James Carroll,

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

(Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001) 

ISBN 0-395-77927-8   hdbk 756 pp.   $28

There are two reviews of this book:

by Ruth Langer        by Philip A. Cunningham 


Ruth Langer's review

With this massive, best-selling book, James Carroll, speaking as a devoted Catholic, throws down a gauntlet to his church, challenging it to confront more effectively its past history of anti-Judaism and to eradicate more radically its causes and consequences. Carroll is passionate and genuine in this call; it echoes from the depths of his being throughout the book (and when one hears him speak). Indeed, when Brandeis University sponsored a conference on the book, the strength of his personal voice impelled Jewish respondents to begin a comparable Jewish process of eshbon hanefesh (soul searching), a step that has been largely lacking so far from Jewish-Christian conversation. The breakthrough in dialogue that cautiously crafted official, committee-written statements of the Vatican have failed to engender, Carroll’s book elicited, at least from the liberally-oriented participants in this conference.

The questions that need to be addressed here are whether this was merited, and whether this book should become an influential history of the Jewish and Christian relationship. While the answer to the first is a qualified “yes,” the answer to the second is “probably not.” Carroll makes no claims at having sophisticated training as either a historian or a theologian. Rather, he presents himself as a novelist driven by his personal struggle to resolve his relatively recent and horrified recognition that antisemitic structures deeply molded his Catholic identity. Consequently, his tome interweaves his Church’s journey through history with his own personal journey from a boyhood merging of his own mother Mary with Mary, mother of Jesus, to a mature adult confrontation with the cross at Auschwitz. While his personal journey illuminates some aspects of historical process — particularly the question of the formation of memory — and other aspects of contemporary Catholic ignorance about Jews and Judaism, much of it comes across as confessional and self-absorbed.

Carroll conceives of history as a multi-stranded thread that arcs through time, creating a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. While this converts unwieldy masses of facts into a compelling story, it is not usually good history. While Carroll reiterates regularly that church leaders’ crucial decisions at many critical junctures resulted in enhancing or entrenching instead of eradicating or lessening Christian anti-Judaism, he never really explores all the factors that led to particular decisions. History is messy, and messiness does fit an encyclopedic book that aims at narrative unity. The result is massive oversimplification throughout.

Part of the problem lies in Carroll’s process. He prepared himself for this book by immersing himself in the rich resources of the Boston theological community, allowing himself to be convinced by the interpretations of, often single, experts on a particular period. However, he occasionally seriously misjudges his “experts.” For instance, his understanding of kabbalah derives largely, according to his footnotes, from Heavenly Powers: Unraveling the Secret History of the Kabbalah by Neil Asher Silberman,  a popular writer whose other works are all on archaeology! This results in some bizarre interpretations of the history and content of kabbalah and other aspects of Jewish mysticism.

Most of the scholars on whom Carroll relies, though, are credible, but his immense bibliography simply has strange lacunae and frequently lacks depth. The problem is that the best scholars disagree with each other, sometimes seriously. Carroll, it seems, frequently picked the view that best fit his “narrative arc” and disregarded the rest. One wishes he had read and integrated some of the recent work on the pagan origins of antisemitism like Peter Schaefer’s Judaeophobia. A particularly serious omission is Jeremy Cohen’s masterful analysis of the development, implementation, and breakdown of the Augustinian theology of the Jew in his 1999 volume, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity. Perhaps Carroll simply had already completed his section on the medieval encounter when Cohen’s book appeared, but this is not his only omission. Carroll’s discussions of the Pope’s visit to Israel in March 2000 and of the Vatican document, Dominus Iesus, released the following September, indicate that parts of the manuscript were still fluid that late. I count at least a dozen errors in his presentation of Judaism, some of real significance. Experts in New Testament, in patristic literature, and in medieval theology have voiced similar concerns. It is hard to recommend this book as a careful work of scholarship.

That said, Carroll’s basic narrative is fundamentally correct; it is not a work of historical fiction. He traces the development of Christian attitudes to Jews and discusses the impact these attitudes have had on other aspects of Christian theology, beginning with a reconstruction of the world of Jesus and his immediate disciples, through the development of Christianity as a distinct Jewish sect and then as a distinct religion. His discussion of the role of memory in shaping history is thought-provoking, even if one is not (fully) persuaded that his reconstruction is the only possible one. He dwells on the christianization of the Roman Empire as the point when religion and politics became disastrously entangled. One wonders, though, whether Carroll is unfairly imposing his admittedly left-wing American attitudes to government on a different age. Certainly a separation of religion and politics would have been unheard of in late antiquity! Carroll’s survey covers the expected leading figures of the church and disasters for the Jews through the middle ages and into modernity. However, because of his personal confessional voice, Carroll’s  is a Catholic history,  focused on the western church and paying limited attention to Protestant Europe. He concludes with an investigation into the Church’s  involvement in — or failure to — protest the Holocaust, followed by a discussion of  its shaping of Holocaust memory through the canonization of Edith Stein and the crosses at Auschwitz.

