Catholic Encyclopedia – Sacrifice


(Latin sacrificium; Italian sacrificio; French sacrifice.)

This term is identical with the English offering (Latin offerre) and the German Opfer; the latter is derived, not from offerre, but from operari (Old High German opfâron; Middle High German opperu, opparôn), and thus means “to do zealously, to serve God, to offer sacrifice”. By sacrifice in the real sense is universally understood the offering of a sense-perceptible gift to the Deity as an outward manifestation of our veneration for Him and with the object of attaining communion with Him. Strictly speaking however, this offering does not become a sacrifice until a real change has been effected in the visible gift (e.g. by slaying it, shedding its blood. burning it, or pouring it out). As the meaning and importance of sacrifice cannot be established by a priori methods, every admissible theory of sacrifice must shape itself in accordance with the sacrificial systems of the pagan nations, and especially with those of the revealed religions, Judaism and Christianity. Pure Buddhism, Mohammedanism, and Protestantism here call for no attention, as they have no real sacrifice; apart from these there is and has been no developed religion which has not accepted sacrifice as an essential portion of its cult.

Pagan sacrifice

Among the Indians

The Vedism of the ancient Indies was, to an extent never elsewhere attained, a sacrificial religion connected with the deities Agni and Soma. A Vedic proverb runs: “Sacrifice is the navel of the world”. Originally regarded as a feast for the gods, before whom food-offerings (cakes, milk, butter, meat, and the soma drink) were set on the holy grass before the altar, sacrifice gradually became a magical agency for influencing the gods, such as might be expressed in the formula, “Do ut des”, or in the Vedic proverb: “Here is the butter; where are thy gifts?” The Vedic sacrificial prayers express no spirit of humility or submission; even the word “thank” is unknown in the Vedic language. The gods thus sank to the level of mere servants of man, while the high-priests or Brahmins entrusted with the complicated rites gradually acquired an almost divine dignity. In their hands the sacrificial ceremonial, developed to the extremest detail, became an irresistible power over the gods. A proverb says: “The sacrificer hunts Indra like game, and holds him fast as the fowler does the bird; the god is a wheel which the singer understands how to turn.” The gods derive their whole might and power from the sacrifice as the condition of their existence, so that the Brahmins are indispensable for their continued existence.

However, that the gods were not entirely indifferent to man, but gave him their assistance, is proved among other things by the serious expiatory character which was not quite eliminated from the Vedic sacrifices. The actual offering of the sacrifices, which was never effected without fire, took place either in the houses or in the open air; temples were unknown. Among the various sacrifices two were conspicuous: the soma offering and the sacrifice of the horse. The offering of the soma (Agnistoma) — a nectar obtained by the pressing of some plants — took place in the spring; the sacrifice lasted an entire day, and was a universal holiday for the people. The triple pressing of the soma, performed at certain intervals during the day, alternated with the offering of sacrificial cakes, libations of milk, and the sacrifice of eleven he-goats to various gods. The gods (especially Indra) were eager for the intoxicating soma drink: “As the ox bellows after the rain, so does Indra desire the soma.” The sacrifice of the horse (açvamedha), executed at the command of the king and participated in by the whole people, required a whole year’s preparation.

It was the acme, “the king of the sacrifices”, the solemnities lasting three days and being accompanied by all kinds of public amusements. The idea of this sacrifice was to provide the gods of light with another steed for their heavenly yoke. At first, instead of the sacrifice of the horse, human sacrifice seems to have been in vogue, so that here also the idea of substitution found expression. For the later Indians had a saying: “At first the gods indeed accepted men as sacrificial victims. Then the sacrificial efficacy passed from them to the horse. The horse thus became efficacious. They accepted the horse, but the sacrificial efficacy went to the steer, sheep, goat, and finally to rice and barley: Thus for the instructed a sacrificial cake made of rice and barley is of the same value as these [five] animals” (cf. Hardy, “Die vedisch-brahmanisehe Periode der Religion des alten Indiens”, Münster, 1892, p. 150). Modern Hinduism with its numberless sects honours Vishnu and Shiva as chief deities. As a cult it is distinguished from ancient Vedism mainly by its temple service. The Hindu temples are usual artistic and magnificent edifices with numerous courts, chapels, and halls, in which representations of gods and idols are exposed. The smaller pagodas serve the same purpose. Although the Hindu religion centres in its idolatry sacrifice has not been completely evicted from its old place. The symbol of Shiva is the phallus (linga); linga stones are indeed met throughout India (especially in the holy places) in extraordinary numbers. The darker shades of this superstition, degenerated into fetichism, are somewhat relieved by the piety and elevation of many Hindu hymns or songs of praise (stotras), which surpass even the old Vedic hymns in religious feeling.

Among the Iranians

The kindred religion of the ancient Iranians centres, especially after its reform by Zoroaster, in the service of the true god Ormuzd (Ahura Mazda), whose will is the right and whose kingdom is the good. This ethically very elevated religion promotes especially a life of purity, the conscientious fulfilment of all liturgical and moral precepts, and the positive renunciation of the Devil and all demoniacal powers. If the ancient Indian religion was essentially a religion of sacrifice, this religion of the ancient Persians may be described as a religion of observance. Inasmuch as, in the old Avesta, the sacred book of the Persians, the war between the good god Ormuzd and the Devil ends eschatologically with the complete victory of the good god, we may designate the earliest Parseeism as Monotheism. However, the theological Dualism taught in the later Avesta, where the wicked anti-god Ahriman is opposed to the good god Ormuzd as an absolute principle, is already foreshadowed and prepared for in many didactic poems (gâthas) of the old Avesta. Sacrifice and prayer are intended to paralyze the diabolical machinations of Ahriman and his demons. The central feature of the Avestic divine service was the worship of fire, a worship, however, unconnected with special fire-temples. Like the modern Mobeds in India, the priests carried portable altars with them, and could thus offer sacrifice everywhere. Special fire-temples were, however, early erected, in which five times daily the priests entered the sacred fire-chamber to tend the fire in a metal vessel, usually fed with odoriferous wood. In a roomy antechamber the intoxicating haoma (the counterpart of the Indian soma drink) was brewed, the holy water prepared, and the sacrifice of flesh (myazda) and cakes (darun) offered to the gods. The precious haoma, the drink of immortality, not only conduced in the case of mankind to eternal life, but was likewise a drink for the gods themselves. In the later Avesta this drink, originally only a medium of cult, was formally deified, and identified with the divinity; nay even the very vessels used in the fabrication of this drink from the haoma branches were celebrated and adored in hymns of praise. Worthy of mention also are the sacrificial twigs (baresman, later barsom), which were used as praying twigs or magical wands and solemnly stretched out in the hand. After the reduction of the kingdom of the Sassanids by the Arabians (A.D. 642) the Persian religion was doomed to decay, and the vast majority of its followers fell away into Islamism. Besides some small remnants in modern Persia, large communities still exist on the west coast of India, in Guzerat and Bombay, whither many Parsees then immigrated.

Among the Greeks

The universal religion of ancient Greece was a glad and joyous Polytheism most closely connected with civic life. Even the ancient Amphictyonic Council was a confederacy of states with the object of maintaining in common a certain shrine. The object of the religious functions, which consisted in prayer, sacrifice, and votive offerings, was the winning of the favour and assistance of the gods, which were always received with feelings of awe and gratitude. The sacrificial offerings, bloody and unbloody, were generally taken from articles of human food; to the gods above pastry, sacrificial cakes, pap, fruits, and wine were offered, but to the nether gods, cakes of honey and, as a drink, a mixture of milk, honey, and water. The sacrificial consecration often consisted merely in the exposition of the foods in pots on the roadsides or on the funeral mounds with the idea of entertaining the gods or the dead. Usually a portion was retained wherewith to solemnize a sacrificial feast in union with the gods; of the sacrifices to the nether gods in Hades, however, nothing was retained. Great banquets of the gods (theoxenia) were well known to the Greeks as were the Leotisternia to the Romans. As a rule, however, the sacrifices were burned on the altar, at times as holocausts. Incense was added as a subsidiary offering with most sacrifices, although there were also special offerings of incense. The offerer of sacrifice wore clean clothes and chaplets around his head, sprinkled his hands and the altar with holy water, and strewed with solemn prayers sacrificial meal over the heads of the victims (pigs, goats, and cocks). Flutes were played while the victim was being slain, and the blood was allowed to drop through holes into the sacrificial trenches. The meritoriousness of the sacrifice was regarded as to a great extent dependent on its costliness. The horns of the victims were gilded, and on great festivals whole hecatombs were slain; sacrifices of twelve, and especially of three victims (trittues) were the most usual. In times of great affliction human sacrifices were offered even down to the historical era. The sacrifice was the centre of the Greek cult, and no meal was partaken of until a libation of the wine about to be consumed was poured out to the gods. Among the characteristic peculiarities of the Greek religion may be mentioned the votive offerings (anathemata), which (besides firstlings, tithes, votive tablets, and objects of value) consisted chiefly of chaplets, cauldrons, and the popular tripods (tripodes). The number of the votive offerings, which were frequently hung up on the sacred oaks, grew in time so immeasurably that various states erected their special treasuries at Olympia and Delphi.

