René Girard has said that his entire mimetic theory “has existed silently in common language”, hidden in plain sight we might say, in the modern usage of the word scapegoat. First coined by William Tyndale to refer to the goat who escapes being sacrificed in the atonement liturgy recounted in Leviticus 16, the (es)caped goat has figured prominently in atonement theories since the dawn of Christianity. But why was it the un-sacrificed goat who come to be the figure of victimization? How did we come to use the word “scapegoat” to refer to the figure of victimization not only in atonement theologies, but for the one who stands, according to Girard, at the origin of the archaic sacred, human culture and humanity itself?
In his monumental contribution to mimetic theory studies, Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea, David Dawson documents and interprets the historical record of the theological and metaphorical uses of the word “scapegoat”. In the process, he reveals the long and tortured history of the demystification of the sacrificial world. Using René Girard’s insight into the origin of the sacred, David provides a stunning analysis of the ways atonement theories have desacralized and resacralized in turn. The progressive revelation of what was hidden by myth – God’s nonviolence, the victim’s innocence, and human culpability – that is culminating in contemporary challenges to violent atonement theories can be traced in the evolving meanings attributed to the escaped goat of Leviticus.