As a kid, I thought that Jesus’ main message about forgiveness was that it’s a nice thing. At church, we repeatedly heard the Good News that our sins were forgiven. But we were still in danger of Hell if we sinned, so maybe the message was that we’d be forgiven if we did nothing wrong. As an instructor at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale put it, “Because He is a just judge, He must punish our sins; His law declares that our sins must be punished and that He ‘will by no means clear the guilty’. There is no doubt about this!”1 But Jesus reportedly went around telling people, “Your sins are forgiven.” Did that mean he had a special authority to forgive crimes? Or did he mean that those people were going to be forgiven later, after he had sacrificed himself to pay the penalty for their sins? Surely, I figured, he wasn’t just failing to take offense at people, like the pagan Greek who advised, “If a man is reported to have spoken ill of you, make no defense, but say, ‘He did not know the rest of my faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.’”2
We hear that when Jesus told people their sins were forgiven, the priests and Pharisees were furious. For them, religion required making people pay the proper penalty for each misdeed. The Pharisees thought that Jesus was arrogantly presuming to cancel God’s judgments, such as “rest on the Sabbath, for it is holy … anyone who does any work on that day shall be killed” (Exodus 31:14–15). Some Christians in my town basically agreed with the Pharisees—that forgiving wrongs was a sin. Others felt that Christianity required contrition for sin, and made praying for forgiveness their main spiritual practice. They seemed to think that the worse they felt about their sins, the better. It could become an endless petition to God, which is why Bishop John Spong asked, “What kind of human being constantly begs for mercy?”3
Since the history of Christianity is strewn with violent intolerance, lots of my friends think it’s a religion of merciless bigotry. When I hear about Christian forgiveness and universal love, I remember all the threats of eternal damnation, in which forgiveness seems totally out of the question. My grandmother, for example, was a Catholic from Ireland, who ran off and married a Protestant. And she believed that marrying a heretic was a cardinal sin, which meant she could never be forgiven. Her only escape from eternal damnation was to get divorced, but divorce was also a cardinal sin. It was a moral dilemma, which Graham Greene explored in several novels about how people live after losing all hope of forgiveness.
After hearing a lot of confusing debate in church, I was surprised to notice that Jesus’ actual words on forgiveness were fairly simple. Basically, “… if you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father” (Matthew 6:14–15). So, was he really just saying that the way to get forgiveness was to forgive? Was that all? Was that realistic?
A primitive text from the second-century expressed literal, simplistic faith in this teaching: “You … must love those who hate you, and you will not have a single enemy” (Didache I:3). But was that true? Jesus had a lot of enemies, and they killed him. Also, there’s the case of King Sigeberht of Essex, who was murdered by his relatives in the 600s, because he felt it his Christian duty to forgive enemies, and the relatives thought he was betraying his duty to defend them.4 If Jesus and Sigeberht forgave their killers, the killers certainly didn’t forgive them back. So it didn’t work, did it? If we judge an idea by its results, isn’t forgiveness obviously ineffective? Or was Jesus talking about the effect forgiving has on the forgiver? Maybe that’s what he meant. But that’s not the message most church leaders drew from the story over the past 2000 years.
For around three centuries, the Christian movement was famous for forgiveness, as many followers pointedly forgave their enemies, and even their killers. Whether we respect the “martyrs” of those centuries, or see them as pathetic victims of brainwashing, it seems undeniable they took forgiveness seriously. In hindsight, something absolutely counter-intuitive seems clear. If the early Christians had practiced revenge attacks against their enemies, they never would have prevailed in the Roman world. But then over centuries to follow, most Christians moved toward a different attitude. Maybe they slowly got realistic. Their revisions concerning forgiveness came a step at a time, and in many cases ended up reversing the earlier story line.
