The primary Christian mantra incorporated into our hymns, prayers and sermons is some variation of the phrase: “Jesus died for my sins!” It comes out of a Christian definition of human life as fallen, corrupted by something we call “original sin.” It has given rise over the centuries to a fetish connected with “the blood of Jesus,” to which is attributed cleansing power. Protestant hymns in the gospel tradition include a wide variety of what might be called “bloody hymns.” One thinks of such titles as “Washed in the blood,” “Saved by the blood” and “There’s a Fountain filled with blood.” Salvation comes directly, these hymns suggest, from the “shed blood” of Jesus on the cross.
This same mentality is also reflected in such familiar hymns as “Amazing Grace,” where that which makes God’s grace so “amazing” is that it “saved a wretch like me,” and “The Old Rugged Cross” where the blood of Jesus was shed “for a world of lost sinners like me.” In Catholic worship, the emphasis shifts, but it does not disappear. Catholics suggest in their liturgy that they are “cleansed” internally when they consume the wine of the chalice, now miraculously transformed by ordained hands into the “cleansing blood of Jesus.” Catholics tend to lean toward internal purity; Protestants toward external purity!
All of these diverse words and practices derive originally from the Jewish Day of Atonement called Yom Kippur. This derivative, however, results not so much from Jewish practice, but from a later Gentile misinterpretation of Jewish practice. So today we seek to understand the Jewish practice of Yom Kippur.
In subsequent weeks, we will seek to understand how atonement got so distorted in Christian circles. I am convinced that the possibility of having a Christian future depends primarily on getting “atonement theology,” as it is presently understood, out of Christian practice. Some of this material will be repetitive of the recent series on the use of the symbol of a “lamb” in Jewish worship. Bear with me in this one more time.
Yom Kippur was conducted on one single day in the liturgical year of the Jews. That day was a time of deep penitence observed in a solemn assembly. Yom Kippur was sometimes called “The Sabbath of Sabbaths,” for on this day no work was done and the synagogue liturgy consumed the entire 24-hour period. Yom Kippur, even if limited to one day, still had about it some of the penitential feeling of Christian Lent. I have previously called it “instant Lent,” but the intensity of that one day exceeded anything we know of Lenten practice among Christians.
Yom Kippur is described in the Torah, specifically in Leviticus 16 and 23. It was to be observed on the tenth day of the seventh month. It was marked by animal sacrifices and the animals named in Leviticus were specifically a bull and two he-goats. Over the centuries, however, as the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, first by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, and then by the Romans in 70 CE, the sacrificial animals changed their identification, finally reaching the place where animal sacrifice ceased. During that evolution of practice, the sacrificed animal was no longer a bull. In the Yom Kippur liturgy the two he-goats became a lamb that was sacrificed and a goat that played the role of the “sin bearer.”
Atonement, which literally meant an act designed to create human oneness with God (at-one-ment), also came to mean something quite different to the Jews from what it would later mean in Gentile Christianity. The Jews did not see human nature as fallen and they did not interpret the story of Adam and Eve in the garden as a description of how human beings spoiled the perfection of God’s creation by eating the forbidden fruit and plunging the world into what came to be called “Original Sin.” That was a later Christian idea born in the 4th century when the creeds were being formed. This was never the Jewish understanding.
What we think of and call atonement in Christianity developed primarily under the influence of a theologian named St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, a town in North Africa. If one reads the Confessions of St. Augustine, which is still regarded as a Christian classic, one gets a sense of the deep, permeating guilt that was present in this man, usually attached to his feelings about sexuality. This guilt idea permeated all of Augustine’s theology. This was where the traditional Christian understanding of atonement found its origin.
Today, in my opinion, this guilt-laden atonement theology threatens to destroy the Christian faith. It is certainly fair to say that post-Augustinian Christianity wallowed in a definition of human sinfulness. Guilt became the coin of the Christian realm. Overcoming guilt was the primary meaning of salvation. Gentile Christianity defined human nature as hopelessly corrupted by what they called “the fall,” teaching us as its theological presupposition that all life was born in “original sin” and was therefore destined for hell unless this “original sin” was overcome. It suggested that the crucifixion was to be explained in terms of Jesus saving us from condemnation by absorbing the punishment that we deserved, a punishment which God presumably required.
