This post is the article he wrote for “First Things Magazine” in 1996, entitled “Are the Gospels Mythical?” See it in it’s original location at this link.
Thanks very much,
Steve St. Clair
Are the Gospels Mythical?
From the earliest days of Christianity, the Gospels’ resemblance to certain myths has been used as an argument against Christian faith. When pagan apologists for the official pantheism of the Roman empire denied that the death-and-resurrection myth of Jesus differed in any significant way from the myths of Dionysus, Osiris, Adonis, Attis, etc., they failed to stem the rising Christian tide. In the last two hundred years, however, as anthropologists have discovered all over the world foundational myths that similarly resemble Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, the notion of Christianity as a myth seems at last to have taken hold-even among Christian believers.
Beginning with some violent cosmic or social crisis, and culminating in the suffering of a mysterious victim (often at the hands of a furious mob), all these myths conclude with the triumphal return of the sufferer, thereby revealed as a divinity. The kind of anthropological research undertaken before World War II-in which theorists struggled to account for resemblances among myths-is regarded as a hopeless “metaphysical” failure by most anthropologists nowadays. Its failure seems, however, not to have weakened anthropology’s skeptical scientific spirit, but only to have weakened further, in some mysterious way, the plausibility of the dogmatic claims of religion that the earlier theorists had hoped to supersede: if science itself cannot formulate universal truths of human nature, then religion-as manifestly inferior to science-must be even more devalued than we had supposed.
This is the contemporary intellectual situation Christian thinkers face as they read the Scriptures. The Cross is incomparable insofar as its victim is the Son of God, but in every other respect it is a human event. An analysis of that event-exploring the anthropological aspects of the Passion that we cannot neglect if we take the dogma of the Incarnation seriously-not only reveals the falsity of contemporary anthropology’s skepticism about human nature. It also utterly discredits the notion that Christianity is in any sense mythological. The world’s myths do not reveal a way to interpret the Gospels, but exactly the reverse: the Gospels reveal to us the way to interpret myth.
Jesus does, of course, compare his own story to certain others when he says that his death will be like the death of the prophets: “The blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Luke 11:50-51). What, we must ask, does the word like really mean here? In the death most strikingly similar to the Passion-that of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, chapters 52-53-a crowd unites against a single victim, just as similar crowds unite against Jeremiah, Job, the narrators of the penitential psalms, etc. In Genesis, Joseph is cast out by the envious crowd of his brothers. All these episodes of violence have the same all-against-one structure.
Since John the Baptist is a prophet, we may expect his violent death in the New Testament to be similar, and indeed John dies because Herod’s guests turn into a murderous crowd. Herod himself is as inclined to spare John’s life as Pilate is to spare Jesus’-but leaders who do not stand up to violent crowds are bound to join them, and join them both Herod and Pilate do. Ancient people typically regarded ritual dancing as the most mimetic of all arts, solidifying the participants of a sacrifice against the soon to be immolated victim. The hostile polarization against John results from Salome’s dancing-a result foreseen and cleverly engineered by Herodias for exactly that purpose.
There is no equivalent of Salome’s dancing in Jesus’ Passion, but a mimetic or imitative dimension is obviously present. The crowd that gathers against Jesus is the same that had enthusiastically welcomed him into Jerusalem a few days earlier. The sudden reversal is typical of unstable crowds everywhere: rather than a deep-seated hatred for the victim, it suggests a wave of contagious violence.
Peter spectacularly illustrates this mimetic contagion. When surrounded by people hostile to Jesus, he imitates their hostility. He obeys the same mimetic force, ultimately, as Pilate and Herod. Even the thieves crucified with Jesus obey that force and feel compelled to join the crowd. And yet, I think, the Gospels do not seek to stigmatize Peter, or the thieves, or the crowd as a whole, or the Jews as a people, but to reveal the enormous power of mimetic contagion-a revelation valid for the entire chain of murders stretching from the Passion back to “the foundation of the world.” The Gospels have an immensely powerful reason for their constant reference to these murders, and it concerns two essential and yet strangely neglected words, skandalon and Satan.
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.”
The more our models impede our desires, the more fascinating they become as models. Scandals can be sexual, no doubt, but they are not primarily a matter of sex any more than of worldly ambition. They must be defined in terms not of their objects but of their obstacle/model escalation-their mimetic rivalry that is the sinful dynamics of human conflict and its psychic misery. If the problem of mimetic rivalry escapes us, we may mistake Jesus’ prescriptions for some social utopia. The truth is rather that scandals are such a threat that nothing should be spared to avoid them. At the first hint, we should abandon the disputed object to our rivals and accede even to their most outrageous demands; we should “turn the other cheek.”
If we choose Jesus as our model, we simultaneously choose his own model, God the Father. Having no appropriative desire, Jesus proclaims the possibility of freedom from scandal. But if we choose possessive models we find ourselves in endless scandals, for our real model is Satan. A seductive tempter who suggests to us the desires most likely to generate rivalries, Satan prevents us from reaching whatever he simultaneously incites us to desire. He turns into a diabolos (another word that designates the obstacle/model of mimetic rivalry). Satan is skandalon personified, as Jesus makes explicit in his rebuke of Peter.
Since most human beings do not follow Jesus, scandals must happen (Matthew 18:7), proliferating in ways that ought to endanger the collective survival of the human race-for once we understand the terrifying power of escalating mimetic desire, no society seems capable of standing against it. And yet, though many societies perish, new societies manage to be born, and quite a few established societies manage to find ways to survive or regenerate. Some counterforce must be at work, not powerful enough to terminate scandals once and for all, and yet sufficient to moderate their impact and keep them under some control.
This counterforce is, I believe, the mythological scapegoat-the sacrificial victim of myth. When scandals proliferate, human beings become so obsessed with their rivals that they lose sight of the objects for which they compete and begin to focus angrily on one another. As the borrowing of the model’s object shifts to the borrowing of the rival’s hatred, acquisitive mimesis turns into a mimesis of antagonists. More and more individuals polarize against fewer and fewer enemies until, in the end, only one is left. Because everyone believes in the guilt of the last victim, they all turn against him-and since that victim is now isolated and helpless, they can do so with no danger of retaliation. As a result, no enemy remains for anybody in the community. Scandals evaporate and peace returns-for a while.
Society’s preservation against the unlimited violence of scandals lies in the mimetic coalition against the single victim and its ensuing limited violence. The violent death of Jesus is, humanly speaking, an example of this strange process. Before it begins, Jesus warns his disciples (and especially Peter) that they will be “scandalized” by him (Mark 14:27). This use of skandalizein suggests that the mimetic force at work in the all-against-one violence is the same violence at work in mimetic rivalries between individuals. In preventing a riot and dispersing a crowd, the Crucifixion is an example of cathartic victimization. A fascinating detail in the gospel makes clear the cathartic effects of the mimetic murder-and allows us to distinguish them from the Crucifixion’s Christian effects. At the end of his Passion account, Luke writes, “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (23:12). This reconciliation outwardly resembles Christian communion-since it originates in Jesus’ death-and yet it has nothing to do with it. It is a cathartic effect rooted in the mimetic contagion.
Jesus’ persecutors do not realize that they influence one another mimetically. Their ignorance does not cancel their responsibility, but it does lessen it: “Father, forgive them,” Jesus cries, “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). A parallel statement in Acts 3:17 shows that this must be interpreted literally. Peter ascribes to ignorance the behavior of the crowd and its leaders. His personal experience of the mimetic compulsion that possesses crowds prevents him from regarding himself immune to the violent contagion of victimization.
The role of Satan, the personification of scandals, helps us to understand the mimetic conception of the Gospels. To the question How can Satan cast out Satan? (Mark 3:23), the answer is unanimous victimization. On the one hand, Satan is the instigator of scandal, the force that disintegrates communities; on the other hand, he is the resolution of scandal in unanimous victimization. This trick of last resort enables the prince of this world to rescue his possessions in extremis, when they are too badly threatened by his own disorder. Being both a principle of disorder and a principle of order, Satan is truly divided against himself.
The famous portrayal of the mimetic murder of John the Baptist occurs-in both Mark and Matthew-as a curious flashback. By beginning with an account of Herod’s eager seizing hold of the rumor of John’s resurrection, and only then going back in time to narrate John’s death, Mark and Matthew reveal the origin of Herod’s compulsive belief in his own decisive participation in the murder. The evangelists give a fleeting but precious example of mythic genesis-of the ordering power of violence, of its ability to found culture. Herod’s belief is vestigial, to be sure, but the fact that two Gospels mention it confirms, I think, the evangelical authenticity of the doctrine that grounds mythology in mimetic victimization.
Modern Christians are often made uncomfortable by this false resurrection that seems to resemble the true one, but Mark and Matthew obviously do not share their embarrassment. Far from downplaying the similarities, they attract our attention to them, much as Luke attracts our attention to the resemblance between Christian communion and the unholy reconciliation of Herod and Pilate as a result of Jesus’ death. The evangelists see something very simple and fundamental that we ourselves should see. As soon as we become reconciled to the similarities between violence in the Bible and myths, we can understand how the Bible is not mythical-how the reaction to violence recorded in the Bible radically differs from the reaction recorded in myth.
Beginning with the story of Cain and Abel, the Bible proclaims the innocence of mythical victims and the guilt of their victimizers. Living after the widespread promulgation of the gospel, we find this natural and never pause to think that in classical myths the opposite is true: the persecutors always seem to have a valid cause to persecute their victims. The Dionysiac myths regard even the most horrible lynchings as legitimate. Pentheus in the Bacchae is legitimately slain by his mother and sisters, for his contempt of the god Dionysus is a fault serious enough to warrant his death. Oedipus, too, deserves his fate. According to the myth, he has truly killed his father and married his mother, and is thus truly responsible for the plague that ravages Thebes. To cast him out is not merely a permissible action, but a religious duty.
Even if they are not accused of any crime, mythical victims are still supposed to die for a good cause, and their innocence makes their deaths no less legitimate. In the Vedic myth of Purusha, for instance, no wrongdoing is mentioned-but the tearing apart of the victim is nonetheless a holy deed. The pieces of Purusha’s body are needed to create the three great castes, the mainstay of Indian society. In myth, violent death is always justified.
If the violence of myths is purely mimetic-if it is like the Passion, as Jesus says-all these justifications are false. And yet, since they systematically reverse the true distribution of innocence and guilt, such myths cannot be purely fictional. They are lies, certainly, but the specific kind of lie called for by mimetic contagion-the false accusation that spreads mimetically throughout a disturbed human community at the climax when scandals polarize against the single scapegoat whose death reunites the community. The myth-making machine is the mimetic contagion that disappears behind the myth it generates.
There is nothing secret about the justifications espoused by myths; the stereotypical accusations of mob violence are always available when the search for scapegoats is on. In the Gospels, however, the scapegoating machinery is fully visible because it encounters opposition and no longer operates efficiently. The resistance to the mimetic contagion prevents the myth from taking shape. The conclusion in the light of the Gospels is inescapable: myths are the voice of communities that unanimously surrender to the mimetic contagion of victimization.
This interpretation is reinforced by the optimistic endings of myths. The conjunction of the guilty victim and the reconciled community is too frequent to be fortuitous. The only possible explanation is the distorted representation of unanimous victimization. The violent process is not effective unless it fools all witnesses, and the proof that it does, in the case of myths, is the harmonious and cathartic conclusion, rooted in a perfectly unanimous murder.
We hear nowadays that, behind every text and every event, there are an infinite number of interpretations, all more or less equivalent. Mimetic victimization makes the absurdity of this view manifest. Only two possible reactions to the mimetic contagion exist, and they make an enormous difference. Either we surrender and join the persecuting crowd, or we resist and stand alone. The first way is the unanimous self- deception we call mythology. The second way is the road to the truth followed by the Bible.
Instead of blaming victimization on the victims, the Gospels blame it on the victimizers. What the myths systematically hide, the Bible reveals. This difference is not merely “moralistic” (as Nietzsche believed) or a matter of subjective choice; it is a question of truth. When the Bible and the Gospels say that the victims should have been spared, they do not merely “take pity” on them. They puncture the illusion of the unanimous victimization that foundational myths use as a crisis-solving and reordering device of human communities.
When we examine myths in the light of the Gospels, even their most enigmatic features become intelligible. Consider, for example, the disabilities and abnormalities that seem always to plague mythical heroes. Oedipus limps, as do quite a few of his fellow heroes and divinities. Others have only one leg, or one arm, or one eye, or are blind, hunchbacked, etc. Others still are unusually tall or unusually short. Some have a disgusting skin disease, or a body odor so strong that it plagues their neighbors. In a crowd, even minor disabilities and singularities will arouse discomfort and, should trouble erupt, their possessors are likely to be selected as victims. The preponderance of cripples and freaks among mythical heroes must be a statistical consequence of the type of victimization that generates mythology. So too the preponderance of “strangers”: in all isolated groups, outsiders arouse a curiosity that may quickly turn to hostility during a panic. Mimetic violence is essentially disoriented; deprived of valid causes, it selects its victims according to minuscule signs and pseudo-causes that we may identify as preferential signs of victimization.
In the Bible, the false or insignificant causes of mythical violence are effectively dismissed in the simple and sweeping statement, They hated me without a cause (John 15:25), in which Jesus quotes and virtually summarizes Psalm 35-one of the “scapegoat psalms” that literally turns the mob’s mythical justifications inside out. Instead of the mob speaking to justify violence with causes that it perceives as legitimate, the victim speaks to denounce the causes as nonexistent.
To explicate archaic myths, we need only follow the method Jesus recommends and substitute this without cause for the false mythical causes. In the Byzantine Empire, I understand, the Oedipus tragedy was read as an analogue of the Christian Passion. If true, those early anthropologists were approaching the right problem from the wrong end. Their reduction of the Gospels to an ordinary myth snuffed the evangelical light with mythology. In order to succeed, one must illuminate the obscurity of myth with the intelligence of the Gospels.
If unanimous victimization reconciles and reorders societies in direct proportion to its concealment, then it must lose its effectiveness in direct proportion to its revelation. When the mythical lie is publicly denounced, the polarization of scandals is no longer unanimous and the social catharsis weakens and disappears. Instead of reconciling the community, the victimization must intensify divisions and dissensions.
These disruptive consequences should be felt in the Gospels and, indeed, they are. In the Gospel of John, for instance, everything Jesus does and says has a divisive effect. Far from downplaying this fact, the author repeatedly draws our attention to it. Similarly, in Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” If the only peace humanity has ever enjoyed depends on unconscious victimization, the consciousness that the Gospels bring into the world can only destroy it.
The image of Satan-“a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44)-also expresses this opposition between the mythical obscuring and the evangelical revealing of victimization. The Crucifixion as a defeat for Satan, Jesus’ prediction that Satan “is coming to an end” (Mark 3:26), implies less an orderly world than one in which Satan is on the loose. Instead of concluding with the reassuring harmony of myths, the New Testament opens up apocalyptic perspectives, in the synoptic Gospels equally with the Book of Revelation. To reach “the peace that surpasseth all understanding,” humanity must give up its old, partial peace founded on victimization-and a great deal of turmoil can be expected. The apocalyptic dimension is not an alien element that should be purged from the New Testament in order to “improve” Christianity, it is an integral part of revelation.
Satan tries to silence Jesus through the very process that Jesus subverts. He has good reasons to believe that his old mimetic trick should still produce, with Jesus as victim, what it has always produced in the past: one more myth of the usual type, a closed system of mythical lies. He has good reasons to believe that the mimetic contagion against Jesus will prove irresistible once again and that the revelation will be squelched.
Satan’s expectations are disappointed. The Gospels do everything that the Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mimetic contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make the revelation complete. They give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated. This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. If the Gospels were mythical themselves, they could not provide the knowledge that demythologizes mythology.
Christianity, however, is not reducible to a logical scheme. The revelation of unanimous victimization cannot involve an entire community-else there would be no one to reveal it. It can only be the achievement of a dissenting minority bold enough to challenge the official truth, and yet too small to prevent a near-unanimous episode of victimization from occurring. Such a minority, however, is extremely vulnerable and ought normally to be swallowed up in the mimetic contagion. Humanly speaking, the revelation is an impossibility.
In most biblical texts, the dissenting minority remains invisible, but in the Gospels it coincides with the group of the first Christians. The Gospels dramatize the human impossibility by insisting on the disciples’ inability to resist the crowd during the Passion (especially Peter, who denies Jesus three times in the High Priest’s courtyard). And yet, after the Crucifixion-which should have made matters worse than ever-this pathetic handful of weaklings suddenly succeeds in doing what they had been unable to do when Jesus was still there to help them: boldly proclaim the innocence of the victim in open defiance of the victimizers, become the fearless apostles and missionaries of the early Church.
The Resurrection is responsible for this change, of course, but even this most amazing miracle would not have sufficed to transform these men so completely if it had been an isolated wonder rather than the first manifestation of the redemptive power of the Cross. An anthropological analysis enables us to say that, just as the revelation of the Christian victim differs from mythical revelations because it is not rooted in the illusion of the guilty scapegoat, so the Christian Resurrection differs from mythical ones because its witnesses are the people who ultimately overcome the contagion of victimization (such as Peter and Paul), and not the people who surrender to it (such as Herod and Pilate). The Christian Resurrection is indispensable to the purely anthropological revelation of unanimous victimization and to the demythologizing of mythical resurrections.
Jesus’ death is a source of grace not because the Father is “avenged” by it, but because Jesus lived and died in the manner that, if adopted by all, would do away with scandals and the victimization that follows from scandals. Jesus lived as all men should live in order to be united with a God Whose true nature he reveals.
Obeying perfectly the anti-mimetic prescriptions he recommends, Jesus has not the slightest tendency toward mimetic rivalry and victimization. And he dies, paradoxically, because of this perfect innocence. He becomes a victim of the process from which he will liberate mankind. When one man alone follows the prescriptions of the kingdom of God it seems an intolerable provocation to all those who do not, and this man automatically designates himself as the victim of all men. This paradox fully reveals “the sin of the world,” the inability of man to free himself from his violent ways.
During Jesus’ life, the dissenting minority of those who resist the mimetic contagion is really limited to one man, Jesus himself-who is simultaneously the most arbitrary victim (because he deserves his violent death less than anyone else) and the least arbitrary victim (because his perfection is an unforgivable insult to the violent world). He is the scapegoat of choice, the lamb of God whom we all choose unconsciously even when not aware of choosing any victim.
When Jesus dies alone, abandoned by his apostles, the persecutors are unanimous once again. Were the Gospels trying to tell a myth, the truth Jesus had tried to reveal would then be buried once and for all and the stage would be set for the triumphal revelation of the mythological victim as the divine source of the reordering of society through the “good” scapegoating violence that puts an end to the bad mimetic violence that had threatened the society.
If such a death-and-resurrection myth is not what happens this time-if Satan in the end is foiled-the immediate cause is a sudden burst of courage in the disciples. But the strength for that did not come from themselves. It visibly flows from the innocent death of Jesus. Divine grace makes the disciples more like Jesus, who had announced before his death that they would be helped by the Holy Spirit of truth. This is one reason, I believe, the Gospel of John calls the Spirit of God the Paraclete, a Greek word that simply means the lawyer for the defense, the defender of the accused before a tribunal. The Paraclete is, among other things, the counterpart of the Accuser: the Spirit of Truth who gives the definitive refutation of the satanic lie. That is why Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8: “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God. . . . None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
The true Resurrection is based not on the mythical lie of the guilty victim who deserves to die, but on the rectification of that lie, which comes from the true God and which reopens channels of communication mankind itself had closed through self-imprisonment in its own violent cultures. Divine grace alone can explain why, after the Resurrection, the disciples could become a dissenting minority in an ocean of victimization-could understand then what they had misunderstood earlier: the innocence not of Jesus alone but of all victims of all Passion-like murders since the foundation of the world.