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Review: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’


Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This reader readily admits that, when she first heard of this book, she was deeply skeptical. A history of the Holy City, as told by a former Catholic priest, conjured images of evangelical, gay-bashing nutcases looking to debunk evolutionary theory for the hundredth time. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” however, turned out to be a literate and compassionate treatment of a wildly provocative subject, a testament to James Carroll‘s skill and perspective.

The book opens with a personal history, the story of how Carroll came to be fascinated by the city of Jerusalem — both the historical, physical city and the mythos of Jerusalem that came to hold such sway in the modern collective consciousness. In any other work of this nature, this sort of introduction would have seemed trite and self-aggrandizing; one typically reads nonfiction to learn about the subject matter, not the author. In this case, however, it felt right — honorable, even — as though Carroll were disclosing his background out of journalistic integrity.

Jerusalem’s story begins on chapter two, where Carroll begins, not with the Biblical version of the tale, as one might expect, but rather with a Jared Diamond-esque analysis of the origins of the three major monotheistic faiths. His analysis of the genesis of religion is strictly secular and very scientific — he argues that it was primarily a means of sublimating intrinsic human violence and dealing with death. His examination of the foundation of the city of Jerusalem, and its predecessor, Jericho, is similarly clinical, written with aplomb and an appreciation for archaeological evidence that any historian would admire. He is not afraid to question, or even contradict, the text of the Bible where necessary; indeed, he spends a significant amount of time analyzing the very human origins of the Holy Book itself.

As his focus shifts to more (relatively) modern events, like the crucifixion and the Islamic conquest of the Middle East in the medieval era, he does not lose his impartiality. His treatment of these extremely relevant and extremely controversial topics is sensitive but anchored in an unflinching appraisal of the follies of human nature through the centuries — universal weaknesses that have persisted irrespective of faith of any stripe. He does not spare his own Catholic faith, which is as central to the Jerusalem story as either of it modern contenders; he criticizes the violent conduct of organized Christianity throughout history as a fundamental misinterpretation of the teachings of Christ, a throwback to the more violent Old Testament, and explains — but does not excuse — its treatment of Judaism as a backward psychological response to its historic persecution at the hands of classical Rome.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem” is a truly scholarly treatment of a very relevant topic and one of the least biased works this reader has seen from an author of such unique perspective. It is well worth the while of anyone interested in the historical background of today’s Middle Eastern conflict.