Joel MARCUS. Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Groups, 1997, pp. 129. $15.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7435-1. Reviewed by Marie CONN, Chestnut Hill College. Philadelphia, PA 19118.


In this slim volume, Joel Marcus, who describes himself as a Jew by birth and a Christian by choice, attempts to address the historical incongruity of how Christians, followers of Jesus the Jew, came to play a significant role in the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. The book grows out of sermons he originally preached on Good Friday, 1995, the 55th anniversary of liberation. I was attracted to this book perhaps because I am the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who converted when my older brother started Catholic school. Apparently, dad feared that we might otherwise face discrimination.

Marcus’ chapters are “woven deftly from the crucifixion narratives, heroic stories from the camps, photographs, children’s artwork from the ‘model’ camp Theresienstadt, and Emily Dickinson’s poems.” (Preface, p.xi)

The chapters are relatively brief, as were the sermons from which they came, but each raises important questions about human nature, the role of God in human affairs, and the relationship, if any exists, between the crucified Jesus and Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

One of the most challenging chapters is “The Earthquake,” (91-108), in which Marcus seems to be grappling with the biblical concept of Retribution Theology. This is the insistence that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished; for Jews, this retribution is here and now, not in some future eternal fate. The earthquake is that recorded in Matthew’s description of what happened at the moment of Jesus’ death. After explaining the meaning of the earthquake as a sign of the ultimate triumph of life over death, Marcus asks the inevitable question: “If the earth quaked at Jesus’ death, why did it not tremble at the deaths of six million of his fellow Jews?” (95) This leads to a series of examples, from a photo of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, a Dickinson poem, and a dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, that force us to contemplate the role of God in the deaths of children. I give Marcus great credit here: he offers no easy answers, even when he talks about the suffering of God at the death of God’s own son.

Marcus’ book may or may not have fulfilled the goal of building a bridge between Jews and Christians with regard to the response to the Holocaust, but Christians will find much to mull over in his reflections. His book would be useful for individuals, for students from high school through graduate programs, and for adult bible study groups.