In recent years, a number of Christian writers, inspired by French critic and philosopher RenÃ© Girard, have stressed with new urgency how the Bible shows the way in which groups and societies work out their fears and frustrations by finding scapegoats.
Because we compete for the same goods and comforts, we need to sustain our competition with our rivals and maintain distance from them. But to stop this getting completely out of hand, we unite with our rivals to identify the cause of the scarcity that makes us compete against each other, with some outside presence we can all agree to hate.
Just as the BBC drama suggested, Jesus’s context was one where Judaeans and Romans equally lived in fear of each other, dreading an explosion of violence that would be destructive for everyone. Their leaders sweated over compromises and strategies to avoid this. In such a context, Jesus offered a perfect excuse for them to join in a liberating act of bloodletting which eliminated a single common enemy. The spiral of fear was halted briefly.
Frequently in this mechanism, the victim has little or nothing to do with the initial conflict itself. But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror.