The Religion of Sacrifice and Abraham, Isaac and Jesus

by Richard L. Rubenstein (October 2009)

As Rebecca Bynum has shown in her articles on Jesus and Paul, a singularly important avenue to the understanding of Jesus and his relation to first century Judaism is to stress his role as the culminating prophet in the long list of Hebrew prophets.[1] As she indicates, I have chosen to focus primarily on the role of religious sacrifice in my attempt to understand Jesus in relation to his time. I believe that that issue exhibits simultaneously elements of both continuity and discontinuity between the two traditions.


My starting place is the narrative of the Aqedah (Genesis 22:1-19), God’s unconditional command that Abraham offer up Isaac as a sacrifice as depicted in Scripture: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Gen 22:2) As is well known, on one of the holiest days of the Jewish religious calendar, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, this is the required reading from the Torah.


The Aqedah is a story of an aborted infanticide demanded by God. According to the eminent twentieth-century, Jewish scholar, the late Shalom Spiegel, “the primary purpose of the Akedah story may have been only this: to attach to a real pillar of the folk and a revered reputation the new norm-abolish human sacrifice, substitute animals instead.”[2]  It would appear that most, but by no means all, modern Jewish scholars agree with Spiegel.


There is, however, a minority opinion persuasively expressed by Harvard’s Jon Levenson that “Gen. 22:1-19 is frighteningly unequivocal about YHVH’s ordering a father to offer up his son as a sacrifice.” [3] I share Levinson’s opinion. Although Shalom Spiegel was my teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I must respectfully disagree with him.


An important reason for this difference of opinion is that there are verses in Scripture in which the divine command to sacrifice the first born male appears to be unconditional. For example, Ex 13: 1-2 stipulates: “The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, “Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine.” Ex 22:28-29 reads,  “You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats. You shall give Me the first-born among your sons. You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.” In neither verse do we find a mitigating qualification.


Elsewhere in Exodus, Scripture does call for a surrogate offering to take the place of and redeem the male child: “And when the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites ….you shall set apart for the Lord every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be the Lord‘s. But every firstling ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born male among your children.” (Ex 13:11-13)


Moreover, there is also evidence in Scripture that child sacrifice was not only practiced in Israel, perhaps as late as 500 B.C.E.,  but that it may very well have been part of the official cultus rather than an alien, pagan intrusion. The most intriguing hint that such might indeed have been the case occurs in the words of the Prophet Ezekiel who depicts YHVH as mounting a crescendo of accusations against “Jerusalem” that culminates in the following condemnation:


You even took the sons and daughters that you bore to Me and sacrificed them to those [images] as food.—as if your harlotries were not enough, you slaughtered My children and presented them as offerings to them. (Ezek 16:20-21.) 


Moreover, there is a very strange passage in Ezekiel in which the prophet apparently admits that the rituals he abhors were actually practiced by men and women who regarded them as an authentic expression of Yahvism: “I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live: When they set aside every first issue of the womb, I defiled them by their very gifts—that I might render them desolate, that they might know that I am the Lord. (Ez 20: 25-26)


Ed Noort, a Dutch scholar, has called this passage ““the most peculiar sentence on the role of torah (sic) in the Hebrew Bible,” noting that “It is YHVH himself who provides the laws leading to death instead of life. He allows Israel to taint itself by the sacrifice of the firstborn.”[4]  Ezekiel’s depiction of YHVH giving Israel “laws leading to death” is consistent with Noort’s view that in contemporary scholarship, “The picture of the black-and-white oppositions between Baalism and Yahwism has disappeared.” [5]


We may indeed be able to learn a good deal about child sacrifice in ancient Israel from ancient Carthage. Founded as a colony of the Phoenician city of Tyre, with which Judah and Israel had important commercial and religious contacts in ancient times, there was apparently a close affinity between Israelite and Phoenician or Canaanite culture.” [6] Ancient writers such as Kleitarchos, Agathocles, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and the Christian theologian Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220) all testify to the practice of child sacrifice in the realm of Carthage. In December 1921, the largest cemetery of sacrificed infants in the ancient Near East was discovered at Carthage, now a resort suburb of the city of Tunis.[7] There are similar, smaller Phoenician sites in Sicily, Sardinia and Tunisia.


In the 1970s, archaeologists Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff excavated an area in the city of Carthage estimated to be no less than “between 54,000 and 64,000 square feet” that they called the “Carthaginian Tophet.” They estimate that as many as 20,000 funerary urns containing the bones of young children were deposited at the site between 400 B.C.E. and 200 B.C.E. or approximately one child sacrifice every three days.[8] Mixed in with children’s bones in some of the urns, they also found urns containing the charred bones of lambs and kids. They concluded that the “burned animals were intended as substitute sacrifices for children.”[9] I should, however, note that a minority of scholars challenge the notion that live children were sacrificed at Carthage and argue that the literary evidence for such sacrifices was nothing more than a blood libel spread by foreign antagonists.[10] Nevertheless, the scholarly consensus is that the literary and archaeological evidence point overwhelmingly to the practice of child sacrifice. We should also note that, although such sacrifices were religiously motivated, they did serve a sociological function of population control, much as abortion and infanticide have in other cultures.


There would thus seem to be a clear connection between lambs and kids in the Carthaginian urns and the ram that takes the place of Isaac in the Aqedah (Gen 22:13), as well as the lamb required for redemption in place of the Israelite first born in Ex 34: 19-20 where God is depicted as declaring: “Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.” Similarly, there would seem to be a connection between the Carthaginian surrogate animals and the Passover lamb in Ex 12-13. Thus, Scripture depicts God as commanding the Hebrews to place “some of the blood” of the lamb on doorposts of their houses and declare: “I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born…., both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord. And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Ex 12: 12-13) As with the Aqedah ram, the Passover lamb is a substitute offering in place of the Hebrew first-born. The blood provides the evidence of the substitution.


[11] Let us recall that Hiram, King of Tyre, sent architects, stone masons and other workmen, as well as cedar wood, to Solomon for the construction of the First Temple of Jerusalem. As noted above, most modern Jewish scholars have held that the fundamental lesson of the Aqedah was that the sacrifice of the first born was no longer required and that an animal was an acceptable surrogate. Such a judgment may reflect a cultural bias in which religion is seen as evolving from the lower to higher forms. Thus, nineteenth-century Reform Jewish thinkers tended to eliminate traditional prayers for the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple and its Scripturally-ordained rituals of animal sacrifice because they regarded prayer as a “higher” and more “spiritual” form of worship than bloody animal sacrifices. Nevertheless, Stager and Wolff inform us that there was no retreat from human sacrifices in Carthage over the centuries. On the contrary, they report that the proportion of human to animal bones found in the urns were far greater in “the fourth and third centuries B.C.E., when Carthage had attained the height of urbanity,” than in the earlier centuries. Moreover, the inscriptions on the monuments reveal that a far greater proportion of the bones were of children of noble and prosperous families rather than of “common Carthaginians.” They also remind us that the Phoenicians were among the most highly civilized and cosmopolitan people in the Mediterranean.


