12.09.08, Astell and Goodhart, eds., Sacrifice, Scripture, & Substitution

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George Hardin Brown

The Medieval Review 12.09.08

McGuire, Brian Patrick. Astell, Ann W. and Sandor Goodhart. Sacrifice, Scripture, & Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2011. Pp. 496. ISBN: 978-0-268-02038-5.

Reviewed by:
George Hardin Brown
Stanford University

René Girard's brilliant insights on the substitution of the scapegoat for the communal guilty as recorded in religious texts, classical literature, and culture, as well as his extensive writings on mimetic desire and rivalry have made an enormous impact on anthropological philosophy and theology. Besides the numerous studies published on or about Girard, a major testimonial to his great influence is the annual Colloquium on Violence and Religion, established by a group devoted to furthering his "mimetic hypothesis." The colloquium in 2002 formed the basis of this collection. It begins with an interview with Girard on "Mimesis, Sacrifice, and the Bible" and then proceeds with eight essays on sacrifice and twelve on Scripture. Most of the essays are densely demanding; some are compellingly convincing though others are less conclusive; nearly all are (like Girard's own writings) thought-provoking and rewarding.

The Introduction, confusingly titled "Substitutive Reading," [1] introduces Girard's theories. [2] He has pointed out that in times of crisis societies have resorted to sacrifice of a victim, a scapegoat, whose killing restores order in the disrupted society (3). Girard has us see that the Hebrew Bible developed an anti-human sacrifice, and Christianity completes that by making Christ's sacrifice the supreme sacrifice putting an end to human sacrifice. Concerning the reception of Girard's theories, the editors discuss Girard's effect or lack of it on anthropological and biblical studies. They then provide a summary of the essays that follow.

Part I has the rubric "Sacrifice," because the essays deal explicitly with that topic. The first entry, "Mimesis, Sacrifice, and the Bible" is by Girard himself in dialogue with the editor Sandor Goodhart. It is a good sample of Girard's insightful exploration of the theme "imitation is the main source of violence in mankind" (40). [3] Then follow the essays that relate to Girardian thought. In exploring the important relationship between Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacrificial practice in Ancient Israel, Ryba inserts a confusing number of symbolic equations, some of which take up several lines and all of which have to be deciphered; but in the last paragraph of his essay Ryba presents a clear summary of his argument (101). "Aspects of the Transformation of Sacrifice in Judaism" by Michael Fishbane traces the metamorphosis of sacrifice in the sanctuary into the "small sanctuary" of the individual rabbinic student. Bruce Chilton's "The Eucharist and the Mimesis of Sacrifice" identifies the six types of the Eucharist as a mimetic surrogate of sacrifice, and within the New Testament. In an essay "Eucharistic Origins: From the New Testament to the Liturgies of the Golden Age" that extends Chilton's analysis, Robert Daly stresses that there are "different practices of religious table worship that can be called Eucharists" (157) that are developments of the six Eucharists in the New Testament accounts. Alan Segal traces the gradual evolution of the idea of life after death in the Old Testament as it occurs in the later prophets and psalms culminating in the later biblical witnesses. In the first century Judaism and Christianity held notions of bodily resurrection but it was only through Josephus's use of Greek notions that that immortality of the soul became common and made martyrdom meaningful. The three last sections of Part 1 are linked. Louis Feldman in "Anti-Judaism, Josephus, and the Hellenistic-Roman Period" contends that in the Roman Empire Jews were feared and sometimes hated, but the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages and modern times did not exist. On the contrary Jews ere admired by some of the greatest thinkers of antiquity (224). Erich Gruen in "Beyond Anti-Judaism" writes in support of Feldman, adding further historical instances. Then Stuart Robinson in "Mimesis, Scapegoating, and Philo-Semitism," agreeing that Jewish scapegoat sacrifices did not incite anti-Semitism, compares and contrasts the approach of Feldman to that of Girard (232), and observes that Feldman's arguments, which might seem contrary to Girard's mimetic theory, actually support a triangular mimetic desire (235), and he wonders whether the great pogrom in Alexandria may have taken place because of a high degree of Girardian mimetic rivalry (236).

