Is the New Testament anti-Semitic? (Well, kind of.) Should we read the Gospels as historical documents? (Very clearly, no.) What happened to Jesus’ Jewishness? (Christians forgot it.)
James Carroll, the Catholic reformer and Boston Globe columnist, takes on these and other heated questions in his latest book, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. I caught up with Carroll to talk about the Jewishness, divinity, and spark of Jesus — here are the highlights from our conversation.
You talk a lot about God in your books. What do you mean by God?
Well, the most important thing about God is that I do not know God. I cannot talk to you about God as an object out there somewhere who exists. All the language we use about God is inadequate.
Having said that, I believe that this creation points beyond itself to something/someone else. Creation, human experience, and human consciousness all suggest there is a horizon toward which we are moving, to which we are being invited, and God is a good name for that horizon. For me, belief in God means I believe in the purposefulness of human life, that we are put here for a purpose.
Your definition does not really sound like a personal God, but when most people talk about God’s will, it sounds like there is this person up there making decisions and sort of saying things like, “Jim, I want you to write this book.”
That “person up there” is a poetic image for this more abstract intuition I am describing. When Jesus is asked what God is like, Jesus answers that God is like a loving father. Jesus invites us to relate to this principle as if it were a person, as if it were a Father.
All of religion is poetic language trying to get us something that cannot be described in any language. When religious people forget that and begin to treat the language as if it’s scientific — as if there is an old man with a beard up there on a throne watching us, making interventions for the favored ones — that is idolatry. The biblical warning against idolatry is basically: don’t take this language we use about God literally, because then you turn the word into an idol.
Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?
Yes, I do.
What does that mean?
It means that in him we have the human capacity for transcendence realized. I believe that he is the Son of God in the way that every human being has the spark of the divine, our capacity to imagine and invent.
I do not know exactly what the divinity of Jesus means, but I cling to it as an element of faith. If Jesus wasn’t understood as divine almost from the start, then we would have never heard about him. If we lose hold of his somehow being divine, he will be gone. Because as a figure, a historical figure, he wasn’t that great. He wasn’t a great philosopher. He didn’t have a great new idea. He was perhaps a hero and resister to Roman oppression. But there were countless Jews who were heroic resisters to Roman oppression.
No, what makes Jesus important to us is how in this man billions of human beings down through the centuries have recognized, somehow, the spark of divinity.
But what was that spark? What was special about Jesus?
There was something about him that generated response from the people around him that led them to recognize in him the Son of God. His readiness to invite people in from the margins. The way he defined his “ministry” by eating and drinking with people. He was not a zealot, but there was something resolute and courageous about him. The stories are clear about that.
One of the best-selling religion books lately is Reza Aslan’s book about Jesus called Zealot.
Yeah, well my book could be called Jesus Was Not a Zealot. What marked him was his rejection of zealotry in favor of ordinary life.
Zealots would have nothing to do with the Roman occupiers. The gospels make a point to say Jesus was friendly to Romans. He cured the Roman centurion’s daughter. He invited a tax collector into his inner circle. Jesus was not like John the Baptist out in the desert wearing sackcloth and ashes and eating grasshoppers. No, Jesus was having bread and wine and feasts and going to parties and interacting with women of the street.
There was something astonishing about Jesus. And in that astonishment, his followers recognized, somehow, the presence of God. And they used symbolic language to describe it that came out of Jewish expectation, the most important of which was the resurrection.
I thought of a better title for your book: Jesus Is a Jew, Get Over It.
That is it in a nutshell. That is, of course, what Christians really have not reckoned with.
Why is anti-Semitism so persistent?
There is a bug in the software of western civilization. The Christian church, for accidental reasons of history, defined itself positively over the negative of the synagogue. We are good; they are bad. We are the New Testament; they are the Old Testament. We are grace; they are law. We are generosity; they are greed.
Why do think that Christians don’t want Jesus to be Jewish? How did Jesus end up being blond and blue-eyed?
The Jesus movement, which began as a Jewish movement, took place during what I call in Christ Actually the “first holocaust.” And just as the “second holocaust” of [World War II] traumatized not only the Jewish people but also the conscience of the west, so the first holocaust did something similar.
The first holocaust was the Roman war against the Jewish people, which unfolded in three phases between 69 and 135, and, in which, according to ancient historians, perhaps as many as two million Jews were killed by the Romans — a percentage of the population that is analogous to what the Nazis did.
You argue that the Gospels were written during this conflict, and that’s why they pit Jesus against the Jews.
The Gospels are not history and they were not written by eyewitnesses. Gentiles a generation later don’t know that. And to this day, Christians read the Gospels as if they are journalistic accounts.
The Jesus movement could have unfolded within Israel, but the Roman war so destroyed the Jewish world that Gentiles began to dominate the Jesus movement. And they did not know the Jewish roots of the movement. So by the year 135, when the Jewish-Christian center in Jerusalem is destroyed, Gentiles read the texts [about Jesus] without realizing that they are not historical.
That is why I have written this book. It is addressed to Christians. And I lay all of this chronology out. We have to read our texts critically, which Christians don’t know how to do.
So, Jesus was a Jew. That is the bottom line.
To really recover the Jewishness of Jesus — that is the point of doing this work. If we had not forgotten his Jewishness, the history of the last two thousand years would be very different.
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