Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History

by James Carroll. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 756 pp., $28.

There are three systems of belief — two religions and one atheistic philosophy — descended at least in part from Judaism: Christianity, Islam, and Marxism. All three are or have been supersessionist; they claim to be the true faith, the replacement of their predecessors. In the case of Christianity, the predecessor is unambiguously Judaism; in the cases of Islam and Marxism, the predecessors are Christianity and Judaism. It is logical for a philosophical or religious system to reject and perhaps even to condemn those it broke away from, and indeed, we find evidence of this in the texts of Christianity, Islam, and Marxism. In the New Testament, the Jews tell us that they are the ones guilty of the death of Jesus: "His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matthew 27:25). The Qur'an says: "O followers of the Book [Jews]! Why do you disbelieve the communications of Allah while you witness them? O followers of the Book! Why do you confound the truth with falsehood when you know?" (Surah III: 70-71). And Marx says, "What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money" ("On the Jewish Question").

James Carroll shows us how the idea of supersession is one of the two principal forces leading to antisemitism. The other force is the complex set of beliefs identified with the cross: responsibility of the death of Jesus, redemption through the suffering of Jesus, and the secular power of the Christian Church. Indeed, the title of the book, Constantine's Sword, refers to the cross. In the year 312 C.E., the Roman Emperor Constantine

saw a cross in the sky, above the legend In Hoc Signo Vinces ('In This Sign, Conquer'). ... After the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the conversion of Constantine may have been the most implication-laden event in Western history. ... When the power of the empire became joined to the ideology of the Church, the empire was immediately recast and reenergized, and the Church became an entity so different from what had preceded it as to become almost unrecognizable (p. 171).

Crucifixion had been a Roman method of execution for centuries. A cross, to the Romans of Constantine's day, must have had the same symbolism as a noose or an electric chair. It is entirely logical that "as Constantine was elevating the cross to the realm of the sacred, he was abolishing crucifixion as the Roman form of capital punishment" (p. 193). Crucifixion was no longer to be thought of as the way tens of thousands had suffered and died; since Constantine it has been associated only with Jesus — and perhaps with the two criminals who perished at the same time. Crucifixion, a viciously cruel form of execution, is a blot on the history of the Roman Empire. The fate of every person who died this way was as horrifying as the death of Jesus. Then why shouldn't the agony of each of these individuals be part of God's plan to save humanity from sin? Constantine's decision to end crucifixion had the effect of making the suffering of Jesus seem to be unique.

After Constantine, in 381 C.E., the Nicene Creed was amended to "put the crucifixion at the center of faith and the death of Jesus at the heart of redemption." This was a drastic and fatal change, Carroll tells us, because it "sets in motion a dynamic that will keep Jews at the heart of a quickened, and quickly armed, Christian hatred" (p. 191).

If the cross is revered because it is the instrument of suffering that led to redemption, shouldn't all the actors in this story, including Judas himself if we believe he was guilty, be equally revered? Carroll insists that there is a "logical flaw adhering in a scheme that emphasizes both that Jesus' death was freely chosen by Jesus himself and that Jesus' death was caused by the Jews" (p. 289). Furthermore, Carroll rejects the idea that God needed a sacrifice in order forgive people from sin. He is troubled by the change in the Nicene Creed for two reasons: it reinforces antisemitism and it suggests that God is not capable of forgiveness without diverting the punishment to someone else — even if the someone else is simultaneously his son and himself in human form.

But I wonder whether the idea that Jesus was born to die and suffer is as recent as 381 C.E. A similar idea is found in the Gospels:

Then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures, and said unto them, Thus is it written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:45-47).

Yet Carroll does not feel he has to make excuses for the Gospels or pretend they have been misinterpreted. Rather, he says they need not be believed. To cite one example, he dismisses the story of Pontius Pilate trying to persuade the Jews to accept the pardon of Jesus as a substitute for the pardon of Barabbas: "The Gospel of Matthew was not composed by someone who had been there, not composed by someone who knew well that Pilate was a sadist who'd have thought nothing of dispatching an unknown Galilean troublemaker,..." (p. 88).

Carroll is certainly correct that Matthew wasn't there. Nevertheless, it could well be true that the Jews of the time, given a choice between saving Barabbas, a violent revolutionary who had fought against Rome, and Jesus, a preacher, would have saved the rebel. Barabbas, according to Mark, "lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection" (15:7). Luke agrees with Mark about Barabbas, "who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison" (23:19). Matthew speaks of his notoriety: "And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas" (27:16). Only in John is Barabbas a simple crook: "Now Barabbas was a robber" (18:40).

