The Dark Shadow of the Cross
The Church and the Jews: A History
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001) 756 pp., $28.00 (hardback)
In November of 1996, James Carroll stood outside the walls of Auschwitz and beheld the giant wooden cross planted there a dozen years earlier by Polish Catholics in the midst of anti-Jewish demonstrations. How, Carroll asked himself, had the cross become a sign of sacrilege? How did this most sacred of Christian symbols become such an offense?
For Christians taught to see the cross as a sign of God’s triumph over evil, the idea that history could so transform the cross is an unbearable dissonance. But Carroll is a journalist for whom dissonance demands explanation. Events have meaning, Carroll insists in this best-selling account. What meaning could these events have? And so that day, he writes, “I vaguely grasped the necessity of learning, as the theologian Paul van Buren put it, ‘to speak of Auschwitz from the perspective of the cross…by first learning to speak of the cross from the perspective of Auschwitz.’”
Thus began Carroll’s journey—a pilgrimage of sorts—through the long history of Jewish experience with the cross. It was a journey that would take him back through World War II and the Shoah (the Hebrew name for the Holocaust) and the church’s complicity in these events. This journey of penance took him back to the 19th-century Dreyfus Affair in France, with its feigned offer of Jewish emancipation so rudely withdrawn; to the Spanish Inquisition and the establishment of the Roman ghetto; to the Crusades; to the Christianizing of the Roman Empire under Constantine’s successors and the assumption that if Christianity’s triumph were to be complete, Judaism would have to recede; and, finally, to Christian scripture itself, with its tragic, mistaken notion that Jesus died at the murderous hands of the Jews. Carroll’s history thus begins with the Gospel of Matthew, in which the Jews standing before Pilate take from the Romans the guilt of the crucifixion and place it upon themselves. Matthew has them say: “His blood be upon us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). This is the shadow the cross casts over history.
It is a terrible irony. Crucifixion was Rome’s signature method of execution for rebellious provincials like Jesus the Jew. Rome crucified Jesus in order to terrorize the Jews into submission. Jewish followers of Jesus, like Paul, consequently made the cross a Christian symbol of defiance (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:18–25, 2:8). But Jews like Paul were soon overwhelmed in this new religion by Gentiles like Constantine, who legalized Christianity and placed it at the center of the imperial stage. Constantine adopted the cross as his logo. Constantine’s biographer Eusebius relates that on the eve of battle against his co-emperor Maxentius, Constantine had a vision of a cross bearing the inscription In hoc signo vinces—“By this sign, conquer.” Marching into battle with a cross-shaped standard, Constantine’s men defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.
Legends surrounding Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, would add to the mystique and power of the cross. In 326, Carroll tells us, Helena journeyed to Jerusalem to look in on the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While there, legend has it, she discovered the “True Cross” of Jesus. Years later, the late-fourth-century bishop Ambrose of Milan would invest this event with enormous significance. Ambrose interpreted this reappearance of the cross as a kind of “second coming,” nothing less than a “second incarnation,” as Carroll puts it, “a salvific turning point by which the will of God is accomplished.” Again, according to legend, Jews knew of this power of Jesus’ cross, and so had hidden it after the crucifixion, “not just because it was a proof that they had crucified the Lord, but because its revelation would bring about their final defeat.” Knowing this tradition, Helena tortures a captive Jew until “he agrees to give up his people’s last secret. When he does, Judaism’s last hope is gone.”
The cross soon became the sign under which Constantine’s successors would conquer millions. Under pagan Rome, Jews had never yielded to the cross. Now, disbelieving what these successors to pagan Rome were saying about their brother Jesus, they refused to yield to Rome’s new, Christian incarnation. Soon bishops would incite the mob to burn synagogues, and in the early fourth century the first Christian pogroms would take place in the great cities of the Roman East, like Antioch and Alexandria. Crucifixion had by now been banned by Christian emperors, but the 047transformed cross could still mean death to its Jewish dissenters.
In the 11th century, when the Crusaders arrived in the Rhineland to purge it of its infidels, they came, in the words of one Jewish chronicler of the First Crusade, with a “profane symbol—a horizontal line over a vertical one” emblazoned on their vestments. The number of those slaughtered under that sign, or who committed suicide rather than submit to this Christian barbarism, is calculated in the thousands. This was the first Holocaust and it was prosecuted against Jews under the sign of the cross. As they were forced to bow before the Crusaders’ cross, medieval Jews were told: “You are the children of those who killed our object of veneration, hanging him on a tree; and he himself said: ‘There will yet come a day when my children will come and avenge my blood.’”
