In the first century AD, there appeared to the people of an eastern Roman province a remarkable man with a message from heaven. His followers spoke in hushed tones that he had been born of a virgin after his coming had been foretold to the blessed mother. He showed proofs of his divine nature by performing miracles of healing, exorcism, and even resurrection. Eventually, his preaching disrupted the peace of the prevailing authorities, and his enemies delivered him over to the Romans. The holy man was sentenced to death and executed, and yet, as a culminating miracle, proved his victory over death by rising and appearing to his disciples.
By now you’ve figured out that I’m talking about Apollonius of Tyana, using a misdirection so cliched that I’m mentioning it here to dispel my shame for repeating it.
Much has been written about the similarities between the stories of Apollonius of Tyana and Jesus of Nazareth over the years. The resemblances have been pressed into the service of every conceivable agenda, but it fell upon French author Rene Girard to draw attention to a defining difference. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard relates the tale of a miracle performed by Apollonius in the city of Ephesus.
The city was laid low by plague, and the residents were beginning to despair. When other remedies failed, the people turned to Apollonius, who determined at once to heal the community of its ailment. He led them to a theater, whereupon they found an old, suffering beggar. He was blind and filthy, wearing rags and possessing only a crust of dry bread. He hoped the assembled people if they had come to render him assistance. Apollonius commanded the people to collect piles of rocks and then to spread out around the old man. Thus arrayed, he ordered the Ephesians to stone the mendicant to death. The pitiful man became afraid, and begged for mercy. Naturally, the mob balked, expressing shock at the idea of murdering a helpless stranger who prayed to them for pity. Yet Apollonius insisted, denouncing the beggar as an ‘enemy of the gods’, and egging them on until a few began to cast their stones. When the assault began, the rest of the mob perceived that the beggar was in fact a demon: his eyes flashed red and seemed full of fire. They therefore threw their stones in a mad rage until the victim was completely covered up. When they dug out the remains of the beggar, his demonic nature was confirmed, as his form had reverted to that of a beast and he frothed at the mouth before dying. Thus were the people of Ephesus cured of the plague.
Whatever their similarities, it’s hard to imagine a more meaningful contrast between the stories of Apollonius and Christ. Whereas the followers of Jesus founded their community on the commemoration of his sacrifice, the disciples of Apollonius remembered how Ephesus was renewed through an act of collective violence. The two stories are inversions of the same tale.
As Girard exhaustively recounts in his books, the myth of the original murder which either founded, or marked a defining step in the creation of the world, is common to large parts of humanity. A myth of such general distribution is always symbolic of dynamics which operate on many levels. Child psychologists such as Margaret Mahler have remarked on the role of violence in discharging anxiety and consolidating the disparate energies of a developing ego. Violence serves a similar function for societies, an understanding encoded in myths and rituals throughout history. Many origin stories tell of how the social order was created when a god or ancestor slew a victim and, by various means, founded a habitable universe upon the act. Rituals of sacrifice renew the society at regular intervals by reenacting this mythological creative event, a dynamic famously illustrated in the Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and by the incomparable modern anthropologists Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
The myths usually reify the disaster being staved off through sacrifice as disease, famine, or the gods’ displeasure, but the local particularities of the stories are less important than their shared structure and theme. The theme is elucidated perfectly by Apollonius’ rescue of Ephesus. Just as the world order was created through an assertive act of original violence, catastrophe is averted through an imitative act of ritual murder. Although the people of Ephesus were at first reluctant to stone the old beggar, once the contagion of violence spread it became self-justifying as they perceived him to be the source of all their troubles. The victim became a container for all the anti-social feelings of the Ephesians, and the threat to their community lifted after their act of unitive violence.
Most Americans remember the sense of community and patriotic kinship that followed the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. It came as a surprise to many people who had never been given to fits of nationalistic pride. Perhaps most surprising to many people was how good it felt. Many of us prefer to hide our eyes, but the political right tends to be more comfortable with the operative mechanisms. Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project to “restore America” is an open plea to Americans to remember the magical day that we were united in fear and hatred of a common enemy.
