Why suborn perjury rather than give it yourself?

You ever notice that, while the Gospels and Acts mentions some of the enemies of Jesus by name (Caiaphas, Annas, Saul of Tarsus) we never hear that these people, or anyone in particular, speaks as a false witness when Jesus or the disciples are on trial? It seems to me that the powerful would much rather suborn perjury rather than give it themselves.

And even when they suborn perjury they seem to do it in a half-hearted way. More than once we are told that the false accusers couldn’t bring their testimony in agreement with each other. This points to a lack of orchestration. It indicates Jesus’ prosecutors knew he had to be guilty and simply trusted that the volunteer witnesses who came forward to back up their expectation were trustworthy. In a real way the powers actually were following these unnamed accusers, just as these accusers were rising up to meet the needs of these powerful people.

This all struck me anew as I was reading Girard’s comparison of the miracle of Apollonius in healing the Ephesian plague to the story in John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. Apollonius was a reputed pagan miracle-worker of the second century who inspired a book recording all his great works. This book records that a plague had struck Ephesus and Apollonius claimed he knew how to end it. He basically led the majority of the city to stone to death a blind beggar–whom he assured them was actually a demon in disguise. At first the crowd was reluctant, but after Apollonius persuaded and cajoled and preached eventually someone threw that first stone. According to the biography, when the first stones struck the crowd began to see that the blind stranger really was a demon and more stones followed until he was killed. Thus the plague was ended.

Girard analyzes what happened in comparison to Jesus who concentrates his efforts on making sure that first stone is never thrown. The first stone is the key for both Apollonius and Jesus

To make the violence possible, he [Apollonius] must demonize the individual he has selected as victim. And finally the guru succeeds. He obtains what he desires: the first stone. Once it is thrown, Apollonius can take a nap or whatever, for now violence and deceit are bound to triumph. The same Ephesians who had pity on the beggar a moment earlier now demonstrate a violent emulation of one another that is so relentless, so contrary to their initial attitude, that our surprise can only equal our sadness. Not purely rhetorical, the first stone is decisive because it is the most difficult to throw. Why is it the most difficult to throw? Because it is the only one without a model.

One other thing about Girard’s book before I return to the question of the nameless false witnesses: while Girard writes a great deal about the dark side of emulation in rivalry, he also makes it clear that our desire to copy one another also has a positive and civilizing effect. Someone immune to all desire to be in any way like anyone else would probably be extremely anti-social and end up an outcast.

In other words, in all probability, the first one of the Ephesian mob or any mob to innovate in violence would be someone who was never that constrained from violence. This “innovative” type of person would be nameless in a mob, but in “civilized society” he would usually known as someone on the fringe. Girard hasn’t actually said this yet in my reading, but I’m pretty sure it makes a lot of sense.

My point here is that the false witnesses were probably from the margins of Jerusalem society. Caiaphas and Annas and others, for all their self-righteousness and hatred, could not be the innovative leaders here. They used others who were at some distance from them, not even checking beforehand to make sure their stories lined up with each other.

All of this points to the way in which a society’s leadership can either maintain or degrade the civilization in which they have power. It isn’t so much in the actions they initiate, but how they respond to the actions of those who normally aren’t considered leadership material at all. Pilate looks to the mob to see who he should crucify. False gossip spreads not because everyone is making up lies about a victim but because everyone is emulating everyone else–only one liar needs to gain the ear of one leader. Or rather only one leader needs to be known to be aware of the gossip and do nothing about it for the gossip to be sanctioned for everyone.

And false hysterical accusations start on the internet bulletin boards and then in the tinier more radicalized “denominations”–whom normally no one would trust for any theological discernment–and are tolerated until a relatively marginal seminary gets into the act. And then the witchhunt moves up into the more established powers.

Who are mimicking the first stone.

2 thoughts on “Why suborn perjury rather than give it yourself?

  1. joel hunter

    Brilliant and heartbreaking, Mark. Perhaps one of the most chilling features of the first stone-thrower is his anonymity. I’m reminded of Jackson’s The Lottery. We’re not told who initiates the ritual, but we are told that “little Davy Hutchinson,” the victim’s small child, is given some pebbles to throw at his own mother. And we know he’ll do it because the village has successfully caused him to sublimate the ordinary bonds of filial love to the needfulness of stoning. The regulative role of mimicry certainly heightens the doom of James 3:1.


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