Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 113 (May 2001): 59-63.
Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. By James Carroll. Houghton Mifflin. 756 pp. $20.
Reviewed by Thomas F. X. Noble
Caveat Emptor! This book looks like a bargain, three books for the price of one. It contains a history of Catholicism’s relationship with Judaism and the Jews; a plea for a Christology that would, largely, remedy the most distasteful aspects of that history; and an autobiography of the author, a successful novelist and National Book Award winner. Alas, the history is always amateurish and often wrong; the theology is an affront to any form of historic Christianity; and the author comes off as smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous.
Start with the history that Carroll tells and with the way he tells it. Carroll is an amateur historian. He has no degrees in the subject and, to judge from this book, no expertise in either Jewish history or church history. Historians normally work with primary sources—documents roughly contemporary with the events to which they pertain—and with the best scholarship dealing with those documents and with the history surrounding them. Carroll has read no cache of documents for himself and, as far as I can tell, has never crossed the threshold of an archive. Occasionally he cites a source, but a look at his endnotes will always reveal that he has cribbed the reference and quotation from someone else. There is no evidence that he reads Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, and yet he comments in an authoritative tone on histories that demand a knowledge of those languages.
Where modern scholarship is concerned, Carroll’s amateurism is compounded by his tendentiousness. That is, for the periods and problems he treats, he tends to cite only one or two studies, saying portentously that a famous author or book “informs” his current discussion. Yet Carroll seems to cite only the author or authors who agree with his views. So, for instance, John Dominic Crossan becomes the authority for the New Testament period and John Cornwell serves as the biographer of Pius XII. One would not let a college freshman get away with that. Finally, there are monuments of both Jewish and church history produced by European scholars, but I see no titles in French, German, or Italian. Judged on every possible scale, this is a lightweight book—despite its ample girth.
Yes, an amateur can get it right. Did Carroll? I think not. He opens up a key question—how did religious and cultural anti–Judaism turn into murderous anti–Semitism—but fails to handle it adequately. Carroll’s central thesis is that a generation or two after the life of Christ, a series of authors, the men we know as the evangelists, decided that it was better to get along with the powerful Romans than the despicable Jews and scripted the first version of the blood libel. That is, they made the Jews the murderers of Christ. They pulled off this clever feat by historicizing the prophecies of the Old Testament in such a way as to make Jesus Christ appear to be the Messiah. Moreover, they recorded the “intuition” of the apostles and disciples that Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus’ contemporaries actually only believed that Jesus’ love survived him, but as they gradually shifted from praying for him to praying to him they invented the story of his resurrection. So, in Carroll’s telling, the evangelists not only blamed the Jews for killing the man Jesus but for killing the Messiah. Carroll assures us that this account must be true because Crossan and the Jesus Seminar say so. Along the way Carroll cavalierly dismisses Raymond Brown, mentions a few other scholars with whom he has had conversations, and cites as his authority on Christology Rosemary Radford Ruether, with nods in the direction of Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Küng.
One hardly knows where to begin in responding to all this. Carroll desperately wants to blame Jesus’ death on the Romans. He does say that we cannot quite know what it was that got Jesus in trouble with the authorities but he decides that it is enough to assert that the Romans were meddlesome and murderous. Then he says that it is anachronistic to hold an ancient empire to modern standards of universal human rights but goes on to conclude that Rome did not measure up to minimum (whose?) standards. Carroll’s fuzzy and contradictory thinking aside, he simply does not understand the Romans. And I do not think that he understands much about how or why the New Testament books were written, and I am certain that he will persuade few that the New Testament was “a tragic historical mistake.”
But to return to Carroll’s thesis. The conversion of Constantine was “the second greatest story ever told.” The emperor was an exclusionary universalist who imposed his will on the Church. Before a battle Constantine saw a cross in the sky with the words “In this sign you shall conquer.” What is more, his mother, Helena, was a relic–monger who went in search of the True Cross and the Seamless Robe. She found them. Accordingly, the Cross became the symbol of a militant Christianity that would henceforth cut down its foes. This more or less explains Carroll’s title.
But Carroll is not quite through spelling out his thesis. The Nicene Creed, he says, regrettably made Jesus divine but stressed his Incarnation and Resurrection. Then, be cause of Constantine and Helena, the Council of Constantinople inserted “He was crucified” into the primitive text of the Creed, and thereafter Christ’s death, already attributed to the Jews by those inventive evangelists, now replaced his life as the central fact of Christianity. Some Church Fathers, notably John Chrysostom and Ambrose of Milan, were positively vicious in their denunciations of the Jews, but Augustine of Hippo defined the basic Catholic position for centuries when he said that Jews must be permitted to survive, though not to thrive, as a reminder of Christianity’s truth.
