From an anthropological point of view, the uniqueness of the Gospels is structural. They perfectly reproduce and then decode the "Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism" [Robert Hamerton-Kelly's phrase to describe the Girardian version of the "powers and principalities"] by which human cultural systems have been structured since "the foundation of the world." The Gospels show, for instance, the underlying relationship between the conviction of the crowd and the "convict" at its center, between adulation and accusation, between violence and religion, and so on. At the narrative level, the level at which Christian believers revere the texts, the Gospels present us with a man whose relationship with God was so utterly profound, unique, and mysterious that the ordinary meaning of the word "relationship" broke down under the weight of it; a man whose incomparable understanding of the human dilemma could in no way be explained by reference to learning or genius or wisdom or experience. In this chapter, I will reflect on the issue of Jesus' understanding of his own mission and the forces against which he had to contend in trying to share that understanding with the rest of us.
John the Baptist, one of the most charismatic figures of his age, slammed into first-century Palestine's cauldron of religious and social agitation with shattering force. The role he played in the onset of Jesus' ministry was profound. John's effect on Jesus' awareness is summed up in the first words John speaks in the New Testament. Preaching in the outlying regions of Judea, John proclaimed: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand." Upon his own return from a period of desert solitude, one probably modeled on John's, Jesus repeated these words virtually verbatim.
When Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism, he rebuked them: "Do not presume to tell yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones" (Matt. 3:7-9). For John, the religious pedigree was next to worthless as an amulet for warding off the historical reckoning he sensed was about to occur. Just as Israel's great prophets of an earlier age had appeared at a time of crisis to challenge the religious and social routines of their age, so John stood as an unmistakable rebuke to the conventional Judaism of his day. "Implicit . . . in John's whole movement," writes Edward Schillebeeckx, "is an unprecedented disavowal of the Jerusalem Temple cult and propitiatory sacrifices." (1) To pious fellow Jews -- whether of the Temple cult, the sectarian, or the politically zealous variety -- John's dismissal of Jewish distinctiveness represented a vehement attack on the centerpiece of their religious lives.
In the physical isolation of the desert, John had been far enough removed from the routine social fascinations to see how ultimately meaningless were the social and religious melodramas for which these fascinations served as the thematic warp and woof. Immediately after his baptism by John, Jesus headed straight for the lonely wilderness from which John had so recently returned with his vision of another reality.
The Devil and Satan
There can be little doubt that the most profound religious experience of Jesus' early ministry -- the one that brought that ministry into existence and into public view -- was Jesus' baptism by John at the Jordan. As embarrassing as it was for the early Christian community to have to admit that the man they claimed to be the messiah had so publicly deferred to another popular religious reformer, we can be sure that the story was not fabricated. Most likely, Jesus later reminisced with his friends and followers about the baptism and how it figured in his subsequent mission, and the evangelists worked these reminiscences into the narrative accounts of Jesus' baptism as they now appear in the Gospels. Were Jesus to tell his listeners that it was at the Jordan baptism that he first felt the power of God's call, it would be quite natural for Matthew to express it the way he did:
As soon as Jesus was baptized he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him." (Matt. 3:16-17)Practically while these words calling him God's son were still echoing, the Gospels tell us that Jesus went to the desert to be alone, to pray, and to struggle with the practical implications of the profound experience that accompanied his baptism in the Jordan. Since Jesus was alone during his desert retreat, had he not later spoken of it to his friends and disciples, nothing would be known of it. Furthermore, both Jesus and his disciples would have tended to understand his desert experience in terms of its religious and scriptural reverberations. Jesus' forty-day period of trial, for instance, obviously parallels the Israelites' forty years of Exodus wanderings and the numerous scriptural echoes of it. And yet, as we shall now see, it is as much with the book of Genesis as with the book of Exodus that the wilderness story coincides. Matthew's version of Jesus' trials in the wilderness begins:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matt. 4:1)According to the synoptic accounts, at his baptism Jesus experienced being called "God's son." The devil begins each of his temptations with the words: "If you are the Son of God ...." The devil tempts Jesus in precisely the same way that the serpent tempted Eve in the Genesis story. Just as Adam and Eve -- made in God's image -- were lured into envying God and striving to acquire that which would make them God's equal, Jesus is tempted to "grasp at divinity" by a dazzling display of messianic power. The devil in the wilderness and the serpent in the garden both advertise their alluring offerings in the same way. In both stories, the "tempter" tempts by mimetic suggestion, and both stories revolve around whether or not one can remain God-centered enough in the presence of these mimetic decoys to be able to resist them.
