COV&R-Bulletin No. 7 (Oct. 1994)
A Jewish-Christian Dialogue
René Girard's theory of the uniqueness of Christianity is based upon the theory of the innocent victim. Jesus of Nazareth for Girard is not simply another hero of Greek tragedy who becomes an enemy twin of everyone. Jesus does nothing violent and yet is willing to die to reveal the arbitrariness of scapegoat violence, the inefficaciousness of the sacrificial expulsion about which the Hebrew prophets have been speaking, the structurative process which may once have galvanized primitive culture but which has now become, in the modern context, little short of murder.
But a careful examination of Isaiah 52-53 reveals that this text is entirely coincident with the theory of the innocent victim, although it appears some six hundred years prior to the texts of the Christian Gospel. There is nothing that Girard says about the innocent victim in Christianity which is not already fully present in Isaiah 52-53. As a consequence, we need to reexamine Girard's claim for the Gospel's singularity.
There would seem a limited number of possibilities, none entirely satisfactory. The first is that Christianity really is unique--as both Girard and other Christians claim--but its uniqueness is not based on the disclosure of the innocent victim (as Girard asserts) but rather upon some other consideration which remains to be articulated. The second is that Christianity is not unique (although Girard and Christians say it is) and that it is only an episode in the history of its religious predecessor and of which it remains--in its themes and content (and all denials of such affiliation to the contrary)--an unwitting or unwilling extension. The third possibility is that Christianity really is unique (as both Girard and Christians say), that such uniqueness is rooted in the understanding of the innocent victim (as Girard claims), but that the correspondence between the two--the innocent victim in Isaiah and the innocent victim in the Gospel--is incomplete, although precisely the ways in which this discussion should continue remains to be elaborated.
There are problems with each view. The problem with the first proposal is that the Girardian explanation is convincing. Although Christians may continue to debate the matter, there is no obstacle from a Jewish perspective to regarding the explanation that Girard offers as entirely compelling, both as an account of primitive culture, and (with some qualifications) as a distinguishing critical feature of the Gospel revelation. The second proposal must be rejected for similar reasons. Whether or not such a claim is acceptable from a Jewish point of view, it is certainly not so from a Christian perspective.
The third possibility is the most interesting. It maintains the revelatory status of Christianity and the linkage to Girard's theory. But it depends upon a perspective which remains to be articulated and is hard to fathom.
Could the uniqueness of Christianity rest, for example, upon the manner in which it takes up the themes of invasion and abandonment in family life? Is it possible that Christianity introduces into the history of the anti-sacrificial what may be termed the "self-sacrificial," or, more precisely, dynamics of self-construction that appear to be fundamental to Christianity which are precisely the lines of the mimetic and the conflictual that Girard has been developing? Moreover, these dynamics may even account for the appearance of the Christian with the history of Pharisaic Judaism, and yet that have not yet been articulated? Rather than compare early Christian texts to the Hebrew texts of the ancient sixth century, it might be more fruitful to set them beside contemporary Judaic texts--for example from the Talmud or Midrash--in which different approaches to the same Jewish filigree are evident.
Such largely unattempted reflections may enable us to expose the distant and sometimes troubled relations between Judaism and Christianity to be more of a family quarrel than a clash of independent perspectives, and consequently may open us to the possibility reconciliation and even common pursuit.
I very much appreciate the fact that Sandor interprets the Hebrew bible in the light of Isaiah 52-53. In this way, a Jewish and a Christian understanding of the Revelation come quite close to each other.
A longer answer would be necessary in order to reply to Sandor's question as to why Girard and Christians nevertheless claim the Gospel's uniqueness. Therefore, I can only outline a few points here, and I also want to pose some counter-questions.
1) As Jesus Christ is clearly the center in the New Testament, all messages have to be interpreted from the perspective of his person. Therefore the revelation of sacred violence, as it happened in his fate and above all in his violent death, belongs to the center of the New Testament. In contrast to that the Hebrew Bible does not have such a center. Thus there are always other competing interpretations besides an interpretation based on Isaiah 52-53 which actually could claim the same legitimacy. To my mind, the Hebrew Bible therefore calls for a further clarification by the New Testament. The Jewish view will reject this. Therefore my question: Which criteria are there from the Jewish point of view in order to find a clarification in the dispute of interpretations?
