Lambs, being common in the Near East, were one of the most usual sacrificial animals in ancient Israel. Twice per day a lamb was slaughtered in the Temple (Exod. 29.38–42); a lamb could be offered as a sin offering (Lev. 4.32); each family annually slaughtered a paschal lamb for Passover (Exod. 12). Thus, the lamb is often a biblical symbol of meekness, obedience, and the need for protection (Isa. 40.11; 53.7; 2 Sam. 12.1–6). In apocalyptic language, though—probably as an expression of the final victory promised by God to the elect despite their weakness—the lamb is occasionally a conquering figure that is to overcome all the evil beasts that symbolize sin and revolt against God (Testament of Joseph 19.8; 1 Enoch 90.38). Some scholars think that John the Baptist, as an apocalyptic preacher (Matt. 3.1–12 par.) who announced the one who was mightier than he, may have applied the title “the Lamb of God” to this mysterious person in that sense, whatever nuances later Christian interpretations may have added (John 1.29, 36). The apocalyptic writer of the book of Revelation used the Greek word arnion, meaning lamb, twenty‐eight times to describe the risen Christ as ruler of the world; although in the saying of John the Baptist another term (amnos) is used, the idea is the same. The lamb of Revelation, however, is also a slain lamb (Rev. 5.6, 9, 12), whose death has redeeming power.

The Fourth Evangelist, who adapted to his own purposes a number of traditions concerning John the Baptist, added an extensive commentary to his first mention of the phrase “the lamb of God” (John 1.29–34). In his view, the final words of v. 29, “who takes away the sin of the world,” refer to the redemption brought about by Jesus' death; but they might originally have been part of the Baptist's saying, referring to the victory over evil by the apocalyptic “lamb of God” (see Rev. 17.14). Vv. 30–31 have an apologetic flavor: they try to account for the failure of the Baptist to identify Jesus as the apocalyptic lamb and suggest that he did so after the baptism of Jesus. The designation of Jesus as lamb of God at the beginning of his ministry is balanced by the allusion to the Passover lamb at his death (John 19.33–37; see Exod. 12.46).

See also Sacrifice

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Etienne Trocmé