In the desert, Jesus was tempted by the devil, the diabolos in Greek. This was a fairly common term for the demonic force in New Testament times, but it is a particularly apt one for understanding the forces against which Jesus contended throughout his public ministry. The prefix dia means across, and bollo means to throw or cast. It means one who maligns, or slanders, or sows discord and division. The devil breeds animosity; he sows resentment. The New Testament personifies the diabolic force, and there is a good argument for doing so. By personifying the diabolic, we can better appreciate the autonomous way in which it actually functions. Since, however, demonizing is one of the devil's most devious tricks, the mere fact that we personify the demonic involves certain dangers. Care must be taken. If, according to André Gide, the greatest ruse of Satan is to convince us that he does not exist, according to René Girard his second greatest ruse is to convince us that he does. In any case, one gets closer to the reality of this strange and compelling force by speaking and thinking of "the devil," as the New Testament often does, than by trying to account for it in abstract terms or by invoking the familiar sociological or psychological idioms of our time. I will therefore follow the New Testament and personify the demonic force.
There is an unmistakable link between the call Jesus experienced at his baptism and his solitude in the desert that immediately followed the baptism. The story of the "temptations" is a story about Jesus wrestling with the nature of his vocation. It is as valid an affidavit as we will ever have for the mental and moral breakthrough that was to set Jesus' ministry apart from that of other religious reformers of the time. In the desert, he rejected the temptations to turn his vocation into a religious sideshow, or to undertake yet another campaign of social or religious reform. He was tempted to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple, and to worship the devil in return for "all the kingdoms of the world."
Matthew and Luke relied on the same source in constructing their respective accounts of the wilderness temptations. In Luke's version of the temptations, we read that "leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world" (4:5). Luke understood that what appears as a "very high mountain" in Matthew's Gospel was a metaphor, not for a panoramic vista, but for a moment of lucidity. He used the Greek word stigme, which comes from the verb meaning "to prick" or "to pierce," and is often translated as "in a moment of time." I feel that Luke provides the better account of the moment of clarity with which the trial by diabolic suggestion was brought to an abrupt end, while Matthew provides the better account of the reply that explodes out of the mouth of Jesus at that moment. (2)
If it is not just a frivolous figure of speech, what might the gospel mean when it says that Jesus saw all the kingdoms of the world in an instant? Since Luke has replaced a spatial reference with a temporal one, the reference to "all" kingdoms implies all that have ever existed and all that ever will. To see all such kingdoms in an instant of time can refer only to one thing, namely, a flash of insight into the nature of these kingdoms, a revelation about the nature of human culture itself. With the sketchy accounts of the wilderness temptations as a hint and with the whole of Jesus' public ministry as a ramification of that hint, one can say that in the desert Jesus decoded the metaphysics of power and came to understand the demonic mechanisms by which culture itself is convened and perpetuated. Please note: this revelation need not have been a conceptual one in order to have been decisive for the life of the man to whom it was revealed. It wasn't so much that Jesus had a concept, but rather that he apprehended the illusory and beguiling nature of the pre-conceptions upon which all cultures depend. All that the Gospels tell us of this revelation is that the kingdoms with which Jesus was "tempted" were at the disposal of the devil. Whatever the "kingdom of God" meant -- and it was Jesus' central proclamation -- it did not mean a more magnificent or more Jewish version of the kingdoms of "this world."
There was nothing in Jesus' subsequent ministry to suggest the kind of Gnostic contempt for the material order that some later Christian sects adopted, but neither did Jesus concede any ultimate significance to conventional human culture. As Marcus Borg writes, "the Teaching of Jesus is world denying; indeed, the world of culture as the center of existence comes to an end." (3) According to Borg, "Jesus called his hearers to a life grounded in Spirit rather than one grounded in culture." (4) The poet W. H. Auden remarked wryly that culture was one of the things that belong to Caesar. Like nature, it is to be given its due, and one ought to be grateful for its blessings, but the worship of culture is just as pagan as the worship of nature, and just as likely to lead to the sacrificial altars.