Among the Romans

To a still greater extent than among the Greeks was religion and the whole sacrificial system a business of the state among the ancient Romans. Furthermore, no other people of antiquity developed Polytheism to such extremes. Peopling the world with gods, genii, and lares, they placed almost every action and condition under a specially-conceived deity (god or goddess). The calendar prepared by the pontifices gave the Romans detailed information as to how they should conduct themselves with respect to the gods throughout the year. The object of sacrifice was to win the favour of the gods and to ward off their sinister influence. Sacrifices of atonement (piacula) for perpetrated crimes and past errors were also scheduled. In the earliest times the ancient Indo-Germanic sacrifice of the horse, and also sacrifices of sheep, pigs, and oxen were known. That human sacrifices must have been once usual may be concluded from certain customs of a later period (e.g. from the projection of straw puppets into the Tiber and the hanging of woollen puppets at the crossways and on the doors of the houses). Under the empire various foreign cults were introduced, such as the veneration of the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris, the Syrian Astarte, the Phrygian goddess Cybele, etc. The Roman Pantheon united in peace the most incongruous deities from every land. Finally, however, no cult was so popular as that of the Indo-Iranian Light-god Mithra, to whom especially the soldiers and officials of the empire, even in such distant places as the Danube and the Rhine offered their sacrifices. In honour of the steer-killing Mithra the so-called taurobolia were introduced from the East; by taurobolium is meant the loathsome ceremony wherein the worshippers of Mithra let the warm blood of a just-slaughtered steer flow over their naked backs as they lay in a trench with the idea of attaining thereby not only physical strength, but also mental renewal and regeneration.

Among the Chinese

The religion of the Chinese, a peculiar mixture of nature and ancestor-worship, is indissolubly connected with the constitution of the state. The oldest Sinism was a perfect Monotheism. However, we are best acquainted with the Chinese sacrificial system in the form which was given it by the great reformer, Confucius (sixth century before Christ), and which it has retained practically unaltered after more than two thousand years. As the “Son of Heaven” and the head of the State religion, the Emperor of China is also the high-priest who alone may offer sacrifice to heaven. The chief sacrifice takes place annually during the night of the winter solstice on the “altar of heaven” in the southern section of Peking. On the highest terrace of this altar stands a wooden table as the symbol of the soul of the god of heaven; there are in addition many other “soul tables” (of the sun, moon, stars, clouds, wind, etc.), including those of the ten immediate predecessors of the emperor. Before every table are set sacrificial offerings of soup, flesh, vegetables, etc. To the ancestors of the emperor, as well as to the sun and moon, a slaughtered ox is offered; to the planets and the stars a calf, a sheep, and a pig. Meanwhile, on a pyre to the south-east of the altar, a sacrifice of an ox lies ready to be burned to the highest god of heaven. While the ox is being consumed, the emperor offers to the soul-table of heaven and the tables of his predecessors a staff of incense, silk, and some meat broth. After the performance of these ceremonies, all the articles of sacrifice are brought to special furnaces and there consumed. Similarly the emperor sacrifices to the earth at the northern wall of Peking, the sacrificial gifts being in this case not burned, but buried. The gods of the soil and of corn, as well as the ancestors of the emperor, have also their special places and days of sacrifice. Throughout the empire the emperor is represented in the sacrifices by his state officials. In the classical book of ritual, “Li-ki”, it is expressly stated: “The son of heaven sacrifices to the heaven and the earth; the vassals to the gods of the soil and of corn.” Besides the chief sacrifices, there are a number of others of the second or third rank, which are usually performed by state officials. The popular religion with its innumerable images, which have their special temples, is undisguised idolatry.

Among the Egyptians

The ancient religion of the Egyptians, with its highly developed priesthood and its equally extensive sacrificial system, marks the transition to the religion of the Semites. The Egyptian temple contained a dark chapel with the image of the deity; before it was a pillared hall, (hypostyle) faintly lit by a small window under the roof, and before this hall a spacious court-yard, enclosed by a circular series of pillars. The ground-plan proves that the temple was not used either for assemblies of the people or as the residence of the priests, but was intended solely for the preservation of the images of the gods, the treasures, and the sacred vessels. To the sanctuary proper only the priests and the king were admitted. The sacrifices were offered in the great court-yard, where also the highly popular processions, in which the images of the gods were borne in a ship, took place. The rites of the daily service of the temple, the movements, words, and prayers of the officiating priest, were all regulated down to the smallest detail. The image of the god was entertained daily with food and drink, which were placed on the sacrificial table. At the laying of the foundation-stone of a new temple human sacrifices were offered, being abolished only in the era of the Ramassides; a trace of this repulsive custom survived in the later ceremony of impressing on the sacrificial victim a seal bearing the image of a man in chains with a knife in his throat. To the favourite god of the Egyptians, Ammon-Râ, the rulers of the New Empire made such extraordinarily numerous and costly votive offerings that the state became almost bankrupt. The Egyptian religion, which finally developed into abominable bestiolatry, fell into decay with the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria by the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius I (391).

Among the Semites

Among the Semites the Babylonians and Assyrians deserve first mention. The Babylonian temple contained in the sanctuary the image of the god to whom it was consecrated, and in adjoining chambers or chapels the images of the other gods. The Babylonian priests were a private caste, the mediators between the gods and man, the guardians of the sacred literature, and the teachers of the sciences. In Assyria, on the other hand, the king was the high-priest, and offered up sacrifice. According to the Babylonian idea, sacrifice (libations, offerings of foods, bloody sacrifices) is the due tribute of mankind to the gods, and is as old as the world; sacrifices are the banquets of the gods, and the smoke of the offerings is for them a fragrant odour; a joyous sacrificial banquet unites the sacrificers with their divine guests. Both burnt and aromatic offerings were common to the Babylonians and the Assyrians. The sacrificial gifts included wild and tame animals, fowl, fish, fruit, curds, honey, and oil. Sacrificial animals were usually of the male sex; they had to be without defects, strong and fat, for only the unblemished is worthy of the gods. Only in the rite of purification were female animals allowed, and only in the lesser ceremonies defective animals. The offering of bread on tables (showbread) was also usual. To the sacrifices was attributed a purifying and atoning force, and the idea of substitution, the sacrificial victim being substituted for man, was clearly expressed. In the Babylonian penitential psalms especially, the deep consciousness of sin and guilt often finds touching expression. Men were slain only with lamentations for the dead.

The demonstration that the Chanaanites originally came from Arabia (that ancient home of the races) to Palestine, and there disseminated the culture of the ancient Arabians, is an achievement of modern investigators. While the Babylonian religion was governed by the course of the stars (astrology), the spiritual horizon of the Chanaanites was fixed by the periodical changes of dying and reawakening nature, and thus depended secondarily on the vivifying influence of the stars, especially of the sun and the moon. Wherever the force of nature revealed evidence of life, there the deity had his seat. At fountains and rivers temples arose, because water brings life and drought, death. Feeling themselves nearest to the deity on mountains, hill-worship (mentioned also in the Old Testament) was the most popular among the Chanaanites. On the height stood an altar with an oval opening, and around it was made a channel to carry off the blood of the sacrificial victim. To the cruel god Moloch sacrifices of children were offered — a horrible custom against which the Bible so sternly inveighs. The kindred cult of the Phœnicians originated in a low idea of the deity, which inclined towards gloominess, cruelty, and voluptuousness. We need only mention the worship of Baal and Astarte, Phallism and the sacrifice of chastity, the sacrifice of men and children, which the civilized Romans vainly strove to abolish. In their sacrificial system the Phœnicians had some points in common with the Israelites. The “sacrificial table of Marseilles”, which, like the similar “sacrificial table of Carthage”, was of Phœnician origin, mentions as sacrificial victims: steers, calves, stags, sheep, she-goats, lambs, he-goats, fawns, and fowl, tame and wild. Sick or emaciated animals were forbidden. The Phœnicians were also acquainted with holocausts (kalil), which were always supplicatory sacrifices and partial offerings, which might be sacrifices of either supplication or thanks. The chief efficacy of the sacrifice of men and animals was regarded as lying in the blood. When the victim was not entirely consumed, the sacrificers participated in a sacrificial banquet with music and dancing.

Jewish sacrifice

In general

That many general ideas and rites, which are found in pagan religions, find their place also in the Jewish sacrificial system, should excite as little surprise as the fact that revealed religion in general does not reject at all natural religion and ethics, but rather adopts them in a higher form. The ethical purity and excellence of the Jewish sacrificial system is at once seen in the circumstance that the detestable human sacrifices are spurned in the official religion of Jahweh (cf. Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). Abraham’s trial (Gen. xxii 1 sqq.) ended with the prohibition of the slaying of Isaac, God ordering instead the sacrifice of the ram caught in the briers. Among the Children of Israel human sacrifice meant the profanation of Jahweh’s name (Leviticus 20:1 sqq., etc.). The later prophets also raised their mighty voices against the disgraceful service of Moloch with its sacrifice of children. It is true that the baneful influence of pagan environment won the upper hand from the time of King Achaz to that of Josias to such an extent that in the ill-omened Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem thousands of innocent children were sacrificed to Moloch. To this infectious pagan example, not to the spirit of the religion of Jahweh, is also to be referred the sacrifice which Jephte, in consequence of his vow, reluctantly performed by slaying his own daughter (Judges 11:1 sqq.). The assertion of many investigators (Ghilany, Daumer, Vatke) that even in the legitimate service of Jahweh human sacrifices occurred, is historically untenable; for, though the Mosaic Law contained the provision that, not only the firstlings of beasts and Fruits, but also the firstborn of men were due to Jahweh, it was expressly provided that these latter should be redeemed, not sacrificed. The offering of the blood of an animal instead of a human life originated in the profound idea of substitution, and has its justification in the prophetical metaphorical references to the unique vicarious sacrifice offered by Christ on Golgotha. The Israelitic blood vengeance (cherem), in accordance with which impious enemies and things were utterly exterminated (cf. Joshua 6:21 sqq.; 1 Kings 15:15, etc.), had absolutely nothing to do with human sacrifice. The idea of the blood vengeance originated, not as in various pagan religions in the thirst of God for human blood, but in the principle that the powers hostile to God should be removed by a bloody chastisement from the path of the Lord of life and death. The accursed were not sacrificed but removed from the face of the earth. According to Jewish tradition, sacrifice in its bloody and its unbloody form extends back to the beginning of the human race. The first and oldest sacrifice mentioned in the Bible is that of Cain and Abel (Gen. iv, 3 sq.). With sacrifice an altar was associated (Genesis 12:7 sq.). Even in patriarchal times we meet also the sacrificial meal, especially in connexion with treaties and the conclusion of peace. The conclusion of the covenant at Mount Sinai was also effected under the auspices of a solemn sacrifice and banquet (Exodus 24:5 sqq.). Subsequently Moses, as the envoy of Jahweh, elaborated the whole sacrificial system, and in the Pentateuch fixed with most scrupulous exactness the various kinds of sacrifice and their ritual. Like the whole Mosaic cult, the sacrificial system is governed by the one central idea, peculiar to the religion of Jahweh: “Be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).

Material of the sacrifices

The general name for Jewish sacrifice was originally minchah (anaphora, donum), afterwards the special technical term for the unbloody food-offering. To the latter was opposed the bloody sacrifice (thysia, victima). According to the method of offering, sacrifices were known as korban (“bringing near”) or ‘õlah (“ascending”), the latter term being used especially of the holocaust. The material of the bloody sacrifice must be taken from the personal possessions of the offerer, and must belong to the category of clean animals. Thus, on the one hand, only domestic animals (oxen, sheep, goats) from the stock of the sacrificer were allowed (Leviticus 22:19 sqq.), and hence neither fish nor wild animals; on the other hand, all unclean animals (e.g. dogs, pigs, asses, camels) were excluded, even though they were domestic animals. Doves were about the only sort of birds that could be used. The substitution of turtle doves or young pigeons for the larger animals was allowed to the poor (Leviticus 5:7; 12:8). Concerning the sex, age, and physical condition of the animals there were also exact precepts; as a rule, they had to be free from defect, since only the best were fit for Jahweh (Leviticus 22:20 sqq.; Malachi 1:13 sq.). The material of the unbloody sacrifices (usually additions to the bloody sacrifice or subsidiary sacrifices) was chosen from either the solid or the liquid articles of human food. The fragrant incense, the symbol of prayer ascending to God, was an exception. The sacrifice of solids (minchah) consisted partly of toasted ears of corn (or shelled grain) together with oil and incense (Leviticus 2:14 sqq.), partly of the finest wheaten flour with the same additional gifts (Leviticus 2:1 sqq.), and partly of unleavened bread (Leviticus 2:4 sqq.). Since not only leaven, but also honey produced fermentation in bread, which suggests rottenness, the use of honey was also forbidden (Leviticus 2:11; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6 sqq.). Only the bread of the first fruits, which was offered on the feast of Pentecost, and the bread added to many sacrifices of praise were leavened, and these might not be brought to the altar, but belonged to the priests (Leviticus 2:4 sqq.; 7:13 sq., etc.). On the other hand salt was regarded as a means of purification and preservation, and was prescribed as a seasoning for all food-offerings prepared from corn (Leviticus 2:13). Consequently, among the natural productions supplied to the (later)Temple, was a vast quantity of salt, which, as “salt of Sodom” was usually obtained from the Dead Sea, and stored up in a special salt chamber (Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Josephus, “Antiquities”, XII, 3:3). As an integral portion of the food-offering we always find the libation (spondeion, libamen), which is never offered independently. Oil and wine were the only liquids used (cf. Genesis 28:18; 35:14; Numbers 28:7,14): the oil was used partly in the preparation of the bread, and partly burned with the other gifts on the altar; the wine was poured out before the altar. Libations of milk, such as those of the Arabs and the Phœnicians, do not occur in the Mosaic Law.

The fact that, in addition to the subsidiary sacrifices, unbloody sacrifices were also customary, has been unjustifiably contested by some Protestants in their polemics against the Sacrifice of the Mass, of which the sacrifices of food and drink were the prototypes. Passing over the oldest sacrifices of this kind in the case of Cain and Abel (see SACRIFICE OF THE MASS), the Mosaic cult recognized the following independent sacrifices in the sanctuary:

the offering of bread and wine on the showbread table;

the incense offering on the altar of incense;

the light offering in the burning lamps of the golden candle-stick.

And in the outer court:

the daily minchah of the high-priest, which, like every other priestly minchah, had to be entirely consumed as a holocaust (Leviticus 6:20 sqq. cf. Josephus, “Antiquit.”, III, 10:7);

the bread of the first fruits on the second day of the Pasch;

the bread of the first fruits on the feast of Pentecost.

Of the independent unbloody sacrifices at least a portion was always burnt as a memorial (askara, memoriale) for Jahweh; the rest belonged to the priests, who consumed it as sacred food in the outer court (Leviticus 2:9 sq.; 5:12 sq.; 6:16).

The rites of the bloody sacrifice

The ritual of the bloody sacrifice is of special importance for the deeper knowledge of Jewish sacrifice. Despite other differences, five actions were common to all the categories: the bringing forward of the victim, the imposition of hands, the slaying, the sprinkling of the blood, and the burning. The first was the leading of the victim to the altar of burnt sacrifices in the outer court of the tabernacle (or of the Temple) “before the Lord” (Exodus 29:42; Leviticus 1:5; 3:1; 4:6). Then followed on the north side of the altar the imposition of hands (or, more accurately, the resting of hands on the head of the victim), by which significant gesture the sacrificer transferred to the victim his personal intention of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and especially of atonement, If sacrifice was about to be offered for the whole community, the ancients, as the representatives of the people, performed the ceremony of the imposition of hands (Leviticus 4:15). This ceremony was omitted in the case of certain sacrifices (first fruits, tithes, the paschal lamb, doves) and in the case of bloody sacrifices performed at the instance of pagans. From the time of Alexander the Great the offering of burnt sacrifices even by Gentiles was permitted in recognition of the supremacy of foreign rulers; thus, the Roman Emperor Augustus required a daily burnt offering of two lambs and a steer in the Temple (cf. Philo, “Leg. ad Caj., ” 10; Josephus, “Contra Ap.”, II, vi). The withdrawal of this permission at the beginning of the Jewish War was regarded as a public rebellion against the Roman rule (cf. Josephus, “De bello jud.”, II, xvii, 2). The ceremony of the imposition of hands was usually preceded by a confession of sins (Leviticus 16:21; 5:5 sq.; Numbers 5:6 sq.), which, according to Rabbinic tradition, was verbal (cf. Otho, “Lex rabbin.”, 552). The third act or the slaying, which effects as speedy and complete a shedding of the blood as possible by a deep cut into the throat, had also, like the leading forward and the imposition of hands, to be performed by the sacrificer himself (Leviticus 1:3 sqq.); only in the case of the offering of doves did the priest perform the slaying (Leviticus 1:15). In later times, however, the slaying, skinning, and dismemberment of the larger animals were undertaken by the priests and Levites, especially when the whole people were to offer sacrifice for themselves on great festivals (2 Chronicles 29:22 sqq.). The real sacrificial function began with the fourth act, the sprinkling of blood by the priest, which, according to the Law, pertained to him alone (Leviticus 1:5; 3:2; 4:5; 2 Chronicles 29:23, etc.). If a layman undertook the blood-sprinkling, the sacrifice was invalid (cf. Mischna Sebachim, II, 1).

The oblation of the blood on the altar by the priest thus formed the real essence of the bloody sacrifice. This idea was indeed universal, for “everywhere from China to Ireland the blood is the chief thing, the centre of the sacrifice; in the blood lies its power” (Bähr, “Symbolik des mosaischen Kultus”, II, Heidelberg, 1839, p. 62). That the act of slaying or the destruction of the victim was not the chief element, is evident from the precept that the sacrificers themselves, who were not priests, had to care for the slaying. Jewish tradition also expressly designated the priestly sprinkling of the blood on the altar as “the root and principle of the sacrifice”. The explanation is given in Lev., xvii, 10 sq.: “If any man whosoever of the house of Israel, and of the strangers that sojourn among them, eat blood, I will set my face against his soul an will cut him off from among his people: Because the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you, that you may make atonement with it upon the altar for your souls, and the blood may be for an expiation of the soul.” Here the blood of the victim is declared in the clearest terms to be the means of propitiation, and the propitiation itself is associated with the application of the blood on the altar. But the propitiation for the guilt-laden soul is accomplished by the blood only in virtue of the life contained in it, which belongs to the Lord of death and life. Hence the strict prohibition of the “eating” of blood under penalty of being cut off from among the people. But inasmuch as the blood, since it bears the life of the victim, represents or symbolizes the soul or life of man, the idea of substitution finds clear expression in the sprinkling of the blood, just as it has been already expressed in the imposition of hands. But the blood obtained by the slaying exerts its expiatory power first on the altar, where the soul of the victim symbolically laden with sin comes into contact with the purifying and sanctifying power of God. The technical term for the reconciliation and remission of sin is kipper “to expiate” (Piel from the word meaning “to cover”), a verb which is connected rather with the Assyrian kuppuru (wipe off, destroy) than with the Arabic “to cover, cover up”. The fifth and last act, the burning, was performed differently, according as the whole victim (holocaust) or only certain portions of it were to be consumed by fire. By the altar and the “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24) Jahweh symbolically appropriated, as through His Divine mouth, the sacrifices offered; this was strikingly manifested in the sacrifices of Aaron, Gedeon, and Elias (cf. Leviticus 9:24; Judges 6:21; 1 Kings 18:38).

Different categories of the bloody sacrifices

(a) Among the various classes of bloody sacrifice, the burnt offering takes the first place. It is called both the “ascent sacrifice” (‘õlah) and the “holocaust” (kâlil); Septuagint holokautoma; in Philo, holokauston), because the whole victim — with the exception of the hip muscle and the hide — is made through fire to ascend to God in smoke and vapour (see HOLOCAUST). Although the idea of expiation was not excluded (Leviticus 1:4), it retired somewhat into the background, since in the complete destruction of the victim by fire the absolute submission of man to God was to find expression. The holocaust is indeed the oldest, most frequent, and most widespread sacrifice (cf. Genesis 4:4; 8:20; 22:2 sqq.; Job 1:5; 42:8). As the “ever enduring” sacrifice, it had to be offered twice daily, in the morning and in the evening (cf. Exodus 29:38 sqq.; Leviticus 6:9 sqq.; Numbers 28:3 sqq., etc.). As the sacrifice of adoration par excellence, it included in itself all other species of sacrifice. [Concerning the altar, see ALTAR (IN SCRIPTURE).]

(b) The idea of expiation received especially forcible expression in the expiatory sacrifices, of which two classes were distinguished, the sin and the guilt-offering. The distinction between these lies in the fact that the former was concerned rather with the absolution of the person from sin (expiatio), the latter rather with the making of satisfaction for the injury done (satisfactio).

Turning first to the sin-offering (sacrificium pro peccato, chattath), we find that, according to the Law, not all ethical delinquencies could be expiated by it. Excluded from expiation were all deliberate crimes or “sins with raised hand”, which involved a breech of the covenant and drew upon the transgressor as punishment ejection from among the people because he had “been rebellious against the Lord” (Numbers 15:30 sq.). To such sins belonged the omission of circumcision (Genesis 17:14), the desecration of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14), the blaspheming of Jahweh (Leviticus 24:16), failure to celebrate the Pasch (Numbers 9:2 sqq.), the “eating of blood” (Leviticus 7:26 sq.), working or failure to fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:21). Expiation availed only for misdeeds committed through ignorance, forgetfulness, or hastiness. The rites were determined not so much by the kind and gravity of the transgressions as by the quality of the persons for whom the sacrifice of expiation was to be offered. Thus, for the faults of the high-priest or the whole people a calf was prescribed (Leviticus 4:3; 16:3); for those of the prince of a tribe (Leviticus 4:23), as well as on certain festivals, a he-goat; for those of the ordinary Israelites, a she-goat or ewe lamb (Leviticus 4:28; 5:6); for purification after child-birth and certain other legal uncleannesses, turtle doves or young pigeons (Leviticus 12:6; 15:14, 29). The last-mentioned might also be used by the poor as the substitute for one of the small cattle (Leviticus 5:7; 14:22). The very poor, who were unable to offer even doves, might in the case of ordinary transgressions sacrifice the tenth of an ephi of flour, but without oil or incense (Leviticus 5:11 sqq.). The manner of the application of the blood was different according to the various degrees of sin, and consisted, not in the mere sprinkling of the blood, but in rubbing it on the horns of the altar for burnt-offerings or the incense altar, after which the remainder of the blood was poured out at the foot of the altar. Concerning the details of this ceremony the handbooks of Biblical archæology should be consulted. The usual and best sacrificial portions of the victims (pieces of fat, kidneys, lobes of the liver) were then burned on the altar of burnt-offerings, and the remainder of the victim eaten by the priests as sacred food in the outer court of the sanctuary (Leviticus 6:18 sq.). Should any of the blood have been brought into the sanctuary, the flesh had to be brought to the ash-heap and there likewise burned (Leviticus 4:1 sqq.; 6:24 sqq.).

The guilt-offering (sacrificium pro delicto, asham) was specially appointed for sins and transgressions demanding restitution, whether the material interests of the sanctuary or those of private persons were injured — e.g. by misappropriating gifts to the sanctuary, defrauding one’s neighbour, retaining the property of another, etc. (cf. Leviticus 5:15 sqq.; 6:2 sq.; Numbers 5:6 sqq.), The material restitution was reckoned at one-fifth higher than the loss inflicted (six fifths had thus to be paid). In addition, a guilt-sacrifice had to be offered, consisting of a ram sacrificed at the north side of the altar. The blood was sprinkled in a circle around the altar, on which the fatty portions were burnt; the rest of the flesh as sacrosanct was eaten by the priests in the holy place (Leviticus 7:1 sqq.).

(c) The third class of bloody sacrifice embraced the “peace offerings” (victima pacifica, shelamim), which were sub-divided into three classes: the sacrifice of thanks or praise, the sacrifice in fulfilment of a vow, and entirely voluntary offerings. The peace sacrifices in general were distinguished by two characteristics:

(i) the remarkable ceremony of “wave” and “heave”;

(ii) the communal sacrificial meal held in connexion with them.

All animals allowed for sacrifice (even female) might be used and, in the case of entirely “voluntary sacrifices”, even such animals as were not quite without defects (Leviticus 22:23). Until the act of sprinkling the blood the rites were the same as in the burnt-sacrifice, except that the slaying did not necessarily take place at the north side of the altar (Leviticus 3:1 sqq.; 7:11 sqq.). The usual portions of fat had, as in the case of the sacrifice of expiation, to be burned on the altar. In the cutting up of the victim, however, the breast and the right shoulder (Septuagint brachion; Vulgate armus) had to be first separately severed, and the ceremony of “wave” (tenupha) and “heave” (teruma) performed with them. According to Talmudic tradition the “wave” was performed as follows: the priest placed the breast of the victim on the hands of the offerer, and then, having placed his own hands under those of this person, moved them backward and forward in token of the reciprocity in giving and receiving between God and the offerer. With the right shoulder the same ceremony was then performed, except that the “heave” or “teruma” consisted in an upward and downward movement. The breast and shoulder used in these ceremonies fell to the share of the priests, who might consume them in a “clean place” (Leviticus 10:14). They also received a loaf from the supplementary food-offering (Leviticus 7:14). The offerer assembled his friends at a common meal on the same day to consume in the vicinity of the sanctuary the flesh remaining after the sacrifice. Levitically clean guests, especially the Levites and the poor, were admitted (Deuteronomy 16:11; Leviticus 19 sqq.), and wine was freely drunk at this meal. Whatever remained of a sacrifice of thanksgiving or praise had to be burned on the following day; only in the case of the vowed and entirely voluntary sacrifices might the remainder be eaten on the second succeeding day, but all that thereafter remained had to be burned on the third day (Leviticus 7:15 sqq.; 19:6 sqq.). The idea of the peace-offering centres in the Divine friendship and the participation at the Divine table, inasmuch as the offerers, as guests and table-companions, participated in a certain manner in the sacrifice to the Lord. But, on account of this Divine friendship, when all three classes of sacrifice were combined, the sacrifice of expiation usually preceded the burnt-offering, and the latter the peace-offering.

