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The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Hunt had this framed in a picture with the quotations "Surely he hath borne our Griefs and carried our Sorrows; Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD and afflicted." (Isaiah 53:4) and "And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited." (Leviticus 16:22)

The original context of the term scapegoat was a Jewish purification ritual described in the Book of Leviticus, wherein a goat was symbolically infused with the transgressions of the community and driven into the wilderness. This rite was a major portion of the priestly ceremonies of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The term originates from the mistranslation of Azazel (a demon of the desert wastes) as ez ozel ("the goat who departs"). In Christian thought, Jesus Christ came to be seen as a scapegoat, whose sacrificial death led to the purification of the human community.

The modern (almost clichéd) use of the term to describe an individual who is unjustly blamed for misfortunes of others is derived from these early religious usages.

Religious Origins

Hebrew Bible

The "scapegoat" ritual (whose English name results from a mistranslation of the Biblical Hebrew) was, in its original context, a central practice in the Levitical celebration of Yom Kippur (the "Day of Atonement"). During this ritual, the priest sought to spiritually cleanse the temple (a symbolic analogue for the Israelite kingdom) through a series of prayers, benedictions, and animal sacrifices. The process of symbolic purification was dually concentric, beginning with the sanctification of the priest and the Holy of Holies (in the Temple), and expanding outward to encompass the entirety of body politic and the physical landscape surrounding the community.[1] Once these purifications were complete, the sins of the community were then symbolically transferred to the scapegoat itself, which was then released into the desert:

Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat. …

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert (Leviticus 16:7-10, 18-22) (NIV).

This ceremony, whose richly symbolic contents give it an air of high antiquity, has spawned a variety of interpretations and commentaries (both ancient and modern). One of the most oft-discussed elements is the explicit connection between this rite and the demon Azazel, a fallen angel described in the Book of Enoch. Specifically, the phrase translated by William Tyndale as "(e)scape goat" (Hebrew: ez ozel, "the goat who departs")[2] is more accurately seen to reference Azazel, a demon of the desert wastes (an understandable error, given the fact that Biblical Hebrew was written without the inclusion of vowels).[3][4][5] As such, some commentators see the ritual as a "pagan survival" of pre-Israelite demon worship.[6] While this view has its adherents, many scholars have noted fundamental problems with it as well—most notably the fact that the supposed sacrificial animal is not, at least in the Levitical text,[7] killed by the priest. As such, Zatelli suggests that "[t]his fascinating ancestral rite is not a sacrifice; it represents a struggle against chaos, against transgressions and disorder, which threaten the harmony and safety of man, and it expels them to the desolation to which they pertain."[8] In summation, it appears that the majority of sources, while acknowledging the demonic referent in the text, draw a distinction between acknowledging the existence of such malign forces and actively propitiating them. Segal summarizes this view and suggests a possible (and thematically rich) connection with the folkloric account of the rebellious angels in Genesis:

The story in Genesis 6:1-4 [which describes certain immoral angels seducing human women] is evidently fragmentary. It must have had a sequel relating the penalties imposed upon the rebellious angels. One of them may have been the Azazel of the scapegoat. … The sequel may have told how Azazel was banished and imprisoned in a desert from which there is no return. To such a desert must be sent the scapegoat with the sins of Israel on its head. Azazel in our text may thus signify (as the ancient Rabbis assumed) the name of a locality named after the demon, the land and prison home of Azazel, a figurative name of a desert from which there can be no return, equivalent to the other unique and symbolic name of that locality.[9]

However, this is not the only interpretation of this rite. One of the more compelling alternatives, offered by Calum Carmichael, is that the ritual was explicitly formulated by the priestly class to commemorate an early example of sin and expiation in the Bible&namely, the story of Joseph's betrayal by his brothers. In this tale, the first Biblical account to contain an explicit "confession of wrongdoing,"[10] Joseph's wicked siblings sell their brother into slavery and convince their father that he had been the victim of a wild beast:

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he was wearing - and they took him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, "What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let's sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood." His brothers agreed. So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.

Then they got Joseph's robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said, "We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son's robe." He recognized it and said, "It is my son's robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces" (Genesis 37:23-28, 31-33) (NIV).