Jews again stood in the shadow of the cross when Torquemada herded thousands of conversos, Jewish converts to Christianity, into the cathedrals of Spain and required these “New Christians” to swear their sincerity before his cross or die. In the first eight years of the Spanish Inquisition, two thousand were burned at the stake. What would the cross have meant to a 15th-century converso?
Or what would it have meant to those 150,000 Jews expelled from Spain altogether in 1492? Or to their descendants who settled in Rome only to experience half a century later the Grand Inquisitor himself, Gian Pietro Caraffa, installed as Pope Paul IV? In the same year that Christians were making peace among themselves at Augsburg—1555—Paul IV sentenced Rome’s Jews to the hell of the infamous Roman ghetto with the papal bull, Cum Nimis Absurdum. The entry to the ghetto lay across the street from the Church of San Gregorio alla Divina Pietà (again, in the shadow of the cross), on which appears, Carroll notes, an inscription from Isaiah that reads, in part, “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good.” “For more than three hundred years,” notes Carroll, “no pope…would act to dismantle the squalid ghetto at the foot of Vatican Hill. It would take the ‘godless” soldiers of the French Republic to do that in 1796. After the defeat of Napoleon, Pope Pius VII (1800–1823) would order the walls of the ghetto rebuilt. It was not finally abolished until the popes lost control of Rome to the ‘secular’ forces of Italian nationalism in 1870.”
In 19th-century France, the church had long since lost the power to wield the cross as a weapon against the Jews. It was a secular society, in which young Jewish patriots like Alfred Dreyfus could rise through the ranks of public service to positions of note and responsibility. But the lingering effect of centuries of anti-Jewish hatred could not be undone so easily as enlightened French liberals had thought. When Captain Dreyfus was wrongly accused in 1894 of sharing military secrets with Germany, his Jewish background quickly became the issue around which his entire case revolved. Suddenly and ferociously the flames of latent anti-Semitism leapt up to consume him. Fanning the flames was the most widely read Catholic publication in France, La Croix (The Cross). La Croix quickly construed the Dreyfus case as a battle between the Jews and loyal Catholic Francophiles. In an editorial of January 28, 1898, the Assumptionist Fathers editing La Croix wrote, “We know well that the Jew was the inventor of our anti-Christian laws…You don’t have to be a great scholar to understand that the law which…removes the Crucifix from hospitals and schools comes from the same Pharisees who underhandedly persuaded people to free Barabbas and to vote for the death of the innocent Jesus.” There it is again, that ancient curse, the shadow of the cross.
As a Catholic (and a former priest), Carroll’s first concern in this narrative is with the Catholic Church and its history of Jew-hatred. For the most part he leaves Protestants and others out of it. But Martin Luther is an exception, without whom the story of the church’s relationship to the Shoah could not be complete. Luther’s tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” is, in Carroll’s words, a “homiletic massacre” of Jews. The Jews, Luther wrote near the end of his life, “should be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country.” Unlike his Catholic counterparts, whose words showed greater moderation than their policies or practices, Luther showed no restraint in his verbal warfare against the Jews. His legacy was, therefore, much more potent and enduring than any pontiff or council before or after the Reformation. His calls for the burning of Jewish books, the dispossession of Jewish houses, the outlawing of Jewish schools and Jewish worship, the torching of synagogues, indeed, for a German Reich purified of Jews, set in place the intellectual and religious framework for the realities that would come to pass, after much incubation, in 20th-century Nazi Germany. It is arguable that without Luther’s well-known attitudes about the Jews, large parts of both the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany would not have so easily acquiesced to the horrors of the Holocaust. With 048rare exceptions, the churches of Germany never raised a voice against the mistreatment of Jews as Jews. Dissident church leaders, such as those involved in the Confessing Church, generally advocated only on behalf of those Jews who had converted to Christianity, and thus, in the eyes of the church, had been redeemed.
In his compelling narrative, Carroll moves deftly among the present, his own past and the ancient past, to show how history really does matter. His own past, a boy’s story of coming of age in post-war Europe, is a naïve world of piety and blissful innocence. It is a past that brought him to Auschwitz to be puzzled by a cross that could not mean what it surely must mean. On this conundrum history is brought to bear, and the history Carroll discovers brings him back to the present with choices to be made. The choices he will make now are the choices the church has not made, roads not taken in its long journey with the Jews. Throughout Carroll has been careful to document these roads not taken: the way of convivencia, the common culture cultivated by Muslims, Jews and Christians, who thrived in symbiosis for centuries on the Iberian Peninsula; Abelard’s claim, against Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux, that Jews and other non-Christians could be saved through compassionate living; Nicolas of Cusa’s De Pace Fidei (On Peace Among the Religions); Pope John XXIII’s hopeful overtures to Jews; and more recently the work of such theologians as Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and Rosemary Radford Ruether. These paths, Carroll argues, still remain open to the church.
And so in the last chapters of this penitential journey, Carroll calls for repentance and for a Vatican III to address once and for all this history of Christian anti-Semitism, whose final act was played out at Auschwitz. Carroll’s central thesis is that the Holocaust was not an aberration, a mysterious evil that sprang from Hitler’s warped imagination alone. Rather, Hitler’s “final solution” had been twenty centuries in the making. Moreover, the ingredients to that solution lay not in obscurity, but in the most common structures of Christian faith, in our most cherished traditions. They lie in the doctrine of the atonement, in our Christology, in our understanding of Jesus as “Savior.” They lie in the scriptures and the way Christians have understood them as “historical.” They lie in a desire for power and for powerful symbols of absolute authority. Only if the church proves willing to struggle to a new understanding of itself by thoroughly re-examining its most fundamental tenets can Christians say to Jews with conviction, “never again.” As for the cross, Carroll’s narrative leaves one pondering whether we can ever redeem it from the history of malevolence that has kept it a symbol of terror for so many for so long.
In the institution where I teach the Bible to students preparing for church leadership, we have a favorite old hymn entitled “Lift High the Cross.” For years it was customary to sing this hymn in processional at every important occasion. Its opening lines are rousing and they bring the procession in with verve:
Lift high the cross!
The cross of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world…adore…
his sacred name!
I’ll never again sing these words without a bitter—no, poisonous—taste in my mouth.
A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels
David Laird Dungan
The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 526 pp., $39.95 (hardback)
Scholars have long struggled to explain the striking similarities and critical differences among Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three Gospels known as the Synoptics (from the Greek for “seen together”) because they share so much when seen side by side.
David Laird Dungan of the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, is certainly not the first person to trace the history of these attempts. Such surveys are available in numerous books, commentaries and Bible encyclopedias. But Dungan’s book is nevertheless unique, in three ways. First, he starts the story in the first century, whereas other histories of this subject usually begin only around 1800. Second, instead of limiting his discussion of the Synoptic problem to the question of how these Gospels were composed, Dungan also addresses the questions of canon (which Gospels to consider), text criticism (which text of the Gospels to use) and hermeneutics (how the Bible and the Gospels should be interpreted). Finally, Dungan attempts to show how this seemingly isolated issue in gospel research is connected to and shaped by larger realities of culture, politics, economics and technology.
These three features make Dungan’s book a landmark in biblical scholarship, although I must confess I disagree sharply with some of his more bizarre conclusions.
Dungan finds there have been three very different approaches to the Synoptic problem throughout Christian history. The earliest approach culminated in the third 049century with the writings of the church father Origen, who attempted to explain disagreements among the Gospels by positing two levels of truth: Sometimes the Gospels are meant to be taken literally and sometimes symbolically. Because all the Gospels agree at the spiritual level, literal discrepancies among the texts are insignificant. This approach is virtually extinct today.
The second approach to the Synoptic problem emerged in reaction to attacks by non-Christians who argued that contradictions in the Gospels undermine their credibility. In response, Augustine in the fifth century maintained that the Gospels are all and everywhere literally true. He aimed to show that there were no actual contradictions in the Gospels, primarily by fitting every passage into an historical account that was literally true in every detail. This approach still thrives among Fundamentalists.
The third approach to the Synoptic problem is common among modern non-Fundamentalist scholars. It ignores the dogmatic claim that the literal truth of the Gospels is guaranteed by their divine inspiration and instead seeks a purely literary explanation for similarities and differences among the Gospels. The basic explanation that the vast majority of today’s scholars (but not Dungan—more on this later) accept is called the “Two Source Hypothesis,” which states that Mark is the earliest gospel and that Matthew and Luke independently borrowed from both Mark and a now-lost gospel that scholars call Q.a
In surveying the historical approaches to the Synoptic problem, Dungan has compiled an impressive fund of information that he has judiciously sifted, intelligibly arranged and wisely supported with lucid biographical and historical contexts that turn what could have been a tedious chronicle into an engaging narrative.
Dungan’s exploration of the cultural, intellectual, economic and political forces that have shaped this history is no less engaging, although it is far more controversial.