Even though you and I were the guilty ones, God decided to punish Jesus in our place. Only when the idea was accepted that the pain and bloodshed on the cross cancelled our sin, then and only then was salvation achieved. This “original sin” theology went so far as to teach that babies, who died without being baptized, were not only hopelessly lost, but they were doomed to an eternal hell. This conviction, harsh and unloving as it was, became too much even for the Christians to absorb and so in time, a section of “Limbo” was set apart for unbaptized children. This meant that while unbaptized infants were deprived of heaven and the beatific vision, they could nonetheless, along with such noble pagans as Plato and Aristotle, inhabit Limbo and thus avoid the flames of the “damned.” It was a compromise based on heightened sensitivity.
This guilt-laden mentality, however, was not what the Jews understood Atonement and Yom Kippur to mean. The Jews had a sense of what human life was created to be, which they compared with what they had actually experienced human life to be. They did not want anyone to forget the fact that each of us could actually be more than we are. Therefore, Yom Kippur was their liturgical way of remembering who they most deeply were. Thus memory was awakened and renewed through the use of symbolic sacrifices. The animals chosen from their flocks to serve as the Yom Kippur sacrifice had to be physically perfect; they could have no scratches, bruises or broken bones. If these animals were to stand for that perfection for which human life had been intended, then these animals must reflect physical perfection. In time, these creatures were also judged to be morally perfect. Animals, they argued, lived beneath the level of human freedom so they could not choose to do evil. So the animals to be sacrificed at Yom Kippur represented the human yearning for physical and moral perfection.
By the time the gospels were written the attempt had already been made to associate the meaning of Jesus’ death with the sacrificial animals of Yom Kippur. This correlation was first introduced by Paul in I Corinthians, written about 54 CE, when he stated: “He died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures (I Cor. 15:3).” The sacrifice associated with Yom Kippur was the only Jewish worship symbol about which it was said that one “died for our sins.” So by that time, at least in the mind of Paul, Jesus had been connected with the Yom Kippur liturgy. Mark, the earliest gospel (ca. 72)) heightened this connection by saying that Jesus “gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).” The word “ransom” was also a direct link with Yom Kippur. When the Fourth Gospel had John the Baptist say of Jesus the first time he saw him: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29),” the identity between Jesus and the sacrificial animal of Yom Kippur had been fully established.
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, the sacrificial lamb was slaughtered and its blood drained. The high priest, armed with the blood of this “Lamb of God,” would after elaborate cleansing rituals, enter the Holy of Holies, which was that part of the Temple in which God was thought to dwell. Once inside the Holy of Holies, he would smear the blood of the “perfect Lamb of God” on the “Mercy Seat,” which was thought to be God’s throne. With access to God now covered by the blood of the perfect sacrifice, the people believed that even in their sinfulness, they could still on this one day of the year symbolically be welcomed into the presence of God. They had achieved at-one-ment. They could come to God through the “blood of the perfect Lamb of God.”
The other part of the Yom Kippur observance was the “liturgy of the goat.” The goat was brought to the front of the solemn assembly, where the high priest, taking its horns, would begin to confess the sins of the people. As this confession poured out the people were taught that their sins literally exited them and landed on the back of this goat. Thus the people would become sinless, at least for that liturgical moment, while the goat became the “bearer of their sins.” Later the sin-laden goat was presented to the assembly, which responded with curses and calls for the death of the goat. Something that evil should not be allowed to continue living. The goat, however, was not killed in this liturgy. Instead it was driven out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people with it, leaving the people clean and sinless at least for a day. So on Yom Kippur, evil was set aside symbolically and the people were called to remember their creation and the perfection in which they had originally been made.
Matthew must now develop a story in which this meaning of Yom Kippur can be connected to the memory of Jesus. When this series continues, we will see how he does that as his narrative of Jesus walking through the liturgical year of the synagogue continues.