Sacrifice in the New Testament
Animal sacrifice was one of the most important and visible practices in the Ancient Mediterranean. The world that the New Testament authors inhabited was filled with the physical equipment and sacred spaces of sacrifice, from massive temples, to rustic country shrines, to tiny household altars. It was also made up of interwoven relationships that were reinforced by sacrificial practices. Families, cities, civic associations, professional organizations, priesthoods, and the Roman Empire itself were interconnected by participation in sacrifice. Finally, the ancient Mediterranean was also filled with an array of literate elites who debated and wrote about the meaning of sacrificial practices, their proper interpretations, and their correct performance. The New Testament authors are entwined in this network of sacrificial practices, groups, and debates. Given this reality, it is not at all surprising that sacrifice was on their minds, particularly as they began to articulate their understanding of Jesus, God, and the Christian movement. Given the importance of sacrifice to ancient Mediterranean religion, it was perhaps inevitable that Christians would use sacrificial ideas and imagery in their own religious mythmaking.
The goal of this short Thematic Guide is to provide some signposts for those interested in understanding the complex and multi-vocal positions on sacrifice among the New Testament texts. It will direct the reader to more in-depth theoretical discussions of sacrifice and of the early Christian texts themselves. It will also argue that some of the predominant ways of interpreting positions on sacrifice among New Testament authors need to be reconsidered.
Previous Models and the Importance of the Question
Inevitably, the New Testament is looked to for the "original" Christian positions on sacrifice, both by later Christian writers and by modern scholars. This is no small issue; what is at stake are the ways earliest Christianity is positioned in comparison to ancient Judean religion and ancient Greek and Roman religion, as well as how Christianity positions itself against rival religious traditions today, particularly those that currently practice sacrifice. Historically, a single narrative, rooted in Christian apologetics, has dominated interpretations of sacrifice in the New Testament. Christianity has often been seen as replacing animal sacrifice, framed polemically as primitive and backward, with more enlightened or spiritual religious practices. Recently, models that rely on notions of spiritualization, or that invoke evolutionary or supersessionist narratives, have been called into question (see Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism; Daniel Ullucci, The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice). The place of sacrifice in the New Testament is far more complex than these models allow. It is also important to point out that, like almost everything in the New Testament, scholars contest the texts' positions on sacrifice. Monographs from major presses in just the last five years have given widely divergent interpretations. Interested readers may consult the suggested readings below, which contain a range of opinions and approaches.
Interpreting Passages on Sacrifice in the New Testament
The New Testament texts come from very different times, places, and cultural/historical locations. They rarely speak with one voice, and their attitudes towards sacrifice are a good example of this. Each text must be taken separately as the position of its author(s). The urge to harmonize the texts must be avoided. The positions on sacrifice in the texts are often quite different and contradictory. No clear line of development can be seen. To understand the positions on sacrifice in the New Testament we must view all the texts and recognize their conflicting diversity.
None of the texts constitutes a focused treatise on sacrifice. Rather, they often mention sacrifice in passing, and we are left to interpret their positions on a complex issue from just a few lines. This again means that we must resist the urge to fill in the gaps in earlier texts with fully developed theology from a later period. For example, Paul's famous phrase "Christ our Pascal lamb has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5.7) will come, centuries later, to encapsulate an enormous amount of Christian theology, but we cannot assume that all or even any of that later theologizing was present in Paul's mind in the middle of the first century. The strategy below is to take the most important texts one at a time, in chronological order (or best guess). More texts and more passages could be added, but these give a good sense of the diversity present in the canon and the most important positions.
Paul's writings are critical for this issue because they are the earliest Christian evidence, but even more importantly, Paul's letters are likely the only texts in the New Testament written before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 CE; he lives in a world where there are still active sacrifices to Yahweh. Paul is concerned about two types of sacrifice, and it is critical to keep them separate. First, he addresses traditional Greek and Roman sacrifice, from which he says followers of Jesus must absolutely refrain (1 Cor. 8:1–11; 10:14–20, 25–31; Rom. 1:18–23). This is a radical position. Paul's audience is made up of Gentiles; Paul is telling these people that they must abandon a major part of their religious heritage to follow Jesus. Not participating in Greco-Roman animal sacrifice would have put Paul's Gentiles in a very difficult position. Sacrifice was a key part of everyday social life, including civic engagement, important life events, political and social groups, military activity, business, and commerce. Abstaining from sacrifice would have meant that Paul's Gentiles could not live "normal" lives. Even their eating habits would be affected, as he discusses in 1 Cor. 8:1–11; 10:27–30.
Paul equated the Greek and Roman gods with daimones, lesser and potentially malevolent beings of the lower realms of the cosmos (1 Cor. 10:20). The first thing the Gentiles needed to do, according to Paul, was to stop worshiping these beings and stop participating in Greco-Roman sacrifice.
