'What Our Church Has Inflicted on Judaism'

An Exchange on Catholic-Jewish Dialogue
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I recall an evening I once spent in the company of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the late archbishop of Paris. A convert from Judaism (he was born Aaron Lustiger), the cardinal took his original faith as seriously as he took his acquired one. That evening, exiting an exhausting discussion with a group of rabbis in New York City, he told me with a sigh that one had half-jokingly expressed the hope that one day he, Lustiger, would re-convert to Judaism. In response I suggested that Lustiger in turn probably hoped they would one day become Christian.

“It’s not the same thing,” the prelate replied. “His was a personal wish for me—not a doctrine inscribed in his religion.”

Like other Commonweal readers, I was absorbed with the excerpt from John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–65, published in these pages some months ago (“Nazi Racism and the Church: How Converts Showed the Way to Resist,” February 24, 2012), and I subsequently read the book with admiration. From Enemy to Brother is a fine and critical piece of scholarship. Yet while I agree that astonishment is in order at the blows Nostra Aetate delivered to two millennia of the Catholic “teaching of contempt” for the Jews and Judaism, Connelly himself notes that the encyclical arrived “too soon for Catholic theology, and to this day has not been fully digested.” It is with a wish to speed up this metabolic process that I offer the following thoughts about the church and the Jews.

[See all the essays included in "Getting Past Supersessionism: An Exchange on Catholic-Jewish Dialogue."]

Nostra Aetate, Connelly correctly writes, gave a new answer to the old question “Who are the Jews?” and in doing so helped the church find its way “across previously insurmountable boundaries to tolerance, to recognizing that God extends grace to all humans.” And indeed, progress in Catholic-Jewish relations since Vatican II has been dramatic. But there have been setbacks, including the failure of the American bishops to condemn Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (see Irving Greenberg, Commonweal, May 7, 2004), and, more important, Pope Benedict XVI’s personal amendment to the Good Friday prayer for the Jews in the Roman missal: “Let us also pray for the Jews, that God our Lord should illuminate their hearts, so that they will recognize Jesus Christ, the savior of men.” As Connelly notes, “This revised prayer seemed out of touch with the sentiments of the council, reflected in the 1970 edition of the Missal,” which prayed only for the Jews’ “fullness of redemption.”

I believe that to foster a more productive Catholic-Jewish dialogue we need to pose two further questions, one backward-looking and one forward-looking. The first is “What harm have we done to the Jews?” and in addressing it I shall take a longer view than the three admittedly crucial decades covered by Connelly in his book. My reflections will present us with a contemporary situation rather more problematic than we tend to acknowledge—one that calls for stronger medicine as we answer the second question: “What more can we do to undo that harm?”

To begin with: How do we portray the ur-conflict, the “impossible relationship” between an old immovable object and a new irresistible force as they collided in antiquity? What shockwaves still reverberate from that Big Bang that was, for so long, an intra-Jewish religious schism, turning on the refusal of most Jews to adopt their neighbors’ view of the messiahship of Jesus? At the start we should observe that while Christians were wrong to see the Jews as “willfully blind”—the refusal to accept a contested claim is not willful blindness—it was nonetheless true that most Jews did not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

It would be hard to exaggerate the shock and distress this turn of events produced in the first Jesus-followers, as gradually but inevitably there developed a widening separation and deepening conflict between them and their fellow Jews. From the outset, the Jesus movement included talented apologists and evangelists who created a corpus of oral and written stories and myths about Jesus Christ—the basis of future dogma and doctrine—that inscribed the rejection of Christ as foreshadowed in the Jews’ earlier rejection of their covenant with God. In time the refusal to acknowledge the Messiah became equated with an outright denial of God and the forfeiture of all claims to address God as father. The viewpoint dispossessed the Jews as sole interpreters and guardians of their own sacred writings. Thus, Justin Martyr: “These words were laid up in your scriptures, or rather not in yours but in ours for we obey them, but you, when you read them, do not understand their sense.” Or as a modern Jewish theologian, Ben Zion Bokser, summed up the charge: “Authentic Judaism is really Christianity.”

