Midrash and Gospels 3: What some Jewish scholars say (and continuing ‘Midrash Tales of the Messiah’)

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by Neil Godfrey

Jewish scholars of midrash have recognized that “midrashic” techniques, methods of interpretation of texts in the Hebrew Bible, have been creatively woven into Christian Gospel narrative and teaching material as much as Jews worked creatively with midrash in their own literature.

Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson wrote The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity to argue essentially that the “Christ of faith” figure in the Gospels and Pauline epistles was a distinctively Christian-Jewish midrashic creation:

Jesus’ identity as sacrificial victim, the son handed over to death by his loving father or the lamb who takes away the sins of the world . . . ostensibly so alien to Judaism, was itself constructed from Jewish reflection on the beloved sons of the Hebrew Bible. . . . (p. x)

Another theme of Levenson’s work is that the Christian understanding that Jewish religion was obsolete is also the product of a midrash on Jewish scriptures:

[T]he longstanding claim of the Church that it supersedes the Jews in large measure continues the old narrative pattern in which a late-born son dislodges his first-born brothers, with varying degrees of success. Nowhere does Christianity betray its indebtedness to Judaism more than in its supersessionism. (p. x)

So we have a scholar of Jewish midrash expounding on the idea that the most central Christian beliefs found in the New Testament were created from a form of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (midrash) that was shared by Second Temple Jews and Jewish-Christians alike. Continue reading “Midrash and Gospels 3: What some Jewish scholars say (and continuing ‘Midrash Tales of the Messiah’)”


The Isaac and Joseph Christologies; & rivalry for Scripture & Father

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes the series outlining key aspects of Levenson’s argument that the Christian narrative of the atoning and saving death and resurrection of the Beloved (Only) Son was borrowed from late Second Temple Jewish midrashic interpretations of their scriptures about Isaac, Joseph and others. While the cosmic significance of this event is attributed to Jewish apocalyptic, the story itself is a natural evolution or mutation of a Jewish idea that had been on the burner for some time.

Levenson concludes by drawing the two Beloved Son narratives together, and then showing the Christian counterpart in a similar Jewish parable. Rather than seeing Christianity as a “child” born of the “parent” of Judaism, Levenson concludes that it is more accurate to see the two religions originating as sibling rivals, each competing for their father’s unique blessing.

The Isaac christology

Among tales of the beloved son in Genesis, the aqedah (“binding of Isaac”) is unique. The father, Abraham, directly and deliberately brings about the symbolic death of his favoured son.

We can refer to the attributes of Jesus that derive from this narrative and its Second Temple era interpretations as an Isaac christology. The action hinges on the pious intention of the father, and later, on the godly willingness to be a sacrifice on the part of the beloved son.

The other beloved son narratives

In other cases (Abel, Ishmael, Jacob and Joseph) these die or nearly die from homicidal intent of their older brothers (or mother). In the cases of Jacob and Joseph the drama concludes with a reconciliation of the beloved son with those who sought to murder him (Esau, the other sons of Jacob). This reconciliation is an implicit or explicit acknowledgment that the plots of the would-be killers, like Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac, were part of divine plan for good.

The Joseph christology

We can refer to the attributes of Jesus that derive from this narrative as a Joseph christology. That is, the event turns on the malignancy of the slayers. Both father and son are unwitting pawns in a divine drama. But the one difference with early christology is that there was no reconciliation with those who turned against and betrayed the beloved son. One of the earliest examples of this is seen in the parable of the wicked husbandmen.

Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen

Even though this parable appears towards the end of the synoptic gospels, it is a central parable to inform the reader about the fate and function of Jesus Christ, and the plan of God. It is tied to the opening baptismal scene of Jesus, and again to the central episode of his transfiguration, but the focus on “the beloved son“. So when the beloved son appears again in this parable, it is in the context of the baptized and transfigured Jesus about to claim his true inheritance:

Then He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.

Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.

Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others. Have you not even read this Scripture:

The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the LORD’s doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes?

And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them. So they left Him and went away.

Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:36-46; Luke 20:9-19

This parable is born out of key narrative themes in the Jewish scriptures and has firmly stamped those themes on the role and function of Jesus Christ. Note the following:

  1. The theme of supersessionism (excluding possibility of reconciliation), as is central to the stories under the heading of the “Joseph christology” outlined above. The chief characteristics of this are:
    • The hostility of those who have been on the fields for the longer time towards the beloved son,
    • and their intent to murder him so that they can take his inheritance for themselves,
    • but the reversal of all they hoped for when they are the ones who are totally removed and replaced by the beloved son.
  2. Complete reliance on the scriptures of the superseded Jewish people for this story; the irony of the claim that the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church jusxtaposed against the founding of this claim on the scriptures of those same Jewish people.under the heading of the “Joseph christology” outlined above.

The parable is clearly a development of the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7

Now let me sing to my Well-beloved
A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard:

My Well-beloved has a vineyard
On a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up and cleared out its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
He built a tower in its midst,
And also made a winepress in it;
So He expected it to bring forth good grapes,
But it brought forth wild grapes.

“And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes?
And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will lay it waste
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.

He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.

While this Jewish parable found fault with the vineyard itself, the Christian adaptation has found fault instead with the tenants. These refuse the rightful payment to the owner and murder his messengers.

One of the Jewish scriptural themes that has been embraced here by the parable is the traditional tale of the Jews killing the prophets sent to them (Nehemiah 9:26):

But they became disobedient and rebelled against You,
And cast Your law behind their backs
And killed Your prophets who had admonished them
So that they might return to You,
And they committed great blasphemies.

