs and religions. Some Roman officials in Jersualem had been accommodating to the Sanhedrin; to honor the Jewish prohibition against graven images, most Roman governors refrained from erecting the standard bronzes of gods and emperors. But even under these lenient governors, Jews in first-century Jerusalem didn't have the power to condemn criminals or crucify them. Only the Romans could nail you to a cross.

And Pontius Pilate, who was the emperor Tiberius's prefect in Judaea from 26 to 36 A.D., was not a soft touch like his predecessors. According to Jewish historians, who hated him, Pilate was determined to affirm the might and power of Roman rule. To make sure the Jews knew who was in charge, he ordered his legions to march into Jerusalem carrying graven images of the emperor. He showed so little regard for the Jewish leadership that the people of Judaea finally invoked the rights of all Roman subjects and petitioned the emperor to replace him. This hard-bitten Roman, not the Jews, was responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.

Of course, even if the ancient charge against the Jews were true, it might be the Christian thing to do to forgive and forget after 2,000 years. The fact that the accusation is false makes the litany all the more offensive.

The Good Friday service, with the purple-cloaked statues and the immensely sad music, is one of the most emotional moments of the year. The Stations of the Cross and the Veneration can't help but touch the heart. Why, then, do we still allow that slanderous version of the passion to sully a beautiful religious experience?

Leaving church last Friday, I mentioned to my parish priest the disconnect between the pope's apology and the angry rhetoric just recited during the service. He pointed out that the Good Friday litany has been like that for a long, long time, and it takes a while to change the practices of a huge global church.

Fair enough. But now the church has a full year until the next Good Friday. That should be time enough to rewrite the "passion' and live up to the pope's bold pledge in Jerusalem.

The writer is The Post's correspondent in London.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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