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 158-167.

The Curses against the Pharisees

G. L.: How do you intend to show that the truth of the scapegoat is written for all to see in the text of the Gospels?

R. G.: In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, there is a group of texts that used to be entitled the 'Curses against the Scribes and Pharisees'. This title is no longer employed because of the embarrassment the reading of these texts usually provokes. In the literal sense, of course, such a title is perfectly valid. But it does tend to restrict unduly the vast implications of the way in which Jesus accuses his audience of Pharisees. Obviously he is directing his accusations at them, but a careful examination reveals that he is using the Pharisees as an intermediary for something very much larger, and indeed something of absolutely universal significance is at stake. But then this is always the case in the Gospels. Every reading that restricts itself to particulars -- however legitimate it may seem on the historical level -- is nonetheless a betrayal of the overall significance.

The most terrible and meaningful 'curse' comes right at the end of the text in both Matthew and Luke. I quote first of all from Matthew:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:34-36)
The text gives us to believe that there have been many murders. It only mentions two of them, however: that of Abel, the first to occur in the Bible, and that of a certain Zechariah, the last person to be killed in the Second Book of the Chronicles, in other words the last in the whole Bible as Jesus knew it.

Evidently mention of the first and last murders takes the place of a more complete list. The victims who belong between Abel and Zechariah are implicitly included. The text has the character of a recapitulation, and it cannot be restricted to the Jewish religion alone, since the murder of Abel goes back to the origins of humanity and the foundation of the first cultural order. Cainite culture is not a Jewish culture. The text also makes explicit mention of 'all the righteous blood shed on earth'. It therefore looks as though the kind of murder for which Abel here forms the prototype is not limited to a single region of the world or to a single period of history. We are dealing with a universal phenomenon whose consequences are going to fall not only upon the Pharisees but upon this generation, that is, upon all those who are contemporary with the Gospels and the time of their diffusion, who remain deaf and blind to the news that is being proclaimed.

The text of Luke is similar, but it includes, before Abel is mentioned, a further crucial detail. It identifies 'the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah' (Luke 11:50-51). The Greek text has apo kataboles kosmou. The same expression comes up in Matthew when Jesus quotes from Psalm 78 in reference to himself:

'I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter what has been hidden since the
foundation of the world' (Matthew 13:35).
On each occasion the Vulgate uses the translation a constitutione mundi. But kataboles really seems to imply the foundation of the world in so far as it results from a violent crisis; it denotes order in so far as it comes out of disorder. The term has a medical use to mean the onslaught of a disease, the attack that provokes a resolution.

We must certainly not lose sight of the fact that, for Jewish culture, the Bible formed the only ethnological encyclopedia available or even conceivable. In referring to the whole of the Bible, Jesus is pointing not only at the Pharisees but at the whole of humanity. Clearly the dreadful consequences of his revelation will weigh exclusively on those who have had the advantage of hearing it -- if they refuse to take its meaning, if they will not recognize that this is a revelation which concerns them in the same way as it concerns the rest of humanity. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking are the first to put themselves in this difficult position, but they will not be the last. It can be deduced from the gospel text that their innumerable successors will not fall under the same condemnation, even if they belong to a different religion named Christianity.

Jesus is very well aware that the Pharisees have not themselves killed the prophets, any more than the Christians themselves killed Jesus. It is said that the Pharisees were the 'sons' of those who carried out the killings (Matthew 23:31). This is not to imply a hereditary transmission of guilt, but rather an intellectual and spiritual solidarity that is being brought to an end (remarkable enough) through the intermediary of a resounding repudiation -- not unlike the repudiation of Judaism by the 'Christians'. The sons believe they can express their independence of the fathers by condemning them, that is, by claiming to have no part in the murder. But by virtue of this very fact, they unconsciously imitate and repeat the acts of their fathers. They fail to understand that in the murder of the Prophets people refused to acknowledge their own violence and cast it off from themselves. The sons are therefore still governed by the mental structure engendered by the founding murder. In effect they are still saying:

'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets' (Matthew 23:30).
Paradoxically, it is in the very wish to cause a break that the continuity between fathers and sons is maintained.

To understand what is decisive about the texts in the synoptic Gospels we have just been considering, we need to confront them with the text from the Gospel of John that is most directly equivalent:

'Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies' (John 8:43-44).
Here the essential point is that a triple correspondence is set up between Satan, the original homicide, and the lie. To be a son of Satan is to inherit the lie. What lie? The lie that covers the homicide. This lie is a double homicide, since its consequence is always another new homicide to cover up the old one. To be a son of Satan is the same thing as being the son of those whose have killed their prophets since the foundation of the world.

N.A. Dahl has demonstrated that calling Satan a homicide is a concealed reference to the murder of Abel by Cain. (1) It is undoubtedly true that Abel's murder in Genesis has an exceptional importance. But this importance is due to the fact that it is the first founding murder and the first biblical account to raise a corner of the curtain that always covers the frightful role played by homicide in the foundation of human communities. This murder is presented to us, we have seen, as the origin of the law that: sanctions murder as a sevenfold reprisal, the origin of the rule against homicide within the Cainite culture, and in effect the origin of that culture.

So the synoptic Gospels refer to Abel's murder because it has an exceptional significance. But we should not wish to bring the Johannine text back at any price to the literal meaning of the synoptic text, which refers to a certain person called Abel or to a category of victims called 'the prophets'. In writing 'he was a murderer from the beginning' John's text goes further than the others in disentangling the founding mechanisms; it excises all the definitions and specifications that might bring about a mythic interpretation. John goes to the full length in his reading of the text of the Bible, and what he comes up against is the hypothesis of the founding violence.

Biblical specialists are misled on this point in much the same way as ethnologists, and all the other specialists in the human sciences, who move invariably from myth to myth and from institution to institution, from signifier to signifier in effect, or from signified to signified, without ever getting to the symbolic matrix of all these signifiers and signifieds -- that is, to the scapegoat mechanism.

G. L.: It is indeed the same mistake. But there is something more paradoxical and exclusive about the blindness of the biblical experts, compared with those in the human sciences, because they have right under noses, in the text which they claim to be able to decipher, the key to the correct interpretation -- the key to every interpretation -- and they refuse to make use of it. They do not even notice the unbelievable opportunities staring them in the face.

R. G.: Even with John's text, the danger of a mythical reading is still present, clearly so, if we do not see that Satan denotes the founding mechanism itself -- the principle of all human community. All of the texts in the New Testament confirm this reading, in particular the 'Temptations' made by Satan the Prince and principle of this world, princeps hu jus mundi. It is no abstract metaphysical reduction, no descent into vulgar polemics or lapse into superstition that makes Satan the true adversary of Jesus. Satan is absolutely identified with the circular mechanisms of violence, with man's imprisonment in cultural or philosophical systems that maintain his modus vivendi with violence. That is why he promises Jesus domination provided that Jesus will worship him. But Satan is also the skandalon, the living obstacle that trips men up, the mimetic model in so far as it becomes a rival and lies across our path. We shall be considering the skandalon further in connection with desire.

Satan is the name for the mimetic process seen as a whole; that is why he is the source not merely of rivalry and disorder but of all the forms of lying order inside which humanity lives. That is the reason why he was a homicide from the beginning; Satan's order had no origin other than murder and this murder is a lie. Human beings are sons of Satan because they are sons of this murder. Murder is therefore not an act whose consequences could be eliminated without being brought to light and genuinely rejected by men. It is an inexhaustible fund; a transcendent source of falsehood that infiltrates every domain and structures everything in its own image, with such success that the truth cannot get in, and Jesus' listeners cannot even hear his words. From the original murder, men succeed in drawing new lies all the time, and these prevent the word of the Gospel from reaching them. Even the most explicit revelation remains a dead letter.

J.-M. O.: What you have shown, in short, is that despite differences in style and tone, the Gospel of John says exactly the same thing as the synoptic Gospels. For the majority of modern commentators, the work of exegesis consists almost exclusively in trying to find the difference between the texts. You, on the other hand, look for the convergence, since you believe that the Gospels represent four slightly different versions of one and the same form of thought. This form of thought necessarily escapes us if we start off from the principle that only the divergences are worthy of attention.

R. G.: These divergences do indeed exist, though they are minor ones. Yet they are not without interest. In a number of cases they allow us to discover what might perhaps be called particular minor defects in respect of the entirety of the message that they are obliged to transcribe.

The Metaphor of the Tomb

R. G.: I must now come back to the 'Curses'. They testify to a concealed relation of dependence on the founding murder; they demonstrate a paradoxical continuity between the violence of past generations and the denunciation of that violence in contemporaries. Here we are getting to the heart of the matter; in the light of this mechanism -- the very one that has preoccupied us from the outset of these discussions -- a great 'metaphor' within the gospel text becomes clear. This is the metaphor of the tomb. Tombs exist to honor the dead, but also to hide them in so far as they are dead, to conceal the corpse and ensure that death as such is no longer visible. This act of concealment is essential. The very murders in which the fathers directly took part already resemble tombs to the extent that, above all in collective and founding murders but also in individual murders, men kill in order to lie to others and to themselves on the subject of violence and death. They must kill and continue to kill, strange as it may seem, in order not to know that they are killing.

Now we can understand why Jesus reproaches the Scribes and Pharisees for putting up tombs for the prophets who have been killed by their fathers. Not to recognize the founding character of the murder, whether by denying that the fathers have killed or by condemning the guilty in the interests of demonstrating their own innocence, is to perpetuate the foundation, which is an obscuring of the truth. People do not wish to know that the whole of human culture is based on the mythic process of conjuring away man's violence by endlessly projecting it upon new victims. All cultures and all religions are built on this foundation, which they then conceal, just as the tomb is built around the dead body that it conceals. Murder calls for the tomb and the tomb is but the prolongation and perpetuation of murder. The tomb-religion amounts to nothing more or less than the becoming invisible of the foundations, of religion and culture, of their only reason for existence.

