Political Supersaviour

Today’s Bible and Pop Culture essay comes from Bachelor of Arts student Jessica Marshall. Jessica has just finished her second year of her Arts degree, majoring in history and English. She was born in Manchester, in the UK, but has lived in Auckland since she was ten years old. Jessica hopes to be a journalist once she finishes her studies. Like Christiane Amanpour and Kate Adie, she is passionate about wanting to hold people responsible in the court of public opinion, in order to ‘right the wrongs’ that we see too much of in the world.

Jessica chose the wonderful TV series West Wing as the focus of her essay, and her evaluation of President Bartlet as a contemporary saviour figure casts a cynical eye at contemporary US politics. Enjoy.

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Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed

By

Jessica Marshall

At this point in time, politics in the United States has become a mockery of the democracy it claims to stand for. So, in the time of such a travesty, we must look to fiction. The television series The West Wing (1999-2006) created and written by Aaron Sorkin has the greatest example of a President (fictional or otherwise) that the United States could hope for in Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet. As one writer put it, ‘One of the only things that has made life worth living for left-leaning liberals … is the small fact that, for one hour … [George W. Bush] is not the president’ (Clark 2005, 224). And unlike most presidential characters, Bartlet is multi-faceted and layered (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2006, 153). In this essay, I will argue that Bartlet shares a number of features with the figure of the contemporary messiah or ‘supersaviour’, who Jewett and Lawrence identify in their discussion of the American Monomyth (2002). I will do this through analysing several storylines and episodes of West Wing, including the Pilot (1×01), the shooting storyline (1×22 – 2×02), the episode ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2×22) and, finally, the parabolic episode ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (3×01).

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There’s a phrase that came out of the protest movements of the 1960s: ‘The personal is political.’ It seems to be a sentiment that has continued over the decades, even going so far as to enter into the fictional White House, making itself pronounced in the pilot episode of The West Wing. One character, Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford), deals with a faux pas with regards to the religious right. This is how our hero, President Jed Bartlet, is brought into the picture. Josh is forced to apologise for the faux pas. In the midst of this meeting, after another staffer – Toby – becomes frustrated with the recipient of the apology over racist comments she has made towards Jews, a debate over the Ten Commandments breaks out between Toby and one member of the religious right, John Van Dyke. Van Dyke makes the claim that ‘Honour thy father’ (Exod. 20.3) is the First Commandment. An argument ensues between Toby and Van Dyke in which Toby explains that ‘Honour thy father’ is, in fact, the Third Commandment, to which Van Dyke responds with the question ‘Then what’s the First Commandment?’ At this moment, President Bartlet walks into the room, answering the question correctly. Here, Bartlet combines the selfless zeal of a man who rescues a staff member he should have fired for a one-liner (Josh) with the zealous saviour who rescues the White House from evil. Yet, perhaps his behaviour is not entirely selfless (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). Bartlet’s granddaughter, twelve-years-old, received a death threat from an over-zealous fringe group going by the name ‘The Lambs of God’, all because – in an article – she stated her opinions on reproductive rights. Bartlet, having already corrected them on the order of the Ten Commandments, then poses a question to those present in the room: ‘From what part of holy scripture do you suppose The Lambs of God drew their divine inspiration when they sent my twelve-year-old granddaughter a bloody Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat?’ It is in this scene that Bartlet proves one of his messianic superpowers, according to the American Monomyth: his intelligence (Primiano 2009, 99). It shows up again and again throughout the show’s run, but the message is always the same: you would be best advised not to go up against him in a battle of wits.

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Perhaps the best storyline that Aaron Sorkin ever tackled as the writer on The West Wing – and one of its most controversial – was that of the Roslyn shooting. Here, we see two resurrections. In flashback, we see the resurrection of Bartlet the politician and in the present we see the resurrection of Bartlet’s staffer, Josh Lyman. While the second resurrection is important to another storyline, one I will discuss later, the first is the more interesting. At the beginning of the flashback, it looks like Senator John Hoynes (the Vice-President in present time) will win the Democratic nomination. Bartlet, on the other hand, is the dark horse, the outside candidate no one expects to succeed. As a woman in a New Hampshire bar says to Toby, ‘I didn’t even know Bartlet was running’ (‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ 2000). In the following scene, however, Bartlet again proves his intelligence; during a speech in Nashua, New Hampshire, he talks about the economy and taxes – not exactly a rousing topic, let’s face it. But then, when asked about a vote in Congress over the New England Dairy Farming Compact (he voted against a bill that would have given dairy farmers more money, but caused the price of milk to rise), Bartlet responds simply with ‘Yeah, I screwed you on that.’  It is one of those turning points for an election campaign. Normally, these occur during the presidential debates after the parties have announced their nominees (for example, Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 or Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988; see Spacey and Brunetti 2016). That this could happen so early in a campaign that next to no one had even heard of is nothing short of miraculous. He continues, saying, ‘One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty… I voted against the bill ‘cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk… if you expect anything different from the President… I suggest you vote for somebody else.’ It’s an honesty we rarely see in politicians, it’s endearing, it makes you want to vote for the guy who admits that he stiffed his own constituents and it raises from the dead a campaign few even knew existed. In reviving the campaign with one speech, Bartlet resurrects his career as a politician and, therefore, himself.

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One of the most heart-breaking moments in this television series comes when President Bartlet yells at God in the National Cathedral in the episode entitled ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2001). It is flashback-heavy episode, as Bartlet deals with his grief for his secretary and friend, Mrs Landingham who has died in a car crash. The speech (a chunk of which is in Latin – the language of the traditional Catholic mass) is juxtaposed against Bartlet’s memories of his abusive father. In doing this, it pits God against Bartlet’s own father. The anger Bartlet felt towards his father for years is mixed in with his ire towards God in his moments of grief: ‘”You can’t conceive nor can it, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there ‘cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son.’ He all but screams, the sound of his voice echoing across the empty Cathedral. His anger is easily understandable. Christians are reminded that people are all ‘God’s children’ (Rom 8.16). Yet, even the most devoted of followers, the most desperate to please the father, cannot do so and even if they try their best to do so, God still takes and takes and takes. He’s taken Mrs Landingham, the only parental figure Bartlet had left, handed him a case of remitting-relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, and had his staffer, Josh Lyman – a man Bartlet has come to see as his own son – shot. Why? Bartlet, himself, asks this question: ‘What did I ever do to [Jesus] but praise his glory and praise his name?’ Confused and angry, Bartlet admits that he has lied to the American public with regards to his MS diagnosis, but surely that makes him like Jesus sending his disciples away before his crucifixion – he does not want the people around him to suffer because of who he is or the suffering he has to endure.

The final episode I wish to talk about is the first episode of the third season, entitled ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (2001). Officially, a special rather than an actual episode (at the beginning of the episode, the cast inform us that it does not fit in with the normal plot). It was filmed and aired within the four weeks after the events of September 11th, a point at which the majority of the entertainment industry avoided referencing even the idea of violence, let alone terrorism (Jones and Dionisopoulos 2004, 21). It is parabolic, as students from the Presidential Classroom programme wind up in the midst of what the Secret Service calls a ‘Crash’ (meaning that the White House has been breached). For a small moment, as his staffers – Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Sam Seaborn, C.J. Cregg and Charlie Young – are in the midst of fielding questions regarding terrorism, President Bartlet walks in with his wife, Abbey. Here, he is asked by a student whether or not there is something noble in being a martyr. To this, he replies with the line ‘A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of an oppressor than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is sick, twisted, brutal, dumb-ass murder… we don’t need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he’d much rather live for it.’ Here, Bartlet crosses borders. His speech comes at a time in American history when they need a leader, a time when the Patriot Act was being passed with little to no forethought as to what it could do. In giving this speech, the United States is given a leader, a hero to quote the character himself, one who will not simply go to war because it is the easier option. The speech reminds people of who the enemy really is: not one particular race (as had already been explained earlier in the episode) or a particular religion but anyone who commits heinous attacks against America and its people. It is Bartlet’s sermon on the Mount moment, but instead of preaching to the poor and downtrodden, he preaches to those who form the future of society: children. Instead of saying ‘Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom in heaven,’ he says that America needs a hero and, like any Messiah, allows for the phrase ‘and I am it’ to go unsaid (Matt. 5.3).

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There was a reason I subtitled this essay ‘The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed’ and, yes, it has to do with my own political leanings. It also has to do with the fact that Jed Bartlet, a creation of Aaron Sorkin’s own mind, represents the best of all the Presidents of American history. He’s honest like Lincoln, witty like Kennedy and Reagan. There’s an idea known as the cult of leadership and it’s normally applied to dictators like Stalin or Kim Jong-Il. In The West Wing, I believe we have a leader, albeit fictional, we could add to a list of political messiahs who actually deserve the cult of leadership. He is honest, a reviver of dead political campaigns, intelligent and he does not even realise that he is a hero. Jed Bartlet is the man America needs to bring it back from the abyss.

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical Text are from the New International Version (NIV).

Written Sources

Clark, J. Elizabeth. ‘The Bartlet Administration and Contemporary Populism in NBC’s The West Wing’ in Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Eds.), The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp.224-243

Jones, Robert and George N. Dionisopoulos, ‘Scripting a Tragedy: The “Isaac and Ishmael” Episode of The West Wing as Parable’ Popular Communication Vol.2 (1), 2004, pp.21-40

Parry-Giles, Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles. The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2006

Primiano, Leonard N. ‘”For What I Have Done and What I Have Failed To Do”: Vernacular Catholicism and The West Wing’ in Diane H. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Waco, Texas. Baylor University Press, 2009, pp. 99-123

Shelton Lawrence, John and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Electronic Sources

‘George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis’ Race for the White House, directed by David Bartlett, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016.

‘Government Surveillance’ Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Produced by Liz Stanton. United States: Avalon Television and Partially Important Productions, 2015

‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ The West Wing, directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2000

‘Isaac and Ishmael’ The West Wing. Directed by Christopher Misiano, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.

‘John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon’ Race for the White House, directed by Christopher Spencer, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.

‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.

‘Two Cathedrals’ The West Wing. Directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.

[1] John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, p.6

 

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Advent offering 18 December

Today’s Advent offering will be a short one, as I’m heading off to do some Christmas shopping. As promised yesterday, I’m going to treat you to another portrait by that most wonderful artist Rembrandt van Rijn. I’ve chosen one of his most famous portrayals of biblical characters, Bathsheba at her bath (1654).

Bathsheba
Rembrand van Rijn, Bathsheba at her bath (1654)

Unlike the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 11, Bathsheba appears to be bathing indoors, rather than on the roof of her house. There is therefore no figure of David in the background, watching with a lustful gaze. Instead, Bathsheba clutches a letter, presumably from the King, inviting her to visit him at the palace (the painting is known by the alternative title of Bathsheba with King David’s Letter). As she lets her handmaid assist her with her preparatory ablutions, her face looks sad and troubled, foreseeing perhaps the terrible events that will unfold in the near future – David’s (unwanted?) sexual attentions, her unplanned pregnancy, the death of her husband Uriah, and the loss of her and David’s infant son. And so, without David there, we are left, as viewers, to take his place as voyeur, gazing upon her vulnerable body and desiring it, regardless of the consequences.

Back tomorrow for another Advent offering!

Showcasing Student Work 10: BioShock: Infinite and the American Monomyth

Last week, we showcased an essay by Brianna Vincent, who had written about messianic themes and the American Monomyth in the videogame Dragon Age: Inquisition. Today’s student offering from our Bible and Popular Culture course likewise looks for a modern messiah in a popular video game, this time focusing on the first-person shooter game released by Irrational Games in 2013: BioShock Infinite. Our guest author is Samuel McKenzie, a soon-to-be third year BA student in the Faculty of Arts, who is majoring in French and German. Samuel took the course because he has always been fascinated by religious and biblical themes in pop culture; he also admits that he enjoyed the opportunity to write an essay on a videogame, and his favourite game to boot! After completing his degree, Samuel hopes to eventually do a Masters degree in Translation Studies.

So, whether or not you are a gamer yourself, give yourselves a treat and listen to Samuel as he considers the way that BioShock Infinity both affirms and disrupts conventional themes of messiahship.

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‘You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?’

