In a new book being released Thursday amid great fanfare at the start of Lent, Pope Benedict XVI rejects the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary and insists that violent uprisings must never be carried out in God's name.
"Jesus of Nazareth — Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection," is the second installment of Benedict's planned trilogy on Jesus.
Part I, which covered Jesus' early ministry, shot to the top of the best-seller lists in Italy when it was published in 2007.
Already, 1.2 million copies of Part II have been printed in seven languages, and reprints of 100,000 more are planned for the Italian editions and 50,000 in German.
In the book, Benedict exonerates the Jews as a people for Christ's death.
He also insists that Jesus never advocated violent revolution, as some liberation theologians have suggested, saying violence was not His way no matter how valid the motivation.
Benedict has spoken out frequently to denounce religiously motivated violence against Christians in the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere.
"The cruel consequences of religiously motivated violence are only too evident to us all," he noted in the book.
"Violence does not build up the kingdom of God, the kingdom of humanity. On the contrary, it is a favorite instrument of the Antichrist, however idealistic its religious motivation may be," Benedict wrote. "It serves, not humanity, but inhumanity."
Praise from Jewish groups
The Vatican and its foreign-language publishers have gone to remarkable lengths to promote the new book, coordinating the release of excerpts, scheduling prime-time press conferences and releasing the 362-page text to coincide with the run-up to Holy Week, when the faithful commemorate Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.
In the book, Benedict concludes that the Jews as a people weren't responsible for Jesus' death, but only a few Jewish leaders and their supporters, affirming that the centuries of mistrust of Christians toward Jews was deeply misplaced.
While the Catholic Church has been teaching that for nearly 50 years, the fact that the pope said it so authoritatively prompted praise from major Jewish groups and a thank you note from Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I commend you for forcefully rejecting in your recent book a false charge that has been a foundation for the hatred of the Jewish people for many centuries," Netanyahu wrote the pope after excerpts of the book were released last week.
In the book, Benedict also asserts that the Catholic Church shouldn't concern itself now with trying to convert Jews, though he stresses the need for all Christians to "visibly" unite — a veiled call for other Christians to convert to Catholicism.
The acknowledgment that Jews are in a special category as far as conversion goes is significant given that Benedict in 2007 irked some Jewish leaders when he allowed for a prayer for the conversion of Jews to be celebrated more widely in some traditional Good Friday services.
Jacob Neusner, a prominent Jewish expert on Judaism and Christianity who has had a 25-year correspondence with Benedict on the figure of Jesus, praised the book for blending theology and history and for its "courageous" exoneration of the Jews.
"He has accomplished something that no one else has achieved in the modern study of Scripture," Neusner told a conference call Wednesday organized by the book's U.S. publishers.
'Truly a historic publication'
Brant Pitre, a Catholic professor of scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, said the book was unprecedented, given that the pope, who turns 84 next month, is fairly busy running the 1 billion-strong Catholic Church and administering the Holy See.
"Never before in the history of the church have we had a reigning pope write a full length study of the life of Jesus," Pitre said. "Just on that level this is truly a historic publication."
In the book, Benedict gives a chronological account of Jesus' final days, citing Gospel accounts and scholarly commentaries. He said his aim wasn't to make a purely historical or faith-based analysis, but rather a combination that would allow for the reader to experience a "personal relationship with Jesus."
"Even if there will always be details that remain open for discussion, I still hope that I have been granted an insight into the figure of our Lord that can be helpful to all readers who seek to encounter Jesus and to believe in him," Benedict wrote.
That said, biblical experts agreed the book isn't for everyone. It's dense and academic, in Benedict's scholarly, theological style.
"My guess would be that this book is specifically user-friendly for entry-level seminary students, educated lay people with a lot of theological acumen, obviously clergy of various kinds," said Ben Witherington III, an evangelical Biblical scholar at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
But Craig Evans, a Protestant bible expert, said Protestants of many stripes would be surprised at how Protestant the book reads, and that he wouldn't hesitate to put it on his syllabus for his conservative, Baptist seminary students.
"If it didn't say Pope Benedict on the cover, they might not even be sure they were reading a Catholic book," he said.
Benedict said that he plans to write the third and final installment of the trilogy, on Jesus' infancy, "if I am given the strength."