Mythos & Logos (3): The Scapegoat and the Lamb of God

The first part of this study can be found here.

In the last piece, I attempted to sketch an outline of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, its ineluctable progression to collective violence, and its traditional and universal palliative in the application of the scapegoat mechanism. To recapitulate, human beings are relational by nature and therefore, we do not form our desire in abstracto from the people and culture around us. In fact, quite on the contrary, we learn our desires by imitating those people. Because desire is mimetic in this way, the desire of any group will always tend to converge on a single object. As a result, relations of imitation will everywhere threaten to devolve relations of rivalry. A model of today is an adversary of tomorrow. From this condition, the slightest offence is sufficient to engulf a society in an inferno of reciprocal and collective violence. Girard marshals anthropological evidence from the myths of dozens of traditions around the world to uncover the panacea for this constant threat. To stave off imminent destruction by collective violence, it was expedient to channel all animosity towards a single victim. This was accomplished by construing the latter as the sole culprit for all of the conflict. In other words, some iteration of the scapegoat mechanism was present in all of the cultures that Girard surveyed, despite its true nature often being concealed behind a veneer of ritual and mythological imagination. 

Indeed, Girard notes that the effectiveness of the scapegoat mechanism depends on the ability to sustain the illusion that the victim is in fact guilty of the charges that are laid upon him. In other words, the scapegoat mechanism depends on a subversion of truth for it to function. Thus, the blame for all ills that beset a community—plagues, strife, famines, wars, deaths, etc.—are periodically ascribed to the sins of a single individual, who is then unanimously sacrificed. It is precisely the spirit of unanimity that is the crucial achievement of the scapegoat mechanism. As I noted in the last section, this can be difficult for the reader of modern sensibility to perceive. After all, how could the Thebans be so gullible as to believe that Oedipus’ moral lapses were to account for the plagues and natural disasters that afflict their city? Girard, in his usual fashion, addresses this concern with admirable clarity:

Admittedly, scapegoats cure neither real epidemics nor droughts nor floods. But the main dimension of every crisis is the way in which it affects human relations. A process of bad reciprocity is its own initiator; it gains nourishment from itself and has no need of external causes in order to continue. As long as external causes exist, such as an epidemic of plague for example, scapegoats will have no efficacy. On the other hand, when these causes no longer exist, the first scapegoat to appear will bring an end to the crisis by eliminating all the interpersonal repercussions in the concentration of all evildoing in the person of one victim. The scapegoat is only effective when human relations have broken down in crisis, but he gives the impression of effecting external causes as well, such as plagues, droughts, and other objective calamities. [1]

Because of its efficacy, we will always fall back on the scapegoat mechanism as long as we can pretend that the victim is guilty as charged. We must allow ourselves to entertain the tempting belief in a single solution to complex problems, and offing a scapegoat promises a “quick-fix” to resolve all discord. Traditional narratives are designed to fortify this illusion. In other words, their function is to propagate the spirit of unanimity that the murder of the scapegoat achieved by concealing the actual source of this unanimity. Often this suppression of the scapegoat mechanism is undertaken with the same unconscious conviction that polarizes a crowd to condemn an innocent victim in the first place. But that it goes unnoticed does not negate its existence. Indeed, it may be all the more operative as it is less noted: “A text in which there is little mention of the scapegoat effect is more likely to be dominated by it, since it is less capable of identifying its controlling principle,” as Girard observes. In an earlier study, I suggested that there is something incredible about the account that Hesiod offers about generational succession of gods in the Theogony. In fact, the account he gives in Theogony explicitly contradicts the one he appears to give in Works and Days. I suggested that a theory to explain this discrepancy is to read those accounts from the perspective that the narrator is “unreliable.” Obviously, the real fantasy is not in the myths but in the notion that any narrator could be “reliable” in the naive conception of that term. I think this conception is best characterized as a narration in a “view-from-nowhere” perspective, which could not be more alien to traditional oral cultures. One need only picture the actual concrete performance of any of these stories that we inherit from the yonder side of history’s horizon, and it will be unremittingly clear that there could be no speech without a speaker. In this way, the myths are truer than modern cosmological theories because they do not pretend to offer the kind of account for which they are not capable. Modern scientific conceits, by contrast, encourage us to leave ourselves out of our theories in the name of objectivity. Just as Girard has offered us a theory in whose light the truth of the myths can be perceived, researchers of the future will have to look on this “disappearing act” as the key to unlock the “anti-myths” of modern science. Just as the concealment of the scapegoat mechanism is the hidden logic of traditional myths, the erasure of the theorist is the crux around which the theories of science constellate. This is evidently a separate topic and therefore it must suffice to note it in passing for the purpose of revealing the nature of myth in sharper relief. Returning to the Theogony: it is to be expected that the characterization of Kronos-Saturn as a depraved devourer of his own offspring is a sociological device that serves the function of prolonging the social cohesion that followed his collective murder. If mythos is regarded with the proper logos, it is true. 

After establishing the logos of mythos, Girard notes the exceptions to it. These he finds almost exclusively amongst the Jewish and Christian narratives. Thus, he is able to present a polarity of two basic principles that function antagonistically amongst traditional stories. The first is the “mythologizing” impulse and the second, the “revelatory” one. The first is defined by its being an account from the perspective of the perpetrators, the second from by their victim. It will be clear, for instance, that the myth of Theogony falls roundly in the first hole, while the Gospels represent the quintessential revelatory text. For Girard, the distinction between myth and revelation is tantamount to a polarity between dissemblance for the sake of social or political expediency and testament to the truth irrespective of the consequences. 

It is often forgotten that for the evangelists to proclaim the gospels did not ingratiate them to any established worldly powers or religious traditions. Quite on the contrary, to preach the gospel was to risk one’s life for the sake of bearing witness against the lie of scapegoating, as the etymology and connotation of the word “martyr” suggest. Thus, revelatory speech is always subversive to a political order that is founded on its suppression. Girard notes that Caiaphas, chief priest of the Sanhedrin, whose members were responsible for apprehending Jesus on false charges, appears to vindicate Girard’s own theories when the priest exclaims in the famous passage from John 11: “Ye know nothing at all! Ye do not realize that it is expedient that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Girard comments:

Caiaphas is stating the same political reason we have given for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible but to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician. 

Girard argues that the function of collective mythology was to vindicate collective murder by presenting it as something else. In other words, myth functions contrary to revelation because the first is told from the perspective of the victors. When we recall the phrase “the victors write the history,” it will be clear that Girard’s theories are by no means irrelevant to the contemporary world. In fact, I hope to have shown and will attempt to continue to show why just the opposite is true. It might be objected that just because a person is collectively murdered does not mean that that person was innocent. Perhaps the victim entirely deserved his plight. Clearly, this is quite a hypothetical objection and establishing its pertinence would depend on an investigation into the concrete case in question. But the objection offers an opportunity to underscore something about the nature of theory which is crucial to bear in mind if our theorizing is to lead us towards truth and not away from it: the purpose of theory to offer insight into concrete situations, and not to substitute for them. So unless it were certain that Baldr enjoyed the “game” of having every different kind of thing upon the earth hurled at him to prove his invulnerability as much as all of the other Norse gods did, then we should read that story with a critical eye and be open to any insights that Girard’s theories may provide.

Girard notes that, historically speaking, the narratives of the Judeo-Christian tradition are sui generis in the anti-mythological nature. In other words, while the stories of every other culture serve to fortify the position of the persecutors and thereby legitimize a given social order, the stories of the Jewish bible are singular in that they are always taking the side of the scapegoat against the mob. Girard notes the striking departure of the Psalms from the Greek tradition, for instance, in which Oedipus, as a representative scapegoat, “has the good taste to join in the wonderful classical harmony. See with what art and delicacy, at the given moment, he denounces himself!” Girard wryly compares Oedipus’ righteous self-incrimination to “the enthusiasm of the psychoanalytic patient on his couch or the old Bolshevist in the time of Stalin.” He acknowledges that “The victim of the Psalms is disturbing, it is true, and even annoying compared with an Oedipus.” He continues:

The victim who speaks in the Psalms seems not in the least “moral;” not evangelic enough for the good apostles of modern times. The sensibilities of our humanists are shocked. Usually, the unfortunate victim turns to hate those who hate him. The “display of violence and resentment so characteristic of the Old Testament” is deplored, and is seen as a particularly clear indication of the famous malice of the God of lsrael. Ever since Nietzsche people have seen in the Psalms the invention of all the bad feeling infectious, humiliation, and resentment. We are offered in contrast to the venomous Psalms the beautiful serenity of mythologies, particularly Greek and German. Strong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled.

Girard argues that the true significance of all of the instances of allusion and quotation of the Old Testament in the New—perhaps most iconic of which is when Jesus quotes the 22nd Psalm as his dying words on Good Friday—is that the Crucifixion was the fruition of the anti-mythologizing impulse that had been gestating and slowly developing through all the stories of the Jewish bible. 

Having thus outlined a theoretical polarity between mythological and revelatory texts and having established the biblical narratives as amongst the sole representatives of the latter category, Girard puts forth an intriguing explanation for the cathartic power of the tragedy. Namely, Girard suggests that it is born from the tension of the concealed truth that is everywhere threatening to break the beautiful symmetry of myth and shatter the veneer of righteous persecution…and yet never quite manages to do so. In his words:

That the tragedy seems to move in conflicting directions is indicative of its internal struggle; it can neither adhere to the myth nor reject it in the way the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospels reject it. It is this internal contradiction which tears it apart, violently, rather than the impossible coexistence of the guilty son and the innocent scapegoat in the false aesthetic harmony of humanist beatitudes, that gives the tragedy its beauty. 

The rejection that Girard speaks of is, of course, the rejection of propaganda on behalf of the perpetrators in an effort to justify the murder of a single scapegoat for the sake of maintaining the peace of a society: “ it is expedient that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Thus, the revelatory texts are refusing to engage in pretense and instead putting the truth on display. And the Crucifixion is, of course, the exaltation or apotheosis of this impulse. Jesus is the scapegoat of scapegoats. Rather, he is called “the Lamb of God” to preclude any possibility for equivocation that the symbol of the goat may invite. Jesus is without guile. And he is also entirely free of the resentment and fantasies of revenge that characterize the speaker in the Psalms. Jesus does not even answer the charges against him: “Thou sayest it,” he responds when he is questioned by Pilate as to whether he has proclaimed himself King of the Jews. And just because of his supreme innocence and supreme impassibility and unwillingness to participate in any way by intervening for or against himself—just because of this, the hypocrisy of the unanimous crowd is exposed beyond all doubt. The truth is on display and it is proclaimed by the evangelists: “they that have ears, let them hear.” 




A well-known theory in the history of ideas is that Christianity represented the marriage of the Greek and the Jewish impulses. Pace Tertullian, Athens had thenceforth joined herself inextricably with Jerusalem. Like any theory, it threatens to lead interpreters into abstractions as vacuous as they are sweeping if it is regarded as a historical fact instead of a manner of organising and disclosing patterns amongst historical facts. Nevertheless, it offers a valuable illumination provided it is used in the right way. Greek thinkers tended to view moral failure as a consequence of imperfect knowledge. Thus, to do what is bad is the result of having mistakenly believed what is bad to be what is good. For Socrates, the will was essentially ordered to the good and sin could only express a lack of understanding. The Jewish prophets, by contrast, enjoined the Israelites to abide by the Mosaic Law. Their aspiration was to practice and not to knowledge. In essence, the former exalts knowledge and the other will; the Greeks await a demonstration and the Jews await a sign. Again we see the manner in which Christ synthesizes these two cultures and at the same time transcends them. In Jesus’s Crucifixion, the truth has been revealed, and in the Gospels it has been proclaimed. And yet no one is compelled to believe it. Rather, everyone must assent by his own decision. In this way, Christ joins knowledge and will and raises their conjunction to the principle of freedom. This is to say that each of us must make the decision on our own behalf and not on the behalf of others. Indeed, to attempt to make this decision on behalf of others would be to reenter the unconscious cycle of scapegoating and collective violence from which it was Christ’s mission to deliver us. Freedom is an account we settle with ourselves.

Girard comes to the same conclusion and warns of the constant threat of deception:

Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats. The illusion of persecution is as rampant as ever…Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere.

“Hypocrite reader, my similar, my brother….” Ghandi famously said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and he was, of course, paraphrasing Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ deeds in the Stations of the Cross. By allowing all violence to be polarized to himself without protest or condemnation and allowing the disciples to bear witness to the truth, Jesus offered the doorway by which humanity may exit the dungeon of collective violence and cyclical scapegoating. It befalls us to take Christ as our model so as not to fall back into it. 

But the notion of imitatio Christi may immediately raise doubts in the mind of the one who has assimilated Girard’s theories either from the prior section of the present study (or from another source, or best of all, from Girard himself). It might be wondered: does not the imitation of Christ merely initiate yet another cycle of the same mimetic desire that will turn peers into rivals and can ultimately end only in collective violence? Girard’s response is supremely illuminating. He offers it by way of an explanation for the surprising and disconcerting occasion in which Jesus rebukes Peter with the phrase 

“Get behind me, Satan. Thou art a stumbling block to me, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matthew 16:23). 

Noting that the passage itself has become something of a “stumbling block” to interpreters, Girard proceeds to offer the following explanation:

The traditional English translation of stumbling block is far superior to timid recent translations, for the Greek skandalon designates an unavoidable obstacle that somehow becomes more attractive (as well as repulsive) each time we stumble against it. The first time Jesus predicts his violent death (Matthew 16:21–23), his resignation appalls Peter, who tries to instill some worldly ambition in his master: Instead of imitating Jesus, Peter wants Jesus to imitate him. If two friends imitate each other’s desire, they both desire the same object. And if they cannot share this object, they will compete for it, each becoming simultaneously a model and an obstacle to the other. The competing desires intensify as model and obstacle reinforce each other, and an escalation of mimetic rivalry follows; admiration gives way to indignation, jealousy, envy, hatred, and, at last, violence and vengeance. Had Jesus imitated Peter’s ambition, the two thereby would have begun competing for the leadership of some politicized “Jesus movement.” Sensing the danger, Jesus vehemently interrupts Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, you are a skandalon to me.” [2]

“…for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” Thus, imitating Jesus is in fact the sublimation of mimetic desire and resolution of the collective violence and the scapegoat mechanism that inevitably follow, for the very reason that it might have been supposed that it were only another instance of the same. Precisely because Jesus is without sin and because he seeks no glory for himself, but only that the Father’s name should be glorified in him (John 14), victory over the cycle of violence is finally at hand. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). 

Again it might be imagined that the above represents the abstract conclusion from the application of Girard’s theories to the Gospel, or worse, that it represents some kind of revisionist theology. But I hope that the reader who has accompanied me through the three parts of this study will sense the pertinence of these questions to the most fundamental aspects of our lives. The point is to change our way of seeing so we are looking for the truth and not trying to find ways to ignore it. Often this means taking uncomfortable burdens of accountability on ourselves which we would much rather pass on to one scapegoat or another. Because the second is natural, the first requires something of a “turning about” of our ordinary ways. Surely this was the meaning of John the Baptist’s injunction of “Metanoeite!” (Μετανοεῖτε, Cf. Matthew 3:2), which is “repent” in most English translations, but is literally calling for an inversion or reversal of the mind. We would much rather cast the blame on someone. But we should not believe our inclinations when they promise an escape from personal accountability. We will always find it expedient to let the Corona of Thorns pass from our own heads than to bear it ourselves without protest. 

But again, as Girard observed in a passage quoted above, “Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat.” Thus, the question is for me to settle with myself. If I refuse to do this, a scapegoat will be forced to settle it on my behalf. Jesus’ words on this subject (as is so often the case) penetrate to the very heart of the question while at the same time gathering up all others from the four corners of the earth and imbuing them all with transcendent import: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If we think the world is made of facts and matter, we might imagine that these are the words of a distant prophet in some forgotten village in Palestine and that they can be entertained or discounted as we see fit. But if we think the world is made of meaning (which certainly must be our departure point if we wish to ground our ability to make sense of our so-called “facts”), then we will hear in Jesus’ words the voice of that same                 who first spoke Creation into being as such: “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works” (John 14:10).

I will allow Jesus’ words to conclude this exploration of Girard’s theories of the scapegoat together with the insights that they provide into myth and into the Gospels. It is my hope that readers have found something meaningful in them during the week of Easter and in the midst of the Corona-pandemic phenomenon.

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, circa 1430.

[1] All quotations are from Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1986) unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Girard, “Are the Gospels Mythical?” First Things No. 62 (April 1996): 27-31.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Shameless promotion; but I would recommend that you consider writing a piece for us at VoegelinView. Among public publications, VV is one of the few I know (since I’m also involved) to deal with these important topics. For example, we just ran a piece on Girard and Sacrifice:

    Just a consideration, Max. If it were to mean anything to you to have a more formal publication backing — or at the very least to reach, perhaps, a wider audience. This stuff is too important to keep sheltered. Head over to the “About Us” (Forthcoming/Submissions) to see more. While thematic, our head editor and publisher is usually open to all sorts of suggestions and generally tentatively accepts an idea relevant to the month’s topic (pending that it is inquired of several months in advance). Just a consideration, again, to keep in mind if you ever want to expand out of your otherwise excellent reflections here.

    Which reminds me, April 23 at VV I have a very large (12,000 word) essay on love and sacrificial hero/savior in science fiction filmography. Girard is briefly dealt with, though is a major influence in the spirit of the essay. So it has been pleasantly wondrous that you have been publishing what you have the past few days! Synchronicity, as you like say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Paul. I love what I have read of Voegelin. I look forward to your essay.


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