Girard on Apocalypse and Parable

Excerpt from René Girard’s Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Research undertaken in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987, pages 185-190.


Apocalypse and Parable

J.-M. O.: At first sight, [your ability to demonstrate to us that the non-sacrificial reading you advocate is superior to the sacrificial reading advocated by the churches and their enemies] seems to be difficult, if not impossible, because of the close resemblance between the themes you must now make explicit and the structure of all the other great myths of violence. What are we to make of the universal threat contained in the theme of Apocalypse? How can we not see it as a regression toward a violent deity? How is it possible to reconcile this threat with the non-violent aspects of the gospel text, when it preaches the coming of God’s kingdom? This contradiction is so intellectually disturbing that throughout the nineteenth century, men like Renan went to the trouble of distinguishing what were really two mutually contradictory Gospels: an original one based on the teaching of a more or less arbitrary ‘historical’ Jesus, and one which transfigured and falsified that teaching, making it into a theology in response to a powerful yet banal desire for power — the chief villain being, of course, the Apostle Paul. Are you not also compelled implicitly or explicitly to divide the gospel text into two unequal halves: the good, anti-sacrificial, humanist text, on the one hand, and the bad, sacrificial and theological one, on the other? Will you not have to expel the bad text from the Gospels, recalling in that very gesture the classic sacrificial practices?

R. G.: Certainly not. I am going to show you that everything can easily be accommodated within the non-sacrificial interpretation.

We must realize that the apocalyptic violence predicted by the Gospels is not divine in origin. In the Gospels, this violence is always brought home to men, and not to God. What makes the reader think that this is still the Old Testament wrath of God is the fact that most features of the Apocalypse, the great images in the picture, are drawn from Old Testament texts.

These images remain relevant because they describe the mimetic and sacrificial crisis. We find precisely the same structure of crisis in the Gospels, but by this time there is no longer a god to cut short the violence, or indeed to inflict it in the first place. So we have a lengthy decomposition of the city of man, in which a disorientated humanity meets in chaotic confrontation.

All the references to the Old Testament are preceded with an ‘as’, which suggests the metaphorical character of the mythical borrowing:

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was in the days of Lot — they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all — so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed (Luke 17:26-30; italics mine).

We have here not just an explicit comparison, but one that aims to demonstrate the non-miraculous character of the events in store for humanity. In the midst of the most outlandish phenomena, everyday concerns will come to the fore, and apathy and indifference will prevail. In the last days, we are told, ‘most men’s love will grow cold’. As a result, the combat between doubles will be in evidence everywhere. Meaningless conflict will be worldwide:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… (Matthew 24:6-7).

G. L.: To conclude, apocalyptic violence is always laid at the door of humanity in the Gospels, and never blamed on God. The commentators do not appreciate this, because they read the texts in the light of the apocalyptic passages of the Old Testament, in which God is indeed involved. These passages, however, serve as the basis of the New Testament passages only in so far as they exactly describe the mimetic crisis.

R. G.: One should ask whether these Old Testament texts have not been taken up in a spirit appropriate to the Gospels, one that completely desacralizes them. Modern readers are not interested in this possibility. Whether they call themselves believers or unbelievers, they still remain faithful to the medieval reading. Some of them do so because they want to keep the conception of a sinful humanity punished by a vengeful God; others because they are interested only in denouncing the first conception rather than in subjecting the texts to a genuine criticism. It never occurs to them that these texts, which are either fetishized or held up to ridicule, never really deciphered, could be rooted in a spirit that is quite different from the spirit of sacrificial religion.

J.-M. O.: You surely cannot deny that in some texts Jesus takes over Yahweh’s traditional destructive violence. I have before me, for example, in the version from Luke, the parable of the murderous tenants of the vineyard, which you spoke about earlier. Let me sum it up briefly:

After renting out his vineyard to tenants, the owner goes to live elsewhere. In order to collect the fruits of the rented property, he sends a number of emissaries, the prophets, who are beaten, sent away and return with empty hands. Finally he sends his son, his heir, and the tenants put him to death. Jesus then asks his audience: What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? And he himself answers the question: he will destroy, the faithless tenants and put others in their place (Luke 20:15-16; Mark 12:9).

R. G.: Matthew’s text is slightly different from those of Luke and Mark, and this slight difference is crucial for my answer to your objection. Matthew has the same question as Mark, and Jesus asks it. Yet this time it is not he who replies, but his listeners:

‘When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They say to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons’ (Matthew 21:40-4 1).

