First-Century Jews and the Paschal Sacrifice: why “Lamb of God” should mean far more to us

For those of us who lack multiple degrees in theology, ancient history, and sacred scripture, diving into exegesis isn’t much different than Aristotle recognizing a Nike “swoop” or President George Washington thinking the Apple Computer logo is just a cute drawing of the favorite fruit of the original owner of his teeth. While idioms and hidden meanings abound in any culture, it’s difficult — or nearly impossible — to extract all of the meaning that is present.

In this article, I hope to share just a bit of the missing context that would be helpful to understanding what we mean when we refer to Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God”, and to discuss how deeply important this term is to understanding what First-Century Jews and early Christians would likely have automatically perceived regarding Jesus, secondary to living in that age.

I. Jesus Christ is the “Lamb of God”.

At every mass, following the consecration, we recite the Angus Dei:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Angus Dei, c. 1635-40

Francisco de Zurbarán, Agnus Dei, c. 1635-40

As Catholics, we are familiar with the imagery — or at least we think we are. The Catholic Church teaches that St. John the Baptist, the “Lord’s immediate precursor or forerunner” points out Jesus as “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (CCC 523). And, the lamb figures prominently in John’s Apocalypse, for example at Revelation 21:14, where the lamb is said to have twelve apostles.

Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–32

Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–32

The Church teaches that “Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,’ and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the ‘blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ (CCC 613).

Ghent Altarpiece; The central "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" panel, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–32

Ghent Altarpiece; The central “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” panel, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–32

And, inasmuch as Jesus as Lamb of God is developed as part of the New Covenant, it draws from the shared understanding of God’s chosen people (the Jews) and the Old Covenant. In other words, there is more there to Jesus as Lamb of God than what’s found in the New Testament.

II. The Paschal Sacrifice began with the Jews

Much of God’s early relationship with the Jews concerns a sacrificial offering, and the lamb is singled out by God as a preferred form of offering. In Genesis, we see that God tests Abraham’s faith by ordering him to sacrifice his son Isaac, but Abraham is righteously obedient and faithful; he tells his son that “God himself with provide the lamb for a burnt offering.”) (Gen 22:8, CCC 2572).

Passover, engraving published 1670 in "La Saincte Bible, Contenant le Vieil and la Nouveau Testament, Enrichie de plusieurs belles figures/Sacra Biblia, nouo et vetere testamento constantia eximiis que sculpturis et imaginibus illustrata, De Limprimerie de Gerard Jollain", 1670

Passover, engraving published 1670 in “La Saincte Bible, Contenant le Vieil and la Nouveau Testament, Enrichie de plusieurs belles figures/Sacra Biblia, nouo et vetere testamento constantia eximiis que sculpturis et imaginibus illustrata, De Limprimerie de Gerard Jollain”, 1670

Then, in Exodus, God seeks to free his people, and orders that a year-old unblemished male lamb be sacrificed to God in each household, whose blood is to be placed over the doorposts of the homes of the Jews in Egypt so that the angel will know to pass over those houses in carrying out God’s command to take from the Egyptian captives their first-born sons.

It is from this sacrifice to God that Passover came to be celebrated in Jesus’ own time, and Jesus as an observant Jew would have been very familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of Passover in Jerusalem.

In How Christ Said the First Mass or The Lord’s Last Supper, Rev. James Meagher recounts how Josephus tells the story that to count the numbers of Jews present for Passover in Jerusalem, one year Herod Agrippa ordered the kidneys of the sacrificed lambs to be counted, assuming one lamb for ten people so that “…we learn that 12,000,000 persons offered the Passover sacrifice that year, which was known as the ‘large Passover.'” And based upon this, Fr. Meagher posits that “We can then imagine the vast crowds, who clamored for the death of Christ and what a multitude saw him die.” (p. 174).

III. First-Century Jews (including Jesus and his disciples) understood the Passover primarily as a Sacrifice

Passover of the Jews, Marcantonio FRANCESCHINI

Passover of the Jews, Marcantonio FRANCESCHINI

According to Brant Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, it would be difficult for the modern person (“who probably has never witnessed a single animal sacrifice”) to imagine “just how much blood would have been poured out by the priests at Passover.” But Pitre states that for the first-century Jews, including Jesus and his disciples, the fact of Passover as a sacrifice — with several thousand lambs slaughtered in one day — would have been impossible to forget.