An important reason for the persistence and even the increase in human sacrifice may have been the thought that if animal sacrifices were efficacious, how much more efficacious would an even more precious offering, the sacrifice of the beloved child, be.


Moreover, Judaism never entirely rejected the idea that God demands the sacrifice of the first-born son. However we evaluate the existence of child sacrifice in ancient Judah, Israel, Canaan, and the colonies of Canaan-Phoenicia, it is evident that we are dealing with a God who demands the death of children. In reflecting on the issue of child sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, Levenson comments, “…the mythic-ritual complex that I have been calling ‘child sacrifice’ was never eradicated; it was only transformed.”[12] A prime example of that transformation is the pidyon ha-ben ritual in fulfillment of the commandment already noted: “You shall redeem all the firstborn of your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.” (Exodus 34:20) In this ceremony, the father presents his first-born son to a cohen or hereditary priest on the thirtieth day after his birth whereupon the priest asks the father, “Which do you prefer, your son or your money?” The father declares that he prefers his son and presents the cohen with five silver dollars, the symbolic equivalent of five biblical shekels, in order to “redeem” his son. The priest accepts the coins with the ritual formula, “This (the coins) in place of that (the child). This in exchange for that.”


I have personally described the pidyon haben ceremony for my first-born son, Aaron, in an autobiographical work.[13] To make my point, I included an outrageous fantasy about the ritual. Instead of saying, “I want my son,” I imagined myself as saying, “I want my money. God can have the boy.” The response totally disorients the cohen because he knows that in the Bible whatever is employed to “redeem” the child is actually the surrogate for the life of the child, just as the ram substituted for Isaac in the Aqedah. When I participated in the ceremony, I had no such thoughts. The fundamental purpose of the ceremony was subliminally to acknowledge and deflect our infanticidal tendencies. In its own way, that motive is also operative in Christian for it is Christ, the Son, who is sacrificed so that others may be redeemed. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I understood that at some level the ritual recognized that the subterranean power of the infanticidal impulse had never entirely disappeared. Today, the ceremony is a happy family occasion and few, if any, participants are aware of its archaic  significance.


Not only does Jewish tradition continue the pidyon haben ceremony to this day, but, as we have seen, on one of Judaism’s holiest days, Jews are reminded that the death of their ancestral patriarch’s first-born son was only averted as a result of the patriarch’s unconditional obedience to God’s terrible command. Thus, Scripture depicts an “angel of the Lord” telling Abraham: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” (Gen 22: 12) There follows a second angelic address. Abraham is told: “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendents, because you have obeyed my command.” (Gen 22: 18) Not only has the sacrifice has been averted because of Abraham’s unconditional obedience, but God’s covenant has been bestowed on him and his descendants because of that same obedience.” Moreover, Abraham’s obedience was matched by that of his son. Scripture depicts Isaac as asking his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” Scripture then reports, “And the two of them walked on together.” (Gen 22: 7-8) indicating thereby their complete unity of resolve.[14] Some traditions refer to the “ashes of Isaac” and claim that Abraham performed the sacrifice but that Isaac was resurrected.[15] Thus, the twelfth century poet, Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn (b. 1132), depicted Isaac as imploring Abraham :


Bind for me my hands and my feet

Lest I be found wanting and profane the sacrifice.

I am afraid of panic, I am concerned to honor you,

My will is to honor you greatly.[16]


Abraham then prepares the fire and wood of the sacrifice “in their right order” after which:


With steadfast hands he slaughtered him according to the rite,

Full right was the slaughter.


The poet then tells of Isaac’s resurrection and of Abraham’s determination to complete the sacrifice:


Down upon him fell the resurrecting dew, and he revived.

(The father seized him (then) to slaughter him once more.

Scripture, bear witness! Well-grounded is the fact:

And the Lord called Abraham, even a second time from heaven.


At that point, the ram appears “in a nearby thicket.”


Because of the Crusader massacres of Jews in the Rhineland during Rabbi Ephraim’s lifetime, the poem had an especial poignancy. At the time, many Jewish fathers did slaughter their children. When the Crusaders swept through Bonn, Mainz, Wurms and other communities on their way to the Holy Land, they gave Jews the choice of death or conversion. In those days, the Jews preferred to die and frequently slaughtered their children to prevent them from being overcome by a moment of weakness.


As noted above, most modern Jewish commentators see the lesson of the Aqedah as YHVH’s rejection of human sacrifice. Nevertheless, so eminent a religious authority as the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, arguably the most important Orthodox thinker of twentieth-century America, rejected that view:


Abraham implemented the sacrifice of Isaac not on Mount Moriah but in the depths of his heart. He gave up Isaac the very instant God addressed Himself to him and asked him to return his most precious possession to its legitimate master and owner. Immediately, with no arguing or pleading, Abraham surrendered Isaac. He gave him up as soon as the command “and offer him there for a burned offering” (Gen. 22:2) was issued. Inwardly, the sacrificial act was consummated at once. Isaac no longer belonged to Abraham. He was dead as far as Abraham was concerned. [17]


According to Soloveitchik, because of Abraham’s willingness to slay his son and the fact that he experienced the full horror of the sacrifice the very instant the command was given, “there was no need for the physical sacrifice” and the animal became an acceptable substitute. Soloveitchik further comments that had Abraham not “immediately surrendered Isaac, had he not experienced the Aqedah in its full awesomeness and frightening helplessness, God would not have sent the Angel to stop Abraham from implementing the command. Abraham would have lost Isaac physically (emphasis added).” [18]


Thus, Soloveitchik clearly refutes the notion that the purpose of the Aqedah narrative was to demonstrate that God’s rejection of the actual sacrifice of Isaac. Soloveitchik’s interpretation is consistent with Scripture which clearly states that not only was Isaac’s sacrifice averted because of Abraham’s unconditional obedience, but God’s covenant was bestowed on Abraham and his progeny because of that very same obedience (Gen. 22: 15-18).


Let us now turn to Jesus. Whatever narrative divergences exist between the four canonical Gospels, they are at one in depicting the death of Jesus as occurring during the Passover season. Mark, in all probability the oldest Gospel, offers the following description of the beginning of the public career of Jesus:


In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased. (Mk 1:9-11; see Matt 3:17, Luke 3:22, 2 Peter 1:17).


Levenson sees echoes of Isaac’s role in the aqedah in Jesus’ designation as God’s beloved Son, but there is great irony in this designation. To be God’s beloved son or even the beloved son in the Israelite-Canaanite-Phoenician religion complex is no promise of enduring felicity. All too often the fate of the beloved son was to endure a supreme sacrificial test or worse. In Carthage, noble families often sacrificed that which was most precious to them, their child, as a gift to the goddess Taanith or the god Baal Hammon. Moreover, at a very early stage, the infant Christian community came to believe that the suffering servant of Isa 52:13-53:12 was linked to the idea of Jesus as God’s beloved Son. This helped to transform the crucifixion from a weapon of painful death to an assurance of eternal life.[19] Isaac, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and Jesus must all submit to a terrible confrontation with death to please their Heavenly Father.[20]


At the first meeting of Jesus and John the Baptist, the Fourth Gospel depicts the Baptist as declaring: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). These words have been incorporated into the Latin Mass as Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, “an image that foreshadows the coming Passion.”[21] In reality, this double identification of Jesus as Son of God and Lamb of God may not indicate a real difference inasmuch as the term Son of God may also point to Jesus’ role as the sacrificial victim.


There may be some question concerning the historical veracity of John’s version of the meeting between the Baptist and Jesus. However, because John depicts Jesus as a stranger who descends from a heavenly realm for a temporary earthly sojourn, historical details concerning Jesus’ earthly activities were of less concern to him than to Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Hence, at least in the narrative concerning the involvement of Jewish authorities in Jesus’ death, Paula Fredricksen, a distinguished New Testament scholar, argues that John may preserve more of the historical details than do the later gospel writers.[22]


The earliest written narrative about Jesus, the letters of Paul, identifies Jesus as the Paschal Lamb. Paul was not only at home in Jewish custom, but the symbolism and mood of Passover is present in I Corinthians where Paul calls Christ “our Passover,” and uses the Jewish custom of cleansing the home of all leaven before the Passover festival as a metaphor for the moral self-cleansing of the Corinthian Church (I Cor. 5:6-8).[23] Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is also the oldest extant Christian document about the Lord’s Supper.[24] Although Paul left no systematic exposition of the meaning of the Eucharist, he does discuss the Lord’s Supper at some length in two passages in that epistle. In these passages he refers to the Lord’s Supper in connection with his efforts to deal with problems that arose in Corinth in his absence. Warning Corinth’s believers against immoral and idolatrous behavior, Paul writes: 


Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread… You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (I Cor. 10:16-21)


In the next chapter, Paul writes:


For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;  and when He had given thanks (eucharisté?), He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. (I Cor. 11: 23-26.)


In its written form, Mark’s account of the Lord’s Supper (Mk 14: 12-26) is a few years later than Paul’s, but it probably reflects the same oral tradition utilized by Paul. Although Paul’s account differs somewhat from Mark’s in detail, there is a fundamental agreement that suggests that the primitive Church preserved a well­ defined memory of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in which he identified the bread and wine with his own body and blood. By so doing, Jesus opened the possibility of the de­velopment of a sacrificial ritual centering in his own person. Never­theless, Jesus’ Last Supper is not yet a meal in which Jesus himself is the sacrificial victim. During the Last Supper, Jesus declared to his disciples, “I tell you solemnly, I shall not drink any more wine until the day I drink new wine in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). These words would indicate that the Last Supper was primarily a feast of leave-taking and hopeful an­ticipation. Jesus looked forward to the time when be would once again eat in fellowship with his disciples “in the kingdom of God.” It is the consensus of scholarly opinion that Jesus’ promise refers to the future messianic feast that the Messiah will enjoy with the faith­ful when all is accomplished.


It is very likely that Jesus’ promise to return corresponded with his disciples’ deepest yearning. They were aware of the terminal threat that hung over their Master’s life and it was by no means certain that the group could maintain itself without him. By virtue of the absolutely unique impact Jesus had upon his followers, he simply could not be replaced. In all likelihood, his words of confident assurance that he would return reflected his intuitive understanding of what his loss would mean to them.


Oscar Cullmann has commented that the meals shared by the dis­ciples immediately after Jesus’ death were initially meals of joy and thanksgiving rather than sorrowful commemorations of the Crucifixion.[25] According to Acts, the disciples “continued to meet every day in the Temple and, breaking bread at home, they ate their meals with joy and simplicity” (Acts 2:46). If the meals they shared had a distinctly sacrificial character, emphasizing the consumption of the body and blood of the Risen Christ, it is unlikely that they would have continued to meet “every day in the Temple” where the traditional Jewish sacrifices were offered.


Perhaps the most helpful way of understanding the evolution of the Eucharist is to be found in Oscar Cullmann’s distinction between the earliest sacred meals, at which the disciples ate with Christ, and the later Lord’s Meal, at which Christ was eaten.[26] The joyful meals of fellowship at which the Risen Christ was present to his disciples were meals in which the disciples either ate with Christ or anticipated eating with him at the messianic feast. However, there came a time when hopeful anticipation of Christ’s return predominated over the feeling of his presence. The sources depict Christ as present immediately after the Resurrection, but, within a short time, the disciples are left to carry on their work without him. It is at this point that their longing for his return must have intensified. That longing is powerfully ex­pressed in the Eucharistic liturgy preserved in the Didache, which most scholars date no later than 150 and many date much earlier. As the sacred meal concludes the leader prays: “Let his Grace (i.e., Christ) draw near, and let the present world pass away.” The con­gregation replies: “Hosanna to the God of David.” Leader: “Who­ever is holy, let him approach. Whoso is not, let him repent.” The congregation concludes with the Maranatha: “O Lord, come quickly.  Amen.”[27]


The Didache’s version of the Eucharist rests upon Jesus’ assurance to his disciples that he would not drink wine again until he did so in God’s kingdom. This version expresses the note of anticipation and expectation we have already noted in the earliest forms of the Christian sacred meal. Nevertheless, there is a limit to the human capacity for unrequited yearning. Ultimately, men must choose either to abandon the object of yearning and reinvest their emotional energy elsewhere or to find a way to rejoin the lost object.


That way was found through identification with Christ. Throughout his life, Paul saw humanity’s fundamental problem as: How can we achieve the right relationship to our Creator? Before conversion his response was the classical Jewish answer: Human beings achieve the right re­lationship by obedient submission to the will of God. That submission was why normative Judaism has always been the religion of Torah and its authoritative interpreters. After conversion, Paul found another way to achieve an acceptable relationship to God: identification with Christ. Identification is therefore a crucial category in which both the religious and the psychological worlds intersect in the experience of Paul and his spiritual heirs.[28]


I am indebted to the scholarship of Albert Schweitzer for much of my understanding of the role of identification in Paul’s thought and religious experience.[29] Before Schweitzer, Protestant New Testament scholarship tended to read Paul through the eyes and experience of Martin Luther, stressing the centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith. Schweitzer maintained that the doctrine of justification by faith, while undoubt­edly of great importance, was less central to Paul’s thought than his “Christ mysticism” and his eschatology. Instead of regarding Paul as an opponent of Judaism, as earlier Protestant scholars tended to do, Schweitzer interpreted him as a loyal Jew who was convinced that the Risen Christ had initiated the Messianic Age.[30] According to Schweitzer, Paul understood the kind of existence baptized Christians enjoyed in the Messianic Age to be literally that of corporeal solidarity with the glorified, immortal body of the Risen Christ. He asserted that the fundamental conception of Paul’s Christ mysticism is that the elect and Christ partake of a common bodily identity.[31] This identification is expressed most graphically in Paul’s ex­clamation that, having been crucified with Christ, it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him (Gal. 2:20). Paul described Christians as having “clothed themselves” with Christ, by which he meant that Christ was their new, heavenly body rather than new apparel (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 13:14; cf. 11 Cor. 5:3, 4; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).


According to Paul, in baptism Christians identify with both Christ’s death and his resurrection. Thus, in Romans 6:3-4 Paul writes: “Are you ignorant that when we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death? In other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life” (Rom. 6:3, 4). And, in Colossians 2: 12   “You have been buried with him, when you were baptized; and by baptism, too, you have been raised up with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead.”


The notion that at baptism Christians enter a new life, actually true life for the first time, was central to his thinking. He contrasted the convert’s pre-Christian existence, at best a kind of living death that ends in actual death, with his Christian life, which was in the process of becoming life as it was intended by God before the sin of Adam, life devoid of the related curses of sin and mortality (I Cor. 15:21-2; Rom. 5:12ff). Paul repeatedly described the baptized Christian as en Christo, “in Christ,” and he insisted that en Christo the Christian became a new man.  He wrote to the Corinthians, “For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation” (11 Cor. 5:17). So radically is the Christian’s identity transformed by his existence in Christ that Paul could assert of his own post-baptismal identity: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19).


Paul frequently used the metaphor of stripping off the old and putting on the new to describe the dying of the old self and rebirth in Christ (Eph. 4:22-24: Col. 3:9f; cf. Rom. 13:12, Col. 2:12). The new self the Christian acquires annuls both the old self and the pre-messianic world. All of the crucial distinctions that have cursed mankind are ended, at least in principle, with baptism: “All baptized in Christ, you have clothed yourselves in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28; cf. I Cor. 2:13). If the term “rebirth” is absent from the undisputed letters of Paul, the spiritual and psychological reality of the Chris­tian’s experience as newly and truly born pervades his thought.


In order to understand Paul’s the­ology, in the middle decades of the twentieth century Christian scholars such as W. D. Davies, Robin Scroggs, and C. K. Barrett studied the relevance of rabbinic speculation concerning Adam. Scroggs, in particular, has pointed to the importance of both rabbinic and apocryphal speculation (if indeed the two tendencies can be separated) concerning the Fall of Adam for an understanding of Paul’s interpretation of Christ’s role as “the Last Adam” who re­verses the condemnation brought upon the race by the first Adam. According to Scroggs, rabbinic tradition maintained that (1) be­fore sinning Adam enjoyed royal prerogatives over all of creation: Just as God is king on high, Adam’s original destiny was to be king below. (2) Adam originally possessed superlative wisdom, far greater than that of the angels. (3) Adam was truly made in the image (eikon) of GodAdam therefore resembled God himself rather than the angels, who were originally inferior to him. (4) Adam possessed a glorious nature. The ball of his heel outshone the sun. Adam thus partook of the very glory of God insofar as was possible for a cre­ated being. (5) Finally, Adam possessed cosmic dimensions and was reduced to the size of mortal men only after his disobedience.[32]


Scroggs’ categories summarize conveniently and accurately rabbinic speculation about Adam before the Fall. I concur with his estimate of the significance of these speculations: The rabbinic-apocryphal picture of Adam before the Fall resembles that tradition’s image of what man will be like in the World to Come. The deathless, glorified, felicitous existence enjoyed by prelapsarian Adam is the kind of existence that awaits the righteous in the World to Come. Adam originally enjoyed the kind of existence God intended all men to savor. When the corruptions of the present era are finally undone, Adam’s progeny will be restored to the felicitous existence their primal father was meant to enjoy. Although there is an elusive and an ambiguous character to rabbinic speculation concerning the World to Come, which makes it exceedingly difficult to assert that any doc­trine represents the rabbinic consensus, it would seem that there was at least agreement that the dead would be resurrected and that those found acceptable by God would enjoy some kind of bliss. My caution in suggesting more than this reflects the admonition implied in the well-known saying of R. Johanan, a second-century Palestinian teacher: “R. Johanan said: Every prophet prophesied only for the days of the Messiah, but as for the World to Come (i.e., the last age after the final judgment of humanity), ‘Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who wait for Him.’ (Isa. 64:4)” (Berakhoth 34b). It is possible that Johanan’s comment re­flected a rabbinic reaction to the increasingly successful Christian movement. Nevertheless, there was a link in rabbinic myth between the felicity that awaits the righteous and the immortality lost by Adam at the Fall. The rabbis frequently utilized the term gan ‘eden, the Garden of Eden, to refer to the paradise to come. Even the Eng­lish language cannot avoid a certain linguistic concurrence in this ideal- the same word is used for both the Paradise to be regained and the Paradise lost. Although no single rabbinic reflection on the World to Come can be taken as authoritative, there is one statement by Rab, a third-century Babylonian authority, which may be relevant to our study of Paul. According to Rab,


The World to Come is not like this world. In the World to Come there is neither eating nor drinking; there is no begetting of children or business; no envy or hatred or strife; but the righteous sit enthroned with their crowns on their heads and enjoy the lustre of the Shekhinah, as it is written, ‘And they beheld God, and ate and drank’ (Exod. 24:11)–they were satisfied with the radiance of God’s Shekhinah


This saying resembles Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees concerning the marital status of a woman who had successively married several brothers according to the law of levirate marriage. Jesus said: “When they rise from the dead men and women do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:24; cf. Matt. 22:30, Luke 20:34-36). Behind the sayings of Johanan, Rab, and Jesus, it is pos­sible to discern a common conviction that the order of things as we know it offers few hints concerning existence in the Age to Come. As we shall see, Paul shared this conviction (cf. I Cor. 15:46-50).


