Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Jesus' Death as a Sacrifice


Different cultures throughout history have quite consistently followed the same pattern of development, changing their view of sacrifices over time. Cultures typically move through 5 transitions:

1) Human sacrifice is replaced with animal sacrifice.

2) A connection is made between purity (cultic and ritual) and morality.

3) Inward attitudes are said to matter more than outward sacrifices. Outward sacrifices are critiqued as worthless if not done with correct motives. Sacrificial language becomes used metaphorically to refer to inward attitudes.

4) A move is made to reject sacrificial activities entirely and replace it with morality as all important. Morality is alleged to achieve the true goals that sacrifices were trying to achieve but could not. Sacrificial language is used metaphorically to refer to morality in order to try and justify this position in the minds of more traditional hearers.

5) The sacrificial system is totally rejected and scorned by all. Sacrificial language is no longer used.

The transitions 1-4 can been seen occurring through the Old Testament. Similarly we can list the uses of sacrifices in different cultures and find most of them referenced in the Old Testament:

A) A gift to the deity.
B) To feed the deity.
C) A group meal. The whole community would share in the meal, often with a portion being left for the deity who would thus eat with the community.
D) Any killing of an animal was a "sacrifice". Blood was sacred, so all blood was shed before the deity.
E) To spiritually cleanse anything. Blood was a magical detergent.
F) To formally seal an agreement. The magical blood of the sacrifice and / or the common meal together of eating the sacrifice would seal the pact.

Jesus as cultic sacrifice

The New Testament writers are at stage 4 of the above list. They want to replace the cultic rituals with morality. They see the sacrificial system as being "fulfilled" in Jesus and use metaphorical language to speak of him as a "sacrifice". The New Testament writers use many different metaphors to speak of Jesus as a sacrifice (they use most of A-F). They also use a metaphor of Jesus as a curse-transmission ritual (the "scapegoat") which is also common across many ancient cultures and works quite differently to sacrifices.

Thus, though the New Testament writers consistently speak of Jesus as a "sacrifice" there is no underlying theme in terms of how that sacrifice worked or what it accomplished. They compare him to each and every type of sacrifice, all of which worked quite differently. (A lot of Christian theologians fall into the trap of assuming all sacrifices worked the same way and that thus every occurrence of anything that looks like sacrificial language in the New Testament is just another way of saying that Jesus took our sins on him on the cross.) Because the New Testament writers are at stage 4, they are simply using sacrificial language on an ad hoc basis to appeal to their more traditional hearers. They do not think Jesus’ death worked in the same way as any of the ancient sacrifices did. (After all, if the ancient sacrifices actually worked, what need for Jesus to work in the same way as they did?)

Jesus as moral sacrifice

Instead, the early Christians (being at stage 4) saw Jesus death in terms of morality. Jesus death had moral significance which they depicted to their traditional hearers using a variety of different cultic and ritual metaphors. They saw Jesus’ death primarily in two related ways:

1) As a martyr for his cause (a noble death). Jesus had "sacrificed" his life for his cause. He had known that the authorities would put him to death for what he had to say, and he nevertheless continued saying it anyway. He was prepared to die for his cause, giving a lesson to his followers that they ought to be prepared to die for it too. He was an example to aspire to and imitate, asking nothing from us that he himself had not been prepared to give.

2) To teach us not to fear death (particularly death for Jesus’ cause). Because of their belief in Christ’s resurrection, the Christians were convinced that death was not the end. It was not to be feared. It was a common belief at the time that lack of fear of death empowered honourable and noble action and added ability for moral uprightness.

The New Testament writers continually invoke the words that Christ "died for" us. This phrase is extremely common in ancient Greek literature (111 occurrences in surviving documents) and 100% of the time refers to martyrdom for a cause. To the early Christians, Jesus’ teachings and death had changed their lives. Their writings reflected their amazement and awe at how their lives had been transformed. They grasped for every possible metaphor and analogy to express the change that had come to them as a result of the one crucified man. The ancient sacrificial system proved fertile ground for such metaphors, and they were used in abundance.


Blogger Lars said...

Hello Andrew

Where can I read more about this:

"The New Testament writers continually invoke the words that Christ "died for" us. This phrase is extremely common in ancient Greek literature (111 occurrences in surviving documents) and 100% of the time refers to martyrdom for a cause."

Blogger Andrew said...

Best I know of is "Paul's Dying Formula" by Jeffery B. Gibson in Celebrating Romans: Template for Pauline Theology
edited by Sheila E McGinn, 2004.


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