Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence (Book Review)

Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence by Anthony Bartlett. Wipf & Stock, 2022, 256 p.

Reviewed by James Alison

An astounding amount of time and energy is wasted on trying to prove God does not exist, as though that would somehow disprove Christianity. But in fact, the non-existence of God within any of the categories usually brandished is pretty much basic to Christianity. Far more difficult to believe than anything to do with God’s “existence” is that God should have communicated with this bizarre group of overhyped simians. Let alone that that communication should show something like tenderness to us, a tenderness which, beyond the hearth, we so rarely and selectively show each other.

Tony Bartlett’s long-awaited new book is a major advance in understanding the almost unimaginable blast from elsewhere which we far too hygienically describe as “Divine Revelation”; and how it can be traced through the books we far too complacently bundle as “Holy Scripture”. I say long-awaited, since hints of what was to come appeared in the section on “The Suffering Servant” texts of Isaiah which Tony contributed to Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life and more recently, in a long chapter on John’s Gospel in his own Theology after Metaphysics.

I’m going to stand back from what Tony does in this book to pinpoint more clearly why and how it is extraordinary. The early Church realised that the Apostolic Witness to Jesus’ life death and resurrection, put into writing in what we call the New Testament, was only comprehensible in conjunction with Jewish Scriptures, overwhelmingly known in their Greek, not their Hebrew versions. And that Jesus was somehow the interpretative key to those Scriptures, without it being at all obvious how that key might fit. This puzzlement only grew as familiarity with the original languages of the time of Christ, Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew, grew scarce. However, both before and since that period there have been two major temptations to too easy a creation of sense. 

The first is “fundamentalism” and the second is “Marcionism”. The first, which nowadays is typically a Protestant temptation, imagines a flat reading of Scripture such that the word “God” throughout the Scriptures always has the same meaning, whichever Testament it is in, so that the Second Testament scarcely abrogates the First. The same God who smote the Ammonites et al. is alive and well in the Gospels, the Epistles, and especially the book of Revelation. The second temptation (named after Marcion, a second-century Christian) is nowadays typically a Catholic temptation. It is that of downplaying the First Testament as too frequently violent to be taken seriously. And in any case, Jesus’ preaching of love and mercy more or less completely abrogates it, so we needn’t worry our pretty little heads by reading it.

As both Henri de Lubac and Raymund Schwager noted in the late 1970s, René Girard’s discovery of the cultural significance of what was later called the Scapegoat mechanism opened one of the most exciting new approaches to Scriptural hermeneutics since the Middle Ages, with their carefully delineated “senses of Scripture”, and the tradition of “Lectio Divina” which enables such senses to be brought alive. In a nutshell, Girard’s reading shows how the scapegoat mechanism, omnipresent among “the nations”, began to be detected and critiqued by Hebrew prophets and scribes, such that the inaudible voice of the victim of violence begins to be heard. And with it, violence itself features ever more honestly as a “we” issue, rather than being displaced onto gods and expendables. This culminates in the Passion narratives where the whole mechanism, one which depends on people not fully knowing what they are doing, is revealed, and thus rendered inoperable in good conscience.

Modern Christian reading of the New Testament has been properly shamed by the Holocaust into rediscovering the hugely semitic seedbed of references and allusions which undergird our texts, requiring us to recover knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. But what we haven’t had, until now, is a dynamic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, positing a detectable learning process by which it becomes possible to imagine that Jesus was fulfilling something. That he was indeed the culmination of a millennia-long act of communication to which the texts of both Testaments are monuments.

This is the achievement of Tony Bartlett in this book. He has gone further than Girard in positing not merely the mechanism that is at work but also setting out the (entirely compatible) dynamic of change of meaning which can be detected in the pages of Scripture. He has brought to this task the understanding of signs, or semiotics, especially as taught by the great American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. This works to show how events and texts together produce changes of relationship between people. These in turn produce new signs among us, creating both changes in the interpretation of texts, and also entirely new texts, such that there is continual transmission of new meaning.

The results of Tony’s putting Girard and Peirce to work together, in exploring how God communicated godself to us as entirely without violence, are some simply stunning readings of Scripture. He begins with the book of Exodus and his excitement at what he discovers is more than worth the price of entry. 

The true miracle of revelation is the connection with a God-in-relation who has begun a journey of human change, starting with the dispossessed. Only those dispossessed of this world’s apparatus of assured meaning are able to embark on this journey.

I would like to emphasize here that throughout his work Tony does not dismiss, but uses widely the very best, most highly regarded, and classic modern scholarship in the field. He is no radical in his sense of when the different books of the Bible were written, by whom and under what circumstances. Rather, he follows a well-marked consensus among Scripture scholars (even if one, alas, well-hidden from the pew). This fact only adds to the credibility of the radical dynamic of meaning-change he finds in the texts.

His account of Genesis, coming after Exodus, and containing within it transformations of code as older stories are altered, while slippage of meaning comes through words apparently staying the same, is remarkable. His reading of the book of Job as essentially “a systematic, revelatory code violation” takes on the Deuteronomists’ attempt to bind meaning which has dominated our imagination of the whole scriptural process. But this is a much more subtle undoing of that code than most of us are used to. Bartlett also, quite plausibly, corrects Girard’s understanding of the relationship between the central dialogues of Job and the introduction and conclusion of the book.

The relationship between Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, the exile to and return from Babylon, and Isaiah is discussed in a chapter on The Servant, and once again, the relation between event, text, relationality, learning and new signification is demonstrated very convincingly. The chapter on the book of Ruth is hugely educative concerning the world of Ezra and Nehemiah which it challenges. Completely new for me was the chapter on Daniel, and the contemporary world of the Maccabees, in the midst of which an event produced a sign which deepened the signifying of the non-violence of God.

Bartlett’s reading of the book of Jonah as a superlative Jewish joke (my words, not his) is absolutely compelling. And he puts his finger on irony as something essential to the whole project of divine communication of non-violence in the midst of violent humanity.

As we have seen again and again, the exile is the core semiotic event in the Bible, whereby everything becomes ironic for the Jewish people.

Furthermore, his reading of Jonah makes much more sense of why Jesus referred to Jonah as the only sign he would give his interlocutors. Which brings us to the longest chapter in the book, that on Jesus. The scriptural Jesus becomes much more multidimensional as the contexts in which he lived, preached, and altered meaning, are brought alive, once again, with reference to classic New Testament scholars E.P. Sanders, and N.T. Wright, inter alia.

The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is subtly reconfigured, as is the role of the Temple in what Jesus himself knew and thought he was doing as he went towards it, and his death. All of this is brought out within an entirely orthodox Christian perception of Jesus as achieving the fullness of the act of divine communication. As Bartlett says about his book:

The argument here is always that the semiotic shift performed by the whole Bible is too radical to be produced by human intelligences internal to violent culture. It has to be molded by something beyond itself.

And he demonstrates very thoroughly his thesis that:

Jesus was an intelligent author of his own fate, including his death, for which he had a good reason and gave a good account.

In a final chapter on Paul, Tony performs, very succinctly, a superb undoing of the two-faced account of the apostle which most of us have grown up with. Using the ground-breaking work of Douglas Campbell among others, we are treated to a witty, ironic, non-schizophrenic, Paul, who also knew what he was doing, and undoing, in what he was saying, in a way that blasted through possibilities of meaning available at the time and are still challenging to us now. A brief appendix on the Lamb, suggesting that the author may have more for us on the Apocalypse of John, rounds off the book.

I have a couple of criticisms. The first is Tony’s too easy dismissal of the work of my friend Margaret Barker. Her work on Temple Theology is formidable evidence for a way in which a particular institution, related to sacrifice, in different iterations, and dreams of iteration, over time, produced any amount of changed meaning, introducing irony and new possibilities of relational sense. The contested sign that was the Temple long pre-existed the version of it that Jesus was deliberately re-signifying. I suspect Barker’s account is more compatible with Tony’s than his more Deuteronomistic intertextuality might imagine. The second criticism is scarcely one at all: more of a request. In the chapter on Jesus, the parables get short shrift. Yet if anything was an example of a deliberately educative process of ironic meaning-changing while leaving apparently inalterable texts intact, it is exactly these. A Bartlett book on the parables would be a treasure highly to be hoped for.

To conclude: here we have a very rich account of the utterly unexpected, and difficult to grasp, act of communication from values other than our own which has blasted through our world, leaving the pages of scripture singed, as if by a comet’s tail. We are becoming, thank heavens, ever less vague, and ever more granular, in our ability to allow ourselves to be reached by the fullness of that act of communication. Bartlett shows the scriptural hermeneutics within the scriptures themselves, hence the boldness of his title “The Bible’s evolution of…” –not evolution in the bible, but something pushed by the scriptures themselves. As so often, Girard has pointed towards and made habitable, a place of discussion which he scarcely reached himself. As I often say to those who find Girard too much: “Don’t worry too much about the details. If Christianity is true, something like this must be true.” So I would say about Tony Bartlett’s book: “Read it, test it, run with it and see where it takes you”.