Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world

Josefa de Ă“bidos, The Sacrifical Lamb (c. 1680)

When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he said, "Behold the Lambe of God, which taketh away the sinne of the world" (John 1:29).

The standard interpretation is that John is alluding to the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament -- particularly the "sin-offerings" detailed in Leviticus 4, in which animals were ritually slaughtered in order to obtain forgiveness for sins. Jesus, then, would be the ultimate sacrificial animal, and when the Romans executed him they were unwittingly playing the role of the Levitical priest who slits the victim's throat, sprinkles its blood about, and burns its fat and some of its internal organs on the altar, somehow effecting thereby the forgiveness of sins. On this view, the crucifixion of Christ was not merely an execution, nor even a martyrdom, but an act of ritual human sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. (Fortunately the Roman soldiers were not aware that they were participating in such a monstrous ritual. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.")

John, then, was saying, "Behold the sacrificial victim of God, whose death will bring about the forgiveness of all the sins committed in the world."

This interpretation of John is, I think, unacceptable. It makes no logical or moral sense to say that God's forgiveness can be obtained through blood sacrifice, whether animal or human -- or that a blood sacrifice "counts" when the victim only stays dead for a single weekend -- or that the greatest and most effective sacrificial ritual should be performed not by God's consecrated priests, but by the soldiers of a brutal pagan empire who didn't even realize that what they were doing had any religious significance. Suppose Genghis Khan sacked a village, killed all the livestock, and burned the place to the ground. Could we expect anyone's sins to be forgiven as a result of such an incident, on the grounds that it constituted an unwitting sin-offering? But we might as well believe that as that the blackguards and barbarians who put Christ to death were unknowingly officiating in the greatest priestly ritual of all time.

Any acceptable reading of John's words must do better than this.


Bruce Charlton, who has made the Fourth Gospel a special object of study, resulting in an interpretation that is unique, insightful, and thought-provoking, has this to say about the passage we are considering.
A man emerges, Jesus - who is instantly recognised, on sight, by John the Baptist as being the Messiah: the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world. When John baptises him, John perceives that the Spirit of God does not only touch and depart, as usual; but uniquely stays with this man: Jesus has become divine. 
What does it mean that Jesus would 'take away' sin? Sin seems to mean all the transitory nature of satisfaction in this world, the corruptions, the selfishness, that which contributes to the recurrent sense that life is travail and loss. Jesus will take away Mortality and all its badness, all that we know in our hearts to be intrinsically wrong about life.
I had never before considered that "the sin of the world" might mean anything other than "all the moral vices and crimes of which the people of the world are guilty," so Bruce's fresh perspective is very valuable. I think it's a very defensible reading, especially considering that John says "the sin [singular] of the world" rather than, say, "the sins of the people." A strictly literal translation of the Greek would be something like "the way in which the cosmos misses its mark" -- an apt enough description of "mortality and all its badness."

Taking away mortality and all its badness also sounds like something that Jesus could conceivably do -- a tremendous miracle, but a logically admissible one -- whereas taking away the moral shortcomings of all the people in the world does not. If I am sinful, how could anything anyone else can do, even in principle, change that fact? At best, the punishment of sins could be taken away, which is all that the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament religion were supposed to do.


Which brings us back to John's problematic declaration. Even if we reconceptualize "taking away the sin of the world," we are still stuck with his sacrificial-animal metaphor. In what logically and morally acceptable sense can Jesus be considered the equivalent of a sacrificial victim?

Something I discovered when preparing my notes on John 1 is that male lambs -- the animals indicated by John's Greek -- were never in fact used as sin offerings.
According to the regulations laid out in Leviticus 4 for sin offerings (presumably what is being alluded to), a bullock is offered if a priest or the whole congregation has sinned; a male kid if the ruler has sinned; and a female kid or lamb if a commoner has sinned. In no case is a male lamb offered as a sin offering, and even a female lamb seems to be a sort of second option if a kid is not available. Why then did John choose a lamb? Why did he not call Jesus the Bullock of God (the closest fit for taking away the sins of the world) or the Kid of God?
In that post I merely raised the question without attempting to answer it. I think now that the answer is that, despite the bit about "taking away the sin of the world," John was not alluding to sin offerings. Instead he was (obviously!) alluding to a different sacrificial ritual -- the one that all the Gospels associate most closely with Jesus' death -- namely, the Passover (Exodus 12). The Passover victim, unlike that for a sin-offering, was a male lamb. And the blood of the Paschal lamb was shed, not to obtain forgiveness for moral misdeeds or for infractions of the Mosaic law, but to cause the destroyer to pass over. The fate of the Egyptians -- "there was not a house where there was not one dead" -- is the fate of everyone in this broken world, but the Passover made it possible to escape that fate -- to be passed over by the destroying angel, and to be delivered from that death-cursed land into a better country. This is a much better metaphor for what Jesus did than are the sin-offerings of Leviticus.

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