Against the Scholars
Jesusí Opposition to Animal Sacrifice (Again)
Marcus Borg and John Crossan have just published a book about the
events leading up to and following Jesusí last days on earth, entitled
The Last Week (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). Actually, overall this
isn't a bad book. But alas, on the question
of what Jesus was doing when he drove out "all those who sold and
bought [sacrificial animals]," the ones who were "selling oxen
and sheep and pigeons," they do not think it had anything to do
with animal sacrifice. Despite the fact that Jesusí action clearly and
obviously disrupted the temple practice of animal sacrifice, and was
directed against those who were practicing it and making it possible,
according to Borg and Crossan it had nothing to do with animal
sacrifice. It was some sort of mysterious "symbolic
demonstration." What are we to make of this?
Borg, Crossan, and Other Scholars
Now Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan are two of my absolute
favorite living scholars -- or for that matter, favorite scholars of all
time, living or dead. I remember reading about them in those first news
magazine articles in Newsweek and Time, when "the Jesus
Seminar" hit the big time. They have done an invaluable service by
showing Christians that there is a Christian alternative to the
fundamentalists. Borgís book Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time
is one of the best books on Jesus written in the twentieth century;
Crossan has written prolifically, and while heís a bit slow at getting
to the point sometime, no one can fault him on questions of detail
However, they both share the same prejudices as most other scholars:
they have an incrementalist view of Christian history. In their view,
Christianity started with Jesus as the foundation block. Then later
traditions elaborated on, or gradually revised Jesus, as they saw fit. So, if we
can just "peel back" the later traditions from the gospels, voilŗ:
we have the historical Jesus.
The problem with this view, as I said in The Lost Religion of
Jesus, is that this is not the way early Christian history worked.
It was not incrementalist, with a gradual accretion of new ideas and
modifications of old ones. It was marked by sharp crises which split
Jesusí followers from the very beginning, starting with Paul and the
other apostles. These divisions did not end with Paul, either.
continued for four centuries, down to the Council of Nicea. These were
not questions of detail, but concerned the very heart of what
Christianity is about: things like God, Christ, what is right and wrong
-- that sort of thing. Origen, Tertullian, Ireneaus, Hippolytus,
Epiphanius, and Paul are testimony that these often vitriolic
disagreements were part of the very fabric of early Christianity.
You cannot understand Jesus without understanding these divisions. The
records about Jesus -- the four canonical gospels, Thomas, and
everything else we have -- are the outcome of early Christian
history, not merely the record of it. And that is what Borg and Crossan
fail to grasp. They scarcely mention Acts, but it appears that they have largely
presupposed Actsí account of the divisions in the early church. The
divisions in the early church, according to Acts, were about some
legalistic matters pertaining to Jewish ritual; happily, Paul and the
apostles resolved them in a spirit of concord, by rejecting the need for
slavish attention to Jewish rituals such as circumcision and the kosher
laws. In any event, the disagreements weren't that critical to our
understanding of Jesus.
Paul gives a very different story from Acts. His Jewish Christian
opponents are described in Romans 14, I Corinthians 8-10, and Galatians
2. The issue is not Jewish ritual, but food -- and itís not questions
of keeping kosher, but the morality of eating meat, eating sacrificed
animals, and eating with people who practice such abominations
("the table of demons"). Vegetarianism was clearly part of
these disagreements. Moreover, the dispute is not resolved: Paul is on
one side, and Peter, James, John, and Barnabas are on the other. Such
unanimity against Paul is not to be taken lightly.
Letís also make another thing clear: Iím a vegetarian myself. But
this is not to say that I would agree with everything the vegetarian,
pacifist Jewish Christian Ebionites thought. They were vegetarian, to be
sure, but they also believed that one shouldnít eat with others who
had eaten at the "table of demons" -- basically, they donít
think that one should eat with anyone except baptized vegetarians. I
will eat with nonvegetarians, although obviously I wonít eat the meat;
I see no chance of demon possession here, and in fact I see a chance for
some positive fellowship which ultimately would help spread
understanding of the vegetarian message. And being baptized, instead of
driving out the demons urging us to consume, conquer, and shed blood
everywhere we go, actually seems to be rather dangerous -- depending on
who baptizes you, it almost guarantees that you will be a witting or
unwitting child of violence. So I am hardly a modern-day Ebionite.
The Argument in Borg and Crossan
What are we to make of the comments of Borg and Crossan on animal
sacrifice? The confrontation in the temple, when Jesus drives out those
who are practicing and facilitating animal sacrifice, is one of the few
which is found in all four gospels. Curiously, they do not think it has
to do with animal sacrifice, despite the fact that Jesusí anger is
clearly directed against both the buyers and sellers of sacrificial
Their argument is contained in the chapter on "Monday" --
the day of The Last Week (according to them) that Jesus went
into the temple and disrupted the animal sacrifice business. The key is
in a section where they explicitly discuss the question of animal
sacrifice (p. 36-38, the section entitled "The Meaning of Blood
Sacrifice"). Their conclusion is that neither most Jews, nor Jesus,
saw any problems with blood sacrifice of animals.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to the following:
1. Two sections on the ambiguity of the temple and the ambiguity of
the high priesthood -- in which they argue that Jews (and presumably
Christians, though they donít spell this out) saw pluses and minuses
in both of these institutions.
2. Two sections on the Old Testament passages which reject animal
sacrifice, especially Jeremiah and the den of robbers, but also touching
on Isaiah, Amos, Ezekeial, etc. They argue that Jews (and presumably,
early Christians, though again they donít spell this out) were not objecting to
animal sacrifice as such, but animal sacrifice without true repentance,
to empty worship: "when worship substitutes for justice,
God rejects Godís temple."
3. The final two sections, which argue that Jesusí action in the
temple was a "symbolic" destruction of the temple.
My response will be divided into two sections: the first on their
section on the meaning of blood sacrifice, and the second on everything
The Meaning of Blood Sacrifice
Borg and Crossan argue that neither the Jews, nor Jesus, saw any
particular problem with the bloody animal sacrifices as such. Their
argument is basically contained in these two statements: "Like the
rest of the world, most Jews accepted blood sacrifice as a normal and
normative component of divine worship at the time of Jesus. There is no
reason to think that Jesusís action in the temple was caused by any
rejection of blood sacrifice, or, indeed, had anything to do with
sacrifice as such."
They spend most of the three pages devoted to this topic defending
the first statement: animal sacrifice was normal for most Jews. There is
no defense at all of the second statement -- that there is no reason to
think that Jesus was rejecting blood sacrifice. It is simply a bald
statement, made with their own presumptive authority, with not a scrap
of evidence or even a footnote. This is an astonishing omission, which
we will return to in a moment.
But letís get the first part straight: if "most Jews" of
the first century thought it was so, then Jesus must presumably have
thought it was so, too? And can we figure out what "most Jews"
thought, in the first place? Borg and Crossan both know better.
"Most Jews" did not believe anything in particular at all
beyond acceptance of "the law" (whatever that was) and belief
in God. There were vast differences between the different varieties of
first-century Judaism. Think of Honi the Circle Drawer, John the
Baptist, the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the "classical
Essenes" described by Philo, Pliny, and Porphyry, and the
"Qumran" group known to us from the Dead Sea Scrolls. You canít
conflate the points of view of all of these groups and people in this
way on some arbitrarily selected doctrinal point, much less attribute
such a point to the dissident Jesus movement.
We donít even have agreement among "most Jews" on what
the law is: Hellenistic Jews thought it was the written text of the
first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, whereas Palestinian Jews
thought that it predated Moses, and the Bible simply gives it
expression. Moreover, there is no agreement on what is in the Jewish
"Bible": even within the Old Testament, there are
disagreements over what the texts about animal sacrifice are (or whether
there were any at all), as we shall see shortly -- in some of the very
texts cited by Jesus.
How do they get to "most Jews" believing something about
animal sacrifice? First, they say "Most people in the ancient world
took blood sacrifice for granted as a normal or even supreme form of
religious piety." They give two reasons for this:
1. "The vast majority of people in antiquity grew up in close
contact with animals on land they either owned themselves or farmed for
others, and most of them would have killed animals for food or at least
seen it happen." They then proceed to demonstrate that they, too,
have read (or at least heard of) the recent book Hunters, Herders,
and Hamburgers, by pointing out ancient people saw blood and gore
(of animals at least) all the time, while we moderns only see the dead
animal in the grocery store cut up and wrapped in plastic. The
implication is that probably the early Christians saw this as well and
must have accepted this, just like everyone else.
The first problem with this statement is that "the vast majority
of people in antiquity" only ate meat rarely, if at all. Even fish
was quite uncommon. It was a luxury for the rich. So the question of who
Christians would sympathize with -- the animals, or the people who ate
them -- is quite a bit more dicey than Borg and Crossan imagine. Based
on Jesusí comments on kindness to animals in the gospels (e. g. Luke
12:5), and his denunciation of the rich who ate these animals, what
would you think is more likely?
There is a second and even more serious problem here. Christians
generally, and Jewish Christian Ebionites especially, were not among
this "vast majority of people" who (according to them)
regarded animal slaughter casually. It was not modern vegetarians, but ancient
vegetarians who caused an abundance of trouble in the church because of
the stubbornness of their views. Epiphanius, the Recognitions,
and the Homilies all give unambiguous evidence that the Jewish
Christians were not only vegetarians, but thought that vegetarianism
should be required. They unequivocally rejected animal sacrifice,
saying that Jesus had come to destroy the sacrifices -- not just the
temple, or merely the domination system represented by the temple, but
the sacrifices themselves. Recognitions 1.54 says that
Jesus came to abolish the sacrifices; Homilies 3.45 says that God
never wanted animals killed in the first place; Epiphanius quotes the
Ebionite gospel which has Jesus indignantly rejecting the Passover lamb.
These establish both the principle of vegetarianism, the rejection of
animal sacrifice, and the underlying moral principle behind it.
It wasnít just the Jewish Christians who were vegetarian. Eusebius
says that all the apostles abstained from meat and wine. Eusebius also
describes an early Christian martyr who protests against her accusers,
who say that Christians eat their children, "how can they eat their
children when they are forbidden even to eat the blood of animals?"
Augustine says that not only his heretical Manichaean opponents were
vegetarian, but also many the number of orthodox Christian vegetarians
was "without number" showing that even as late as the fifth
century, vegetarianism was widespread among Christians.
We should not imagine, either, that discussion of vegetarianism was confined to quibbles from the later centuries. In Romans 14 -- which
predates the gospels by several decades -- Paul testifies that there are
a lot of Christian vegetarians in the ancient world. "The weak man
eats only vegetables," says Paul, and then proceeds to explain that
God accepts both vegetarians and nonvegetarians, counseling diplomacy.
"It is right not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that
makes your brother stumble" -- this passage makes clear that it is
his Christian brother, not some pagan vegetarians, that Paul is
Why would Paul argue against vegetarianism? Itís clear that there
were numerous vegetarians in the ancient church -- vegetarians who did
not merely view vegetarianism as an acceptable alternative, but as a requirement.
In I Corinthians 8-10, Paul argues against those who object to pagan
animal sacrifice -- in direct contradiction to Acts 15:29, which
specifically forbids things offered to idols. "Eat anything sold in
the meat-market without raising questions on conscience," advises
Paul, giving clear testimony that his opponents in the church thought
exactly the opposite, and were precisely raising numerous questions of
2. "The gift and the meal" were two basic ways the ancients
had of "creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one
another," and this was being extended to the Divine Power in the
institution of animal sacrifice.
Countless cat owners can testify that their cats have sought to
"draw closer" to their benevolent masters by presenting them
with the bloody results of their diligent warfare against mice. What kind
of gift? And what kind of meal? Thatís the question Borg and
Crossan should have asked.
Part of the answer concerning the meal lies in the Last Supper. This
supper has not only been recorded in the gospels and by Paul, but it has
been symbolically (or literally) recreated countless times from that day
until this by observant Christians, in the form of communion or the
Eucharist. The traditions vary on what was "on the table" at
the Last Supper. The dominant tradition is bread and wine, though
neither Paul nor the gospels mention wine. Everyone agrees on the bread
part at least. The two other most significant traditions were bread and
water, or bread and water mixed with wine. But in none of these
traditions was there a sacrificed animal, despite the fact that it
"should have been" at the Last Supper, if the Last Supper was
a Passover Seder. This conspicuous rejection of the Passover lamb is
passed over in silence by Borg and Crossan later in their book.
Obviously, it doesnít fit into their ideas about Jesus being unconcerned
with animal sacrifice.
By failing to ask the question "what kind of gift and
meal?" Borg and Crossan are unwittingly laying the groundwork for
precisely the view they reject: that Jesusí sacrifice was an atonement
whereby God was reconciled with humanity. They view the idea of Jesusí
death as atonement with contempt -- as well they should. But the reason
it is contemptible is because the idea that a bloody sacrifice of Jesus
is required by God is reprehensible in the first place. Therefore there
is no question of making it a gift, whether it is substitution,
atonement, or anything else. You must ask the question "what
kind of gift?" But once you ask this question, you have to
recognize that many early Christians -- in the beginning, probably a
clear majority -- would have regarded animal sacrifice with the same
revulsion that we would regard a dead mouse and Borg and Crossan regard
the idea of the atonement.
Therefore, it is simply false that "there is no reason to think
that Jesusís action in the temple was caused by any rejection of blood
sacrifice." It is indisputable that there were numerous early
Christians who thought otherwise; vegetarianism and rejection of animal
sacrifice goes back to the very earliest layer of Christian thought. The
Jewish Christian Ebionites described by Epiphanius, the authors of the Recognitions
and Homilies, and Paulís opponents in Romans 14, I Corinthians
8-10, and Galatians 2, had scruples about food, raised "questions
of conscience" regarding what was "offered in the meat-market," were
against eating at the "table of demons" (which the Jewish
Christians considered to be any table with meat on it), and were
vegetarians. This requires no deviant or obscure interpretations of the
gospels -- it is plain from a straightforward reading of the letters of
Paul. We may not agree with these early Christians, but we cannot
dismiss this without a substantial argument.
The Rejection of Animal Sacrifice
The rest of their "Monday" chapter is taken up with their
own "spin" on Jesusí actions. Jesus was making a
"symbolic" demonstration. Moreover, it had nothing to do with
animal sacrifice itself; it was against the other actions of Israel,
which were so wicked that no amount of animal sacrifice or other worship
could possibly atone. It is not the worship itself which was
objectionable, but the futility of worship in the context of other
sinful behavior. To defend their point of view, they quote at length
numerous Old Testament passages on this subject.
Itís clear that they don't understand the passages which they
quote, as these passages often refute their own point of view. Letís look at the
passage in Isaiah 1 which they quote at length. Here are some of the
things Isaiah says: "I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of
lambs, or of he-goats."
There is no qualification here: Isaiah doesnít say, "because of
your wicked actions, I do not delight in the blood of bulls."
Moreover, Isaiah says "When you come to appear before me who
requires of you this trampling of my courts?" Obviously, God must be suffering some sort of
memory lapse here, because if we accept Leviticus, he himself required
the blood of bulls in Leviticus.
Isaiah objects not just to the general sinful actions of Israel
(oppressing the widows, or whatever), but also the specific
sinful actions being performed in the temple: "when you come to
appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my
courts?" Moreover, Isaiah concludes by saying "your hands are
full of blood, wash yourselves, and be clean." Later Isaiah offers
famous image of the wolf and the lamb and the little child living
together in harmony (11:6-9), and the opinion that "he who kills an
ox is like him who kills a man" (66:3) -- directly equating animal
murder with human murder. Thereís quite a bit more sympathy here for
the animals than for the people who are eating the animals. How much
clearer could this be?
God in fact is not merely saying "I reject your worship because
of your lack of justice." God is saying that your worship is in
itself sinful. This isnít just my interpretation of the Old
Testament prophets, by the way -- you can find it in the New Testament
as well. Stephen, in a daring speech which got him lynched in Acts 7,
compares temple worship to idolatry, and quotes one of the Old Testament
prophets who attacks animal sacrifice. (Amazingly, Borg and Crossan
quote this passage from Amos, apparently not understanding that Stephenís
treatment of it refutes their point of view.) "They made a calf in
those days [in the wilderness with Moses], and offered a sacrifice to
the idol," says Stephen, and "As your fathers did [sacrifices
to the golden calf], so do you" (Acts 7:41, 51). It is the
practice itself in the temple which is being rejected, not merely
the oppression of widows, collaboration with the Romans, or whatever.
Even disregarding everything already mentioned, itís obvious that
Jesus in the gospels regards sacrifice as unnecessary. Jesus twice
quotes the saying, "I require mercy, not sacrifice," a saying
which explicitly states that sacrifice is not desired, and that mercy is
required (Matthew 9:13, 12:7). If Borg and Crossan had read the rest of
Jeremiah 7 -- a chapter they discuss extensively in regard to the
"den of thieves" reference at Jeremiah 7:11 -- they would have
gotten to Jeremiah 7:21-22, where Jeremiah explicitly says that God
gave no commands about animal sacrifice at all in the wilderness,
thus rejecting most of the book of Leviticus out of hand. Even the Old
Testament cannot agree on what the Old Testament is about, and this
passage from Jeremiah undoubtedly reflects an ancient understanding that
the books of Leviticus were among the last to be added, written not only
well after the time of Moses, but well after the time of David and
Solomon. Jeremiah himself says, "the false pen of the scribes has
made [the law] into a lie" (8:8). So much for the attempt of Borg
and Crossan to describe the attitude of "most Jews": it is
largely refuted by the very passages which they invoke in its support.
Understanding the Issue of Animal Sacrifice
In The Lost Religion of Jesus, I proposed a new and different
criterion for evaluating statements allegedly by or about Jesus: do they
make sense of Christian history? Borg and Crossan do not offer us any
new insights about Jesus, instead merely repeat some old errors. These
errors have an ancient provenance, to be sure -- they are the errors of
the book of Acts, projected back into the gospels. The history of
Christianity, from their point of view, is just the history of
revelation (with some modifications) gaining acceptance over time. They
have not considered early Christian history; they are too caught up in
texts to consider that the crises in the early church might actually be
decisive in evaluating these texts.
What has happened to Jesus and his protest against the animal
sacrifice business, where he daringly drives out the animals and those
buying and selling them? For Borg and Crossan, Jesus is reduced to a
pathetic figure, offering a "symbolic" demonstration which had
nothing to do with what was going on in the temple, really, at all.
Jesus revered and loved the temple, and probably looked forward to the
tasty sacrificial lambs to be had later. It was merely the
nasty, bad actions of the Sadducees and priests that forced him to
reject temple worship. No more of this concern for sparrows, not one of
which is forgotten before God, or kindness to animals so obvious to all
humans that one would pull an ox from the pit on the Sabbath. Purify
yourselves and your temple, then we can go back to murdering animals.
It is no wonder that this issue split the early church. It is no
wonder that James, Peter, John, and even Barnabas had to reject eating
at the table of demons, or even eating with the demon-worshipers, as
itself a sin. There must be no collaboration with the perpetrators of
bloodshed, even to the extent of sharing a table with them; that is why
Peter no longer eats at the table with the gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14).
What Should Scholars Do?
What would Jesus say about all of this? Perhaps he would
have said, "I require mercy, not sacrifice." Or perhaps Jesus would just quote the words of Isaiah: "Your
hands are full of blood: wash yourselves, and be clean." Or
perhaps he would have reacted angrily, saying something like this:
"Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you
clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but on the plate and in the
cup you have extortion and rapacity." And isn't the meat of
sacrificed animals on your plate nothing but extortion and
The split in the early church is a threatening issue for most modern scholars. This is not entirely unreasonable: it was a threatening
issue for early Christians as well. What, the great holy leaders
of our church can't agree? Or one or more of them might actually
be wrong? Perhaps even Jesus himself wasn't completely correct on
The rationalization of this split was found in the book of Acts; and
while scholars will usually acknowledge that Acts has mistakes and
inaccuracies, they have basically bought into what Acts is doing.
Acts has rationalized and marginalized the central event of early
Christian history. That event was the split between Paul and the
other leaders of the early church. Unlike the problem of the
"historical Jesus," we are not short of data on this event; we
have an eyewitness account by one of the participants.
Courage, scholars! We must not ignore, marginalize, or
rationalize early Christian history. Ignore this split in the
early church, and you will wander in the wilderness of ambiguous and
ephemeral Jesus scholarship for the rest of your life. Confront
this issue, and you will be able to understand the reality of the
historical Jesus. Opposition to the animal sacrifice cult is the
crux of the gospel.
March 20, 2006 (slightly revised March 23)