Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History / Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity

By Fisher, Eugene | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History / Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity


Fisher, Eugene, The Catholic Historical Review


Constantine's Sword. The Church and the Jews: A History. By James Carroll. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2001. Pp. xii, 719. $28.00.)

Living Letters of the Law., Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity. By Jeremy Cohen. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999. Pp. x, 451. $60.00 clothbound; $24-95 paperback.)

James Carroll is a novelist and a journalist. At these occupations, he is highly skilled as the level of writing of his book amply illustrates. But he is not an historian, as the deep flaws of this book also show. Indeed, what he has produced here is a novelized version of history that gets some things right but is so constrained by the rubrics of the novelist's craft that it meanders into one historical hole after another.

First, what he has right. Where he has read a good book by a competent historian, he distills it superbly into engaging narrative. This is the case with the great massacre of Jews by the stragglers of the First Crusade in 1096, where he has read Robert Chazan. He also has right the general sense of "ambivalence" of church teaching about Judaism stemming from Augustine and the canonical legislation based upon that teaching beginning with Gregory the Great. There are sections in these chapters that I could easily hand out in a course on the subject.

But bracketing this portion of the book is a good deal of misinformation, as church historian Robert Wilkin incisively pointed out in his lengthy review in Commonweal. His basic approach to the New Testament follows that of the Jesus Seminar, which is unnecessary to achieve the goal he has in mind (with which I agree), to free Christians from coming to anti-Jewish conclusions when reading the epistles and the gospels. Here, he would have been better off reading the likes of John L. McKenzie, Raymond Brown, and John P Meier. They, and others in the Catholic Biblical Association, point the way in this field.

Carroll says that he spent a year researching his book, which covers everything from scriptural studies to systematics to contemporary history. It shows. He has little grasp on the complexities of any of the fields of Catholic study he seeks both to summarize and sit in judgment upon.

The novelistic structure of the book requires Carroll, for example, to see in the Anselm/Abelard exchange a simple replay of Augustine's rejection of his mentor Ambrose's entirely negative views on Jews and Judaism. Perhaps Carroll was carried away with all those "As," but it does not work as history. Nor does his depiction of contemporary history, by which I mean here World War II to the present.

With regard to Pius XII, Carroll relies almost exclusively on John Cornwell's strange, but highly touted (in the secular media) Hitler's Pope.

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