BOOK REVIEW: Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West, ca. 70 C.E. To the Iraq War (Philippe Buc)–Review by Geneviève Pigeon

BOOK REVIEW: Philippe Buc. Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West, ca. 70 C.E. To the Iraq War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 496 pp. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-4685-8.

Medievalists and biblical scholars have been reading Philippe Buc’s work for some time now, starting with his extremely precise and remarkable L’ambuguïté du livre: Prince, pouvoir, et peuple dans les commentaires de la Bible (1994). Greatly influenced by longue durée historians like Jacques LeGoff and Fernand Braudel, Buc’s project of looking back to a far past to find traces of conceptual origins has proven to be both useful and original. In his new book, Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror, Christianity, Violence and the West, ca. 70 C.E. To the Iraq War, Buc’s intellectual project remains the same: “One main thesis of this book has been that some cultural forms have come to our present from the far past.” (p. 288). This essay, as the author explains, does not assert that Christianity alone could account for the ways violence has taken shape in the West; instead, it focusses on predetermined contradictions established by Gerard Caspary, or paradoxal pairings, which can be found throughout Western history: Old and New, letter and spirit, war and peace, election and universalism, coercion and liberty. These cultural forms coming to our present from the far past, allow the author to explore how “Christianity has left an imprint of violence”, how it has drawn “the contours of what is specific to Christian and post-Christian violence” (p. 2).

Buc’s essay, and his choice of looking at a longue durée history by picking only some elements of societies like France during the French Revolution, or George Sorel’s political actions, shows the limits of this kind of work. The notion that some traits specific to Western Christianity explain mass violence in the West is not new, and Robert Muchembled has written a very convincing book on the history of violence without even taking into consideration the influence of religion (Une histoire de la violence, De la fin du Moyen-Âge à nos jours, 2008). Considering this, Buc’s essay is expected to suggest links in social structures and in time, associations and evolutions that clearly evolve and adapt. Unfortunately, for once, the author’s incredible erudition might have been a disservice to his ambitious project. It is not to say that at the end of the book the reader is not somewhat convinced that some Christian traits did, indeed, “draw the contour of what is specific to Christian and Post-Christian violence”; unfortunately, any reader already convinced of the latter will find himself still thirsty for a more concise and more structured essay. The question of “how do ideas and event meet” (p. 9) is a difficult one as cultural historians, sociologists (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) and religious scholars have studied it, and it proves to be a challenge. Overall, they all agree on one thing: the Present is built on an idea of the Past, on its cultural frames and knowledge (in this regard, Gilbert Durand’s The Anthropological Structures of the Imaginary could prove to be a fertile contribution). In this way, Buc’s project is absolutely pertinent and should have provided a framework of understanding that would allow its reader to have a fresh perspective based on innovative associations and analysis. It is not to say that Buc’s essay does not provide such material. Its structure, focusing on a few important subjects, such as Christian Exegesis and Violence; Madness; Martyrdom; and Terror or Liberty and Coercion, demonstrates a clear willingness to create a narrative independent from a linear chronological timeframe, without a doubt the best way to approach such a subject. The problem does not lie in the structure but rather in the abundance of examples taken from many different periods, countries and environment: Timothy McVeigh, the RAF, the Nazi regime and French revolutionist Robespierre can be found on the same page, along with Augustine and Palestinian terrorists. (p. 149)

Reading Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror, Christianity, Violence and the West, ca. 70 C.E. To the Iraq War feels like listening to a very inspired lecture. While the audience members try to grasp as much as they can from the ever-going flow of information, they can’t help but feel lost at times, unable to stop the flow of words and helter-skelter facts while barely holding onto general ideas. A more tenacious reader will fight the frustration of having to go to the endnotes many times, especially when the said notes only refer to another article by the author; the same reader, delighted to discover new facts about well-known historical figures, such as Joan of Arc, will wonder if Buc’s generosity in the number of facts could not have been better served with a little less examples and a little more nuance (the letter “attributed to Jeanne”, on p. 190, has been discussed by scholars at great lengths, and is considered by many to have been written after her death). Any History teacher, grad student or religious scholar will undoubtedly feel the need to learn more, or find out about at least one reference on every page. Going back and forth between a page and the Notes section breaks the reading rhythm (already a challenging one).

There is no denying that Buc’s project is immensely valuable: the influence of Augustine’s idea of Order still operates today, and a better understanding of the evolution of taken for granted notions such as peace, order, war and martyrdom does inspire a welcomed reflection. However, the precise events chosen by Buc to demonstrate his theory raise as many questions as they provide answers; choosing the Crusades, the French Revolution and Modern day America as the main frames of his demonstration corners the author in a difficult place. Is the Modern Western world so French and so American? Of course, one could argue that many more events are dealt with, and the author had to choose where to concentrate his analysis. But is that choice not already a deliberate attempt to only show what works within the limits of the intent? Is it possible to discuss violence in the West without dealing with Second World War at length? Could J. Strayer’s “On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State” have provided insights to a more diverse geographical scheme of references while still leaving aside Northern Europe, Germany, Spain and Italy, to name a few?

Overall, Buc’s Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror, Christianity, Violence and the West, ca. 70 C.E. To the Iraq War will interest scholars who are not shy of leaving the book aside to learn more about a person, an event or a biblical aspect. Less versed readers could be discouraged by the incredible generosity in names, places and historical facts. They would be best served with Buc’s excellent previous books, L’ambiguité du Livre or Dangereux rituels.

Geneviève Pigeon

Geneviève Pigeon holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University du Québec à Montréal, with a focus on medieval England, cultural anthropology and King Arthur. She is a member of the Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique (CRBC) with the University of Rennes 2 (France) and is currently interested in studying Western founding myths with regards to the relationship between Nature and Culture.



Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1966.
Philippe Buc, Dangereux rituel : De l’histoire médiévale aux sciences sociales, Paris, PUF, 2003.
—–. L’ambiguïté du Livre : Prince, pouvoir, et peuple dans les commentaires de la Bible au Moyen Âge, Paris, Beauchesne, 1994.
Gerard Caspary, Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords, Berkerley, 1979.
Gilbert Durand, The Anthropological Structures of the Imaginary, Bombana Publications, 1999.
Robert Muchembled, Une histoire de la violence, De la fin du Moyen Âge à nos jours, Seuil, 2008.
Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, (Princeton Classic Editions I), Princeton University Press, 2005.