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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Concept of Sacrifice in Ancient Times

One of the common elements in all ancient religions is the offering of sacrifices to a supernatural entity. This entity evolved from a spirit that inhabits natural objects such as rivers, trees, mountains, and so on (animism), to the spirits of departed ancestors (ancestor worship), to deities that were much like man (anthropomorphic deities), to a deity who is transcendent and separate from creation (Hebrew monotheism), to philosophical constructs of a deity that possesses total perfection in every way--omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotentence, etc. (later Greek concepts of deity) [see this prior post]. As the evolution continued, the sacrifices also evolved until eventually they were totally spiritualized and ceased to be physical acts. Stephen Finlan writes:

As the culture evolves, religion evolves, and sacrifice is subjected to continuing reinterpretation and alteration.... From Greece to Asia Minor to Israel, we can see that a heightening of intellectual culture brings a heightening of moral sensibility, and calls bloody sacrifice into question. This is especially visible in the Hebrew and Greek cultures, which both moved toward an emphasis on the inward religious attitude.

As cultures enter a stablization phase, cultic tradents standardize the cult. Under their influence, ritual practices are reinterpreted, changed, or even suppressed.... The metaphysical conceptions motivating many rituals were forgotten by the time the procedures were inscribed in texts
(The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors [2004], pp. 46-47).

In order to better understand how early Christians came to interpret the death of Jesus, it is necessary to take a look back at the concepts underlying the offering of sacrifices in ancient religion. There is a host of literature on the subject but the best introduction to the subject is probably the work edited by Jeffrey Carter entitled: Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader (2003). Carter provides lengthy excerpts from some of the best studies done on the matter of religious sacrifices. From reading his work and others, I have come to the conclusion that sacrifices in ancient religions typically involved at least four purposes:

1. To placate the anger of the deity.
2. To garner the favor of the deity.
3. To bring about purification.
4. To restore harmony or order.

Most of these elements can be seen in virtually every religion that has ever practiced sacrifices. The sacrifice is seen as a gift of something valuable to the deity that accomplishes one or more of the above purposes. The concept of placating the anger of the deity and/or garnering its favor seems to be the earliest notions involved in ritual sacrifices. Homer writing about 800 BCE says that the gods are pliable and can be influenced by gifts such as roasted meat ( The Illiad, bk. 9). Plato, writing about 300 years later, was critical of those who thought they could bribe the gods through gifts and sacrifices (See Plato, Laws, bk. 10). One of the earliest references to sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible is found in Genesis 8. After Noah left the ark, he presented burnt offerings of animals and birds to Yahweh. The text says that when Yahweh "smelled the pleasing aroma," he promised never to curse the ground again (v. 21). This description of a burnt-offering being a "pleasing aroma" (KJV, "sweet-smelling savor") is repeated often (42 times) in the Hebrew Bible. According to Stephen Finlan:
[F]iguratively it means a sacrifice that God accepts, but its literal and older meaning is smoke that is tasty to God. The verbal root "nuach" means rest, so it is a restful or "tranquilizing" aroma, pacifying God's anger ... (Problems with Atonement [2005], p. 12).
In other words, the aroma of the cooked animal pacified or calmed the anger that God felt. This is the essence of propitiation (Rom. 3:25; I Jn. 2:2) to which I will return in a later post.

Sacrifices are seen often in the Hebrew Bible prior to the Levitical law. In the book of Job, which most believe predate the patriarchs, Job daily presented burnt-offerings to the Lord (1:5). The patriarchs regularly built altars and made burnt-offerings to the Lord. This was also a common practice of Israel's neighbors. The offering up of an animal (and sometimes a human being) as a burnt-sacrifice was widespread in antiquity. It was seen as an exchange, a gift to the deity in exchange for the deity's favor.

Why were ancient peoples so prone to think that a supernatural agent was causing either the good things or the bad things that were happening to them? According to philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson:
The answer is that they took it for granted that all events bearing on human well-being are willed by some agent for the purpose of affecting humans for good or ill. If no human was observed to have caused the event, or if the event was of a kind (e.g., a plague, drought, or good weather) that no human would have the power to cause, then they assumed that some unseen, more-powerful agent had to have willed it, precisely for its good or bad effects on humans. So, if the event was good for people, they assumed that God willed it out of love for them; if it was bad, they assumed that God willed it out of anger at them. This mode of explantation is universally obeserved among people who lack scientific understanding of natural events. It appears to be a deeply rooted cognitive bias of humans to reject the thought of meaningless suffering. ("If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted," in Philosophers without Gods, ed. Louise Antony [2007],p. 225).

So, the offering of the sacrificial gift was seen as a means by which one could manipulate or affect the emotions and will of the deity. It really is not that much different today with religious (or superstituous) peoples. For example, many people in the USA today believe that if they attend religious services or give money to a charity, or say certain prayers they can influence a deity's attitude towards them which will result in good fortune.


  1. Nice summary of sacrifice as Gift. If you read this one in the Carter reader, I'd be curious to know what you make of Girard's notions of the relationship between mimetic contagion and ideas of sacrifice, at least as it applies to the Hebrew tradition/Bible. If you were at all interested in it, not in the sense of his concept of origins of sacrificial practice per say, but his sense of the work that scapegoating sacrifice does in society, then I most highly recommend Mark Heim's application of that in his book, Saved From Sacrifice. In my own studies, the biblical notions of sacrifice only make sense from something like Girard's perspective. It's what moved me off my original position of, "Pahh! This is all bloody ridiculous nonsense." (and that was a tough move) Further, Mary Douglas does a nice job of showing the notion of analogical thinking in Leviticus as Literature. I found that helpful in really getting my own mind into and around the fact that we're dealing with a completely foreign mode of thinking. They both look at it from anthropological perspectives.

    Since then, I've added to that some of the contemporary work on the neuroscience of empathy and potentially, mirror neurons, and have an emerging picture of how something like blood sacrifice could actually work in a human mind to "propitiate the gods". And in true religious form it's actually like PST but totally not PST. At least in the psycho-social sense of the work that sacrifices did (do). Not, of course, in the "making sure the crops grow" sense. But we're dealing with a time/mode of thinking in which the two were conflated. I look forward to your next installment.

    On another note, I just saw this clip of an experiment that shows how magical thinking works with children. You can try and explain it to people all day long but this is worth the proverbial thousand words. I don't think you allow links here but if you look for a YT video titled, "The Power of Belief with James Randi 1" you'll find it. Watch it unfold right before your eyes … children developing a "belief" in the Fox in the Box.

  2. Deb,

    Thanks very much for your insightful comments. You have obviously done your homework on this subject. To be honest, I don't know what to do with Girard's "mimetic contagion" yet. I am still trying to assimilate all of the various ideas in order to attempt to understand how the early Christians came to think about the death of Jesus. I am especially intrigued by your mention of the "neuroscience of empathy" and how it might help to explain the importance of a blood sacrifice to propitiate the gods.

  3. Ken,

    I am taking a class on human sacrifice this semester. My teacher wrote is dissertation on sacrifice and was a consultant on a tv series on it.

    If you ever want anyone to discuss this stuff, just tell me :)

  4. Eight bit,

    Look forward to your interaction. What is the name of your professor and the school you are attending?

  5. I am a grad student in history at Armstrong Atlantic State University (in Savannah, Georgia). We are around 9-10,000 students and posting record enrollment numbers every year.

    This is my professor. He is a really great guy as well as a top notch scholar.

  6. Eight bit,

    Thanks. I found his dissertation on-line and it looks very interesting. I plan to read it as soon as I can find the time.

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