Dismantling the Cross

Constantine's Sword
The Church and the Jews: A History
by James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin, $28, 756 pp.

Novelist and National Book Award winner James Carroll claims that Constantine’s Sword is a work of history, and he even uses the term in his subtitle. But it is evident from the outset and amply displayed in chapter after chapter that the word "history"is a euphemism. This is a book driven by theological animus and padded with irrelevant, distracting material from Carroll’s own obsessively chronicled life. Too many pages of the book are self-absorbed meditations on the author’s likes (Bob Dylan, John XXIII) and dislikes (Cardinal Francis Spellman and Pius XII), all delivered with pompous solemnity ("I presume to measure the sweep of history against the scope of my own memory"). The book is filled with information, much of it familiar. Carroll bases his narrative almost wholly on the works of others. If one turns to the notes to check the basis for his comments, the most frequent phrase one finds is "quoted by" whether the passage be from Rosemary Radford Ruether, Salo Baron, Marc Saperstein, Hans Küng, John Cornwell, or others. In a work of such scope it is inevitable that one will have to rely on the scholarship of others, but Carroll displays little understanding of the ambiguities or shortcomings of his sources. Constantine’s Sword is a six-hundred-page indictment of the church for its attitudes toward and treatment of the Jews, deploying...

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About the Author

Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, is the author of The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (Yale University Press), and Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans).