In Brisbane, even the local paper takes a holiday today but it would appear not so in Melbourne. The Age has a Good Friday edition, at least online. And browsing today's Age I came across this piece, A Symbol of the Noblest Traditions, by Dr John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity at Macquarie University in Sydney. In it Dickson reflects on sacrifice and atonement, in particular responding to Richard Dawkins who charges that the notion of Jesus dying "for the sins of the world" is "vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent". Dickson responds:
First, he is wrong to say Paul invented the idea. Sacrificial atonement was central to Judaism right up until AD70, when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple. Jesus' statement at the Last Supper, widely accepted as one of the most reliably preserved statements in earliest Christianity, reflects this sacrificial theme: "This is my body given for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." The evidence suggests that Jesus himself thought of his impending death as a sacrifice for sins.
Was Jesus "barking mad"? Why indeed doesn't God simply forgive sins without atonement? The answer of the first Christians is clear. It is for the same reason that we would be outraged if a judge let a convicted criminal off the hook simply because it turned out he was his friend. Love and justice both matter in the Christian conception of God. And lest we think of this as some kind of cosmic child abuse — a father punishing a son for someone else's wrongs — we should remember that from the beginning Christians insisted that Jesus was not a third party at all; he was in fact God.
We may not like this idea either, but if we're going to dismiss the Christian idea of atonement, we should do so on its own terms, as an entire package. The first Christians said that God, the wronged party, entered the world and himself bore the punishment wrong-doers deserve. It was as if the judge paid the fine that was another's due. There is nothing "sadomasochistic" about this. The idea belongs to the noble tradition of self-sacrifice for the good of others.
He then goes on to provide a contemporary account of self-sacrifice (thankfully not a military one) to underscore the nobility of Jesus' death on the cross. However, I have problems with this account myself and I don't think that Dickson has adequately dealt with Dawkins' ethical concerns about the standard Christian account of the death of Jesus. Indeed, the whole notion of the substitutionary atonement is riddled with ethical issues inherent to the propitiatory, juridical, penal dynamics of this atonement model. Dickson tries to avoid it by taking a pseudo-unitarian appraoch by saying "God, the wronged party, entered the world and himself bore the punishment wrong-doers deserve." However, it's not just God but Jesus who, according to trinitarian theology, is God the Son who is the main protagonist here, in obedience to his Father. Thus a dynamic is established that is imbued with abusive dynamics of parent-child relationships and other broader sacrificial motifs of the worst kind.
Now Dickson is right to say that from its beginnings atonement has been the lens by which Christians have understood the execution of Jesus. He is also right when he says that atonement was central to Judaism up to the detruction of the Temple in 70. The Temple could even be construed as a type of atonement machine. And there was one day of the year when this atonement machine operated in full force, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. But I want to qualify what he means by sacrificial atonement.
We don't know much about the Day of Atonement, despite its centrality to the whole Temple cult. Atonement wasn't even unique to Judaism. Purgatory and propitiatory rituals of atonement were a standard part of the ancient Middle eastern relgious world. Judaism shared these rituals with its neighbours and the cosmology that framed them. I mean here the understanding of the earth being in dynamic relationship to the heavenly realm, as above so below, and the place of the temple as the mediating or cross over point between those two worlds. Like their neighbours, Jews believed that the Temple was a piece of heaven of earth in which dwelt their God, in a complex relationship to the heavenly court, the heavenly Temple above. The rituals of the earthly Temple were instances of the rituals of this heavenly Temple. Indeed, the Temple itself was seen as a microcosm of the universe itself. The Temple was a holographic representation of the universe.
As I said we don't know much about the rituals of Atonement in the Jewish Temple(s). We have a very basic account in Leviticus 16. Further information is found in the Temple Scroll, in the Mishnah, in the Epistle of Barnabas. There are further clues in Hebrews and in the Enoch literature and in Zechariah. But if we take the bare outline from Leviticus 16 the ritual involves two goats - a bull too, but the goats are central. The High Priest slaughters the bull. Then he casts lots over the goats to determine which shall be "for the LORD (YHWH) " and which "for Azazel". It is from this second goat that we get the term scapegoat. The goat for the LORD is then slaughtered. In very abbreviated form, what follows is that the High Priest takes the blood of slaughtered goat, mixed with the blood of the bull, enters the Holy of Holies sprinkling the blood and then comes out of the Holy of Holies sprinkling and smearing the blood on the horns of the altar. These actions are described as making atonement. Then the High Priest goes to the other goat, lays his hands on it and confesses the sins of Israel over it. This goat is then sent out into the wilderness.
There has been much debate about the meaning of this ritual and especially about the identity of Azazel (I wont be going into that issue here). Margaret Barker has argued that Hebrew translated "for the LORD/Azazel" can also be translated "as the LORD/Azazel"and cites Origen who states that the second goat was called Azazel. In other words, the goats represent the LORD/YHWH and Azazel, respectively. The interesting point is that the High Priest's role in the Temple is as representative of YHWH. The High Priest wears the Name on his brow and his robes are the same multi-colours as the Veil of the Holy of Holies. The Veil in its four colours represents the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. Crispin Fletcher-Lewis has argued that the reason for the ban on images of the deity in biblical/Israelite religion is because only humans can function as an image of God, and one human in particular, the High Priest (I think in his "The High Priest as Divine Mediator in the Hebrew Bible: Dan 7.13 as a Test Case" SBL 1997 Seminar Papers). Indeed on the Day of Atonement the High Priest is the representative of YHWH, par excellence. It's the one and only day of the year that the High Priest can even enter the Holy of Holies (a place no one else can ever enter) and when he emerges he comes out as YHWH incarnate (taking flesh through the Veil of the four elements) amongst his people making atonement for his people and, as ther Temple represents the cosmos, the entire creation.
He does so with blood and blood, in biblical religion, is life. There are a whole suite of taboos around blood, especially the eating of blood, precisely because of this belief. So the High Priest makes atonement, healing the macrocosmic universe via the microsomic Temple, with blood, life force. Who's blood? If Barker is correct and we should read the first goat as representing YHWH then the blood/life force of the goat represents the blood/life force of YHWH him(her)self. In other words both goat and High Priest represent YHWH. In the heavenly ritual YHWH makes atonement/healing by the use of YHWH's own life force. In the earthly ritual, the blood of the goat serves as a substitute for the blood/life force of the High Priest. The goat is killed in place of the High Priest, giving the ritual a sacrificial appearance but in fact the Day of Atonement is not a a ritual of sacrifice at all; there is no propitation involved at all. The slaughter of the goat (and the bull) serves ritual but not sacrificial purposes. The other goat, the Azazel goat, as Mary Douglas points out, is simply turnd loose in the wilderness.
Now there are two interesting things about this ritual. Firstly, it works on a twofold pattern whereby one dies and the other is sent out. This pattern repeats itself through a suite of biblical narratives. Cain and Abel is an obvious example. David and Jonathan is another. If we allow for near or metaphorical death then we find Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. The Book of Jubilees 34.18 links the ritual to the story in Genesis of Joseph and his brothers in which Joseph is both the one sent out but is also one who dies or at least is assumed to have died (a goat is slaughtered in his place). And there is a suite of other biblical narratives in which this dynamic can be identified, one very pertinent one I will come to shortly.
The other thing about the Day of Atonement is that it is part of the New Year rituals taking place at the autumnal equinox in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. The calendar starts at the spring equinox in the first month, Nisan. The big festival at this time is Pesach/Passover, the time when Jesus is crucified. Now we don't know the origins of Pesach. Presumably it is an old agricultural feast related to the spring equinox. It has been biblically reconfigured and given a new myth, that of the Exodus. The Exodus is not history but story. There's no evidence of anything like these events in the archeological record. However in the story of the Exodus these atonement elements can also be identified. Moses himself is both one who is both sent out and is also threatened with death - not once but at least twice. Most importantly the Israelites themselves are sent out while the first-born of the Egyptians are slaughtered (and notice the fate of first born in so many biblical narratives). There are many other traces of atonement rituals in the Exodus stories but, in a sense, Pesach itself works as a kind of mini-atonement.
So when Jesus is executed at Pesach it's perhaps easy for his followers to make those connections. But then maybe Jesus had made them himself. Crispin Fletcher-Lewis ("Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah" Parts 1 & 2, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 4.2 2006, 5.1 2007) has also argued that Jesus messianic understanding was based upon the High Priestly role. It was as a royal high priestly that the messiah came to Israel. Jesus was the true High Priest as opposed to the corrupt collaborationist establishment in Jerusalem. The role of the High Priest was to make atonement to heal the cosmos with his life force, as YHWH does in the heavenly realm.
This is not a propitiatory process but a healing process. It is analogous to the maternal, as a mother gives her life (but not normally at the cost of her life) to the nurturing of her child both before and after birth. And YHWH is both Wisdom, Lady Wisdom, as well as Word. The only reason for the death of the goat in the atonement rituals is the need for blood as the life force - if not the goat then the HIgh Priest must die, or at least shed a large amount of blood. But in the heavenly realm, YHWH the heavenly High Priest does not die. But, as Wisdom, YHWH feeds, nurtures.
In her book, The Virgin Mary, Monotheism and Sacrifice, Cleo McNelly Kearns highlights the twofold dimension of sacrifice made by scholars. The first, strong sacrifice, is propitatiory, substitutionary. It is also very much a male affair. It can be understood as appropriating the maternal by the patriarchal order so as to suppress the maternal body, as Irigaray would say, and thus assuming maternal power into the male domain. The second, weak sacrifice, resembles the strong but is very strongly egalitarian and alimentary while, at the same time, allowing women as well as men to play relatively (at least) equal roles. Feeding is a central part of weak sacrifice and it can be seen as not appropriating the maternal but approximating it.
I would argue, then, that the Day of Atonement fits the weak sacrifice mode. Indeed from other ancient Jewish and Christian sources it appears there was, on occasion, some sort of communion involved with Yom Kippur. Certain, at least, of the priests would, on some occasions, eat the flesh of the slaughtered goat, raw and washed with vinegar.
Turning to Christian atonement, if Jesus saw himself as the heavenly High Priest or at least took the royal High Priest as his messiainc model then atonement becomes central to his messianic project. In first century, Palestine any messianic project was likely to end in tears. It would appear from the Gospels that Jesus was not interested in any military dimension to his messianic project. Perhaps he expected some sort of heavenly intervention. But perhaps he saw that there was only one endpoint for the trajectory on which he had embarked - a cross. But the High Priestly role of making atonement gave such likely death a whole new significance. In the Temple a goat must die in substitute for the High Priest but Jesus as the true High Priest will fully instantiate the Heavenly order and so bring the corrupt earthly one to an end. Heaven and earth meet finally on that cross as YHWH gives his life force to heal and sustain and nurture the cosmos and all life, presiding, arms outstretched, as Dame Wisdom at her feast, the great eschatological banquet open to all.
By doing so he brings to an end the established order, the structures of strong sacrifice, victimisation and oppression, the processes that require scapegoats, as well as the associated forms of propitiatory, substitutionary and penal atonement. The processes responsible for, but in no way justification for, his death.