Book Review: Written from his heart

A former priest presents Jesus in a new light.

'Christ actually' book (photo credit: PR)
'Christ actually' book
(photo credit: PR)
It is good to enter the 21st century secure in the knowledge that new ideas are being proposed that affect all mankind, and are of special interest to Jews and Christians today.
In his highly personal search for the true Jesus, James Carroll – the author of 11 novels and seven works of non-fiction – presents us with Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, a well-researched and illuminating history of the Jewish-Christian encounter during what he calls the First Jewish Holocaust (66-135 CE, including the fall of the Second Temple) up to the post-World War II era.
In the Publishers Weekly review of his book, Carroll was called “Christ haunted” and “Holocaust haunted” – and he admitted the charge. The son of an Irish-Catholic US Air Force general, once stationed in Wiesbaden, Carroll became fascinated with the diary of Anne Frank and the novels of Elie Wiesel. Later, being rooted in the Church and becoming a priest equipped him to be skeptical of his own certainties. After five years, he left the pulpit in order to freely express himself.
Carroll says Christians cherish Jesus and read the Gospels without considering the First Holocaust, the massive violence which was inflicted in 66-135 CE on the Jewish people, just as the Gospels were being written. He understands that this Holocaust led Christians to tell the story of Jesus as if he were against the Jews, as if he were not a Jew himself. Consequently, this led to the Second Holocaust – which still demands a reckoning.
While it is true the Vatican Council II renounced the “Christ killer” charge in response to the Holocaust and the nuclear age, Carroll found this insufficient. The only way he could find his true Jesus and internal peace was by searching for the truth.
Carroll presents Jesus in a new light, step after step, from the stories of his birth to his encounter with John the Baptist, up to the Passion and its aftermath. He says Jesus never put himself in the place of God – the church did this, making his humanity problematic. Twenty centuries later, the most fearful consequence of this twist was that Jesus’s Jewish personality was made problematic, too.
Jesus was, Carroll believes, a good Jew: His God was Abba, Father, the God of Love, who – he emphasizes – always was and always will be neither an “Old Testament God” nor a “New Testament God” but the God of the Jews, pure and simple.
The divinity of Jesus proved more persuasive to Christians than his message of humanity, but if he were not considered as carrying a divine message, he would be of no interest to his believers. However, Jesus’s true message, as carried out by Christians in their war against the Jews, became widely distorted due to the changing political circumstances.
There is no better example of this distortion than the story of the Passion, as presented in its gradual development in the Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew.
Mark, the first, was objective. Luke, the second, had outdone the Passion narrative of Mark in underscoring how the Jewish priests had forced the reluctant Pontius Pilate to carry out the crucifixion. In Luke, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, while “those Jewish leaders nevertheless demand that Jesus be crucified.” Matthew, written after Luke, tells of Pilate washing his hands and saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”
And the people answered: “His blood be on us and on our children.”
The Jews were defeated and the Romans were the victors; hence the Christian community’s gradual pursuit of their favor and the attempt to draw more gentiles into their movement.
Thus we are shown how in its war against the Jews, the Gospels and the Christian faith gradually lost the real Jesus. Twice a day, Carroll writes, Jesus pronounced the Jewish Shema prayer. Every Shabbat, he read the Torah – or, if he was illiterate, was present at its reading. He believed God’s Torah was given to God’s people, “Am,” to be brought to life in God’s land, “Aretz.”
At least once a year, on Passover, his attention turned to the Temple in Jerusalem, for the burnt offering of animals while Psalms were sung; he observed the purity and revered the Temple.
If he preached the good news of love, of the trustiness of God – who is like the Father of the Kingdom of God, present here and now – he did so from within Judaism, not against it. But Christians, to accommodate such a true view of Jesus, must first confront their own tradition – which became deeply immersed in the catastrophe of Christian anti-Semitism.
Carroll’s views were deeply affected by the tragedy of young Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist who failed in his attempt to bomb Hitler and was executed by the Nazis. In a letter written in prison, Bonhoeffer asked: “What keeps gnawing at me is the question… who is Christ actually, to us today?” Carroll found the same thing “gnawing at me.”
On November 10, 1938, Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer noted: “They set thy sanctuary on fire… An expulsion of Jews from the West,” which he wrote must necessarily bring the expulsion of Christ – for Jesus Christ was a Jew.
Bonhoeffer’s personal reckoning sparked Carroll’s reading of the New Testament texts through the lens of centuries of total war and corrupted power, trying to see how violence, contempt for women and above all, hatred of the Jews distorted the faith of the church he still loves.
The fall of the Second Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem moved the center of Jewish thought and faith to Yavne, as the Christians fled to Pella in Transjordan. Since then Jews have found salvation in Halacha, while Christian gospels grew in the diverse communities of Rome, Corinth, Alexandria, Caesarea and Antioch, filling the Gospels with a mix of memory, imagination and Greek philosophy – and rendering the Gospel of John still more anti-Jewish. As a result, in 167 CE, bishop Melito of Sardis charged the Jews with murdering God.
Carroll says the retrieval of a sustainable faith for our time and place – the aim of his book – must recognize what had shaped the faith of the early Christians under the Roman fist. The Jesus of the Gospels, which started as memory and interpretation and became proclamation, catechesis and instruction, intensified the conflict with the Jews – and ultimately led to the creation of an Aryan Christ.
Unlike Jews, for whom the destruction of the Temple meant grief and punishment for their sins, the Christians saw the Jewish catastrophe as Jesus’s victory.
Once the Gospels started to be read, Jesus was viewed as seeing into the future, predicting the Temple’s destruction – a proof of his divinity. For the centuries the Byzantine Christians controlled Jerusalem, until the Muslim conquest of 638, the Temple Mount served as a city’s garbage dump: a symbol of the hated Jews’ failure.
The morals and meaning of the Jesus movement in relation to the Jews had been heavily corrupted by the fall of the Temple, and the Jewish defeat by Romans.
The same happened to the fate of women, whom Jesus regarded as equals, but were ultimately ordered “to learn in silence with all their submissiveness.”
The author must have found his Jesus, since he writes: “If Christ is undiscovered now, a figure lost to many, that is in part because of the scandals done in his name, by those who call out his name most loudly. In part, he remains undiscovered because of the abstractions and secrets of scholars who do not trust ordinary people with the very ordinariness of Jesus – as if the mass of believers can embrace only superstition and image.
“And, in part, he remains undiscovered because so much about our age has shaken us to the core, leaving us stripped of the intellectual horizon within which faith, for most of these thousands of years since Abraham, has had its resonance.”
As a Jewish reader, I welcome Carroll’s challenging interpretation of history, which had caused so much Jewish suffering.
He writes very well, from the heart, and has conducted tremendous research.
The book is certainly a valid step for better Jewish-Christian understanding.
It is also a fascinating drama – a spirited challenge to the long-established hatreds and prejudices, in the search for a better world.