Another prominent Jewish scriptural narrative theme is the motive for murder being the coveting of the inheritance. This is found in another parable, in 2 Samuel 14:4-11, as told by the wise woman of Tekoa:

Now when the woman of Tekoa spoke to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and prostrated herself and said, “Help, O king.”
The king said to her, “What is your trouble?”
And she answered, “Truly I am a widow, for my husband is dead. Your maidservant had two sons, but the two of them struggled together in the field, and there was no one to separate them, so one struck the other and killed him. Now behold, the whole family has risen against your maidservant, and they say, `Hand over the one who struck his brother, that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed, and destroy the heir also.’ Thus they will extinguish my coal which is left, so as to leave my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.”
Then the king said to the woman, “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.”
The woman of Tekoa said to the king, “O my lord, the king, the iniquity is on me and my father’s house, but the king and his throne are guiltless.”
So the king said, “Whoever speaks to you, bring him to me, and he will not touch you anymore.”
Then she said, “Please let the king remember the LORD your God, so that the avenger of blood will not continue to destroy, otherwise they will destroy my son.”
And he said, “As the LORD lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.”

It is the clan or family who wishes to kill the surviving son, so the reader can assume that their motive is not entirely one of disinterested justice. They are the ones who will assume the inheritance by acting so heartlessly against the mother.

This parable also cannot help but remind one of the struggle in the field between Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8):

Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

But in particular the parable of the wise woman of Tekoa’s parable reverberates with the sounds of Sarah’s insistence that the elder step-brother of her son be expelled (even into the face of death in the desert) so that her son alone could be secured the inheritance:

Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)

The same themes of

  • beloved son
  • property inheritance
  • murder

are at the heart of the well known story of Jacob and Esau. The extended narrative of Genesis 25-32 is told to justify the lateborn son, Jacob, assuming the privileges of the older, Esau. The whole narrative turns on the love that the mother, and God, have towards Jacob, the younger, and the conflict this generates with the older brother, Esau, who is loved by Isaac (Gen.25:28; Mal. 1:3). The consequence is, again, the intent by the older son, Esau, to murder the younger, Jacob, for the inheritance.

Paul’s contribution again

This parabolic midrashic slant of the old Jewish narratives was not the unique intellectual property of synoptic authors. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians contains a passage in the same midrashic tradition of the very same narrative cluster.:

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. (Galatians 4:28-31)

Just as the Hebrew scripture’s narrative functioned to justify the inheritance going to the younger son over the older son of Abraham, so the midrashic play on the same narrative validated the claim of the Church over the Jews as the rightful heirs of God.

The author of that passage in Galatians had the same objective as the author of the original narrative of Isaac and Ishmael.

And the Christians are brought into this drama because of the earlier identification of the promise to Abraham with Jesus:

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal.3:16)

Christian anti-semitism witnesses to midrashic character of Christian message

The early Church claimed to be the chosen of God in place of the Jews, and asserted that God had dispossessed the Jews in favour of the devotees of Jesus Christ. If the Christians portrayed the Jews as their persecutors, the same Christians also saw it as their God-given right to cast out and dispossess the Jews. And the same Church concocted the written testimony to their claim out of their own midrashic interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.

The very efforts of the Church to dispossess the Jews of the Torah witnesses to the midrashic character of the most basic elements of the Christian message.

Paul’s and the Gospel’s message compared

According to Levenson, Paul never blames the Jews for death of Jesus. For Paul, the death of Jesus is always the consequence of the sacrifice of a loving God.

The parable of WIcked Husbandmen, though, has no trace of any notion of child sacrifice. Rather, it resembles the story of Joseph, whose father has no intention that his son be killed. Note also that the gospels have Judas as the wicked betrayer of Jesus, the beloved son and true heir, just as Judah was the betrayer of Joseph, the beloved son. That Judas might stand in for the Jews cannot be far from any reader’s mind. Levenson comments:

The father’s gift has been recast as the brothers’ crime. (p.230)

A Rabbinic analogy to Christian supersessionism: both replace Isaac

Levenson continues, p.230: “If doubt remains about the midrashic character of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen or its pronounced participation in the intertextuality of the Jewish Scriptures, the following rabbinic midrash should help dispel the doubt and shed light on the Jewish-Christian debate to which the parable bears witness:”

For the LORD’S portion is his people” [Deut 32:9]. A parable: A king had a field which he leased to tenants. When the tenants began to steal from it, he took it away from them and leased it to their children. When the children began to act worse than their fathers, he took it away from them and gave it to (the original tenants’) grandchildren. When these too became worse than their predecessors, a son was born to him. He then said to the grandchildren, “Leave my property. You may not remain therein. Give me back my portion, so that I may repossess it.” Thus also, When our father Abraham came into the world, unworthy (descendants) issued from him, Ishmael and all of Keturah’s children. When Isaac came into the world, unworthy (descendants) issued from him, Esau and all the princes of Edom, and they became worse than their predecessors. When Jacob came into the world, he did not produce unworthy (descendants), rather all his children were worthy, as it is said, “Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp” [Gen 25:27]. When did God repossess His portion? Beginning with Jacob, as it is said, “For the LORD’S portion is His people / Jacob His own allotment” [Deut 32:9], and, “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself [Ps 135 :4] (Sifre Deut. 312)

According to Levenson, in both the gospel parable and in this rabbinic midrash,

the climactic act of election is the final one, the one occasioned by the arrival of the son. In both passages, the point is to justify the preference for the latecomers at the expense of those whom they dispossess, the non-Israelite descendants of Abraham in the case of the midrash, the Jews in the Christian parable as we have interpreted it.” (p.231)

Levenson continues:

That rabbinic culture transmitted a parable on these matters so similar to the Synoptic text and its alloforms in Thomas suggests that the prominence of the “beloved son” in the canonical Gospels — or at least of the concept underlying it — is not incidental to the meaning of the Gospel passage. Rather, both texts would seem to have had their origins in the dispute of Jews and early Christians over the identity of the beloved son and the community that harks back to him. The only way in which a dispute of this sort could be carried on was through the exegesis of the only scripture either community knew — the Hebrew Bible.

Paul had replaced Isaac as the beloved son with Jesus and the Church, and this rabbinic midrash replaces Isaac with Jacob and the Jews as the beloved son.

The biblical texts on which the two contending groups focused are, in each case, those that speak of the origins of the faithful community and the legi­timation of its separation from its unworthy competitor, and, in each case, the legitimation derives from God’s new and definitive act of election. (p.231)

This rabbinic midrash testifies to the “deeply Jewish character of the parallel New Testament exegetical moves and for the similarity of the ways in which the two communities laid a midrashic claim to the patrimony of Abraham.”

Both Jewish and Christian communities rely on Genesis; both use Genesis to compose texts that completely dispossess their rivals. In both the Jewish and Christian parables the former tenants are totally uprooted and repudiated — there is no compromise, no longer any room for any blessing at all for the former tenants.

The break is total: contrary to what biblical archetype might have suggested, the Jews and the Church are not even related . . . .

The Jewish-Christian relationship is thus not one of parent-child as often portrayed, but one of two rival siblings competing for their father’s unique blessing.

Jews and Christians Debate (Image from the Lancaster University History Department website)

Beyond Levenson

I’ve done nothing more in these posts than present some key parts of Levenson’s argument. I have not discussed it in relation to other studies or possible implications for certain other hypotheses for Christian origins. In future posts, however, I do expect to refer back to significant points made by Levenson in this book, bringing them to throw additional light on other interpretations of the origins of Christianity.

The primary purpose of this series in the meantime is to do my little bit towards making more widely accessible some of the biblical scholarship that rarely gets read beyond the study rooms of academia.

There’s much more in the book — especially in relation to early Canaanite sacrifice and the notion of human sacrifice (both literal and symbolic) in what are sometimes thought of as “early bible times”.


Remaking God in the Image of Abraham

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by Neil Godfrey

According to Levenson the central elements of the Christian message derive from a reinterpretation and midrashic reworking of prominent tropes in the Hebrew Scriptures. In particular, the central Christian message and characterization of Jesus can be traced directly to the central motifs that lie at the heart of the old biblical stories and proclamations about the “beloved (and only begotten) son”. Further, these biblical stories have their antecedents in Canaanite mythology. The fundamental theme involves a father (human or divine) who willingly gives up his most beloved son to a bloody sacrifice, either out of love for another, or to save others from death. This is found most prominently in what have come to us as the writings of Paul, as well as in one especially famous gospel verse.

There is another parallel set of “beloved son” narratives that turn on the murderous hostility of the older siblings of that beloved son because of his destiny to inherit what they think should be their due. In this tradition, the father is an unwilling participant until the eventual miraculous return of his most beloved one. At that point the most favoured son assumes the full inheritance. Sometimes, but not always, there is reconciliation with the older siblings. This narrative enters the Christian message through certain plot and character details and another famous parable found in the synoptic gospels.

But at this point, in the series outlining Levenson’s book, ‘The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, we come to his final chapter where he begins by looking at how the very character of God was transformed by early Christianity through its midrashic reading of the Jewish scripture stories of “the beloved son”. As previous posts in this series demonstrate, the “beloved son” trope, also often accompanied with the notion of “the only begotten” son, is part and parcel with the plot or myth of the father delivering up his most favoured offspring to bloody sacrifice for a greater good.

This ancient Jewish (and earlier Canaanite) story, Levenson proposes, is the underlying source of the Christian message, beginning with the very concept of God as a being who loves humanity so much he will sacrifice his only son to save them. . . .

Note the Hebrew Scripture themes that underly this passage in Romans 8:28-35:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would bethe firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

The complex thoughts expressed in this passage are all surfacing here from Jewish scripture narratives:

The firstborn son

  1. In the context of the narratives in the Jewish scriptures, the firstborn son was the one destined to be given to God as a sacrifice, or through a ritual that substitutes for a literal sacrifice (see beloved and only begotten sons sacrificed, and Jesus displaces Isaac);
  2. Sometimes (e.g. Jacob and Joseph) he is really the last born, and acquires his firstborn status through divine or parental assistance, or through birth to a favoured wife, and must accordingly face the murderous rage of his older brothers.

The image (eikon) of his Son

  1. This metaphor builds on the tradition that God created the individual man Adam in his own image, and that we are all in that image through procreation, the process blessed at creation;
  2. Now the image of God is no longer mediated through Adam, but through Jesus, through supernatural regeneration that was manifested at Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is available only to those called and chosen. Jesus is the new Adam.

The Isaac motifs

The constellation of the first born son, predestination, chosenness, glorification — this combination is at the core of the Isaac story. Anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures will not have the story of Isaac and other beloved sons catapulted to firstborn status far from mind when reading here of the plot of the firstborn experiencing predestination, being chosen and finally glorified. This pattern is the core of Isaac’s birth, near-sacrifice and ascent to the rank of patriarch. And in later Jewish interpretations, his near-sacrifice became in implied actual sacrifice and resurrection. (See the previous posts for details.)

