The Voice of the Scapegoat, Part 5: Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World

We continue with my review of the work of Rene Girard and S. Mark Heim's recent book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.

Today we move into the New Testament.

We begin with four key NT passages that Girard considers to be very suggestive to his reading of scripture:

Matthew 23:34-36
Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.

Luke 11:50-51

Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

John 8:43-44
Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Matthew 13:35
So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
"I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world."
The first three of these passages are parallel gospel accounts of Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees prior to his crucifixion. Girard considers these passages pivotal for understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as Jesus uses this confrontation to frame and set up the event of his death, a staged event, orchestrated by Jesus to illustrate something.

What is that something? Let's look.

Recall that ancient sacrificial religion solved a real problem: Communal violence. But to effect this solution sacrificial religion was built upon a lie, an obfuscation. Specifically, the murder of an innocent person had to be hidden from the eyes of the community. An arbitrary lynching wouldn't unite the people. But a sacrifice demanded and justified by the gods would work. The skittish community could then vent its violence and stand united against the scapegoat. In short, ancient civilization/religion was built upon both a murder and the lie about the murder. Simplifying greatly:
An Unholy Peace = Murder + Lie
Note that the murder does create a peace. But it is an unholy peace. A peace that requires sin to obtain. But this fact, due to the lie, was not laid bare before the community. Rather, the experience of the community would be this:
A Holy Peace = Sacrifice + Religious Myth
That is, the community thinks the peace they experience is holy and good. Why? Because the mythology of religion hides the murder and presents us with something else: A sacrifice.

Combining the two, the Experience and the Mechanism/Reality, the situation the Old Testament and Jesus both faced was this:
The Experience of Religion:
A Holy Peace = Sacrifice + Religious Myth

The Obscured Mechanism/Reality of Religion:

An Unholy Peace = Murder + Lie
What we have observed in prior posts is that the obscured mechanism of sacrifice (that a sacrifice was really just a murder) was being unmasked in the Old Testament. As we move through the Old Testament we see a growing ambivalence about sacrifice. Why? Because the object of sacrifice--the scapegoat--is increasing suspected to be innocent. The Old Testament does not complete this journey but as it closes we have this development:
The Experience of Religion:
A Holy Peace? = Sacrifice? + Religious Myth?
By the end of the Old Testament questions have been raised about all this. Is the peace created by sacrifice holy and good? Is the sacrifice just? Is the scapegoat really guilty? Is the religious justification of sacrifice telling us the truth? This is the situation as we enter the gospels.

Thus Jesus is poised to do the final unmasking. Jesus will reveal to humanity the "things that have been hidden from the foundation of the world."

What things? Let us now revisit the gospel passages. Jesus states that from the beginning righteous blood has been shed. Murders, many murders, have occurred since the beginning of the world. To highlight this Jesus mentions two people, Abel, the first person murdered in the Old Testament, and Zechariah, the last person murdered in the Old Testament. These two represent all the "innocent blood shed on earth," blood shed explicitly in the name of religion, in the name of God.

Clearly, the Pharisees didn't kill all these people. But they, for Jesus, represent who, or what, is responsible: Religion. As Girard has shown us, from the "foundation of the world" human society was built on a foundation of sacrificial violence. And the Pharisees, in Jesus' world, represent that mechanism. So, to save the world from continuing this violence, Jesus has to complete the work begun in the Old Testament. He has to unmask the mechanism of sacrificial violence, to reveal what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.

Interestingly and revealingly, Satan gets pulled into this conversation. Jesus says two things about Satan. First, Satan was "a murderer from the beginning." And second, Satan is "the father of lies." Note that the "murder" and the "lie" are related in Jesus' description. But think about this. Who did Satan ever murder? The bible never says Satan killed anyone. No, what is going on here is that Satan is implicated in ALL these murders. Satan was there with the murder of Abel "at the beginning" and there with Zechariah. And all the while Satan covers up the murder with lies, obscuring the death of an innocent person with the magic, myth, and ritual of pagan sacrifice and religious scapegoating. That is, the description of Satan as the "Father of Lies" isn't about us and our workaday temptations with truth-telling. No, Jesus is speaking of a systematic lie, the Deep Lie at the Root of Civilization as Jesus knew it. What was that Deep Lie? Simply this: The scapegoat is guilty, responsible for the evils now facing us. Thus, the gods demand that we sacrifice the scapegoat. If we do so, the gods will be pleased and all will go well with us.

Jesus came to save us. As Christians we believe this. We were saved from our Sin and from Satan. Our Sin was the violence that supported our lives. We killed, from the foundation of the world, to survive and thrive. Further, Satan, the Father of Lies, hid this truth from us. Jesus pointed all this out right before his crucifixion. He was poised, finally, to expose all those "things hidden from the foundation of the world." And when these things were revealed we saw, for the first time, the blood on our hands the the lie that hid the blood from our eyes.

And thus, in a very specific way, we were saved.

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5 thoughts on “The Voice of the Scapegoat, Part 5: Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World”

  1. Richard,

    Thanks for continuing to examine Girard and Heim. An exceptional but short, more exegetical work worth using is Stephen Phelan's PROBLEM WITH ATONEMENT. One of a number of probing articles on Girard from VIOLENCE RENOUNCED can be found via this url:
    Have you read Girard's essay titled "Freud and the Oedipus Complex" in THE GIRARD READER?


    George Cooper

  2. Sorry, Richard. The complete url is:

  3. George,
    Thanks for the link. Your link won't hypertext for me so I'm going to post it again below to see if it works better:

    I've just browsed the article after you comment but I like what I see. It appears that Adams is trying to move Girard's project in a positive direction. That is, once the scapegoating mechanism is exposed what's next for Christians? Looks like a great read. Thank you.

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