Throughout, though, lurks a critique of the choices made by the Church with regards to their understanding of Jews. In his final section, he remarks with surprise,

“What I did not know at the beginning of this exploration was that the Church’s attitude toward Jews is so central to everything.” (547)

“…For hundreds of years, popes had defined their power in terms of their sovereignty over Jews, and for nearly two thousand years Catholic theology had projected almost every affirmation of the Church against the negative screen of a detested Judaism. Here was the Church’s first, and permanent, mistake…a refutation of the core idea, expressed in various ways, that the Church is a ‘perfect society,’ that as Bride of Christ it is spotless, that the claim to infallibility in matters of faith and morals is more than wishful thinking or rank denial.” (551)

This discovery leads him to issue a call for a Third Vatican Council to complete the work only begun at the Second in correcting Catholic teachings. Here again, while Carroll’s motivation is genuine, we must raise serious questions. First, leading participants in the work of Jewish-Christian relations over the past thirty-five years suggest that Carroll’s impatience is misplaced, both because of the complexities of the issues involved, and because he looks only at certain Vatican-generated documents and ignores most of the work of regional groups. Change has been happening “on the ground;” Carroll’s own sensitization to the issues is no small marker of this! Second, have Jews really been at the center of the world for Christians, determining the course of Christian doctrine and power struggles? A lens on history generated just by the study of the Jewish and Christian relationship might suggest so, but this is rather like interpreting the entire history of the United States through a lens of race relations. Yes, the Christian understanding of Jew and Judaism has shaped aspects of history, but it has been far from “central to everything.”

What are Jews to make of this book? While we have a vested interest in helping Christian groups untangle their teachings and their historical anti-Judaism, we also need to be cautious about Carroll’s critiques of the Church’s absolutist, anti-democratic structures. These are not our issues. Indeed, Carroll’s criticisms are so harshly couched as to be counterproductive, closing doors that have only just begun to open to the process of  building a new relationship. It is not in the interests of the Jewish community to see these doors slam shut. But Carroll is bringing to communal table a serious if popular examination of our history and a genuine proposal for our future. Both this examination and this proposal deserve serious discussion by both Catholics, other Christians, and Jews, academicians, clergy, and laity. It may be that Carroll’s specifics miss the mark, it may be that a Church council is not the right vehicle, but if we engage in the discussion for which he calls, and if we use this as an occasion to explore our own role in this history, we will be answering his challenge constructively.

[This review appeared in CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly XLVIII:3 (Summer 2001): 98-102. Posted with permission.]


Philip A. Cunningham's review

Novelist and Boston Globe columnist, James Carroll, whose 1996 memoir An American Requiem won a National Book Award, has recently published a massive account of Christian dealings with Jews over the past two thousand years. Much of the book’s historical material will not be new to veterans of the Christian-Jewish dialogue, but the narrative is in places very compelling, as when recounting the 16th century "purity of blood" legislation or the 19th century Dreyfus trial. The book’s sixth place position on the New York Times Bestseller List suggests that Carroll may have brought the history of Jewish-Christian relations to the attention of the general public in an unprecedented way.

The title comes from the cruciform emblem made from a sword that Constantine used as part of his campaign to impose order and unity on a fragmenting Roman Empire. This cross-from-a-sword is the book’s controlling symbol. The volume opens with reflections on disputes over the placement of crosses at the Auschwitz extermination camps, the largest erected for a 1979 papal Mass.

"I am a novelist and an essayist," notes Carroll in the introduction, "and in presuming to write a story that culminates with the cross at Auschwitz, I do so with an eye to details and connections that a historian might omit or a that scholar might dismiss" (p. 11). He goes on to explain, "If one were to look back in history through the junction of the cross at Auschwitz, what would one see? As I said the narrative form is my métier, and it offers me a structure. The story unfolds with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end is cross at Auschwitz.... In laying out the history of the conflict between the Church and the Jews, I am less concerned with the episodes themselves.... than I am with the underlying narrative arc that joins them in a coherent whole" (pp. 20-21).

