Thomas Yoder Neufeld, Jesus and the Subversion of Violence: wrestling with the New Testament evidence (London: SPCK, 2011)

Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.

Review by Will Moore. Will is an MTh student at Cardiff University, and was one of the student finalists in the CSBV’s 2019 symposium student paper competition.

As one of only a few books to tackle the issue of violence across the entire New Testament, Thomas Yoder Neufeld’s Jesus and the Subversion of Violence: wrestling with the New Testament evidence is incredibly successful in its quest. His main argument across this work is that the New Testament is not violent nor nonviolent. Instead, violence is subverted. The sayings and parables of Jesus, the paraeneses of Paul, and the apocalyptic literature of John, all point towards an alternative message of anti-violence, Yoder Neufeld suggests.

The author importantly initiates his work with definitional discussion. To achieve this, he utilises a breadth of work from René Girard and Michel Desjardins to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Walter Wink. After a survey across these scholars, Yoder Neufeld decides on a ‘broad’ understanding of violence as there is no one singular definition ‘operative in public discourse’ (p. 7). This means violence stretches from physical to verbal, social, structural, and systematic. It seems sensible that he does this. However, as the author acknowledges himself, it becomes difficult to discuss the theme of violence if the term itself is challenging to define. After this, Yoder Neufeld briefly discusses the command and authority of the New Testament too. All of this impacts his enduring conclusion throughout his argument that there cannot be one final and universal conclusion on this issue. The notions of the New Testament as violent, nonviolent, or anti-violent, for example, are decided by those who read it. Not only this, but the (mis)use of scripture also alters the understanding of violence in scripture.  Some may reject this as a copout approach in which one cannot conclude for it is impossible. Yet, it seems a much more sensitive and empathetic way to engage with this topic.  

Acknowledging he has not been afforded the space for a full examination of all aspects and examples of scriptural violence, something which is not shy to criticise regularly, Yoder Neufeld collects a few prominent and familiar examples for his investigation. He maps out these key passages and explores a range of their interpretations. These include several sayings of Jesus, particularly the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, the death of Christ and atonement theories, the theme of subordination, and the motif of divine warfare. As you can tell, there is a large span of material covered here in not much space. A commendable overview is offered for the author to validate his conclusion.

And yet, there seems to be many questions raised by the author which are not answered. Just as in his definitional introduction, Yoder Neufeld explores a variety of hermeneutical lenses with each issue and passage, including psychological and feminist perspectives. He glides gracefully through them all, remaining rather neutral until the final pages of each chapter where he marks his standing point. This, of course, digs up innumerable questions and junctions for departure. But, once again due to the confines of the book, the argument has to swiftly move on. Nevertheless, the book does not seem rushed because of this. Simply put, there seems to be more outlining of various positions than an evaluation and establishment of his own.

This has its benefits, however. The book provides an accessible read. It would be particularly useful for students in the field, seeking foundational aspects in the field of the Bible and violence. Due to its breadth of hermeneutical exploration, it also sheds light on the various ways in which violence can be dealt with. One of its primary benefits is to tackle the assumption that the New Testament is not concerned with violence, which is widespread at a popular level (p. 2). The accessibility of this book means that this misconception could be grappled with in churches and Christian communities. The odd use of unnecessarily complex words could be an occasional hurdle for this, though.             

Yoder Neufeld has to be commended for this exceptional survey of violence in the New Testament. Its accessibility and scope are beneficial, even if its attempt to cover so many approaches leaves many unanswered questions. But as the author concludes continually throughout the book, the issue of violence here is left in the capable hands of the reader. Our worldview and experience of violence itself influences our stance on violence in the New Testament. So perhaps Yoder Neufeld wants to leave these questions open. It gives us the opportunity to tackle this issue ourselves, come face-to-face with violence in scripture, and arrive at the place ‘Peniel’ (p. 152) once we have done so.

Jesus and the Subversion of Violence: wrestling with the New Testament evidence
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