In short, the Jewish God was retained at the cost of re-portraying him as anti-Israel, while the abrogation of the Mosaic law was justified in terms of the “sinfulness” of the Jewish people, as expressed in the supremely negative epithet of “Pharisees,” a slur whose vehemence belies the fact that the men so denominated—as Biblical scholars of every stripe know full well—were by and large learned, courageous, and admirable. The New Testament representations that arose out of this internal religious conflict propagated further fundamental distortions, about the Jews as a people and about their religion, which would endure in Christianty. As the historian Ralph Keen wrote in a recent essay, “Jews were generally seen as repudiators of Christianity rather than as outsiders adhering to a positive religious choice regarding redemption.”

None of this—neither the original schism within Judaism nor the deep-seated anti-Judaic subjectivity encoded in the New Testament—would have mattered if the church had subsequently opted to sever her ties to Judaism—as in fact she was beseeched to do by a second-century bishop, Marcion of Pontus. But in declaring Marcionism a heresy, the church fathers resolutely accepted the ineradicability of their religion’s ties to Judaism. In electing to cling to her roots, the church condemned herself to an ongoing, conflicted internal dialogue with “Judaism,” whose fundamental purpose was to defend and illustrate the Christian appropriation not only of Hebrew texts (Torah and the prophets) but also of many central Jewish theological concepts: “God,” “Israel,” “messiah,” the end of days, and on and on. Indeed, it became standard Christian procedure to state the invalidity of these concepts in the forms they took in Judaism.

But even this might not have mattered, world-historically speaking, if Christianity had not survived so brilliantly—that is, if the conversion of Rome had not taken place, with the corresponding translation of the obscure problem of Christians and Jews onto the world stage. Simply put, the means were now at hand to reify, magnify, and eternalize a spark of contention that otherwise might have lain smoldering for centuries. By the fifth century, with near-total power in its hands, the church had reconfronted its secret little Jewish problem—its theological dependence, its morally dubious appropriation of concepts, and the structural anxiety it suffered in the face of stubborn Jewish disbelief—and soon it was no longer either secret or little. The church’s discomfiture with its dependence, its problematic ingratitude, and its ambivalence became highly visible to Christian, Jew, and pagan alike. Now, finally, it was necessary to devise an official stance and policy toward Judaism. And it was possible to “act out”—to inflict punishment and persecution on the frustrating Jews.

Thus came to be set firmly into place a social grammar of thought—anti-Judaism—that had been in the making for four centuries, and that would endure to our time. David Nirenberg’s magisterial Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition confirms decades of scholarship whose analyses of Patristic and later Christian texts lay bare the embedding of layer after layer of anti-Jewish myths as part of the church’s vision—motifs developed and perpetuated over centuries, communicated as historically transmitted symbols. As Nirenberg writes, “Christians resorted ever more systematically to a logic that treated the relative ‘Jewishness’ of a teaching as the best test of its truth or falsity. ‘Jews’ multiplied as negative types in Christian writing, and the living Jew (as opposed to the prophets of the past) became in the Christian theological imagination the enemy of the Christian.” Such a “logic” would loom large in the world precisely because the religion that generated it had come to dominate the thought of much of mankind. This state of affairs endured throughout antiquity and long after, amounting to a permanent dislocation, a kind of congenital syndrome—“the new Jerusalem that would not pass away,” to put it provocatively. As the Notre Dame literary scholar Gerald Bruns so aptly puts it, Judaism was Christianity’s “own other,” which the church could “neither exclude nor contain, the conflict of interpretation in which [she] lives and...cannot transcend.”

The church’s discomfiture, both conscious and unconscious, with its simultaneous dependence and ingratitude vis-à-vis Judaism and the Jews resulted in a permanent social psychology of what Freud called Schuldabwehr—the defense against a guilty conscience. A chief rabbi of Vienna summed it up nicely when he wrote: “The Christian kneels before the image of a Jew, wrings his hands before the image of a Jewess; his Apostles, Festivals and Psalms are Jewish. Only a few are able to come to terms with this contradiction—most free themselves by anti-Semitism. Obliged to revere a Jew as God, they wreak vengeance upon the rest of the Jews by treating them as devils.” In sum, the church owes too much to Judaism. And no good deed goes unpunished.

