Isaac Bound & Jesus: first century evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues Leroy Andrew Huizenga’s argument that the Gospel of Matthew’s Jesus is modelled on Second Temple Jewish beliefs about Isaac being bound in order to become a sacrificial offering at the hand of his father Abraham (an episode known as the Akedah). Huizenga’s argument depends on their being much more to the Jewish understanding of this event than what we read today in Genesis 22. The first post looked at evidence we have from before the first century (the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jubilees) that

  1. Isaac was believed to have been a willing participant freely offering himself up as a sacrifice;
  2. this was believed to have occurred at Passover — indeed explains the institution of the Passover;
  3. this happened was said to have happened on Mount Zion
  4. God himself was thought to be the one who behind the scenes was offering him up as a sacrifice
  5. this event was understood to have had some form of saving or life-giving benefit.

This post looks at the evidence from the first century itself for the prevalence of such views of Isaac and the Akedah — the time acknowledged as the era when Christianity and the Gospels were coming into being.

Of particular significance is Huizenga’s point that the first-century evidence itself further points to these understandings being long embedded as part and parcel of Jewish culture. They were not recent innovations.

Moreover, the concise manner of presentation of these aspects in the latter three texts reveals their antiquity and pervasive cultural currency: recent innovations would require detailed presentation but longstanding legends need only the slightest mention for their evocation. Isaac’s willingness, for instance, functions as a resource, not a novelty, an explanans, not an explanation. (p. 67 of Reading the Bible Intertextually, chapter 5 The Matthean Jesus and Isaac)

Leaving aside Huizenga’s argument for a moment, this reminds me of the cryptic references in the Book of Genesis to the fallen angels procreating with human women before the flood. The passing remark presupposes a knowledge of what we read in the apocryphal literature and is thus one of several reasons to think of Genesis as being a late composition.

The Akedah in the First Century of the Common Era

Josephus’ Antiquities ca. 95 ce

This is the relevant section in Josephus’ work.

1. Now Abraham greatly loved Isaac, as being his only begotten and given to him at the borders of old age, by the favor of God. The child also endeared himself to his parents still more, by the exercise of every virtue, and adhering to his duty to his parents, and being zealous in the worship of God. Abraham also placed his own happiness in this prospect, that, when he should die, he should leave this his son in a safe and secure condition; which accordingly he obtained by the will of God: who being desirous to make an experiment of Abraham’s religious disposition towards himself, appeared to him, and enumerated all the blessings he had bestowed on him; how he had made him superior to his enemies; and that his son Isaac, who was the principal part of his present happiness, was derived from him; and he said that he required this son of his as a sacrifice and holy oblation. Accordingly he commanded him to carry him to the mountain Moriah, and to build an altar, and offer him for a burnt-offering upon it for that this would best manifest his religious disposition towards him, if he preferred what was pleasing to God, before the preservation of his own son.

2. Now Abraham thought that it was not right to disobey God in any thing, but that he was obliged to serve him in every circumstance of life, since all creatures that live enjoy their life by his providence, and the kindness he bestows on them. Accordingly he concealed this command of God, and his own intentions about the slaughter of his son, from his wife, as also from every one of his servants, otherwise he should have been hindered from his obedience to God; and he took Isaac, together with two of his servants, and laying what things were necessary for a sacrifice upon an ass, he went away to the mountain. Now the two servants went along with him two days; but on the third day, as soon as he saw the mountain, he left those servants that were with him till then in the plain, and, having his son alone with him, he came to the mountain. It was that mountain upon which king David afterwards built the temple. Now they had brought with them every thing necessary for a sacrifice, excepting the animal that was to be offered only. Now Isaac was twenty-five years old. And as he was building the altar, he asked his father what he was about to offer, since there was no animal there for an oblation : – to which it was answered, “That God would provide himself an oblation, he being able to make a plentiful provision for men out of what they have not, and to deprive others of what they already have, when they put too much trust therein; that therefore, if God pleased to be present and propitious at this sacrifice, he would provide himself an oblation.”

3. As soon as the altar was prepared, and Abraham had laid on the wood, and all things were entirely ready, he said to his son, “O son, I poured out a vast number of prayers that I might have thee for my son; when thou wast come into the world, there was nothing that could contribute to thy support for which I was not greatly solicitous, nor any thing wherein I thought myself happier than to see thee grown up to man’s estate, and that I might leave thee at my death the successor to my dominion; but since it was by God’s will that I became thy father, and it is now his will that I relinquish thee, bear this consecration to God with a generous mind [valiantly]; for I resign thee up to God who has thought fit now to require this testimony of honor to himself, on account of the favors he hath conferred on me, in being to me a supporter and defender. Accordingly thou, my son, wilt now die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by thy own father, in the nature of a sacrifice. I suppose he thinks thee worthy to get clear of this world neither by disease, neither by war, nor by any other severe way, by which death usually comes upon men, but so that he will receive thy soul with prayers and holy offices of religion, and will place thee near to himself, and thou wilt there be to me a succorer and supporter in my old age; on which account I principally brought thee up, and thou wilt thereby procure me God for my Comforter instead of thyself.”

