Part Four, The Mythology of Sacrifice
The Christian Passion is not the first sacrifice to have been portrayed as the means to salvation. Many cultures since before history have used sacrifice, human, animal, and agricultural, as offerings to the powers that be. These, less theological, but just as mystical acts of devotion are often seen as representative of hubris, an anthropomorphism of societies ills.
The sacrificial death of Jesus is important because Christ is a guiltless figure, without sin. How is this conceptually different than, say, sacrificing a virgin to a hungry volcano? Human sacrifices in ancient cultures were often done to promote the growth of crops, the body of the victim being strewn out upon the fields. In Christian ceremonies it’s for the nourishment of the soul instead of the nourishment of the soil. It is the body of the savior that is consumed as food.
“but with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ: who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was manifested at the end of times for your sake” (I Peter 1:19-20)
This motif of the sacrifice of a life without flaw, a perfect specimen, can be seen in religious movements around the world, from the small sacrifice of a carefully selected animal without any blemish or flaw right on up to the ultimate sacrifice of a human being. A child would be a large sacrifice, but not as large as a grown human that had managed to mature without sinning. (The actual age of “person hood”, in which an individual is no longer viewed as property but is rather seen as a mature human being differs from culture to culture, but there is usually an initiation rite of some sort: a bar mitzvah, sweet sixteen party, etc).
“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying,
And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the first-born that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be mine:
for all the first-born are mine; on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast; mine they shall be: I am Jehovah.
Sacrifice, the taking of an innocent life for the benefit of a society as a whole, was/is believed to transfer certain properties from the guiltless sacrificed party to the people, either the performers of the sacrifice, or the community at large. In the Book of Judges, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter after making a promise to Yahweh that he would sacrifice the first thing that walked through the door if he defeated the Ammonites. In the Iliad, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to win the favor of the goddess Artemis. In Genesis, the sacrifice of Isaac may have been thought of as an atoning act, though there is little indication that Isaac was a willing participant in the act. In the Jesus Passion, there is question as to Jesus’ ultimate knowledge of his own death; Mark’s version shows Jesus to be silent, and perhaps unwilling, Luke’s version portrays a much more involved martyr.
In the all too familiar Isaac story, Abraham, who is not shown putting up much of a fuss when asked to slit his son’s throat, a practical joker of a God magically conjures up a sheep as a substitute for the boy in the nick of time (Just kidding there, big boy. You were going to do it, too!). The Greeks too had a variant of the myth in which it is Hercules that puts a stop to a human sacrifice, substituting a sheep instead. In a variant of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, it was a deer that was substituted by the goddess at the last moment.
“On the Day of Atonement, which was the tenth day of the seventh month, the Jewish high-priest laid both his hands on the head of a live goat, confessed over it all the iniquities of the Children of Israel, and, having thereby transferred the sins of the people to the beast, sent it away into the wilderness.”
(Frazer, chapter 57, section 3)
In the ancient Greek culture, a human scapegoat, known as a pharmako, was chosen, usually a criminal. Records of the event differ, some claiming that the pharmako was sacrificed, with others taking it to be a mock ritual. Either way, the spirit of the event focused on a death that, through an unknown method, made up for the sins of the people.
And this sacrificial death motif seemed to have taken the world of the 1st century by storm. Not only did Christianity arise at this time and place, but a slew of Mystery Religions worshiping the divine deaths of Mithras, Dionysus, Isis, Osiris, etc, swept across The Mediterranean region. This mystical replacement of the once all too common real world sacrifice could have been seen as a step in the right direction. Played out with responsibility it could have told the world that the slaughter of people or animals was no longer needed; that the ritual itself could unite the community. In all too many sects of Christianity, though, the death is fixated upon, made into a gruesome fetish that frees the believers from personal responsibility.
“Among the Semites of Western Asia the king, in a time of national danger, sometimes gave his own son to die as a sacrifice for the people. Thus Philo of Byblus, in his work on the Jews, says: “It was an ancient custom in a crisis of great danger that the ruler of a city or nation should give his beloved son to die for the whole people, as a ransom offered to the avenging demons; and the children thus offered were slain with mystic rites.” (Frazer, chapter 26, Sacrifice of the King’s Son)
The death of Jesus is compared to the death of the passover lamb in the gospel narrative, the lamb that was killed and who’s blood was painted on the doors of the Hebrews so that the angel of Death would pass over those houses, sparing the lives of their children inside (God, apparently, did not know your heart in those days, and needed a visual indicator on who to kill on who not to kill). In the Jesus variation of this Jewish myth, accepting the blood of Jesus protects us from divine judgment after death. This is why it is a matter of necessity to place the crucifixion during the passover festival. The Christian movement had split off from the Jews, no longer wanting to be slaves to Temple sacrifice of the priests, they accepted one of their own; a sacrifice that no longer needed to be tied to a physical location.
When theology becomes nothing more than rationalization of mythology, it provides a disservice to both the philosophy that leads to it, for any philosophy no matter how sound is worthless when based upon a false premise, as well as the mythology, which, when crammed into a pseudo-historical setting, loses whatever edifying nature it may have once had. Crucifixion saves no one. There is no single saving event, only the struggles we face each day.