The season of Lent has arrived. The Christian world turns its thoughts toward the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, while the Jewish world anticipates the arrival of its Paschal season. These joyous-sorrowful feasts attend the Spring of the new year, and the mystery of God’s interaction with humankind.
While by no means meaning to be the skunk at this truly beautiful religious garden party, I wish to express a somewhat minority view, namely, that Jesus’ sacrifice was not one of atonement for sin. Rather, it was the inevitable outcome of his work and teaching, following an understandable line of cause and effect. I will grant – without ascribing paranormal future-predicting talents to Jesus – that he probably intuited that what turned out to be his final visit to Jerusalem would be lethal. In this, he is among other Jewish prophets and religio-social critics who met unpleasant fates at the hands of the powers that be (or were).
That Jesus “had a problem” with the current Temple and its priestly management makes historical sense if we take his message at face value. This is reiterated by the subsequent history of the Jesus movement in Palestine-Judea. Some of Jesus’ Jewish followers were persecuted and killed in their own homeland by their own Jewish peers. However, this was not yet a case of Jews against Christians. Rather, it was a case of some Jews against other Jews who belonged to the “Jesist” sect. And the persecution consistently issued from the priesthood and its minions.
Jesus’ message has many facets, but the pertinent one for this discussion is his opposition to the current running of the Temple and its animal sacrifice system. Note that Jesus’ “cleansing of the Temple” was not primary launched against the money changers – who, after all, had the legitimate function of seeing that the correct coinage was donated to the Temple. Rather, it was launched against the animal sacrifice system, which for reasons too complex to treat here, Jesus abhorred. The main result of Jesus’ actions in the Temple was to disrupt the flow of sacrificial animals into the sanctuary. He not only disrupted this meat parade, he set animals free and scattered them. Shortly thereafter, at “the last supper”, Jesus made clear his intentions, namely, that his renewed Covenant would be sealed with an unbloody sacrifice of plant offerings (wheat/bread and grapes/wine). These would constitute his new, reformed offering in place of animal flesh and blood. In none of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final meal is any mention made of the Paschal lamb, the idea presumably being that bread and wine would now be sufficient offerings for the reformed Temple in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth.
No one in his/her right mind could possibly expect to call the Temple unholy, and to further desecrate its sacred commerce, and at the same time not expect some kind of retribution to follow. Those familiar with Christianity know that retribution did follow, with Jesus appended to a Roman cross. The Gospels are not specific in connecting legal charges against Jesus with his Temple demonstration, but they do mention the charge that Jesus was “leading the people astray”. Jesus’ Temple rebellion would surely have infuriated the priestly elite and worried the Roman authorities who counted on taxation received from the Temple, and surely would have constituted a major motivation for both parties to remove him from the scene.
Hence, Jesus sacrificed himself for his own unique prophetic message of a renewed Covenant minus animal sacrifice, for his proclamation of a definitive in-breaking of God’s Kingdom (itself enough to alienate the priesthood and Caesar’s agents)… and of course for Israel, for whose “lost sheep” alone Jesus said he was laboring. Here we have a martyr’s death, but not a sin-atonement.
Moreover, it is a pertinent fact that Jewish scripture and tradition holds that Yahweh, the tribal deity of Jesus and his Jewish confreres, had instituted myriad means of forgiveness and atonement for his “Chosen”. Of course, some of these were bound up with the Temple which Jesus so sorely wished to reform. But the bulk of them were simple acts that any Jew could perform, unconnected with priesthood and Temple. They included prayer. repentance, loving kindness, repudiation of idolatry, offerings of flour, money and jewelry, incense, and other means. Moreover, the Torah and Prophets, as Jesus received these texts, already contained strong currents of anti-animal sacrifice argumentation. At several points, Yahweh himself was presented as repudiating the sacrifical system, and – a thousand years before Pauline “Judaism by faith” and “internal circumcision” – was said to be pleased by “circumcised hearts” rather than animal sacrifice.
It is abundantly clear, then, that Judaism saw itself well-provided for in the areas of sacrifice, forgiveness and atonement. Nothing more was necessary than the rubrics laid down by Yahweh himself. Nothing was lacking in the atonement system, for the simple reason that Yahewh himself had provided it. The notion that a human being – a perfect, sinless, half-divine human being, no less – would in the future be necessary to provide some kind of ultimate, flawless sin-atonement is completely un-Jewish, and foreign to the Jewish scriptures and Prophets. For the Jews, their God-given atonement system was God-given, and to last forever. Nothing else was needed or desired. The Christian notion of Jesus as atoning sacrifice is a betrayal of Judaism and the Jewish Jesus. This is borne out even by the New Testament.
The New Testament describes Jesus’ Jewish disciples as operating from Jerusalem as their new headquarters. They remain Jews and practice Jewish rituals, including praying in the Temple. They continue to observe the Law and circumcision. They are sporadically persecuted not by “the Jews” but by the same priestly elite that Jesus before them had opposed. When they hear that Paul has been telling his Diaspora communities that Torah – precisely because of Jesus’ supposedly atoning sacrifice – is invalidated, even for Jews, they insist that Paul undergo the Nazirite vow in the Temple. For them, although the priesthood is corrupt and the animal sacrifice system needs reform, still the fact that they regard some of the Temple’s rubric as valid shows that they did not think that Jesus’ death replaced the Temple. They knew what was at stake when they pulled Paul’s feet to the fire and coerced him to take a traditional Jewish vow, namely, that Temple and Torah are still operative and authentic, regardless of Jesus’ martyric sacrifice.
Jesus’ death was that of martyr, prophet, and Kingdom-agent, not the atoning sacrifice of a World-Savior.