Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Flesh Becomes Word

Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea

David Dawson
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 220
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Flesh Becomes Word
    Book Description:

    Though its coinage can be traced back to a sixteenth-century translation of Leviticus, the term "scapegoat" has enjoyed a long and varied history of both scholarly and everyday uses. While WilliamTyndale employed it to describe one of two goats chosen by lot to escape the Day of Atonement sacrifices with its life, the expression was soon far more widely used to name victims of false accusation and unwarranted punishment. As such, the scapegoat figures prominently in contemporary theories of violence, from its elevation by Frazer to a ritual category in his ethnological opusThe Golden Boughto its pivotal roles in projects as seemingly at odds as Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of Western metaphysics and René Girard's theory of cultural origins. A copiously researched and groundbreaking investigation of the expression in such wide use today,Flesh Becomes Wordfollows the scapegoat from its origins in Mesopotamian ritual across centuries of typological reflection on the meaning of Jesus' death, to its first informal uses in the pornographic and plague literature of the 1600s, and finally into the modern era, where the word takes recognizable shape in the context of the New English Quaker persecution and proto-feminist diatribe at the close of the seventeenth century. The historical circumstances of its lexical formation prove rich in implications for current theories of the scapegoat and the making of the modern world alike.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-349-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Rites of Riddance and Substitution
    (pp. 1-8)

    Tyndale coins the word “scapegoat” for his version of the Bible with the following translation of Leviticus 16:8: “And Aaron cast lottes ouer the .ii gootes: one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scapegoote.”¹ The precise meaning of the Hebrew עזאזל or‘aza’zel—which occurs again in verses 10 and 26, but nowhere else in the Bible—has been debated since antiquity and still divides opinion among scholars, a majority of whom favor the proper name of a demon against Tyndale’s interpretation, which, like the Septuagint’s τῷ ἀποπομπαίῳ—“for the one who bears away evil”—and the Vulgate’s...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Ancient Types and Soteriologies
    (pp. 9-22)

    At the threshold of the Christian era, the historical path of the scapegoat divides in two directions: on the one hand, the first Christian Day of Atonement typologies; and on the other, two early conceptions of Christ’s saving work that have little if anything to do with the Day of Atonement. One writer notes that “the doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine that God has resolved the problem of human evil by means of the suffering and death of Christ, is the central doctrine of Christianity.”¹ Because the scapegoat is a Day of Atonement animal, its interpreters will eventually find...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Sulfurous and Sublime
    (pp. 23-32)

    At a symbolic and structural level, the scapegoat begins its life as a Christian type divided from itself. The personification of Azazel in later Jewish ritual becomes a type of Jesus in the first Christian readings, but the scapegoat’s itinerary remains unchanged. It walks a path of abuse and exile that leads to the netherworld,perditio. With Origen (third century) the scapegoat reverts unambiguously to its demonic identity. “The goat which in the book of Leviticus is sent away (into the wilderness),” Origen says, “and which in the Hebrew language is named Azazel was none other than this [the Devil]”:...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Economies of Blood
    (pp. 33-48)

    With the exclusion of the Devil as a player of any consequence—the locus of death and the enemy whom Christ came to defeat—the meaning of the saving operation changes dramatically. The two most important writers associated with this move are Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom relegate the Devil to a titular role, redeploying the power of death within new soteriological configurations. God did not need “to come down from heaven to conquer the devil,” Anselm says, “or to take action against him in order to set mankind free,” for God “did not owe the...

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Damnation of Christ’s Soul
    (pp. 49-62)

    The creedal item of Christ’s “Descent into Hell” (descensus ad infernos) is at the heart of one of the “lesser but vigorous controversies of the Reformation era”¹ (late sixteenth to early seventeenth century), where the last, crucial determinants of the scapegoat’s semantic formation are evident. A single chapter of that long-running debate over how literally Protestants should interpret the confession that Christ “descended into hell” stands out for the extended disputation of Day of Atonement typologies it contains.

    In an acrimonious exchange of treatises between the exiled Puritan leader Henry Jacob and the Anglican bishop of Winchester, Thomas Bilson, a...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Anthropologies of the Scapegoat
    (pp. 63-76)

    We have come to the end of our typological history of the scapegoat. What remains is to adduce the word’s earliest nonexegetical, metaphorical uses. Before we do this, let us pause to situate our corrected history within a broader theoretical framework or two. Patterns in the data under review in this first portion of our study need to be reckoned, especially in view of the citations we shall come to in the final chapters of this book with their curious distribution into “types.” We are, moreover, finally in a position to check the two most important theorists of the scapegoat—...

  10. CHAPTER 7 The Goat and the Idol
    (pp. 77-88)

    The revelation of the scapegoat progressively disables the religious forms and cultural institutions that depend for their efficacy on its occlusion. One of the first casualties is pagan religion, with its mythology and overtly sacrificial rites. We recall the Roman world of the apostolic age, its temples, shrines, and sacred groves, its games and festivals in honor of the gods from every corner of the empire. Under the roomy pavilion of religious life in the imperial period, the storied denizens of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian myth lounged comfortably alongside local and familial divinities, some of them in more than one...

  11. CHAPTER 8 A Figure in Flux
    (pp. 89-98)

    “Ultimately, everything we say here is an attempt to understand the semantic evolution of the word and evaluate its impact,” Girard writes. “Our whole hypothesis has existed silently in common language since the emergence of what is called rationalism.”¹ The huge importance he assigns the scapegoat proceeds from a theoretical intuition—ventured in the late 1970s without benefit of the facts uncovered in this monograph—that the word becomes a signifier of emergent historical truth when it splits to reveal a second meaning. What the new evidence allows us to see is that this truth quickly explodes the theological matrix...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Early Modern Texts of Persecution
    (pp. 99-120)

    The intersection of two lives provides a point of altitude from which to take the lay of the land in seventeenth-century New England, where a series of related public scandals discloses the scapegoat’s transformation from type into metaphor. When we speak of the scapegoat as a revelation of human violence, it is to these persecutions that we turn, not simply for references to victims but because the episodes have long been recognized as iconic moments in the cultural shift under way in early modernity. They furthermore open an arresting perspective on how “scapegoating” became a rough synonym for the “witch...

  13. CHAPTER 10 A Latent History of the Modern World
    (pp. 121-130)

    Among the earliest metaphorical uses of the expression a clear majority appear in the political writing of the period, with its oft en withering characterizations of politicians and kings. Peter Heylyn uses it in theCyprianus anglicusof 1668 to comment on a tract published “against the Lord Treasurer, who is now made the Scape-Goat, to bear all those faults in Civil Matters which formerly had been imputed to the Duke ofBuckingham.”¹ A similar use is found in a reference to the infamous George Jeffreys, who in 1685 presides over the “Bloody Assizes” following a failed insurrection of the...

  14. CONCLUSION. The Plowbeam and the Loom
    (pp. 131-134)

    “I wold desire that all women shuld reade the gospel and Paules epistles,” writes William Tyndale in his 1529 translation of Erasmus’sExhortations to the Diligent Study of Scripture, “and I wold to god they were translated in to the tonges of all men.”

    So that they might not only be read and knowne of the scotes and yryshmen But also of the Turkes and sarracenes. Truly it is one degre to good living, yee the first … to have a little sight in the scripture, though it be but a grosse knowledge…. I wold to god the plowman wold...

  15. APPENDIX. Katharma and Peripsēma Testimonia
    (pp. 135-142)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 143-184)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-200)