The Old Testament and Violence


A new book by Prof. Johannes Schnocks, a Catholic theologian at the Cluster of Excellence ‘Religion and Politics’, examines divine and human violence in Old Testament texts and their reception. “Violence is mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament. In some texts even God himself is referred to as the origin of violent events, or else he is said to demand violent action from humans,” the theologian explained. His book, “The Old Testament and Violence”, presents the results of his research project at the Cluster of Excellence: D1 Divine Violence: Religious-Historical and Reception-Hermeneutical Analyses of the Images of God in the Hebrew Bible.

Although historical-critical exegesis reveals the historical contexts of many cases of violence and therefore makes the potential for violence in most of the texts more comprehensible, such texts nevertheless remain objectionable even when the history of their reception is taken into account, according to the author. That is even truer when they have been used in the course of history to justify violence between humans: “Taking the reception history into consideration, in particular, there is the difficult question of whether in the course of history the texts’ literary violence led to the justification of violence among people or whether it even did so by necessity, as many participants in the current discussion about religion and violence claim..” The study therefore begins with a brief summary of the state of discussion, which has been especially driven by the claims by Egyptologist Jan Assmann that monotheistic religions are especially violent. From there, it examines selected texts in the Hebrew Bible about violence where God is depicted as the perpetrator and where child victims, blood vengeance or the death penalty are involved. The author goes on to discuss the reception of texts of the Hebrew Bible in the Books of Maccabees. To what extent did this later biblical literature draw on the Hebrew Bible to justify violent actions or rule? The reception of the Book of Joshua is discussed, as well as the argument that the Maccabean uprising was a pure war of religion, and the literary depiction of violent actions in connection with emotions like zeal or wrath. Providing an outlook at the end of the book, the theologian uses the example of Psalm 79 to show how the Old Testament was used in the Middle Ages to create arguments for Crusades propaganda as well as for the justification of violence.

Literature: Schnocks, Johannes, Das Alte Testament und die Gewalt. Studien zu göttlicher und menschlicher Gewalt in alttestamentlichen Texten und ihren Rezeptionen (Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament, vol. 136), Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Theologie 2014.