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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 23: CHRISTIANITY AND SACRIFICIAL RELIGION

There is no report in any of the Gospels that Jesus ever took part in animal sacrifices. Even the account of the Last Supper that he ate with the Apostles makes no mention of the sacrificed lamb that was the centerpiece of every table during Passover.

And although scholars claim to be puzzled by this omission, it is not puzzling to any-one who accepts the significance of Christ’s assault on the Temple. The man who freed the lambs who were about to be slaughtered in the name of God, would hardly have had one of them as the main course at his supper table.

But even before the disruption at the Temple, the disciples of Jesus were well aware of his rejection of animal sacrifices. The Gospel of Matthew reports two instances when he quoted the oracle of the prophet Hosea: “I will have mercy and not sacrifice; knowledge of God, more than burnt offerings.”[1]  And John’s Gospel reports that Jesus said “the time is coming, and now is” when no true worshipper of God would offer animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple, or any place else, because “God is spirit and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”[2]

After the death of Jesus, his Apostles taught about his opposition to sacrificial religion. The Bible witnesses to this in the Book of Acts, which tells the story of Stephen, who is known as the first Christian martyr.

Stephen was a young man, hand-picked by the Apostles, to help them minister to a rapidly growing Christian community. He was sentenced to death by the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, because he insisted on making his opposition to sacrificial religion a matter of public debate.

When Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, he was charged with speaking against the Temple and the sacrifices that went on there. “We have heard [him] say that Jesus the Nazarene will tear down and destroy this place [the Temple] and will alter the institutions and usages which Moses transmitted to us.”[3]

In his own defense, Stephen addressed the High Priest and the onlookers who had crowded into the Temple precincts. Unfortunately, his “defense” resulted in his being stoned to death.

In defending himself, Stephen quoted the Prophet Amos, who hundreds of years be-fore, told his people that the rites of animal sacrifice were a pagan practice; some-thing the Israelites had taken on themselves during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

“Did you bring Me victims and sacrifices in the wilderness for all those forty years, you House of Israel? No, you carried the tent of Moloch on your shoulders and the star of the god Rephan, those idols that you had made to adore. . .I hate and despise your feasts. . .when you offer me holocausts I reject you oblations and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle. . .but let justice flow like water, and integrity like an unfailing stream.”[4]

In quoting the prophet, Stephen was taking sides in a conflict between a religion that was expressed in rituals and sacrificial rites, and a religion that was expressed in acts of compassion and just treatment of all creatures.

It was a conflict that began with events reported in the book of Genesis and continued throughout Old Testament times.  Stephen accused the religious leaders of taking the wrong side in that ongoing conflict; “How stubborn are you!. . .How heathen your hearts, how deaf you are to God’s message! You are just like ancestors: you too have always resisted the Holy Spirit.”[5]

It was too much. He was sentenced to die. “They threw him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses left their cloaks in the care of a young man named Saul. . .And Saul approved of his murder.”[6]

The man, Saul, who watched over the cloaks of the executioners and approved Stephen’s murder, was a Pharisee. He later became known as Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. It was this Paul who, in spite of the prophets and in spite of Jesus, legitimized the concept of sacrificial religion and bequeathed it to Christianity. For this, and other doctrines that contradicted the teachings of Christ, Paul has been called “The Inventor of Christianity.”[7]

How did it come to be that a man who never met Jesus and had no personal knowledge of what he did or taught, became the architect whose support of sacrificial religion--called the Atonement--became the foundation on which Christian churches have established themselves for almost two thousand years?

How did it come about that in the canon of the New Testament, thirteen out of twenty seven documents that are officially validated, are attributed to Paul? A man who even after his conversion never showed any interest in the earthly life of Jesus and often engaged in vitriolic attacks on those who had known him and were witnesses to his life on earth?

Although he lived at the same time, Paul had not been called by Jesus to be His disciple. It was only after the crucifixion that he turned from being an enemy of those who were Christ’s followers, to being a supporter. And that came about from a visionary experience.

Paul had that experience when he was traveling to the city of Damascus as an agent of the Jewish authorities. [Saul] went to the High Priest and asked for letters of intro-duction to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he should find there any followers of the Way of the Lord, he would be able to arrest them, both men and women, and bring them back to Jerusalem.

“As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me? Who are you Lord, he asked ‘ I am Jesus, whom you persecute.’ ”[8]

Having been converted to a belief in the lordship of Jesus, it might be assumed that Saul would seek out the men who had known Him, in order to learn something about the events of His life and what He had taught. But that didn’t happen. Instead, it took Saul three years to go back to Jerusalem for a brief meeting with the Apostle Peter, and fourteen more years before he went back again and spoke at some length with those who had known Jesus.

