War puts the gods on trial. During the first Jewish war in 70 CE, Roman legions destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, God’s very dwelling place on earth, leaving the faithful to wonder, Where was God to be found now? Almost two millennia later, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, awaiting execution in a Nazi prison, found it almost impossible to use the word “God” with fellow prisoners. Meditating on the failure of Christendom manifested in world war and genocide, he asked himself, “Who is Jesus Christ, actually?” In James Carroll’s Christ Actually: The Son of God for a Secular Age, Jesus actually—now as for the apostles—emerges from within the long, recurring history of Jewish persecution and bereavement.

As Carroll reminds us, the destruction of the Temple, the “absence” of Israel’s God, led to varied religious responses.  A group of rabbis persuaded the Romans to give them sanctuary in the town of Yavne, near the Mediterranean, where they affirmed that the Temple lived on in the teaching of Torah. The followers of Jesus, meanwhile, many of whom had continued allegiance to the Jerusalem Temple, retired to Pella on the far side of the Jordan, where they affirmed that the Temple lived on in the resurrected Jesus. For Carroll, then, both rabbinic Judaism and the Christian church are direct reactions to Jewish catastrophe, and both must be understood in the context of Jewish thought and history. Christianity is Jewish, root and branch; conflict between synagogue and church, like all tragedies, is familial.

On what does this Jewish family dispute turn? Who is Jesus actually? That Jesus of Nazareth should be regarded in some fashion as “God” appears wholly unacceptable to Jewish tradition. After all, at the trial before the Sanhedrin it is Jesus’ refusal to deny he is “Christ, the Son of God” that leads to condemnation. In Carroll’s view, the church’s eventual development of a “high Christology” constituted a fatal breach with genuine Jewish tradition; it formed the root both of supersessionism and of Christian anti-Semitism. This break with Judaism was the church’s first error, and its later presumed conversion to Constantinianism perverted Christianity into a structure of ecclesiastical power—such at any rate was the argument of Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword (2002). Combine everyday anti-Semitism with Constantinian power, and Nazi genocide is inevitable. A fatal compounding of error led ineluctably to the Holocaust.

Christ Actually seeks to undo this calamitous logic by rejecting high Christology, a task Carroll undertakes by questioning the historicity of the gospels. This is not difficult to do, since although many Christians read the gospels as factual history, in truth we have only the sketchiest notions about what Jesus actually said or did. Written decades after Jesus’ death by authors who probably did not witness the events they chronicled, the Gospel narratives are compilations of tales told in various Jesus communities, and possess the unreliability of memoirs shaped by a mission. So Carroll’s distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is broadly accepted. Still, one should note that he relies heavily on the more radical examples of revisionist scripture scholarship. His most frequently cited author is John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the controversial Jesus Seminar, which claims to have determined that no more than 20 percent of Jesus’ gospel statements are authentic.

If, however, we have only a fragmentary knowledge of Jesus actually, there remains one incontrovertible historical reality behind the New Testament. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, stories began to circulate about him, stories that made extravagant claims about his life and death; within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion in 33 CE, Paul accepted him as Lord and Christ. Much modern biblical scholarship concentrates on how the exalted legends about Jesus grew up and were shared in disparate Christian communities across the ancient world; John Meier’s A Marginal Jew, for instance, argues that one can extract significant historical data about Jesus from the meditations of the early communities.

Carroll does not cite Meier, and my guess is that he prefers the way Crossan  thoroughly re-historicizes Jesus of Nazareth, leaving not a shred of the “high Christ,” but only the human being. It comes as a surprise, then, to hear Carroll assert that if Jesus had not been regarded as the Son of God, he would long ago have faded into a pantheon of cultural heroes. For Carroll the real problem with the church’s “high Christology” is that it is not Jewish, but Greek. So is there a Jewish “high” Christology? Carroll turns to Orthodox Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012). Boyarin, arguing from the influence of the apocalyptic Book of Daniel at the time of Jesus, concludes that while “Christian and non-Christian [are] happy enough to refer to Jesus, the human, as a Jew, I want to go a step beyond that. I wish us to see that Christ too—the divine Messiah—is a Jew.... Many Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human.”