Pontius Pilate, it seems, was obliged to pardon one condemned prisoner every year, a prisoner selected by the Jews. The Jews had every reason to hate their Roman conquerors and oppressors; they would have approved of an insurrectionist like Barabbas who committed violent acts against their rulers. Pilate, on the opposite side of the quarrel, would have wanted to free anyone except a revolutionary. What better choice could there have been than an itinerant religious leader with only 12 committed followers? If Pilate had wanted to free Jesus because he thought him innocent, he could have pardoned him whether or not the Jews demanded freedom for Barabbas. There was nothing to stop Pilate from granting two pardons. The Gospels do not consider this issue.

Carroll rejects the idea that Jesus and the Pharisees were enemies. "On the Christian side (and I assert this as a Christian), the canonization of this dispute--putting into the mouth of Jesus, say, a sweeping characterization of the Pharisees as a 'brood of vipers'--was a profound betrayal of the life and message of that same Jesus" (p. 148). The words were put into the mouth of Jesus for political reasons almost a century after his death, according to Carroll. But their damage continues to this day. Much of Constantine's Sword is a recounting of injustice after injustice, atrocity after atrocity, committed by sincere Christians who thought they were doing the right thing.

We might want to begin with the Crusades, wars fought under sign of the cross and named for the cross. A crusade is a Christian holy war; the Islamic analog is a jihad. The First Crusade "set out from northwestern Europe in the spring of 1096, bound for the Holy Land. But the cross-marked army's first act of belligerence took place in the Rhineland, not Jerusalem, and its target was not the Muslim infidel but the Jewish one" (p. 237). In terms of numbers, most of the Jewish victims of the Crusades lived in Europe. But the Crusaders also destroyed the continuity of Jewish life in Jerusalem. In 1099, they drove all the Jews into one synagogue and burned them alive" (p. 250).

We might want to continue with the Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215, which promulgated the following resolution: "Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province, and at all times, shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other people by the character of their dress" (pp. 282-283). Hitler, as we know, revived the idea of the yellow star. Not too long after the Fourth Lateran Council, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), respected to this day for his learning and wisdom, "concluded that Jews, confronted with the truth of Jesus, had not been ignorant at all. They knew very well that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of God, but they murdered him anyway" (pp. 305-306). St. Thomas, whose words remind us of the quotation from the Qur'an cited above, might have thought that the Jews were idiots, but more likely, he considered them inherently wicked.

When misfortunes arise, it is natural to blame those we consider wicked. When the Black Plague raged in Europe between 1348 and 1351, the Jews were blamed: "A masterly rumor identified a native of Toledo, one Jacob Pascal, whose name suggested Passover, as the initiator of the plot. A cabal (a word we have from 'Kabbalah') of Iberian Jews was the supplier of poison to Jewish agents elsewhere in Europe--a first international consipiracy. Jews in Geneva, under torture, confessed that the rumor was true, which was all it took" (p. 339).

Racism had not yet become an issue, unless we want to conclude that it was implicit in the accusation made by St. Thomas that Jews knew Jesus was the Messiah. Things changed as a result of the massacres of 1391 in Spain. For the first time, there were mass conversions: "There were, to be sure, many Jews who chose to die rather than apostasize, and as in 1096 and 1348, even to commit suicide. But the decision by many others to become Christian is what makes 1391 a turning point in this story" (p. 341). Converts were all over Spain. When the city of Toledo, in 1449, "passed an ordinance decreeing 'that no converso of Jewish descent may have or hold office in the said city of Toledo,' Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) reacted with a fury suggesting he saw what was at stake in such a move. ... Nicholas V excommunicated the author of the Toledo statute. Yet two years later, the king of Castile formally approved the regulation. Jews would be legally defined now in Spain not by religion but by blood" (p. 347). Racism thus antedates the Spanish Inquisition.

Hitler did not consider himself a Christian, although he was born a Catholic. Hitler's racist antisemitism did not have a religious component. Carroll, however, throughout his book, stresses the continuity of European antisemitism. He cites a statement that appeared in 1898, during the Dreyfus controversy, in the Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican: "Jewry can no longer be excused or rehabilitated. ... If there is one nation that more than any other has the right to turn to antisemitism, it is France, which first gave their political rights to the Jews, and which was thus the first to prepare the way for its own servitude to them" (p. 457).

