QUESTION:

Would it be accurate to say that after Jesus’ death the first-century Christians turned him into an enduring symbol of the very sacrificial system that he himself rejected in life? By ‘sacrificial system’ I’m referring both to the ancient lamb/goat-based traditions surrounding Yom Kippur, as well as to the later lamb sacrifices conducted by the Jerusalem temple priests during Jesus’ day, etc. And, by the word ‘rejected,’ I’m wondering if Jesus having upset the moneychanger’s tables at the temple was his way of disparaging the very notion of paying money to buy a lamb for a priest to sacrifice in order to atone for one’s sins.

 

RESPONSE:

This is an interesting question, with several intriguing aspects: 1) Did Jesus reject the Jewish sacrificial system? 2) Did his followers borrow their imagery for the salvific character of his death from the Jewish sacrificial system? 3) If so, were they not embracing precisely what he abandoned?

I think the easiest question to answer is #2: Yes, I think the early followers of Jesus did see his death as an atoning sacrifice, and for this imagery they relied on what they knew. Since they (the very first followers of Jesus, even before Paul) were Jewish, what they knew about atonement came from their own religious experiences, practices, and Scripture. Jesus’ death for them was an atonement for sin, the perfect sacrifice that – eventually they came to think – replaced the sacrifices in the Temple. I should hedge a bit and say that it is not clear that the earliest Christians thought that there was no longer any need for Temple sacrifice. The book of Acts, at least, indicates that they continued to attend the Temple and there is nothing to suggest they did not offer sacrifices still. But after a while, it came to be thought that with the death of Jesus, further sacrifice was no longer necessary. Paul himself has this sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death clearly in mind, as evident from such passages as Rom. 3:24-25, and Paul’s somewhat peculiar statement that “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.” (The reason it’s peculiar is that the Passover lamb that was sacrificed was not understood to be for atonement.)

The answer to question #3 – isn’t it ironic that the Christians embraced what Jesus rejected – hinges on the answer to #1 – did Jesus reject the Jewish sacrificial system?

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