Commenting on the proposed connection between Biblical story and priestly ritual, Carmichael states:

Any rite that addresses the issue of the forgiveness of wrongdoing has to focus primarily on the role of memory. An Israelite has to recall his individual wrongs and, equally important, because it is a national, communal rite he has, I am suggesting, to recall his nation's beginnings, specifically, the first time the issue of the forgiveness of sins arose and the particular event that led to it. It seems to me that the sinbearing goat going into the wilderness to Azazel is primarily a rite of remembrance. It harks back to the brothers' deception in a number of ways. It points to their location in the wilderness where they perpetrate their offense. It recalls both the placement of the offense upon the goat, and the transformation of this domestic animal into a dangerous one. Just as they link a goat to an evil beast, so the Levitical ceremony links a goat to a demonic figure whose very name, aza'zel, surely suggests a connection with a goat.[11]


In Christian theology, the story of the scapegoat in Leviticus is interpreted as a symbolic prefiguration of the self-sacrifice of Jesus, who takes the sins of humanity on his own head, having been driven into the 'wilderness' outside the city by order of the high priests.[12] Schwartz notes that this symbolic understanding seems to be implied by the Pauline epistles:

It would therefore suggest that in Gal 4:4-5 Paul does not need to explain how sending forth Christ saved the Jews, for already the word εξαπέστειλεν, at least in his own mind if not in that of his readers, carried the explanation: Christ's action was that of a scapegoat.

The objection that the scapegoat of Leviticus was not killed, but only sent forth into the desert, while Christ died on the cross, may be answered by the simple recognition that by Paul's time, at least, and probably much earlier as well, the scapegoat was in fact killed, by being pushed from a precipice onto the rocks below.[13]

Following this initial allusion, the explicit identification of Christ with the scapegoat is made in the Epistle of Barnabas,[14] as well as the writings of many later theologians (including Justin Martyr and Tertullian).[15] This view is also enshrined in Thomas Aquinas's understanding of the atonement, albeit without making explicit reference to the "scapegoat" trope:

He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally, or even more than he detested the offense. But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured, as stated above. And therefore Christ's Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: "He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."[16]

Controversial Christian anthropologist René Girard has provided a reconstruction of the scapegoat theory. In Girard's view, it is humankind, not God, who has the problem with violence. Humans are driven by desire for that which another has or wants (mimetic desire). This causes a triangulation of desire and results in conflict between the desiring parties. This mimetic contagion increases to a point where society is at risk; it is at this point that the "scapegoat mechanism" is triggered. This is the point where one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat. Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again. Girard contends that this is what happened in the case of Jesus. The difference in this case, Girard believes, is that he was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent; humanity is thus made aware of its violent tendencies and the cycle is broken. Satan, who is seen to be manifested in the contagion, is cast out. Thus Girard's work is significant as a re-construction of the Christus Victor atonement theory.[17]

While the Girardian approach to the scapegoat problem (and to religious sacrifices in general) has provided a provocative new paradigm for students of religious ritual, it is not without its critics. Jonathan Klawans, in a particularly incisive article, argues that this approach misrepresents the purpose of Israelite sacrifice due to an anti-ritualist bias—an emphasis that implicitly styles Christianity as the more "just" complement of Judaism:

Girard's focus on sacrifice as "generative scapegoating" operates under the assumption that all sacrifice involves the killing of innocent victims. But the reader must beware that whenever scholars put the "innocent victims" of sacrificial ritual in the foreground, a cadre of "guilty priests" must be lurking in the background. The Girardian approach to sacrifice operates under assumptions that are both antisacrificial and antipriestly. This is hardly a good starting point for anyone trying to understand what sacrificial rituals might have meant to those who believed in their efficacy. More troubling is the fact that Girard's concern with Jesus as the paradigmatic innocent victim compels him to view Christianity as the necessary completion of Judaism. Furthermore, in his analysis of Jesus' death, Girard squarely places much of the blame on Jewish authorities and on the (Jewish) crowd, without entertaining the possibility that post-crucifixion conflicts between Jesus' followers and other Jews may have influenced the construction of the passion narratives.[18]

Scapegoating in ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks practiced a "scapegoating" rite in which a cripple or beggar or criminal (the pharmakos) was cast out of the community, either in response to a natural disaster (such as a plague, famine or an invasion) or in response to a calendrical crisis (such as the end of the year). The scholia refer to the pharmakos being killed, but many scholars reject this, and argue that the earliest evidence (the fragments of the iambic satirist Hipponax) only show the pharmakos being stoned, beaten and driven from the community.[19] However, it has been suggested that these rites evidence sufficient dissimilarities from the Israelite practices to warrant their own nomenclature, as the use of the term "scapegoat" could lead to an unjustified conceptual conflation:

It is a puzzling fact that this Jewish term has been universally employed for the description of Greek expulsion ceremonies. I can find no instance in any book where an author attempts to explain the application of the term 'scapegoat' to non-Jewish rituals. Despite the fact that not one of these Greek rites involves a goat, much less shares any genealogical connection with the Jewish cult, the intended meaning of the term is always taken to be self-evident.

