Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs


Scholar Concerned with “Carroll’s Sword”

Jewish Affairs

New Testament Scholar Concerned with “Carroll’s Sword”

James Carroll chose an important topic for his most recent book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. The harrowing details of Christian mistreatment of the Jews over 2,000 years are upsetting, but they are part of a story that must be told. Most Christians are still surprised to learn that by 1900 one-and-a-half million Jews had died at the hands of Christians. I was excited to hear that Carroll had taken on this project. I was a little concerned that he is not a specialist in any one of the major fields involved in such research (New Testament, Theology, Church History, or Modern History). Yet many non-specialists with extraordinary intuition write good books that lay out important, complex issues for the general reader. I had hoped that this book would be one.

To a critical scholar, Carroll’s highly charged rhetoric is a problem. Anger is evident in statements like: “We could not have admitted it, but the Catholic Church, with its Constantinian legacy, was institutionalized and bureaucratized misanthropy itself.” (p. 548) The statement lacks precision and seems intentionally provocative. The abrasiveness of such rhetoric does harm in the end.

Carroll’s treatment of first generation Christianity is foundational for the rest of his work, and contains some of the most serious flaws. The guiding image behind his work is the cross, which, he says, was a minor image at first, but was made inordinately important at the time of Constantine. Carroll spends too little time on Paul--about nine pages, much of which is the sentimentalized later legacy of Paul. Even though Paul’s are the earliest Christian writings we have (They were written in the 50’s), Carroll starts with the Gospels, emphasizing that they were written 30-40 years after the events they narrate. He attributes to the Gospels the first harmful emphasis on the cross and on the Jews as opponents of Jesus. He is right that the Gospel writers engaged issues of their own times. He is wrong to suggest that they invented the emphasis on the cross. Paul, in the only 75 pages of his authentic letters written 20 years before the Gospels, mentions the cross 17 times, using it several times to refer to the essential content of the gospel.

Carroll also misses the importance of Paul’s witness to the risen Jesus. The resurrection was a unique event. It defies scientific explanation. But the explanation of Carroll, that those who loved Jesus gathered after his death in a “healing circle” and then “experienced him” in some vague psychological manner, is inadequate, and does not deal with the evidence of Paul. Paul was no member of any such “healing circle.” He had no desire to “see Jesus.”

Carroll’s view of the resurrection also fails to account for the development of formal Christian thinking about the meaning of Jesus—Christology. I cannot imagine a systematic theologian accepting Carroll’s summary of the outcome of the Christological questions at the Council of Nicaea as “Jesus is God in the way Emperor Constantine says he is.”(p. 173) Carroll seems unaware that what looks to modern people like quibbling about abstracts was a matter of great urgency for fourth century Christians. And they opposed emperors who insisted on what did not make sense to them. This “disconnect” with the Christological tradition goes back to Carroll’s problematic understanding of the resurrection. His “healing circle” explanation is not sufficient to explain why the early Church came to such convictions about Jesus. Millions of “loved ones” have died over the years, and the revival of our memories of them has not lead to Christological formulations. Whatever the resurrection entailed exactly, it was far bigger than what Carroll suggests.

Finally, there is the matter of the teaching of Jesus. According to Carroll, the message of the historical Jesus was love. He seems unaware of the view of New Testament scholarship that the central message of Jesus was the Reign of God. The simple summation of the Gospel as “love,” though enshrined in the letters of John, does not do justice to the Synoptic Gospels or to the writings of Paul.

At present the Catholic Church affirms two things: Jesus is the unique mediator of salvation to the world, and God’s Covenant with the Jews has not been revoked. It may take another generation before we explicate the apparent contradictions in these two statements. But Carroll’s solution is simply to eliminate the first. Some of us engaged in the work of Jewish Christian relations believe that argumentation like this, based on inaccurate and polemically charged characterizations of Christian History and Theology, will stir up opposition from those who would like to push the whole question further down on the Catholic agenda. When the hand of the surgeon is shaking from anger, the patient he seeks to heal suffers.

John J. Clabeaux, Ph. D., Associate Professor of Theology and Ancient Languages, St. John’s Seminary College
Scholar-consultant for “Catholics and Jews Together” (RCAB and ADL).