All of this is, once again, bad history. Any interested reader can find several expert books to correct Carroll’s simplifications concerning Constantine. His misunderstanding of the development of the text of the Creed and of the attitude of the Church Fathers toward the Jews is a more serious matter. The so–called Nicene Creed was in a state of evolution for more than a century, but it never at any stage omitted reference to or a grounding in the Crucifixion. The change in terminology that Carroll believes he has discovered is neither significant in itself nor attributable to Constantine and his mother. Sometimes the Fathers of the Church said ugly things about Jews. But they did so not because Jews were helpless victims and Judaism superseded. Quite the contrary. Judaism was thriving in late antiquity and the Fathers were alarmed by what they took to be a real and potent rival.
In any case, the implications of this early history for the future were momentous. There is, Carroll suggests, an “arc” that runs from Golgotha to Auschwitz, and this in two respects. Viewed in one way, it is a two–thousand–year–old narrative of the centrality of the Cross to Western Civilization. Viewed in another way, it means that because the first cross was falsely blamed on the Jews, a second cross could be erected in a place of indescribable Jewish suffering to co–opt and supersede that torment on behalf of the Christians, mainly Poles, who also died at Auschwitz. Put in simplest terms, it is Carroll’s argument that Western Civilization has been propelled primarily by Catholicism’s hatred for the Jews.
Having muddled his way through antiquity, Carroll turns to the Middle Ages. Of course, he tells about the wanton massacres of Rhineland Jews on the eve of the First Crusade (1096), the emergence and dissemination of the grotesque stories according to which Jews captured and ritually crucified Christian boys, the bizarre rumors about Jews poisoning wells, the Inquisition and its attempts to force conversion on the Jews, and finally about the many times when Jews were expelled from their homelands, most famously from Spain in 1492. Carroll also mentions the many popes, bishops, and secular rulers who befriended and protected Jews, albeit doing so within the Augustinian “survive but don’t thrive” motif.
The story, of course, is a sad one, and the author thinks that the Church has not fully confronted its implications. Carroll repeatedly turns to “We Remember” (1998) and “Memory and Reconciliation” (1999) to insinuate that the Catholic Church was wrong, in the face of the medieval evidence, to claim in those documents that while Catholics did appalling things for which apologies are in order, the Church “as such” did not.
It seems to me that on this subject there has been a dialogue of the deaf. Church authorities have been less frank and forthcoming than they might have been. Most people are not trained to read and understand the subtleties of ecclesiastical pronouncements. It is all well and good for professionals to toss around those “as suchs,” but ordinary laypeople need a little help with them. Critics of the Church, for their part, unfailingly read the actions of Catholic individuals or communities as the actions of the Church. Never mind that no medieval pope or council authorized or incited the murder of Jews and that many clerics and councils thundered against the preposterous blood libels. Perhaps someday the passions will cool on both sides of this argument and good sense will prevail.
Back to the history. There are again interesting omissions and mistakes in the book’s medieval sections. Carroll interprets the Crusades as the “necessary outcome of an exclusionary and totalitarianizing culture.” Why, then, did the crusading movement begin in the late eleventh century and why was it spent by 1300? How do Byzantine vulnerabilities to the Turks and economic rivalries in the Mediterranean basin figure in Carroll’s scheme? Why were massacres of Jews a particular feature of the First Crusade? Carroll’s only answers to questions like these depend on the violence inherent in the Cross—the Crusaders were, after all, crucesignati, signed by the Cross.
But Carroll’s obsession with the Cross causes him some other problems. One of the most serious of these has to do with the way he mangles the theology of Anselm of Canterbury, in particular his profound Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). Carroll says that Anselm, good Constantinian that he was, wrote this book to prove that Jesus became man to die. This terrible doctrine of atonement, Carroll insists, intensified Catholicism’s fixation on the Cross with inevitably murderous results for the Jews, long identified as Christ–killers. To make this point, Carroll cites Jaroslav Pelikan badly and out of context. He seems not to notice that he has no company on the slender branch on which he is perched.
Carroll is not yet done confusing himself and his readers about medieval theology. He likes Peter Abelard because he was a “liberal” and a “humanist.” (This from an author who earlier solemnly warned us about anachronism.) Abelard used logic and human reason to arrive at positions that anticipated those of the Jesus Seminar. It was “conservative” monks who did him in. That Anselm was himself an accomplished and innovative logician seems to have escaped Carroll’s notice. It almost seems as if Carroll likes St. Thomas Aquinas only because some of his propositions were condemned. But then, Thomas was a logician, so that makes him, like Abelard, a good guy. But Thomas agrees with Anselm more than he does with Abelard. So perhaps Thomas is a bad guy after all.
