There is a version of Christianity, still sadly all too common, that claims to accept everything in the Bible literally as divine revelation and is not interested in information from any other source. Quite often such Christians positively disapprove of religious insights gathered from other sources. Because this is a hopelessly unrealistic approach to religious understanding it often produces bizarre results.
This post is about one such result. The story goes that the Old Testament had people burning sacrifices and the New Testament abolished them. Jews bad, Christians good. With Christ comes a new relationship with God, a sacrifice-free one, possibly along with ‘justification by faith not works’. (But isn’t the Old Testament part of the Bible? Shut up, don’t complicate things.)
If we ask why people used to offer sacrifices, the reasons are much more interesting and do not justify this kind of contrarianism at all. Anthropologists have found that offering sacrifices to gods has been a common practice all over the world. Judging from the evidence we have they characteristically began as expressions of regret for taking an animal’s life.
This for a start should stop us being too patronising about those ancient rituals. If all meat-eaters today had to watch their meal being killed in an abattoir, under the conditions that normally prevail today, most would find some way to express regret. There would also be a sudden rise of vegetarianism.
However anthropologists have not found societies where regret for killing the animal was the only meaning they gave to their sacrifices. Societies which did not have writing have not told us their reasons. As soon as we do get written records, sacrifices had become offerings to the gods.
Offerings to the gods can mean different things. One is a kind of contract. Many of our oldest texts from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece describe gods demanding sacrifices. Gods would threaten plague, famine, flood or shipwreck if they did not get them. People would respond to misfortune by wondering which god they had offended, and burn the appropriate animal to him or her.
This kind of relationship with the divine is indeed unchristian. It has never been part of historic Christianity. Catholics who speak the language of ‘the sacrifice of the mass’ do not mean we negotiate with God like this. Christians do not believe in the kind of god who needs things from us. But neither do Jews. The critical change was when they stopped believing in the kinds of gods who need things from us, and believed instead in a supreme provider of all things who created us out of love rather than personal need. That change took place not with Jesus but much earlier, with the beginning of Judaism.
Scholars have noted a difference between the sacrifice laws in the Hebrew scriptures and other ancient near eastern texts: sacrifices are there in the Bible but never because God needs them. There were other reasons.
One is something we are not familiar with because our society uses money. Societies which did not use money always had alternatives. As far as historians know, all societies without money developed patterns of gift exchange. When people gave a gift there was an expectation that a gift would be given in return. Since this gift exchange was a central part of every society until money came along, we should not be surprised that people applied the same logic to their gods. The gods give to us, we should give to the gods. Conversely, when we hope for something from the gods, we offer them a gift.
This practice did not presuppose that the gods needed the sacrifices. The giving of the gift maintained the relationship. This relationship is very much a Christian one. When the priest says over the bread and wine, and perhaps money as well, ‘All things come from you and of your own do we give you’, the point is that the worshippers are making offerings of thanksgiving. Nobody thinks God has a practical use for them. Similarly every parish priest knows that there are people who for personal reasons wish to make a donation to their local church and is not very interested in how the donation will be used. The point of the gift is that it feels right to make a donation in gratitude to God.
Finally sacrifices were offered as community celebrations. In the ancient world they were usually the only occasions on which meat was cooked for consumption. The meat was eaten by humans, not gods. In the days before fridges, how could they use the meat from a whole bull? The obvious way was to get lots of people sharing the meal. The sacrifices were performed in honour of a god, but that does not mean the god was the whole point of the event. It is we moderns who make a sharp distinction between religious and non-religious activities. They did not. They could sacrifice a bull in honour of Zeus but they could also get drunk in honour of Dionysus and go to sea in honour of Poseidon. Rather than thinking of their sacrifices as their equivalent of our church services, in some ways it may be better to think of them as their equivalent of our saying grace before dinner. Christians do that too.