By Marcus Borg
My previous article highlighted and critiqued the “payment” understanding of Jesus’s death, the notion that he died to pay for our sins. Some responses defended that understanding by referring to the role of animal sacrifice in Judaism prior to and in the time of Jesus. And at least one represented that practice accurately.
Yes, animals were sacrificed in the temple. But sacrifice in Judaism was not about payment for sin. Its root meaning is “a gift to God,” and it almost always involved a meal as well. Some of the sacrificed animal as gift to God went up to God in smoke. The rest was most often eaten by those offering the sacrifice. Sacrifice was about gift to God and sharing a meal with God.
Sacrifices served a number of purposes: thanksgiving, petition, purification, and reconciliation. But they were not about “payment.” Even sacrifices of reconciliation when there was a sense of having wronged God were not about payment — as if God demanded the death of the human wrong-doers, but was willing to punish a lamb or goat or calf or ox instead. Rather, sacrifices of reconciliation were about restoring the relationship. So it is with us to this day: when we have offended somebody, we often “make up” with a gift and meal, flowers and dinner. But none of this is about payment or substitution or satisfaction.
I grant that there are multiple understandings of the significance of Jesus’s death, beginning with the New Testament itself. One respondent referred to eight. I do not disagree. But I think it is pedagogically helpful to reduce them to three.