Part 2, on specific Scripture texts, opens with three essays on Genesis 22. Matthew Pattillo writes on "Creation and Akedah: Blessing and Sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures." The essay begins with a good summary of Girard's mimetic theory, then deals with adversarial positions that claim the texts Girard cites never formed the heart of Judaic revelation, and that Girard is anticreationist. The essay argues that Abraham's binding of Isaac "signals God's liberation of Abraham and his descendants from the world of violence inaugurated by Adam's idolatrous disobedience, his rivalry with God" (241), and the ensuing Temple sacrificial system represents the redemption of Israel through the practice of obedience. Submission to God is the victory over mimetic rivalry (254). Stephen Stern in "The Unbinding of Isaac" argues that as a result of the testing Abraham no longer objectifies Isaac as a creature to be possessed or owned but as an autonomous person. Isaac in turn is taught that he must as an adult stand apart from his father and go his own route. Sarah is the victim retreating from Abraham's violence. By agreeing to take the test Abraham has betrayed Sarah. Many will find the conclusions drawn to be extreme, such as "If Abraham is readying Isaac to be sacrificed for God, to serve God, then we are seeing Abraham idolizing his relations with God--and thus idolizing God--at the expense of God" (278)! Sandor Goodhart responds to both Patillo and Stern in his article, "Blessing and Binding." He praises Patillo for having "taken a Girardian insight and amplified it to the point where it constitutes a full and illuminating itinerary of the entirety of Christian scripture--from the "Old Testament" to the Gospel, one, moreover, that it is significantly harmonious with Jewish rabbinic understandings" (285). He points out about Stern's thesis that Stern's reading aligns with Girard's by having Abraham's instructor (the angel) show Abraham what he has learned and what he has not: "Abraham is taught how to witness to the Other and thus make an exodus from human sacrifice" (287). In the next section on the Book of Job, also comprising three essays, Chris Allen Carter leads off with "Mimesis, Sacrifice, and the Wisdom of Job." Carter contrasts Girard's ethical approach with those that are more New Critical. Contrasting the approaches of Greenberg, Alter, and Mitchell, Carter finds Girard's approach is anthropological and archaeological. In the dialogues Girard "finds not existential skepticism and anxiety but a scapegoat pursued by armed attackers" (302), a Job essentially the victim of his people. Greek tragedy is surpassed by Job's going beyond the traditional scapegoat stance to active articulation and defense of his innocence. William Morrow's "The Expulsion of Complaint from Early Jewish Worship" agrees with Girard that Job is an important unveiling of the scapegoat mechanism but the opposition between the God of the victim and the God of the persecutors is not original to Job, for there was an preexisting tradition of lament, in the Psalms. However, "the expulsion of protest prayer from early Jewish worship took place under the aegis of the Axial Age" 800-200 BCE, but the spirit of complaint would not be denied (324). Sandor Goodhart, in his fourth appearance in the book (after the Introduction with Astell, the "Conversation" with Girard, and his response to Patillo and Stern) completes this section with "The Book of Job and the Problem of Evil." In his lengthy and complex analysis of attempted solutions to the problem of evil in the Book of Job, Goodhart suggests we move from theodicy to the ethical in our analysis (355).

The six essays dealing with the New Testament present three on the gospels and three on the epistles. William Aiken's "Luke and the Opportune Time" proposes the story of the devil's temptation of Christ in the desert is a preface to establishing the Kingdom and a prologue to the Passion. Gérard Rossé points out in "A Gospel that Preaches Nonviolence and Yet Provokes Violence" that Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom provoked violence against himself (386), and Matthew indicts infidelity to the divine will, whether it be Jewish or Christian. Ann Astell, co-editor of the book, complements Aiken's and Rossé's essays with "Exilic' Identities, the Samaritans, and the 'Satan" of John," in which she notes that the Gospel of John tellingly substitutes the account of Jesus' encounter with the Samarian woman for the synoptics' section on Jesus' temptations in the desert. The Samaritans are in a mimetic rivalry with the Jews (399) and Jesus and the Samaritan woman become instead of devils to one another "angels of reconciliation" (406). With "Aristotle's 'Natural Slaves' and Colossae's Unnatural 'Scythians,'" Christopher Morrissey does a generative exegesis of Colossians 3: 11, suggesting four readings of the text, arguing that the author of Colossians advocates a universalism transcending the practices of the Judaizing faction and accusations of the Hellenizing faction (420-21). Poong-In Lee asks "Is an Anti-sacrificial Reading of Hebrews Plausible" and shows convincingly that it is, fitting well into Girard's anti-sacrificial reading of the Bible. Bartlett's very brief response to Morrissey and Lee with "Hermeneutics, Exegesis, and René Girard" rightly prefers Morrissey's first, simpler interpretation that "barbarian" parallels "Greek," and Lee's research needs to be taken in its authentic apocalyptic force (446). The whole book of twenty-one mostly major essays is a good indication of the power and continual influence of René Girard and a testimonial to the incisive hermeneutics he elicits.



1. By it they mean Girard's idea of substitution "as the logic of sacrifice, as the logic of ritual commemoration, as the logic of neosacrificial structuration [!], and as the logic of the end of sacrifice in the birth of the modern" (10).

2. By examining the great writings in European culture Girard has demonstrated "desire is not object-based but mimetic" (p. 4), that is, what is sought is not the goal of the other but the mastery and surpassing of the other.

3. For an extensive exploration into thought in his many books and essays (the best of which have been collected by Robert Doran in Mimesis and Theory (Stanford, 2008), see Chris Fleming, René Girard: Violence and Mimesis (Maldon, 2004).

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George Hardin Brown

Stanford University