Abraham maybe

The above passage stresses the love of God, and since in Jewish Scripture and Second Temple interpretations Abraham was the archetypical lover of God, his shadow may well cover the above passage:

Isaiah 41:8 — Abraham is known as the archetypical lover of God. (Below is a translation of the Hebrew; in the LXX the word is from the Greek “agape” for love (agapete), describing God as the lover of Abraham):

— And thou, O Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, Seed of Abraham, My lover

Jubilees 17:15-18 While the original Genesis account spoke of Abraham’s fear of God, this passage from Jubilees points to a shift in Jewish interpretation of Abraham where it was his love for God that was stressed, and with everything working out well for him despite afflictions because of his love for God:

there were voices in heaven regarding Abraham, that he was faithful in all that He told him, and that he loved the Lord, and that in every affliction he was faithful. And the prince Mastema came and said before God, ‘Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son, and he delights in him above all things else; bid him offer him as a burnt-offering on the altar, and Thou wilt see if he will do this command, and Thou wilt know if he is faithful in everything wherein Thou dost try him. And the Lord knew that Abraham was faithful in all his afflictions; for He had tried him through his country and with famine, and had tried him with the wealth of kings, and had tried him again through his wife, when she was torn (from him), and with circumcision; and had tried him through Ishmael and Hagar, his maid-servant, when he sent them away. And in everything wherein He had tried him, he was found faithful, and his soul was not impatient, and he was not slow to act; for he was faithful and a lover of the Lord.

Everything worked out well for Abraham because of his love for God.

Abraham definitely

The shadows of Abraham’s character lurking in the above passage are confirmed as definitely his own when we read of the final test, the real proof, of God’s love:

He who did not spare (pheidomai) His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all

Compare Genesis 22:12, 16:

for now I am certain that the fear of God is in your heart, because you have not kept back (pheidomai) your son, your only son, from me. . . . because you have done this and have not kept back (pheidomai) from me your dearly loved only son

The evidence of God’s love for humanity is the same as was the evidence of Abraham’s love for God. In both cases the supreme test or sign of that love was the giving up of their only sons.

Through this model of Abraham God has established a “new aqedah” (binding of Isaac). Just as Abraham’s aqedah enabled the life of the nation of Israel (see previous posts), so the new aqedah by God, in return, enables the new life of the Christian.

Role of Love in the New Aqedah

For God so loved the world, that He gave (edoken) His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Familiarity makes for an easy sentimentalization of this passage. But the idea of “givine one’s only begotten son” is nothing less than the scriptural idea of God’s requirement that the firstborn son be handed over (given up) for a bloody sacrifice. The way the Son is “given” goes back to Exodus 22:29b:

you shall give me the first-born among your sons

The fathers gift is the bloody slaying of Jesus, in the same sense as the killing of the passover lamb.

The killing of Jesus, like the killing of the passover lamb, enables the life of others who were marked for death. And like the beloved sons in the Hebrew traditions, his death also proves reversible. He is, like them, miraculously restored to life and reunited with those who love him, but who had given up all hope for his return.

Linking the above to a new age and general resurrection

Whence the pivotal historical moment, the turning of the new age interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection? That comes from Jewish apocalyptic, not from the midrash of biblical stories of near loss and miraculous return of the beloved son.

But the resurrection idea came with the Pharisees and the rabbis who followed them. It was not part of the earliest biblical narratives. But imagine how the Pharisees and rabbis who believed in a resurrection must have read and thought about the stories of the beloved son. One can imagine the old stories being recast under the impact of that new belief, of the old stories of an averted death being recast as a resurrection. Levenson had earlier discussed the enigmatic appearance of “the ashes of Isaac” in the Second Temple period.

The story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:8-37 (cf 1 Kings 17:17-24) likely represents a reworking of the beloved son story in a different cultural context, with a belief in resurrection.

Given these resurrection stories in the Elijah-Elisha narratives, it may indeed be significant that the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark, is quite possibly modeled on much of the content and structure of the Elijah-Elishah saga (1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 13). Levenson cites Roth, and I would add Brodie. Levenson comments:

Even those unpersuaded by the case must conclude theis: if already in a world in which people believed in wonder-working prophets, the death of the only and promised son could be reversed by his bodily resurrection, it is all the more the case that in a world in which the resurrection of the dead is a central tenet, like that of Pharisaic Judaism, the report of the son’s return from death need not be taken for a definitive break with the older pattern. The report of Jesus’ resurrection is the old wine in a bottle that is relatively new but hardly unique. (p. 224, my emphasis)

Both Canaanite and Jewish myths

As discussed in the earlier posts in this series, there was the old Canaanite theme of god, El, who offered his son, his only son, in order to avert disaster. This offered son was said to be the “monogenes“, the “only” son, or the “only begotten” son.

Philo of Byblos translates the name of the son of El, whom El offered, as Ieoud or Iedoud. Behind this Ieoud/Iedoud is the Hebrew word yahid, the favoured one, the same term repeatedly applied to Isaac:

Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac . . .
thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me. . . .
because thou . . . hast not withheld thy son, thine only son . . (Genesis 22:2, 12, 16):

One LXX translation of this word uses the Greek monogenes when it applies to Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:34. Another LXX version combines monogenes auto agapete (she was his “only child and beloved” daughter).

