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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 (well, usually.)

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.  They 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 animals.

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 else.

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 contending with.

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 conscience.

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 rapacity?  

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 every issue?  

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. 

Keith Akers
March 20, 2006 (slightly revised March 23)