Correcting Jesus’ Protest against Sacrifice for Sin
I realize that to even talk about what Jesus “said” seems to indicate certitude that the recorded stories are historically inerrant. But I just want to talk about what the story says, like I would talk about what a character in any other story says. So according to the story, Jesus had strong opinions about forgiveness. Like several Jewish prophets before him, he attacked the notion of offering blood sacrifice to get forgiveness. Like John the Baptist, he believed in baptism, but not in sacrificial killing to buy freedom from guilt.5 Instead, he claimed that forgiveness was free for anyone who forgave others. As he quoted Hosea against the temple priests: “Therefore I have lashed you through my prophets and torn you to shreds with my words; I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:5–6). Referring to Jeremiah (7:6–11), he accused the priesthood of making the Temple a robbers’ den, where God’s mercy was bought through sacrificial offerings (Mark 11:15–18). Concerning the huge business of offerings in the Temple, Jesus apparently believed in the prophecy of Zechariah: “there shall never again be a trader in the sanctuary of the Lord of hosts at that time.”6 He would probably endorse Isaiah wholeheartedly:
Your countless sacrifices, what are they to me? says the Lord.
I am sated with whole offerings of rams and the fat of buffaloes;
I have no desire for the blood of bulls, of sheep and of he goats.
Whenever you come to enter my presence — who asked you for this?
No more shall you trample my courts.
The offer of your gifts is useless,
the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me. (Isaiah 1:11–13)
Here, we see something that might shock most later Christians—that, according to the story, Jesus was almost violently opposed to making his religion a cult of sacrifice for sin. It’s striking, because after his execution, his followers increasingly taught that Jesus was himself a human sacrifice for sin. And despite celebrating this as the ultimate sacrifice to redeem all sin, many church leaders still held that each new sin created a fresh debt to God, which still required fresh sacrificial atonement.
The logic of sacrifice was very pervasive in Jesus’ world, and ancient Judaism was quite typical in this. Its priests held that God established a divine law, and required sacrifice for all violations of that law. As the book of Leviticus ruled, “If any person among the common people unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done … he shall bring a female goat without blemish as his offering for the sin of which he is guilty” (4:27–28).
A sacrifice was a sin offering, made to appease an offended superior being. And such sacrifice was the main business of the second Jewish Temple. The priestly caste lived off the income of legally required sacrifices, as the book of Exodus said, “Aaron and his sons [the hereditary priesthood] shall eat the ram’s flesh and the bread left in the basket at the entrance to the tent of the Presence [later the Temple at Jerusalem]. They shall eat the things with which expiation was made … No unqualified person [layman] may eat them, for they are holy” (29:32–33). So the vocation of ancient priests and lawyers in West Asia was to uphold their codes of sacred law, and determine the sacrificial offerings necessary to compensate God for each violation.
Of course many Jews ignored the requirements for expensive sacrifices. And several prophets, including Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and Jesus, rejected the whole logic of sacrifice. As Micah protested, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”(6:7–8).
In response to such criticism, “orthodox” Jewish leaders upheld blood sacrifice as the required means of making peace with the Lord. They claimed that sacrifices to God were a greater religious duty than helping other people, arguing, as Shalom Spiegel explains, “Certainly what we owe to creatures can never compare to what we owe the Creator. If neglect of man be a sin, neglect of God is sacrilege.”7 Beyond this, some Jews took belief in sacrifice so far as to literally treat their own lives as a sacrifice. So in the book of Maccabees, the hero Eleazer was recorded praying as he died, “You know, God, I could have saved myself. I am dying in these fiery torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to our people and let our punishment be a satisfaction in their behalf. Make my blood their purification and take my life as a ransom for theirs” (4 Maccabees 6:27–29).
Jesus repeatedly contradicted this logic, but it reappears in the accounts written after his death. The gospel writers explained that Jesus gave himself up to the executioners as a sacrifice for sin. But they also said he was a wanted man, and the authorities in Jerusalem had argued, “This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone like this the whole population will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and sweep away our temple and our nation … it is more expedient for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed” (John 11: 48–50).
This logic was also very traditional. The local authorities were accountable to higher overlords, and if they could not keep their people under control, the overlords would step in to do it for them. If they allowed alternative leaders to arise, they would all be subject to collective punishment. The wanted man must be eliminated, lest the entire community suffer on his account. Perhaps, as Albert Nolan suggests, this was the real sense in which Jesus was “a sacrifice for the people.” Possibly it was this threat of punishment from imperial overlords which was later ascribed to God—so that it was God who had Jesus die rather than make all of humanity suffer.8 This, however, was a notion of God quite contrary to the image in Jesus’ tale of the prodigal son.