So the resonances of Jewish and Canaanite myths lurk beneath the Christian message (outlined in the Romans passage at the beginning of this post) and the Christian God, although the Jewish myth of course dominates. In the Jewish myth the motive for giving up the beloved son was a love greater than that for the son, not fear of calamity, as was the motive in the Canaanite myth.

And when Jesus was the one identified as the son of the God, then God himself was transformed into the image of father Abraham.

I titled this post “remaking god in the image of abraham”, but I am not sure to what extent there was any real “re-make” — or if the remake was really about shifting the image of a godfather god who demands absolute fealty to one who guises that mafia-like godfather image beneath a “love” garment. Rather than a theological innovation, does the new myth represent a Stockholm syndrome — those who saw themselves captive to their godfather have come to love him, since they see themselves as totally dependent on him.

one more post to go ( i think) to finish off this series……


Jesus supplants Isaac — the contribution of Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

What was the origin of the idea that God sacrificed his beloved or only son to cover for the sins of his favoured people? Was it novel to the Christians? Was it the outcome of years of theological reflection searching for meaning in some historical event? Or was the idea already central to certain Jewish interpretations about their own identity in relation to the binding (and near sacrifice) of Isaac? And if so, was the Jesus christology little more than a direct hijacking of a set of Jewish beliefs about Isaac? I am not sure of the answer but as part of an attempt to find it I have been working through a series of posts outlining Levenson’s study of how some of the earliest Christian writers drew on longstanding Jewish traditions about “the beloved son” (epitomized in Isaac) to interpret the role and meaning of Jesus.

In terms of social (i.e. racial) impact, the most significant writings that drew on Jewish interpretative frameworks about the beloved son, in particular Isaac, are those attributed to Paul. (I place ‘replaced’ in quotation marks because Isaac was never replaced within Judaism, of course. Displaced would have been the more arms-length term to have used, and is in fact the word Levenson uses. But ‘replaced’ certainly would apply to those Jews and proselytes who originally transferred all the meanings bestowed upon Isaac to their Jesus and/or Christ figure.)

A corollary of this involves a rejection of the commonly assumed notion of Paul’s “universalism”. He is not by any means a “universalist”. He wants, rather, for a reversal of the Judaistic premise: his system places the gentiles in the favoured position of the Jews, and relegates the Jews to castaway status until their punishment is complete. Continue reading “Jesus supplants Isaac — the contribution of Paul”


Jesus displaces Isaac: midrashic creation of the biblical Jesus . . . (Offering of Isaac . . . #6)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series the evolution of the offering of Isaac into a Jesus story; earlier posts here.

Levenson argues that much of the early christology derives from a midrashic combination of verses associated with

  1. Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham,
  2. the suffering servant in Isaiah who went, like Isaac, willingly to his slaughter,
  3. another miraculous son, the son of David, the future messianic king laden with hopes of restoring the nation and establishing justice and peace throughout the world.

As outlined in my earlier post, Levenson shows that the “Beloved Son / Only Begotten Son” label can at times be used as a technical term for a son who is destined to be sacrificed or in some way given up to death or slavery by his father. Christians attributed this status to Jesus in relation to the twin themes of humiliation and exaltation.

While I am essentially here outlining notes from Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, I cannot claim that I am accurately reflecting the nuances of Levenson’s thought. It is inevitable that my personal interest will govern the subtext and organization of these notes. (Although I do clearly make notes where I depart from Levenson with other material altogether.)


The Beloved Son

So when Jesus is declared by his heavenly Father to be “my beloved son with whom I am delighted” (as one reads in Mark 1:11 and 9:7, Matthew 3:17 and 17:5, Luke 3:2 and 9:35 and 2 Peter 1:17 and compares with John 3:16), an audience familiar with the story of Isaac and its Jewish interpretations from the second Temple period would hear God identifying Jesus with Isaac.

An earlier heavenly voice similarly had bestowed the same honour on Isaac: “Take your beloved son, the one you love, and offer him up as a burnt sacrifice” (Genesis 22:2). This narrative of the binding of Isaac (the aqedah) took on evolving importance in the Second Temple period, as discussed in previous posts (see my Levenson tag). Isaac came to be seen as a willing participant in his sacrifice that took on atoning significance for the sins of Israel. Isaac’s “sacrifice” even came to be recalled as a meaning of the Passover lamb.

With this background, as Levenson notes, “it is reasonable to suspect that the early audiences of the synoptic Gospels connected the belovedness of Jesus with his Passion and crucifixion” (p.200).

The Suffering Servant

The “beloved son in whom I delight” in Mark and the other New Testament passages cited above owed as much to the figure of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah:

This is My servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen one, in whom I delight.
I have put My spirit upon him,
He shall teach the true way to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 further depicts the servant of YHWH as “an innocent, humble, and submissive man who was, nonetheless, persecuted, perhaps even unto death. These persecutions were not meaningless, however: they served a redemptive role, for through them the servant atoned vicariously for those who maltreated him. . . . The identification of Jesus with the suffering servant of the Book of Isaiah . . . became a mainstay of Christian exegesis” (p.201).

Levenson observes that the Christian interpretation of this passage was not broken within their ranks until the twelfth century when Andrew of St. Victor interpreted the suffering servant as referring to the sufferings of the Jewish people during their Babylonian exile. This view led to him being accused of “judaizing” the Bible.

