Constantine's Sword and the Age of Skepticism

by Fr. Michael Hallford

James Carroll's recently published book, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, sets out as its central argument the direct connection between the holocaust and Constantine. The book argues emphatically that the Church's foundational texts, the Gospels, the writings of St. Paul and much of the early apologetics of the Christian faith are inherently Anti-Semitic and for the Christian church to do penance for its bitter history of Jewish persecution, it must come to terms with the truth of its past, and must rediscover the real Jesus amid the lies of its apologists.

It would be easy for me as an Orthodox believer to simply dismiss this work for its obvious intellectual dishonesty and its blatant misrepresentations of history. But as a winner of a national book award, it was well received among the intellectual and academic elite, and it represents the current so-called modern rethinking of Jesus, a reinterpretation which has found its fullest expression in The Jesus Seminar whose founder John Dominick Croissan, James Carroll freely quotes and glowingly praises throughout the book. We must separate the Christ of History from the Christ of Faith, James Carroll argues, and through four hundred pages he argues who this Jesus really was, and unfortunately he bears no resemblance to the Jesus of our Orthodox tradition.

The book opens with a trip James Carroll made to Auschwitz and the controversy surrounding a cross placed there by Polish Catholics. He argues that the Cross itself is a symbol of Anti-Semitism, and a tremendous affront to the Jews who died there. He explains his own childhood as an Irish Catholic, his eventual ordination as a priest, and then his own falling away from the church, all laid out as a metaphor for his growing awareness of what the church has done to the Jews. He argues that his spiritual awakening forced him to discard the traditional doctrines about Christ in favor of a more enlightened and more historical view of who Jesus really was, all of this of course based on a selective reading of historical documents and profound embracing of a Judeo-centric view of history.

Eusebius of Caesarea, in his History of the Church outlines and confirms all the important historical details about Christ, verifies the reliability of the Gospel accounts and demonstrates the continuity through the first three centuries of the central facts of the Gospel accounts. Carroll blatantly denies all this. He challenges the veracity of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. He denounces the accusation of Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus as anti-Semitic fabrications and he sees the root problem of anti-Semitism inherent within the words of the Bible itself. The Jews had nothing to do with the death of Christ, he repeatedly argues throughout the book, and to lay any blame beyond the Romans who crucified Christ because of his political crimes, is to become collaborators with every killer of Jews throughout the centuries. Nazism and the Holocaust were made possible, because the Church was already inherently Anti-Semitic, and he calls upon the church to abandon its terrible past and admit that everything the church has believed about Christ has been self-serving lies. This is the message that book repeatedly strives to emphasize and it is couched as a warning to those who might think otherwise.

It is certainly beyond the scope of this paper to deal with a point by point refutation of every claim made against the Church by Carroll in this book. One could argue based on historical documents the veracity of the Gospel accounts. Carroll argues that the Gospels were written thirty to fifty years after the facts and are therefore unreliable, but one can't have it both ways, His book and the works of his co-conspirators are written substantially later than the events they describe. By his own logic they should be even less reliable, and he fails to take into consideration that there could have been other factors beyond Christianity which led to the holocaust. Hitler and his inner circle were avowed occultists. What role did these beliefs play in the Final Solution?

And considering the Roman Catholic Church as normative Christianity, from an Orthodox perspective is even more problematic. Yes the Papal church was anti-Semitic, but it was also anti-orthodox, anti-protestant, anti-new world. It has been a church founded on a principle of conquest and subjugation, and one can perfectly understand his rejection of its ethos.

John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, and other orthodox writers all wrote treatises against Judaism, not because they had animosity towards the Jewish race, but because they saw Judaism as a false religion. They were men who believed vehemently in the veracity of the scriptures, and the truths codified in the decisions of the ecumenical councils. Carroll readily adopts a Judaic vision of history, which sees this false religion of Christianity as its chief enemy to overcome. One can easily see Carroll's own disappointment with the Papal Church finding expression in the way he presents the history of the church.

Judaism and Christianity both make claims about absolute truth. The church has believed the creator of the world became a man, was crucified and rose from the dead. The old covenant was replaced by the new. The messiah that Moses and the prophets predicted found its fulfillment in Christ. Carroll argues that the rejection of these claims by Jesus' own people invalidates them. Carroll argues this is the scandalous truth which has been the cause of anti-Semitism. The church could never accept that the Jews had rejected its claims about Christ and for this reason it hates the Jews. This embrace of a Judeo-centric vision of history is his central thesis in the book.

The central argument

Upon reflection upon the central argument of the book, which is the primary argument of all the revisionist historians of Christianity, that Jesus, the God-Man is essentially a creation of Church, and more importantly a creation of Constantine the Great through the decisions of the first ecumenical council, I will lay out a concise counter argument and demonstrate why his thesis is essentially flawed and intellectually dishonest.

There is no paucity of historical information about the life of Jesus. Numerous writings about Christ outside of the New Testament are still extant, among them the writings of the Apostolic fathers, from Clement of Rome writing almost contemporaneously with the Gospel of John, through the Apologists of mid second century. Critics such as Dominick Croissan simply ignore these writings, and they ignore evidence of the scriptures themselves which bear testimony to the eyewitness accounts of the faith. St. Paul writing no more than ten years after the events, comments extensively about how the faith is built on eyewitness testimony, there is such a huge crowd of witnesses, and he comments that over five hundred individuals witnessed Christ resurrected, and St. John begins his first epistle citing, "What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and touched with our hands."

