Girard on the Passion

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 167-170.

The Passion

R. G.: Jesus is presented to us as the innocent victim of a group in crisis, which, for a time at any rate, is united against him. All the sub-groups and indeed all the individuals who are concerned with the life and trial of Jesus end up by giving their explicit or implicit assent to his death: the crowd in Jerusalem, the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman political authorities, and even the disciples, since those who do not betray or deny Jesus actively take flight or remain passive.

We must remember that this very crowd has welcomed Jesus with such enthusiasm only a few days earlier. The crowd turns around like a single man and insists on his death with a determination that springs at least in part from being carried away by the irrationality of the collective spirit. Certainly nothing has intervened to justify such a change of attitude.

It is necessary to have legal forms in a universe where there are legal institutions, to give unaniminity to the decision to put a man to death. Nonetheless, the decision to put Jesus to death is first and foremost a decision of the crowd, one that identifies the crucifixion not so much with a ritual sacrifice but (as in the case of the servant) with the process that I claim to be at the basis of all rituals and all religious phenomena. Just as in the ‘Songs’ from Isaiah, though even more directly this hypothesis confronts us in the four gospel stories of the Passion.

Because it reproduces the founding event of all rituals, the Passion is connected with every ritual on the entire planet. There is not an incident in it that cannot be found in countless instances: the preliminary trial, the derisive crowd, the grotesque honours accorded to the victim, and the particular role played by chance, in the form of casting lots, which here affects not the choice of the victim but the way in which his clothing is disposed of. The final feature is the degrading punishment that takes place outside the holy city in order not to contaminate it.

Noticing these parallels with other rituals, certain ethnologists have attempted — in a spirit of hostile scepticism, as you can imagine, which does not diminish, paradoxically, their absolute faith in the historicity of the gospel text — to attribute ritualistic motives to some of the actors in the Passion story. In their view, Jesus must have served as ‘scapegoat’ to some of Pilate’s legionaries, who were caught up in some sort of saturnalia. Frazer even debated with some German researchers the precise ritual that must have been involved.

In 1898, P. Wendland noted the striking analogies between ‘the treatment inflicted on Christ by the Roman soldiers and that which other Roman soldiers inflicted on the false king of the Saturnalia at Durostorum.’ (5) He took the view that the legionaries would have clothed Jesus with the traditional ornaments of King Saturn in order to make fun of his pretensions to a heavenly kingdom. In a long note added to the second edition of The Golden Bough, Frazer declared that he had also been struck by these similarities but had not been able to take them into account in the first edition because he was incapable of offering an explanation for them. Wendland’s article did not seem satisfactory to him, in the first place for dating reasons — the Saturnalia took place in December whereas the crucifixion took place at Easter — but above all because he had by this time come up with a better explanation:

But closely as the Passion of Christ resembles the treatment of the mock king of the Saturnalia, it resembles still more closely the treatment of the mock king of the Sacaea. The description of the mockery by St Matthew is the fullest. It runs thus: ‘Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers. And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head. And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.’ Compare with this the treatment of the mock king of the Sacaea, as it is described by Dio Chrysostom: ‘They take one of the prisoners condemned to death and seat him upon the king’s throne, and give him the king’s raiment, and let him lord it and drink and run riot and use the king’s concubines during these days, and no man prevents him from doing just what he likes. But afterwards they strip and scourge and crucify him.’ (6)

However, suggestive it may be in certain respects, this type of hypothesis seems untenable to us because of the conception of the gospel text it takes for granted. Frazer persists in making the Gospel no different from a historical account, or even a piece of on-the-spot reporting. It does not occur to him that the relationship between the rituals to which he refers and the Gospels could be based on anything but a chance coincidence between events; he does not take into account that there might be something much more profound on the level of the text itself — which could explain the way in which this religious and cultural document was internally organized. If this possibility is discounted, how could we account for the striking coincidence between the Saturnalia and the account that he gives of the ‘mock king of the Sacaea’?

Here we are confronted with a kind of prejudice that flourished in the epoch of positivism. Although we are not going to succumb to the opposite prejudice, which is in the ascendant in our own period, we should nonetheless pay some attention to the internal organization of the text and, as a first stage, look at it independently of its potential reference.

Frazer’s own thesis is not lacking in detailed observation. It is as ingenious as it is naive. The analogies traced between religious forms are not by any means restricted to those which ethnologists parade because they believe that they can explain them consistently with their own views. These analogies extend to a whole group of religious phenomena — the servant of Yahweh, for example, not to mention a host of other Old Testament texts. An ethnological critic in the Frazer style will declare analogies of this kind to be ultimately inadmissible for the very reason that the Gospels themselves claim a kinship with such texts. He will proclaim them to be non-existent, invented to serve the cause of religion, whereas in reality we are dealing with parallels very close to ones he congratulates himself about drawing to our attention. It is simply that his positivist spirit can tolerate only those analogies that he feels will discredit the claims of the Gospels, and jibes at those the Gospels themselves invoke in order to buttress those same claims.

For there to be an effective, sacralizing act of transference, it is necessary that the victim should inherit all of the violence from which the community has been exonerated. It is because the victim genuinely passes as guilty that the transference does not come to the fore as such. This piece of conjuring brings about the happy result for which the lynching mob is profoundly grateful: the victim bears the weight of the incompatible and contradictory meanings that juxtaposed, create sacredness. For the gospel text to be mythic in our sense, it would have to take no account of the arbitrary and unjust character of the violence which is done to Jesus. In fact the opposite is the case: the Passion is presented as a blatant piece of injustice. Far from taking the collective violence upon itself, the text places it squarely on those who are responsible for it. To use the expression from the ‘Curses’, it lets the violence fall upon the heads of those to whom it belongs:

‘Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.’

G. L.: You prove, I believe, that these words have nothing to do with the old primitive curses that are designed to draw the vengeance of a violent God upon the cursed individual. In this case, the effect is precisely the opposite. There is a complete ‘deconstruction’ of the whole primitive system, which brings to light the founding mechanism and leaves men without the protection of sacrifice, prey to the old mimetic conflict, which from this point onwards will acquire its typically Christian and modern form. Everyone will now seek to cast upon his neighbor the responsibility for persecution and injustice, and, though the universality of persecution and injustice will become more and more apparent, everyone will be reluctant to admit that they are involved.
R. G.: There has to be a close connection between the revelation in words of the founding murder and its revelation on the level of action; this murder is repeated, taking as its victim the person who has revealed it — whose message everyone refuses to understand. In the Gospels, the revelation in words immediately stirs up a collective will to silence the speaker, which is concretized as a collective murder. In other words, the founding mechanism is reproduced once again, and, by virtue of this, the speech it strives to stifle is confirmed as true. The revelation is one and the same as the violent opposition to any revelation, since it is this lying violence, the source of all lies, that must first of all be revealed.


5. P. Wendland, ‘Jesus als Saturnalien-Konig’, Hermes XXXIII, 175-179.

6. Frazer, The Golden Bough, Pt VI (The Scapegoat) pp. 413-414.

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