His choice to use the cross, "Constantine’s Sword," as this connecting "narrative arc" requires Carroll to make numerous theological judgments and assertions that are difficult to synopsize concisely. However, summing up the main points of the book’s beginning and end will provide the essentials of his theses:

  • Carroll relates that the first generations of the Church constructed "a Passion narrative requiring the Messiah to be rejected by ‘his own’" (p. 554). This betrayal of Jesus’ essential message of love (pp. 552, 116) makes "it possible to ask if the entire structure of the Gospel narrative . . . [is] unworthy of the story it wants to tell" (p. 564). By canonizing these texts, he argues, the Church made the "tragic mistake" of formalizing a needless split between Judaism and Christianity, a split that could "serve no purpose of God’s" (p. 565-566).
  • In the fourth century, Carroll continues, the Emperor Constantine used the symbol of the cross to impose order and uniformity on both the divided Empire and emerging Christian theology. He made the cross, and hence the death of Jesus at the hands of "the Jews," the core of Christian theology. Constantine’s cross-from-a-sword thus wedded Christianity to power and absolutism, a corruption made very apparent in the Church’s treatment of Jews once it acquired political hegemony (ch. 9). For Carroll the cross also epitomizes the triumphal "universal exclusivism" of holding that only Jesus saves, a claim that in his opinion afflicts the Catholic Church to the present day.
  • By failing to perceive and address these core issues, Carroll argues that recent Roman Catholic "apologies" for its treatment of Jews are ambivalent and superficial. He deems the needed reforms to be so fundamental that only a third Vatican Council III can implement them. Such a council, in Carroll’s view, would have to address the interconnected problems of the "invented" Passion narratives with their "primal Christian slander against Judaism" (p. 564); the Catholic Church’s fixation on imperial power, uniformity, and infallibity; the "inhuman idea that anyone’s death can be a fulfillment of a plan of God’s" (p. 587); and "cosmic claims for the accomplishment of Jesus Christ as the one source of salvation" (p. 583).
  • Vatican Council III would remedy these faults, opines Carroll, by bringing Christians to "a more sophisticated relationship to God’s Word" (p. 567), especially by "establishing once and for all that ‘the Church as such’ can sin" (p. 566). It should also espouse a Christology that celebrates "a Jesus whose saving act is only disclosure of the divine love available for all" and so enable to the Church to "embrace a pluralism of belief and worship, of religion and no-religion" (p. 587). It would abandon "univeralist claims for Jesus as the embodiment of the one objective and absolute truth" (p. 591), adopt a democratic church structure because "all [its] citizens can contribute to the truth-seeking conversation" (p. 597) and revoke the doctrine of infallibility (p. 576).

Even this sketchy outline shows the controversial content of Carroll’s work. Adding to the contention, Carroll also describes himself as a having been a "dissenting priest" who ended his five-year priestly career "as a way of preserving my Catholic faith" (p. 53). He thereby positions himself at some distance (to the left) of an ecclesiastical structure that he can excoriate as "institutionalized and bureaucratized misanthropy itself" (p. 548).

Such heated rhetoric invites defensive and similarly heated responses. No debates are so fierce as internecine ones. However, in my estimation, polemical fury does a disservice to Christian-Jewish relations. Respect for the gravity of the subject, not to mention common courtesy, demands that Carroll’s book be engaged substantively.

There are sound theological reasons to question some of the theses of Constantine’s Sword. Carroll’s numerous theological claims are often overstated, overreaching, or poorly substantiated. Many statements contain elements of truth that are then negated by exaggeration, lack of adequate nuance, or the selection of only those facts or scholars that support the pre-determined "narrative arc." Again, the book’s beginning and ending offer useful illustrations of this assessment.

For example, Carroll argues that Constantine "put the crucifixion at the center of faith and the death of Jesus at the heart of redemption. That this is a mid-fourth-century innovation is emphatically revealed by the fact that the first Nicene formulation, in mentioning neither the death nor crucifixion, had, in line with the constant tradition of the Church, left the emphasis on Incarnation and Resurrection" (p.191).

Prescinding from the impossibility of making conclusive comparisons among hard-to-date ancient creeds, even a cursory review of the New Testament refutes the claim that Constantine gave the cross a centrality in Christian theology that it previously lacked. To take three examples, Paul’s song of praise in Philippians 2:5-11 acclaims Christ Jesus who "humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - death on a cross! Therefore, God also highly exalted him . . ." (Phil 2:8-9a). For Paul, Jesus’ death manifests his divine kenosis, his self-emptying. In fact, Paul sums up his own apostolic activity as the proclamation of "Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23).