 

THE DEPTH OF depth of Christianity’s dependence on Judaism is easily illustrated. Take the greatest of all Marian prayers, the Magnificat. Mary’s humility, her praise of God (“He hath exalted the humble and meek… filled the hungry… and the rich he hath sent empty away”) would be as familiar to a Jew of the first century reading the Septuagint as it is to the modern Christian poring over his Book of Common Prayer. The same may be said of the prayer’s closing laud: “He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.” The rub comes with the unstated answer to the question: How, exactly, “hath God holpen Israel?” The entire point of the Magnificat is for the Christian to join Mary in thanking God for “His inestimable gift in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” This is how God “hath holpen Israel”—and indeed fulfilled her for all time.

But this “truth” is not obvious; the Christian meaning of the key phrase “helped Israel” has become common knowledge over centuries only because, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his gloss of the Sacred Scripture of Holy Week, it was “clear” that “the Bible—the Old Testament—had to be read anew.” In his book the former pontiff is anything but anti-Jewish, yet he employs some curious reasoning when seeking to put Christianity and Judaism on the same footing. Noting that original (Second Temple) Judaism was destroyed in 70 AD, replaced by the Rabbinic Judaism that is still with us, he concludes that Rabbinic Judaism is therefore coeval with—indeed, slightly younger than-—Christianity; the two religions in his view are equally fresh and innocent, two equally deserving babes suckling at the originary Hebrew breast. What Christianity “reads anew” is not the rabbinic Talmud, but Torah and the prophets, and thus its claim to the original deposit itself is as strong as Rabbinic Judaism’s.

This is arguable, to say the least. Rabbinic Judaism, however changed in organizational and geographic ways from the older Hebrew religion (e.g. the cessation of animal sacrifice and the priesthood that went with it), was still far more closely related to the originary Hebrew deposit than Christianity was. The two traditions are not equal brothers; rather, one is the son who stayed (“you are always with me and everything that is mine is yours”); the other is, at best, the prodigal who left, as Connelly several times remarks in his book. The debts may be parallel, but they are not equal; Rabbinic Judaism is not a “new” religion vis-à-vis the Hebrew deposit in the way Christianity is; on the contrary, it is a direct descendant and continuation of the old, while Christianity is a complete rereading and repossession. Seen in this light, the Benedict’s statement is misleading. Though kinder and gentler-seeming than other models of supersessionism (the doctrine that Christianity supersedes Judaism), like them it seeks to delegitimize Rabbinic Judaism’s claim to ownership of its patrimony by ignoring the differences between Christianity’s relationship to that past and Rabbinic Judaism’s.

There is something else Benedict does not mention: the asymmetry of Christianity’s and Judaism’s mutual dependence. In fact, nothing in Christianity is necessary to Judaism; but the church, for its part, desperately needs its precursor faith. As A. Roy Eckardt unflinchingly put it in Elder and Younger Brothers: Encounter of Jews and Christians (1967), the church “has a dogmatic, vested interest in Israel. Without the divine mystery of Israel, there is neither Christian faith nor Christian hope.... The church understands itself only insofar as it understands original Israel. And here is why there is such poignancy in the church’s condition vis-à-vis Israel.”

The “poignancy of the church’s condition vis-à-vis Israel” has loomed over the church both historically and recently, as she has sought to resolve the perpetual problem of her faith’s tense occupation of the same religious “space” as Judaism. The challenge back in 1965 was the ascription to Judaism of the same parity accorded other religions. Nostra Aetate details the “divine mystery” at work in Hinduism and in Buddhism; and where Islam is concerned, it positively bends over backwards to do its beliefs justice. Turning to Judaism, the encyclical expends more breath than on all the other religions combined, but from a decidedly more self-centered point of view. True, the message rings out clear as a bell that Catholicism shares with Judaism something she shares with no other creed; Connelly’s excellent discussion of Nostra Aetate highlights such crucial features as the encyclical’s reflections on “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock” and its admission that “the Apostles, the church’s mainstay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ’s Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.”

