BMCR 2012.04.10

Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity. Christianity and Judaism in antiquity series, 18

, , Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity. Christianity and Judaism in antiquity series, 18. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. xiii, 475. ISBN 9780268020385. $49.00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The introduction, by the editors, expounds René Girard’s theory that every culture is founded on the collective murder of a surrogate victim. This sacrificial act restores peace in a previously disrupted community. In Girard’s view, the Hebrew Bible reflects a profoundly anti-sacrificial development, and Christianity extends it by positing Jesus’ sacrifice as the supreme sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. The message of the Bible as a whole is against any sacrificial violence; it is “substitutive.” Biblical scholarship, as the editors note, mostly has not known what to do with Girard’s theory. This volume (which derives from a 2002 Colloquium on Mimesis, Sacrifice, and Scripture at Purdue University) puts his theory at work, in two main ways, to which the two parts of the book are devoted.

Part 1 revolves around the notion of sacrifice and opens with a conversation between Girard himself and Sandor Goodhart on the relationship between sacrifice and imitation as a way to understand sacrifice in primitive religions. Thomas Ryba studies the Biblical economy of sacrificial substitution and some Eucharistic implications, underlining both the differences and the similarities between the Judaic tradition of sacrifice and Eucharistic theology. Michael Fishbane analyzes the transformation of sacrifice in Judaism after the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E. Sacrifice continued in a substitutive form: prayer, study, and asceticism. I note that a similar transformation and even “substitution” occurred in Christianity when martyrdom was progressively replaced by monastic asceticism and the latter was felt as another form of self-sacrifice in martyrdom.

Bruce Chilton focuses on the Eucharist as a mimesis of sacrifice and observes that shortly before the fall of the Second Temple Jesus, by instituting the Eucharist, offered a substitutive sacrifice that was perceived as a rival of that of the Temple. Historically, Chilton also distinguishes six types of Eucharist in Christianity and notes that the Eucharist was felt as a last meal in preparation for the martyrs’ sacrifice. Robert Daly’s essay on Eucharistic origins, from the NT to the liturgies of the Patristic Golden Age, is reprinted from Theological Studies 60 (2005). Daly offers an overview of scholarship on the origin of the Eucharist and remarks that there is no clear continuity between the Last Supper and Patristic Eucharistic prayers. Alan Segal in a fine essay reads the death of the martyrs as a sacrificial offering against the backdrop of two Christian conceptions that, in his view, do not harmonize well: the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. I just remark that these two concepts are closely connected with one another in Gregory of Nyssa’s De anima et resurrectione, as well as in Origen.1

Louis Feldman reinterprets Judaism in the Hellenistic-Roman world and especially the situation of the Jewish people under the Roman rule. His thesis is that Jews were not scapegoated, as is often assumed. Analyzing the sources on anti-Judaism in antiquity, and particularly Josephus, he concludes that the ancient world never knew the anti- Semitism that manifested itself in mediaeval and modern Europe. Moreover, I would note, Judaism under Rome was by no means a “superstitio illicita” (as Christianity was, at least until Gallien and Constantine), but it was a “religio licita” and no Jew could ever be condemned by a Roman magistrate qua talis. Feldman calls attention to the absence of a separation between Church and State in antiquity, which could make the Jews’ refusal to worship “pagan” gods and their double loyalty (to Rome and their own Land and Temple) alarming. But the outbursts of violence against the Jews in antiquity are very few: Feldman lists the episode in which Ptolemy IV in 217 BCE ordered the Jews in Alexandria to be crushed by elephants, a similar episode in 145 BCE, the pogrom in Alexandria in 38 CE, and another again in Alexandria in 66 CE. He indicates “the combination of the economic factor and the alleged expansionism of the Jews as factors in Judeophobia” (215). But at the same time he observes that ancient non-Jewish writers had little interest in Jews. Had anti-Semitism been really at work at that time, much more attention would have been devoted to Jews. As for early Christians, Feldman is right to note that if they had wanted to appropriate anti-Jewish statements, at least in the West, they should have turned to Tacitus ( Hist. 5), but the only one who does so is Tertullian ( Apol. 16), and only to criticize Tacitus. Indeed, I may add Augustine’s emblematic “defense” of Jews and Judaism, which has been recently the object of Paula Fredriksen’s fine demonstration.2

Erich Gruen goes even beyond Feldman on the same line, refusing to embrace “the lachrymose version” of Jewish history and rather promoting a “cheery version.” Jews in the diaspora were accepted just like a number of other peoples. Of course, even before the fall of the Temple they were performing substitutive sacrifices, since they were far from the Temple. Gruen argues that Josephus’ Contra Apionem does not accurately reflect “pagan” opinions on the Jews, at the very least for obvious rhetorical reasons. Gruen also remarks that the actual outbreaks of hostility against Jews in antiquity are even fewer than Feldman allows. Gruen indeed regards as pure fiction the elephant episode under Ptolemy IV. He is also skeptical about the Jews’ economic power or authority; consequently, he does not believe that this was a reason for hostility against Jews in antiquity. Neither was their double loyalty a concern for the Romans. What Gruen suspects is that “pagans rarely gave serious thought to the Jews” (229). He interestingly highlights two ways in which diaspora Jews used substitutions in their sacrificial cult: 1) instead of living in the Land and participating in the sacrificial liturgy of the Temple, they sent their annual contribution to Jerusalem for the Temple and made pilgrimages to it; 2) instead of offering sacrifices to the emperor, they prayed for him and, in the Temple, offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the emperor. Strategy (2), I note, was later assimilated by the Christians. Stuart Robertson in his response comments positively on Feldman and Gruen, and approves of their refusal to apply modern notions of anti-Semitism to the ancient world.

Part 2 reads episodes of Scripture from the perspective of Girardian analysis. The first text is Gen 22 on the sacrifice of Isaac, which is tackled by Matthew Pattillo and Steven Stern, with Goodhart responding to both. Pattillo notes an anti-sacrificial line in the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, in the sense that the Akedah offers a new model for sacrifice. This new sacrifice consists in obedience more than in the offering of victims. Stern also reads the Hebrew text as profoundly anti-sacrificial. It concerns, not sacrifice, but Abraham’s learning to take responsibility for the Other.3

The second Biblical text is Job, which is dealt with by Chris Allen Carter and William Morrow, with Goodhart again responding. Carter interprets the Book of Job in the light of the Rabbinic tradition and of Girard’s reading, and Morrow does so against the background of the lament tradition. He notes that this book contributes to the unveiling of the scapegoat mechanism; on the other hand, he argues that the opposition between the God of the persecutors and the God of the victims is not original to Job, but it comes from an anterior complaint tradition. Goodhart observes that Girard’s reading of Job helps exegetes clarify the Rabbinic claim that Job is “not Jewish.”

A third set of Biblical texts comprises the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, respectively studied by William Aiken, Gérard Rossé, and Ann Astell. Aiken analyzes Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, noting that Jesus is there portrayed as an outcast, a “scapegoat” who belongs to none of the Jewish parties existing at that time. Rossé notes that Jesus in Matthew explicitly keeps his distance from movements such as the Zealots, who advocated the use of violence. He rather proposed a revolution starting from the heart of each one and showed solidarity with the marginalized. As Rossé observes, one factor that must be taken into consideration is that the Gospel of Matthew was formed while members of the Jesus movement were expelled from synagogues, which probably exacerbated the criticism of the Jewish leaders found in it. Astell regards the narration of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman in John 4 as a substitutive episode: in John, it stands in the place of the Synoptics’ narrative of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. The suggestion that the woman’s five husbands may represent the Samaritan practice of worshipping idols is interesting.

The last two Scriptural texts are epistles: Colossians and Hebrews. Morrissey suggests that some Greek Christians in early communities adopted Jewish customs, thus scandalizing their fellow Greeks, and this may explain the derogatory use of “Scythians” in Col 3:11. It just should be pointed out that Colossians is not unanimously accepted as an authentic letter of Paul by scholars. Poong-In Lee’s point is that an anti-sacrificial reading of Hebrews is possible, as Girard surmised, and that Hebrews is actually one of the books of the Bible that best supports Girard’s views. He wisely leaves open the dating of Hebrews (before or after 70 CE), but he is surely right to state that this document addressed people who highly valued the Temple cult. He notes, with Girard, that Christ’s sacrifice is anti- sacrificial in that it unmasks the sacrificial violence against scapegoats that is intrinsic to every ritual. The addressees of Hebrews, a persecuted community, are essential to the understanding of this document. The author writes “to a persecuted community whose obedience to God, nonviolent love of others, and resistance to sin are being tested. When the shedding of one’s own blood is the indirect consequence of one’s faithfulness, that blood becomes the symbolic means and expression of one’s victory over the world, union with God, and redemption from sin“ (439). Anthony Bartlett, in response, comments positively on the two last essays.

