In "Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week," coming out next week, Benedict takes issue with key passages in the New Testament that for eons have been interpreted to mean that Jews were culpable for the killing of Jesus and have justified the persecution of Jews worldwide.
The Catholic Church has maintained since Vatican II in 1965 that Jews were not collectively at fault for the death of Christ. But Jewish activists say the German-born pope's unambiguous new arguments put a powerful face on the exoneration of the Jews that may resonate to the point that they help stem anti-Semitism in the world.
"You can't get any higher than the pope as far as someone non-Jewish coming out and saying that the Jews weren't to blame," Abraham Foxman, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, told AOL News today.
"If anyone asks if this is a good day for the Jews, you can tell them yes, it's a good day for the Jews," he said.
In excerpts from the book released today, Benedict outlines his claims using biblical and theological references to explain why there was no basis in Scripture for believing that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death, The Associated Press reported.
Benedict makes the point that many people in the Holy Land at the time Jesus was alive were Jewish, including Jesus himself, so references to "the Jews" in the Bible did not refer to a small minority of people but to pretty much everyone.
The pope breaks down the infamous passage from St. Matthew's Gospel in which
"the Jews" demand the execution of Jesus and shout to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, "Let his blood be on us and on our children."
Though the text has been a cornerstone of anti-Semitism for centuries, the pope says Matthew meant the mob in the courtyard and not the Jewish people in general.
The blood of Jesus does not represent "a curse but rather redemption, salvation," the pope writes. "It was not poured out against anyone. It is poured out for many, for all."
Foxman, who survived the Holocaust by being baptized as a child and passed off as Catholic, said Benedict's statements may now be taught in Catholic schools and reach deeper into the faith.
"It's taking this to a whole new level," Foxman said.
"Yes, the church said in Vatican II that the Jews weren't responsible for killing Jesus. But it didn't seep that much into the mainstream as far as being taught in the [Catholic school] curriculum," he said. "Mel Gibson did a movie blaming the Jews for killing Jesus. That was the gospel according to Mel Gibson. Today it's the gospel according to the pope."
In his new book, Benedict also denies the claim by writers of the Gospels that Jews working in the Temple collaborated with the Roman authorities, leading to Jesus' execution.
"Many readers will find this section of the book particularly interesting, as the pope reviews the historical positions taken about this," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, founder and publisher of Ignatius Press, the primary publisher of the pope's books in the U.S., according to The Jerusalem Post.
"He discusses some very controversial claims that have been made and draws on some contemporary scholarly resources to reach a conclusion that I am certain will generate a lot of discussion," Fessio said.
In one of the excerpts, Benedict takes up a key reference to "the Jews" in John's Gospel, saying it actually referred to the "temple aristocracy, the Catholic News Service reports.
"Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus' accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death?" the pope wrote.
What St. John was referring to with the term "the Jews," the pope said, was the "temple aristocracy," the dominant priestly circle that had instigated Jesus' death.
The book is the sequel to "Jesus of Nazareth: From Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration," which became a best-seller when it was published in 2007.