Yet beneath such genuine recognitions lies a steady theme: Christianity’s de facto supersession of Judaism. It is attested to in a host of phrases, from “Christ-Abraham’s sons” and “the salvation of the church is mysteriously foreshadowed by [Exodus]” to “The church believes that by his cross, Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in himself.” In short, one understands how Rabbi David Polish can speak of the document as “a unilateral pronouncement by one party which presumes to redress on its own terms a wrong that it does not admit,” or how Irving Greenberg, writing in Commonweal, can perceive that in the encyclical the “door was left open” for traditional Adversus Judaeos views such as were portrayed in Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.

On a related theme, Luke Timothy Johnson notes the loud silence in Nostra Aetate concerning the Catholic faith tradition as itself a source of anti-Judaism (“Christians and Jews: Starting Over,” Commonweal, January 31, 2003). Even in the official 1998 Vatican document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, we encounter—beneath the expressions of regret at the church’s historic antipathy toward Judaism and its passivity in failing to protect Jews during the war—the same steely refusal to acknowledge Christian responsibility in the formation not merely of “eternal” anti-Judaism, but also of racist Nazi anti-Semitism. Yet historical research has for some time now abjured any neat separation between Christian anti-Judaism and racist anti-Semitism, and no serious scholar today fails to note the theological sanctions supporting even the most “neo-pagan” (i.e., anticlerical) anti-Semitism. In my view, anti-Semitism is related to anti-Judaism as the large flat surface of a water-lily is anchored in place by its hidden, long root. While a great deal of varied life transpires on the surface—new social, economic, political, and cultural factors—anti-Jewish appeals depend for their reception and dissemination on precisely the religious past and ongoing tradition that the Jew-haters, be they Christian anti-Judaists or “pagan” anticlerical antisemites like the Nazis, consciously and unconsciously share. Less subtly, We Remember conveys an implication of moral equivalency between historic Christian persecutions of Jews and the anti-Christian behavior of some Jews. Need we invoke scholarly opinion to ascertain the ludicrousness of any such equivalency?

As for Nostra Aetate, it is an epochal text, and my intention is not to cavil over any alleged insufficiency, but only to recommend how the encyclical’s stated wish to foster “mutual understanding and respect” might be carried forward. I believe that further reflection, further risk-taking, and greater love will lead Catholics to understand that Nostra Aetate and We Remember do not even fully acknowledge, let alone make up for, what our church has inflicted on Judaism over the centuries. Due to Christianity’s overwhelming force majeure, the Jews have had to live in a world that tells them that they are wrong about one of theirs (Jesus) and that they wrongly interpret their own sacred Scriptures, even as they have had to watch an oppressive rival religion batten on those Scriptures. No other religion in the world has had to do that.

 

THE CATHOLIC-JEWISH dialogue currently finds itself in an ambiguous place; John Paul II’s affirmation that the Jewish Covenant suffices for Jewish salvation, and need not be understood by Jews in a Christian sense, was undercut by his successor’s reinstatement of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews. It would seem that for every Cardinal Walter Kaspar or Professor Didier Pollefeyt, men who echo John Paul’s words, a Cardinal Avery Dulles arises to argue for supersessionism. The result has been a slackened pace of progress. As Alan Berger and David Patterson note in their well-named book on the Jewish-Christian dialogue Drawing Honey from the Rock (2008), the current “vast array of proclamations, pulpit exchanges, and fraternal faith gatherings” has created “the illusion of relation,” but little by way of hard discussion of the most sensitive and divisive issues. Berger and Patterson cite Rabbi Leon Klenicki’s pithy observation that “dialogue requires more than tea and sympathy.” As John Connelly writes in his recent review of Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism (“Through a Glass Darkly,” Commonweal, September 16, 2013), “nineteen centuries of supersessionism were not simply a ‘misunderstanding’ that can now be comfortably forgotten.” Amen.

It remains to be seen what Pope Francis will undertake in this area, though we already have some auspicious signs. His first published book is a 2010 dialogue, On Heaven and Earth, co-authored with the Argentinian rabbi, Abraham Skorka in which, as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Francis spoke openly with the rabbi about many issues, and in the process said something striking about his capacity for humility and self-scrutiny: “When I have a problem with someone, it helps me to have the same attitude that the Egyptian monks had at the beginning of Christianity. They accused themselves so they could find a solution; they put themselves in the defendant’s seat to see what things were not working well inside of themselves.”

A striking display of candor in the conversation between the faiths is available in a 2008 dialogue, Le rabbin et le cardinal, carried on between the archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin, and the then chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bern-heim. In the exchange, Barbarin, a friend and protégé of the late Cardinal Lustiger, calls himself “a twenty-first century priest who considers the presence of the Jews as a grace,” and states that “I have yet to read a Jewish prayer…that would be impossible for me to utter.” Bernheim, while admiring of his interlocutor, is less warm and generous in his attitude toward Christianity. “When I read the Gospels,” he offers, “I find myself disoriented; I have the impression that I’m home but without feeling at home. It’s almost the same décor, but the living going on here is radically different.” Speaking about the supersessionist Christian view of Jews, he asserts that “from the moment that I, as a Jew, am viewed as a prefiguration of something I never imagined, and in which I do not recognize myself, then I find myself despoiled of my identity.”

More recently, in an interview in Le Monde, Bernheim was asked what gestures and words the Jewish community hoped to receive from the new pope. The rabbi replied that the Catholic Church could “teach in a positive way the full respect and full legitimacy of a religion and a faith in which she herself finds her roots: Judaism.” Doing so, he continued, would entail “witnessing to the value and singularity of the Jewish people, who, of course, do not recognize Jesus.... To better understand the ‘no’ spoken by Jews to Jesus would be to better respect them, as Jews.” Nothing less, Bernheim insisted, could reroute the church from its “ancient Christian anti-Judaism.” He added, with a smile, “What a challenge [quel défi]!”

In fact, Bernheim had already raised this défi with Barbarin, and had heard the cardinal’s answer: “The Jewish ‘no’ to Jesus as Messiah is a suffering for us, yet even so, that ‘no’ is a grace, in my opinion. It is as if one said to the church, ‘Wake up! Have you somehow forgotten Jesus is Jewish [not ‘was a Jew’]? Indeed, it is perhaps because of this ‘no’ that I discover so many marvels of Jesus’ word as I read it in the practices of the Jewish people. What else could have called my attention to these [Jewish] roots? What else could have awakened me from my slumber?”

But though the cardinal’s humility is disarming, he has not given a full answer to Bernheim’s crucial question: How can Christians say “yes” to the Jewish people without looking searchingly at their “no” to Jesus? The Jewish scholar, Kenneth Stow, of Haifa University, asks the same thing differently. “Jews have been forced for centuries to watch Christianity compete with Judaism on Judaism’s own scriptural terms,” Stow writes, “so why can’t we ask Christianity to admit into open debate Judaism’s conclusions about Jesus?” As the late German Lutheran theologian Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt once stated, “Christian anti-Judaism cannot be overcome until we Christians come to perceive the positive significance of the Jewish ‘no’ to Jesus.” Given that the Jews have tacitly had to live with the constant accusation that they willfully fail to understand their own Scriptures, should not Christians have to concede that their bid to “read anew” the Old Testament might be invalid—despite the fervor with which they do it—and that the Jewish “take” on Jesus might be correct?

On a first reading, Bernheim’s défi may seem impertinent, even ludicrous. Would the good rabbi be prepared to support its logical converse-—to wit, that Jews who do not publicly acknowledge that Jesus might be the Messiah should be declared anti-Christian? But that is precisely the point. Jews have indeed been declared “anti-Christian”—and have had to endure being persecuted for it. Things have not gone both ways; the French rabbi isn’t making his appeal to an equal, in Barbarin, but rather beseeching an infinitely stronger opponent whose dominance has been made manifest over two millennia of often brutal anti-Judaism. If there were no such history, Bernheim’s suggestion would hold only theoretical interest. But alas, there is. Christianity bears a far greater heritage of guilt for physical and material atrocities against the Jews than vice versa. The church is asked to do more because she has sinned more.

 

AN IMMODEST PROPOSAL: What if Pope Francis were to hold another dialogue with his friend, Rabbi Skorka, or with another equally faithful and learned Jewish theologian committed to Jewish-Christian relations—and this time focus the discussion on the Jewish “no” to Jesus? A precondition would be not only mutual trust but also, to quote Berger and Patterson, “a certain level of understanding, which requires...knowing how the other thinks.” A true dialogue, in other words; one which, to cite the great Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, requires that “each party remains open to the possibility of conceding the legitimacy of the other’s viewpoint.”