The volume is handsomely produced, also from the editorial point of view.4 While not all of its essays might appear of equal level, it is full of insights and certainly interesting to every scholar in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Rabbinics, Early Christianity, and cultural anthropology.

Table of Contents

Ann W. Astell and Sandor Goodhart, “Substitutive Reading: An Introduction to Girardian Thinking”
Part One: Sacrifice
1. René Girard, “Mimesis, Sacrifice, and the Bible”
2. Thomas Ryba, “Bloody Logic”
3. Michael Fishbane, “Aspects of the Transformation of Sacrifice in Judaism”
4. Bruce Chilton, “The Eucharist and the Mimesis of Sacrifice”
5. Robert Daly, “Eucharistic Origins”
6. Alan Segal, “Life after Death”
7. Louis Feldman, “Anti-Judaism, Josephus, and the Hellenistic-Roman Period”
8. Erich Gruen, “Beyond Anti-Judaism”
9. Stuart Robertson, “Mimesis, Scapegoating, and Philo-Semitism”
Part Two: Scripture
10. Matthew Pattillo, “Creation and Akedah”
11. Steven Stern, “The Unbinding of Isaac”
12. Sandor Goodhart, “Binding and Blessing”
13. Chris Allen Carter, “Mimesis, Sacrifice, and the Wisdom of Job”
14. William Morrow, “The Expulsion of Complaint from Early Jewish Worship”
15. Sandor Goodhart, “The Book of Job and the Problem of Evil”
16. William Martin Aiken, “Luke and the Opportune Time”
17. Gérard Rossé, “A Gospel That Preaches Nonviolence and yet Provokes Violence”
18. Ann W. Astell, “‘Exilic’ Identities, the Samaritans, and the ‘Satan’ of John”
19. Christopher Morrissey, “Aristotle’s ‘Natural Slaves’ and Colossians’ Unnatural ‘Scythians’”
20. Poong-In Lee, “Is an Anti-Sacrificial Reading of Hebrews Plausible?”
21. Anthony Bartlett, “Hermeneutics, Exegesis, and René Girard”


1. See Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Gregorio di Nissa sull’anima e la resurrezione, Milan 2007, with the reviews of Panayiotis Tzamalikos, Vigiliae Christianae 62 (2008) 515-523; Mark Edwards, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 60 (2009) 764-765, and Ead., “Preexistence of Souls? The ἀρχή and τέλος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians”, lecture at the Oxford Patristics Conference, 8.-13.VIII.2011, forthcoming.

2. Augustine and the Jews, New York 2008. See also Lisa Unterseher, The Mark of Cain and the Jews. Augustine’s Theology of Jews and Judaism, Piscataway 2009, who independently came to similar conclusions.

3. For a comparison between Rabbinic and early Christian interpretations of the Akedah see Anna Tzvetkova- Glaser, Pentateuchauslegung bei Origenes und den frühen Rabbinen, Frankfurt a.M. 2010, 186-202. There probably were reciprocal exegetical influences. Cf. John McGuckin, “Origen and the Jews,” in Diana Wood (ed.), Christianity and Judaism, Oxford 1992, 1-13; Emmanouela Grypeou – Helen Spurling (edd.), The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, Leiden 2009. Maren Niehoff, Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, Cambridge 2011, Ch. 6 on Philo’s interpretation of the Akedah in his De Abrahamo notes that Philo opposes exegetes who argued that child sacrifice had to be understood in light of contemporaneous (barbarian) cultures and of the history of child sacrifice in antiquity. They advocated the legitimacy of historical approaches to the Bible, claiming that it evolved over time. Philo did not subscribe to this position. See also Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “The Philosophical Stance of Allegory in Stoicism and its Reception in Platonism, Pagan and Christian: Origen in Dialogue with the Stoics and Plato,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 18 (2011) 335-371.

4. I found very few typos, e.g. “choses” for “chooses” or “chose” (227).