The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt 
by Hyam Maccoby.
Thames and Hudson, 208 pp., £10.95, September 1982, 0 500 01281 4
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I must declare an interest. Since Hyam Maccoby makes no attempt to disguise his prejudices, I will start by declaring my own. The first is respectable. I dislike phoney scholarship.

Lunatic-fringe anthropology will always be with us and is sometimes great fun; it only becomes objectionable when it pretends to be something else. Maccoby’s book carries the superficial stigmata appropriate to a work of scholarship. With only 180 pages of main text we are given a 16-column Index, 11 pages of small print Notes, and five closely packed pages of Bibliography. The author’s manner is that of an erudite authority explaining complex matters to a lay audience. But appearances are deceptive. Much of the paraphernalia seems to have been added as an afterthought.

Both publishers and author must be held responsible for the general sloppiness and I will not try to apportion blame. In my copy, pages 112-129 are missing and 129-144 bound in twice over, though I doubt if I am much the worse off on that account. Two works by ‘Malinowski, Bronislaw’ are cited in the Bibliography. The Index lists only a mythical ‘Malinowski, Bruno’. The only link with the text is a garbled reference to the notion of myth as a ‘charter’ which does not appear in either of the works cited. The Bibliography lists Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind along with the set of radio interviews with Georges Charbonnier first published in France in 1961. But the opinions which Maccoby briefly attributes to Lévi-Strauss are not to be found in either of these works. He has presumably picked them up from a secondary, oversimplified source, perhaps one of my own essays.

This brings me to my second prejudice, which is more personal and less respectable. Theorising about Biblical myth is a very popular activity. The contributions which I myself have made to this overcrowded field have received favourable comment from both Jewish and Christian Biblical scholars of high repute. For the most part, my views and those of Maccoby are poles apart, but on certain issues where he appears to claim originality there is a curious convergence. This may just be accident, but I feel it deserves a mention.

But it isn’t just the works of hard-nosed professional gentile anthropologists that are ignored: Jewish authors get similar treatment except at odd moments when they happen to have said something that fits in with Maccoby’s argument. Even the scholarly popularisers are neglected. Julian Morgenstern is only mentioned in passing and Raphael Patai is not mentioned at all; nor is Louis Ginzberg’s seven-volume The Legends of the Jews, which is, by general consent, the major classic in its field.

Maccoby, who is librarian of a Jewish college in London, certainly knows all such stuff and much else besides, but it would have been inconvenient to take any notice of what his competitors have said. His book is not just an analysis of Bibical myth: it is itself an exercise in myth-making. It is a mixture of the true and the false and the totally imaginary. It will sustain the prejudices of some and exasperate the prejudices of others, but no one needs to take the argument seriously.

Let me now try to explain what the book is about. As the reader will eventually discover, the focal theme of the book is the anti-semitic bias which, according to Maccoby, has been built into Christianity from the very start. But before we get that far we have to travel through some very overgrown jungle borrowed from mid-19th-century anthropology. Maccoby accepts lock, stock and barrel all the nonsense about matriarchy which was propounded by Bachofen in 1861. He is also prepared to swallow uncritically anything which appears in Frazer’s The Golden Bough provided it happens to fit.

The first half of the book is a mishmash which reinterprets various Old Testament themes, mainly from Genesis but also from other books, as ‘survivals’ from a period when human civilisation underwent a transformation from a matriarchal to a patriarchal stage of development. Anyone who doubts that this could be a fair description of a supposedly scholarly book published in 1982 needs only to look at the elaborate tabulation on pages 72-73 which turns drunken Noah into a patriarchal king succumbing to the attractions of a matriarchal wine orgy! Moreover, incredible though it may seem, Maccoby explicitly defends Bachofen from his latterday detractors. In this earlier part of the book, the only relatively modern anthropological theme is the argument (with which I concur) that the Cain and Abel story is as much about human sacrifice and founding ancestors as it is about homicide.

Since Maccoby offers us no theory of sacrifice (Hubert and Mauss are in the Bibliography but not in the text), the significance of this insight is largely lost. That comment may be another example of my professional prejudice: I know too much about the subject. It is quite possible that readers who think about ‘sacrifice’ in a different way may find Maccoby’s speculations persuasive. For me they are just a bore. This is because, as with Frazer, his interpretations are based on pure hunch.

The stories which receive most attention are those of Cain and Abel, Lamech, Noah and Ham, Lot and his daughters, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Zipporah. The linking thread is tenuous, and in order to make it appear that all these tales somehow relate to the theme of human sacrifice, Maccoby has to introduce supplementary stories (in part, of his own invention; in part, derived by arbitrary selection from among the large number of Midrashic variants that are available) which have much more in common than their Biblical prototypes. He then makes the bland assertion that his invented stories were the original source of the ones we actually have! This was Frazer’s standard technique. In the 1980s, it seems very odd indeed.

I find it interesting to compare the results of this guesswork with what emerges from the structuralist procedure which Maccoby explicitly spurns. Structuralism requires us to treat the stories under study as a set in which a recurrent pattern appears in various permutational forms. The introduction of hypothetical ‘missing’ texts is absolutely forbidden. Hunch is not thereby completely eliminated, but it is much reduced. If this latter procedure is adopted in this particular case there are, as one would expect, some overlaps with Maccoby’s inspired guesswork, but mostly it draws attention to quite different features of the stories in question. Moreover it is concerned with the text which we actually have, and not with some other text which exists only in Maccoby’s imagination.

Be that as it may, if we leave out of account all the matriarchy stuff, the lead theme in the first half of the book is that Cain as killer of the semi-divine Abel is ‘the sacred executioner’ performing a human sacrifice at God’s behest and on that account marked out as a sanctified man, the founder of the first city. The other stories mentioned are all twisted around to become depleted versions of the same story.

The second half of the book turns the argument around. By the first century AD Judaism has became a morally dignified religion from which such pagan atrocities as human sacrifice have been long since eliminated. In line with Maccoby’s earlier writings, Jesus is treated as a figure of history, a potential Jewish hero, a non-militant leader of opposition to ‘the cruel occupation of the Holy Land by the Roman idolaters and militarists’. His crucifixion is the punishment meted out to a rebel.

Maccoby claims that the historical authenticity of this tradition ‘can be discerned by appropriate methods’, but he does not tell us what these methods are. Christian mythologising, under Paul’s influence, reverses historical reality. The Romans, represented by Pilate, become benevolent: it is the Jewish mob that insists on the Crucifixion. This makes Jesus a sacrificial victim whose death recapitulates that of Abel. Where Christian mythology makes out that Christianity is a purified form of Judaism Maccoby maintains that the dying god theme is essentially pagan. Christianity grew out of a Hellenistic background but stole its moral clothes from Judaism. The logical thread of the argument is not easy to follow. If the crucified Jesus equates with Abel, where do we find the ‘sacred executioner’ who equates with Cain?

There is a messy chapter about pagan parallels in the Hellenistic world and another about Judas Iscariot. The point seems to be that whereas in the original story Cain is somehow redeemed by the very fact of his guilt, the Jews as the divinely ordained executioners of Jesus Christ can never be redeemed. The Christian story requires a permanent guilt-laden executioner who shall be the perpetual object of Christian vengeance. The Wandering Jew is the wandering Cain, accursed with the sin of deicide which attaches to his race even though, in some versions of the story, he has long since repented and become a Christian. The whole Jewish nation suffers persecution as a result.

Hitler’s atrocities ‘arose directly out of centuries of Christian teaching’. It was ‘part of his role, as in the myth of the battle of Christ against Antichrist, to rid the world completely of the forces of evil, namely the Jews’. But it isn’t only renegade Christians who have persuaded themselves that the final solution of ultimate purity can only be achieved through a total destruction of the sources of evil. Substitute the name of Mr Begin for that of Hitler and the PLO for the Jews and the argument would fit equally well as an explanation for the recent horrors of Beirut. And anyway 1 Samuel Chapter 15 provides as good a justification for irrational holocaust-style extermination as anything to be found in later Christian texts.

In his final chapter, pompously entitled ‘Theoretical Problems and Conclusions’, Maccoby drops his anti-anti-semitism propaganda and reverts to the pretence that he has made a scholarly contribution to anthropological theory. The book contains no theory at all that is later than about 1885. Maccoby’s readers need to remember that the first edition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough was published in 1890. The full-scale third edition was completed by 1915. In the subsequent 67 years the anthropologists’ understanding of myth and sacrifice has progressed a long way. But here is Maccoby still waffling away about the significance of the Athenian Bouphonia sacrifice as if Hubert and Mauss and Evans-Pritchard had never existed.

Considered as a pseudo-academic exercise, The Sacred Executioner has no merit whatsoever, but as an illustration of the way that participation in polemical religious and/or political debate clouds the minds of those who engage in the debating it is quite illuminating. Anti-semitism is a deplorable phenomenon but it is far from being unique of its kind. This kind of propagandist counter-attack cannot possibly serve any useful purpose. There are some nice illustrations.