What was really at stake in the wilderness comes to the surface at the end of the temptations. In Matthew's version, the last temptation evoked from Jesus a powerful repudiation:
Then Jesus replied, "Be off, Satan! For scripture says:This is the first use of the term Satan in Matthew's Gospel. Until this moment, the tempter was referred to only as "the devil," the diabolos. The fact that the terms satan and diabolos are used interchangeably in the New Testament has tended to obscure the structural significance of their interplay in Matthew's account of the wilderness temptations. The force with which the exclamation "Be off, Satan!" exploded from Jesus cannot be explained merely as moral exasperation. For that matter, one could argue that morally exasperating temptations hardly qualify as temptations at all. The force of Jesus' "Be off, Satan!" is not the result of exasperation or moral revulsion alone. It is the result of a sudden recognition. It is spoken by one who has just fully recognized the identity of his interlocutor.You must worship the Lord your God and serve him only."Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him.(Matt. 4:10-11)
As I said earlier, Satan is a Hebrew term that means "the accuser." The two terms -- diabolos and satan -- can be seen as the two complementary manifestations of the forces of delusion, despair, and violence. The diabolos sows discord by arousing mimetic passions and then exacerbating the social tensions and the psychological apprehensions that accompany such passions. The diabolos produces all the psychosocial complications for which Girard's mimetic theory so ably accounts. The fundamental tool of the diabolos is what the author of the book of Wisdom called "the devil's envy," the mimetic incentives that generate the delusions and distractions of the social melodrama. At the critical moment, when these passions have sown enough frenzy and reduced a society to pandemonium, the diabolos changes its modus operandi. The diabolos becomes the Satan. Suddenly, the accusing finger points, and a violent avalanche is set in motion, the end result of which is a pile of stones, a glorious memory, and the rudiments of yet another of the kingdoms of "this world." What Hamerton-Kelly calls the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism -- a synonym for diabolos/satan -- "generates" such kingdoms, but if its spellbinding myths were ever shattered, "this generation" would have to account for all the blood it shed since the foundation of the world.
What the diabolos divides, satan unites, minus the victim that makes the union possible. It makes sense, then, to say that in the desert Jesus discovered that social division and social unanimity had the same source, and that it was demonic. By recognizing both the essential link between the diabolos and satan and the subtle difference in their roles, Jesus of the synoptic Gospels accomplished an unparalleled anthropological breakthrough, and much of his ministry can be understood in light of it.
The English poet John Milton wrote of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness in his Paradise Regained. For Milton, it was in renouncing the temptations in the desert that Jesus destroyed the satanic power. For Milton the crucifixion was the public expose of the perverse truth of human sinfulness that Jesus had deciphered and conquered in the wilderness. After Jesus renounces Satan, the narrator in Milton's poem simply adds: "his snares are broke."
As I said, however, the breaking of these snares is by no means an intellectual feat. It was not Jesus' superior understanding that made it possible for him to repudiate the tempter and his gaudy lures; rather it was his God-centeredness. Girard's groundbreaking examination of the central role of mimesis in human experience may be the most important contribution to our understanding of the doctrine of "original" or universal sinfulness since Augustine, but the mimetic hypothesis does not replace the traditional idea that sin is alienation from God; rather it demonstrates the anthropological validity of that notion.
When the Christian tradition insists that Jesus was like us in all things but sin, what are we to think? As I have said, Jesus was no doubt a moral paragon, but as long as we understand the sinlessness of Jesus only on the level of behavior, we do not go to the heart of his uniqueness, which was his God-centeredness. As the story of the wilderness temptations shows, the essence of his sinlessness was his immunity to the contagion of desire. His triumph over demonic snares in the wilderness was a triumph over the glamour of mimetic suggestion, but it was an achievement made possible, not by Jesus' strength of will, but by the superior strength of another mimetic desire: the desire "to do his Father's will," to become the image and likeness of the One in whose image and likeness he knew himself to have been made. The temptation to emulate another's desire -- the devil's -- was unable to lure him away from his desire to imitate the God of powerless love in rapport with Whom he lived and moved and had his incomparable Being.
As I have shown, throughout the Old Testament the renunciation of sacrifice always took place sacrificially. If we are to take seriously the New Testament's proposal for a new anthropos -- an alternate way of engendering social and psychological stability -- the text that proposes it will have to teach us how to avoid the trap into which the prophetic tradition fell from Moses to John the Baptist. It will have to decode and decommission the mechanism by which the old anthropology of sacrifice turned its fieriest critics into its most faithful perpetuators.