The supreme importance of obedience in biblical religion was graphically illustrated by Herman Melville in Moby Dick in Father Mapple’s sermon in which the preacher describes the sin  of Jonah Ben Amittai:


As with all sinners among men, the sin of the son of Amittai was his willful disobedience of the command of God-never mind what that command was, or how con­veyed-which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do…. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hard­ness of obeying God consists (emphasis added). [33]


Some argue that Father Mapple’s God is the God of an es­pecially rigid form of Calvinism and not the true God of biblical faith.[34] Nevertheless, Father Mapple is correct when be observes that in biblical religion man’s primary duty is to subordinate his own inclinations to the will of God. 


But, have we not heard of the salvific virtue of obedience before? Did not Scripture tell us that Abraham was relieved of his obligation to sacrifice because of his obedience? Let us recall the words of the first Angel of God: As Abraham lifts the knife to slay Isaac, the Angel calls to him and tells him not to slay the boy, “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one from me.” (Gen 22:12) In his comment in the authoritative Jewish Study Bible on the term “fear of God” as it is used here, Jon Levenson writes that “in the Tanakh [Hebrew Scriptures], the ‘fear of God’ denotes an active obedience to the divine will.”[35] It is because of his obeying God and disobeying himself that the covenant is bestowed on Abraham and his progeny. Moreover, this act of radical obedience is shared by Isaac who offers no resistance. Concerning father and son Scripture repeats “And the two of them walked together (Gen. 22:8).”


Paul’s belief that the world had been transformed, at least for those who are “in Christ,” arose from his unshakeable belief in Christ’s resurrection. Like his rabbinic teachers and contemporaries, such as Rabban Gamaliel, Paul did not see human mortality as necessarily rooted in human biology. On the contrary, they saw human mortality as originating in the disobedience of humanity’s original progenitor, Adam. However, unlike the rabbis, after Damascus Paul became convinced that the related flaws in creation, mortality, human disobedience, and the subjugation of the cosmos to the elemental powers were in the process of being overcome. He expressed that conviction in many places. Those most relevant to our issue are his reflections on the First and Last Adam in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15. In Romans 5 Paul begins with a reflection on the origin of death. “Well, then, sin entered the world through one man, and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned” (Rom. 5:12). 


Few passages in the New Testament have been commented upon as ex­tensively as this. As we have seen, Paul’s twin assertions that death is the result of sin and that sin entered the world “through one man” are entirely in keeping with the speculations of his Jewish contemporaries. Romans 5:12 rests in the final analysis upon the authority of Genesis 3:17ff. In this passage in Romans Paul seems to hold that men die because they replicate Adam’s sin, not because of Adam’s sin. However, Paul’s Jewish contemporaries could not have agreed with Paul as he continued his reflection on the two Adams: “Adam prefigured the One to come, but the gift itself outweighed the fall. If it is certain that through one man’s fall so many died, it is even more certain that divine grace, coming through one man, Jesus Christ, came to many as an abundant free gift” (Rom. 5:15).


The “abundant free gift” that comes through Christ is, of course, an end to mortality. In this verse Adam is depicted as the antitype of Jesus.[36] Just as the fruit of Adam’s sin is death, so through Christ’s superlative righteous­ness rnany will receive “divine grace” as “an abundant free gift” (Rom. 5:16). Paul elaborates on this theme in the next verse: “If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous.” The undeserved “free gift” that Christ makes available is the opposite of the penalty brought upon mankind by his antitype. Adam brings death; Jesus brings eternal life.


Paul also describes Christ as reversing the “condemnation” brought about by Adam and bringing instead “‘justification” (Rom. 5:16). Justification has a very explicit meaning for Paul. When God justifies the unworthy sinner, he pronounces a verdict of acquittal upon him and bestows upon him the gift of eternal life. From the time of Martin Luther until the beginning of the twentieth century, Protestantshave tended to regard the doctrine of justification by faith as the heart and center of Paul’s theology. I do not wish to enter to debate on this issue save to say that I believe one aspect of the doctrine of justification by faith must remain central to any interpretation of Paul: We must not lose sight of the decisive importance of eternal life as the fruit of God’s justifica­tion of the sinner as understood by Paul. In Romans 6:23, Paul contrasts the fruits of sin and justification: “For the wage of sin is death; the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Adam paid the price of sin; through Jesus the unearned gift of justification is be­stowed.


The centrality of eternal life as the fruit of justification is emphasized with great force in Paul’s discussion of Adam and Christ in I Corinthians 15. Scroggs has observed that the themes of Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15 “are related but not identical.”‘ In I Corinthians 15 Paul’s primary interest is to render credible to the skeptical Corinthians the Christian hope that those who are “in Christ” will ultimately be resurrected as was Jesus. By resurrection Paul meant the resurrection of the body, as did his Jewish con­temporaries. Apparently there was considerable skepticism in Corinth concerning the future resurrection of the bodies of the dead even among those who believed in Jesus’ Resurrection. Paul confronted this skepticism by arguing that “Christ has In fact been raised from the dead as the first fruits (aparche) of all who have fallen asleep.” (I Cor. 15:20). According to Jean Héring, the word aparche is al­most synonymous with the Hebrew arrabon, which is an earnest or a deposit. Paul’s meaning is that Christ’s Resurrection anticipates the resurrection of his followers, who will some day share his glorious destiny.


Having asserted that resurrection awaits the believer, Paul re­turned to the theme of the first and Last Adam: “Death came through one man. Just as all men die in Adam, so all men will be brought to life in Christ. . .” (I Cor. 15:21-22). Paul’s emphasis in I Corinthians is on the perfected, eternal life that awaits the believer in Christ. We cannot go into Paul’s understanding of the kind of perfected bodily existence in Christ the resurrected will enjoy, save to say that Christ’s resurrected nature is that of a soma pneumatikon, a “spiritual body” and that the spiritual body is for both Paul and the rabbis not immaterial. Paul also tells us that “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and the perishable cannot inherit what lasts forever.” (I Cor. 15:50) When the transformation occurs, all things will be changed. The perishable world will be redeemed. Death, corruption, and demonic domination will be forever defeated.


Paul’s assertions about Christ’s extraordinary power to redeem man and the cosmos leads to the question of why Christ alone had the superla­tive merit to be “the first fruit of all who have fallen asleep” as well as the fount of eternal life for a resurrected humanity. In an important sense, both Paul and his Jewish contemporaries were convinced that disobedience was the only sin and that all other sins derived from that one offense.  Since Judaism regarded all of the commandments as expressions of God’s will, every commandment presented men with the agonizing choice of obedience or rebellion against the all-wise and all-powerful Father. It made no difference whether a commandment was opaque to human understanding. It was a supreme act of arrogance for a man to judge for himself what to obey and what not to obey. It could in fact be argued that obedience to seemingly irrational or inconse­quential commandments was of greater import than obedience to commandments whose purpose could be clearly under­stood. The real issue was whether a man submitted to or rebelled against his Creator. Furthermore, the Creator was always in the right since the very structure of reality was the fruit of his will. In biblical religion a man who de­cides for himself which of God’s commandments he will obey puts himself in God’s place, asserting the priority of his own judgment over God’s. He judges what God alone can judge and, by so doing, arrogates to himself a preeminence God alone rightfully possesses. 


There is no place in this system for the modern ideal of the autonomous man who regards his own actions as entirely within his ethical competence. Paul asserts that Adam committed the paradigmatic sin of biblical religion, disobedience. He held that because of Adam’s disobedience in not ful­filling a single commandment death entered the world. By contrast, Christ alone of all men was so perfectly obedient that he even regarded his own life as of no account whatsoever against the majestic framework of God’s wisdom. As Paul regarded Adam as the paradigmatically sin­ful man, he saw Christ as the only truly righteous man. For Christ’s obedience extended even to the extraordinary agony of death as an unblemished innocent on the cross. Although Paul offers many sug­gestions as to why Christ’s death brought about the liberation of humanity from the consequences of Adam’s sin, he is most explicit in asserting that Christ was a “life-giving spirit” because of his obedience: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19; italics added).


In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded the Church that he had handed on to them the Good News that he had received: “I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins” (I Cor. 15:3). This is one of the earliest statements of the Christian kerygma. It has often been interpreted as a reference to Christ’s death as a vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind. There can be little doubt that Paul maintained that Christ’s death was sacrificial in character (Romans 3:21-28; 5:1-2; 1 Cor. 5:7). Nevertheless, even if we accept the thesis that Paul regarded Christ’s death as a vicarious atonement, we have yet to identify the superlative merit possessed by Christ that made such atonement possible. Others died without so fortunate an outcome; what was unique about Jesus? Paul answered that question in the passage we have cited, Romans 5:19. Christ’s merit consisted in his superlative obedience. Christ, in his innocence, had more justification for rebellion against the fate meted out to him than any other man. Nevertheless he submitted in perfect obedience to unmerited death on the cross. According to Paul, Christ alone was unblemished by any trace of rebellion against the Father. 


Paul’s logic was in keeping with that of his Jewish contemporaries. There was a prevalent Jewish speculation that were a man totally without sin-that is, perfectly obedient-he would not be condemned to death.[37]  Unlike his Jewish contemporaries, Paul was convinced that there was one such man, Christ, and that the merit of his flawless obedience was sufficient to bestow life on others as well as himself.


According to Paul, had Christ been tainted with even a trace of sinfulness, the powers to whom dominion had fallen after Adam’s transgression would have been within their legitimate right in claiming Christ as their victim. Under the Law, their Law, the wages of sin are death. Happily for mankind, the cosmic powers did not recog­nize Christ as the sinless obedient Son of God. Christ permitted them to exceed their proper sphere when they condemned him to cruci­fixion. By his perfect obedience to the Father’s wise and mysterious plan, Christ tricked the “rulers of this age” (hoi archontes tou ai?nos toutou) (I Cor. 2:8), and thereby deprived them of their dominion over mankind. Christ thus reversed what Adam had sadly initiated. [38]


Paul saw this union of Christ and Christian as a true unity. The Church is more than a collection of individuals united by common belief and hope. The Church is literally the body of Christ, and Christians are “living” members of that body (Eph. 5:30). To be a member of the Church is to share a common identify with Christ. Paul asked the Corinthians rhetorically, “You know surely that your bodies are members making up the body of Christ. (I Cor. 6:15). This is no mere figure of speech. Later in I Corinthians Paul illustrates the meaning of the Christian’s existence in Christ by analogy with the human body: “Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ (I Cor. 12:12-13). “Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it” (I Cor. 12:27). Bishop John A. T. Robinson has observed that the body Paul has in mind here is not that of “a supra-personal collective” but of a single, concrete individual.[39]


Once Christ’s physical departure had finally become a reality, the forces that made for a Christian’s identification with him were overwhelming. Christ had become the heart and center of the disciples’ lives both in this world and for the world to come. As we have noted, identification with Christ gave Christians the means of achieving the most crucial of all relationships, the right relationship with the God who held the destiny of their souls in the balance. Identification with Christ provided Christians with their most awesome hope, hope for a way out of mortality; it also provided them with a primary community, the Church, in which their fears, hopes, and aspirations could be shared. Christ was simply too important to lose or even to remain a distant object of yearning. A way had to be found to assure the primitive Church that Christ was a present reality, as he had been in those first days after the Resurrection.


There was more than one way in which Jesus could be present at the sacred tables of the primitive Church. He could be, as he had been, with them in spirit; he could also be with them concretely as both food and feeder. Jesus’ action in offering bread and wine with the words, “This is my body; this is my blood,” contain the implicit message, “I am the food as I am the feeder.” If it was no longer possible for Christians to share food with Jesus, it was inevitable that they would find in these words a way to be with him in body.


By construing the bread and wine of their sacred meal as the body and blood of Christ, Christians resorted to the oldest, most effec­tive, and most crudely physical way of becoming one with the beloved object, physical incorporation. The Eucharist was a literal acting out of the basic Christian strategy for achieving the right relationship with the Father in Heaven, identification with the beloved Son, whom Paul in one place calls the “first born of many brothers.” (Romans 8:29) By finding a way to over­come the gap that separated the bereft disciples from Christ, a way that was rooted in the most archaic, nonverbal, sensuous strategies of the human organism, the primitive Christians preserved both the integrity of their com­munity and its redemptive message. They were also able to cope with the inevitable tension between the Christian proclamation of hope fulfilled and the Christian reality of hope deferred. By partaking of what they regarded as the true substance of the Risen Christ, they periodically became “one body” with his immortal glory and anticipated sharing in it com­pletely at the end of days. At the same time, they prepared them­selves for the rhythm of life in which the assurance of redemption was constantly countered by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire.


It is precisely the crudely physical aspects of the Lord’s Meal, in which Christ is both food and feeder that constitute its overwhelming power. Wherever this rite has been taken seriously, and wherever the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Meal has been asserted, Christendom has had an incomparable way of expressing through religious ritual its deepest conscious and un­conscious yearnings concerning human morality, kinship, and mortal­ity. In I Corinthians 10, Paul’s insistence that Corinthians who participated in the Eucharist must abstain from pagan cultic banquets is an example of the way sacrificial rituals have been utilized for the purpose of moral and religious control. Since no man may partake of the sacrifice if, in the eyes of God, so to speak, he is morally or ritually unfit, the sacrifice itself acts as a barrier against improper behavior. 


The worst offense in sacrificial religion is to partake of the sacrifice when one is morally or ritually unworthy. This is beautifully expressed in Psalm 24: “Who shall ascend unto the mountain of the Lord: or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul in vanity nor sworn deceitfully” (Ps. 24:3-4). One ascends the mountain of the Lord to partake of the sacrifice. The psalmist defines with utmost simplicity the conditions under which such participation is appro­priate. Another side to this definition is the implicit warning against standing “in his holy place” unless one has “clean hands and a pure heart.”[40]


We have noted that Paul regarded the believer as having literally consumed Christ’s body. Because of the “spiritual” nature of the Risen Christ’s glorious body, there has been some confusion on this point. However, if we bear in mind the comments of Héring and Käsemann that for Paul the spiritual is not immaterial but “the substance of resurrection corporeality,” we will understand that in the Lord’s Meal the Chris­tian becomes united with the body of Christ, which he/she regards as the only true body. Since Christ is no longer subject to decay or death, he alone truly exists as God intended existence before the sin of Adam. 


Within a few years after Paul’s death, Ignatius of Antioch declared that when the com­municant partakes of the bread and wine of the Eucharist he par­takes of the “medicine of immortality, an antidote against dying, to live in Jesus Christ forever more.”[41] For Paul, when Christians participated in the Eucharist, their identification with the Risen Christ was just as tangible and concrete as were the older forms of consum­ing the sacrificial victim, whether human or animal. There was, however, an important difference: The older victims were consumed either in the process of being slaughtered or after having been slaughtered. Christ alone is consumed after he had passed through slaughter and had been resurrected to enjoy the only truly in­corruptible existence. Christ alone was therefore the sacrificial victim par excellence to whom no harm can come.


There is much more that can be written of the Lord’s Meal, but even with this brief account, the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity should be clear. Without such sacrificial elements in Judaism as God’s claim on the first born, the redemption of the first born, the aborted sacrifice of Isaac, the substitution of the ram for Isaac, the Paschal Lamb, and the sprinkling of the blood of the Lamb to redeem the Israelite first born from the slaughter visited upon the Egyptian first born, it is difficult to imagine Christianity arising as it did. Some new religion might have arisen from the turmoil visited upon first-century Judaism, but it is hardly likely that it would have assumed the forms that it did. Similarly, without the exegetical training Paul received from his rabbinic teachers, it is difficult to see how he could have arrived at his views of Jesus and his salvific role.


What is certain is that the paths taken by Judaism and Christianity to achieve the all-important relation with God became radically distinct. Even in its mystical forms, Judaism rejected union with God. One could achieve a certain proximity to the Divine Glory but one could never become one with it through identification. Given its strict dietary laws, it would have been unthinkable for Jews to consider themselves at one with God through an act of consumption yet this is precisely how believers achieve that all-important identification within the Christian tradition. One of the most important aspects of the Dietary Laws was the strict taboo on the consumption of the blood of an animal, yet in the Eucharist it is Christ’s blood that is offered to the believer as “the medicine of immortality.”


It is easy to see how mutual understanding was difficult, if not impossible, between the adherents of the two traditions. There is in Christianity no substitute for Christ and his mediating role between God the Father and humanity. This was clearly understood by the author of the Fourth Gospel who depicts Jesus as saying in the synagogue of Capernaum:


I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever (Jn 6: 53-58)


John also depicts Jesus as saying: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (Jn 14:6)


These passages have been criticized as supersessionist and radically exclusivist, but they do indeed express the foundational conviction of Christianity that salvation, the fruit of the right relation with God, comes only through Jesus Christ. By contrast, while the rabbis believed in the Resurrection, they were much more concerned with the kind of life Jews would live in the here and now. Hence, their promises about the World-to-Come were considerably vaguer and they were far more concerned with how a community, especially a community under threat, could sustain itself in this world. Hence, they saw Christianity’s assurance of eternal life as promising too much as the Christian world came to see the Jewish insistence on Torah obedience as the path to a right relation with God as offering too little.


Although the comparison is not explicit in Paul’s extant writings, his insistence upon Christ as the perfect atonement for the sins of mankind suggests that for Paul, as well as for those early fathers of the Church who explicitly take up the com­parison, Isaac’s Akedah is an aborted Golgotha. They depict Jesus as the perfect Isaac and Isaac as lacking the capacity to redeem humanity because he did not really die on his wooden pyre. 


I should like to suggest that Christianity brings to manifest expression much that remains latent in Judaism and that this spells out the fundamental difference in the religious strategies of the two traditions. Although I have not been able to find the source, the difference was spelled out long ago in the following observation: What is latet (latent) in Judaism is patet (patent or manifest) in Christianity.


Thus, Jesus’ atoning death at the Passover season effects a convergence of redemptive themes: Jesus is the perfect lamb; he is also the perfect Isaac. For Paul his sacrifice is alone efficacious. Like the Law, Isaac anticipates redemption but can not achieve it. Jesus dies for all men’s sins, but most especially for the sin of Adam. Jesus accepts death in order to undo the totality of God’s infanticidal hostility to­ward sinful, errant humanity from the moment of Adam’s first catastrophic disobedience to the small disobediences of ordinary men in Paul’s own era.


