Monday, May 24, 2010

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll

This book, Constantine's Sword, was published in 2001. I first read it about four years ago. The author is a lifelong catholic who was ordained as a priest, but left the priesthood after several years. He is a rather well-known professional writer now with a National Book Award to his credit. He is, in fact, an excellent writer. As history, this book details the long and shocking degree to which his church promoted anti-Semitism and actively participated in discrimination against Jews as well as institutionalized torture and execution. This book is also, in equal parts, a description of his struggle to maintain and justify his faith in the face of this unsavory aspect of his Church’s history. To be fair, after the Reformation, the Protestant sects continued the anti-Semitism unabated. This is a highly personal rendering. If you are interested just in learning the history you may find the book overly long and tedious. If you are interested in the author’s personal conflicts you will find it fascinating.

The extended history will not be detailed in this note. The focus will be on events related to the formation of the early Christian Church and the development of its sacred texts. The section to be discussed was labeled by Carroll "New Testament Origins of Jew Hatred." I thought of using this as the tile of this post but I didn’t want to scare people away. One cannot appreciate the appropriateness of the title without having read the entire book or having an unusual familiarity with Church history.

Carroll states that in order to understand the events that occurred leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ death one must understand the historical context in which events occurred. He believes that two things are often overlooked in trying to comprehend the historical progression: the fundamental fact that Jesus was a Jew, and the relevance of the brutal Roman repression of the Jews. Put in the proper context, many of the events recorded in the Gospels do not make sense to him. He attributes these presumed errors partly to the fact that the Gospels were written by people who were at least a generation removed from the events and restricted to whatever oral tradition had been transmitted over the years. He also admits that political considerations partly determined the final form of the Gospels

The reading of the Gospels would lead one to believe that Jesus was somehow different from other Jews and that he opposed or challenged the Jewish religious establishment. The author points out that while the Temple was in Judea (from which the term Jew is derived), establishing Judea as the central location for the regions populated by the people we refer to as Jews, each location had its own sects that practiced their religion in different ways. If Jesus was roaming the countryside preaching and attracting a small following, it would not necessarily be an unusual or particularly noteworthy occurrence.

"Judeans were dominant because the cultic center was in Jerusalem, yet there were Samaritans who, worshiping at their own Mount Gerizim instead of on Mount Zion, were disdained by Judeans. And there were the villagers of Galilee, whom city-dwelling Judeans would have looked down upon as peasants. In turn, Galileans would have regarded the Jewish oligarchs of Jerusalem both as near traitors for accommodating Rome and as idolaters for allowing images of Caesar to be venerated, if only on coin....Jesus was acting exactly like a Jew of his time when, apparently influenced by John the Baptist, he initiated yet another sectarian movement, and like a Jew of his place—Galilee—when he targeted the Herod-compromised Temple in Jerusalem as the site of his defining spiritual-political act."The author points out that we do not know exactly what happened in the Temple to cause Jesus to be arrested and executed, and that the Gospel accounts are suspect.

"It is highly unlikely that a Jew of Jesus time and background would have taken offense at money changing or pigeon selling in the Temple portico....those activities were essential to the Temple cult: Jews traveled here from all over the Mediterranean to offer sacrifices, the single holiest act of Jewish piety. At Passover, tens of thousands of Jews from throughout Palestine and beyond would have come to Jerusalem for just that purpose. They had to purchase animals and they had to pay the Temple tax, and they needed local currency for both. Money changers...allowed them to do so. Likewise, the pigeon sellers provided only what a devout pilgrim needed."Carroll also heaps disdain on the description of an equivocating Pontius Pilate hesitating to execute a trouble-making Jew.

"This procurator is remembered somewhat differently by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who lived when Pilate did, and wrote sometime around 41 C.E., that the Roman used ‘bribes, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injuries, constantly repeated executions without trial, ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.’....Philo, Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus all single out Pilate ‘as one of the worst provocateurs.’....even by the standards of brutal Rome, Pilate seems to have been savage. When six or so years after the death of Jesus, he wantonly slaughtered Samaritans for gathering to venerate Moses on a sacred mountain they associated with him, Pilate was recalled to Rome."There is a tendency throughout the Gospels to downplay the ruthlessness of the Romans and blame the Jews, as if they were a unified, homogeneous entity, as the aggressors demanding the death of Jesus. That part may have in fact been true for any number of reasons since we do not know what actually transpired. However, consider this quote from Matthew.

"And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’"That is truly a strange statement to come as a unified cry from a mob of angry people.

Carroll reminds us over and over again to be conscious of context. As for the crucifixion, that was the typical Roman way of dealing with Jewish troublemakers. There were constant cycles of rebellion by the Jews and brutal suppression by the Romans.

