- the failure of traditional approaches to bring us to a satisfactory answer and a recognition that the expectation of a suffering messiah who liberates his people was very much a part of Second Temple Judaism;
the relationship between the “killing of the messiah-body of the people of Israel”, the eucharist, the Passion, the Jewish Scriptures;
- the central roles of personification, the substitution involving Barabbas and midrash.
The false leads of past enquiries
A man is put to death as atonement for the sins of others. The idea is found in other ancient religions, folklore and customs so it has seemed quite reasonable to look there to understand the origins of the gospel story.
Do mystery religions hold the key? No, they have not given a fully satisfactory explanation of what we read in the gospels. Other gods did not die as sacrifices to save their devotees. It cannot be said that Dionysus, Attis or Tammuz “died for our sins”. Gods in their wrath did require substitutes (an animal, even a child) as sacrifice at times but that’s not the same thing.
What of the Saturnalia? In 1898 Paul Wendland a specialist in Philo of Alexandria and future professor at Göttingen, in an article entitled “Jesus als Saturnalien-Koenig“, suggests that the mockery of Jesus by the Roman soldiers could be linked to the Saturnalia, an annual custom observed by Roman soldiers in which victim was crowned as a god-king (Kronos/Saturn) and mocked until finally executed quite some time later. But this was a December custom.
A better hypothesis, however, is one that caught my attention some years ago now, so it’s like catching up with an old friend. NC alerts us to Salomon Reinarch’s 1902 text online:
However, the resemblance of the Passion with the Sacaea is even more striking than that which it presents with the Saturnalia. Here is the text of Matthew (XXVIII, 26-31): “So Pilate released Barabbas to them; and after having whipped Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. And the soldiers brought Jesus to the Praetorium, and they gathered the whole company around him. And having stripped him, they put on him a scarlet robe. Then, having made a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed on his right hand; and kneeling before him, they laughed at him, saying: “Hail, King of the Jews!” And spitting at him, they took the reed and hit him on the head. After making fun of him,they took off the mantle and put his clothes back on him, and led him away to crucify him. “
Compare this passage with the treatment of the king of the Sacaea, as reported by Dion Chrysostom:
“They take one of the prisoners sentenced to death and have him sit on the royal throne; they dress him in royal clothes and let him drink, amuse himself and use the king’s concubines for several days. But then they strip him of his clothes, scourge him and cross him. “
Other suggestions have surfaced: that Jesus was filling the role of the villain Haman in the Esther story: Jews celebrated the occasion annually by destroying an effigy of Haman; and Philo’s account of Carabbas in Alexandria:
There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign . . .
Philo, Flaccus VI (36)
René Girard refers (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 49ff) to a horrific episode in the life of Apollonius of Tyana when the prophet stopped a plague in Ephesus by inciting the crowd to stone a poor beggar to death in the belief that he was a demon. The citizens are cured of the plague. Everything is restored to rights. They acted as necessity required.
But how can one reconcile these scapegoat ideas with the sacrifice of the messiah? The scapegoat in non-Christian scenarios above is a fool, an innocent, an unworthy reject whose death draws away all the evil inflicting a community. That scenario clashes against the gospel Passion where the “scapegoat” is indeed the son of God and order is not restored merely as a result of his death alone. The crowd is acting correctly and necessarily, if mercilessly and cruelly, in the scapegoat traditions.
There are analogies in the mystery religions and other practices. There are the rites of death and rebirth as we see in the gospels, and the death of the god or scapegoat does have a benefit for many others. It is conceivable that such ideas in the Greco-Roman world made the spread of the Christian message somewhat recognizable or at least comprehensible and facilitated its spread. But those Greco-Roman analogies cannot explain the content of what we read of the death of Jesus in the gospels.
What we read in the gospels is almost entirely made up of a rewriting of Jewish Scriptures. Yes, the book of Esther with its violent fate of Haman is relevant, and so is the scapegoat theme as we find it in Leviticus 16. But these sources are some of the threads selected to weave a quite different story for a new situation.
NC finds an idea stressed by Girard of special interest. With the gospels we find a shift from the view that the persecuting mob are acting correctly against a necessary and demonic target:
myths are based on a unanimous persecution. Judaism and Christianity destroy this unanimity in order to defend the victims unjustly condemned and to condemn the executioners unjustly legitimated.
(Girard, I See Satan Fall, p. 172)
One must understand that we are not talking about a real divine man or man believed to be divine. The story is a historical fiction in which the people of God (who are the “son of God”) was sacrificed as an innocent victim, and therefore as an expiatory victim, a victim who gives new life to the people. This is a new story of a different type of death and resurrection.