The suffering servant was also imagined as a sheep about to be slaughtered:

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

Isaac Bound and the Suffering Servant

We don’t know whether the Christian community was the first to relate the aqedah and suffering servant images to each other, of if the Christians were drawing on earlier Jewish exegesis. “Either way, the equation of Isaac with the suffering servant has its own potent midrashic logic” (p.201):

Sacrificial lambs

The binding of Isaac was seen as prefiguring the Passover lamb; the suffering servant was compared with a lamb to be slaughtered

Willingly accept their fate

Isaac came to be seen as willingly accepting his fate; the suffering servant also willingly accepts his fate

Their deaths give God complete pleasure

Both Isaac and the suffering servant provide their heavenly father with complete pleasure when faced with death (c.f. Isaiah 53:10-11)

The meaning of the chosen and beloved status

The chosen and beloved status of both Isaac and Jesus meant that each was fated to humiliation and exaltation, death and glory

Their deaths are redemptive

The blood of Isaac was seen in place of that of Israel and so saved Israel; the stripes of the suffering servant healed many, his soul was made an offering for sin


Beloved Son and the story of Joseph

At the transfiguration of Jesus where select disciples and the chosen readers glimpse the glory of Jesus to come, they hear him designated the Beloved Son, and are reminded again of his lot to be humiliated and sacrificed. But they hear something else in addition. He has authority. He is the one to be listened to and obeyed:

Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7; c.f. Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:35)

The beloved son to be sacrificed is to receive the homage of others.

This has less to do with Isaac or the suffering servant than it does with the Joseph story in Genesis 37-50.

The starting point must be the fact that Joseph was singled out as the most beloved son of his father. He was the son of his old age and from his favoured wife. (Genesis 27:3).

Levenson has earlier discussed this narrative in depth. In sum, it is in part a story of how its hero came to be catapulted into the status of privilege and authority as had been promised him as a child, and how before this promise was granted he had to suffer many symbolic deaths (the first which his father took to be a real death). His final status of authority meant that even his older brothers had to listen to him and obey.

Transfiguration as an analog of the Joseph report to his father and brothers

In both the narrator depicts a future grandeur that seems completely out of place at the moment

Before the realization of this glory, both beloved sons must confront death, and experience betrayal and abandonment, apparently never to be seen again.

The contributions of the Joseph story to the Gospels

“What the Joseph story more than any other tales of the beloved son contributes to the Gospels is the theme of disbelief, resentment, and murderous hostility of the family of the one mysteriously chosen to rule” (p.202)

In the gospels the betrayal is principally by Judas who takes 30 pieces of silver in exchange for Jesus. Levenson remarks that it would seem more than possible that this episode was drawn from the sale of Joseph, as proposed by Judah (the namesake of Judas), for 20 pieces of silver.

The amount or 20 pieces of silver appears to be based on the price for a male Joseph’s age in Leviticus 27:5. The Gospel amount of 30 pieces may come from Zechariah 11:12

The same passage in Zechariah speaks of the shepherd breaking his staff, named Unity, to demonstrate the annulling of the brotherhood between Judah and Joseph. In the Joseph story Judah is the most important of Joseph’s brothers, and is the one who seeks to heal the rift in the family. (Another passage, Ezekiel 37:15-28, also speaks of 2 sticks, representing Judah and Joseph, and wants them reunited.)

Levenson comments: “In light of these biblical precedents, it was not an unlikely move for the Gospels to associate the fatal rift among the twelve disciples with the betrayal of Joseph, their father’s beloved son and the one among the twelve destined to rule despite his brothers’ enmity and perfidy.” I would suggest, rather, that the original account of the betrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark does not depict such a rift among the twelve disciples as Levenson seems to assume. It was well been argued that Mark’s gospel depicts all Twelve in some way betraying Jesus: Judas directly, Peter by denying him, all by abandoning him. They may be seen as just as collectively responsible for the betrayal of Jesus as all of Joseph’s brother are for his betrayal.

Beloved Son and the Messianic King

“The theme of authority [the command to “Hear Him!” at the transfiguration] draws the traditions of the beloved son into relationship with another important stream in Jewish tradition, that of messianism” (p.203).

Again, the messianic oracles resonate with the same terms of identity given by God to Jesus:

You are my son, today I have begotten you

(It is going beyond Levenson’s comments, but early Christians such as Justin testify to this same expression being used of Jesus.)

Royal theology of the House of David

The literature spoke of a divine commission to the Davidic king of heir, even if the latter were newborn or unborn. This literature calls for submission to the new king at a time when his rule seemed shaky:

The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the LORD and against His Anointed/Messiah (Psalm 2:2)

God responds by mocking the plotters and establishing his anointed king:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.” (Psalm 2:6)

The king then speaks, reciting the terms of his commission from God:

“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’ ” (Psalm 2:7-9)

The king rules as Son of Yahweh.

This may be nothing more than a literary metaphor, since treaties establishing suzerainty and vassalage likewise used the terms “father” and “son” as diplomatic conventions to indicate that status.

Or it could be more than a convention of language. It could be “a living metaphor” in which the King hears the voice from heaven that gives him his authority to rule as God’s Son on earth. The Davidic King could be the manifestation of the universal rule of God on earth. The command is to Hear Him, or face the severest consequences.

Some of the messianic literature with its emphasis on the birth of the Davidic king appears to confirm this latter interpretation. The king is not an ordinary person who is a metaphoric son of God according to the diplomatic jargon of the covenant, but is a miraculous figure, and his accession transforms the world by ushering in a new age of the justice of God. Once enthroned he really was the divine son.

For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given:
and the authority shall be upon his shoulders:
He has been named
“The Mighty God is planning grace;
The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler” —
In token of abundant authority
and of peace without limit
upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom,
That it might be firmly established
In justice and equity
Now and evermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

The above points to the miraculous birth of the Davidic King, and this functions as yet another link with the Beloved Son . . . .

Beloved Son and Miraculous Birth

So if the birth of the king (regardless of the chronological age of the king at the time this was declared) was a miraculous event, we have another link with the tradition of the Beloved Son in the Genesis narratives. For in those stories are all born of a miracle, as a direct result of divine intervention. In the cases of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, they were all born of barren women, in one case even of a woman who was well beyond child-bearing years at the time — Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel.

It is a very common trope for heroic figures to be born outside the course of nature. (e.g. Samson in Judges 13; Samuel in 1 Samuel 1)

“One function of these stories is to legitimate the special status of the person to whom miraculous birth is attributed. His authority is not something that he has usurped: a gracious providence has endowed him with it, thus to the benefit of the entire nation” (p.205). Hence:

For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given

Isaac’s priority lineage ahead of his older brother, Ishmael, and Isaac’s priority ahead of his older brother Esau, and the younger brother Joseph’s right to supremacy, were all legitimated by the miraculous circumstances of their births. They were bestowed authority, against all natural expectation and concourse, by the authoritative grace of God.

The New Testament equivalent of the beloved son being born to a barren woman is the birth of Jesus to a virgin.

In the Gospel of Matthew the virgin birth derives from a midrashic link to the Septuagint (Greek) text of Isaiah 7:14, where a Greek word often meaning virgin is used of the mother of the son to be named Immanuel (God with us) is to be born.

In the Gospel of Luke the virgin birth is associated much more directly with the titles of the one to be born “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God” – and with Jesus’ claims upon the Davidic throne (Luke 1:32-35).

The Gospel of Luke therefore draws on a very literal understanding of “son of God” in the Judean royal theology described in the previous section.


Levenson, p. 206:

Within the overall structure of the Gospels, however, the two vocabularies of sonship, that of the beloved son and that of the Davidic king as the son of God, reinforce each other powerfully. They yield a story in which the rejection, suffering, and death of the putatively Davidic figure is made to confirm rather than contradict his status as God’s only begotten son.


All four canonical gospels link Jesus’ death with the Passover. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) coincide the Last Supper with the Passover meal. Thus when Jesus declares the bread and wine to be his flesh and blood (or emblematic of them) these have to be judged as having a paschal significance.

The Gospel of John has the distinction of placing Jesus’ death itself on the Passover, so the Last Supper the evening before took place without any paschal associations. (Contrary to Levenson, however, I would note that the author of this gospel does associate bread and wine with Jesus’ paschal body – only at his implicit commentary on the feeding of the 5000 (John 6) — not on the Passover eve.)

The Gospel of John

So the author of GJohn links the body of Jesus on the cross, not the meal eaten the evening before, with the Passover. Thus in John 19:31-37 we see a gospel author relating the crucified body of Jesus

  1. to Numbers 9:12 (not a bone was to be broken in the Passover meal)
  2. and to Zechariah 12:10 (they will look upon him whom they pierced)

In the case of the latter reference to Zechariah 12:10, Levenson notes: “Here it is useful to remember that the relevance of a verse often extends beyond the words that the midrashist cites. In the case of Zech 12:10, it is highly suggestive to note that the words that follow those cited in John 19:37:

. . . wailing over them as over a favorite son and showing bitter grief as over a first-born. (Zech. 12:10c)

In the Septuagint (Greek) “Old Testament”, the word for “favorite son” is rendered, in the Greek, agapetos, “beloved one”. This is the same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew “favorite son” (yahid) in the story of the binding of Isaac, the aqedah, in Genesis 22:2, 12, 16. (See fuller discussion in previous post.)

It thus appears that the author of GJohn is equating the first-born and beloved son with the paschal lamb, and all three of these with Jesus.

The Baptism of Jesus scene in the Gospel of John is not really a baptism of Jesus. Rather, it is a proclamation of the Baptist about the identity of Jesus — with no baptism. John declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Strictly the Passover lamb was not a sin offering. Levenson replies to this: “We must not assume that the fine technicalities of sacrificial classification weighed heavily upon the minds of the evangelists as they drew upon biblical materials for their own purposes. More importantly, the unclassifiable passover sacrifice of Exodus 12 does indeed have much in common with the sin offering, for it is through the blood of the lamb that lethal calamity is deflected, as the mysterious Destroyer is prevented from working his dark designs upon the Israelite first-born . . . ” ( p. 208 )

So the author of GJohn does not repeat the Synoptic words, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”

But he did equate the beloved son with the paschal lamb.

And he has John the Baptist equate the Lamb of God with the Son of God (John 1:34).

The equation of the Son of God with the Lamb of God takes us back to Exodus 34:20 where the lamb was destined as a substitute for the firstborn to be sacrificed. Previous posts in this Levenson series have demonstrated the identification of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:13) with the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:11-15).

Revelation 12:10-11 also points to an early Christian understanding that the blood of the lamb overpowers the “accuser”, or Satan, and enables Christ to come to power. Levenson notes that this accuser in Revelation has “a striking analogue” in Jubilees 17:15-16, previously discussed for its relationship to the Exodus Destroyer and the Passover.

Thus John’s Gospel can be seen as both opening (1:29) and closing (19:36) with Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Paschal Lamb, and both of these brackets are taken from the story of the Passover — “the story of how the preternatural forces of death were foiled and the doomed first-born miraculously allowed to live” (p. 209).

