The title of James Carroll’s latest book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the compelling follow-up to his best-selling Constantine’s Sword, refers in part to Jesus’ lament in the Temple: “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!” But it’s also an apt two-word summary of Carroll’s multifaceted argument: that Jerusalem, as city and concept, is the source of both “good religion” and “bad religion” in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

To Carroll, the good Jerusalem is found in the Jews’ spiritual breakthrough during their exile in Babylon, as they reflected on their physical absence from the city and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple. They came to believe that God is Oneness—inclusive, endlessly compassionate and present in all things. The bad Jerusalem, he contends, is seen in the recurrent backsliding by all three faiths into violent bipolarity in response to the city’s unlucky history as regional “cockpit.” The God of that religion is not Oneness, but a deity who demands a bloody war against the evil Other.

Carroll uses a chronological framework, but ranges widely and knowledgeably through anthropology, archaeology and philosophy as well as history. Nor does he confine himself to the Middle East. He believes the idea of the United States as “New Jerusalem,” John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” affects our nation’s outlook in often deleterious ways. Whatever their origin, he argues, all American wars become “holy wars,” as leaders and combatants justify the loss of soldiers’ lives as necessary martyrdom in the struggle with Satan.

As with Constantine’s Sword, much of Carroll’s argument in Jerusalem, Jerusalem will be controversial. For example, he believes Christianity’s millennium-long focus on Jesus’ crucifixion—what he calls its “tomb cult”—is a fundamental misinterpretation of Jesus’ true message. Jesus, he believes, was the prophet of peace, life and Oneness, while his followers, traumatized by the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem in the generation after his death, reverted to the belief in martyrdom and apocalypse that dated from the time of the Maccabees. But instead of blaming the Romans, Carroll says, they scapegoated the Jews who resisted their evangelism.

Whether or not readers agree with Carroll’s analysis, his use of Jerusalem as a prism to examine the development of monotheism, and his prescription for what he believes might be a more positive future path, provide a powerful and provocative intellectual journey.

 

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