Sacrifice: "one thing that the early Christians did not do"?

After finishing Rowland’s book on Ratzinger (review currently in preparation), I have picked up again N.T. Wright’s “The New Testament and the People of God” (after a long hiatus). And lo and behold, one of the first passages I read has direct relevance to the ongoing discussion on the Sacrifice of the Mass in the Combox to this blog.

Here is what he has to say:

Among the striking features of early Christian praxis must be reckoned one thing that early Christians did not do. Unlike every other religion known in the world up to that point, the Christians offered no animal sacrifices. Some early Jewish Christians may, of course, have continued to particpate in the sacrifical cult in Jerusalem, and it is not impossible that the letter to the Hebrews was written to warn them off. Some pagan Christians undoubted particpated in the sacrificial cult of pagan deities, and it is likely that 1 Corintihans was written partly in order to tell them to stop. But no Christians offered animal sacrifice qua Christians. Nobody ever thought that the worship of the god now made known in Jesus of Nazareth required the blood of calves and lambs. At this point the evidence is clear and unambiguous, and its significance is enormous. Although sacrificial language was used often enough–it could hardly be avoided, since it was the regular language of both pagan and Jewish devotion–it is clear from our earliest records that the usage, in relation to Christian devotion and ethics, is completely metaphorical.

Now he has two footnotes to this paragraph, the second of which is the less intresting (“The exception that proves the rule is the use of sacrifical language referring to Jesus actual death; though there, perhaps, a different level of metaphor is operating”).

The more interesting footnote is to his (debatable) comment regarding the letter to the Hebrews (personally, I think Hebrews owes its theme to the fact that it was written after the destruction of the Temple). Here it is:

Neusner 1989, 290, suggests that from the time of Jesus himself, Christianity saw the eucharist as an alternative sacrificial sysem to that of the Temple. If there is a grain of truth here, it is in my view hidden within a sheaf of misunderstanding.

Yes, in his view. I was at a meeting with a learned theologican of the Church of Christ tradition the other day who said I was reading meaning into St Paul’s expression (1 Cor 7:24) “In whatever condition you were called, there remain with God” when I said it was refering to “when you were baptised”. Dogmatic assumptions and traditions effect hermeneutics. Believe me.

But here is the really interesting thing. The “Neusner” he is referring to who made this comment is none other than Rabbi Jacob Neusner, whom the Holy Father speaks of with high regard in his “Jesus of Nazareth” and who declined to criticise the new prayer “pro conversione Judaeorum” in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

From a liturgical point of view, there has long been a basic thesis that the liturgy of the word in the Christian mass has its origins in the Synagogue while the liturgy of the eucharist was the “cultic” element in Christian worship which filled the gap left by the temple. The fact that Christian believers since day dot believed that the same sacrifice (hardly a “metaphor”) which replaced the sacrifice of lambs and calves in the temple was present in the eucharist gives, I think, a great deal of credence to Neusner’s assertion–a “grain of truth”, maybe, but a grain which was in fact the “mustard seed” from which further insight and understanding developed.

It would indeed have been remarkable if a religion had appeared in which there was no sacrifice, ie. that sacrifice was something which its adherants “did not do“. Now every Christian today would agree (Wright included) that in fact Christianity “has” a sacrifice (or “a Sacrifice”), but the point at issue is that religion involved “offering” a sacrifice, not just having one. The point that Josh has been making in the combox of the previous blog is precisely this (and explains the “directionality” that concerns Pastor Weedon in Thomas Aquinas”: as on Mount Moria in the Gen 22, so (in Christ) God has provided the Sacrifice which (in the Eucharist) we offer to him.

(Neusner’s 1989 article, by the way, was “Money Changers in the Temple: the Mishnah’s Explanation”, published in New Testament Studies 35:287-90)

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