Review of Constantine’s Sword

Review of Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll

Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 2001.
James Carroll, the well-known Boston writer, has published a new book on the complex, tortured history of Catholic-Jewish relations. At over 700 pages, the book’s first difficulty is not its length, but the elusiveness of its genre. The author calls his work “history refracted through one man’s own experience,” and that, as I see it, is a big part of the problem. The book is so self-referential that, in places, I squirmed my way through the text, and was led to the conclusion that the author is working out his own issues in print. This leaves a potential reviewer in the awkward position of seeming to make any criticism of the work an ad hominem attack. I have no desire to disparage the personal journey of another, and I respect James Carroll’s passion, but in my opinion he should have refrained from putting his own issues on the agenda of Catholic-Jewish relations.

The book begins with a poignant reflection on the continued presence of the large “papal” cross at Auschwitz, which Carroll sees as the epitome of the Church’s distortion of the crucifixion, itself the cause of the denigration of Jews by Christians since the late 1st century. He traces this tragic history to the first followers of Jesus who, devastated by his death, naturally sought to understand their loss in reference to the (Old Testament) scriptures. In the light of religious reflection on various scriptural precedents, what began to emerge was a growing understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and the conviction that he was (in some sense) still alive. Within a generation or two, however, a combination of trauma inflicted by the Romans during the Jewish revolt (66 – 70 CE), mutual recrimination between Jewish Christians and Jews who were not, and an overwhelmingly Gentile presence in the Church produced a situation in which the Christians who composed the Gospels misconstrued the earlier conclusions regarding the death of Jesus. They mistook religious reflection for literal history - with an anti-Jewish bias. Later generations of Christians would use the misunderstood prophecy/fulfillment conclusions as a weapon against the Jews who “should have” perceived the “self-evidence” of Christian claims.

The onus in the hardening of a fluid theological situation, according to Carroll, is on Constantine who, desiring the political and religious unification of his empire, used his imperial authority and the mythical allure of his famous “vision” of the cross to coerce the bishops at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) to adopt the creedal formula that (still) exaggerates the significance of the crucifixion. (Could it have been merely a coincidence, Carroll asks, that Constantine killed his own son?) Since Nicaea, exclusivist claims for Jesus as the only savior, epitomized in Anselm’s theology of the crucifixion as atonement to God for sin, have had egregious effects on the Jews, the most hideous of which is the Shoah (Holocaust). According to Carroll, the Church has yet to make a thorough moral reckoning in this regard, because it is prevented from doing so by the weight of its own (distorted) claims. But none of this is endemic to Christianity per se, and so Carroll proposes a solution: Christian self-understanding must be reshaped at a “Vatican Council III” at which, among other things, exclusivist claims for Jesus must be rejected. “The Church’s fixation on the death of Jesus as the universal salvific act must end, and the place of the cross must be reimagined in Christian faith” (p. 583). This might have occurred at Vatican II, but for the subsequent retrenchment in centralized papal power by the successors of Pope John XXIII.

There are some conclusions of Carroll’s with which, with important qualifications, I agree. Among other things, it is true that when Jesus and the early Christians are removed from their Jewish context, distortions enter into the Christian self-understanding that can and have had lethal consequences for the Jews. It is also true that the antagonism against “the Jews” in the New Testament is largely a result of a later polemic read back, and that the history of Christian denigration of Jews is the result of specific choices – roads taken and not taken - over the past centuries. Supersessionism, i.e., the notion that the Covenant of Jesus supplants the Covenant with Israel, must be replaced by a theology that does not malign Judaism. And repentance for the sinful persecutions of the Jews must remain an ongoing process for the Church at all levels.

But here is one of the most interesting quirks of Carroll’s presentation. One would infer from it that these conclusions are the result only of the work of maverick scholars who are opposing the Church’s stalwart efforts to protect its own self-interest. In fact, these conclusions – as I have stated them – are mainstream scholarship and Church doctrine, going back at least to Vatican II, at which, among other things, the Church accepted the ongoing validity of God’s Covenant with the Jews. Then again, the only time that Carroll makes reference to any Church documents is to point out their ambiguities and inadequacies. He never mentions the Vatican’s Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism, or any of the several excellent American bishops’ documents such as God’s Mercy Endures Forever, or the Pope’s address to the 1997 Vatican Symposium on “The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu” in which he spoke of “erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament relative to the Jewish people and their presumed guilt.” In fact, the edifice of Carroll’s whole argument is constructed on a shaky foundation - his heavy reliance on the work of John Dominic Crossan, against whose methodology and conclusions serious and sustained criticisms have been leveled by respected scholars (see esp. Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Real Jesus). Although Carroll makes reference to the eminent Raymond Brown’s critique, he dismisses it with a wave of the hand: “I accept Crossan … here against Brown” (p. 129). On what basis? One might conclude that this is simply ideology seeking history.

The Epistles of Paul would appear to be an important source for early Christian thought. In fact, they would seem to be a goldmine since, although a Jew of the Diaspora, Paul was familiar with the Judean situation and was writing shortly after the death of Jesus in the period prior to the Jewish revolt. Yet, while favorable to Paul as a kind of personal “patron saint,” and while asserting that Paul turns the cross, the sign of Roman oppression, into a standard of victory, Carroll simply ignores the words of Paul that would seem to challenge the book’s thesis. For example, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) or “I handed on to you … what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4).

But then again, Carroll has simply skirted the tough theological issues, among them, the divinity of Jesus. Either Jesus is what we profess him to be – the incarnate, eternal Son of the Father - or he is not. If he is not, then the entire Christian religion is, at best, a misguided deception. If he is, then Jesus is absolutely original and unique, and, despite all the difficulties that claim causes between Christian and Jewish self-understandings, we are not free simply to avoid the truth we claim. And if Jesus is the Savior, how can we conceive of him as anything other than the Savior of all? On the other hand, if salvation is “happiness” (merely this?), as Carroll asserts (p. 579), what need is there of a savior? But Carroll proposes that Jesus is not about salvation. Rather, he is about the revelation of the Father’s unconditional love (pp. 116 ff). If the latter is true (certainly it is; who would have denied it?) are the two opposed? As it is, I prefer the Pope’s explanation of salvation, which is divine love at work: “To save means to liberate from radical, ultimate evil. Death itself is no longer that kind of evil, if followed by the resurrection. And the resurrection comes about through the work of Christ. Through the work of the Redeemer death ceases to be an ultimate evil; it becomes subject to the power of life” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 69-70). But if resurrection means, as Carroll asserts, (merely?) knowing that Jesus’ love continues (p. 125), what assurance is there that death is anything other than annihilation or that there is to be a final triumph of God over evil? And how would we have any assurance for our hope at all, except through divine revelation? Yet, while it is true that the Christian scriptures emerged gradually out of particular communities’ experiences of God, if those writings are only a human construct, and at least partially misconstrued at that, then what assurance do we have that the New Testament is God’s self-disclosure at all?

These are the daunting issues one faces when one suggests dismantling the constitutive faith of the Church. But I’m not sure that Carroll really understands the faith of the Church. He certainly makes outright misstatements concerning what the Church actually teaches. To wit: the liturgical renewal of Vatican II affirms that “Christ (is) present in the Church not through the ordained minister, but through the Mysterium of the entire people at prayer” (p. 513). With all due respect, he needs to reread the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Church, Carroll asserts, claims primacy over the Word (p. 559). Ditto for the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

Finally, I have to wonder about Carroll’s historical analysis. The sad record stands, although I think the jury is still out on Pope Pius XII. One cannot deny the tragic historical events Carroll names, but is describing a series of discrete events and then connecting them as causally related a legitimate method? For example, one must wonder how much influence the thought of Aquinas (a theologian, not a hierarch, in France) really had on Spanish inquisitors - in the 1240’s (pp. 333-34). Or again, when Carroll asserts that the emphasis on the crucifixion and death of Jesus was added to the creed at Nicaea (325 CE) under the influence of Helena and Constantine (p. 190), what should be made of the fact that the influential Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, compiled in Rome one hundred and ten years earlier, includes the following baptismal profession of faith: “Do you believe in Christ Jesus, who … was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and was buried and rose the third day living from the dead”? And what to make of an outright assertion, without qualification, such as this: “There are few things we can say with more certainty about Jesus than that he defined his mission in opposition not to Judaism but to the imperium of Rome” (p. 570)? Indeed? A more nuanced version might suggest that Jesus was opposed to whatever was not of the reign of God. And never offering a critical assessment of the work of scholars (e.g., the idiosyncratic John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope) who just happen to agree with you? Please.

The work of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation is more than merely important. “Important” would imply an option. There is no option. The work is indispensable. And the Church is committed to it. Theological formulas, as formulas, can be revised; emphases can be changed - but only in fidelity to the constitutive revelation of the Church. Facile calls for a “Vatican III” are out of place. As Dr. John Clabeaux of St. John Seminary, Boston, has pointed out, at least for the time being, we have to hold two realities in tension against one another: the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Savior and the certainty that God’s Covenant with Israel has never been revoked. James Carroll makes some legitimate points, but I was left exasperated by the fact that he leaves no room for conscientious disagreement with his conclusions. He is so ideological and apodictic that you either agree with him or you are in collusion by default with a great injustice, and guilty by association in all the evils that every Christian has ever visited upon the Jewish people anywhere. I have a problem with that, and, I believe, so would my Jewish friends.

Fr. David C. Michael is Catholic Chaplain at Brandeis University, Associate Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and Archdiocesan Liaison to the Jewish Community.