Suffering Servant and Scapegoat
The Gospel of Mark is considered to be the earliest account of the gospels. For that reason, it is applauded by scholars for being the closest depiction of the life of Jesus. Mark’s work depicts Jesus to have a very high divinity, and is very active through constantly performing miracles, giving sermons, and engaging with the people. This is why scholars say that Mark looks at Jesus through the lens of the “”suffering servant.”” Despite everything Jesus does for all of the people, they make no effort to stop the governing body from crucifying him. Then, Jesus is resurrected, and everyone’s sins are forgiven.
René Girard, a philosophical anthropologist from the 1900’s, tried to understand the origin of violence and how it is dispelled. Through observation, he noticed that mythological stories, as well as the Gospels, followed the same pattern of conflict resolution. The root of all conflict is based in our own envious desires, which can evolve into a rivalry, and into animosity.
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This will continue to occur and escalate until the violence is dispelled through a “”scapegoat””, a victim who is normally innocent in most stories, and is killed or exiled. This hereby temporarily restores the peace and unites the two rival parties. This pattern is evident in mythological stories such as Oedipus, in addition to the Gospels. Looking at the Gospels through an anthropological lens might seem to humanize and demean the value of the Gospels. In fact, it has the opposite effect. It does not discredit any of the content of the Gospels, but instead gives an entire new layer of relevance. This pattern especially applies to the Gospel of Mark.
Girard is arguing that in humans, all violence spawns from our desire to have something that somebody else has (Girard, 9). If my neighbor has something that I want, I am envious of them. The neighbor becomes “”the model for my desire”” (Girard, 10). I am going to begin to mimic the desires of my neighbor, and this will inevitably lead to a conflict where we are trying to obtain the same “”object.”” If I am unable to obtain the object of my desire, but my neighbor is, Girard is saying this will exacerbate the desire for the object, for both parties.
This process will ultimately fuel itself, “”In imitating my rival’s desire I give him the impression that he has good reasons to desire what he desires, to possess what he possesses, and so the intensity of his desire keeps increasing”” (Girard, 10). This snowball will continue to roll until the violence ensues both of the parties, and multiple people begin to get involved. To dispel this violence a “”scapegoat”” is chosen. This person will be chosen by those involved in the violence as a substitute for their own transgressions (Girard, 25). The scapegoat’s exile, death, etc. is used as a method of restoring a temporary peace and builds community again. Until another conflict ensues.
This is the template for many great myths and some of the stories that are seen in the bible. Girard compares the stories of Oedipus and Joseph using this idea of mimetic violence as a template, for understanding the format of the tales. In the story of Oedipus, it is foretold that one day he will kill his father and marry his mother. This was at a time where there was no changing what your fate was. Knowing this, his parents tried to kill the young Oedipus.
He ended up living, but was exiled. Oedipus ends up solving the puzzles of the Sphinx and as a result saves an entire city. He is made king, and unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Apollo, not approving of the incestuous relationship, plagues the city and Oedipus is exiled as a result.
The story of Joseph is eerily similar to that of Oedipus. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him. They almost killed him, but instead sold him to slavery where he was exiled from his family. While in Egypt, the wife of his master was trying to seduce Joseph, who refused. She told her husband that he had tried to rape her, and he sent Joseph to prison. While in prison, Joseph begins interpreting the dreams of high-ranking officials and eventually the Pharaoh. Through his talents, he moves up the ranks and eventually earns the title of prime minister. (Girard, 108-109).
Both stories have this same structure, both Oedipus and Joseph were exiled twice. The first was when they were younger and more vulnerable, and it was by their own blood. The second time they are both exiled from the foreign land that the now inhabit. In mythological tales, they show that those who were responsible for exiling the victims, were right to do so (Gerard, 110). In the case of the bible narrative, it emphasizes that using this scapegoating mechanism is wrong and communal violence is not the answer.
Joseph’s story doesn’t just end with him becoming prime minister. His brothers travel to Egypt during the famine, and see that their brother, Joseph, is in this position of power. He gives them all grain and tells them that if they come back due to a famine, they must bring their younger brother Benjamin. The famine continues, and his brothers return with Benjamin.
Joseph hides a cup in his brother Benjamin’s bag and declares him as guilty for stealing it. Benjamin was the youngest and most vulnerable of the brothers making him the perfect scapegoat. One of the older brothers offered to take Benjamin’s place. As a result, Joseph forgave all of his brothers for everything and welcomed his family to Egypt. This last part is differing from the tale of Oedipus, because Joseph explicitly calls attention to the root of the problem: exile. After calling attention to this problem he forgives them for their actions. It’s through this two-fold mechanism of acknowledging and pardoning that we are able to break this cycle of mimetic violence (Girard, 111).
This template of Mimetic violence can also be applied to the Gospel of Mark. This seems like a discrediting idea, the fact that this formatting is seen throughout a countless amount of myths and stories. Christians hold their view of religion as what is THE truth, It seems to demean the value of the message to say that Christianity was cut from the same leaf as countless other myths. Unlike the other stories and tales though, the Jesus acknowledges the cycle of mimetic violence. Through his resurrection, he breaks the cycle of mimetic violence for all, which is why it is such a profound occurrence.
The Gospel of Mark opens up with Jesus as an adult. The first we see of Jesus, he is being baptized by John the Baptist. When Jesus is baptized the heavens open up and “”the spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘you are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased”” (Mark 1:10-11). God is claiming Jesus to be his own divine son at the very start of Mark’s Gospel. This places emphasis on the divine nature of Jesus right off the bat. Mark begins to further reveal the divine nature of Christ by documenting countless miracles that Jesus performed.
Jesus was able to calm the sea, “”Even the wind and the sea obeyed him”” (Mark 4:41), He was able to rid people of demons, and showed his mastery over death by reviving a girl (Mark 5: 41-43). People were rightfully amazed about everything that Jesus was able to do. After all of his services he would tell all of the bystanders to not tell anyone what they had seen. Word was getting around to the Jewish higher ups that Jesus was the messiah, which was an incredibly bold claim. He was also undermining their authority, especially when Jesus rebuked them on their adherence to the “”letter of the Law.””
As a result of the conflicts Jesus had with the leaders and the fact that he was a threat to their power, they conspired to have him killed. When Jesus was put on trial, Pilate didn’t believe that Jesus deserved to die. He offered Barabbas to the people, but they denied him (Mark 15:15). All of the people gave into the mimetic violence and argued for Jesus to be put to death.
Jesus had performed countless miracles and ministries at this point, and the same people who witnessed were saying he should die (Girard, 20-21). This is an essential part of Jesus’s identity that Mark wants to reveal to the reader. That to be a man of faith it will involve service to others, suffering, and not losing faith, even in the midst of persecution. This paints the portrait of Jesus as the “”Suffering Servant.””
After Jesus’s sentencing, Peter denied Jesus (Mark 14: 66-72). This goes back to the idea of mimetic violence, as one of Jesus’s closest disciples decided to go along with the crowd (Girard, 19). Jesus willingly became the scapegoat in this instance. Through his willingness to endure his passion and death he knew he would be dispelling this conflict. After his death, he resurrected and for Christians, this means we are saved. Jesus conquered death, and through his resurrection we are given new life, and free from sin.
This view of the resurrection is very divine in nature. We can look at it through the lenses of René Girard and see the passion, death, and resurrection in a similar light as we saw the Joseph narrative. Jesus accepted his role as the scapegoat, and it is through his resurrection he forgives us of all of our sins. In doing so, Jesus is breaking that cycle of violence. He is revealing to all through his resurrection that they were wrong, he is the messiah. All who witnessed his resurrection are no longer ignorant, and he forgives all of us anyway. This is similar to that two-fold mechanism in Joseph where he also broke the cycle of mimetic violence.
The fact that the Bible antagonizes those who are expelling the scapegoat makes it different from all other mythological literature. Its uniqueness therefore allows us to look through this anthropological lens without demeaning the value of the gospels, and without demeaning the divinity of Jesus. Instead we can use this idea as a tool to further explain the significance of the Gospels.