We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Flesh Becomes Word

A Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea

David Dawson

Publication Year: 2013

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 opus The Golden Bough to 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 Word follows 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.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Series: Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF (94.5 KB)

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (118.3 KB)
pp. ix-xix

New evidence suggests the English word “scapegoat” was a portent of epochal passage in the dawn of the modern age, a sign in whose semantic evolution we may read the demise of religion and the advent of the secular world. By religion we understand an older, collective form of social existence and its metaphysical...

read more

Chapter 1. Rites of Riddance and Substitution

pdf iconDownload PDF (103.9 KB)
pp. 1-8

Aaron dispatches the goat “for HaShem” (literally “the Name,” a circumlocution for the ineffable name of God), aspersing its blood upon the horns of the altar as well as inside the Tabernacle, while the goat for Azazel is “set alive before HaShem,” in an official way suggesting to some the legitimization of a more ancient, pagan custom that...

read more

Chapter 2. Ancient Types and Soteriologies

pdf iconDownload PDF (131.7 KB)
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...

read more

Chapter 3. The Sulfurous and Sublime

pdf iconDownload PDF (115.6 KB)
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...

read more

Chapter 4. Economies of Blood

pdf iconDownload PDF (133.0 KB)
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...

read more

Chapter 5. The Damnation of Christ’s Soul

pdf iconDownload PDF (127.3 KB)
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...

read more

Chapter 6. Anthropologies of the Scapegoat

pdf iconDownload PDF (125.1 KB)
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...

read more

Chapter 7. The Goat and the Idol

pdf iconDownload PDF (118.5 KB)
pp. 77-87

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...

read more

Chapter 8. A Figure in Flux

pdf iconDownload PDF (107.0 KB)
pp. 89-97

“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...

read more

Chapter 9. Early Modern Texts of Persecution

pdf iconDownload PDF (155.1 KB)
pp. 99-119

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...

read more

Chapter 10. A Latent History of the Modern World

pdf iconDownload PDF (105.6 KB)
pp. 121-129

Among the earliest metaphorical uses of the expression a clear majority appear in the political writing of the period, with its often withering characterizations of politicians and kings. Peter Heylyn uses it in the Cyprianus anglicus of 1668 to comment on a tract published “against the Lord Treasurer, who is now made the Scape-Goat, to bear all...

read more

Conclusion: The Plowbeam and the Loom

pdf iconDownload PDF (91.9 KB)
pp. 131-134

Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament began circulating in 1525 with a first successful run of 3,000 copies at Worms in Germany. Cheap, portable, and easily smuggled, the Bibles quickly found their way onto English soil, much to the alarm of church authorities, who greeted their unwelcome intrusion with interdictions...

Appendix: Katharma and Peripsēma Testimonia

pdf iconDownload PDF (127.8 KB)
pp. 135-142


pdf iconDownload PDF (295.8 KB)
pp. 143-184


pdf iconDownload PDF (160.2 KB)
pp. 185-200

E-ISBN-13: 9781609173494
E-ISBN-10: 160917349X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611860634
Print-ISBN-10: 1611860636

Page Count: 220
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture