Jesus and Cain

Edmund Leach

  • The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt by Hyam Maccoby
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £10.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 500 01281 4

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.