Without trying to resolve a contention that has persisted for two thousand years—what Carroll rightly calls “the nightmare question” of supersessionism—I would argue that he and Boyarin have a case. How would a group of Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth have constructed the New Testament account? They would have turned to Jewish stories at hand. In the Emmaus story, Jesus, the mysterious stranger, speaks to the discouraged disciples; “beginning with Moses and all the prophets...he interpreted...the things about himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). We know that even after the destruction of the Temple, early members of “the Jesus movement” saw themselves as Jews. Paul did not preach in synagogues to proclaim a non-Jewish religion. Did the Messiah “in fact” arrive in Jesus of Nazareth, or is he still awaited? Perhaps it is best to answer as Kafka did: “The Messiah comes the day after he arrives.”

Carroll’s use of contemporary scholarship to critique the historical content of the New Testament is persuasive—as far as it goes. The trouble is that no set of simple historical facts, however well established, could ever bridge the gap between the empty tomb and the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. There is more to reading the Bible than recovering facts. Aquinas said we must read Scripture “literally”(sensus literalis), but he did not mean “as fact.” “When Scripture speaks of God’s arm,” he wrote, “the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, operative power.” The ultimate question for the Bible—and its readers—concerns its authorship. If its author is God, then the Bible’s messy conglomeration of law, history, legend, poetry, prophecy, and apocalyptic vision becomes “Scripture,” a divine message, and its historicity may be the least of one’s interpretive concerns.

 As Scripture, the Bible claims to offer a message for all times and places. It exists as a focus for a community of worship—for Christians, the ecclesia. Here and elsewhere, Carroll criticizes the historical church for the sin of becoming too Greek or too Roman. In his view, Greek High Christology “went through the roof,” and in the process destroyed a proper link to the historical Jesus. Carroll’s critique repeats a common priority for church reform: return to the origins of Christianity. Yet powerful as reformist purification can be, it simplifies the church community’s difficult history of gains and losses as it looks at Scripture over many times and places.

If Carroll’s ultimate aim, as his book’s title suggests, is to claim that Christ is “Son of God” according to Jewish messianic thought, he still faces the problem that “the secular age” has little interest in God—Jewish, Christian, or whatever. “We have problems believing that Jesus is God because we don’t really know what the word ‘God’ refers to,” Carroll muses; “Believers confront an ultimate mystery.” This book invokes the mysteries of quantum physics; but the thing about scientific mysteries is that lots of them get solved. The mystery of God, on the other hand, can never be solved. Carroll acknowledges as much when he commends the great medieval mystical meditation, The Cloud of Unknowing, but then slips back by alluding to the mystery of “cloud computing.” Wrong cloud. Having opted for Jesus Christ as divine in a Jewish understanding, Carroll might have been better advised to consider a Jewish Jesus in terms of modern Jewish theologies like those of Buber, whom he briefly mentions, and Franz Rosenzweig, whose great Star of Redemption regards Christianity as a kind of missionary Judaism.

 Written in the brisk, argumentative style that has won James Carroll a broad popular readership, Christ Actually avoids the interminable maundering of academic prose, even as its extensive footnotes indicate attention to advanced, if radical, scholarship. Conservative Christians may well be shocked and annoyed at Carroll’s configuration of Jesus. Nevertheless, for its pushback against the boundaries of conventional interpretations and, above all, for its passionate presentation of the sinfulness of Christian anti-Semitism, his book deserves serious attention.

Published in the November 14, 2014 issue: 

George Dennis O'Brien, a frequent contributor, is president emeritus of Rochester University. Among his books is Finding the Voice of the Church (University of Notre Dame).

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