The practice of classifying a collective group of rituals by the name of one of that group's constituent members (i.e., the scapegoat ritual) is both confusing and imprecise. This practice presumes common features between the scapegoat ritual and other rituals without specifying them or demonstrating the cogency of such parallels. For example, there is the confusing custom among scholars of designating Oedipus Rex as a 'scapegoat' when they actually mean to say that he resembles a victim of one of the Greek expulsion rituals.[20]


Building upon these religious foundations, "scapegoat" has become a common term for an individual who is selected to bear blame for a calamity. "Scapegoating" is the act of holding a person, group of people, or thing responsible for a multitude of problems.

Political/sociological scapegoating

Scapegoating is an important tool of propaganda; the most famous example in recent history is the tendency of Nazi propaganda to accused Jews of being the singular source of Germany's economic woes and political collapse. As this example painfully illustrates, scapegoating is most devastating when applied to a minority group, as they are inherently lack the mainstream cultural capital necessary to defend themselves. A tactic often employed by these propagandists is stereotyping: characterizing an entire group of individuals according to the unethical or immoral conduct of a small fraction of their numbers.

Throughout history, a bewildering array of groups have been the target of this process: adherents of different religions, people of different races or nations, people with different political beliefs, or people differing in behavior from the majority. In addition, scapegoating has also been applied to organizations, such as governments, corporations, or various political groups.


Mobbing is a form of sociological scapegoating which occurs in the workplace, as documented by Kenneth Westhues:

Scapegoating is an effective if temporary means of achieving group solidarity, when it cannot be achieved in a more constructive way. It is a turning inward, a diversion of energy away from serving nebulous external purposes toward the deliciously clear, specific goal of ruining a disliked co-worker's life.

Mobbing can be understood as the stressor to beat all stressors. It is an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker. Initiated most often by a person in a position of power or influence, mobbing is a desperate urge to crush and eliminate the target. The urge travels through the workplace like a virus, infecting one person after another. The target comes to be viewed as absolutely abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities, outside the circle of acceptance and respectability, deserving only of contempt. As the campaign proceeds, a steadily larger range of hostile ploys and communications comes to be seen as legitimate.[21]

Scapegoating in psychoanalytic theory

Psychoanalytic theory holds that unwanted thoughts and feelings can be unconsciously projected onto another, who then becomes a scapegoat for one's own problems. If the scapegoating pattern continues into early adulthood, development towards healthy personal identity is likely to be compromised, with a strong likelihood of developing histrionic, compensatory narcissistic, and/or obsessive-compulsive, as well as passive-aggressive traits. Such misplaced feelings are also understood to potentially yield severe, ego-protecting "affect management behaviors" including alcoholism, drug addiction and other substance and behavioral process disorders.[22]