In addition to the periodical sacrifices just described, the Mosaic Law recognized other extraordinary sacrifices, which must at least be mentioned. To these belong the sacrifice offered but once on the occasion of the conclusion of the Sinaitic covenant (Exodus 24:4 sqq.), those occurring at the consecration of the priests and Levites (Exodus 29:1 sqq.; Leviticus 8; Numbers 8:5 sqq.) and certain occasional sacrifices, such as the sacrifice of purification of a healed leper (Leviticus 14:1 sqq.), the sacrifice of the red cow (Numbers 19:1 sqq.), the sacrifice of jealousy (Numbers 5:12 sqq.), and the sacrifice of the Nazirites (Numbers 6:9 sqq.). On account of its extraordinary character one might include the yearly sacrifice of the paschal lamb (Exodus 12:3 sqq.; Deuteronomy 16:1 sqq.) and that of the two he-goats on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1 sqq.) among this class. With the appearance of the Messias, the entire Mosaic sacrificial system was, according to the view of the Rabbis, to come to an end, as in fact it did after the destruction of the Temple by Titus (A.D. 70). Concerning the sacrificial persons see PRIESTHOOD.

Modern criticism

A detailed examination of modern criticism concerning Jewish sacrifice cannot be attempted here, since the discussion involves the whole Pentateuch problem (see PENTATEUCH). What is called the “Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis” denies that the ritual legislation in the Pentateuch comes from Moses. It is claimed that the setting down of the sacrificial legislation first began in the exilic period. From the time of Moses to the Babylonian Captivity sacrifice was offered freely and without any legal compulsion, and always in connexion with a joyous sacrificial meal. The strict forms of the minutely-prescribed sacrificial rite were first established by the Priest’s Code (P), Divine authority being afterwards claimed for them by artificially projecting them into the Mosaic era. Even during the time of the Great Prophets nothing was known of a Mosaic sacrificial thora, as is proved by their disparaging remarks Concerning the worthlessness of sacrifice (cf. Isaiah 1:11 sqq.; Jeremiah 6:19 sq.; Amos 5:21 sqq.; Hosea 8:11 sqq., etc.). With Ezechiel, however, a change is visible, the ritual forms of sacrifice being highly cherished as a Divine law. But it is impossible to refer this law to Moses.

We may briefly reply that the disparaging statements of the pre-exilic Prophets are no proof for the assertion that in their time there was no sacrificial law regarded as Mosaic. Like the Psalms (xl, 7 sqq.; l, 8 sqq.; lxix, 31 sq.), the Prophets emphasized only the ancient and venerable truth that Jahweh valued most highly the interior sacrifice of obedience, and rejected as worthless purely external acts without pious dispositions. He demanded of Cain the right sentiment of sacrifice (cf. Gen iv 4 sq.), and proclaimed through Samuel: “Obedience is better than sacrifices” (1 Samuel 15:22). This requirement of ethical dispositions is not equivalent to the rejection of external sacrifice. Nor can one accept the statement that Moses did not legally regulate the Jewish sacrificial system. How otherwise could he have been regarded among the Jews as the God-appointed founder of the religion of Jahweh, which is inconceivable without Divine service and sacrifice? That during the centuries after Moses the sacrificial cult underwent an internal and external development, which reached its climax in the extant priest’s code, is a natural and intelligible assumption, indications of which appear in the Pentateuch itself. The whole reorganization of the cult by the Prophet Ezechiel shows that Jahweh always stood above the letter of the law, and that he was nowise bound to maintain in unalterable rigidity the olden regulations. But the changes and deviations in Ezechiel are not of such magnitude as to justify the view that not even the foundation of the sacrificial code originated with Moses. The further statement that a sacrificial meal was regularly connected with the ancient sacrifices, is an unjustifiable generalization. For the burnt-offering (holocaustum, ‘õlah), with which no meal was associated, belonged to the most ancient sacrifices (cf. Genesis 8:20), and is at least as old as the peace-offering (shelamim), which always terminated with a meal. Again, it is antecedently at least improbable that the older sacrifices always had, as is asserted, a gay and joyous character, since the need of expiation was not less, but rather more seriously felt by the Israelites than by the pagan nations of antiquity. Where there was a consciousness of sin, there must also have been anxiety for expiation.

Christian sacrifice

Christianity knows but one sacrifice, the sacrifice which was once offered by Christ in a bloody manner on the tree of the Cross. But in order to apply to individual men in sacrificial form though a constant sacrifice the merits of redemption definitively won by the sacrifice of the Cross, the Redeemer Himself instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to be an unbloody continuation and representation of the bloody sacrifice of Calvary. Concerning this eucharistic sacrifice and its relation to the sacrifice on the Cross, see the article MASS. In view of the central position which the sacrifice of the Cross holds in the whole economy of salvation, we must briefly discuss the reality of this sacrifice.

The dogma of the Sacrifice of the Cross

The universal conviction of Christianity was expressed by the Synod of Ephesus (431), when it declared that the Incarnate Logos “offered Himself to God the Father for us for an odour of sweetness” (in Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchiridion,” n. 122), a dogma explicitly confirmed by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXII. cap. i-ii; can. ii-iv). The dogma is indeed nothing else than a clear echo of Holy Writ and tradition. If all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and especially the bloody sacrifice, were so many types of the bloody sacrifice of the Cross (Cf. Hebrews 8-10), and if the idea of vicarious atonement was present in the Mosaic bloody sacrifices, it follows immediately that the death on the Cross, as the antitype, must possess the character of a vicarious sacrifice of atonement. A striking confirmation of this reasoning is found in the pericope of Isaias concerning God’s “just servant,” wherein three truths are clearly expressed:

the substitution of the innocent Messias for guilty mankind;

the deliverance of the guilty from sin and punishment through the suffering of the Messias;

the manner of this suffering and satisfaction through the bloody death on the Cross (cf. Isaiah 53:4 sqq.).

The Messianity of the passage, which was unjustifiably contested by the Socinians and Rationalists, is proved by the express testimony of the New Testament (cf. Matthew 8:17; Mark 15:28; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:28 sqq.; 1 Peter 2:22 sqq.). The prophecy found its fulfilment in Christ. For, although His whole life was a continuous sacrifice, yet the sacrifice culminated in His bloody death on the Cross, as He Himself says: “He came to give His life a redemption for many” (Matthew 20:28). Three factors are here emphasized: sacrifice, vicarious offering, and expiation. The phrase, “to give his life” (dounai ten psychen), is, as numerous parallel passages attest, a Biblical expression for sacrifice; the words, “for many” (anti pollon), express the idea of vicarious sacrifice, while the term, “redemption” (lytron), declares the object of the expiation (cf. Ephesians 5:2; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Rationalism (Socinus, Ritschl) seeks in vain to deny that Saint Paul had this idea of vicarious expiation on the ground that the expression anti pollon (in the place of many) is foreign to him. For, apart from the fact that he clearly expresses in other terms the idea of substitution (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 3:13), his phrase “for many” (hyper pollon instead of anti pollon), taken in connexion with the idea of sacrifice current in his writings, bears the pregnant meaning “instead of many,” not merely “for the advantage of many”. This is clearly indicated by 1 Timothy 2:6: “Who gave himself a redemption for all [antilytron hyper panton].”

As in the Old Testament the expiatory power of the sacrifice lay in the blood of the victim, so also the expiation for the forgiveness of sins is ascribed to the “Blood of the New Testament” (see SACRIFICE OF THE MASS). There is thus nothing more precious than the Blood of Christ: “. . . you were not redeemed with corruptible things as gold and silver . . . ., but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled” (1 Peter 1:18 sq.). While the foregoing considerations refute the assertion of modern “critics” that the expiatory sacrifice of Christ was first introduced by Paul into the Gospel, it is still true that the bloody sacrifice of the Cross occupied the central position in the Pauline preaching. He speaks of the Redeemer as Him “whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation [hilasterion], through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:25). Referring to the types of the Old Testament, the Epistle to the Hebrews especially elaborates this idea: “For if the blood of goats and of oxen, and the ashes of a heifer being sprinkled, sanctify such as are defiled, to the cleansing of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ who by the Holy Ghost offered himself unspotted unto God, cleanse our conscience from dead works” (Hebrews 9:13 sq.). With the multiplicity and variety, the inefficacy and inadequacy of the Mosaic bloody sacrifices is contrasted the uniqueness and efficacy of the sacrifice of the Cross for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Hebrews 9:28: “So also was Christ once [apax] offered to exhaust the sins of many”; x, 10: “In the which will we are sanctified by the oblation of the body [dia tes prosphoras tou somatos] of Jesus Christ once”). The bloody death on the Cross is specially characterized as a “sin offering”: “But this man offering one sacrifice for sins [mian hyper amartion prosenegkas thysian], for ever sitteth on the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). The “heavenly sacrifice” of Christ, the existence of which is assumed by Thalhofer, Zill, and Schoulza, cannot be deduced from the Epistle to the Hebrews. In heaven Christ no longer sacrifices Himself, but simply, through His “priestly intercession”, offers the sacrifice of the Cross (Hebrews 7:25; cf. Romans 8:34).

While the Apostolic Fathers and the apologist Justin Martyr merely repeat the Biblical doctrine of the sacrificial death of Christ, Irenæus was the first of the early Fathers to consider the sacrifice of the Cross from the standpoint of a “vicarious satisfaction” (satisfactio vicaria); this expression, however, did not come into frequent use in ecclesiastical writings during the first ten centuries. Irenæus emphasizes the fact that only a God-Man could wash away the guilt of Adam, that Christ actually redeemed mankind by His Blood and offered “His Soul for our souls and His Flesh for our flesh” (Against Heresies V.1.1). Though Irenæus bases the redemption primarily on the Incarnation, through which our vitiated nature was restored to its original holiness (” mystical interpretation” of the Greeks), he nevertheless ascribes in a special manner to the bitter Passion of the Saviour the same effects that he ascribes to the Incarnation: viz. the making of man like unto God, the forgiveness of sin, and the annihilation of death (Against Heresies II.20.3 and III.18.8). It was not so much “under the influence of the Græco-Oriental mysteries of expiation” (Harnack) as in close association with Paul and the Mosaic sacrificial ritual, that Origen regarded the death on the Cross in the light of the vicarious sacrifice of expiation. But, since he maintained preferentially the Biblical view of the “ransom and redemption”, he was the originator of the one-sided “old patristic theory of the redemption”. Incidentally (“In Matt., xvi, 8,” in P.G., XIII, 1397 sqq.) he makes the rash statement that the ransom rendered on the Cross was paid to the Devil — a view which Gregory of Nyssa later systematized. This statement was, however, repudiated by Adamantius (“De recta in Deum fide”, I, xxvii, in P.G., XI, 1756 sqq.) as “the height of blasphemous folly” (polle blasphemos anoia), and was positively rejected by Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus. This repulsive theory never became general in the Church, although the idea of the supposed “rights of the Devil” (erroneously derived from John 12:31; 14:30; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Peter 2:19) survived among some ecclesiastical writers even to the time of Bede and Peter Lombard. Whatever Origen and Gregory of Nyssa say of our ransom from the Evil One, they are both clear in their statements that Christ offers the sacrifice of expiation to the Heavenly Father and not to the Devil; the redemption from the slavery of the Devil is effected by Christ through His sacrifice on the Cross. As, according to Harnack’s admission, the idea of vicarious expiation “is genuine among the Latins”, we may easily dispense with the testimony of Latin patristic literature. While the Greek Church adhered to the old mystical conception in connexion with the theory of ransom, the doctrine of the Redemption received a further development in the “juristic theory of satisfaction” of Saint Anselm of Canterbury (“Cur Deus homo” in P.L., CLVIII, 359 sqq.); this was freed of some crudities by Saint Thomas Aquinas and deepened by the “ethical theory of reconciliation”. A comprehensive theory, employing dialectically all the Biblical and patristic factors, is still a desideratum in speculative theology.

Theological problems

Other difficult questions concerning the sacrifice of the Cross have been already more successfully dealt with by theologians. On account of the remarkable and unique coincidence of the priest, victim, and acceptor of the sacrifice, a first question arises as to whether Christ was victim and priest according to His Divine or according to His human nature. On the basis of the dogma of the hypostatic union the only answer is: although the God-Man or the Logos Himself was at once both priest and victim, He was both, not according to His Divine nature, but through the function of His humanity. For, since the Divine nature was absolutely incapable of suffering, it was no more possible for Christ to act as priest according to His Divine nature, than it was for God the Father or the Holy Ghost. As regards the relation between the priest and the acceptor, it is usually stated in explanation that Christ acts only as sacrificing priest, and that God the Father alone receives the sacrifice. This view is false. Even though God the Father is mentioned as the only acceptor by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXII, cap. i), this is merely an appropriation, which excludes neither the Son nor the Holy Ghost in the matter of acceptance. The acceptor of the sacrifice of the Cross is thus the offended God, or the whole Trinity, to which Christ as Logos and Son of God also belongs. One must, however, distinguish between the Divinity and the Humanity of Christ and say: while Christ as God, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost accepted His own sacrifice in expiation of the offended Deity, He offered this same sacrifice as Man vicariously to the Blessed Trinity. While this coincidence of the three functions of priest, victim, and acceptor in the same Christ may constitute a mystery, it yet contains no contradiction (cf. Augustine, City of God X.20). A third problem of great importance concerns the nature of the actio sacrifica in the sacrifice of the Cross. Did the sacrificial act consist in the slaying of Christ on the Cross? This question must be answered with a decided negative; otherwise one would have to say that the function of high-priest at the sacrifice of the Cross was exercised, not by Christ, but by his torturers and their myrmidons, the Roman soldiers. In the Mosaic sacrifices also the essence of the sacrifice lay, not in the actual slaying of the victim, but in the letting, or rather in the sprinkling, of the blood. Consequently, the sacrifice of the Cross, at which Christ functions as sole priest, must likewise be referred to the free offering of His blood for us men, inasmuch as the Redeemer, while outwardly submitting to the forcible shedding of His blood by His executioners, simultaneously offered it to God in the spirit of sacrifice (cf. John 10:17 sq.; Hebrews 9:22; 1 Peter 1:2).

Theory of sacrifice

In view of the comprehensive historical material which we have gathered both from pagan practice and from the religions Divinely revealed, it is now possible to essay a scientific theory of sacrifice, the chief lines being drawn naturally from the Jewish and Christian sacrificial systems.

Universality of sacrifice

One of the specially characteristic features which the history of religions places before us is the wide diffusion, even the universality, of sacrifice among the human race. It is true that Andrew Lang (“The Making of a Religion”, London, 1899) maintains the improbable view that originally the supreme, majestic, and heavenly God was as little venerated with sacrifices as He is today among certain tribes of Africa and Australia; that even in the Jahwehism of the Israelites the sacrificial cult was rather a degeneration than an ethico-religious advance. In agreement with this (other investigators add) is the fact that in many features the Mosaic sacrificial ritual was simply borrowed from the pagan ritual of the Egyptians, Babylonians, and other Semitic peoples. It is remarkable also that many Fathers of the Church (e.g. Chrysostom) and Scholastics, and among the Jews, Maimonides represented the Mosaic sacrifices as merely a concession which God made to the weakness of the Jewish character in order to restrain the Chosen People from the horrors of bloody sacrifice to idols. This one-sided view, however, cannot be maintained before the bar of the history or the psychology of religion. Nothing is psychologically so intelligible as the derivation of sacrifice from the naturally religious heart of man, and the history of all peoples similarly proves that scarcely a single religion has ever existed or exists today without Some sacrifice. A religion entirely without sacrifice seems almost a psychological impossibility, and is at least unnatural. It is the complete want of sacrifice among some African and Australian tribes, rather than the numerous sacrifices of Mosaism, that has resulted from degeneration. Had God conceded the bloody sacrifices simply on account of the weakness of the Israelites, as above asserted, He would have promoted, rather than checked, the spread of pagan idolatry, especially if the sacrificial ritual were also taken from pagan religions. Here as elsewhere parallels in other religions prove no borrowing, unless such is supported by strict historical evidence, and even the actual borrowings may in their new home have been inspired with an entirely new spirit. The adoption of the substance of paganism into Mosaism is disproved especially by the anti-pagan and unique idea of holiness with which the whole Jewish cult is stamped (cf. Leviticus 11:44), and which shows the sacrificial thora as of one piece. A later editor could never have imprinted the stamp of holiness on a ritual composed of pagan fragments without the pure paganism peeping through the seams and joinings. One must therefore, both before and after the Priest’s Code (save for later additions and accommodations to new circumstances) regard the sacrificial thora as truly Mosaic, and see in them the expression not only of human nature, but also of the Divine will. A remarkable exception from the general rule is Islamism, which knows neither sacrifice nor priest; sacrifice is replaced by a strict ritual of prayer, with which religious ablutions and almsgiving are associated. Again, while genuine Buddhism rejects sacrifice, this rule was far from obtaining in practice, for Lamaism in Tibet has sacrifices for the dead, and the average Buddhist of the people offers unbloody sacrifices to his buddha. The Hindu offers flowers, oil, food, and incense to his idols, and slays victims to the god Shiva and his spouse. And not even the believing Protestant is without a sacrifice, since, in spite of his rejection of the Mass, he at least recognizes Christ’s death on the Cross as the great sacrifice of Christianity.

Species of sacrifice

The two chief kinds of sacrifice, the bloody and the unbloody, were suggested to mankind by nature itself, and were thus known in the earliest times. To which of the two historical priority is to be conceded, can scarcely be decided. For the greater antiquity of the unbloody sacrifice equally good grounds can be offered as for that of the bloody sacrifice. The earliest historical mentions of sacrifice found in the Bible would make them coeval, for Cain as the husband-man offered the fruits of the field, while his brother Abel as the shepherd offered bloody victims (Genesis 4:3 sq.). As regards pagan religions, many historians of religion plead for the priority of the unbloody sacrifice. Porphyrius and Theophrastus also expressed the view that the first sacrifices consisted of plants and flowers, which were burned in honour of the Deity. The soma-haoma, a drink-offering common to both Indian Vedism and Iranian Parseeism, must be dated back to primeval times, when the Indians and the Iranians still formed one great people. How the Indians came to offer their very ancient horse sacrifice is unknown. It is a mere surmise to suppose that perhaps the general transition from a vegetable to a flesh diet, as related by Noah (cf. Genesis 9:3 sqq.), occasioned the rise of animal sacrifices. The rare occurrence of slaying an animal was turned into a festival, which was celebrated with sacrifices. Among the earliest Hebrews sebach (bloody sacrifice) was a “slaying festival”, with which bloody sacrifice was inseparably associated. The introduction of bloody sacrifices among the Iranians is more easily explained, since, especially in Zoroastrianism, it was esteemed a great merit to destroy the harmful animals belonging to the wicked god Ahriman, and eventually to sacrifice them to the good god Ormuzd. Further than surmises, however, we are unable to go. That the unbloody sacrifice was practised among the ancient Greeks, classical archæologists maintain with good reason, arguing that in Homer the word thyein (Latin suffire) did not mean “to slay” or “to offer as a bloody sacrifice” (as it did in post-Homeric Greek), but rather to “offer a smoking sacrifice” (incense). It is not impossible that even the cruel and voluptuous cults of Anterior Asia also offered at first only vegetable sacrifices, since the fundamental idea of their religion, the death and renascence of nature, is expressed most evidently and impressively in the plant world. All this is however purely hypothetical. The observation that human sacrifice once extended over the whole earth, leaves room also for the supposition that the bloody sacrifice in the form of slaughtered men claims chronological priority, the hideous custom being replaced, as civilization advanced, by the sacrifice of animals. But among many peoples (e.g. the Chanaanites, Phœnicians, and the ancient Mexicans) not even the possession of a high culture succeeded in abolishing the detestable human sacrifices. But, whatever view may be taken of the priority question, it is undoubted that both the bloody and the unbloody sacrifices reach back to prehistoric times.

Not without its significance for the scientific idea of sacrifice is the fact that the material of the bloody and unbloody sacrifices was regularly taken from things used as food and drink, and indeed from the best of these commodities. This very general circumstance affords evidence that the sacrificial gift must be taken from the belongings of the sacrificer and must be associated, as a means of sustenance, with his physical life. The independent sacrifice of incense alone requires another explanation; this is supplied by the fragrant odour, which symbolizes either the sweetness of the ascending offering of prayer or the gracious acceptance of the sacrifice by the Deity. The bloody sacrifice, on account of its symbolical connexion with the life of man, was especially expressive of complete self-oblation to the Divinity. In the cruder views of naive natural man, the ascending odour of the incense offering soothed the olfactory organs of the gods. Especially crude was this unworthy materializing of sacrifice in Indian Vedism (the soma drink) and in the Babylonian story of the Flood, where it is said: “The gods suck in the fragrant odour; like flies, the gods gathered over the sacrificer.” Even the Old Testament expression, “a sweet savour for God” (odor suavitatis), was originally an accommodation to the ingenuous ideas of the uncultured nomadic people (cf. Genesis 8:21; Leviticus 1:17, etc.), an anthro-pomorphism which was ever more clearly recognized as such according as the Israelites progressed in their ethical refinement of the idea of God. Not on the greatness or material worth of the sacrificial gifts should store be laid, since Jahweh was above necessity, but on the true sentiment of sacrifice, without which, as declared by the Prophets (cf. Isaiah 1:11 sqq.; Hosea 4:5; Malachi 1:10), all external sacrifices were not only worthless, but even reprehensible.

Rites of sacrifice

While sacrifice itself originates spontaneously in the natural prompting of religious-minded man, the particular rites, dependent on law and custom, display a manifold variety at different times and places. Among the different peoples the ceremonial of sacrifice offers indeed a very variegated picture. If we emphasize only that which was general and common to all, the simplest sacrificial rite consists in the mere exposition of the gifts in a holy place, as for example the show-bread (panis propositionis) of the Israelites and Babylonians, or the votive offerings (anathemata) of the Greeks. Frequently the idea of entertaining the gods or the dead is evidently associated with the offering of food and drink, e.g. among the Indians, Egyptians, and Greeks. Even in the oldest history of Israel this idea of entertainment, although spiritualized, is perceptible (Judges 6:17 sqq.; 13:15 sqq.). As true sacrifices in the strict sense were regarded only those in which a real alteration was effected in the sacrificial gift at the time of offering it. By this immutation the gifts were not only withdrawn from all profane usage, but were also completely given over to the service and possession of God or the gods. With this object in view edibles or sacrificial victims were either completely or partly burned, while libations were poured out as drink offerings. The earliest form seems to have been the whole or burnt-offering (holocaust). While only special portions of the victims (for the most part the best portions) were burned, the remainder of the flesh was regarded as holy sacrificial food, and was eaten either by the priests or by the offerers in a holy place (or even at home) with the idea of entering into communion. The chief element in the sacrifice, however, was not the sacrificial meal, but rather the sprinkling of the blood, which, as the bearer of life, was clearly intended in many religions to represent man himself. This idea of substitution is seen with overwhelming clearness in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Among all peoples the sacrifice, as the chief and most perfect function of religion, was surrounded with the greatest pomp and solemnity; the celebration was usually of a light and joyous character, especially in the case of the sacrifices of praise, petition, and thanksgiving. With joyous heart man consecrated himself to the Deity through the medium of the gifts he offered. External adornment, music, song, prayer, and dance heightened the festive joy. On the other hand the expiatory sacrifice was of a serious character, whether it was intended to atone for misdeeds or to avert misfortune. Not every private person was competent to offer sacrifice; this function pertained only to certain persons or priests, whose office was immediately connected with the sacrifices. In the earliest time the head of the family or tribe performed the functions of priest — in ancient Egypt the king, as even today the emperor in China (see PRIESTHOOD). Sacrifice and altar are, like sacrifice and priest, correlative terms. Originally the altar consisted of a single stone, which by consecration became the dwelling of God (cf. Genesis 12:7 sq.; 13:4; 28:18 sqq.). Among many peoples the place of sacrifice was either the house (for private sacrifices) or the open air (for public sacrifices). In the latter case specially selected places (trees, groves, heights) in an elevated position were preferred for sacrifice. Among the Romans altar and hearth (ara et focus) were regarded as indispensable requisites for sacrifice.

Origin of sacrifice

Since sacrifice is a regular concomitant of every religion, sacrifice must, according to the law of causality, have originated simultaneously with religion. Consequently, sacrifice is as old as religion itself. It is evident that the nature of the explanation given of sacrifice will depend on the views one takes of the origin of religion in general.

(a) Widely held today is the theory of evolution, which, in accordance with the principles of Darwin, endeavours to trace the origin of religion from the degraded stage of the half-animal, religionless primeval man, and its gradual development to higher forms. The scheme of development is naturally different according to the personal standpoint of the investigator. As the starting-point for the comparative study of the lowest religious forms is usually taken the uncivilized savage of today, the true portrait of the primeval man (Lubbock, Tyler, etc.). An attempt is made to construct an ascending scale from the crudest Fetishism to naturalistic Polytheism, from which develops ethical Monotheism, as the highest and purest product. Until recently the Animism (q, v.) proposed by Tylor was the prevalent theory; this traced religion from the ancient worship of souls, ghosts, spirits of ancestors, etc. (under the influence of fear). At this original stage sacrifice had no other purpose than the feeding and entertaining of these deified beings, or their appeasement and conciliation, if hostile dispositions were ascribed to them (demons). In recent times this explanation, once honoured as dogma in the history of religions, is most vigorously combated by the experts themselves as untenable. It has been recognized that Animism and the kindred Fetichism and Totemism represent only secondary elements of many nature-religions, not the essence. “In any case,” says Chantepie de la Saussaye, “a purely animistic basis of religion can nowhere be shown”. But if the origin of the idea of God cannot be explained from Animism, entertainment cannot have been the original idea of sacrifice, especially since, according to the most recent investigations, the primeval religions seem to converge rather towards Monotheism. Just as in the consciousness of all sacrificing peoples the gods remained sublime above souls, spirits, and demons, sacrifice as a religious gift far transcended food and drink. But, wherever the gods are represented as companions at the banquet, there always appeared the right idea, that by his participation in the sacrificial gifts man enters into communion with the gods, and (e.g. in the case of the ancient Indian soma drink) even partakes of divine strength. The obscuring of this idea by anthropomorphic errors, fostered by priestly deceit, did indeed here and there lead to the one-sided “feeding of the gods” (cf. Daniel 14:2 sqq.), but this may by no means be regarded as a primitive institution, Animism is most successfully refuted by Andrew Lang.

(b) A second naturalistic explanation, which may be called the “social theory”, derives religion from social instincts and accordingly sacrifice from the communal meal which was established to strengthen and seal in religious manner the tribal community. These communal meals are supposed to have given the first impulse to sacrifice. These fundamental thoughts may be developed in several ways. As Totemism, in addition to its religious, has also a distinctly social element, and in this respect is on a far higher level than Animism, some authors (especially W. Robertson Smith, “The Religion of the Semites”, London, 1894) believe that the origin of animal sacrifices can be traced back to Totemism. When the different clans or divisions of a tribe partook at the communal meal of the sacred animal (totem) which represented their god and ancestors, they believed that by this meal they participated in the divine life of the animal itself. Sacrifice in the sense of offering gifts to the Deity, the symbolic replacing of human life by an animal, the idea of expiation, etc., are declared to belong to a much later period of the history of sacrifice. Originally the gifts of cereals had rather the character of a tribute due to the gods, and this idea was later transferred to the animal sacrifices. It is however very questionable whether this totemistic theory, notwithstanding some excellent suggestions, entirely meets the facts. Certainly the social force of religion and its significance in the formation of communities should not be underestimated; but, apart from the fact that Totemism is not, any more than Animism, an explanation of the origin of religion, the hypothesis is contradicted by the certain fact that in the earliest epoch the whole or burnt offering existed side by side with the communal meal, the former being equally old, if not older than the latter. In the consciousness of the peoples the sacrificial meal constituted not so much an element of the sacrifice, as the participation, confirmation, and completion of the same. On the same ground what is called the “banquet theory” of the late Bishop Bellord must also be rejected; this theory refers the essence of the sacrifice to the meal, and declares a sacrifice without a meal impossible (cf. The Ecclesiastical Review, XXXIII, 1905, pp. 1 sqq., 258 sqq.). This theory is not in accordance with the facts; for, as it is compelled to refer the essence of the Sacrifice of the Mass solely to the priest’s communion, instead of to the twofold transubstantiation, the truth of the sacrifice of the Cross can be maintained only on the forced and false supposition that the Last Supper in its organic connexion with the Crucifixion imprinted on the latter its sacrificial character.

(c) So far as we may gather from revelation, the most natural and probable view seems to be that sacrifice originated in the positive command of God, since, by the original revelation in Paradise, the whole religion of mankind appears to have been established in advance on a supernatural basis. The Greek legend of the invention of sacrifice by Prometheus and the giant Chiron, together with similar legends of Asiatic religions, might be interpreted as reminiscences of the Divine origin of sacrifice. The positive command to sacrifice might even after the Fall have been preserved by tradition among the descendants of Adam, and thus spread among the pagan nations of all lands. The idolatrous deviations from the paradisaic idea of sacrifice would thus appear as regrettable errors, which, however, would not be more difficult to explain than the general fall of the human race. But, however plausible and probable this hypothesis may be, it is unprovable, and indeed unnecessary for the explanation of sacrifice. Regarding sacrifice in Paradise the Bible gives us no information; for the explanation of “eating of the Tree of Life” as a sacramental food offering is a later theologumenon which the acuteness of theologians, following Augustine’s lead, has devised. But without recurring to a Divine ordinance, the origin of sacrifice may easily be explained by purely psychological motives. In consideration of the relation of sonship between man and God, which was felt more deeply in primitive times than subsequently, the only evidence of sincere inner adoration that the creature could give was by sacrificing some of his own possessions, thus visibly expressing his absolute submission to the Divine Majesty. Nor was it less in keeping with the inner promptings of man to declare his gratitude to God by gifts offered in return for benefits received, and to give through the medium of sacrificial presents expression to his petitions for new favours. Finally, the sinner might hope to free himself of the oppressive consciousness of guilt, when in the spirit of contrition he had to the best of his ability repaired the wrong done to the Divinity. The more childlike and ingenuous the conception of God formed by primitive man, the more natural and easy was for him the introduction of sacrifice. A truly good child offers little gifts to his parents, though he does not know what they will do with them. The psychological theory thus seems to offer the best explanation of the origin of sacrifice.

Object of sacrifice

As its “metaphysical form”, the object first gives sacrifice its full spiritual content, and quickens the external rites with a living soul. The developed pagan religions agree with revealed religion in the idea that sacrifice is intended to give symbolical expression to man’s complete surrender of himself into the hands of the Supreme God in order to obtain communion with Him. In the recognition of the absolute supremacy of God lies the juridical, and in the correlative absolute subjection to God the ethical side of sacrifice. In both moments the latreutic character of the sacrifice stands out clearly, since to God alone, as the First Cause (Causa prima) and the Last End (Finis ultimus) of all things, may sacrifice be offered. Even the idolatrous sacrifices of pagans did not entirely lose sight of this fundamental idea, since they esteemed their idols as gods. Even sacrifices of thanksgiving and petition never exclude this essential latreutic feature, since they concern thanksgivings and petitions to the ever-adorable Divinity. From our sinful condition arises the fourth object of sacrifice, i.e. the appeasing of the Divine anger. The fourfold object of sacrifice supplies an immediate explanation of the four kinds of sacrifice (cf. Saint Thomas, I-II, Q. cii, a. 3). With the sentiments of sacrifice incorporated in these objects is closely connected the high importance of prayer, which accompanies the rite of sacrifice in all the higher religions; Grimm thus simply declares: “Sacrifice is only a prayer offered with gifts.” Where we are to seek the culminating point of the sacrificial act (actio sacrifica), in which the object of sacrifice is especially expressed, is the most freely debated question, and concerning it the theorists are not in agreement. While some see the culmination of the sacrifice in the real alteration (immutatio), and especially in the destruction of the gift, others refer the essence of the sacrificial act to the external oblation of the gift, after it has been subjected to any change whatsoever; a third, but not very numerous party make the sacrificial meal the chief element. This last view has already been set aside as untenable. That the meal is not essential is likewise shown by numerous sacrifices, with which no meal is associated (e.g. the primitive burnt-sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the Cross). Again, the importance of the blood, which as a means of nourishment was avoided, spurned by, and even forbidden to the Jews, finds no expression in the banquet-theory. That the destruction of the gift (especially the slaying) cannot constitute the essence of the sacrifice is clear from the fact that the sprinkling of the blood (aspersio sanguinis) was regarded as the culmination, and the killing as only the preparation for the real sacrificial act. In fact the “destruction theory”, settled in Catholic theology since the time of Vasquez and Bellarmine, harmonizes neither with the historical pagan conception of sacrifice nor with the essence of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, nor finally with the fundamental ideas of the Mosaic cult. The destruction is at most the material, and the oblation the formal element of the sacrifice. Consequently, the idea of sacrifice lies in the self-surrender of man to God, not with the object of (symbolical) self-destruction, but of final transformation, glorification, and deification. Wherever a meal is associated with the sacrifice, this signifies merely the confirmation and certification of the communion with God, already existing or reacquired by expiation. We may thus define sacrifice as the external oblation to God by an authorized minister of a sense-perceptible object, either through its destruction or at least its real transformation, in acknowledgement of God’s supreme dominion and for the appeasing of His wrath.

MLA Citation

  • Joseph Pohle. “Sacrifice”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912. CatholicSaints.Info. 10 December 2018. Web. 16 May 2021. <>