By James Carroll
Houghton Miflin, 2001, xii + 756 pages
This immense book is much more than the “history” it claims to be. It is also partly an autobiography — the author, both a novelist and a journalist being also a resigned priest. It is also partly a theological analysis, and frequently an impassioned plea for change. But mostly it is history, a long horrendous tale covering twenty centuries of Christian vs. Jewish conflict, with the latter inevitably the losers.
Carroll does not claim to be a professional historian, relying instead on a mountain of historical studies and other works, with his bibliography running over 20 pages in small print. Nevertheless his work is already being attacked by those who would claim to know history better and by those who claim to be deeper in the know regarding recent efforts to achieve greater understanding between Christians and Jews. Not being either a historian or an expert on Jewish-Christian relations, I will not try to pass judgement on these matters, but instead, as a theologian, confine my comments to Carroll's theological analysis and his prescription for remedying what has gone so tragically wrong.
Three theological themes with their corresponding indictments keep resurfacing throughout the book. One is the theology of the cross, which, according to Carroll, has resulted in a morbid Christian fixation on the significance of the death of Jesus and the resulting search for a scapegoat, which, of course has been all too often the Jews. The second is the concept of the “New Covenant” with its supercessionist implications — that is to say, that this new covenant implies the obsolescence and hence the disappearance of the old. And finally, drawing in particular from the theological model of “atonement” drawn from the combination of the aforementioned themes, the claim of the universality of salvation in Christ, with its resulting intolerance toward religious pluralism. Carroll seems to regard all three of these themes as regrettable and unnecessary mistakes, and argues strongly for their abandonment and the reversal of all Church teachings and policies based on these themes.
The problem is, at least as I see it, that not only are these three themes constitutive of Christian self-understanding, but that all three are rooted, to some degree, in Jewish self-understanding as well. But first, let's examine them one at a time.
No one, I think, can deny that the death of Jesus was a traumatic blow to his followers and that in their effort to understand this tragedy, early Christians turned toward the Hebrew scriptures to try to make sense of it all. Thus Carroll is probably right in adopting, if not totally, Dominic Crossan's judgement that the passion narratives in the four canonical Gospels are “prophecy historicized” rather than accurate historical accounts. Understood this way, we can also agreed that, composed after the break between the followers of Jesus and the rest of Jewry, they very well may place undue emphasis on the role of the Jewish leaders while attempting to largely exonerate the role of Rome. Nevertheless, Carroll seems to largely ignore the fact that prophetic passages so used were not only there for the taking, but even, especially in the case of the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, there with an “atonement” theme ripe for application to the tragedy Christians were otherwise at a loss to explain.
Likewise, while the theme of “a New Covenant” which seems to imply the replacement of the old and was used in a way that is abusive or denigrating towards those who do not recognize the new, again, the fact is that this concept itself is drawn from the Hebrew prophets. If anyone doubts it, one need only read Jeremiah 31:31 as only one such example. Although Carroll himself seems to recognize this when he suggests that “new” be understood as “renewed”, the fact is that even such a renewal often involved a radically changed understanding of what being faithful to the covenant implied. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 and again, after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both nascent Christianity and what we now think of as Rabbinic Judaism undertook a radical departure from what had gone before. Both saw themselves as substitutions for the old order. Which was legitimately so is another matter.
Finally, the translation of these theological themes drawn, whether rightly or wrongly, from the Hebrew Scriptures and applied to the Christian movement certainly can, and does largely explain why Christianity sees itself as empowered and enjoined to spread the “Good News” to the whole world. Did not Israel see itself as a specially chosen people — a light to the nations, God's representative before the goyim, not to mention as even empowered to expel or even to exterminate those who stood in their way? The fact is that the Christian movement, especially after the advent of Constantine, consciously began to remodeled itself in the pattern of the theocracy as found in the Torah, even to the point of its clergy and overseers (“bishops”) styling themselves as “Levites” and “High Priests”.
Now none of this is to imply that ever Christians treated Jews or Judaism with the respect or even common decency that they deserved. Even when they were protected by the hierarchy it was all too often, as Carroll points out, so that they might be handy for certain conveniences, such as money-lenders, and all too often, as scapegoats. And certainly, we can agree with Carroll who although he would stop short at blaming Christians or certainly the Church directly for the shoah or “holocaust”, the Church allowed an atmosphere to develop over the ages or, as Carroll puts it “tilled the soil”, that made this atrocity possible.
What I'm saying is that the major themes regarding Christianity's problematic relationship to Judaism were all drawn from Judaism itself and that if Jews find themselves unwelcome in many parts of the world, it is because of essentially the same claims that Christians chose to emulate and aggregate to or for themselves. Thus, if significant numbers of Christians died because of their refusal to sacrifice to the pagan gods, it was because they understood themselves to be worshipers of the same one and only God for whom Jews had also died. And if they were willing to suffer ridicule for their stubborn adherence to Jesus and the way of life he taught, it was because they were convinced, rightly or wrongly, that he was the Christ, the Meshiach, for whose coming, not the Gentiles but the Jews had prayed. And if they believed that God had vindicated this Jesus by actually raising him from the dead, (a concept that seemed nonsense to the pagan world with its belief in immortal “souls” or the “shades”) it was because they had been taught to think like those many Jews, especially the Pharisees, who believed that the Messiah would literally raise the righteous from the dead. And so too, if they believed that this faith entitled them to conquer the world for Christ, it was (at least in their minds) because they felt empowered or even commanded to do so in the belief that they were carrying out the command of their master who had claimed that “salvation is from the Jews”. The only difference was that in having reached out to invite in the Gentiles (contrary to some who felt following Jesus was only for Jews) the “Christians” (as they were first called in Antioch) avoided the fate of becoming an ethnically-defined religion and transformed themselves into a world-religion instead.
Carroll is quite right, I believe, in putting his finger on “universal exclusivism” — the claim that all humanity is saved or redeemed only through Christ (whether they know it or not) — as being the major problem for Christianity in this vastly expanded, yet in other ways shrunken, world today. It certainly is this same claim that has pitted Christian against Jew almost from the beginning. And yet, this claim is, in essence, the same as made by Jews for God. So while we may differ sharply over the identity of Jesus, vis-a-vis the world we find ourselves (perhaps along with Muslims) in a very similar position — each or all of us claiming to have a special pipeline to or mandate from God!
Now, we can either do one of two things with this conviction. Either we can continue to try to browbeat or intimidate everyone else into agreement with us — the tactic we so long attempted against the Jews — or we can learn from the Jews how to survive, and how to remain faithful to a Jewish Jesus in the midst of a world that will always resent those who claim to have received a special revelation from God. Even if we are, as Pope Pius XI once put it, “spiritually semites”, most of us still remain irreducably “gentile” in origin. Thus we must never think of ourselves as a replacement for the Jewish people, but as that consummate Jewish zealot Saul turned into the Apostle Paul put it, we are only as “wild stock grafted onto the true tree” that is Israel.
Return to Book Review index