The Ephesians of Apollonius experienced the same feeling as the beggar-demon lay at their feet. Eventually, the magic will fade as new enmities and anxieties accumulate to once again threaten the harmony of Ephesus, and they’ll need another Apollonius-Glenn Beck to show them an enemy and redeem their community.
My purpose is not to pass judgment on this mechanism, but only to point out that its ubiquity is a function of its effectiveness. Girard made the case that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was a singular inversion of this myth. Whereas the pagans to whom Apollonius’ story was written engaged in mimetic rituals of scapegoating and sacrifice, the Christians were united by empathy for the innocent victim, and the commitment to take up his cross rather than join in the killing. Of course, the subsequent history of Christianity is a record of the human failure to bear that cross with grace. Still, for all the obstruction of the secular institutions hanging Jesus’ sign on the door, it’s worth considering whether our cherished modern concepts such as universal human rights would have sprouted from any other soil.
Yet Christianity itself did not arise from nothing, but was the culmination of a Jewish tradition which developed a theology of the victim that formed the foundation of the modern humanist ethic. It is important to remember that the Tanakh, the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, was written over many centuries, and so is not a statement of doctrine, but the record of a developing perspective through time. The Hebrew nation was founded when the patriarch Abraham went into the wilderness to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last moment, the god of the Hebrews stayed Abraham’s hand and provided him with a ram to serve as a substitute sacrifice. Our familiarity with the story, and the fact that its consequences inform our own moral assumptions, has bled it of its greatness and masked its importance in the history of our race. In any other Near Eastern myth of the day, Abraham would have killed the boy, and the act would have been remembered and celebrated. The Canaanites, ancestral enemies of the Hebrews, ritually sacrificed their children to the god Moloch, and the substitution of Isaac would have been clearly understood by everyone as a rejection of this primal mode of sacred social violence. It’s early in the Hebrew story, and the moment still required that something be killed, but choosing the ram over the child was a step in the right direction. The Tanakh develops this founding act of mercy toward Isaac into a theology of the victim as the Hebrew people come to terms with conquest, dispossession, and failure. The texts range in depth and approach, many simply giving voice to the natural desire for vengeance against those who unjustly slander and persecute. These are not what mark the Jews off as a people to whom all of mankind owes a debt. In passages such as the Servant Song of Isaiah, the despised victim is given center stage:
Just as there were many who were appalled at him
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—…
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem…”
In case future readers had any doubt that the passage referred to the poor beggar singled out by Apollonius’ mob, the authors of Isaiah went out of their way to make themselves clear to us:
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
The beggar has been singled out, demonized, and killed, healing the community, but, perhaps for the first time in history, his attackers are awakening to the spell which has bound them. They are no longer able to keep up the illusion that his eyes had flashed red with fire, and are confronted with the innocence of the man they have murdered:
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Finally, the victim is recognized as the blessed one, clothed in righteousness for having sacrificed his life to the community’s wickedness:
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Christians rightly see in the Servant Song an anticipation of the cross. One needn’t believe in prophecy to see why the Christian elevation of the persecuted victim necessarily developed out of the only tradition to take the victim’s perspective. Ever since human eyes first opened to look upon the earth, societies had been founded and renewed by stoning Apollonius’ beggar; only the Jews had the wisdom and the courage to tell us what it was like to be the beggar.
But who is content to be someone else’s scapegoat forever? After already suffering through a long history of oppression, the Jews became for Europeans what the blind beggar was to the Ephesians. Hooked noses replaced fiery eyes as the mob took up stones and imagined their victim as the source of every social ill. Political Zionism was a movement began and dominated by secular Jews unmoved by the religious affectations of Cultural Zionists and others calling for restraint. The original political Zionist, Theodore Herzl, could not have been more clear in his repudiation of the Servant Song of his own tradition, when he sided with Apollonius in his testimony to a British commission on immigration:
Political Zionism sought to found a Jewish national identity upon violence and common enmity toward the European anti-Semite. Today, the Jewish state even has its helpless beggar to drag out for stoning when things become too confusing. Israelis agree on little, but nine out of ten supported the 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed or wounded 13,000 people, nearly all of them innocent civilians. We all witnessed the miracle of Apollonius in the regrettable videos of Israelis gathered on hilltops with lawn chairs and cold drinks to watch their bombers lay waste to Gaza.