The dramatic innovation that this gospel story introduces is identified by the French Dominican scholar Étienne Nodet. To begin with, one must recognize that John the Baptist had been preaching the imminence of the Final Judgment and the arrival of the Messiah and Kingdom of God with that Day of Judgment. On that Day of Judgment each person will be punished or rewarded according to their sins or to having their sins cleansed by the sacrifice of a victim in their stead.
The model for this [sacrificial exchange] is the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, who is pure and who receives the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:20-22); it is he who bears the condemnation. It is a precept of the Law, but in another sense, it is like all sacrifices an injustice, if one equates the animal with a reasonable being. The persecuted righteous person, or more generally the martyr, represents a transfer of the same nature, where the injustice is clearer, especially if it is not obedience to a precept. Such is the case of John the Baptist or James. This is also the case with Jesus, but there is a major difference, which is underlined by Peter’s speech at Pentecost: he began by recalling the injustice of the crucifixion (Acts 2:23), and then he declares (vv. 32-33):
“God has raised this Jesus from the dead; we are all witnesses to this. And now, exalted at the right hand of God, he has received the Holy Spirit of promise from the Father and has poured him out.”
In other words, the final judgment is done, the injustice is redressed, and the Spirit is poured out. All these aspects are concentrated in the affirmation of the resurrection, which is a kind of thwarted sacrifice: the being on whom the faults are transferred is finally promoted, since he is resurrected, that is, justified. The Epistle to the Hebrews, by making Jesus both the high priest and the victim, develops at length this whole sacrificial dimension.
Nodet, Baptême et Résurrection, p. 117
The sacrifice of Jesus is more than a sacrifice: it is the sacrifice of atonement, of an innocent, and an exchange of that innocent for his people — specifically, it is an exchange of the one for the all that makes it necessary for the death to be transformed into a rebirth, a resurrection: after all, God had promised that his people would not die. To translate a few of NC’s words:
It is absurd to discuss Christ’s death without his resurrection; it would be like accompanying Cinderella to the ball only until eleven o’clock at night, and refusing to acnowledge what happens to her at midnight! The Crucifixion and the Resurrection form an inseparable whole, are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. Everything is fiction, but in a magnificent logic that we rationalists must understand.
Far from believing in the historical reality of this Passion, we must understand that it is invented midrashically to give hope that the killing of the Jewish people and its Temple/Presence of the Name of God will be reversed into its opposite.
Our thesis is thus:
- that the person Jesus Christ, having never existed, was of course never judged or crucified,
- but that the idea of sacrifice acted out in the text concerning the figure of Jesus is fundamental, and is indeed narrated as both an incomprehensible misfortune done to an innocent person (a suffering, a chalice), and of a sacrifice of expiation, in connection with the sins of the people, this expiatory sacrifice being known in the Hebrew tradition (even if the mystery religions will perhaps, once the Jewish midrash has been misunderstood, add their own touches to the elaboration of the theology),
- but above all that this thesis of atonement only makes sense, in the Jewish midrash, as applying to the Personification of the Jewish people who are the ones who really experienced both the catastrophe of the destruction of the Temple, and the moral betrayal of some of their elites, (a betrayal which could pass, in view of numerous texts in the Jewish Bible, as the cause of divine chastisement), but who, as the Son of YHWH, must necessarily experience the reversal of the situation in the last days,
- because, as we shall see with the textual use of the Cross . . . , the Crucifixion implies, in the logic of the narrative, the saving reversal, the inversion of death into Life (the Messiah being immortal, and the people too, since he is supposed to have descendants until the end of time).
NC, Figure de papier, p. 370. My bolding in all quotations.)
The Suffering Messiah is a Jewish idea
Now readers will know why I digressed to write up a list of posts covering this topic @ Pre-Christian Jewish Ideas of a Suffering and Dying Messiah. I’ll surely have to link this post to that one.
Here is what we read in the Talmud: Sukkah 52a
It is stated: “The land will eulogize, each family separately; the family of the house of David separately, and their women separately, the family of the house of Nathan separately, and their women separately” (Zechariah 12:12). This indicates that at the end of days a great eulogy will be organized during which men and women will be separate. . . .
. . . For what is the nature of this eulogy? The Gemara answers: Rabbi Dosa and the Rabbis disagree concerning this matter. One said that this eulogy is for Messiah ben Yosef who was killed in the war of Gog from the land of Magog prior to the ultimate redemption with the coming of Messiah ben David. And one said that this eulogy is for the evil inclination that was killed.