Things become more complex when we consider Paul's position on sacrifice to Yahweh in the Jerusalem Temple. All of the negative things Paul says about Greco-Roman sacrifice are based on the principle that such sacrifice is directed at beings that are not gods. This of course does not apply to Judean sacrifice. Paul never says anything negative about the Temple rituals. He never suggests that they have been rejected or replaced. He never mentions any prediction about the Temple's imminent destruction or any action that Jesus took against the Temple. In short, Paul does not see Jesus, nor the Eucharist, nor anything else, as replacing animal sacrifices to Yahweh in Jerusalem.
Paul does sometimes use sacrificial metaphors for Jesus, such as: "Christ our Pascal lamb has been sacrificed," (1 Cor. 5:7) or "present your bodies as a sacrifice… pleasing to god" (Rom. 12:1). He also refers to Jesus as a "sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion]" (Rom. 3:24–25). As mentioned above, given the prominent role of sacrifice in Paul's religious world, it is not surprising that he would use sacrificial symbolism for Jesus. But metaphor is as far as Paul goes. He never says, "Jesus is a true sacrifice, and the Temple sacrifices are not." The idea that Gentiles would one day turn away from their gods to worship (and sacrifice to) Yahweh was a common piece of ancient Judean eschatological speculation. This is likely the vision of the future Paul imagined.
The New Testament Gospels
The place of sacrifice in the New Testament Gospels is surprising. Unlike Paul's letters, the Gospels are all written after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, but the texts are not interested in exploring the implications of that event for the issue of animal sacrifice to Yahweh. All four Gospels imagine Jesus moving in a world where the Temple still stood (Mt. 8:3–4/Mk. 1:40–44/Lk. 5:13–14; Mt. 26:17–19/Mk. 14:12–16/Lk. 22:7–14/Jn. 2:13–16). Although the Temple's destruction is "predicted" (these "predictions" date from a period after the Temple was, in fact, destroyed) (Mt. 24:1–3/Mk. 13:1–4/Lk. 21:5–7/Jn. 2:19), there is no rejection of sacrifice to be found in these texts. Scholars have sometimes pointed to Jesus' violent actions in the Temple (Mt. 21:12–13/Mk. 11:15–17/Lk. 19:45–46) as an example of his rejection of the Temple rituals, but such an interpretation is far from clear. The scene depicts Jesus objecting to buying and selling in the Temple, but he makes no objection to the rituals themselves. The correct observation that buying, selling, and changing money were necessary to the operation of the Temple does not change the fact that the scenes do not include any explicit rejection of the Temple sacrifices themselves.
This point is cemented when we consider the rest of the passion story in the Synoptic Gospels. These texts imagine Jesus participating in an animal sacrifice. All three Synoptics depict Jesus eating "the Passover" (to pascha), which he previously instructed his disciples to prepare for him (Mt. 26:17–19/Mk. 14:12–16/Lk. 22:7–14). "The Passover" is a meal including meat which came from a lamb that had been slaughtered at the Jerusalem Temple earlier that day. Thus, the Synoptic authors have no qualms in imaging Jesus eating sacrificial meat and thereby participating in the Judean sacrificial rituals. This is also evidence that the Synoptic authors themselves do not see the Temple incident as Jesus' rejection of sacrifice. If they believed Jesus rejected sacrifice upon his entry into Jerusalem (the Synoptic chronology; note that John puts this event years earlier [Jn. 2:14–16]), why would they portray him participating the Passover sacrifice just a few days later?
The Last Supper scenes in the Synoptic Gospels become, for later Christianity, the key locus for a replacement of animal sacrifice, but it is important to note that such an interpretation is not present in the texts themselves. A bread and wine ritual, depicted in the Synoptic Gospels and also known to Paul (1 Cor. 11:23–25), was certainly important for these authors, but they never claim that this ritual is a direct replacement of sacrifice, or that it is equivalent to sacrifice. Far from depicting the bread and wine as a replacement for sacrifice, the Synoptic narratives suggest that sacrificial meat was on the table at the same time Jesus was speaking of bread and wine as body and blood!
The New Testament Gospels reveal a critical point: Christian positions on sacrifice develop very slowly. The later Christian theology of Jesus as a replacement for sacrifice is not present in the earliest texts. The historical situation of the Gospel authors is also revealing. All of these authors lived in a world where the Temple was gone and sacrifice to Yahweh could not be performed, but they do not directly address the consequences of this reality.