The whole theory which Carroll espouses about how the Gospels are "prophesies historicized" can only be sustained in an absence of the testimony of so many witnesses. The Gospels were written to bear testimony to the truth which had been first told orally. Anyone who reads St. Luke's prologue to his gospel, will come away with a clear understanding that the witnesses first testified to what they saw and heard and only when they were dying did they finally commit the oral message to a written form. What Carroll and his cohort of revisionists propose is a massive conspiracy, perpetrated as an intentional deceit, to take events which never happened and pretend as though they had, to take the Jewish scriptures and create stories based on certain prophesies. And what do they offer as evidence of this fraud, the fact that rabbinical Judaism has rejected the gospels. If the remnant of one sect of Judaism, the Pharisees did not acknowledge these events as true, then they obviously must be false. He presents Talmudic Judaism as the final arbiter of history.

Christianity has a problem, he proposes in several places in the book, if Jesus was in fact the messiah, why did his own people reject him? He ignores the ample historical evidence of the Jewish expectation of a different kind of messiah, and two unsuccessful rebellions against Rome were predicated on precisely such a messiah. Simon Bar Kochba the leader of the second disastrous rebellion, was declared by the leading rabbis of his time as the promised messiah and he only led his people into ruin. Carroll conveniently ignores this fact as well as he ignores other historical references. It's not within the scope of this paper to critique rabbinical Judaism, or to argue the striking dissimilarities between rabbinical Judaism and the Judaism practiced before the destruction of the Jewish temple. But I do think it is important to come to an understanding of the underlying motive of Talmudic Judaism in advocating against the historical veracity of the gospels.

With the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Talmudic Judaism was presented with an untenable situation. The messiah which the rabbis had rejected had now become the God of the empire, and from a religious and political standpoint, Judaism faced tremendous social pressure to conform. In this aspect, one can feel tremendous sympathy for the Jews, and denounce any personal hatred for them as a people because of their rejection of Christianity. The numerous examples of anti-Semitic hatred cited in Carroll's book are indeed a blight against Christianity, but what Carroll fails to understand is that the treatment of the Jews under the Papal Church and then under the Protestants is more of a reflection of the western Christian ethos and not indicative of the treatment of the Jews under Eastern Orthodoxy. John Chrysostom wrote against the Judaizers, as he called them, because he believed them to be practitioners of a false religion, not out of any personal animosity to the Jewish race. He wished to correct them in what he saw as their false understanding of history. He would have found the history of treatment of Jews under the medieval Papal yoke unacceptable, and the Holocaust cannot be seen as acceptable under any interpretation of Christian Dogma. Christ called on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them.

With understandable revulsion, Carroll catalogs numerous examples of appellations of Jews as "Christ killers." He cites examples of such attributions in the liturgical traditions of both the Orthodox east and the Papal west, but he obviously does not understand the context in which they were written. The gospels clearly implicate the Jewish temple leadership in the death of Christ, yet Carroll sees these as later fabrications, and as a massive fraud upon the Roman peoples. For him, only the Jews, and to a lesser degree the followers of Islam, have a clear picture of who Jesus really was. It is for this reason that a film such as Mel Gibson's The Passion, which seeks to depict the events surrounding the crucifixion, including the trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, has met with such resistance from both Jewish and so-called progressive circles. The critics see it as a further attempt to deceive and defraud a modern audience. Carroll repeatedly argues in the book that the Church in order to make amends for its long history of Anti-Semitism must reconsider the foundational documents of its faith.

A short Defense of the Scriptures

At the heart of this renunciation of the New Testament witness to the life of Christ is a complete misunderstanding as to what role the New Testament plays in the life of the church. For the first followers of Christ, the Old Testament was the only scriptures they revered. They saw in the words of the Moses and in the words of the prophets an image of Christ, and they understood the Old Testament appearances of God to the Hebrew peoples, as appearances of the pre-incarnate word of God. St Paul specifically in his epistle to the Hebrews, and elsewhere scattered throughout many of his letters makes numerous direct references and allusions to the Logos or word of God as revealed in the Old Testament scriptures. Carroll, following Dominick Croissan, calls this "prophesy historicized," claiming the followers of Jesus went to the old testament and fabricated stories about Jesus to show how he fulfilled the scriptures. But from the beginning there was a principle of hermeneutic or interpretation at work, which saw events witnessed by Jesus' disciples having direct reference to the Jewish scriptures. The church only reluctantly began to consider creating a second Testament to augment the old, and they never saw the New Testament as supplanting or replacing the old. If as Carroll claims the early Christians wanted to separate themselves from Judaism why did they adopt both the scriptures of the Jews and their worship patterns? If they were so quick to supplant the Old Testament with something entirely new, why wasn't the New Testament Canon finalized until 394 AD at the Council of Carthage? The Christian people always saw themselves as heirs to the promises made to Abraham and as the new Israel eagerly anticipated by the prophets.

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