Next to look at Paul’s contribution to this, and its significance for the self-identity of the church and relations with Jews.


Beloved and Only Begotten Sons Sacrificed by Loving Fathers (Offering of Isaac, 5)

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by Neil Godfrey

First of a couple of backtracks here before completing the Offering of Isaac’s / Sacrifice of Jesus series. Based on Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.

According to what Eusebius tells us in his Praeparatio Evangelica, one passage Philo of Byblos wrote of sacrifice among the gods:

It was a custom of the ancients in great crises of danger for the rulers of a city or nation, in order to avert the common ruin, to give up the most beloved of their children for sacrifice as a ransom to the avenging daemons; and those who were thus given up were sacrificed with mystic rites. Kronos then, whom the Phoenicians call Elus, who was king of the country and subsequently, after his decease, was deified as the star Saturn, had by a nymph of the country named Anobret an only begotten son, whom they on this account called ledud, the only begotten being still so called among the Phoenicians; and when very great dangers from war had beset the country, he arrayed his son in royal apparel, and prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.’

Kronos or El sacrificed his son to put an end to the “very great dangers from war that had beset the country.” The same motif is found in the Bible where King Mesha also offered “his first-born son, who was to succeed him as king” to end the siege of his city. See 2 Kings 3:27. In both cases a king sacrifices his royal heir.

Elus is otherwise known as El, and is also known by the same name and in the same supreme role in the Hebrew Bible, and sometimes equated there with YHWH.

Iedud is, following Levenson, better spelled Iedoud to reflect Eusebius’s Greek.

Another manuscript tradition names this only begotten son of El Ieoud rather than Iedoud (Levenson, p.27).

The only begotten son

Ieoud is most likely the same as the Hebrew word yachiyd, the only, the solitary one, the only begotten.

This word is prominent in stories of child sacrifice: Continue reading “Beloved and Only Begotten Sons Sacrificed by Loving Fathers (Offering of Isaac, 5)”


The Offering of Isaac . . . . 4: death and resurrection

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by Neil Godfrey

Implicit in my series of notes on Jon Levenson‘s book, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, is that the Jesus story, in particular the fact of and meaning attributed to his humiliation and crucifixion, the saving function of his blood, his pioneer role and one with whom the faithful are to identify, should not be seen as unique developments. They arguably emerged within the context of a Jewish intellectual matrix that was attributing the same sort of theology to Isaac.

Certainly some of the clearest expressions of these meanings to the binding of Isaac are found in the rabbinic literature that was penned after the destruction of Jerusalem. But the earlier delineations of these interpretations are seen as early as the second century b.c.e.. Further, many of the rabbinic passages to which Levenson refers appear to derive from the earliest period of rabbinic Judaism. This is the same period in which the Christian gospels are also most commonly dated. (There are also what I believe are strong arguments — if not widely accepted ones — that the Pauline literature also dates from the late first or early second century.)

It is therefore no stretch to postulate the Jewish and Christian theological interpretations of Isaac and Jesus emerging in tandem, perhaps even in a dialogue with each other. For me it is also interesting that Levenson places some of the radical Isaac salvation and death and resurrection theology to the circumstances of the persecution of the Jews at the time of the Bar Khoba war (early 130’s c.e.) or possibly earlier. Interesting to me because this period, and its forerunner, the first Jewish war (late 60’s c.e.), set what I believe are the most plausible circumstances and explanations for both the emergence of Christianity and the course of rabbinic Judaism. Both naturally drew on pre 70 c.e. schools of thought (and Judaism pre 70 c.e. was a far from monolithic religious and thought system), but it was surely the crises of the Jewish wars that created the conditions that led to the real beginnings of these two trees. Both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism may be seen as natural (vacuum filling) replacements of what had been lost. (I’ve hinted at one aspect of this in an earlier thought about the tomb of Jesus being born out of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.)

But I’m getting way ahead of myself here, and sidetracked from the arguments of Levenson. Back to the business at hand:

The Death and Resurrection of Isaac?

The Shed Blood of Isaac Continue reading “The Offering of Isaac . . . . 4: death and resurrection”


The Offering of Isaac: its evolution into . . . Jesus event, 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Parts 1 and 2 have looked at the evolution of the aqedah through the Second Temple and early rabbinic period — from Levenson’s book. Its retelling moved away from the original Genesis 22 account and became identified with the Passover and all sacrificial lambs.

Parallel with this evolutionary branch was another one equally significant. Jewish interpreters were also transforming the story of Abraham offering his hapless son into a story of Isaac freely and with full awareness offering himself as a sacrifice for God. Continue reading “The Offering of Isaac: its evolution into . . . Jesus event, 3”

The offering of Isaac: its evolution into the template of the Jesus event: 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post on this topic . . . . . (discussing Levenson’s Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son . . .

Continue reading “The offering of Isaac: its evolution into the template of the Jesus event: 2”


The offering of Isaac: its evolution into the template of the Jesus event: 1

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by Neil Godfrey

An intriguing read is Jon D. Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. (There are public domain reviews online here and here.)

Levenson’s argument is that the Jewish interpretations of the Aqedah (the story of the Binding of Isaac at his moment of sacrifice by Abraham) developed into an etiology of the Passover, and Isaac himself eventually became a willing sacrificial victim for the redemption of Israel. These interpretations can be traced from the second century b.c.e. Chistianity displaced this Isaac legend with its theology of the Jesus crucifixion.

There is too much in the book for me to cover here, but will share a few of the highlights. Continue reading “The offering of Isaac: its evolution into the template of the Jesus event: 1”