Review of The Bible, Violence and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence

by James G. Williams
Book Reviewed
Book Title
The Bible, Violence and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence
Book Author
James G. Williams
Book Publisher
Wipf & Stock Pub
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Neil Elliott
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
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August 16th, 2012

Christ's Incarnation, and the corresponding role of human humility in Augustine's account of moral transformation, Wetzel has left his recon- struction of the intricate web of Augustine's thought partially unraveled.

Augustine once wrote of the attitude of his philosophical teachers toward Christ: "They scorn to learn of him because he is meek and hum- ble of heart. . . . They shun that way, like a torture" (Confessions 7.21.27). Wetzel's service is so valuable because he, like Augustine, has taken the philosophers seriously. Wetzel, however, may have looked over his shoul- der too often.

Gerald W. Schlabach University of Notre Dame

The Bible, Violence and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanc- tioned Violence. By James G. Williams. Foreword by Rene Girard. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991. x + 288 pages. U.S. $27.00.

In his Foreword to this book, Rene Girard repeats the thesis that has put his work at the center of controversy in religious and biblical studies (as witness the new affiliate society of the AAR, the Colloquium On Vio- lence and Religion, or COVQR): that religion and culture derive from mimetic conflict and scapegoating violence. Since religion and culture also conceal this originary violence, our own scapegoats would be "com- pletely invisible as scapegoats" were it not for a "revelation" that Girard finds in the Bible. In contrast to "the 'natural religions' of humankind, the ones rooted in arbitrary victimage," it is in the Bible "and there only that a genuine theme or motif of the scapegoat can make its appearance." As a consequence, "we" the inheritors of the biblical legacy share a "loudly advertised repugnance for victimage, which has no equivalent in any other society. Even if our deeds so not match our principles. . .our awareness of scapegoating is unique. . ." (pp. vii-viii).

Hailing Girard's work as "the basis for a new Christian humanism" (p. 6), Williams sets out to document the biblical " 'unveiling' of the vic- timage mechanism in which the narrative and the God of the narrative side with the innocent victim" (p. 25), thereby revealing "God's will for nonviolent human community" (p. 30).

Noting that in Genesis Cain's murder of Abel does not serve the mythic function for Israel that Romulus' murder of Remus does for Rome, Williams concludes that "Israel. . .is created through a process of becoming exceptional vis-a-vis the violent structures in the midst of which it came to be"

(p. 30). The pattern of "enemy brothers" in the Genesis narratives, ideal for an analysis of mimetic conflict, shows Israel's ancestors repeatedly transcending the logic of sacrificial exchange (chapter 2). Similarly, the chaos and mimetic conflicts that saturate the Exodus account show the real experience of a people emerging from the victimage dynamics of Egyptian sacral kingship (although Williams contrasts the Exodus account not with ancient Egyptian mythology, but with much later Helle- nistic Egyptian myths of the Exodus as an expulsion of a diseased popula- tion). The increasing significance of Moses in subsequent Pentateuchal traditions reflects the gradual externalization of Israel's own mimetic con- flict (chapter 3), a conflict that is channeled and controlled by the system of prohibitions that makes up the covenant (chapter 4). That this cove- nant includes a sacrificial system, requires the ritual surrender of the firstborn (echoing God's destruction of the Egyptian firstborn), and retains narratives of the tremendous violence of the Levites (Exodus 32), shows that "Israel. . .has not extricated itself completely from the mythi- cal camouflage of the victimization mechanism" (p. 120).

The revelation that Williams finds "struggling to make itself known in the covenant. . .reaches a new stage of clarity with the great prophets" (p. 127). Williams sees the prophets as doubles of the kings, alike "called" by God, i.e., excluded from the community, "to assume a special responsi- bilityfor those who are likewise expelled, excluded, or marginal" (p. 131). If this calling was "given only ideological lip service" by kings "once power was centralized," so that the king's power "resided in his ability to control the mechanism" of sacrificial exchange, the figure of the prophet repre- sented by the canon represents a "radical 'throwback,' " standing out from the community structures of violence "in order to stand for both the community and its victims" (p. 143); in this development Williams sees "the chief dynamic of revelation and Scripture" (p. 147).