"The Roman means of execution, of course, was crucifixion, and Josephus makes the point that indeed the victims were crucified. That means that just outside the wall of the Jewish capital, crosses were erected—not three lonely crosses on a hill, as in the tidy Christian imagination, but perhaps two thousand in close proximity. On each was hung a Jew, and each Jew was left to die over several days the slow death of suffocation.....And once squeezed free of life, the corpses were left on their crosses to be eaten by buzzards."This was the Roman way. The descriptions from the Gospel can be believed as the literal truth if one wishes, but, as Carroll concludes, such belief is not required in order to maintain one’s Christian faith. What the ‘literal truth" does do, is to enshrine the notion that the Romans were not the bad guys, the Jews were.
After Jesus’ death his followers were apparently left with no plan to fall back on. They still considered themselves Jews and would continue to do so. The goal of these early years continued to be convincing the other Jews to accept that Jesus was the "Christ" or Messiah predicted in their scriptures. This effort required that the events in Jesus’ life be consistent with scriptural references. The author and some scholars question whether some of the events of Jesus’ life that eventually ended up preserved in the Gospels were biased or "spun," intentionally or not, to force a concordance with prophesies. Consider this discussion of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem provided by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King in Reading Judas. Yes, there is a gospel of unknown authorship attributed to Judas.

"We noted earlier how the author of Mark’s Gospel tells the story: that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, acclaimed by his followers as King of Israel. The author of the Gospel of Matthew noted, of course, that the author of the Gospel of Mark had Zechariah’s prophecy in mind when he wrote this scene, and he wrote several additional lines into the story. When the author of Matthew retells the story, he actually places directly before it his own paraphrase of Zechariah’s oracle in 9:9: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Matthew 21:5). But careful as the author was to track Zechariah’s oracle as he wrote, he seems not to have noticed that the last phrase of this prophecy involves the well-known literary device of poetic repetition. It appears that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was so intent on making the scene correspond to prophecy as close as possible that he changed the Gospel of Mark’s narrative to say that Jesus ordered his disciples to bring him both a donkey and a colt. The result is that the Gospel of Matthew gives a rather ridiculous picture of Jesus riding into Jerusalem straddling two animals at once: ‘The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them’ (Matthew 21:6-7)."There are many such suspicious occurrences in the Gospels that cast doubt on the literal accuracy of these documents. The motive of whoever wrote them is clear, however, at least in the early Gospels: Jesus is the Christ prophesied in scriptures of the Jewish religion. The only problem was that the Jews were not convinced.

Let us move forward in time now to the period of time when the Gospels were written. The Gospel of Mark is attributed to 68 C.E. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are believed to have been composed in that order in the years 80-100 C.E. The Jewish followers of Jesus, over a span of a few generations, have not succeeded in convincing the Jews to join them in following Jesus. They have dispersed around the Mediterranean and many are in regions dominated numerically by non-Jews. Also note that in the years 66-73 C.E. the continued resistance of Jews to Roman rule led to rebellions throughout the region, not just in the traditional Jewish homelands. The Roman response was ferocious. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, which the Christians could ascribe to the wrath of God, and perhaps as many as 600,000 Jews were killed. A subsequent uprising in 137 C.E. led to an estimated 850,000 additional deaths. The Christian Jews were in an awkward and traumatic situation.

Carroll uses the word traumatic often to describe the state of the young and struggling Christian community. Clearly the Christians were in a precarious state. In 64 C.E. Nero had scapegoated the Christians, accusing them of being responsible for the fire that had devastated Rome. The subsequent violent persecution was noted by Tacitus and became the first recorded reference to the movement. Carroll suggests the Christians responded by laying low and trying to survive the current turmoil.

"They knew themselves not to be the violent threat to Roman order that Nero accused them of being. If the Gospels, just then starting to jell in their final forms, emphasized a relative friendliness to Rome, there was a reason for it. The followers of Jesus had been slandered, defined not merely as Rome’s mortal enemy but as violent insurrectionists. It was not true and the Gospels were slanted, in effect, to emphasize that followers of Jesus fully intended to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s."Contrast that with the fate of the traditional Jews. They viewed the degree of homage demanded by Rome’s rulers to be of a kind that they reserved only for their God. This belief kept them in constant conflict with Roman authorities, ultimately leading to the two brutal Roman responses mentioned above. The two Jewish sects, Christians and "traditional," were moving in different directions politically, emotionally, and religiously—trending inevitably to separate histories. Carroll lays the blame for the subsequent Christian anti-Semitism on the Romans and the "trauma’ they induced.