The climactic moment of Mark’s Gospel occurs at the foot of Jesus’ cross when a centurion, seeing "that in this way he breathed his last, said ‘Truly, this man was God’s Son!’" (Mark 15:39). For Mark, the divine identity of the one who came "to give his life as a ransom for many" (10:45) can only be perceived at the cross. Indeed, the centurion is the first human character in Mark’s Gospel to recognize Jesus as God’s Son precisely because he witnesses the crucifixion. Significantly, Mark’s Gospel has neither an infancy narrative nor a resurrection appearance narrative (materials after 16:9 are universally held to be later additions). Thus, Carroll’s declaration that it was the "constant tradition of the [pre-Constantinian] Church" to leave "the emphasis on the Incarnation and Resurrection" ignores the evidence of what most scholars consider to be the earliest Gospel.

Ironically, the Gospel of John also views the cross as theologically central. I say "ironically" because Carroll particularly criticizes this Gospel (and modern Catholic documents that cite it) for describing the Johannine Jesus’ command in John 13:34-35 to "love one another" as a "new commandment" (p. 640 n. 9; p. 643 n. 63). It is absolutely true that love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) is not a Christian invention. However, in Johannine terms the newness of the love command lies in Jesus himself: "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" (John 13:34). He is the one whose love is so great that he lays it down for his friends (15:13), the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (10:11-15). In other words, Jesus on the cross exemplifies the "new" love that should identify his followers (13:35).

While a wooden cross may not have been a Christian emblem in the first century, these passages from the distinct Pauline, Synoptic, and Johannine literary traditions each in their own way show that the death of Jesus on a cross was at the heart of their theologizing.

Furthermore, the cross itself was used as a Christian symbol of Christ’s power at least 150 years before Constantine. In his mid-second century Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr interpreted Exodus 17:11-12 as follows: "Moses himself prayed to God, stretching out both hands, and Hur with Aaron supported them during the whole day, so that they might not hang down when he got wearied. For if he gave up any part of this sign, which was an imitation of the cross, the people were beaten . . . but if he remained in this form, Amalek was proportionally defeated, and he who prevailed prevailed by the cross. For it was not because Moses so prayed that the people were stronger, but because, while one who bore the name of Jesus [= Joshua] was in the forefront of the battle, he himself made the sign of the cross" (ch. 90).

Plainly, the centrality of the cross in Christian thought was not a Constantinian imperial invention. It was pivotal from the beginning. The truth that Carroll perceives is that soteriology, how one approaches the significance of the crucifixion for human salvation, relates to Christian thinking about Judaism. As Robert Wilken put it in 1971, " . . . Christian beliefs are so deeply rooted in attitudes toward Judaism that it is impossible to disentangle what Christians say about Christ and the Church from what they say about Judaism" [Judaism and the Early Christian Mind, p. 229]. Carroll is also correct in contending that the modern Church’s repudiation of supersessionism must have consequences for Christian soteriological thinking. However, this valid insight is discredited by his making "classic" soteriology symbiotic with Constantinian power and by misrepresenting the witness of New Testament and pre-Constantinian writers.

Overstatements in regard to this crucial foundation of Carroll’s "narrative arc" make one wonder if relevant data is regularly distorted or disregarded in service of the metaphor that is the crux of the book. Is "Constantine’s Sword" a controlling icon in more ways than one?

To jump to the book’s conclusion, I suspect that the governing image of "Constantine’s Sword" has caused Carroll to underestimate severely the reform concerning Jews and Judaism that is underway in the Roman Catholic community. Carroll does not consider any post-Nostra Aetate ecclesial documents except for Memory and Reconciliation and We Remember (about which he has nothing good to say), or any episcopal conference statements (except for the French Bishops’ Drancy statement whose strong confessional words he endorses). This limited encounter with the post-Nostra Aetate documentary tradition minimizes the achievements of the past thirty-five years and makes Carroll’s calls for radical action seem all the more imperative.

Such disregard for post-Nostra Aetate developments may relate to Carroll’s choice to begin and end his story at Auschwitz, with a cross "large enough to prompt obeisance" (p. 3). Another option would have been to describe the pope on his knees during the March 2000 "Mass of Pardon." On that occasion he clutched the feet of a large crucifix in sorrow for Christian crimes against "the Jewish people, crucified by us for so long," to recall words of the papal Stations of the Cross on Good Friday in 1998. However, this would have shown that the cross has other symbolic meanings than the authoritarianism of "Constantine’s Sword."