BioShock Infinite as critique of the American Monomyth

by Samuel McKenzie

The protagonist of a First-Person Shooter (FPS) videogame is typically a mysterious loner who emerges to rescue a community from evil. His morality is absolute, his violence justified, his sexuality renounced or absent. He is composed – almost divinely competent – even when facing odds and taking damage that would surely destroy a lesser man. His abilities may sometimes even seem supernatural. These qualities, then, mean that the FPS protagonist typifies the archetype that is the American Monomyth (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, 47), and one would then expect the protagonist of a game that has been referred to as “one of the best-first person shooters ever made” (online review) to be a particularly striking example of the concept. But Booker DeWitt, protagonist of Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, is not your typical messianic archetype. In this essay, I will be analysing how Booker’s portrayal both fulfils and subverts the concept of the American Monomyth, and how this ‘’anti-messiah’’ figure ties in to the Biblical messiah through analogy for the Christus Victor theory of atonement. As this essay will discuss storyline elements and plot details, spoilers will follow.

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The flying city of Columbia, the setting of the game

A Last Chance for Redemption

     In many ways, Booker DeWitt is an example of the American Monomyth. He is an outsider to the city of Columbia, the setting of the game. We know very little about his backstory but for a few key elements – such that he is from New York, that he fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, and that he worked for the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. (fig. 1)

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Fig 1: Booker’s Detective ID from the game’s loading screen

Booker renounces temptation, not once in-game showing any sexual interest, or getting caught up in a game of cards or round of drinks. This rejection of temptation parallels a key story in the life of the messianic figure the American Monomyth is intended to replace – Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told a story of how Jesus was tempted thrice by the devil in the wilderness, and rejected temptation each time (Matt 4.1-11).

  Like many messianic figures, Booker faces persecution. Soon after his arrival in Columbia, he is taken for the “false shepherd” foretold of in prophecy by Prophet Comstock, the leader of Columbia’s theocracy. The people of Columbia believe that the false shepherd will lead their “lamb” – Elizabeth, Comstock’s daughter and heir – ‘’astray’’. (fig. 2)

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Fig 2: an in-game poster featuring the “false shepherd”

As such, he receives an extremely hostile reception. The rhetoric of a ‘’false shepherd’’ has Biblical roots – the Book of Ezekiel uses an analogy of ‘’false’’ shepherds to decry leaders of Israel who will not care for their people (Ezekiel 34).

As he is our protagonist, we naturally ally with Booker. The player must play as Booker DeWitt, and thereby sees all situations with him at centre. We unconsciously justify his actions as necessary to achieve his goals, and through doing so, are presented with a figure whom we see as unjustly targeted, but one we believe will make things right, as the standard messianic archetype.

I am not a righteous man, I am not a holy man

        However, Booker DeWitt is not the standard messianic archetype. The concept of the American Monomyth is not without flaw, and BioShock Infinite subjects it to thorough critique. The messiah is very much an ideal – Sarbatoare notes that the Jewish messiah’s “personal qualities surpass the ordinary standard of human abilities” (Sarbatoare 2004, 54). (fig. 3)

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Fig .3: Booker using a “vigor” in a fight, a tonic that grants him pseudo-magical powers

The American Monomyth’s violence is typically seen as sanctified – but in fact, this seems to contrast several Biblical views on the topic. In Genesis 6 – the story of Noah – the Bible claims that the flood was sent because the earth was “filled with violence” (Gen 6.11-13). In Isaiah 59.2-7, Isaiah’s criticisms of the unjust involve accusations that “acts of violence mark their ways”. The sins humans perform are summarised under the concept of their effect – violence (Schwager 1987, 48-51). Booker goes through the game wracked with guilt over his violent past. When he, near its end, encounters a priest performing river baptisms, he snarls at his companion, Elizabeth, “You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?”

BioShock Infinite takes place across different timelines, and through two of Booker’s alternate selves, the game criticises the expectations of the American Monomyth as a social outsider. Lang and Trimble note that the American Monomyth must complete “some violent act that the rest of society is incapable of performing” (Lang and Trimble 1988, 166), and yet is expected to serve as saviour figure. In one timeline, Booker allies with the anarchist Vox Populi, and quickly rises to become a leading figure in their movement. (fig.4) However, when Booker and Elizabeth enter this timeline, they discover that the revolution has destroyed Columbia and slaughtered most of its civilian population. The combination of expectations of abnormal violence and leadership results, unsurprisingly, in a ticking time-bomb.

