Constantine's Sword Summary
by James Carroll

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Constantine's Sword Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

James Carroll begins Constantine’s Sword, a history of Catholicism’s treatment of Jews, with a reflection on the cross made of railroad ties erected at the Auschwitz death camp. Pope John Paul II, still alive when this book was published, visited the camp in 1979 and prayed for the Catholic martyrs who died at the camp, including Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism whom he declared a saint in 1998. During his visit to Auschwitz, the pope stated that he would like to see something established there to honor the Catholic martyrs of Auschwitz. Five years later, a group of Carmelite nuns moved into a theater at the camp’s gate, fulfilling the pope’s wish and intending to pray especially for Sister Teresa Benedicta, the name given to Edith Stein after she joined the Carmelite order. Many Jews responded by protesting what they saw as a Christian takeover of a place that had been dedicated primarily to the murder of Jews.

For Carroll, the story of Catholic-Jewish tensions at Auschwitz is more than a struggle over whose tragedy should be recognized. He takes the Christian emblem of the cross as a symbol of the history of the anti-Semitic trend in Christianity. During the early centuries of the Christian faith, believers began to focus on the death of Christ, represented by the cross, rather than on Christ’s life and teachings. This focus on the Passion was also an early expression of hostility toward Jews, who were blamed for the death. Carroll interprets the history of the Catholic Church, including the wider history of Christianity after the Reformation, as a long series of movements in the wrong direction, ultimately ending in the Shoah, the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Throughout his examination, Carroll inserts his own memories of growing up Catholic, connecting the personal to the historical.

Christianity began within the Jewish religion at a time when this religion was redefining itself in response to pressure from the Roman Empire. One of the conflicting groups within the Jewish faith was the Pharisees, who eventually evolved into rabbinic Judaism, and another group was the followers of Jesus. Therefore, early relations between those who were becoming the Christians and those who were becoming the Jews had something of the nature of sibling rivalry. As Christianity moved away from its original Jewish base and into the broader Roman world, though, Christians tended to downplay the brutality of Rome and to emphasize their rivalry with the Jews. They did this through focusing on the story of the death of Jesus. Because the Gospels were being written at this time, their authors took the story of the Passion of Christ, with primary responsibility attributed to the Jews, as central to their religious narratives. Although Saint Paul attempted to join Christians and Jews together, in Carroll’s view, Christianity came to adopt the doctrine of supersessionism, which held that the new religion of Christianity had replaced the old religion of Judaism.

Carroll identifies the reign of Emperor Constantine (324-337 c.e.) as a critical time in the history of Christianity and of church relations with the Jews. Constantine adopted the cross as his symbol and united the Roman Empire under official Christian dominance. From that time on, what became the Catholic Church had secular as well as spiritual power, and it identified itself closely with the death of Christ. Jews were defined as outside of Christendom and continually held responsible for Christ’s death.

Carroll follows Christian hostility toward the Jews through the Crusades of the Middle Ages, discussing the bloody episodes when the holy wars turned against Jewish populations. He finds antagonism toward Judaism in such major thinkers as Saint Anselm and Saint Thomas Aquinas, arguing that Saint Anselm’s focus on the death of Christ on the cross reinforced anti-Jewish tendencies in Christianity. The controversial Peter Abelard, with his emphasis on the...

(The entire section is 1,285 words.)