One could foresee a far-ranging set of discussions organized, perhaps, on a kind of day-trip basis, with each “journey” departing from familiar turf to move into new territory. Thus, for example, while it would not be hard for the pontiff to reconfirm the end to supersessionism as a central presupposition of the Good News, it might take some serious and original thought to sketch out a Christianity that does not fundamentally hinge on the concept. Useful to such an effort would be theologian Mary Boys’s profound reflections, in Redeeming Our Story, on cleansing the Passion and Crucifixion narratives of their traditional, sacrilegious animus to the Jews as Christ-killers.

Another “day trip” could depart from the now-familiar terrain of the Jewishness of Jesus, a much-discussed recent theme in Christianity and Judaism. The Jewish perspective, in the words of a nineteenth-century rabbi, is that the Christian divinizing of Jesus resulted in the emergence of a religion that “no longer promised justice, equality, or freedom on earth, but rather individual salvation in a future world outside of history.” A thoroughgoing dialogue would explore the gains and losses to both sides of such an otherworldly conception of messiahship. Exploring the Jewishness of Jesus might further lead to seeing the truth in Luke Timothy Johnson’s argument that Judaism, in any case, “cannot be reduced to messianism,” and that “doing so is a Christian perspective.”

If the foregoing seems to load the dice against the pope, then consider a challenge to Judaism that is unexpectedly implicit in Rabbi Bernheim’s défi: What if an honest and searching probe by both sides were to uncover that the Jewish “no” to Jesus is less based on traditional Jewish messianic expectations, freely and creatively arrived at over time, than on the Jews’ profound resentment of Christian mistreatment of them? It is of course historically understandable that the Jewish rejection of the Christian “tender of an offer of meaning” (to use the late Edward Schillebeeckx’s wonderful phrase) would become virtually the central plank of the identity of the mass of secularized Jewry, but that does not make it an intellectually or spiritually defensible position, in the long run. So while a deep fathoming of the Jewish “no” will inevitably carry the interlocutors back to the awful costs of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, that is not all it will do. If the “no” is seen to be primarily a sociological and socio-psychological defense, then a Christian offer, stripped of supersessionism and focused on a Jewish Jesus, may deserve another look.

The late Cardinal Lustiger often said that the essential distinctions where Jews and Christians were concerned did not lie between Judaism and Christianity, per se, but rather on the one hand between those Jews who do and don’t recognize Jesus as Messiah, and on the other between those Christians who do and don’t recognize the Jewish roots of their faith. If Christians were to understand the meaning and accept the implication of their Lord’s anchorage in his Jewish identity, and were thus to celebrate their religion’s debt to Judaism, might not Jews, over time, come to evaluate differently the Christian “take” on the Jewish Jesus?

Lustiger was a man who wore his sufferings heavily, and during the thirty years I was privileged to be his friend, I asked him, several times, what it was that weighed most on his obviously aching heart. He never failed to reply with some variation on one galling and sorrowful fact: that the church, over her two thousand years, had treated the Jews in such a way—including praying for their conversion—as to make Jesus’s message all but unhearable by his own people, and virtually guarantee that they would stay insulated against it, and against him.

In his 1955 story “The Star,” the great science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke tells of a Jesuit priest, an astrophysicist, returning to Earth by spaceship from an interstellar mission on which he and a team of other scientists have investigated a planet, much like our own, in a distant galaxy. Life on the planet is extinct because its sun imploded centuries before. But the team discovers many traces of the world that once blossomed there—a race of sentient, reasoning beings who created a civilization far superior to our own. The Jesuit is wrestling with a terrible truth that has emerged from his calculations and which is crushing his heart and his faith: the death-explosion of the star, which illuminated the sky for distances of many light-years, was visible on the Earth—most strikingly in the eastern Mediterranean—on the twenty-fifth of December of the year 3, Anno Domini. He exclaims aloud, “My God, was this the price that an entire race had to pay for You to announce the Joyous News of the birth of a savior?”

Published in the February 21, 2014 issue: 

Steven Englund, a longtime Commonweal contributor, is the author of Napoleon: A Political Life (Harvard University Press), which won the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize. He is currently writing a comparative study of political anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and France.

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