(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

James Carroll constructs his long story of the Christian attitude towards Jews in eight parts, and the first, “The Cross at Auschwitz,” begins with the indignation many Jews expressed when, in 1984, a group of Carmelite nuns established a convent outside the gate at Auschwitz and prayed for the souls of the almost two million who died there and at Birkenau. As part of their efforts, the nuns planted in a nearby field the wooden cross from the papal altar in Kraków. Perhaps a 250,000 non-Jewish Poles died in the two camps, but Jews protested Christian prayers for the 1.5 million Jews murdered there with banners bearing slogans such as “Do Not Christianize Auschwitz and Shoah!” In 1994, Pope John Paul II prevailed on the nuns to move their convent a few hundred yards away, and in return Jewish leaders allowed the cross to stand temporarily. The dispute intensified until 1998, when Catholic fanatics planted explosives on the site along with over a hundred small crosses. Finally, in 1999, the Polish government had the small crosses removed, but left the large cross at Auschwitz permanently. Carroll concludes of the controversy that “The cross here was simply wrong,” and explains why: “When suffering is seen to serve a universal plan of salvation, its particular character as tragic and evil is always diminished. The meaningless can be made to shimmer with an eschatological hope, and at Auschwitz this can seem like blasphemy.” His reasoning resembles that of Jews who reject the term “holocaust,” which means “burnt offering,” with the repugnant implication that the genocide was an offering to God. The Hebrew word Shoah, or “catastrophe,” avoids the suggestion of a “redemptive, sacrificial theology of salvation.”

Carroll’s revisionary reading of the history of supersessionism—the replacement of the Jews as God’s chosen people by the “Jesus movement”—increases the responsibility of the Romans and lessens the role of the Pharisees. The Romans’ destruction of the Temple convinced Christians that God was on their side, and the result was “the Judaism of the Jesus movement, which evolved into the Church, and the Judaism of the Pharisees, which evolved into rabbinic Judaism.” The received reading of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees derives from second-generation non-Jewish followers, and has poisoned relations between Jews and Christians ever since. Tying Jesus’s fate to the assault on the money changers has made the name “Pharisee” a pejorative, whereas in Carroll’s reading “almost nothing said by Christians about these particular Jews is true.” Paul, who had been a Pharisee himself, tried to avert the breach developing between Christians and Pharisees, especially in his “hymn of love” to the Corinthians, but became a victim of it, the “martyr of Shalom” (or harmony), as Carroll describes him.

In 285, the emperor Diocletian divided the Roman empire in half, taking the eastern part for himself and naming the general Maximian his counterpart in the west. In 306, Constantine assumed the western empire; and in 312, after experiencing a vision of a cross in the sky, he defeated the rebel Maxentius and converted his army—and eventually the empire—to Christianity. Constantine transformed the cross into his sword—that is, a long spear with a bar across it—putting the cross at the center of Christianity and thereby emphasizing death and violence rather than the hope of the Resurrection. This shift in focus hurt the Jews, who were blamed for the crucifixion, and the cult of St. Helena (Constantine’s mother), with its legends of the True Cross and the Seamless Robe, encouraged Saint Ambrose (339-397) to stress Jewish guilt.

Saint Augustine (354-430) took a more humane position than Ambrose, but his mercy derived from his understanding of Jews as witnesses to Old Testament prophecies. Carroll explains the irony: “Those first, grief-struck followers of Jesus had created a narrative of his Passion and death in part out of reports of what had happened, but more out of the consoling Scriptures of their Jewish religion. All too soon, that creation narration had come to be understood as history remembered’ instead of prophecy historicized.’” Carroll calls the years 306 to 429 the Age of Constantine, unified by the Council of Nicaea in 325. It was a period in which the joining of Christianity to the Roman Empire was disastrous for Jews, with Christians making Jerusalem “the spiritual navel of the world.” The result was a crisis: “How could the Gospel base its validity on its being the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, yet be repudiated by the holders of title to the prophecy?”

Persecution of Jews intensified in 1096, when the Church defined violence as a sacred act, enabling the First Crusade and its butchery of Jews in the Rhineland....

(The entire section is 1983 words.)