Carroll’s history marches along like this page after page. It is when he gets to the twentieth century that he is at his worst. He concludes, predictably, with Pius XII. He does not think Pius an evil man, just a misguided one whose moral shortcomings caused unprecedented suffering. In Carroll’s telling Eugenio Pacelli devoted his life to elevating the centralizing power of the papacy. Thus when he concluded the Reichs konkordat with Hitler’s new government on behalf of Pius XI in 1933, the point of the exercise was to bring the troublesomely independent German episcopate to heel and, in the bargain, to destroy the German Center Party. This is reductionism on a majestic scale.
The Konkordat, it is true, granted precious legitimacy to Hitler’s still young government. In hindsight, it would have been better to postpone or retract it. But it is worth remembering that we have hindsight; they didn’t. It is also true that some German Catholics, including intellectuals and members of the clergy, became Nazi party members and wrote disgusting things about Jews. They may have been prompted to do so by their understanding of the Konkordat. But larger currents were flowing in those difficult days.
Carroll correctly identifies but seems not to understand the issues that help to explain papal conduct in the 1920s and ’30s. Garibaldi’s march on Rome, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the Kulturkampf had called into question virtually every aspect of the papacy’s historical relationship with rulers and governments. Until the Lateran accords were signed with Mussolini, the popes had been virtual prisoners inside the Vatican. Eugenio Pacelli was trying to reinvent the papacy as an effective, influential institution in a world that seemed to have little need, modest respect, and no fear of it. Moreover, as Carroll says, “the Church had been thrown off balance by liberalism or modernism, that post–Enlightenment confluence of political revolution, intellectual skepticism, and cultural secularism.” In the circumstances, and well before the reality of Nazism was apparent to all, it is not so difficult to see how many people, and not just Catholic leaders, were tempted by Nazism’s stress on order and authority and by its staunch opposition to Bolshevism and the many decadences of modern culture.
Carroll dismisses anyone who has spoken on behalf of Pius XII as a “defender” or “advocate”; whereas he himself, and his primary source, John Cornwell, are portrayed as disinterested and objective. At one point Carroll dismisses Hannah Arendt be cause she argued that Catholic Jew–hatred was insufficient to explain Hitler’s atrocities. But surely, pace Carroll, she was right. Why was there no Holocaust before Hitler? Why Germany? How does one explain Stalin’s fanatical anti–Semitism given that he was notoriously unsympathetic to Catholicism? Arendt understated the point.
Carroll wishes for a different future so he imagines different pasts. He talks repeatedly of history as a “drama” and says that the actions of the actors are less interesting than their motivations. Fair enough, but he does a poor job of identifying the motives of the historical actors whom he chooses to discuss. And the historian, unlike the novelist, cannot artfully assign motives. Carroll says that it takes “moral maturity” to recognize the connections between events that others have overlooked or denied. This is fatuous. Page after page of this book would serve admirably in a college history class as an object lesson in false inferences and mistaken links of causation.
The book adopts several novelistic devices that are annoying and distracting. Again and again Carroll takes the reader back to Trier, a small town in western Germany. It was from Trier that Constantine launched his campaign to become emperor, there that he built a palace, there that Helena installed relics, there that Crusaders murdered Jews, there that Karl Marx was born, and there that the Seamless Robe was displayed twice in the twentieth century, once in 1933 after the Reichskonkordat and once in 1959 in Carroll’s own presence. Carroll has fixed tenaciously on a series of coincidences and seen in them a pattern of deep meaning.
More annoying, however, is his strategy of telling the story of the Church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism as his own personal story. Everything turns on when he learned this, felt that, or was told something else. He has succumbed to the postmodern temptation to assume that, finally, it is all about me. Be that as it may, it is both towering arrogance and bad historical method to insist that history depends on, and is precisely coincident with, one’s own dawning insights.
Carroll ends with a call for a Third Vatican Council, a call that is unlikely to be answered. He wishes for a Council whose participants would be equally drawn from all the branches of the family of man, even those who don’t believe or are hostile to the Church. The Council would take as its key responsibility, in so far as the Church itself is concerned, a liberal aggiornamento, a completely undiscriminating pluralism, that would, almost certainly, bring the Church to an end. But most implausibly, this Council would retell the gospel story so that Jesus Christ is not uniquely the Son of God and not the Messiah. He died because he was human, and humans die. He did not die for the sins of others. This is a Jesus who would not threaten Jews. No sensible Christian, of course, could embrace this caricature, but one wonders even if theologically serious Jews, such as those who wrote the recent Dabru Emet (see “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” FT, November 2000), would respect such a Christianity.
Thomas F. X. Noble is Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute and
Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.