December 20, 2003


A Mary for all: Christianity's Jewish roots: New evidence on links between Judaism, Christianity and Islam (The Economist, Dec 18th 2003)

Like several other religions, the Jewish tradition was torn between its emphasis on the unbridgeable gap between God and human beings and its belief that, in certain circumstances, it is possible for man and the divine to come face to face.

For the Jews, the unique place of encounter between man and God was the temple. Before that, it was the Tabernacle, or tent, constructed by Moses. Mrs Barker's point is that only in the light of the temple or tabernacle tradition can many features of early Christianity be understood. She also believes that the reverse applies: in the light of early Christian practices and ritual, it becomes easier to reenter the world of the Jewish temple. As an example of this, she takes the central Christian rite of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are offered to God, consecrated and then consumed by worshippers who believe the sanctified gifts enable them, in some mysterious but primordially important sense, to take part in the divine life of Christ.

As many a religious historian has noted, there are two temple practices that foreshadow the Eucharist. One was the weekly ceremony in which 12 loaves of bread were brought into the temple, consecrated and then consumed by the high priests. The other was the annual rite that marks the high-point of the Jewish calendar: the Day of Atonement, the only time when the priest entered the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the temple.

Before doing so, the priest would select two almost identical goats. One would be slaughtered, and its blood was taken into the holy of holies before being sprinkled in various parts of the temple. The other was sent out into the desert, a “scapegoat” bearing the sins of the people.

As one standard translation puts it, the priest would sacrifice one goat for the Lord, the other to a demonic force called Azazel. But Mrs Barker, drawing in part on Christian sources, argues for a different reading of the Hebrew: one goat was sacrificed as, rather than for, Azazel, whereas the other was sacrificed as the Lord. If she is right, then the paradoxical Christian teaching that God the Son, being crucified, is both “victim and priest” in an act of supreme sacrifice becomes easier to understand. And it is clear that the links between the Eucharist and the Atonement rite are closer than previously realised.

If, as has been said, Christianity is "Judaism for Gentiles", we should expect many such overlaps, no?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 20, 2003 7:07 AM

Yep. Read Paul's epistles--e.g. Romans and Ephesians--and it becomes abundantly clear that "Christianity" (he never used the word) was not intended to be a breakaway religion. It was rather an enlargement of the holy nation of Israel, an "adoption into sonship" of the Gentiles through Jesus rather than through obedience to the Law. The other epistles are filled with explanations of Christ's sacrifice in terms of the atonement rite; this is how the first Christians, coming out of a Jewish background, were able to make salvation comprehensible. Hebrews develops the theme at length.

I have to question the subtitle. Is this really new "evidence?" It sounds like just a new interpretation. A promise of "new evidence" in the old field of biblical studies never fails to draw in readers, but here it blurs the distinction between fact and interpretation.

Posted by: R.W. at December 20, 2003 12:15 PM