Readers of only this book have no way of knowing that some of Carroll’s proposed reforms are already in process. For example, his legitimate call for widespread education on critical approaches to the Bible had already been articulated at Vatican Council II, "Easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful" (Dei Verbum, §22; cf. §12). This was reiterated by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993 (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV,A,3), which instructed:

Particular attention is necessary, according to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (Nostra Aetate, 4), to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people. The tragic events of the past must, on the contrary, impel all to keep unceasingly in mind that, according to the New Testament, the Jews remain "beloved" of God, "since the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:28-29).

On the other hand, it is undeniable that much work remains to be done in adequately educating the Catholic faithful toward what Carroll terms "a more sophisticated relationship to God’s Word" (p. 567). The uncritical use of scripture with attendant negative consequences for Jewish-Christian relations continues in various ways in textbooks, homily services, and even magisterial documents (as an example of the last see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 594). However, what this means is that the ambitious and systemic project set forth by Vatican Council II is still (and unsurprisingly) incomplete.

Likewise, it is regrettable that readers of Constantine’s Sword will not learn the contents of an important document issued by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in 1985. In his discussion of soteriology Carroll should have considered the Commission’s recognition that the full redemption of the world has not yet been achieved:

This holds true also for the Church which, realized already in Christ, yet awaits its definitive perfecting as the Body of Christ. The fact that the Body of Christ is still tending towards its full stature (Eph. 4:12-19) takes nothing from the value of being a Christian. So also the calling of the patriarchs and Exodus from Egypt do not lose their importance and value in God's design from being at the same time intermediate stages (e.g., Nostra Aetate, no. 4). The Exodus, for example, represents an experience of salvation and liberation that is not complete in itself, but has in it, over and above its own meaning, the capacity to be developed further. Salvation and liberation are already accomplished in Christ and gradually realized by the sacraments in the Church. This makes way for the fulfillment of God's design, which awaits its final consummation with the return of Jesus as Messiah, for which we pray each day (Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church, II, 8-9).

Surely Catholic soteriology is not so self-validating as Carroll suggests when a magisterial document is able to think of the Church itself as an "intermediate stage." It is true that such ideas, emerging from the Church’s modern reflections on its relationship with Judaism, are hardly dominant or widespread in Catholic practice. It is also true that considerable research in soteriology remains to be done in the aftermath of the Shoah. However, here we again see that the implications of Vatican Council II are in a process of unfolding. It is hardly surprising that it takes time to reshape the attitudes of nineteen centuries. Perhaps instead of the revolutionary transformation that Carroll seeks, it is better to think of post-Nostra Aetate developments as an evolutionary process, with advances and setbacks along the way.

Carroll also overlooks the possibility that even flawed documents can produce positive consequences. Although Nostra Aetate was criticized for not admitting the Church’s own role in the oppression of Jews, it catalyzed a process in which subsequent documents began to do precisely that. Similarly, while there are assuredly problematic statements in We Remember, that reflection has inspired the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs to issue guidelines to implement Holocaust education curricula throughout the vast Catholic school system in the United States.

It seems that Carroll has adopted the dichotomous notion that unless an ecclesial statement is flawless it is shallow. He is aware that "a community as large and complex as the Roman Catholic Church can accomplish such a reckoning [of its anti-Jewish legacy] only in fits and starts" (p. 28). That makes it all the more puzzling that he did not conduct a full examination of post-Nostra Aetate documentary teaching and instead pursued an "all or nothing" approach. While there is certainly ambivalence and perhaps even antisemitism lurking among some Catholic leaders and faithful, and while certain actions of the Vatican such as the beatification of Pius IX are reasonably open to critique, that does not mean that Nostra Aetate and its aftermath are superficial. It means that the journey the Church has undertaken is complex and difficult.

Other cases of dichotomous thinking also imperil Carroll’s narrative. When considering the passion narratives are our choices really only between "history remembered" and "prophecy historicized"? Are our options for thinking of salvation really limited to only "universal absolutism" or "religious pluralism" (understood in a very relativist way)?

The public conversation that Carroll’s book has generated may ultimately prove to be helpful. He has told a story about a topic that Christians certainly need to understand. I am concerned, however, that his rendition will mislead many readers into doubting the import of what is already transpiring in Catholicism. I also wonder if its occasionally immoderate rhetoric and overreaching argumentation will make further progress more difficult. Finally, I fear, even though Carroll believes that antisemitism is not intrinsic to Christianity (see p. 91), that his constant recourse to the metaphor of "Constantine’s Sword," even at the price of sometimes going beyond the evidence, will lead many readers to draw the opposite conclusion.

[This review appeared in SIDIC Review 34/2: 28-31. Posted with permission.]