Thursday, May 23, 2013

Are the Gospels Mythical?

The article from which I have pulled excerpts is very lengthy and also very dense. Should you wish to read it, take it in slowly. The article can be accessed in full here. I've included some of the main ideas below. The author is RenĂ© Girard.

From the earliest days of Christianity, the Gospels' resemblance to certain myths has been used as an argument against Christian faith. When pagan apologists for the official pantheism of the Roman empire denied that the death-and-resurrection myth of Jesus differed in any significant way from the myths of Dionysus, Osiris, Adonis, Attis, etc., they failed to stem the rising Christian tide.

In the last two hundred years, however, as anthropologists have discovered all over the world foundational myths that similarly resemble Jesus' Passion and Resurrection, the notion of Christianity as a myth seems at last to have taken hold—even among Christian believers.

Beginning with some violent cosmic or social crisis, and culminating in the suffering of a mysterious victim (often at the hands of a furious mob), all these myths conclude with the triumphal return of the sufferer, thereby revealed as a divinity. The evangelists see something very simple and fundamental that we ourselves should see. As soon as we become reconciled to the similarities between violence in the Bible and myths, we can understand how the Bible is not mythical—how the reaction to violence recorded in the Bible radically differs from the reaction recorded in myth.

This counterforce is, I believe, the mythological scapegoat—the sacrificial victim of myth. When scandals proliferate, human beings become so obsessed with their rivals that they lose sight of the objects for which they compete and begin to focus angrily on one another.

Peter spectacularly illustrates this mimetic contagion. When surrounded by people hostile to Jesus, he imitates their hostility. He obeys the same mimetic force, ultimately, as Pilate and Herod. Even the thieves crucified with Jesus obey that force and feel compelled to join the crowd. And yet, I think, the Gospels do not seek to stigmatize Peter, or the thieves, or the crowd as a whole, or the Jews as a people, but to reveal the enormous power of mimetic contagion—a revelation valid for the entire chain of murders stretching from the Passion back to “the foundation of the world.” The Gospels have an immensely powerful reason for their constant reference to these murders, and it concerns two essential and yet strangely neglected words, skandalon and Satan.

The traditional English translation of stumbling block is far superior to timid recent translations, for the Greek skandalon designates an unavoidable obstacle that somehow becomes more attractive (as well as repulsive) each time we stumble against it. The first time Jesus predicts his violent death (Matthew 16:21-23), his resignation appalls Peter, who tries to instill some worldly ambition in his master: Instead of imitating Jesus, Peter wants Jesus to imitate him. If two friends imitate each other's desire, they both desire the same object.

And if they cannot share this object, they will compete for it, each becoming simultaneously a model and an obstacle to the other. The competing desires intensify as model and obstacle reinforce each other, and an escalation of mimetic rivalry follows; admiration gives way to indignation, jealousy, envy, hatred, and, at last, violence and vengeance. Had Jesus imitated Peter's ambition, the two thereby would have begun competing for the leadership of some politicized “Jesus movement.” Sensing the danger, Jesus vehemently interrupts Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, you are a skandalon to me.”

If we choose Jesus as our model, we simultaneously choose his own model, God the Father. Having no appropriative desire, Jesus proclaims the possibility of freedom from scandal. But if we choose possessive models we find ourselves in endless scandals, for our real model is Satan. A seductive tempter who suggests to us the desires most likely to generate rivalries, Satan prevents us from reaching whatever he simultaneously incites us to desire. He turns into a diabolos (another word that designates the obstacle/model of mimetic rivalry). Satan is skandalon personified, as Jesus makes explicit in his rebuke of Peter.

We hear nowadays that, behind every text and every event, there are an infinite number of interpretations, all more or less equivalent. Mimetic victimization makes the absurdity of this view manifest. Only two possible reactions to the mimetic contagion exist, and they make an enormous difference. Either we surrender and join the persecuting crowd, or we resist and stand alone. The first way is the unanimous self- deception we call mythology. Instead of blaming victimization on the victims, the Gospels blame it on the victimizers. What the myths systematically hide, the Bible reveals.

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