Carroll contrasts the reactions of Pope Pius XII to Communism, which he condemned, and Nazism, which he tolerated. Christianity in general and Pope Pius XII in particular bear part of the responsibility for the crimes of Hitler, according to Carroll, who adds, "In academia, the history of antisemitism is taught in Jewish studies departments, if at all, when it should be taught as a core component of the history of Western civilization. ... That is why this history must be recounted not as the history of the Jews but primarily as a history of the Church" (p. 392).

If the Catholic Church nourished and perpetuated antisemitism, the Catholic Church can cure it, says Carroll--a great optimist! He calls for "a revived Catholicism committed to intellectual rigor, open inquiry, and respect for the other. ... And in nothing is this more true than in relation to the task of ending antisemitism forever" (pp. 547-548). He maintains that Catholicism — and only Catholicism — can do this, since it is not bound by Scripture.

To Catholics, the understanding of the Scriptures is mediated to the individual by the teaching authority of the Church, which claims primacy over the Word. ... But this difference [with Protestantism] also means that now the community of the Catholic Church, with its claim to authority even over the inspired word of God, is in a position to confront the problem of foundational texts that have proven themselves to be the sources of lethal antisemitism (pp. 559-560).

Consequently, the Church can call a Vatican Council III. One of its tasks should be its to confront its own responsibility and "to face honestly and fully the long history of its contempt for the Jews." (p. 543) That is only a first step. It must then reject the idea of supersession. And it must change an element at the core of Christian belief, the idea that Christ died for our sins: "A new Christology will banish from Christian faith the blasphemy that God wills the suffering of God's beloved ones, and the inhuman idea that anyone's death can be the fulfillment of a plan of God's." (p. 587)

I am a Jew, not a Christian. As a Jew, I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of the goat which, on Yom Kippur, is driven into the wilderness but not killed bearing the sins of the people — a different goat is sacrificed (Leviticus, Chapter 16). We still read about the goat every year, but we no longer follow the practice. Instead, some communities follow the ritual of kapparot, in which a chicken is slaughtered on the day before Yom Kippur. The idea of a scapegoat is based on the theory that punishment has to go someplace, an odd, illogical point of view. I am in total sympathy with Carroll for wanting to end the idea that the death of Jesus served a purpose.

Carroll does not discuss the idea of hell in his book. We cannot conceive of anything more merciless than eternal torment. No one but a Hitler could deserve such a fate. I would be curious to know what Carroll thinks about the story of the rich man who went to hell for not helping a beggar, told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31. Carroll tells us that it is blasphemy to say that God wills the sufferings of his beloved ones. If we exclude the idea that Christ died to save sinners from damnation, does it follow that there is no hell?

Constantine's Sword is an exciting and important book. There will no doubt be future editions and translations. Some of the following points should be cleared up:

We are told that the first grand inquisitor, Fray Tomas de Torquemada, was of Jewish blood (p. 355). What is the source of this information?

Kazimierz, the Jewish neighborhood in Cracow (where my father grew up), once was a separate municipality. When Jews were expelled from Cracow in 1494 or 1495, they were not expelled from Kazimierz, as is suggested on p. 362. Nor is the Remu Synagogue the city's oldest synagogue. In 1407, the Alte Shul, now a museum, was completed.

On p. 360, we are told that Jews were expelled from Provence in 1394 (actually the date of the expulsion from France). On p. 364 we learn they were expelled from Provence in 1498.

On p. 376, we read of refugees who arrived in Poland from Iberia. This suggests that the ancestors of most Polish Jews came from Spain, which they did not. There had been Jews in Poland long before the Spanish massacres of 1391.

Ancona, not Anconia, is the name of the city mentioned on p. 379.

The ghetto of Rome was not in Trastevere, as stated on p. 416, although it was on the banks of the Tiber (Tevere in Italian).

The phrase "a midpoint among Cologne, Mainz, and Trier" (p. 514) is ungrammatical. "Between" should be used rather than "among" when we have a definite number, definite places, or definite people in mind, even if there are three or more items.

Minor errors are inevitable in a book as long and informative as Constantine's Sword. Carroll has written a major work, a courageous call for action. Constantine's Sword is a magnificent achievement.

This review appeared in Midstream, Volume XXXXVI, Number 2, February/March 2001