The passion accounts in the Gospels hold high significance for Rene Girard. In The One by Whom Scandal Comes he answers questions about his thought posed by Maria Stella Barberi. She asks him about his interpretation of the gospels and his opinion about historical-critical scholarship. He says he owes a debt to such scholarship. He especially likes the work of Raymond Brown about the death of Jesus.
But he approaches the opinions of critics with caution. Girard has a skeptical eye for their changing theories. “Today it is believed the gospel of Mark was written in Rome, but ten years ago it was thought to have been written in Antioch. Who knows what will be believed tomorrow? (p. 65). Yes. I think this is a concern for all of us who have been reading the critics for a while. The fashion keeps changing. Sometimes this is progress. Sometimes it is just change.
The use of criticism to discount the gospel accounts doesn’t make sense to him. Speaking of the four accounts of the passion of Christ, he says:
The critics have detected insurmountable inconsistencies in these accounts, but their diversity is also susceptible to another, more positive interpretation. The human mind is incapable of apprehending so great a truth by means of one text alone; in this case four were needed. The variation in perspective was necessary, it seems to me, because the human mind finds it impossible to conceive at once of Christ as a total scapegoat and as a divine being. Each Gospel–and this is the source of their strength, taken together–lays particular emphasis on one aspect of mystery (p. 64)
For Girard the Gospel of Mark is the most important account. His notion of Jesus as scapegoat is most transparent there. Other writers, especially Luke and John, have superimposed other themes over the truth of Jesus as victim of unanimous mimetic violence. This truth is still there. But it is most stark in Mark.
In Mark the disciples always appear in a negative light. They are rivals one of another. They try to construct their own little hierarchy. They all run out on Jesus. Mark is harsh in his treatment of the disciples. Before the Resurrection none of them say anything that isn’t foolish. To Girard, this gives credibility to the tradition that Peter had something to do with Mark.
He sees Peter’s recognition that he had abandoned and denied Jesus as a conversion. Conversion always means coming to see oneself as having participated in violence or persecution. When, in Mark 14:72, Peter realizes this he breaks down and weeps. (Paul’s conversion also involved recognizing that he had been persecuting Jesus.)
But in Mark none of the disciples realize this at all until after Peter does. This small spark, which grew after the Resurrection, broke the satanic circle of scapegoating and the projecting of violence upon an innocent victim.
Apparently Girard thinks this is the way it was historically. The disciples showed no intelligence about Jesus during his ministry. The other gospels read some of the disciple’s post-Resurrection insights back into his ministry, but for Mark even Peter was Satan who needed to get out of his way (Mark 8:33).
This accords with Girard’s theory of unanimous violence. Society unanimously condemns the scapegoat. So in Mark the scapegoating of Jesus includes the disciples. Scapegoating as a way to bring order in a violent society only works if it is a unanimous action. Breaking the unanimity breaks the cycle and changes the dynamic.
I kind of see this.
But I don’t fully understand it yet.
Girard criticizes the idea that conversion consists in receiving Jesus (I doubt that he is thinking about this as a pet phrase of evangelicals–he is probably thinking of John 1:11-12). The disciples received Jesus in one sense but, because they were ambiguous and wavering, they were really still on the other side. Only a conversion like that of Peter, where they realized that they had a part in the condemnation of Jesus, was enough.