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This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


Sacrifices and their (patho/theo)logic

This story from the Gospel of Mark (similar accounts are given in the remaining Synoptic Gospels, and the Gospel of John places this incident at the beginning of Jesus ministry thus giving it even a more prominent role) is often interpreted as the beginning of the end of the temple cult and its sacrifices. It represents what is being called a prophetic action - an often dramatic yet mostly symbolic action with inherent theological meaning.
Jesus’ prophetic action of the cleansing of the Temple was clearly aimed at the established religious institution. Jesus’ action together with following Christian criticism of the temple sacrifices was in fact a continuation of older theological trends in Judaism. This Old Testament criticism arose from the prophetic criticism of sacrificial rituals which deteriorated into magical practice and were used to mask social injustice. A few examples of this criticism are presented on the following two slides.

In order to understand what exactly is being criticized and why, we need to recognize our own distance in time, in mentality, civilization and religion from the original context.

This slide presents a basic selection of different types and kinds of sacrifices as preserved in the Hebrew Bible, one Ancient Near Eastern tradition among many. Sacrificial terminology of other cultures and religions (Syrian, Akkadian, Egyptian) would overlap in most common vocabulary and concepts, but would not be identical. This highly developed and diversified vocabulary is a clear indication of a substantial and complex cultural/religious phenomenon.

The time gap and the cultural and mentality differences make it impossible to recreate the original sacrificial system and to fully understand its meanings and nuances. This slide represents a modern attempt to achieve some elemental understanding by applying basic systematization and categorization of this complex system.

This table attempts to differentiate levels of sacrificial practice while further distinguishing between social/secular and religious functions.
    The primary function of sacrifices (food and animal) was simply eating together. The person or persons bringing the sacrifice, together with invited guests or the sacrificing community ate together. On the religious side, this eating together(commensality) was perceived as extending to the divine realm. The act of sacrificial meal interconnected human and divine participants around one feast. Almost certainly all major communal meals and feasts as well as special holidays and large family meals were perceived as sacrifices, in which divine and human participants participated together.

    A secondary function of the sacrifices established a more or less equal community around this meal. All members of society participated and were fed. Ritual slaughter of the animals inevitably led to the control of brutality. Individual animal victims were carefully selected and treated individually with prayers and other rituals thus excluding practices known from industrial slaughterhouses.
The religious dimension on the other hand help to deal with feelings of guilt from killing this individualized (individually perceived) victim. In a little sinister twist, divinity was made participant and accomplice in this slaughter thus providing further protection from guilt or possible revenge by the animal kin or its divine patron.

    The terciary or objectionable functions started to developed especially with progressing urbanization in larger communities with larger degree of alienation of individuals. Sacrificial feasts became means for social and political patronage and in the religious realm it had the tendency to deteriorate into the mercantile logic of give and take with assumed divine participants.
    The dynamic nature of these functions and their diachronic distribution will be a subject of the next slide.

This slide and the division of religious development into individual stages (epochs) is at least partly inspired by ideas of the German Egyptologist and anthropologist Jan Assmann. He rejected the simplistic binary enlightenment terminology of polytheism / monotheism and suggested a more intriguing and complex model of religious development. Plurality of gods in polytheism as well as singularity of the divine in monotheism is only the tip of the iceberg. True religious distinction is built upon different concepts of god/s and their relationship to, and functioning in, the world. I wrote more about it in the last paragraph of this lecture about polytheism.
    This table attempts to divide the development of religion into individual stages, based on how deities were perceived (in relationship to the world) and what impact this kind of religion had on the concept of sacrifices. These stages have never existed in pure form; individual stages overlap even within one culture and society. Current western religiosity is fast moving towards the post-theistic religiosity which I would characterize as predominantly panentheistic and ecologically centered. Yet at the same time in one city even on the same street you can find a new-paradigm-seeking protestant church, a mosque representing transcendental monotheism par excellence (If you want to see a pure monotheism, Sunni Islam is a good example), and supranatural voodoo/santeria religiosity (clear example of polytheistic-monotheistic continuum and blood sacrifices with magical overtones).

The textual fixation of sacrifices, written instructions and detailed prescriptions for sacrifices are a sign of the disappearing and dying out of sacrificial cult.

Sacrificial lists like this one cuneiform text from the Ugaritic KTU 1.39 are certainly well preserved and documented from the entire Ancient Near East from the period of healthy sacrificial life, but their form and structure is clearly different from instructions in Leviticus or the minute and detail rabbinical discussions in the Talmud. And even these Ancient Near Eastern sacrificial lists might be the very first sign of subsiding sacrificial practice, when written records have to be used to help remember the exact order and extent of sacrifices.
       I would like to propose that Jesus’s prophetic action against the Temple Sacrificial Cult was just part of a larger anthropological development criticizing the supranatural understanding of sacrifices and their eventual sublimation to charity, morality and piety.
       It is likely that this trend still continues. As transcendent theism slowly develops into posttheistic panentheism some form of sacrificial ritual or system rituals might be developing which would recognize again human interconnectedness with the social and natural environment.

And finally, we cannot speak about the New Testament and sacrifices without dealing with the so-called doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement. This doctrine came into existence in the high medieval era. It clearly represents theological and anthropological regress towards the concepts of Sunpranatural theism (do ut des). It perverts supranatural theism even further, making God into an impersonal executor of justice who has to demand punishment and  who behaves as an authoritative and abusive parent.
       And from the perspective of sacrifices (our current topic) this doctrine also completely misses the true ancient nature of sacrifice. Even an expiation dimension of the blood sacrifice did not consist in the act of killing, but in the community-building feast which it enabled.
   As John Dominic Crossan says, doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement represents one of the clearest examples of the "Crime against divinity." For me it also represents dismal perversion and utter misunderstanding of the meaning of sacrifices.

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