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Fig. 4: A Vox Populi poster of Booker from an alternative timeline

In another timeline, Booker becomes the architect behind and ruler of Columbia, Zachary Comstock. Comstock possesses an intensely bigoted, binary moral outlook. In one offshoot timeline, Booker finds an elderly Elizabeth in 1984, tortured by Comstock into ideological compliance, overseeing Columbia’s airships attacking New York. (fig.5, fig.6)

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Fig. 5: A mural to Comstock at Columbia’s “Welcome Centre” for new arrivals

Through the character of Comstock, BioShock Infinite manages to highlight the flaw in the American Monomyth’s morality – its absolutism. When the American Monomyth’s black-and-white moral view is coupled with his sanctified violence, the result is someone with absolute belief in his ways and a willingness – or even propensity – to take any ends to achieve them.

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Fig. 6

Dies, Died, Will Die

   But the end Booker takes to achieve redemption is that of sacrifice, in a parallel to the Christus Victor theory of atonement. The Christus Victor theory posits that through his death, Jesus “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world… under which mankind is in bondage” (Gunton 1985, 129). As Booker progresses through the story, he is witness to the injustice, oppression and devastation resulting from Comstock’s extremist rule over Columbia. He realises that to truly defeat Comstock, he must “smother that bastard in his crib”, at the root of all his timelines. This leads to Booker to the site of a river baptism, where he learns that Zachary Comstock is him, in a universe where he underwent the baptism to cope with his post-war guilt, and, believing himself to be absolved of his sins, became a religious zealot. Elizabeth is his daughter – Comstock, infertile from repeated use of trans-dimensional technology, travelled to Booker’s reality and bought his then-infant daughter, Anna, off an indebted Booker in order to have a biological heir. (fig.7)

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Fig. 7: Booker attempts to stop Comstock from leaving with Anna DeWitt

Booker then undergoes the baptism, but stays under the water and drowns in what appears to be suicide, which is then implied to have undone Comstock’s becoming. (fig.8)

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Fig. 8: Booker drowning while various iterations of Elizabeth look on

Booker’s death is redemptive. He starts the story travelling to Columbia to repay a debt, and ends it by wiping away another – the blood debt that Comstock has accrued. By sacrificing his own life, Booker takes on the sins of others – the injustice, oppression and violence occurring in the game – and redeems them by ensuring that they never occurred. Romans 6.3-4 mentions the idea of a “baptism into death”, saying that those baptised were “buried with” Jesus in order to “live a new life”. With Booker’s death as parallel to this analogy, the renewal it creates is highlighted, allowing his story to close so that others may begin.

Lives, Lived, Will Live

   BioShock Infinite’s protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is both an example and subversion of the American Monomyth, highlighting the key issues of the trope – those of its violence, moral absolutism and unrealistic expectations. And yet, Booker is far from being a failed messiah – he delivers redemption that his more typically messianic alternate selves cannot. Perhaps the game means to show that a messianic figure does not need to be some grand, imposing, perfect moral hero – it can just as easily be a flawed messiah, an imperfect messiah, but a believable messiah. It is realism that makes a fantasy more compelling – and thus, humanising a messiah gives his message more potency. After all, when Elizabeth asks Booker, “Booker, are you afraid of God?”, his response is “No – But I’m afraid of you.”

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Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the New International Version (UK).

“List of accolades received by BioShock Infinite.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 26th, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accolades_received_by_BioShock_Infinite

“Booker DeWitt.” BioShock Wiki. Accessed September 27th, 2015. http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Booker_DeWitt

Gunton, Colin. ““Christus Victor” Revisited. A Study in Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning.” The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): 129-145.

Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.

Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002

Sarbatoare, Octavian. “Messianic Ideas: Historical Sources, and some Contemporary Expectations of Fulfilment.” Honours Thesis, University of Sydney, 2004. http://prijipati.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/7194 (accessed September 27th, 2015)

Schwager, Raymund. Must there be scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.