Woe to you! for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them, and you build their tombs (Luke 11:47-48).

For they killed them, and you build their tombs: Jesus at once reveals and unambiguously compromises the history of all human culture. That is why he takes to himself the words of Psalm 78: I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world -- apo kataboles kosmou (Matthew 13:35).

If the metaphor of the tomb applies to all forms of human order taken in their entirety, it can also be applied to the individuals formed by that order. On the individual level, the Pharisees are absolutely identified with the system of rnisrecognition on which they rely as a community.

It would be foolhardy to call 'metaphorical' our usage of the term 'tomb', since we are so close to the heart of the matter. To speak of metaphor is to speak of displacement, and yet no metaphorical displacement is involved here. On the contrary, it is the tomb that is the starting-point of the constitutive displacements of culture. Quite a number of fine minds think that this is literally true on the level of human history as a whole; funerary rituals could well, as we have said, amount to the first actions of a strictly cultural type. (2) There is reason to believe that these rituals took shape around the first of the reconciliatory victims, on the basis of the creative transference achieved by the first communities. This also brings to mind the sacrificial stones that mark the foundation of ancient cities, which are invariably associated with some story of a lynching, ineffectively camouflaged.

J.-M. O.: We must turn back at this point to what we said the other day on all these subjects. We must keep them continually in mind in order to grasp what is at once the simplicity of the hypothesis and the endless wealth of applications to be drawn from it.

R. G.: Archaeological discoveries seem to suggest that people were really building tombs for the Prophets in Jesus' period. That is a very interesting point, and it is quite possible that a practice of this kind suggested the 'metaphor'. However, it would be a pity to limit the significance generated in our text by the different uses of the term 'tomb' to a mere evocation of this practice. The fact that the metaphor applies both to the group and to the individual clearly demonstrates that much more is involved than an allusion to specific tombs, just as much more is involved in the following passage than a mere 'moral' indictment:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness (Matthew 23:27).
Deep within th individual, as within the religious and cultural systems that fashion the individual, something is hidden, and this is not merely the individual 'sin' of modern religiosity or the 'complexes' of psychoanalysis. It is invariably a corpse that as it rots spreads its 'uncleanness' everywhere.

Luke compares the Pharisees not just to tombs but to underground tombs, that is to say, invisible tombs -- tombs that are perfect in a double sense, if we can put it like that, since they conceal not only death, but also their own existence as tombs.

Woe unto you! for you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it (Luke 11:44).

J.-M. O.: This double concealment reproduces the way in which cultural differentiation develops on the basis of the founding murder. This murder tends to efface itself behind the directly sacrificial rituals, but even these rituals risk being too revealing and so tend to be effaced behind post-ritual institutions, such as judicial and political systems or the forms of culture. These derived forms give away nothing of the fact that they are rooted in the original murder.

R. G.: So we have here a problem of a knowledge which is always being lost, never to be rediscovered again. This knowledge certainly comes to the surface in the great biblical texts and above all in the prophetic books, but the organization of religion and law contrives to repress it. The Pharisees, who are satisfied with what seems to them to be their success in the religious life, are blind to the essentials and so they blind those whom they claim to be guiding:

Woe to you lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves and you hindered those who were entering (Luke 11:52).
Michel Serres first made me see the importance of this reference to the 'key of knowledge'. Jesus has come in order to place men in possession of this key. Within the perspective of the Gospels, the Passion is first and foremost the consequence of an intolerable revelation, while being proof of that revelation. It is because they do not understand what he proclaims that Jesus' listeners agree to rid themselves of him, and in so doing they confirm the accuracy and the prophetic nature of the 'curses against the Pharisees'.

They have recourse to violence, to expel the truth about violence:

As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say (Luke 11:53).
Religion is organized around a more or less violent disavowal of human violence. That is what the religion that comes from man amounts to, as opposed to the religion that comes from God. By affirming this point without the least equivocation, Jesus infringes the supreme prohibition that governs all human order, and he must be reduced to silence. Those who come together against Jesus do so in order to back up the arrogant assumption that consists in saying: 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'

The truth of the founding murder is expressed first of all in the words of Jesus, which connect the present conduct of men with the distant past, and with the near future (since they announce the Passion), and with the whole of human history. The same truth of the founding murder will also, be expressed, with even greater force, in the Passion itself, which fulfils the prophecy and gives it its full weight. If centuries and indeed millennia have to pass before this truth is revived, it is of little consequence. The truth is registered and will finally accomplish its work. Everything that is hidden shall be revealed.


1. 'Der Erstgeborene Satans and der Vater des Teufels', Apophareta, 70-84.

2. See 'Death and Funeral Rights', p. 80.