Jesus does not credit God with the violence. He allows his audience to come to their own conclusions and these represent not his thoughts but their own, thoughts that take God’s violence for granted. I believe we should prefer Matthew’s text. There is nothing arbitrary about the way in which Jesus entrusts his deaf and blind audience with responsibility for coming to conclusions that can only be referred back to the divine agency by listeners who remain imprisoned within the sacrificial vision. The author of Matthew is reluctant to place in Jesus’ mouth a speech that makes God capable of violence, and this very point demonstrates how original the Gospel is by contrast with the Old Testament.

In Mark and Luke the sentence that attributes the violence to God is also interrogative, but Jesus both asks the question and supplies the answer. Here, it would seem, we may have simply a rhetorical effect.

But comparison with the more complex and meaningful text of Matthew shows that something quite different is at issue. The authors of Mark and Luke, or the scribes who recopied the texts, have simplified a text whose complete, meaningful form we find in Matthew. The question/answer format remains, but it no longer corresponds to the original intention, which was to let the audience take upon itself the violent conclusion of the parable.

Because they did not grasp this intention, Mark and Luke, or some scribes, allowed the element of dialogue to drop out, thinking it to be insignificant. On consideration, it turns out instead to be crucial.

As a general rule, these authors remain remarkably faithful to the disconcerting thought of the Gospels. And yet, as we have seen in the example just noted, and as other instances would confirm, minor defects have managed to creep into the text, working their way sometimes into one version and sometimes into another.

These original defects have been enlarged and multiplied by the innumerable Christian and non-Christian commentators. Posterity has always focused on the texts that tend to revert to the sacralization found in the Old Testament, if only because these texts seem the most ‘characteristic’ of what people think a religious spirit should be. The usual version of the apocalyptic theme, to take one example, is taken for the most part from John’s Revelation, a text which is clearly less representative of the gospel inspiration than the apocalyptic chapters in the Gospels themselves (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 17:22-37; John 21:5-37).

The intention I credited to Matthew’s version of the parable of the tenants of the vineyard is certainly not at variance with the gospel spirit. To be assured of this, we need only note that it comes up again, very explicitly in the parable of the talents.

The servant who is content to bury the talent that was entrusted to him, instead of making it bear interest, also has the most frightening picture of his master. He sees in him a demanding overseer who ‘reaps where he has not sown’. What happens to this servant is, in the last analysis, in exact conformity with his expectations, with the image he has constructed of his master. It does not derive from the fact that the master is really like the servant’s conception of him (here the text of Luke is the most suggestive), but from the fact that men make their own destinies and become less capable of breaking away from the mimetic obstacle the more they allow themselves to be fascinated by it (Luke 19:11-27).

In taking away from the bad servant the one talent left with him, the master is not saying, ‘I am indeed as you imagined me to be’, but ‘since you saw in me the one who reaps where he has not sown, etc., why did you not make the talent that I left with you bear interest?’ The parable does not permit us to assume that there is a god of vengeance; violence always is derived from purely human mechanisms. ‘I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant!’

That is indeed the main lesson to be drawn from this brief analysis. The notion of a divine violence has no place in the inspiration of the Gospels. But this is not the only lesson. For a while, we have been looking exclusively at the parables. And the parables are presented as explicitly metaphorical, as stopping short of the gospel truth, and, for that very reason, as more accessible to the majority of the audience (Matthew 13:10-23), even though the audience generally makes a bad use of them.

In the parable of the sower, the gospel text attempts to define the inadequacy of the parable to Jesus’ message. It does not fully succeed in the attempt, but we can now see what this inadequacy consists in. It consists in the tendency to revert to the notion of a violent god and to belief in vengeful retribution.

In order to secure the attention of his listeners, Jesus is obliged to speak their language up to a certain point and take into account illusions that cannot yet be eradicated. If his audience conceives of the deity as vengeful, then the audience can only approach the truth if it is still partly clothed in myth. This is precisely what Jesus does in the two parables we have just quoted. He indicates the violence that is in play and will redound upon humanity, and he leaves to his questioners the responsibility of making the interpretation that will sacralize this process. But his warning remains valid, since the violence in play is a real violence, and it is correctly described, even taking into account the illusion that it must have a sacred origin.

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