4. Now Isaac was of such a generous disposition as became the son of such a father, and was pleased with this discourse; and said, “That he was not worthy to be born at first, if he should reject the determination of God and of his father, and should not resign himself up readily to both their pleasures; since it would have been unjust if he had not obeyed, even if his father alone had so resolved.” So he went immediately to the altar [lept on the altar] to be sacrificed.

Isaac lept on the altar. Josephus makes no reference to Isaac being bound which, H points out, further emphasizes Isaac’s willingness.

Pseudo-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (L.A.B.)

Given that this text contains “no unambiguous reference to the temple’s destruction” it “probably dates to 70 C.E.” But

even if L.A.B. were as late as 135 C.E., however, the manner of the three references to Isaac’s willingness reveals the antiquity and wide cultural currency of the concept. (p. 67)

Balaam asks God to enlighten him about the favour he shows the Israelites

And God said to him: Was it not concerning this people that I spake unto Abraham in a vision saying: Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven, when I raised him up above the firmament and showed him all the orderings of the stars, and [I] required of him his son for a burnt offering? and he brought him to be laid upon the altar, but I restored him to his father. And because he resisted not, his offering was acceptable in my sight, and for the blood of him did I choose this people. (L.A.B. XVIII)

The last line speaks of the blood of Isaac so it can be understood that the “he” who “resisted not” was also referring to Isaac rather than Abraham.

The same text later mentions Isaac again as part of Deborah’s Song.

Then Debbora and Barach the son of Abino and all the people together sang an hymn unto the Lord in that day, saying: Behold, from on high hath the Lord shewn unto us his glory, even as he did aforetime when he sent forth his voice to confound the tongues of men. And he chose out our nation, and took Abraham our father out of the fire, and chose him before all his brethren, and kept him from the fire and delivered him from the bricks of the building of the tower, and gave him a son in the latter days of his old age, and brought him out of the barren womb, and all the angels were jealous against him, and the orderers of the hosts envied him. And it came to pass, when they were jealous against him, God said unto him: Slay for me the fruit of thy belly and offer for my sake that which I gave thee. And Abraham did not gainsay him and set forth immediately. And as he went forth he said to his son: Lo, now, my son, I offer thee for a burnt offering and deliver thee into his hands who gave thee unto me.

And the son said to his father: Hear me, father. If a lamb of the flock is accepted for an offering to the Lord for an odour of sweetness, and if for the iniquities of men sheep are appointed to the slaughter, but man is set to inherit the world, how then sayest thou now unto me: Come and inherit a life secure, and a time that cannot be measured? What and if I had not been born in the world to be offered a sacrifice unto him that made me? And it shall be my blessedness beyond all men, for there shall be no other such thing [sacrifice]; and in me shall the generations be instructed, and by me the peoples [nations] shall understand that the Lord hath accounted the soul of a man worthy to be a sacrifice unto him. (L.A.B. 32:1-3)

Huizenga sees the mention of “nations” and “peoples” as “remarkable”, given that L.A.B.’s attitude toward Genesis and Deborah’s Song in particular “is acutely negative”.  Huizenga’s ensuing discussion of this passage’s relationship to Christian teachings is interesting:

Therefore the phrase “there will be no other” (non erit aliud) is suggestive. The antecedent of aliud (“another”) is sacrificium (“sacrifice”) from Isaac’s prior sentence (“. . . to be offered as a sacrificium to him who made me?”). Davies and Chilton assert the phrase reveals “the author’s awareness of Christian claims concerning Christ’s atonement,” generic claims precipitating the Amoraic [late rabbinic] invention of the Akedah. Jacobsen gives their insight a twist: “We may well want to go further. This sounds like polemic against the Christian view that the sacrifice of Isaac was nothing more than a precursor of, and model for, the genuinely significant event that was the sacrifice of Jesus . . . L.A.B seems to be saying, ‘Isaac is the only case of human sacrifice recognized by God; there is no other (i.e., Jesus).’

Jacobson’s suggestion devastates the Davies-Chilton thesis that generic Christian claims regarding Jesus’ sacrifice occasioned the Amoraic invention of the Akedah. Rather, this passage demonstrates that the earliest Christians appropriated aspects of the already existing Akedah. This appropriation was only natural, for the earliest Christians were indeed Jews and thus most likely familiar with such traditions prior to their acceptance and proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. (p. 68-9, my bolded font)

Jephtha’s daughter, Seila, invoked Isaac when she was about to be sacrificed:

And Seila his daughter said unto him: And who is it that can be sorrowful in their death when they see the people delivered? Rememberest thou not that which was in the days of our fathers, when the father set his son for a burnt offering and he gainsaid him not, but consented unto him rejoicing? And he that was offered was ready, and he that offered was glad. (L.A.B. 40:2)

Huizenga thus concludes from this “pseudo-Philo” document:

L.A.B. assumes a willing Isaac. The Akedah here is a resource appropriated, demonstrating that the concept of an active, willing Isaac was long established with wide currency, without which its use would lack rhetorical effectiveness. As regards expiation, Isaac’s words in 32:3 are suggestive, but in 18:5 his blood secures election, not expiation. (p. 69)

4 Maccabees (prior to 72 ce)

This work portrays Isaac as a paradigmatic martyr who inspires other Jews facing martyrdom by his heroic and devout resolve to submit to a sacrificial death. Furthermore, 4 Maccabees attributes to the blood of martyrs a power to atone for sins of the Jewish people. If Isaac’s sacrifice was the paradigmatic martyrdom we may be justified in understanding his willing offering of his blood, too, had an atoning power against his people’s sins. (I discussed this in much more detail in my previous series of posts on Jon Levenson’s Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.)

4 Macc 7:12-14 implies that Isaac faced his fate with “active courage”.

Eleazar, though being consumed by the fire, remained unmoved in his reason.

Most amazing, indeed, though he was an old man, his body no longer tense and firm, his muscles flabby, his sinews feeble, he became young again in spirit through reason; and by reason like that of Isaac he rendered the many-headed rack ineffective.

Of 4 Macc 13:11-12 Huizenga says that “given the indicative mood of the verb, the narrator may envision Isaac as having actually died.” Compare 18:11 in this context.

[11] While one said, “Courage, brother,” another said, “Bear up nobly,”

[12] and another reminded them, “Remember whence you came, and the father by whose hand Isaac would have submitted to being slain for the sake of religion.” / Huizenga: “Remember whence you came and at the hand of what father Isaac gave himself (. . . “endured”) to be sacrificed for piety’s sake”

4 Macc 18:11

He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering

In 4 Macc 16:19-20 mother-love sends her sons to heroic death inspired by Isaac’s willingness to submit to death at the hand of his father:

and therefore you ought to endure any suffering for the sake of God.

For his sake also our father Abraham was zealous to sacrifice his son Isaac, the ancestor of our nation; and when Isaac saw his father’s hand wielding a sword and descending upon him, he did not cower.

The passages in 4 Maccabees that illustrate the belief that martyr’s blood is expiatory:

4 Macc 6:27-29

“You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”

4 Macc 17:20-22

These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified — they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation.

1 Clement (ca 95 ce)

1 Clement is significant by way of analogy. It demonstrates that “early Christians indeed knew and appropriated the Akedah.” Clement does not use it to elaborate on any Christological idea but, like the Maccabean mother, uphold it as an example to be followed by the Christian faithful.

1 Clement 31:1-3

31:1 Let us cleave, therefore, to his blessing, and let us see what are the ways of blessing. Let us consult the records of the things that happened from the beginning.

31:2 On what account was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not that he wrought righteousness and truth through faith?

31:3 Isaac, with confidence, knowing the future, willingly became a sacrifice.

Huizenga concludes the above discussion thus:

In sum, significant aspects of the Akedah developed early, Isaac’s willingness to participate in his sacrifice foremost among them. Certain later texts bearing witness to such (the Antiquities, L.A.B., 4 Maccabees, and 1 Clement) are not so far removed from the time of the Gospel of Matthew, and the manner of their presentation (save that of Josephus) reveals the antiquity and common currency of the concept of a willing Isaac, which, in any case, 4Q225 demonstrates was a pre-Christian development. (p. 70)

Next post in this series will begin to show Matthew’s use of the Akedah as his model for Jesus. What the above has shown is that Matthew’s use of the Akedah for Jesus cannot be said to have been a radically new concept. Such a development is sits coherently within the religious culture of the Second Temple period and beyond.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Isaac Bound & Jesus: first century evidence”

  1. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is as old as the book of Genesis. The story is right in the middle of Genesis, and the story explains how the Hebrews became God’s chosen people and why a unique covenant was established between God and the Hebrews.

    This story was a fundamental part of the Jewish religion continually for centuries before the creation of the Christian religion.

    The relationship between the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is blatantly obvious. Abraham was compelled to sacrifice Isaac as God the Father was compelled to sacrifice God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Isaac was replaced by the sacrifice of a ram, and Jesus Christ was called The Lamb of God.

    The original, mystical Christians replaced Temple sacrifices with personal, mystical visions. No longer was it necessary to travel to the Jerusalem Temple and to sacrifice an animal (the substitute for Isaac) there in order to please God. Instead, there was an alternative of experiencing a mystical vision.

    But, in order to please God, there had to be a sacrifice. So, the mystical experience included the vision of the sacrifice — not of a substitute animal but of the original only son. Since Isaac no longer could be sacrificed — he had been excused forever from being sacrificed — the idea developed that this time God the Father’s own son would be sacrificed. And so the original Christians experienced a mystical vision of the sacrifice of the Son of God.

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