Pope Benedict writes nothing new in Jesus of Nazareth: Part 2 when he states that the Jewish people are not collectively responsible for Jesus’ death. Readers will be pardoned if they think otherwise, since some media outlets have treated the Holy Father’s statements as if they were revelations. Perhaps that’s understandable, given the history of the relations between Christians and Jews. But it’s still not news.
Likewise, readers may think Pope Benedict has said something novel about a related topic — the conversion (or non-conversion) of Jews to Christianity. According to some reports, Christians shouldn’t try to convert Jews, in Benedict’s view. Is that so? What does Benedict actually say?
Let’s begin with what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that Jews shouldn’t become Christians, that Jews shouldn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Nor does he say Christians shouldn’t try to convert Jews.
Some background should help. In speaking of Jesus’ discourse about the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and the end of the world, Pope Benedict explains the place of evangelization in the unfolding of history. He quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s words to Pope Eugene III that he needn’t concern himself with the conversion of the Jewish people; God has left the matter until the time when “the full number of the Gentiles” to become Christians has been reached (pp. 44-45). Benedict then quotes commentator Hildegard Brem, who says that Bernard’s comments reflect Roman 11:25, which Brem interprets to mean that “the Church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God, ‘until the full number of the Gentiles come in’” (p. 45).
It’s clear that Benedict thinks Israel, in some sense, “retains its own mission” (p. 46). The Church’s mission, on the other hand, is to focus on the Gentiles. He interprets the Lord’s teaching about the destruction of the Temple as linked to the “times of the Gentiles” — an unspecified period between the time of Jesus and the end of the world. During the “times of the Gentiles,” “the evangelization of the Gentiles” is “the disciples’ particular task — thanks above all to the special commission given to Paul as a duty and a grace” (p. 46). In other words, the age of the Church stresses converting the Gentiles to the message of Jesus, not converting Jews.
But it’s an illicit jump from saying that the focus of the Church during the “times of the Gentiles” is on non-Jews to concluding that Christians should not evangelize Jews. Does Benedict mean that Christians should never present Jesus as Messiah to the Jewish people? Is Jesus the Gentile-only Messiah? Are there, in fact, two covenants, one for Jews (the Mosaic Covenant) and one for Gentiles (the New Covenant of Jesus)?
Benedict says none of the above. He maintains Jesus to be the Messiah of everyone — Jews as well as Gentiles. It is also clear that the Holy Father doesn’t oppose presenting Jesus to the Jews as the Messiah. The Pope writes that “the nucleus of Jesus’ eschatological message includes the proclamation of an age of the nations, during which the Gospel must be brought to the whole world and to all people” (p. 46). The “whole world” means the “whole world” and “all people” means “all people,” including the Jewish people. What’s more, Benedict insists, based on Romans 11:25, that, ultimately, “all Israel” will come to accept Jesus as Messiah.
At the same time, it is clear that Pope Benedict believes that the focus of evangelization during the “times of the Gentiles” should be non-Jews. He does not repudiate a “mission to Israel” as much as de-emphasize it in preference to evangelizing the rest of the world. Why?
Benedict’s thinking about the “times of the Gentiles” is shaped by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:14-16, who speaks of a sort of spiritual veil over the eyes of Israel in its reading of the Old Testament and its failure to see Jesus as the Messiah. In Romans 11:25, Paul speaks of the majority of Israel’s not embracing Jesus for a time as a providential plan to bring the Gentiles into God’s people.
Some Christians have promoted evangelizing the Jewish people as a way to precipitate the return of the Lord. The idea is that since Paul teaches that Israel must be converted before the Lord’s return, hurrying along the latter requires accelerating the former. But Benedict understands Jesus and Paul to mean that the conversion of the Gentiles must happen first. The rest of the world must be converted before Israel will be. The stress, then, must be on converting the Gentiles. Meanwhile, nothing forbids presenting individual Jews with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even if the conversion of the whole Jewish people is in God’s hands and not the primary mission of the Church.
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press and
co-author of A Study Guide for Benedict XVI’s Jesus of
Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press).