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Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983

SIR: Edmund Leach (LRB, 2 December 1982), reviewing my book The Sacred Executioner, complains about my ‘phoney scholarship’, and that I do not include reference to his own work on the Bible which he says has ‘received favourable comment from both Jewish and Christian Biblical scholars of high repute’. I passed over his work because he lacks the basic requisite for Biblical study an acquaintance with the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. This ignorance leads to gross errors. He is evidently unaware even of the Hebrew alphabet, since he equates names which are similar in English transliteration but quite dissimilar in Hebrew (e.g. Rahab and Rechab, Jeroboam and Rehoboam). On fancied equations of this kind, he builds up complicated theories about an endogamy/exogamy dichotomy. Despite his protestations to the contrary, his elementary errors have been detailed by ‘both Jewish and Christian scholars of high repute’: for example, by Professor J.A. Emerton, in his devastating article in Vetus Testamentum, XXVI, 1. Leach further reveals his ignorance even of secondary works of Biblical scholarship in his absurd insinuation that I have taken the idea of the Cain and Abel story as a human sacrifice from him without acknowledgment. This theory, so far from being original to Leach, has long been familiar to Biblical scholars (e.g. S.H. Hooke, writing in the 1920s and 1930s, to whose work I refer repeatedly).

Leach contrasts my allegedly unscientific method with his own structuralist procedure, which consists of regarding the Bible as a seamless, timeless whole, ignoring all questions of dating, redaction, source-criticism, genre, literary style – indeed everything that might reveal the Bible as a developing cultural entity. In the structuralist method, Leach informs us, ‘the introduction of hypothetical “missing" texts is absolutely forbidden.’ This may be a required arbitrary rule for the structuralist game, but it has very little to do with the Bible as a historical phenomenon. It is quite certain that there are missing texts in the background of the Bible (some of them are even mentioned by title in the Bible itself), so for someone not hooked on structuralism it may well be fruitful to attempt the recovery of one of these texts, using the evidence found in the Bible. The text which I attempt to recover in part is that which lies behind the stories of Cain and his descendants (‘the Kenite saga’): an inquiry which demands philological knowledge, literary insight and depth of exegesis. Such methods are what Leach calls ‘hunches’, since they are not required at all in his own method, which is perfectly applicable to any religious masterpiece, whether in Hebrew, Chinese or Swahili, by an investigator innocent of these languages, and, as Leach himself has remarked, would best be applied by a computer.

Leach’s method might be called ‘positivism-cum-structuralism’. While positivism tells us that we should stick to the facts, positivism-cum-structuralism tells us that the facts we happen to have in hand are all the facts there are, and, also, that they form a perfect structure or pattern. If this seems implausible, we are reassured by the further dogma that this perfect pattern arises from the endless repetition of one theme (the more trivial or reductionist this is the better) in various inversions and dislocations. (Once the pattern has developed, even the rule about sticking to the available facts may be flouted. ‘Facts’ may be created to perfect the pattern, and inconvenient data destructive of the pattern ignored. I could fill several pages with examples of this.)

The basic theme which Leach has decided to impose on the Hebrew Bible is that of an obsessive concern for racial purity. This assumption, on which the ‘scientific’ structure is built, is nowhere argued on the basis of textual analysis, and is in fact disproved by many aspects which Leach ignores: for example, the approval given throughout the Hebrew Bible to the concept of conversion to Judaism. The concerns of the Hebrew Bible are actually quite different. One of them is featured in my book: the polemic against human sacrifice.

My book, however, is primarily concerned with the origin of anti-semitism, which I trace to the Christian myth of the Crucifixion. Leach says that there is no special problem about anti-semitism or the Holocaust. In a curious outburst, he equates Begin with Hitler, the PLO (not the Palestinians) with Hitler’s Jewish victims, and the Beirut massacre with Holocaust, the conclusion being that anti-semitism and the Holocausts are occurrences of a common type and are unconnected with the Christian myth. How far the Begin Government must share responsibility for the vendetta-massacre of fellow Arabs by Lebanese Christians in Beirut is at present the subject of an exemplary public inquiry in Israel, but whatever the results, there can be no comparison with the crimes of the Nazi regime, which comprised an explicit programme of genocide resulting in millions of deaths, compounded with prolonged torture and degradation. If anti-semitism is a common type of phenomenon, Leach has failed to give another example of it. His other attempted example is the Biblical massacre of the Amalekites. But these were bitter, powerful external enemies of the Israelites, not defenceless, unarmed and loyal citizens, as the German Jews were. Again, the allegedly similar event is entirely dissimilar. Moreover, anti-semitism is not an isolated event, but a phenomenon that spans two thousand years.

