A Jewish Jesus for the secular age

Here’s a suggestion for a seminar at one of those missional church growth conferences: Two Holocausts: the Church and its Legacy of Anti-Semitism. Nestled among seminars on the latest business plan or leadership model, I suspect attendance wouldn’t be overwhelming. Yet an awareness of the relationship between Christianity and the Jews may be vital for the health and relevance of the church going forward. At least according to James Carroll, who’s written the ambitious and prophetic Christ Actually – The Son of God for the Secular Age about the legacy of anti-semitism in the history of the Church. This is the sort of history that’s right in Carroll’s wheelhouse, he being most famous for his 2001 work Constantine’s Sword, a harrowing history of the Church and the Jews.

The title Christ Actually is drawn from a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhart Bethge, while serving time in a Nazi prison. Sagacious man that he was, Bonhoeffer saw that the culture around him was shifting in dramatic ways; not only had it accommodated and nurtured a horrendous, destructive ideology, but it was also hurtling toward an era of pervasive non-belief, a “religionless age.” Bonhoeffer wondered – and we might too – who is Christ, actually, to that sort of age?

To answer the question, Carroll, a practicing Catholic, seeks to locate Christianity’s continued relevance in Jesus’ Jewishness. Emphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus sounds like a fairly elementary insight, but even a simple acquaintance with Christian history would indicate that we’ve often made a mess of it, to say the least. The particular Jewish identity that Carroll wants us to contemplate is the one shaped by the “first holocaust” – the savage treatment of Palestinian Jews at the hands of their Roman occupiers. Carroll spends the first part of his book painting that history in fairly grim tones, writing of “forests of crucifixions” around the temple mount in Jerusalem, and the savagery of Hadrian’s persecution in 135 AD, which claimed the lives of some 600,000 Jewish people. Anti-Jewish persecution formed the Christian tradition in two ways: it gave the context and character to Jesus’ mission itself, and shaped subsequent interpretations of that mission.

These historical reconstructions of Jesus’ life are always tricky. It’s usually good practice to approach them with a measured wariness, since the Jesus who is excavated often bears a striking resemblance to the historian doing the reconstructing. Carroll is aware of this, and is pretty steady in his treatment of the wealth of historical-critical approaches to the life of Jesus. There’s plenty to quarrel with here; Christians might be uncomfortable with the idea that early Christian anti-semitism coloured the writing of the Gospel narratives themselves (though exploring the cultural influences that shaped the Gospels is useful, generally speaking). On balance, though, Carroll’s conclusions are insightful and intriguing. His treatment of the life and politics of John the Baptist, and of the egalitarian appeal of Jesus’ mission are especially compelling. So too is his argument for locating Jesus back with his people and their embattled homeland: “Without nourishment from those roots, the vital categories of understanding within which Jesus and the first three generations of those who followed him had lived were bound to whither.”

Ultimately, the Jesus that comes to the surface in the context of his oppressed and brutalized people is not the Jesus of Greek doctrinal formulations or the Jesus of European colonial powers. Carroll’s Christ is commingled with the oppressed, the war-torn, and the suffering. That’s a suitable Jesus for our own time, shaped as it is by the “second holocaust” – by Auschwitz and Hiroshima, those “goalposts of the secular age.” That Jesus is suitable because he’s “a simple Jesus. An ordinary Christ. One whom the simplest person can imitate.” For Carroll, this is the key for a renewed, reimagined Christian witness to the secular 21st century. “Mindful imitation makes Christ actual,” he writes, closing his book with luminous examples of folks who’ve lived that sort of Gospel-shaped life. Dorothy Day is there, as is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For Carroll, their lives are inscribed with the very essence of Jewish messianic hope.

It’s not rare nowadays to stumble across a trendy tome that seeks to bring Jesus into modern times. Christ Actually is more welcome than most, though, on account of its moral seriousness, its prophetic call for Christians to reckon with their history, and genuine, earnest desire to see the Gospel flourish.


  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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