"Rome’s murderous assault on the Jews of Judea would make Nero’s violence seem benign, and explode the boundaries against which Christian-Jewish stresses had begun to press. The trauma of bloodshed on an imperial scale, unprecedented for the Jews, is the necessary context for understanding what was happening in those years among the Jews. Christian anti-Judaism, in other words, is not the first cause here; the Roman war against Judaism is."While the Christians had had little luck in converting Jews, they were, on the other hand, finding the Gentiles to be more interested in their teachings. The problem was they had to convince the Gentiles that they should follow a leader who had been executed like a common criminal, and whose claim to religious significance was being rejected by his own people. This was not a compelling combination. They would ultimately have to decide to distance themselves from the Jews, not only to protect themselves from Roman wrath, but to create a narrative that would be acceptable to non-Jews. Consider the following passage provided by Carroll.

"Elaine Pagels, in her groundbreaking study The Origin of Satan, showed how the antagonism between a Jewish establishment and the followers of Jesus evolved, in the experience of those followers, into a cosmic struggle between evil and good, with ‘the Jews’ defined as evil. In the earliest Gospel, Mark, dating to around 68, Jesus is locked in conflict with an embodied Satan who has possessed a man, who energizes the antagonism of the Scribes and that of his own family, and who even tempts Jesus through the mouth of his favorite, Peter. By the time Luke is written, a decade or more later, the enemy of Jesus is still the ‘evil one,’ but now he is identified with the leaders, ‘the chief priests and captains of the temple and elders.’ Pagels shows how, with the last Gospel, John, dating to around 100 and clearly reflecting the intensification of intra-Jewish sectarian conflict that followed the destruction of the Temple, the identification of ‘the Jews’ and Satan himself has become complete. This movement is reflected in the fact that the loaded phrase ‘the Jews’ appears a total of 16 times in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, while in John it appears 71 John, Jesus himself identifies the evil one with the people. The ‘temptation scenes,’ which are played out in other Gospels between Jesus and Satan, are played out in John between Jesus and the people.....The climax in this movement comes in chapter 8 of John when Jesus is portrayed as denouncing ‘the Jews’ as the offspring of Satan. ‘You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning.’ Thus Jews have become not just the historical enemy but the ontological enemy—the negative against which every positive aspect of Christianity is defined."Carroll summarizes.

"’Christians,’ in addition to slandering ‘Jews’ about their role in the crucifixion of Jesus, began eventually—over the decisive years of the Roman war against the Jews—to define them as not just their enemy, or Jesus’, but as God’s. And that, when later, mainly Gentile Christians misread the story, is what made it lethal."Given everything presented in his book—all the uncertainties about the life of Jesus and his teachings, all the evil that flowed from the actions of his Church—Carroll maintains his faith.

"If I seem to be going to some length here to dilute, if not refute, the Jew hatred we so easily detect in the New Testament, and that would flower into anti-Jewish violence, it is to make the case that the Jew hatred that stamps the beginning of Christianity is not essential to this religion. If I believed it were, either to Christianity’s origins or to its development, I could, I repeat, have nothing to do with this religion. That is the point of distinguishing between the impulses and beliefs of a faithfully Jewish Jesus and his faithfully Jewish first followers and those of their traumatized successors."Implicit in Carroll’s retention of faith is the notion that the "aberrations" in the Gospels that led to "Jew hatred" were the only significant aberrations. He refers often to the ease with which facts can be misremembered. This potential source of error and the demonstrated enthusiasm with which the gospel writers tried to make the "facts" fit the prophecies might make one suspicious about what one can actually know about Jesus and his teachings. Carroll chooses to not go there.

This part of the story has one more turn to take before the finish. In the second century there were many writings in distribution claiming to reveal religious truths. Many of these documents were contradictory. A number of Christian leaders got together to bring order out of this chaos and ended up choosing four of these documents, or gospels, to be the canonized ones that have been discussed. They formed the core of what would come to be known as the New Testament. They then tried to have all non-included documents and gospels destroyed. A number of these other documents have been recovered over the years and present an interesting picture of how diverse early Christianity was. That is a tale for another day.

The Christian leaders still had to decide what to do with their Jewish origins. Some argued that the New Testament totally superceded the traditional Jewish scriptures and they should be ignored. The decision was made that the Jewish documents were required in order to introduce the prophesies that they needed to demonstrate Jesus fulfilling. Thus an Old Testament was included. One wonders if these "founding fathers" would have decided differently if the Protestant Reformation could have been anticipated. The Old Testament has gone from a near afterthought to being interpreted as the literal word of God by many Christians.

The act of using the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" could only mean to a Jew that his religion was considered dead and his heritage no longer had any meaning. There was no middle ground from which to negotiate. The option of "converting" Jews became essentially impossible without resorting to coercion. That is the point of departure for the bulk of Carroll’s book. The remainder is devoted to the subsequent history of the Christian-Jew interaction. There is much to be learned in his telling of that story.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds somewhat interesting. Side bar, can anyone say for 'certain' that ALL Christians 'stood by', while the Jews were persecuted and did nothing? I ask this question because I've heard it for so many many years, but ask myself could this be accurate? Thanks.

    Jean M.


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