Making Jesus Himself a Sacrifice for Sin
In some early accounts of Jesus, such as the Gospel of Thomas, there was no mention of how he died. Apparently the writers of Thomas didn’t see it as important. And in the Didache, written in second-century Syria, we have instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper which also neglect to mention his death. In this rite, the “sacrifice” was simply the food offered to others. The participants gave thanks for the food and for Jesus’ teaching. And this could be the earliest form of the Eucharist, as observed by Jewish Christians near Galilee.
As tends to happen in popular folklore, the accounts of Jesus’ final meal grew more detailed with time. Mark’s account gave a brief sketch, then Luke and Matthew filled it out in richer detail. According to these accounts, Jesus knew he was about to die, and told the disciples that this was his last meal. His executioners were due to arrive shortly, and he had agreed to let himself be sacrificed. He urged his followers to re-enact this last meal in the future, taking the bread and wine as his own body and blood, which he was offering to pay for the world’s sins.
The next account, John’s gospel, was written around 100 AD, and takes this theme further. Even long before his fatal trip to Jerusalem, John’s Jesus proclaims to the crowds,
In truth, in very truth I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink … Many of the disciples on hearing it exclaimed, “This is more than we can stomach! Why listen to such talk? … From that time on, many of his disciples withdrew and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave me?” (John 6:53–67)
Concerning these accounts, Rev. Bruce Chilton asks, “What Jew would tell another to drink blood, even symbolic blood?” The Torah forbids it in several places, such as Genesis 9:4, and the Mishnah records horror at the very thought.9 But the gospel accounts suggest that Jesus violated these sentiments, and spoke of his own body and blood as a sacrificial meal. The later Gentile churches commonly took these accounts in the most literal way possible—as a promise that the bread and wine of their ritual meals would actually become Jesus’ own flesh and blood.
In pondering Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, Chilton proposes a different understanding. In speaking of “his flesh” and “his blood,” Jesus was likely comparing his ritual meals with the sacrificial rites of the temple priests. The priests had their burnt offerings of flesh, but Jesus’ offering was his shared bread. The priests made blood sacrifices, but Jesus’ equivalent was his wine. His offering, Jesus implied, was more simple and holy than the costly sacrifices of the high priests.10 His ritual should replace the old one.
A claim like this, Chilton feels, would be as shocking to the priests as Jesus’ earlier attack on the Temple itself. It would imply that Jesus considered himself the true high priest, with authority to proclaim a new ritual in place of the old. By his example, Jesus suggested a new priesthood. His followers would not call for sacrifices from the people, but would offer service at the table of fellowship. Then, as foretold in the book of Zechariah, people would gather from the east and the west to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of God (Zechariah 8:7–23). Later, in memory of Jesus’ ritual meals, his first apostles called themselves diakonai [deacons] which meant “servants at the table.” It was a conventionally female role, but Jesus took it proudly, washing the guests’ feet and serving the food. And perhaps this inversion of the priest’s role was what convinced Judas to slip away and warn the Temple priests.
If this is what Jesus meant by his wine for blood and bread for flesh, it would accord with what he reportedly said against blood sacrifice during his life. It would accord with his vandalizing protest against the Temple’s sacrifice business, which is probably what the authorities were coming to kill him for.
As Jesus surely hoped, his teaching about sacrifice and ritual meals prevailed in later Judaism. After the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai told his fellow rabbis that the Temple didn’t matter. If that had been the place where the nations’ sins were atoned through sacrifice, Rabbi Yohanan said “be not grieved. We have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of loving kindness, as it is said, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”11 At Jewish Sabbath meals since then, the candlesticks, loaves, and wine were set out in a manner recalling the Temple, but these offerings were simply shared among family and friends. Each Jewish mother acted the part of Sophia, the Woman of Wisdom, as she says in Proverbs 9:5, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”
But another interpretation soon prevailed among non-Jewish Christians, in which the ancient priestly concept of sacrifice for sin gained a huge new lease on life
Some early non-canonical scriptures expressed views on sacrifice that might strike us as shockingly primitive. The Gospel of Philip explained of Christ’s death, “God is a man-eater. For this reason men are [sacrificed] to him. Before men were sacrificed, animals were being sacrificed—since those to whom they were sacrificed were not gods” (62:35–63:5).12 Around the year 95, Bishop Clement of Rome compared Jesus’ death to the ancient traditions of sacrificing kings: “In times of plague, many kings and rulers, in response to oracles, have given themselves up to death so that their people might be rescued through their blood.”13 We may object that these writings were excluded from the New Testament, with good reason. But some of the canonized writings endorsed similar beliefs. In Romans we hear, “Therefore, my brothers, I implore you by God’s mercy to offer your very selves to him: a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance” (12:1). What exactly did that mean, and how far would various readers take it?
The literal way some early church leaders taught the virtues of self-sacrifice can be seen in the Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Here were accounts of Christians killed by the Roman state, like Jesus was killed, because the rulers feared people who refused to promise blind obedience. In the modern world, we would say these martyrs died for objecting to tyranny. But as in Jesus’ case, many contemporary observers explained these deaths as sacrifices to God, made to purchase redemption from sin. Polycarp praised people who we might consider suicidal fanatics: “Through the suffering of one hour they purchase for themselves eternal life.”14 Tertullian interpreted the martyrs’ deaths, not as tragedies or cases of heroic civil disobedience, but as atonements for guilt. He wrote that he also longed to be killed for his beliefs, “that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood.”15 Many later Christians bought the notion of atoning for misdeeds through self abuse or mortifications of the flesh. When the Black Death struck Europe in the 1300s, vast numbers of people assumed it was a punishment from God for sin. The flagellants tried to take the punishment on themselves with whips and chains, hoping to win forgiveness by shedding their blood. The clergy denounced them for trying to take both punishment and forgiveness into their own hands, rather than deal with that through ministrations of the designated priesthood.16
Some Jews and early Christians objected that this whole idea of sacrificial blood was barbaric and offensive to God. Concerning innocent victims sacrificed for the sins of others, Ezekiel claimed it was an abomination that anyone should suffer for the crimes of another. (18:19–20) The law in Deuteronomy said, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children for their fathers” (24:16). The early Jewish-Christians, in their Gospel of the Ebionites, rendered Matthew 5:17 as “I have come to annul sacrifice, and if you will not cease to sacrifice, the wrath will not turn from you.”17 Later, Judaism officially abandoned the whole temple cult of blood sacrifice. A new rabbinic Judaism focused on learning, prayer, and service as its spiritual practices. Later, St. Antony described Jesus, not as a sacrificial offering for others’ sins, but as a divine physician who showed the way to healing.18 For many other early Christians, Jesus was a prophet in the lineage of Moses, who aimed to liberate people’s spirits, not just atone for past misdeeds.
In general, sacrifice has always implied giving up a lesser good for the sake of a greater good. But if we say that ordinary people should sacrifice themselves for something more important, what are we assuming is more important than they are? Perhaps all Christians have been torn between viewing self-sacrifice as a great ideal, and their actual experience of making causes, churches, nations, or leaders more important than the people who serve them. But Jesus reportedly asked what it meant to care for self and others equally. And Paul also said “There is no question of relieving others at the cost of hardship to yourselves; it is a question of equality” (II Corinthians 8:13).
Most bishops of the rising institutional church, however, upheld Tertullian’s understanding of sacrifice as orthodox, and condemned other views as heretical. For many later church leaders, the cult of sacrifice for guilt became the centerpiece of Christianity. So Augustine argued around the year 400: “By his death, which is indeed the one and most true sacrifice offered for us, he purged, abolished and extinguished whatever guilt there was by which the principalities and powers lawfully detained us to pay the penalty …”19 Many have joyfully proclaimed that Christ paid the price of forgiveness for all. And if the point of this story was overcoming chronic guilt, then it often seemed to work. As a young man in Chile testified, “I heard a voice say to me: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ and in the same instant my life completely changed; the streets, the trees were different. It was a very poor neighborhood, old houses, unpaved streets. But for me, everything was new, everything was changed.”20 But for this experience, was the theology of sacrifice necessary?
The Universalist or Unitarian churches of New England thought not. For them, Jesus was an inspiration to uplift the world, not a sacrifice to take its punishment. Pastor William Ellery Channing (1780–1842) challenged any other Christian in America to point out a clear passage in the Bible teaching the “orthodox” doctrine “that man, having sinned against an infinite Being, has contracted infinite guilt, and is consequently exposed to an infinite penalty.” On receiving no response to this challenge, he concluded such doctrines were “the fictions of theologians.”21 Likewise, the modern religious historian René Girard abhorred the notion that God needed his son to die for our sins. As Garry Wills explained Girard, his “most radical assertion is that Jesus is not a sacrifice. His Father is not the one whose aggressions need to be bought off. Jesus is not an item of barter in the exchange system set up by sacrifice; God does not accept victims. He sides with the victim against the slayers, reversing the whole logic of placation.”22 Marcus Borg agreed that the claim “Jesus died for our sins” involves interpreting his death according to the priestly logic of sacrifice for sin, which Jesus rejected.23
But over the centuries, the doctrine of Jesus’ “substitutionary atonement” grew firmly established, and sometimes reached fascinatingly sadistic conclusions. For example, in the 1400s, Archbishop Antonius of Florence argued from the pulpit, “Had no one been prepared to carry out the crucifixion through which the world was redeemed, Mary would have been ready to nail her son to the cross by herself. We may not assume that she was inferior in perfection and obedience to Abraham, who offered his only son as a sacrifice.”24
This concerned a man who reportedly told his nation’s overlords, “If you had known what that text means, ‘I require mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7). But as modern evangelist Jerry Falwell insisted, “The entire message of the Gospel centered on the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. If he did not die for sin as God’s substitute for Man and if he were not literally raised from the dead, then there would be no Good News to proclaim to the world.” For Falwell, anything else was beside the point: “Where Modernism was content to proclaim the moral message of Christ as summarized in the Sermon on the Mount, Fundamentalists were committed to the Gospel itself.”25
1 Hedges, Chris, American Fascists, 68–69.
2 Epictetus of Hierapolis, cited by Durant, Will, Caesar and Christ, 492–493.
3 Spong, John Shelby, Jesus for the Non-Religious, 235.
4 Whitlock, Dorothy, The Beginnings of English Society, 42.
5 Akers, Keith, The Lost Religion of Jesus, 44.
6 Chilton, Bruce, citing the Targum Zechariah, 14:21, in Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, 198.
7 Spiegel, Shalom, cited by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, 313.
8 Nolan, Albert, Jesus Before Christianity, 159.
9 Chilton, Bruce, citing Parah 4: 3, in Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, 252.
10 Chilton, Bruce, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, 252–254.
11 Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 6, cited by Armstrong, Karen, in Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, 156
12 Gospel of Philip, 62:35–63:5, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 147.
13 I Clement: 55, cited by Grant, Robert M., Augustus to Constantine, 104.
14 Acts of the Christian Martyrs, re: Bishop Polycarp, cited by Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostoc Gospels, 92.
15 Tertullian, Apology, 50, cited by Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostoc Gospels, 92.
16 Lambert, Malcolm, Medieval Heresy, 221.
17 Schoeps, Hans-Joachim, Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church, 82.
18 Rubenson, Samuel, The Letters of St. Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint, 77–78.
19 Augustine, De Tinitate 4,14,19, cited in Bonner, Gerald, “The Doctrine of Sacrifice: Augustine and the Latin Patristic Tradition,” in Sacrifice and Redemption: Durham Essays in Theology, Sykes, S.W., editor, 105.
20 Cox, Harvey, Fire From Heaven, 71.
21 Gaustad, Edwin, and Schmidt, Leigh, The Religious History of America, 158–159.
22 Wills, Garry, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, 307.
23 Borg, Marcus J., Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 129.
24 Ranke-Heinemann, Uta, Putting Away Childish Things, 271–272.
25 Falwell, Jerry, with Dobson, Ed and Hindson, Ed, editors, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon: The Resurgence of Conservative Christianity, 10–11.
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.