In the Epistles that he wrote, Saul, now known as Paul, made it clear that he had not been especially impressed by meeting with those who had known Jesus. In fact, as his letter to the church at Galatia shows, he was disdainful of the Apostles and of their witness.

“Fourteen years later I went back to Jerusalem. . .In a private meeting with the elders, I explained the gospel message that I preach to the Gentiles. . .But those who seem to be the leaders--I say this because it makes no difference to me what they were. . .those leaders, I say, made no new suggestions to me. . .For by God’s power I was made an apostle to the Gentiles, just as Peter was made an apostle to the Jews... James, Peter and John, who seemed to be the leaders, shook hands with Barnabas and me, as a sign that we were all partners.”[9]

Paul’s assertion that he was called to be an Apostle in the same way that Peter had been called was a purely subjective claim. Many people have believed they were called to be spokesmen for divinity; that they have been entrusted with a sacred task. And Christianity has a long list of saints who fit into that category. But no matter how many have come in the name of Jesus, only Peter and the other disciples could claim the special prominence that came from being called to their work by a flesh and blood Jesus, rather than a divine apparition. But Paul was determined not to grant that prominence to Peter, James or John.

In petulant and often vitriolic letters, Paul kept coming back to the same subject, pushing the validity of his claim to be an Apostle. He insisted that the message he preached came directly from divinity and was THE true message. He insisted that he had learned nothing from the disciples of Jesus, or from anyone else. He claimed he was theodidact--that he was taught only by the Lord.

In the letters he wrote, now preserved in the New Testament as the word-of-God, he claimed this direct inspiration for everything he taught: “From Paul, whose call to be an apostle did not come from man or by means of man, but from Jesus Christ and God the Father. . .Let me tell you, my brothers, that the gospel I preach is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me.”[10]

Not only did Paul claim that his teachings were directly revealed by Christ, he threat-ened dire punishment to anyone who disputed what he said. Even if “an angel from heaven should teach you a gospel that is different from the one we preached to you, may he be condemned to hell.”[11]

Paul personally attacked some of the Apostles, calling them cowards because they did not behave as he thought they should. “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public because he was clearly wrong. . .The other Jewish brothers started acting like cowards along with Peter. . .I saw that they were not walking a straight path in line with the truth of the gospel.[12]

But what gospel “truth” was it that Paul accused Peter and the other disciples of ignoring? It had nothing to do with the truths contained in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--they had not yet been committed to writing. And since Paul was not at all interested in hearing what those witnesses or anyone else had to say about Jesus, the gospel truth he accused the disciples of ignoring was the gospel that he preached.

It was Paul’s refusal to listen to any of the men Christ had chosen as his Apostles, and the total reliance on his own visionary experiences, that prevented him from knowing that Jesus was opposed to Temple sacrifices. As a committed Pharisee, Paul was a staunch supporter of the sacrifices that were at the heart of Temple worship. And like other traditional Jews of his time, he had ignored the prophetic oracles against them.

It was because of Paul’s letters that traditional Christianity, like Orthodox Judaism, reclaimed the legitimacy of sacrificial religion. After the death of the Latter Prophets, the Jewish people rebuilt the altars of sacrifice in Jerusalem. And after the death of Jesus, it was Paul who reinstituted the value of sacrifice by claiming that the God whose sense of justice could not be satisfied by the perpetual slaughter of animals, was finally appeased by the sacrificial death of Jesus.

Paul’s idea of a righteous God was a deity whose sense of justice demanded that people atone for the sins they had committed. There was no free ride; payment for sins must be made. But his religious training allowed a substitutionary death. Judaism allowed an innocent victim--an animal--to be slain in the place of the sinner.

The necessity for killing and for the shedding of blood for the atonement of sins was deeply embedded in Mosaic Law. And it was deeply embedded in Paul’s belief system. In his letter to the Hebrews he echoed the teaching to the Torah and wrote: “without the shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins].”[13] He also wrote that Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice but, unlike the High Priests of Judaism, “he did not take the blood of goats and bulls to offer as a sacrifice; rather he took his own blood and obtained eternal salvation for us.”[14]

In this letter, Paul describes Jesus as both the sacrifice and the sacrificer as both victim and High Priest. But in his letter to the Romans, it is God who is acting as the High Priest and Jesus is His chosen victim.

