The sacrificial interpretation has two advantages over the traditional, autobiographical interpretation as the meaning Jesus attributed to his own final meals. The first advantage is contextual: the sacrificial interpretation places Jesus firmly with the Judaism of his period and at the same time accounts for the opposition of the authorities to him. The second advantage is its explanatory power: the sacrificial interpretation enables us to explain subsequent developments in the understanding of Eucharist within early Christianity and to appreciate the ongoing importance of sacrificial thinking within modern culture.
CURRENT THEORIES OF SACRIFICE
Four views of sacrifice that appear frequently in scholarly and popular literature and that represent sacrifice as a primitive and mistaken notion are important to consider because they point to a more comprehensive perspective on what sacrifice truly involves. Sacrifice has been seen as a gift, given in the hope that a god might be bought off, so that evil might be warded off and good produced. That critique of sacrifice is ancient, the expression do ut des ("I give that you might give") is in the stock and trade of the Greco-Roman disaffection with anthropomorphism- the idea that the gods are really human in their form and in their motivations. In the 19th century, Edward Burnett Tylor spelled out the alleged mistake of the theory: sacrifice is a bribe offered to a deity. Tylor was willing to admit that sacrifices might be offered and accepted in a symbolic sense, but he only concerned himself with the examples he could find of people giving so that deities might give in return. Yet the majority of known instances of sacrifice, which are far more routine, are simply not explained by this theory.
Before there were gifts, there was food, and William Robertson Smith attempted to explain the consistent link between sacrifice and eating. He found that in the most ancient Hebrew sacrifice, in which the animal victim was presented at the altar and devoted by the imposition of hands, the greater part of the flesh was returned to the worshipper, so that God and worshipper were joined in the communion of eating the same flesh. Robertson Smith understood sacrifice as a communal act, and he did so with such emphasis that the earlier, unreflective emphasis upon the individual in religious life was overcome within the study of sacrificial activity. Moreover, he correctly recognized the social dimension of sacrifice, its celebration and consumption of the fruits of common labor. Sadly, however, Robinson Smith concluded that the god was in some sense eaten in sacrifice, and evidence for this theory is very thin. As a result, in biblical study, the theory of sacrifice as a gift has all but eclipsed the model of communal eating that Robertson Smith developed.
James George Frazer's The Golden Bough was first published in 1890, just after the posthumous appearance of Robertson Smith's lectures and has been through many incarnations. Frazer believed that the purpose of sacrifice was to free immortal spirit from the impairment and inevitable decay of being tied to a mortal being. Sacrifice is a form of liberating violence (from the point of view of the preservation of spirit) or of destructive violence (from the point of view of the victim destroyed). More recently, Rene Girard has argued an interesting variant of this theory. He maintains the central problem of society is how to diffuse envy, which is as endemic as it is potentially violent. The answer is to find a scapegoat, to whom social problems are attributed. The victim is then lynched, and the release of envy results in a replication of this sacrifice.
Two French sociologists, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, contended that sacrifice is intended to maintain a balance between the divine world and the human world. The rite as a whole is one of either sacralization, where the purpose is to increase the sanctity of the sacrificer, or of desacralization, where the purpose is to transfer the sanctity of the sacrificer to the victim. The purpose of the sacrifice is to protect or empower those who offer sacrifice.
For Tylor, sacrifice is tribute; for Robertson Smith, it is a communal consumption of deity. Frazer sees the death of the victim as the destruction of an envelope of power, in order to release that power. Hubert and Mauss portray sacrifice as the knife's edge that balances the sacred and the profane. None of the paradigms sketched above is negligible: the simple fact is that they are based upon some evidence. The problem is that no single one of them explains the others, nor can it account for the wide range of sacrificial activities in which worshipers do not deploy any particular theory of sacrifice.
Fundamental within all these theories, however, is the understanding that in sacrifice life is offered, consumed, and revived, after the paradigm of the book of Leviticus and the practice of Jesus. The continuing power of sacrificial thinking is rooted in its practical dedication to the pattern of human renewal as accomplished by sharing the products of human work in the presence of the divine.
From this perspective, sacrifice is not in the least an exotic or primitive activity. Whenever human beings share the products of their own labor with an awareness that this sharing occurs with God's approval and in God's presence, it is a sacrificial act. The character of this activity is determined by a community's discernment of what should be shared, with whom, where, and when. Both ancient and modern societies frame basic ethical concerns when they decide how they sacrifice.