As we conclude this essay, we might ask why was it so important to identify Jesus with the Passover lamb? Why would no other sacrifice do?  The simple answer is that, unlike the other sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem Temple, the Passover lamb had already served as a vicarious surrogate, if not for all of Israel, at least for the first-born of Israel at the time of the exodus from Egypt. As such, it performed the same function as the ram of the Aqedah. It was deemed an acceptable substitute for sinful human beings. As a surrogate, the lamb is offered to God in place of-or could it be as if it were a human being. Could it be that at a very early time in the history of Israel’s Semitic ancestors a human being was offered where at a later moment a lamb was offered as a substitute? Let us not forget the pervasiveness of human sacrifice in Phoenician Carthage that continued to be offered until the Romans put a stop in 146 BCE to it by destroying Carthage.


If indeed such were the case, the identification of Jesus with the Paschal lamb would constitute a resurfacing of a very archaic sacrifice, a veritable return of the repressed. Moreover, if one reads the biblical commandments concerning the original Passover sacrifice, its archaic character becomes apparent. Thus, in the Exodus account:


…on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family … Your lamb shall be without blemish, a yearling male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted—head, legs, and entrails—over the fire.

You shall not leave any of it over until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it. (Ex 12: 3-10)


Rebecca Bynum has written persuasively concerning Jesus as a prophet and has sought to show that, when Jesus is so considered, there could be a basis for seeing Jesus as within the line of Jewish prophets. I have tried to demonstrate that there is another issue concerning which Judaism and Christianity part company, the issue of Jesus as the supreme sacrificial offering. Throughout my career, I have stressed the important of sacrificial religion which, I believe, is all too often underestimated by contemporary religious thinkers. To repeat, it is here that we find both the most important elements of continuity and discontinuity between the two traditions and it is here that the two traditions are most divided when the words attested by the earliest Christian writers are taken seriously. When Jesus told his disciples, “This is my body… this is my blood,” he initiated the most radical religious revolution of all time, taking that which was most taboo in Judaism and transforming it, under controlled circumstances, into that which was supremely sacred in Christianity. It was an extraordinary moment and the world has never been the same since.

[1] Rebecca Bynum, “The Prophets,”, New English Review, January 2009 and “Wrestling with Paul,” op. cit., August 2009, .

[2] Shalom Spiegel, trans. Judah Goldin, The Last Trial (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 64.

[3] Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993) 12; unless otherwise stated, the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translation of the Tanach is used for Biblical trexts.

[4] Ed Noort, “Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel: The Status Quaestionis.” In Jan N. Bremmer, ed., The Strange World of Human Sacrifice,” (Leuwen: Peeters Publishers, 2006), 112-113.

[5] Noort, op. cit.,104.

[6] Levenson, op. cit., 20.

[7] Malcolm W. Browne, “Relics of Carthage Show Brutality Among the Good Life,” New York Times, September 1, 1987, , accessed May 17, 2009.

[8] Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, “Child Sacrifice at Carthage-Religious Rite or Population Control?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February, 1984, 31-51. (accessed 5/18/2009).

[9] Stager and Wolff, op. cit.

[10] See M’hamed Hassine Fantar, “Were living Children Sacrificed to the Gods? No,” Archaeology Odyssey.November/December 2000 (accessed 5/18/2009) and Joseph Greene and Lawrence E. Stager, “An Odyssey Debate: Were living Children Sacrificed to the Gods? Yes.” Archaeology Odyssey.November/December 2000, .

[11] Stager and Wolff, op. cit.

[12] Levenson, op. cit., 45 (emphasis by author).

[13] I describe the pidyon ha-ben ceremony in detail in Richard L Rubenstein, Power Struggle: An Autobiographical Confession (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), pp. 112-113.

[14] See Levenson, op. cit., 133-140.

[15] See Levenson, op. cit., 298-199.

[16] A translation of the poem is to be found in Spiegel, op. cit.,143-152.

[17] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler, eds., Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch (New York: K’TSAV, 2008) 11-12.

[18] Soloveitchik, loc. cit.

[19] Levenson, op. cit. 200-201.

[20] Levenson, op. cit., 202.

[21] Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 20.

[22] Fredricksen, op. cit., 204.

[23] Richard L. Rubenstein, My Brother Paul (New York: Harper and Row, 1972, 91.

[24] Jean Héring, The First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, trans. A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock (London: Epsworth Press, 1962) 115.

[25] Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship, trans. A. Stewart Todd and James B. Terrence (London: SCM Press, 1962), 10-15.

[26] Cullmann, op. cit.,19.

[27] Didache, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, in Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1968), 231f.

[28] See Rebecca Bynum’s discussion of this issue in “Wrestling with Paul,” op. cit.

[29] Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. William Montgomery (London: A &C Black, 1953); see also W. D. Davies, “Paul and Judaism Since Schweitzer,” in Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), vii-xv.

[30] Schweitzer, op. cit, 52-74.

[31] Schweitzer, op. cit, 116-125.

[32] Robin Scroggs, The Last Adam: A Study in Puline Anthropology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 46-50.

[33] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: Bantam Books, 2003), 57-58.

[34] Henry A. Murray, “In Nomine Diaboli,” in Richard Chase, ed., Melville (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962); originally published in The New England Quarterly, vol 24, no. 4, December 1951, 435-452.

[35] Jon D. Levenson comment on Genesis 22: 12 in Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 46.

[36] There is some scholarly debate concerning the meaning of “the One to come.” According to C. K. Barrett, “the One to come” is the eschatol­ogical Christ who will be fully revealed at the Last Day. See C.K. Barrett, From First Adam to Last (London: A & C. Black, 1962) 92-119.

[37] See`Louis Ginsberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1909-13), vol. 5, 128-131, n. 142; Richard L Rubenstein, The Religious Imagination (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), 43-47.

[38] Here again, see Rebecca Bynum, “Wrestling with Paul,” op. cit.

[39] John A. T. Robinson, The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology (London: SCM Press, 1952) 51.

[40] Shalom Spiegel, “Prophetic Attestation of the Decalogue: Hosea`6:5, With Some Observations on Psalms 15 and 34,” Harvard Theological Review, (April 1934).

[41] Ignatius (of Antioch): Ignatius: Epistle to the Ephesians in Maxwell Staniforth, trans., Early Christian writings: the Apostolic Fathers (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 20; see also Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, op. cit., 196.

Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport and Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Jewish theology, the Holocaust and other issues including After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, The Cunning of History, My Brother Paul and Dissolving Alliance: The United States and the Future of Europe. His most recent book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010)

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New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

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