A Reader Request for Holy Week

Hello
I read a piece that you wrote on your blog about the first-century Jews and the Paschal Sacrifice. I was hoping that you would repost that piece. I think about it at Holy Week.
Thank you
.

I’m happy to oblige! Huzzah for reader requests!

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

(Originally posted April 10, 2014 here)

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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