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It’s unfortunate that the canonical gospels preserve so little clear evidence as to Jesus’ position on animal sacrifice, especially if it indeed played a major role in His teachings and crucifixion. I’ve been puzzling over the issue since re-reading the gospels over Easter. I’d be grateful if you have further insights on any of the relevant passages below.
The incident in the temple appears in all four gospels, as you say, but without explanation as to His motives, and Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem many times before and after without further incidents recorded of Him intervening to stop or discourage sacrifices. Jesus in fact seems to order a sacrifice when He tells a person with leprosy He has healed to “go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:4). When He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten by God” (Luke 12:6), this can be taken two ways, with opposite implications: that every living thing is intrinsically valuable (potentially anti-sacrifice), or that even the smallest offerings are noticed by God (pro-sacrifice).
It is notable that during the Last Supper, which in three of the four gospels is described as a Passover meal, no overt mention is made of a sacrificial lamb, which would traditionally have been the main course at that time. The only possible reference is Mark 14:12, which says “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?'” Yet there seems to be scholarly disagreement as to whether “they” refers to the disciples themselves having sacrificed a lamb, or rather to the temple authorities and/or mainstream Jewish society. Luke 22:7 uses more passive language, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed,” indicating what was customary without implying the disciples necessarily participated. Given that during the meal itself, Jesus describes the bread and wine in symbolic language referencing his coming sacrifice, one would expect Him to do the same for the flesh of a literal sacrificial animal were one present. He might say, for example, “By the blood of a lamb were your fathers saved in Egypt, but from now on eat the Passover lamb in remembrance of the Lamb of God, in whom you are saved.” That he instead makes no reference at all to the sacrificial lamb seems either a huge missed opportunity on His part, a startling omission by His biographers, or (the simplest explanation I think) evidence that the meal did not contain lamb at all.
From what I can gather, the absence of lamb at a Passover meal would have been very unorthodox for Pharisees or Sadducees, but typical of Essenes, the third major sect of Second Temple Judaism. Essenes seem to have opposed animal sacrifice and possibly to have been vegetarians or pescatarians, and there seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence that Jesus was Himself an Essene or at least strongly Essene-influenced. This includes ideological parallels and the fact that while Jesus argued vehemently with Pharisees and Sadducees, no interaction with Essenes is recorded, as might be expected unless Jesus was Himself part of that sect and His membership taken for granted by the gospel authors (until it became forgotten). That Jesus might have celebrated an Essene-style Passover has also been proposed as a way of reconciling Matthew, Mark, and Luke with John, which has Jesus crucified on the first day of Passover meaning the Last Supper must have occurred prior. Since the Essenes followed a different calendar than the Pharisees or Sadducees, they would have celebrated Passover several days before the other two sects. Jesus could therefore have observed an Essene Passover, containing no sacrificial animal, with His disciples, and then been crucified on the day of Pharisee/Sadducee Passover at the same time as they began sacrificing animals, consistent with all four gospels.
Supporting the above theory, the Last Supper seems not to have been Jesus’ only Passover meal not containing lamb. One of His miracles with loaves and fishes was performed to feed a large crowd gathered near the Sea of Tiberias to celebrate Passover (John 6:4-14). While the story isn’t exactly veg-friendly (unless one interprets the duplication of fish flesh as foreshadowing meat replacements / cell-cultured meat), it does show that for Jesus, Passover required neither animal sacrifice nor a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, again more consistent with Essene Judaism than the other two major sects.
Even if Jesus did not perform animal sacrifice (or certain sacrifices) himself, was he absolutely opposed to them, and if so on what grounds? It’s tragic that so little evidence has been preserved, and what is recorded in the canonical New Testament (and what apocryphal material still survives) is largely ambiguous or even contradictory on the matter.
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