by Edward James
from Signs of the Times No. 66 - Jul 2017

Joel Marcus, a Jew by birth and additionally a Christian theologian by later choice first wrote this book as a result of an invitation from St Mary's Cathedral Glasgow for him to provide seven short homilies during the three-hour service on Good Friday 1995.

St Mary's Cathedral, clearly liberal, has recently been in the news again because of the amount of hate mail received when a Muslim student read from the Koran in Arabic on the importance of Jesus in the Muslim world at a service. Readers of Signs will appreciate how unwelcome this would be to those complaining traditionalists who like to keep church and politics apart.

The 1995 homilies were similarly concerned with the relation of Jesus to Judaism, because 1995 was the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Nazi Holocaust. Marcus was asked to try to relate the Crucifixion to the Holocaust, so he interwove his reflections on the traditional New Testament passages with poetry and stories of the Holocaust.

I think that the two stories each gain by their juxtaposition. The story of the Crucifixion gains poignancy by its combination with the similarly terrible story of the Holocaust.

The seven talks can be summarised as follows:
  1. Describes a Jewish Lithuanian village destroyed in the night, the author a young boy who escaped, and the Suffering Servant passage (Isaiah 53), believed a prophecy by Christians, with a picture by Marc Chagall of the village.]
  2. Shows a Holocaust pile of shoes - all were stripped for the Gas Chambers. Mark tells of Jesus stripped for crucifixion, with traditional details added later, and the Abraham and Isaac story of a pointless killing.
  3. Shows a picture of desolate autumn trees by a young girl holocaust victim, with an Emily Dickinson poem, and Mark's account of the passers-by at the crucifixion. The address suggests that many Holocaust survivors may have shared the same atheistic mood.
  4. A picture of and a letter of hope from Anne Frank, ‘Father Forgive them’ from Luke and the forgiveness on the death-bed in the Jewish tradition.
  5. A picture of the soldiers casting lots, an Emily Dickinson poem on the coming of death, and Mark's story of Darkness at Noon, and comments on the so many senseless slaughters besides the Holocaust every year
  6. A picture of a Passover meal remembering the Exodus, a story of a young girl's survival of the Holocaust and John's Behold your mother’ presaging new hope after Jesus' death.
  7. A picture of the final removal from the Warsaw Ghetto, a Jewish reflection on God's sharing in suffering, Matthew's story of the Veil of the Temple rent, and reflections on the suffering especially of innocent children.

Emily Dickinson's poems are used in several of the addresses, because she often related her poems on Jesus' death to concerns with her own coming death. All are poignant.

As a liberal, I personally think that the Old Testament 'prophecies' may have provided everything the evangelists wrote down about the Easter events. For example, that Mark used Psalm 22 to fill in all details of the crucifixion, since there was no account from that time. But Marcus himself chooses to make use of the usual amalgam of all four gospels, which his hearers in Glasgow would have expected. And the New Testament process of adding details to give verisimilitude to the narrative is always used of any traditional story like that about Easter.

Through difficult personal reflection, Marcus has discovered that in the shared suffering of Christians and Jews, a common bond exists for healing the hurt all have experienced through the death of Christ and the horror of the Holocaust. The continual relevance of his work has led to a new edition of Jesus and the Holocaust in 2017.


Edward James in retirement continues his teaching and research begun at Imperial College.