Dungan is eager to show how modern historical criticism is saturated with the secular spirit of the Enlightenment, which regarded traditional Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, as an obstacle to human progress and a force for tyranny and intolerance. Enlightenment thinkers were appalled by Europe’s devastating religious wars, by the official persecutions of Jews and by the torture and execution of “heretics.” Since the churches used the Bible to show that God was on their side, the Enlightenment needed to find a way to take the Bible away from the Church. According to Dungan, Enlightenment thinkers devised a method of interpreting the Bible that claimed to seek its true meaning, but was actually designed to neutralize its authority. For Dungan, this is the origin of modern historical criticism, which he believes has worked just as its designers intended: “The net effect…has been to eviscerate the Bible’s core religious beliefs and moral values.”
The centerpiece of Dungan’s argument is a detailed, 63-page-long chapter, “Baruch Spinoza and the Political Agenda of Modern Historical-Critical Interpretation.” Dungan argues that Spinoza is the master architect of historical criticism and that his main goal was to make room for the burgeoning ideals of religious liberty and political democracy by destroying the Bible’s authority and thus its ability to provide divine legitimation for the institutions of monarchy and state religion.
Dungan regards historical criticism as a catastrophe for Christian faith, and he is keen to alert fellow biblical scholars to the nefarious values that they are unwittingly promoting: “It is my impression that my colleagues in Europe and North America are quite ignorant of the political and economic agendas their scholarship serves.”
Dungan does not spare himself. He seems profoundly disturbed to find that he has been duped into serving the forces of darkness: “I had always thought that the historical-critical study of the Bible had nothing to do with politics, that it was a pure and noble calling requiring years of apprenticeship followed by decades of dedicated service in the vineyards of archaeology, comparative philology, historical reconstruction, sophisticated literary analysis, fearless theological critique, and so on. I never knew that I was a foot soldier in a great crusade to eviscerate the Bible’s core theology, smother its moral standards under an avalanche of hostile historical questions, and, at the end, shove it aside.”
My response to this powerful autobiographical disclosure is, quite simply, bafflement.
I learned historical criticism in a Catholic seminary. This method of interpretation is officially promoted by the Catholic Church. So I have difficulty seeing it as a Trojan horse designed to destroy Christianity, despite Dungan’s persuasive analysis of its origins three centuries ago.
The value of historical criticism as it is practiced today is that it lets us hear biblical 050authors speak on their own terms rather than forcing them to be spokesmen for later Christian theological agendas. For the past 25 years, I have used historical criticism in my teaching, in classrooms and in churches, and I know that it can work. I have seen it make the ancient texts come alive for many, many people of faith.
It is, of course, crucial to consider what kind of historical criticism we are talking about. Dungan’s point seems to be that Spinoza’s method was poisoned from the start and that any form of interpretation that descends from it still carries the original toxin, unbeknownst to its users. But Dungan’s assertion that “‘Spinozist’ methods and goals are commonly followed by biblical scholars everywhere in the world” is severely misleading. Dungan here commits what may be called the “fallacy of the tool,” which is the assumption that what a tool (or a method of interpretation) was originally designed for is always what it will accomplish and that it cannot be used for any other purpose or with any other result. Historical criticism has come a long way since Spinoza’s treatise appeared in 1670. Modern scholars may be seen as Spinoza’s heirs only in the very general sense that they study the Bible using critical editions of the texts in the original languages, and that they understand biblical authors as historical figures addressing their own audiences in their own historical, religious and political contexts. But to imply that this practice makes today’s scholars unwitting dupes in a campaign to “disembowel the Bible” (in Dungan’s words) is so bizarre that I feel silly even trying to refute it.
Dungan belongs to the tiny minority of scholars who reject the Two Source Hypothesis, and his account of how that hypothesis achieved nearly universal acceptance is laced with antagonism. He attributes its ascendancy in the early 20th century to a combination of hatred for the Jews, anti-Catholic German politics, academic cronyism, biased critical editions of the Gospels, and rigged gospel synopses. If Dungan thinks that any contemporary defenders of the Two Source Hypothesis have open minds or intellectual honesty, he keeps that belief to himself.
Yet Dungan’s book is still a masterpiece. It contains a wealth of information, much of it unfamiliar even to learned biblical scholars. The chapters on the first five centuries and on textual criticism are alone worth the book’s hefty price. Everything has been thoroughly sifted, deftly summarized and skillfully organized, with helpful overviews and recaps. A writer with less skill would have numbed the reader to sleep. Dungan’s lively and intelligent writing makes his book a pleasure to read, even though his strident idiosyncratic agendas occasionally interfere.
The Dark Shadow of the Cross
Constantine’s SwordThe Church and the Jews: A History