The Gemara asks: Granted, according to the one who said that the lament is for Messiah ben Yosef who was killed, this would be the meaning of that which is written in that context: “And they shall look unto Me because they have thrust him through; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son”(Zechariah 12:10). However, according to the one who said that the eulogy is for the evil inclination that was killed, does one need to conduct a eulogy for this? On the contrary, one should conduct a celebration. Why, then, did they cry?
As pointed out in other posts, it is most unlikely in the extreme that rabbis would have borrowed the idea of a pierced messiah, the subject of Zechariah 12:10, from Christians — even more certainly they would not have identified such a messiah as a son of Joseph under pressure from Christians. That a messiah son of Joseph would be slain must originate from pre-Christian times among Jews.
The idea that God ransoms or liberates his people permeates the Jewish Scriptures, of course. The most prominent example of the Scriptural theme of ransom and substitution operating together is the Exodus when God ransoms Israel from Egypt through the killing of the Egyptian firstborn. Or maybe the most prominent instance is where God frees Isaac from death by substituting a lamb for his sacrifice.
NC takes a look at what is meant by sacrifice in Hebrew thought:
Sacrifice of atonement in the Hebrew Bible
NC discusses the roles of the respective offerings in ancient Israel with particular attention to the increasing characteristics and importance of the sin offering in cultic worship. We are taken into the insights of Max Weber who described a progression in Israel’s history from individual responsibility to collective guilt and the need for collective atonement.
The discussion then returns to Second Isaiah where we read of a literary individual representing the entire people of Israel. There we read of the Suffering Servant offering his life as a sacrifice of expiation or atonement. By patient suffering the Israelites saw themselves as pious in a sacrificial sense, and being righteous sufferers, their suffering/sacrifice had some atoning value for others, too.
Deutero-Isaiah, however, places all emphasis (53:12) on the fact that the Servant of God, for the sake of his sufferance, was numbered with the transgressors and buried with the wicked although he did not belong to them. Thereby he bore the sins of many; he was “pierced and bruised for our iniquities”; and Yahwe “laid on him the iniquity of us all” ( 53:5, 6) and his redemptory accomplishment was found in the fact that under torment “he opened not his mouth.” “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter” and he made his soul, that is, his life, an offering for sin ( 53:7, 10).
As later for Job, the climax of suffering is not that he was a sacrifice or sacrificed himself, but that in addition he was considered a sinner under the rage of God.
(Weber, p. 374)
Reinterpretation of Biblical Passages in terms of voluntary sacrifice
Around the turn of the century (BCE to CE) we find extra-canonical Jewish writings (intertestamental literature) that reveal a remarkable evolution of theological thought. Some scholars have suggested we see the earliest signs of these new ideas in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Hebrew Bible, followed by IV Maccabees and other works.
One of those developments is the view that the deaths of martyrs could be viewed as acceptable sacrificial gifts for God. This is not to suggest that God condoned human sacrifice as commonly understood, of course. But we do see the idea that God would accept martyrs lives as gifts.
Even in the Septuagint version of the Book of Daniel — written in second century Hellenistic times although set in the Babylonian and Persian eras — speaks of a “raising up” of the dead, and the three young men facing martyrdom in the fiery furnace pray
“3, There is no longer at this time a prince, a prophet, a ruler, a burnt offering, a sacrifice, an oblation, incense, or a place to present the first-fruits before you and find favor.  Nevertheless, may we, with a broken soul and a humbled spirit [tapeinôseôs], be accepted as with [hos in] a burnt offering of rams and bulls and as with [hos in] myriads of fat lambs;  may our sacrifice [thusici] come to you to atone after you, for there is no shame for those who trust in you, and to lead to fulfillment after you.”
The situation described is a time when cultic sacrifices have ceased. The martyrs are asking to be made the atoning sacrifices in their stead.
NC returns to scholarly interpretations of three primary cultic sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. In short, different sacrifices signified different stages of reconciliation, especially sacrifices of reparation and communion with God.
Next: The Killing of the Messiah-Body of the People….
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International, 2017.
Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Gracewing Publishing, 2001.
Nodet, Etienne. Baptême et résurrection: le témoignage de Josèphe. Paris: Cerf, 2005.
Reinach, Salomon. “Le Roi Supplicié.” In Cultes, Mythes et Religions, 1:332–41. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1905. http://psychanalyse-paris.com/883-Le-Roi-supplicie.html.
Weber, Max. Ancient Judaism. Translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. London: Free Press, 1967.
Wendland, Paul. “Jesus Als Saturnalien-Koenig.” Hermes 33, no. 1 (1898): 175–79.
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