Meet Arthur Ullian

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Q&A with Arthur Ullian

Q: Did you learn anything while writing and researching Matthew, Mark, Luke, John… and Me that surprised you?

A: I learned too many things to count over the years of research that went into the book, but one idea really intrigued me. The conventional wisdom that Jews were persecuted from the very beginning—long before the birth of Christ—turns out to have been simply false. Wars directed against the Jews by other cultures—Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, etc.—were political in nature, which is to say they were never about competing belief systems. The Roman Empire in particular accepted the vast diversity within its boundaries; conquered people were considered full citizens of Rome and were free to worship as they pleased, as long as they obeyed Roman laws and paid Roman taxes. It was only when Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire in the fourth century that Jews (and others) began to be persecuted and killed because they refused to convert to the new religion. Looking to the Gospels for inspiration, Constantine demonized the Jews and set the tone for the Church to discriminate, ghettoize and slaughter us for the next 1500 years.


Q: How does the physical place where you write influence your work? Did setting contribute to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John… and Me as you wrote?

A: Well, if you have read the book, or anything about it, you probably know that I am paralyzed from a bicycle accident that occurred in 1991. Because I can’t use my hands to type, I rely on a dictation program to write. Since that technology is tethered to my desktop computer, I have no choice but to work in my home office. Fortunately, that office also contains the hundreds of books on Jewish, Christian and Roman history that I read and consulted as I wrote the book.


Q: Have you always wanted to write a memoir? What made you decide to write this book?

A: My initial idea was to write a history of antisemitism in the form of a guidebook to sites in Europe of historical Jewish significance. I showed an early version to a book agent in Boston, who suggested that I would have a hard time finding a publisher for a history without having the appropriate academic credentials. She suggested I write a memoir instead. The final result is something of a hybrid: It relates my own life story, but focuses on my introduction to the Gospels in prep school, considers how the Gospel portrayals of the Jews affected me as a boy and throughout my life, and shows why those portrayals were intentionally misleading, politically-motivated and pretty much false. In the end, the book is both memoir and history. I actually think this results in the historical sections becoming more accessible to the reader.


Q: What was the most difficult part of writing Matthew, Mark, Luke, John… and Me?

A: The length of time I spent reading and researching the material and the growing realization of how the stereotyping of Jews affected my own life contributed to me becoming kind of obsessed with the subject. I think this comes through in the sections of the book where I “rant” about my discoveries about Jewish history in my therapy sessions, and fantasize that my psychiatrist is writing in his notebook that I am a “hopeless case.” And there were so many occasions where a friend would casually mention that they were planning a trip to Tuscany or the south of France or Spain, and I would regale them with horrific tales of what befell the Jews in that location in 1553 or 1692. After a while, I could see them rolling their eyes as I went on and on.


Q: What is the most important message in your book?

A: First, Jews need to understand the origins of antisemitism, that it arose from the ways Jews were depicted in the Gospels and was reinforced down the centuries in art, architecture, literature and even music. Without that knowledge, you cannot even begin to rebut antisemitic thinking. Second, Christians must learn to differentiate the largely invented descriptions of Jesus’ life and interactions with the Jews, in which Jews are described as “bandits,” “vipers” and “devils,” (to name just a few) from the truly profound message Jesus preached about loving thy neighbor as thyself. The hateful descriptions of the Jews come from Gospel writers, not from the mouth of Jesus. The two constructs—love and loathing—are inconsistent. You simply can’t have it both ways.


Q: In your opinion, what is something everyone can do to combat antisemitism?

A: As I just mentioned, people can resolve to educate themselves about how and why these stereotypes have been attached to the Jews, and then participate in dialogues about how to go about changing it. Our country is just now beginning this process of self-examination in terms of race relations as we process the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the issues are not exactly identical, a similar process needs to take place regarding the historical relationship of Christians and Jews.


Q: What are you reading right now/what do you recommend?

A: I have to admit, it’s been difficult to let go of the issues I explored in the book. I am currently reading Loving Your Neighbor in an Age of Religious Conflict: A New Agenda for Interfaith Religions by James Walters. He is an English priest and chaplain and faculty member at the London School of Economics (which I also attended).  As I read his very smart and insightful book, I am hatching a plan to ask him to participate together in an online discussion of our respective points of view.