Though an anthropologist, Leach is quite incurious about the pariah-status of the Jews in Christendom and the special myth that has sustained and perpetuated this. My book, on the other hand, tries to face the facts of the long persecution of the Jews in Christendom, and seeks an explanation in the role given to the Jews as alleged performers of the god-sacrifice at the heart of Christianity. I also trace parallels to this role in earlier human-sacrificial religions, though in these it was always an individual, not a people, that was given the role of the Sacred Executioner. At the same time, the book deals with the irony that the Jewish Bible has been engaged in continual combat against just this type of sacrificial mythological complex.

Leach is so far from comprehending the argument of my book that he asks: ‘If the crucified Jesus equates with Abel, where do we find the Sacred Executioner who equates with Cain?’ The answer, as the whole book argues, is the role assigned to the Jewish (Judas) people, an equation which is found explicitly (as I point out) in the writings of most of the Early Fathers of the Church. Further crass misunderstanding is shown in Leach’s attribution to me of the view that Cain is redeemed by his guilt, an idea that I never express and which makes no sense.

As for Leach’s preposterous accusation that I have used no theories later than 1885, the attentive reader will see that I have used, on the definition of the purpose of sacrifice, the work of Hubert and Mauss, Westermarck, Loisy, Freud and Money-Kyrle, as well as that of Frazer. Leach’s demand that I should offer a single definition of sacrifice is misconceived: no such definition of this complex and over-determined phenomenon is possible. As for the much-debated and continuing issue of matriarchy, I do not feel bound, as Leach does, to accept the latest fashionable English trend as eternal truth.

I am sorry that I did not exercise sufficient supervision over the binding of my book to prevent Leach’s review copy from lacking pages 112-129. It was very clever of him, nevertheless, to discover that Chapters Nine and Ten, which are almost entirely contained in those pages, were ‘messy’. Since I cannot praise Leach either as an anthropologist or as a Biblical scholar, it is pleasant to be able to congratulate him on having second sight.

Hyam Maccoby
Leo Baeck College, London N3

Vol. 5 No. 2 · 3 February 1983

SIR: I only wish to make three comments on Mr Maccoby’s angry letter (Letters, 10 January).

Because Hebrew originally survived only as a written language, the modern pronunciation being reconstructed according to decidedly arbitrary phonological equations – as is the case with the modern pronunciation of other classical languages – Maccoby, like many Hebrew scholars, makes the curious assumption that if two names are spelled differently in Hebrew they must be unrelated phonologically. This is a complete fallacy, as can readily be seen in any telephone directory, where, for example, my own name is arbitrarily transcribed as Leech or Leach or Leitch.

I did not suggest that Maccoby had borrowed the idea that the Cain and Abel story is about human sacrifice from myself. I simply said that, as compared with Bachofen, it was relatively modern and that I agreed with it.

The ‘attentive reader’ will not be able to see that Maccoby’s acquaintance with anthropological/psychoanalytic theories of sacrifice extends to about 1930 rather than 1885. On the contrary, as his letter shows, my review gave a very accurate indication of both the argument and the scholarly quality of his book.

Edmund Leach

Vol. 5 No. 4 · 3 March 1983

SIR: Many thanks to Edmund Leach for giving me a good laugh (Letters, 3 February). Not only does he regard himself as the Grand Panjandrum of anthropology (a subject which, he imagines, has a body of theory equal in certainty to the propositions of Euclidean geometry), but he can even put the Hebrew scholars right. His remarks would not impose on a first-year student of Hebrew. He claims that he is entitled to equate words like Rechab and Rahab because they are ‘alternative spellings’ like ‘Leach’ and ‘Leech’. On such equations he has based far-fetched structuralist theories. In a language in which only the consonants are written down, and every consonant has a unique pronunciation, the opportunities for alternative spellings are reduced to nil. The reason certain Hebrew words come out misleadingly similar in English transliteration is that some of the Hebrew gutturals (originally pronounced distinctively, as Arabic shows) were elided or simplified in later pronunciation. Thus, Leach’s blunder of equating Rechab with Rahab involves confusing the guttural khaf with the guttural het – not a question of spelling the same word in two different ways, but of two words from entirely dissociated tri-literal roots, with different meanings: Rechab from a root meaning ‘to ride’ and Rahab from a root meaning ‘to be broad’. This must have been explained to Leach a dozen times, but he persists in defending his infallibility. This feat of charlatanry comes from the man who accused me of ‘phoney scholarship’!

I note that Leach avoids comment on the issue of the Christian origins of anti-semitism – the main topic of both my book and my letter. He still asserts that my reading stops at 1885. As a matter of fact, the most helpful work that I found on Hebrew sacrifice was by Jacob Milgrom, and was published in 1980. I wonder if Leach has read this?

Leach describes himself in his review as a ‘hardnosed gentile’: but, on the evidence of his letter, I think the adjective ‘soft-headed’ would be more appropriate.

Hyam Maccoby
Leo Baeck College, London N3

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