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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories


Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories

Imagining a much older story: Religion’s Beginning

You might guess where René Girard’s theory is leading – toward an explanation of the origin of religion that doesn’t require any real gods. It just needs a few reasonable assumptions about human nature and a plausible story. (Girard’s theory is described by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly in Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross, Chapter One.)

Humans are especially good at imitating each other. In particular we imitate each other’s desires. What we think of as our own desires are really, Girard thinks, imitations of the desires of another. (Recently scientists even discovered a gene they called “mimetic” – related to imitation). This, of course, leads to conflict: many people wanting the same thing, like the Israelites all trying to hide away as much loot as they could, or as we often see in children squabbling over a toy, or in adults trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” 

As a species we very early lost the instinctive restraint that, in other imitative animals, ends a conflict before it becomes a fight to the death.  These other animals establish hierarchies rather easily, but we have no instinct for accepting our place, especially if it’s a lower one. That restraint must have been restored somehow or we would long ago have disappeared as a species.

So here’s the plausible story:

A band of very early humans was on the verge of self-destruction. Some toy or tool became the object of everyone’s desire. Everyone was everyone else’s rival in the struggle to possess that object. Chaos threatened.  But the human tendency to imitate each other’s desires turned from rivalry to cooperation in a process very familiar to all of us—“ganging up on someone.” Perhaps it was some odd feature or behavior of the unlucky fellow. Suddenly there’s this new thing to imitate: “Get Shorty!” Poor Shorty doesn’t stand a chance, but everyone else feels great to belong to such a wonderfully cooperative group again. And as often happens, they’ve forgotten what the original fight was about.


Nobody knows how that new-found unity among the gang came about. It’s like a miracle. But everybody knows who belongs and who doesn’t because they have the wrong look about them or violated some spoken or unspoken rule.

Girard thinks that taboo and ritual (especially human sacrifice) and eventually a story, or myth, that makes sense of these while hiding the real truth, in a word, religion, arose as a more organized and stable form of this same mechanism. With a religion you don’t have to wait for a crisis before calling forth the mechanism, the “sacred violence,” that strengthens the group’s identity and unity. You can have regularly scheduled sacrifices, priests, maybe kings, a whole bureaucracy and a system of laws, lawyers, judges, politicians. We get to be hierarchically structured after all, but this time it’s by plan instead of, as in other animals, by instinct. The human race survives.

Girard thinks that somehow or other human culture and the hierarchies that instruct everyone on where they belong—basically everything that makes human history—started with this deceitful and cruel mechanism of sacred violence. So, in terms of one Christian myth, religion is about the same as Original Sin. Salvation, another Christian concept, would start with the unmasking of the mechanism of sacred violence.

I expect that religion could have a natural explanation. I like this theory better than some others I’ve read by atheist scientists (e.g. Daniel Dennett) and psychologists (Freud). Admittedly, it connects religion with some of the worst things humans do to each other, but religion obviously has such connections. Girard’s theory places religion within the natural world but recognizes the possibility of stepping outside merely natural processes into what you might call artificial or specifically human. It’s only a theory and a fairly new one so it probably won’t go unchanged for very long.

I imagine quite a few of Girard’s atheist readers were at first pleased to have a new theory to “explain away” religion. On reading his later work, they must have been surprised to find out he was not doing that at all; in fact, quite the opposite. Girard is a Catholic, a convert to Catholicism. And James Alison, one of his interpreters, is a Catholic priest.

The way both of these thinkers manage to combine Christian faith and theorizing about the origin of religion is by looking closely at the Bible. Besides being a place where episodes of sacred violence (fictional or historical) are recounted, it’s also a place that exposes and criticizes the mechanism of sacred violence. This critique gradually develops in the Hebrew Scriptures and comes to particular clarity, Girard thinks, in the story of Jesus.

I’m going to look at a few more stories from the Hebrew Scriptures that unmask the scapegoat mechanism and in the process have something to say about Jesus and the meaning of his death.

On to Two Original Sin Stories