VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, in a new book, has personally exonerated Jews of allegations they were responsible for Jesus Christ's death, repudiating the concept of collective guilt that has haunted Christian-Jewish relations for centuries.
Jewish groups applauded the move. The Anti-Defamation League called it "an important and historic moment" and hoped that it would help complicated theology "translate down to the pews" to improve grass roots inter-religious dialogue.
The pope makes his complex theological and biblical evaluation in a section of the second volume of his book "Jesus of Nazareth," which will be published next week. The Vatican released brief excerpts on Wednesday.
The Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated the idea of collective Jewish guilt for Christ's death in a major document by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
It was believed to be the first time a pope had made such a detailed dissection and close comparison of various New Testament accounts of Jesus's condemnation to death by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
"Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus' accusers?" the pope asks, adding that the gospel of St John simply says it was "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," he writes.
"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," he writes.
Benedict says the reference was to the "Temple aristocracy," who wanted Jesus condemned to death because he had declared himself king of the Jews and had violated Jewish religious law.
He concludes that the "real group of accusers" were the Temple authorities and not all Jews of the time.
"MAJOR STEP FORWARD"
Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, welcomed the pope's words.
"This is a major step forward. This is a personal repudiation of the theological underpinning of centuries of anti-Semitism," he told Reuters.
"This pope has categorically stated that the canard that Jews were Christ killers is a gross theological lie and this is most welcome in view of the setbacks that we have seen in the past few years."
The question of Jewish responsibility for Christ's death has haunted Christian-Jewish relations for nearly 2,000 years.
Benedict, elected in 2005, has had his share of problems in Christian-Jewish relations.
In 2009, he decided to advance wartime Pope Pius XII on the path toward sainthood by recognizing his "heroic virtues."
Many Jews accuse Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of having turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes because speaking out would have led to Nazi reprisals against Catholics and Jews in Europe.
Jews responded angrily last year when the pope said in another book that Pius was "one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else."
Jews have asked that the process that could lead to making Pius a saint be frozen until after all the Vatican archives from the period are opened and studied.
Earlier in 2009, many Jews and others were outraged when Benedict lifted the excommunication of traditionalist Bishop Richard, who caused an international uproar by denying the full extent of the Holocaust and claiming that no Jews were killed in gas chambers.
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)