Jesus and the Holocaust

Reflections on Suffering and Hope

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Joel Marcus
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     153 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If you are looking for a book to challenge your conventional theology, you will have found it here.

Often when persons of double identity write a book, as was the case with Joel Marcus—a Christian professor and pastor of Jewish ethnicity—single identity people from both communities tend to find fault with the work. From my perspective, I believe on the contrary that such double identity persons are able to synthesize perspectives helpful to both groups, and positively contribute to the Jewish-Christian dialogue. The foreword by Ellen T. Charry, a similarly bicultural scholar, reinforces the validity of this effort.

Much has been written recently about early Christian anti-Judaism that has causal connections with the Holocaust. This is not such a book. The Eerdmans reprint of a previously published collection of Good Friday sermons by Joel Marcus looks for meaningful linkages between the suffering and death of Jesus and of the six million Jews murdered by Nazis and discerns hope that is possible to build bridges between the two communities. 

The series of seven sermons/meditations with additional reflections masterfully weave scriptural verses from Second Isaiah and the four gospels with scholarly and devotional reflections upon them. The work also blends in poetry by Emily Dickinson, Amir Gilboa, and Joel Marcus; excerpts from Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Yaffa Eliach, Emanuel Levinas, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Buber, Emil Bruner, and others; as well as artwork by children from the Theresienstadt camp and Marc Chagall, photos of piles of shoes of camp inmates, tombstones of the ancient Prague Jewish cemetery, and other meaningful illustrations. This makes a cumulative impact that might enable Jews and Christians to weep together at the scale of human tragedy and nurture the promise of rebuilding shattered lives.

Among the various issues that are touched upon by Marcus is the question of whether forgiveness can be or should be offered to the perpetrators. Marcus validates both Elie Wiesel’s prayer, “Oh Merciful God, do not have pity on those who did not have mercy on Jewish children” (53) and Jesus’s asking God to forgive his own executioners. Our understandable demand for retribution, while justified, should be tempered by questions such as, “Where exactly is one to draw the line between those who will be forgiven and those who won’t be? And who is to draw that line? And how exactly do we know on which side of that line will wefall? The lines between the righteous and the unrighteous are not always so clear” (54).

While Marcus does not utilize the vocabulary of Franklin Littell about the crucifixion and resurrection of the Jews, Marcus’s multimedia approach allows the reader to plumb the depth of despair of the victims and the survivors searching for evidence of God’s redemptive presence in human affairs. Even though, naturally, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus plays a role in the “seven last words” of the Good Friday sermon series, there is not a hint of an attempt to convert Jews to Christianity, though Jewish readers may find empathy for the Christian narrative.

As a concluding personal narrative, Marcus writes that nothing can distance him from his “sense of belonging to, participating in, and being the beneficiary of God’s saving encounter with Israel and with the broken world, which occurred in the crucifixion of Jesus ... these two forms of communion—with the tragedies of Jewish history, culminating in the Holocaust, and with Jesus’ death on the cross—are inextricably bound up with each other. A corollary is that the tikkun of the world, its repair, restoration, and redemption—including the redemption of Israel—has already been decisively inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead” (117-19). Open-minded Jews and Christians are likely to be grateful to Marcus for taking us with him on this journey.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Mojzes is Interim Director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies doctoral program at Gratz College, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel Marcus is professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke Divinity School and author of the two-volume Anchor Bible Commentary volume on Mark.



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