What emerges is a comprehensive proposal for a biblical theology of the nonviolent God. The obvious methodological question, how this the- ology can be derived from texts saturated with violence, is answered when Williams turns (in chapter 6) to the story of Job, who refuses to cooperate in his own scapegoating by his neighbors. Aware of the com- plexities of competing voices and messages in the canonical form of the book, Williams declares that "the first obligation of the interpreter who stands in service to the biblical tradition of the disclosure of the innocent victim and the God of victims is not to the text as such but to the victim and to the God of love and justice" (p. 172). Despite Williams' obvious acumen as a literary critic, he repeatedly distinguishes his reading of the Bible from post-modern methodologies, and even laments the "antirevela- tion and antitheology values" dominant in "the current intellectual situa- tion" (p. 186). We as human beings are always "involved in the mimetic predicament," from which we must be extricated by a revelation "from outside ourselves." "The revelation of God is the disclosure of (1) the standpoint of the victim. . .and (2) the divine-human community of nonviolence" (p. 187).

This is a coherent theological position, but a fragile one: for Williams echoes Girard's polemic against postmodern method, which undermines and subverts biblical authority and "elevates the critic to the status of high priest controlling the knowledge of text and tradition" (p. 210). This is disingenuous. A glance at history shows that the Christian gospel has usually not been identified with the revelation of nonviolence, and Wil- liams makes no claim to speak from a community historically committed to nonviolence (as theologians from the "peace churches" frequently do). The result is that he must himself write as a virtuoso critic (despite demurrals like that on p. 213), asking us to share his vision of a nonvio- lent God partially revealed, yet partially concealed by the biblical text, a position analogous to that of Marcion in the second century.


This dilemma is nowhere more evident than in Williams' discussion of the Gospels (chapters 7 and 8), which he declares to be "the culmina- tion of the Israelite-Jewish tradition of revelation," for even here Williams must admit that "sacrificial language still has a strong hold." He thus departs from Girard, more dramatically than he allows (p. 188), for Girard has repeatedly insisted that "the sacrificial reading of Christianity" is a perverse misconstrual of the Gospels (especially perverse, one presumes, when those who perceive and criticize sacrificial aspects of the Gospels are themselves Christian theologians). Such criticism, Girard has declared, is "a waste of time": "Among the foolish undertakings of mankind, there is none more ridiculous than this" (The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Frecerro [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 19861, p. 109). Williams echoes Girard's protest, portraying Gospel critics within the academy as overwhelmed by mimetic rivalry-"everyone tries to outdo everyone else in being against victimization and oppression of every sort, against ethnocentrism, and finally, basically, against Christianity" (p. 186)-but one feels his heart is not really in that fight: he is too aware of the critical problems the Gospels present to Girard's program; and, after all, he himself takes "the standpoint of the victim" as his hermeneutical principle (p. 239).

At times, Williams' recognition of critical problems in the Gospels tends to undermine the Giraridan reading (a problem Girard avoids in his writings through the ritual expulsion of the critic). Williams labors over the difficulty of sacrificial language in the Gospels, chiefly Jesus' declara- tion that the Son of Man "gives his life as a ransom [lytron] for many" (Mark 10:45). He admits that lytron is "an unmistakably sacrificial word that would be readily understood as such," but offers in place of this "readily understood" meaning a Girardian gloss: "The human condition is such that only the price of the Son of Man's suffering and death will have the effect of loosening the bonds of the sacred social structure, enabling human beings to see what their predicament is and the kind of faith and action that will bring liberation" (pp. 224, 202). That what the text means is so different from what it says reflects the tragic bondage of human language: "sacrificial language is used, necessarily, in order to break out of a sacrificial view of the world" (p. 224).

Again, Williams gives tremendous weight to Jesus' cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19 and parallels), arguing that since "the Temple was the center of the sacred in Judaism," Jesus' action represented "an attack on the entire sacrijcial system" (p. 193). He recognizes, however, that Pharisees, Essenes, and various other apocalyptic communal movements were not centered on the Temple (pp. 193, 228). This suggests that Mark's attempt to link the response of the "crowd" to Jesus with the over- throw of the Temple is artificial. Williams is aware that Mark writes in a specific historical context after the destruction of the Temple (p. 226), but (in defiance of a century of Gospel scholarship) refuses on principle to separate Mark's theological agenda from the historical context of Jesus' action: this, the "supreme act of critical differentiating," would serve only to "deny the authority of the Gospels and to elevate the critic to the status of high priest" (p. 210).