As illuminating as it is, it is not enough to recognize how the same mimetic forces that breed discord -- the diabolos -- restore social harmony at a later stage of the crisis -- Satan -- by transferring all the social poisons onto one scapegoat victim. We must better understand how even those who have begun to recognize this process and raise moral objections to it still get caught up in the social contagions choreographed by the diabolos and Satan. The New Testament cannot be humanity's revelatory text par excellence unless it can show us how to keep from turning our moral outrages into newfangled versions of the thing that outraged us.
If the fiery beginning of John's prophetic career set in motion Jesus' own vocation, another important factor in Jesus' growing understanding of his mission seems to have been John the Baptist's fatal collision with the court of Herod, the Jewish client monarch who ruled Judea at the time. Both personally and politically, Herod was a repulsive figure embroiled in endless plots and murderous intrigues, and John openly condemned him. Soon John was in Herod's prison, and not long after that, dead. John's fate seems to have had an effect on Jesus' ministry comparable in many ways to the effect of the desert temptations. While in Herod's prison, John sent his followers to Jesus to ask about the nature of Jesus' mission:
Now John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?" Jesus answered, "Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me." (Matt. 11:2-6)John took his spiritual challenge right to the core of Jewish apostasy and moral decay. With admirable courage, he challenged raw power and exposed himself to its cruelties. And what had Jesus done upon hearing of John's plight? Had he been as bold to challenge? Had he faced the powers-that-be? Was he prepared to become, if need be, the resurrected John the Baptist, as Herod had feared at one point? Seen from the perspective of Herod's dungeon, Jesus' innocuous behavior left some doubt in the minds of John and his followers.
John urged contrition on his listeners and railed against their sinfulness. By contrast, it was Jesus' conspicuous indifference toward his listeners' prior moral failures that caused certain righteous elements in Jewish society to regard his mission as socially pernicious. Contrary to John, Jesus seems to have understood that the only real and lasting contrition occurs, not when one is confronted with one's sins, but when one experiences the gust of grace that makes a loving and forgiving God plausible. John warned of the approach of the kingdom and passionately enjoined his listeners to renounce their evil ways. Jesus inhabited that kingdom and made it a palpable reality for others by forgiving sins, restoring faith and hope to those around him, and bringing people he touched fully alive. What the encounter between Jesus and John's disciples makes explicit, however, is that Jesus had consciously chosen not to do what John had done. John had raged at the shamelessness of the Herodian court in so bellicose a manner that the predictable reactions and counter-reactions were set off. Soon, John's life and ministry became consumed -- first morally and then literally -- by the very thing he railed against.
When John's disciples asked if Jesus was the one "who is to come," using the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus spoke of his ministry of healing and reconciling, and he concluded by saying: "Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me." In the literal Greek, he says: happy is he who is not scandalized by me. It is in this phrase that we find Jesus' rebuttal to the critique of his ministry implied by John's question. The Greek word skandalon is often translated as "stumbling block" or "offense." There is as well, however, an implication in the word of an almost irresistible compulsion, an obsession. (5)
When Jesus told John's disciples that "happy is the one who is not scandalized by me," he was responding to John's implied critique of his more reticent missionary work. John had allowed himself to be scandalized by the moral and religious shamelessness of the Herodian court. The passion of his contempt eventually entangled him in the very delusions he was condemning. In his well-meaning attempt to usher in the kingdom he sensed was imminent, John had become a player in the same melodrama whose insubstantiality and moral shabbiness he was condemning. Scandalized by Herod's depravity, John merely became the occasion for another depraved act. He accused Herod of the awful things that Herod did, but when the "diabolical" charade became "satanic," it was John at whom the Accuser pointed. John's accusations were certainly just, but they just as certainly gave the inevitable counter-accusations a thread of plausibility. John embroiled himself in the kind of sordid melodrama that destroys the moral coherence even of its despisers. If in the wilderness Jesus had come to appreciate something about the diabolical dynamic of mimesis, conflict, accusation, and scapegoating violence, John's fate would have confronted him with a vivid and horrifying example of exactly that dynamic.
I feel, therefore, that there is in the Gospels a structural link between the diabolos, the skandalon, and the satan. They constitute what we might think of as a demonic trinity by which we humans are forever being drawn into the mimetic scenarios that blind us and lead eventually to violence.
1. Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Random House, 1981), 134.
2. In pointing, these things out, I am not trying to burden the reader with the minutiae of exegesis. I am simply trying to highlight one of the structures of meaning buried in the temptation accounts.
3. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 114 (Borg's emphasis).
4. Ibid., 116.
5. For a related discussion, see David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).