Description:Full-page miniature, upper register: the slaughter and the preparation of the Passover lamb, smearing the posts of the doorway with blood (Ex. 12:22), lower register: two couples by spread Seder tables raising cups of wine.  Origin:Spain, N. E. (Catalonia)

Description: Full-page miniature, upper register: the slaughter and the preparation of the Passover lamb, smearing the posts of the doorway with blood (Ex. 12:22), lower register: two couples by spread Seder tables raising cups of wine.
Origin: Spain, N. E. (Catalonia)

According to Pitre, “No one living at the time of the Temple could have ever had any misconception about the fact that the first-century Passover was first a sacrifice and then a meal,” which is the reverse of the way that it is viewed by moderns today, due to the fact that the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., and ended ritual sacrifice under the Mosaic Law. (p. 61-2).

In terms of sacrifice, according to the Mishna, the paschal lamb would be roasted, on “a spit, made of wood of the pomegranate tree,” which “should be taken, put in at the mouth and brought out at the vent thereof. The paschal sacrifice must not be roasted on an iron roasting spit or on a gridiron.” (Pesahim 7:1).

This description is somewhat difficult to visualize, but Pitre explains (citing to the research of Israeli scholar Joseph Tabory) that after the lamb was sacrificed in the Temple, the Jews would insert “thin smooth staves” of pomegranate wood through the shoulders of the lamb and in addition to this, they would also “thrust” a skewer through the Passover lamb’s mouth “and brought out at the vent thereof,” i.e., the buttocks. (Pesahim 5:9, 7:1). Thus, “Tabory concludes, ‘An examination of the rabbinic evidence… seems to show that in Jerusalem the Jewish paschal lamb was offered in a manner which resembled a crucifixion.'”

IV. To First-Century Jews, Jesus would not be the only Lamb they had seen Crucified

Description:Decorated initial-word panel at the beginning of the Haggadah. Within the panel, beneath the initial words, a family is seated at a spread Seder table, while a servant is flaying and roasting the Passover lamb. The text is surrounded by an ornamental frame inhabited by animals and hybrids.  Origin:Spain, N. E. (Catalonia)

Description: Decorated initial-word panel at the beginning of the Haggadah. Within the panel, beneath the initial words, a family is seated at a spread Seder table, while a servant is flaying and roasting the Passover lamb. The text is surrounded by an ornamental frame inhabited by animals and hybrids.
Origin: Spain, N. E. (Catalonia)

According to Meagher, “The pomegranate, ‘grained apple,’ called in Hebrew rimmon, was extensively grown in the Jordan valley and around Jerusalem at the time of Christ. The stick was extended so that its lower end passed through the tendons of the hind feet, and the cross-piece of the same kind of wood passed through the tendons of the fore feet. The operation was called ‘crucifying the lamb.'” (p. 175).

John the Baptist identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, and the way that he was put to death by the Romans was visually consonant with the practice of paschal sacrifice in the Temple!

Meagher points out that “The lamb rested entirely on and was roasted on its cross, and foretold the dead Christ hanging from his cross. Seeing this crucified paschal lamb, a striking image of the Crucified, the Rabbis of the Talmud left out the details of the sticks passing through the tendons of the feet.” (p. 175). We can set aside for the moment why the rabbis might have done this, but the point remains that even without a more detailed description, First-Century Jews and early Christians would have recognized the connection between the lambs crucified in the Temple, and Jesus crucified at Golgotha.

V. In comparison to Today, the First-Century Jews and Early Christians recognized another dimension to “Lamb of God”, as shown by the Paschal Sacrifices in the Temple

Description:Full-page miniature of two Israelites roasting the paschal lamb.  Origin:Spain, Central (Castile)

Description: Full-page miniature of two Israelites roasting the paschal lamb.
Origin: Spain, Central (Castile)

Despite Meagher’s assertion that the Rabbis of the Talmud left out some of the details of visualization of the lamb as crucified, “…other writers (Justin Martyr and the early Fathers) describe the lamb thus roasted on his own cross, emblem of the crucifixion coming down from the days of the Hebrew kings.” (p. 175). Pitre also agrees and cites St. Justin:

For the lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of a cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 40). (Pitre, p. 63-4).

For the first-century Jews and early Christians like St. Justin, Jesus as Lamb of God was not mere metaphor, but was visually confirmed to them by their having witnessed the Passover sacrifices in the Temple.

And, while the lamb remains a powerful symbol for Jews celebrating Passover in these times, the only actual sacrifice that takes place today occurs upon the altars of the Church, where Christ is continually represented in an unbloody sacrifice to God, in unity with that day nearly 2,000 years ago, when Our Lord — among thousands or even millions of other sacrificial victims that were positioned in cruciform just as He was — offered Himself once and for all for our salvation.

Description:Full-page miniature, upper right: the Dance of Miriam (Ex. 15:20), upper left: the master of the house distributing the matzot (unleavened bread) and the haroset (sweetmeat), lower right: cleaning of the house, lower left: slaughtering the Passover lamb and cleansing dishes (hagalat kelim).  Origin:Spain, N. E., Catalonia (Barcelona?)

Description: Full-page miniature, upper right: the Dance of Miriam (Ex. 15:20), upper left: the master of the house distributing the matzot (unleavened bread) and the haroset (sweetmeat), lower right: cleaning of the house, lower left: slaughtering the Passover lamb and cleansing dishes (hagalat kelim).
Origin: Spain, N. E., Catalonia (Barcelona?)

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23 thoughts on “First-Century Jews and the Paschal Sacrifice: why “Lamb of God” should mean far more to us

  1. Pingback: If you knew what first-century Jews knew, "Lamb of God" would be far more meaningful. - Christian Forums

  2. While we certainly would do well to learn more about 1st century Jewish culture, we shouldn’t forget the cultural symbolism that Christianity evoked in Gentile nations. Notice that none of the brave men and women who converted the first pagan nations had to explain the importance of Christ being the Lamb of God. The latter understood it without being given RCIA courses on Jewish culture, because they, too, possessed a culture of reparatory sacrifice followed by the communal sacral meal. God prepared the Gentile nations to receive the Gospel message in a way which is often completely overlooked – to our great detriment, in my humble opinion. This is not to detract from the value of your article in the least. It’s just a wishful side-note.

  3. Interesting to note there were no alters in the first churches that met in homes. The idea that ” the only actual sacrifice that takes place today occurs upon the altars of the Church, where Christ is continually represented in an unbloody sacrifice to God” is a denial of Hebrews 9:24-28

    • There were TABLES in the first churches that met in homes. Peter was a bishop and the first pope, and it’s uncertain whether he had a “cathedra”; but he certainly sat in chairs. As for Hebrews, the mass is the SAME unrepeated sacrifice as the one on Calvary and therefore entirely consistent with that passage.

  4. Great article. I learned much. The figures of Christ and the Church in the old Testament are so vivid. Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice up the hill and so on. The ark of the covenant is another striking figure and Christ and the Eucharistic tabernacle, the veil being Our Lady. “A Woman shall compass a man.” For April, to reenforce what qmbarque wrote in his comment. The sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice as Calvary, only the manner being unbloody; it is not “another” sacrifice. It is Calvary “multilocated” (not multiplied) in every time and place, as the prophet Malachias had foretold: “For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.” The Mass was offered at the Last Supper by Christ the Priest n an unbloody manner in order that the Victim might be consumed: “Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54) For April, remember the loaves and fishes, these were multilocated, not multiplied. The miracle was greater than you may imagine April. “Do you not yet understand, neither do you remember the five loaves among five thousand men, and how many baskets you took up?” Five loaves and two fish fed the five thousand. There was not a creation here but a multilocation, as Jesus does with His own Body, which is One and the Same, and glorified, in every wafer of the Blessed Sacrament. Our God is a mighty God who is greater than the physical laws He ordained. His body went through a tomb and walls, did it not? Therefore, too, He can and does make many out of one, with His Own Body in order to feed His children.

    • How could “The sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice as Calvary, only the manner being unbloody; it is not “another” sacrifice” if Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father (Heb 10:12)? His sacrifice is never to be repeated.

      • April, Yes, Jesus is glorified and in heaven. But this same glorified Body can be multilocated. It is God’s Body. You ignore Malachias and John 6. The Mass, though unbloody, is still a sacrifice because we have a Victim who, were He not glorified, would be indeed slain on the altar. Christ cannot be slain in His glorified Body, but the Bread and Wine appear separated, in their accidents, by the mystical sacrifice on the altar. Where the Body goes so does the Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Where the Blood goes so does the Body, Soul, and Divinity. The consecrated Wine in the chalice is the Body, Soul, and Divinity of the Living Glorified God-Man, as He is in heaven, but is also present under the veil of Food on the altar. The Wine in the chalice is a continuum, so is the the individual Host. Broken, the One Body is thereby multilocated to be edible. So, too, the Wine, when it is circumscribed in different vessels it is the One Body of Christ, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. How else could the faithful partake of Him as Food unless this were so? Saint AUgustine said that, in the Eucharist, the Food is greater than the eater. It is through the Eucharist that we become One Body in Christ. We do not assimilate this Food, as we do other food, this Food assimilates us. This is the Mystery of Faith of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Tim: 3:9. It was the great treasure of the early Christians, so much so, that it was not revealed to the catechumens until some time after their baptism. “We have an altar, whereof they have no power to eat who serve the tabernacle.” (Hebrews 13:10). What would you have done, April, if you were there with Christ when He announced in the synagogue at Capharnaum that He was the LIving Bread of Life, whom we had to eat to share His Life? Would you have “walked with Him no more” saying “How can this man give us His Flesh to eat,” and uttering the Protest of Protestants, “This is a hard saying. Who can hear it”?

      • It is a common misconception that Catholics are repeating the sacrifice of Jesus at the mass. Of course we understand that he is seated at the right hand of the Father. However, the mass is not repeating the sacrifice, it is re-presenting the sacrifice (notice that I specifically use re-presenting and not representing). In the Old Testament, a sacrifice was meant for sins already committed, not future sins. Jesus’ great sacrifice took place long ago, but it continues to save us from our sins that took place much later. He doesn’t need to be re-sacrificed over and over to pay for additional sins, but we re-present this perfect, eternal sacrifice.

      • Getting a little metaphysical here, but G-d exists outside of space and time in the “eternal present.” Indeed, time and space were created by Him and for His Glory. For G-d to be in an infinite number of places and points in time at once is nothing. It is like taking a step left or right for us – almost effortless. His sacrifice echos into eternity – in the Holy Eucharist and, if we give Him our will, it echos in our own lives (as can be seen in many of the lives of His Saints). What we are participating in during during Communion transcends space and time – we are sharing Communion with those in the room, those around the world, Christians in the past and in the future, the angels, and the Saints. To contemplate it is a mind blowing and mystical experience.

  5. For a handy note as to wooden table altars, see Maurice Hassett’s 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia article, “History of the Christian Altar”. L.H. Vincent and F.M. Abel report in their Jerusalem (1914), that in the church built by St. Modestus over Calvary (after the Persian sack of Jerusalem in 614) was to be seen the (purported) relic of the wooden table upon which Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac.

    With all due respect to Kelso, I do not see how the references to “how many baskets you took up” (Sts. Matthew 16:9-10 and Mark 8:19-20, and compare Matthew 14:27, 15:37, Mark 6:43, Luke 9:17, and John 6:13) do not indicate multiplication. With reference to the multilocation of “Christus totus, sub utraque specie” (in the words of the sequence “Lauda Sion”), I suppose it must be a multilocation to as many consecrated Hosts or fragments of them, or, in other Rites, of the Lamb and prosphorai, and drops of consecrated Wine, as there are.

  6. David, just briefly. When Jesus was speaking later to his Apostles after the two miracles He spoke thus by question: Do you not remember the five loaves among five thousand men? He blessed the bread and broke it. In the breaking of the bread loaves kept appearing as they were being broken and distributed. So, too, the fish. Yes, certainly, Jesus could have created new loaves, but that is not indicated in the words used. And, being that the muliplication of the loaves and fish was understood by the fathers and doctors to be a figure of the Eucharist to come, it would seem, in my opinion, that Our Lord feed the multitude with the exact number of loaves and fish He used on the two occasions. I cannot quote any doctor now. But I am sure that I’ve read this interpretation in my studies many years ago. I will check a Lapide and Haydock’s footnotes tonight. As far as the species of bread and wine are concerned it is in the “breaking” or separate hosts in the ciborium, or in the separating of the wine into the tinctures for each communicant (as the easterners do with the Kochliarion at Communion) that there is a multilocation of the One Body.

  7. David, are you still there? I found the commentary in Haddock’s footnotes. He cites the great convert Archbishop Hay of Scotland (I think they were contemporaries) for an authority that, indeed, the loaves and fishes were a figure of the One Body of Christ being multilocated in many places instantaneously. He says that “these loaves” became many when they were not “many,” instantaneously, and he cites this text as a figure of the Holy Eucharist, being one, but, by His word (through the priest), becoming many. Hay does use the word “multilocated” but what he says amounts to the same in his commentary, based on the fathers and/or doctors. If you are still in this queue, let me know. I can supply the wonderful quote and see what St. Thomas says, etc.

    • Thank you for both additional comments! I have not read many commentaries on the passages, though I have seen the figurative aspect pointed out (with attention to the verbs in, for example, St. Matthew 14:19: “looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitudes” [Douay-Rheims]). Beyond the verbs, I do not see the ‘how’ spelled out, so that it could be by a continuing process of breaking the original “loaves”, but the results include both so much bread that not only do all eat their fill, but there are enough “fragments” to fill many baskets. So, a difference between figure and Eucharistic understanding would seem that in the figure the bread itself is ‘multiplied’ whereas in the Eucharist the ‘instances of the One Totus Christus becoming Present’ are multiplied to however many distinct consecrated fragments, morsels, Azymes, droplets there are.

      Two more things come to mind in the context. One is St. Paul saying (! Corinthians 10:17), “For we, being many, are one bread, one body, all that partake of one bread.”

      Another is the many Paschal lambs and the One Lamb of God, “Christ our pasch is sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).

      The many partaken of in the last case also prefigure the One, and the many “that partake of one bread”. “are one”.

  8. Thank you for responding David. Here is the Haddock commentary on Matthew 19. It comes from Archbishop Hay of Scotland, a great scripture scholar and convert of the time: “From this miracle it appears, that it is no impossibility for bodies, even in their natural state, to be in many places at the same time; since, supposing these loaves to have been sufficient for 50 persons, as there were a hundred such companies, the loaves must have been in a hundred different places at one and the same time. It cannot be said, as some pretend, that other loaves were invisibly put into the apostles’ hands, since it is said that they filled 12 baskets of fragments of the five barley loaves; and again, he divided the two fishes among them all. If God could cause bodies, in their natural state, to be in many places at one and the same time, how much more easy would it be to do the same with spiritual bodies, with the properties of which we are entirely unacquainted; so that from this it appears, that the objection that Christ’s body cannot be in many different places in the holy Eucharist, is nugatory. But, who are we, to ask such a question of the Almighty, who know not what is possible, and what is not possible for him to do!” (Bp. Hay, Sincere Christian.)

    • Thank you for the quotation. Is this possible, probable, likely, I wonder? If I am properly understanding it! Is it contended that the five loaves are broken and, so, fragmented, and that there are twelve baskets full of however many fragments there were, being multiply in places in close proximity to each other in each basket? But have these same total number of fragments not only “been in a hundred different places at one and the same time” but been being both masticated and digested within the bodies of the multitude, while also remaining intact as fragments to be gathered into 12-basket-filling proximity?

      I wonder if we may compare St. John 2:6-10, where a lot of wine has really been produced: is it not likelier that a lot of bread has been produced (however exactly that happened)?

      Might actual multiplication figure Totus Christus being wholly present with each of as many as receive Him?

      But do feel free to set me straight if I’m not grasping what Archbishop Hay is saying!

      • I think the Archbishop is only saying that the five loaves and two fishes became many and, apparently, simultaneously, as these first five loaves and two fishes began to be distributed from one basket. Other baskets must have been there with the people, perhaps with their own provisions. But it was the five loaves and two fishes that fed the 5000. The Archbishop was only transmitting what he had found in the commentaries of the early doctors. And, as I read it, he was saying that there was no no new creation of food. It is a mystery. Hence very much a figure of the Eucharist.

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