At length, however, Williams declares that the biblical critic who wants to find in the Gospels the revelation of the nonviolent God is thrown back upon "faithu-"faith that what is revealed there through human language and culture comes from beyond this setting, where dif- ferences rage in combat with confusion" (p. 231). But this standpoint implicitly challenges the sovereign "authority of the Gospels," a posture with which other biblical scholars and theologians are increasingly comfortable.

In a final chapter Williams offers a sampling of his personal views on current issues from the perspective of Girard's theory, from abortion ("the perfect example of the innocent victim. . .is the child, particularly the infant and the fetus in the womb," p. 253), to the addictive nature of American capitalism, to the Persian Gulf War. Guided by a belief that "the destiny of the United States is part of a Spirit-guided historical pro- cess that is decisively centered in the disclosure of the Innocent Victim and is moving toward God's good end of judgment and restoration of all things" (p. 241), he sees the United States as "the most mythical of nations and the supreme scapegoat nation," by which he means that "the ills of the world are transferred to our doing, to our reality, whether or not we have any connection with them or not" (p. 243). This is particularly disingenuous in the immediate context, where Williams speaks of the Ira- nian revolution: he notes "the Iranian tendency, even after Khomeini, to impute every misfortune to the 'Great Satan' America," but says nothing, for example, of Norman Schwarzkopf's contributions in organizing the murderous Savak. Williams rehearses the conventional U.S. legitimations of the Gulf War, considering the rightness of the U.S. "requirement for oil" as self-evident as Hussein's "quest for power and acclaim in the Arab world" (p. 244). Given the immensity of the Gulf War horror, these pages read as a confirmation of Girard's words in the Preface: "the only scape- goats easy to detect as such are those of our enemies; the scapegoats of our friends are harder to seed, and, if they happen to be ours as well, they are completely invisible as scapegoats" (p. viii).

The great value of the book is Williams' critical erudition, which offers substantiation and, in places, qualifications to Girard's reading of the Bible. Alongside works like Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers: Dis- cernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992) and Jim Douglass' The Nonviolent Coming of God (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), this book represents an emerging biblical theol- ogy of nonviolence. Girard's theory continues to be an integral, if contro- versial, element in the development of that theology in the 1990s.

The book includes a general index.

Neil Elliott College of St. Catherine St. Paul, MN 55105

Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation. By CRaig

A. Evans. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992. xv + 281 pages. $19.95.

In the first sentence of his Introduction Evans sets out for his readers the two principal difficulties that face a would-be interpreter of the New Testament. The first, as one might assume, is mastering to some degree the biblical languages-Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The second, how- ever, is more intricate and involves research of a greater magnitude than the discipline of learning a language. It involves familiarizing oneself with the ancient versions and "myriad of cognate literature" that existed contemporaneous with the New Testament canon and which are extant today. It is Evans' assertion, an opinion shared by this reviewer, that a comparative study of non-canonical writings is essential for understand- ing the New Testament because "it is indeed a rare passage that alludes to or parallels no other." It is for the sake of accessing this knowledge that he has published what is essentially a reference book giving substantive detail about all cognate material (i.e., translations, commentaries, histo- ries, poetry, letters, prayers, and fragments) that scholarship has demon- strated as germane for New Testament exegesis. Within one volume, he has conveniently amassed information that spans from the Hebrew Bible itself up to and including the pertinent writings of the early Christian Fathers and the medieval Jewish commentators.

Evans' compilation is excellent not only as a tool for New Testament research, but also as a commendable introductory guide for Biblical exe- gesis in general. He divides his assemblage of some 480 authors and texts into the following eleven chapters (with the number of individual references bracketed): i) The Old Testament Apocrypha [18]; ii) The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 1891; iii) The Dead Sea Scrolls 1751; iv) Ver- 

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