  1. "Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die. He is to take some of the bull's blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover. // He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull's blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. No one is to be in the Tent of Meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel. // "Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull's blood and some of the goat's blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites" (Leviticus 16:11-19).
  2. A phrase that was adopted by the 1611 King James Bible.
  3. Tom Douglas. Scapegoats: Transferring Blame. (Taylor & Francis Group, 2002), 6-7;
  4. Baruch Levine. "Ugaritic Descriptive Rituals." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 17(4) (1963):, 107 ff. 17
  5. See also the "scapegoat" entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  6. See, for example, E. O. James, "The Religions of Antiquity." Numen 7 (Fasc. 2.) (December) (1960): "Two he-goats were then set before Yahweh of which one was sacrificed to him and the other presented to a desert goat demon, Azazel, to whom the uncleanliness of the sanctuary and its servants was dispatched by the sin-carrier" (143). This view is summarized by Segal, who notes that "The ritual of the scapegoat sent 'away to Azazel into the wilderness' (v. 10) has been a subject of much debate and speculation among commentators. Modern critics, who assign the chapter to a late priestly writer after Ezra, consider the ritual to be a survival of the worship of the demons. Azazel is the prince of the se'irim which we discussed in a previous section (Section IX). But it is incredible that such a bold demonological sacrifice could have been introduced into the worship of the second temple after Ezra. It is also incredible that a priestly writer would have embodied in the Book of Leviticus a divine command to offer a sacrifice to a demon just immediately before the divine oracle in chapter 17 denouncing sacrifices to the se'irim" (248). Zatelli, who offers a considerably more nuanced view, notes some similarities between this ritual and the sacrificial practices of other early Middle Eastern tribes (such as the Hittites and the Canaanites) (262-263).
  7. However, later Mishnaic sources do describe the beast being killed, likely to prevent it from wandering back into the community (as described in Daniel R. Schwartz, "Two Pauline Allusions to the Redemptive Mechanism of the Crucifixion." Journal of Biblical Literature 102(2) (June 1983): 262).
  8. Ida Zatelli, "The Origin of the Biblical Scapegoat Ritual: The Evidence of Two Eblaite Texts." Vetus Testamentum 48 (Fasc. 2) (April 1998): 263.
  9. M.H. Segal, "The Religion of Israel before Sinai (Continued)." The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 53(3) (January 1963): 250-251.
  10. Calum Carmichael, "The Origin of the Scapegoat Ritual." Vetus Testamentum 50 (Fasc. 2) (April 2000): 174.
  11. Carmichael, 177.
  12. See Maas's article on Christology (1912): "The sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 21:1-14), the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:1-28), the ashes of purification (Numbers 19:1-10), and the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:4-9) hold a prominent place among the types prefiguring the suffering Messiahs."
  13. Daniel R. Schwartz, "Two Pauline Allusions to the Redemptive Mechanism of the Crucifixion." Journal of Biblical Literature 102(2) (June 1983): 261-262.
  14. See the Epistle of Barnabas, quoted in Barnard: "Note what was commanded: 'Take two goats, goodly and alike, and offer them, and let the priest take the one as a burnt offering for sins'. But what are they to do with the other? 'The other,' he says, 'is accursed.' Notice how the type of Jesus is manifested: 'And do ye all spit on it, and goad it, and bind scarlet wool about its head, and so let it be cast into the desert" (434, emphasis added).
  15. Schwartz, 262 ff. 12.
  16. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Question 48: Answer 2. Retrieved September 24, 2007.
  17. Girard (1979) and (1986).
  18. Jonathan Klawans, "Pure Violence: Sacrifice and Defilement in Ancient Israel." The Harvard Theological Review 94(2) (April 2001): 138.
  19. Jan Bremner, "Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87 (1983): passim.
  20. Bradley McLean, "On the Revision of Scapegoat Terminology." Numen 37(2) (December 1990): 168-169.
  21. Kenneth Westhues, "At The Mercy Of The Mob", OHS Canada, Canada's Occupational Health & Safety Magazine 18(8) (December 2002): 30-36.
  22. An extensive list of academic references to the psychoanalytic study of scapegoating can be found at

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnard, L. W. "Some Folklore Elements in an Early Christian Epistle." Folklore 70(3) (September 1959): 433-439.
  • Bremmer, Jan. "Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87 (1983): 299-320.
  • Carmichael, Calum. "The Origin of the Scapegoat Ritual." Vetus Testamentum 50 (Fasc. 2) (April 2000): 167-182.
  • Douglas, Tom. Scapegoats: Transferring Blame. Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ISBN 0203410688.
  • Girard, René. "Mimesis and Violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism." Berkshire Review 14 (1979): 9-19.
  • Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. ISBN 0485113066.
  • Hess, Richard S. "Review: A Reassessment of the Priestly Cultic and Legal Texts" — a review of Jacob Milgrom's translation and commentary on Leviticus. Journal of Law and Religion 17(1/2) (2002): 375-391.
  • James, E. O. "The Religions of Antiquity." Numen 7 (Fasc. 2.) (December 1960): 137-147.
  • Klawans, Jonathan. "Pure Violence: Sacrifice and Defilement in Ancient Israel." The Harvard Theological Review 94(2) (April 2001): 133-155.
  • Levine, Baruch. "Ugaritic Descriptive Rituals." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 17(4) (1963): 105-111.
  • Maas, A. J. "Christology" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. 1912.
  • McLean, Bradley. "On the Revision of Scapegoat Terminology." Numen 37(2) (December 1990): 168-173.
  • Schwartz, Daniel R. "Two Pauline Allusions to the Redemptive Mechanism of the Crucifixion." Journal of Biblical Literature 102(2) (June 1983): 259-268.
  • Segal, M. H. "The Religion of Israel before Sinai (Continued)." The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series, 53(3) (January 1963): 226-256.
  • Zatelli, Ida. "The Origin of the Biblical Scapegoat Ritual: The Evidence of Two Eblaite Texts." Vetus Testamentum 48 (Fasc. 2) (April 1998): 254-263.


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