2) In Isaiah 52-53, it is not clearly shown whether a single person or the whole people is meant by the suffering servant. Therefore it remains open what God's help given to the servant actually means: a personal raising from the dead or the living on of the people suggested by verse 53:10. The Gospel, however, clearly tells that a historically concrete subject that had been killed was raised from the dead by God. Here it becomes evident that God does not continue history regardless of the dead person, but resurrects the dead person himself and makes him the cornerstone of a new community. Here God actually sides with the victim. Doesn't Isaiah 52- 53 need further clarification in this respect?
3) In Isaiah 53:4-5, people speak who have become converted in view of the servant. But those figures remain unclear and it is not said which consequences the converts have drawn for their entire understanding of the Revelation. - However, in the New Testament the names of the converts (the disciples of Jesus) are mentioned and it is explicitly shown that they have read the whole Scripture in the light of the violent death and the resur rection, due to their new insight into Jesus' fate and their conversion achieved by this insight. Where could we find anything analogous in Isaiah?
4) Before his death, Jesus claimed that he came from God in a unique way and was one with Him. This claim was the reason for his being rejected and, according to a Christian understanding, his claim was confirmed by God through his resurrection. The Christian faith derives from this that God's final truth has been revealed in Christ (Messiah) and that we do not have to wait for further revelations on earth. However, in the context of the servant of God, Isaiah speaks about the Persian king Cyrus as the anointed (Messiah). Doesn't an unsolved tension remain here between an acting of God through Cyrus and an acting through the suffering servant?
5) Girard analyzes the triangular structure of desire and shows how evil (rivalry, violence etc.) arises from it. - Due to Jesus's claim and the mission of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Christian faith tells us that God is the Holy Trinity. Isn't the experience of the Triune love necessary in order to overcome the triangular structure of desire at its root?
(trans. by B. Palaver)
I agree with Sandy Goodhart that all Girard says about the revelation of the victim's innocence in the context of the Gospels can already be found in Isaiah 52-53. I also believe that the theological logic which is searching for the reason for the uniqueness of Christianity is well-advised if it finally looks for the roots of this uniqueness in the exegesis of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, as they themselves actually form the hermeneutic framework for the New Testament's description of the fate of Jesus Christ. Seen from this perspective, one should in fact be allowed to say that the New Testament's belief in Jesus Christ does not bring anything substantially new in view of what the Hebrew scriptures tell us. It actually does arise from one special interpretation of these scriptures. This, however, means: just as there cannot be the Gospels without the Songs of the Suffering Servant, also the Songs of the Suffering Servant can neither be without the other prophetic texts, nor without the psalms and the Torah. The christological creed means nothing but to declare a special logic regarding the order of secondary and primary text traditions of the binding logic. This is now anything but a secondary issue and (also) in the context of the rabbinical Judaism not self-evident. Thus the New Testament's perspective factually does not add anything new, but brings up its perspective; even more than that: it declares its perspective binding (for whatever reasons - to find out these reasons remains theology's task which permanently has to be solved anew). How is this to be understood? If we assume that the biblical logic lives from the confidence that the history of the people Israel is that place where God breaks his sacred veil in various situations and reveals his true face and the innocence of the victim, then the New Testament's logic lives from the belief that the potential of this entire biblical history be comes intensified - like in a microcosm - in the single historical existence: the existence of the jew Jesus of Nazareth. With this creed neither the Jewish tradition must be disavowed, nor must a uniqueness of Christianity be claimed that goes beyond Judaism and replaces it. Jesus of Nazareth remains Jewish, his passion remains the passion of the suffering servant. There is no doubt for me that the early Christian interpretation of this logic has come to a dead end by using the formula: Substitution of the Church for the Synagogue. It has not only deprived Jesus of his Jewish roots, but has also placed the passion narratives of the Gospels into a sacred context. Detached from the core of the biblical logic, the Gospels have lost their revealing power in favor of a sacralizing logic.
(trans. by B. Palaver)