“God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement (as one who could take away His wrath) through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate His justice.”[15]

The God in whom Paul believed, who demanded the death of a victim in order to forgive sins, was nothing like the heavenly Father whom Jesus said He came to re-veal. In his parable of the Prodigal Son, Christ made it very clear that a loving God did not demand atonement from those who had sinned.

The parable told the story of a son who left the security and care of his father’s household and went off to do his own thing. He demanded his inheritance and then “went off to a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauch-ery.”[16]  He ended up a derelict, homeless and hungry and decided to go back to his father’s house. The best he hoped for was that he would be allowed to work on the family estate as a hired hand.

“I will leave this place and go to my father’s and say: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.’ So he left the place where he was and started back to his father.”

But before the son could beg for forgiveness or ask for a servant’s job, the father had joyfully embraced him. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.”

As the father embraced him, the son accused himself: “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be your son.”  But the father did not respond to this confession of guilt. Instead he spoke to his servants. “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. . .we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found. And they began to celebrate.”

In this parable there is no wrathful father to be appeased. There is only the compass-ion and love of a parent who sees the terrible condition his son is in because of a life of debauchery. There is no demand that restitution be made for the inheritance that has been squandered. There is no demand that a substitutionary victim be killed for the sins of the son. There is no claim that “without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.”

The Good News that Jesus taught in this parable was the revelation of the true nature of God: the God He told His followers to address as “Our Father.”  Like the father of the Prodigal Son, the heavenly Father had great compassion and love for sons and daughters who had fallen by the wayside.

Jesus used the parable of the Prodigal Son and many others to counteract the prevailing belief in a wrathful god whose outrage at sinful behavior could be averted only by the death of a victim. But Paul had never heard those parables. If he had been less enamored of his own visionary experiences, and more willing to listen to those who had walked with Jesus and knew what he had revealed about the nature of God, Christianity might have been spared the doctrine of the Atonement.

Although he was responsible for developing it, Paul was not responsible for the fact that this regressive doctrine became foundational to Christianity. It was those who came after Paul who, unlike him, had the witness of the written Gospels, who made that choice. They chose Paul’s concept of a ‘god whose outraged sense of justice demanded the death of a victim in order to forgive sins, over the revelation that Jesus gave of a compassionate and loving heavenly Father.

Jesus told his followers “love your enemies, do good to them without expect6ing to get anything back. Then your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”[17]

Jesus rejected the concept of a God, who like a man, could go from mercy to malice in a moment of time; whose wrath was stayed by the killing of a sacrificial victim. In-stead, He likened God to a good shepherd who went out of his way to seek and to save the lamb that had strayed from the fold. This Good Shepherd would never demand that the rescued lamb be taken to the Temple to be slaughtered as expiation for the sins of the people.

But Paul claimed that Jesus died in place of the sinner and that his shed blood met all the demands for retribution demanded by a God who was outraged by sin. Paul said that Jesus paid the death penalty for the sins of others “Therefore, since we are now justified--acquitted, made righteous and brought into right relationship with God--by Christ’s blood, how much more certain it is that we shall be saved by Him from the indignation and wrath of God.”[18]

In the two thousand years since Paul wrote his Epistles there have been various interpretations of the Doctrine of the Atonement. From the early Church Fathers, through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, until the present time, theologians have offered various perspectives on the doctrine.[19]  But the basic endorsement of sacrificial religion as having been commanded by God, as reparation for sins committed, remains intact.

So it is that Paul prevailed over Christ. The belief that Jesus was the victim who finally stayed the “indignation and wrath of God”  is celebrated throughout Christendom. And any attempt to question its premise, in the light of Christ’s revelation of a loving and compassionate God, is considered heretical.


[1]  Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 KJ; quoting Hosea 6:6  KJ

[2]  John 4:19-24  NIV

[3]  Acts 6:14  AMP

[4]  Acts 7:43, quoting Amos 5:21-25  JB

[5]  Acts 7:51  TEV

[6]  Acts 7:58, 60  TEV

[7]  Bertrand Russell, “The Wisdom of the West

[8]  Acts 9:3-5  TEV

[9]  Galatians 2:1-2, 6-9  TEV

[10]  Galatians 1:1, 11-12  TEV

[11]  Galatians 1:8  TEV

[12]  Galatians 2:11, 13-14  TEV

[13]  Hebrews 9:22  NIV

[14]  Hebrews 9:12  TEV

[15]  Romans 3:25  NIV

[16]  Luke 15:11-32 JB

[17]  Luke 6:35, 36  NIV

[18]  Romans 5:9  AMP

[19]  A basic reference work like The Encyclopedia Americana, gives an overview of the Doctrine of the Atonement and the various interpretations it has engendered through the centuries.

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