Acts furthers this picture by imagining the disciples frequenting the Temple after Jesus' death (for example, 2:26; 3:1; 5:12, 20, 42). Even more explicitly, Acts depicts Paul performing animal sacrifice in Jerusalem (21:23–26; 24:17). Since Paul is the hero of Acts, this is very strong evidence that the author of Acts does not see sacrifice as rejected or replaced. This shows that early Christians did not reject sacrifice and then live out that rejection; rather, the rejection of sacrifice in Christian texts are later attempts to rationalize and mythologize a non-participation that had begun decades earlier, with the Temple's destruction.
Hebrews is the only New Testament text that provides extended discussion of sacrifice. The dating of the text is uncertain, but it is probably after 70. The author of Hebrews explicitly contrasts Jesus to the priests and sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple. The author argues that Jesus is a superior high priest], and that he enacts a perfect sacrifice that is efficacious once for all (5:5–10; 6:20–7:28; 9:1–10:6). In contrast, the imperfect priests of the Temple performed imperfect sacrifices that could not remove sin (7:11–14). The most interesting thing about this text is the subtlety of the argument. The author claims that the accepted goal of the Temple sacrifices is to solve the problem of sin and death, but contemporary Judean texts do not claim that this is the purpose of sacrifice. Hebrews thus represents a creative redefinition of sacrifice, which negatively evaluates the Jerusalem sacrifices based on goals that were not universally accepted as their goals. Few ancient Judeans would have agreed with the notion that the purpose of all the Temple sacrifices was removal of sin and the securing of eternal life. In the Hebrew Bible, only a small subset of sacrifice has anything to do with sin, and notions of eternal life are not connected to sacrifice at all. With Hebrews, we start to see parts of what will become the later Christian position on sacrifice forming—but only forming. Notice that the idea that the "Lord's Supper" is a sacrifice is absent from Hebrews and will not be fully articulated until Cyprian of Carthage in the third century (Epistle 63, 73).
The New Testament texts reveal varying degrees of interest in the topic of sacrifice. They also show a range of creative attempts to explain the relationship between Christians and both Judean and Greek and Roman sacrificial practices. Early Christians, as non-sacrificers, were in an unusual position, living as they did it a world in which sacrificial rituals were pervasive. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the positions on sacrifice in the New Testament is that they show how varied these responses were. It will not be until the second and third centuries that we see some of what will become, for later Christianity, key elements of Christian theological models of sacrifice.
Another important trend, one that will become very important to Christian cultural producers of the second and third centuries, is a careful delineation between Greek and Roman sacrificial traditions and Judean sacrificial traditions. The form of Christianity that eventually came to dominance in the fourth century had a problem. These Christians believed that the god of the Hebrew Bible was also the Christian god. They therefore had to explain the existence of sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible and why they did not practice them. They further had to explain why God, if he was god, had allowed the Romans to destroy his Temple. One strategy, of which we see beginnings in Hebrews, but which will emerge in full force in the writings of Justin Martyr, is virulently anti-Jewish supersessionist arguments in which Christianity is presented as a replacement for the defunct Temple sacrifices.
We must remember that not all early Christians thought that the god of the Hebrew Bible was God. For many early Christians, Yahweh was an evil being with no relationship to the true god of Christ. These Christians did not need to explain away the Temple rituals nor the events of 70, nor did they need to position themselves and their rituals in direct opposition to Judean sacrifices. Many Christian texts classified under the unfortunate scholarly shorthand "gnostic" show completely negative views of both Greco-Roman and Judean sacrifice. For these Christians, the notion that Jesus was a "true sacrifice" would be abhorrent. An often forgotten, but extremely important, context for early Christian debates over sacrifice is the internal competition among different Christians to define true Christianity.
It is hoped that this brief look at the issue of sacrifice in the New Testament will show just how slow and complex the development of a Christian theology of sacrifice was.
Theoretical Approaches to Sacrifice
- Bell, Catherine M. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Stowers, Stanley. "The Religion of Plant and Animal Offerings Versus the Religion of Meanings, Essences, and Textual Mysteries." In Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice, edited by Jennifer Wright Knust and Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, 35–56. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Heyman, George. The Power of Sacrifice: Roman and Christian Discourses in Conflict. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007.
- Klawans, Jonathan. Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Petropoulou, Maria-Zoe. Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity, 100 BC–to AD 200. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Ullucci, Daniel. The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Sacrifice in the New Testament
Sacrifice in Other Forms of Early Christianity
- King, Karen L. "Christians Who Sacrifice and Those Who Do Not? Discursive Practices, Polemics, and Ritualizing." In "The One Who Sows Bountifully": Essays in Honor of Stanley K. Stowers, edited by Caroline Johnson Hodge, Saul M. Olyan, Daniel C. Ullucci, and Emma Wasserman, 307–318. Brown Judaic Studies, 2013.