Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Daniel C. Ullucci, The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 227. ISBN 9780199791705. $74.00.

Reviewed by Philippa Townsend, Ursinus College (ptownsend@ursinus.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Sacrifice in the ancient Mediterranean has been the subject of renewed scholarly attention in recent years.1 Daniel Ullucci's book makes a significant contribution to the debate, focusing on the fascinating issue of when and why Christians stopped participating in the previously ubiquitous practice of animal sacrifice. While much previous scholarship has interpreted the Christian rejection of animal sacrifice as the culmination of a long tradition of enlightened criticism of the practice, Ullucci argues instead that early Christians were participating in an ongoing competition between elite "cultural producers" to define what sacrifice meant and how it should be practiced (5). First through third century Christian texts display a wide variety of views on sacrifice, and it was not until the fourth century that these disparate interpretations came to be read as consistent and that a coherent Christian position on sacrifice was developed (8-9). Readers will appreciate Ullucci's concise and sophisticated explication of theoretical issues, and his close analytical overview of a large number of Christian and non-Christian texts on sacrifice.

Fundamental to Ullucci's approach is the "distinction between discursive and non-discursive action, roughly the distinction between doings and sayings" (21). He emphasizes that, in analyzing literary evidence that discusses sacrifice, we are only accessing the discursive, secondary interpretations of a few elite "cultural producers" (a term he takes from Bourdieu; 5). Building on the work of Nancy Jay and Catherine Bell, among others, Ullucci argues that it is fruitless to search for the true or essential meaning of sacrifice, because, like any ritual, it has no intrinsic meaning; participants may have any number of varying ideas about the meaning of what they are doing, or they may have no very clear sense at all (20-23).

Ullucci argues that ancient Mediterranean sacrifice was a "ritualization" (a concept he takes from Catherine Bell; 23) of the everyday practice of reciprocity (24). Scholars have frequently misconstrued sacrifice as an attempt to buy the gods' favor or to satisfy their perceived needs, when in fact the ancient evidence suggests that most participants understood it as a way of establishing enduring reciprocal relationships between humans and the divine (28). The failure of many scholars to identify sacrifice as a practice of reciprocity has led them to misread many Greek, Roman, and Jewish texts that criticize sacrificial abuses as condemnations of sacrifice as a whole and then to present Christian anti-sacrificial theology as the logical development of a long trend of dissatisfaction with the practice. Ullucci calls this interpretation the "critique of sacrifice model" (4). In contrast, Ullucci correctly argues that most of these pre-Christian texts do not in fact oppose sacrifice per se; this is a misleading impression created by later Christian writers who took certain passages out of context (31).

Having lucidly explained his theoretical approach, Ullucci goes on to analyze specific Greek, Roman, and Jewish texts that have traditionally been interpreted according to the "critique of sacrifice model," demonstrating that they are better understood as varying positions on how one should understand or participate in sacrifice (34-56). For example, 1 Samuel 15:22 reads: "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of lambs." If taken alone, this passage may seem to be a criticism of sacrifice, but within its narrative context it is clear that Samuel is criticizing Saul, not for sacrificing, but for disobeying God's commands (43-44). Ullucci also discusses the sparse evidence we have for groups who actually rejected animal sacrifice completely, and argues that these groups were few and marginal (56-64). Through an analysis of a range of first through third century Christian texts, he then develops his claim that Christian writers were participants in the ongoing discursive competition among Greeks, Romans, and Jews over the meaning of sacrifice (65-118). He argues that many of these Christian texts discuss sacrifice intermittently, tangentially, and often inconsistently and that no coherent sacrificial theology can be identified in the majority of early Christian writings; any perception of homogeneity or teleological development is a result of later Christian imposition (117-18).

As this brief summary indicates, Ullucci has provided a sophisticated treatment of the topic, balancing close analysis of a range of texts with useful theoretical reflections. A major strength of the book is its avoidance of theologically inflected interpretations, and of teleological or evolutionary assumptions. It also provides valuable analyses of a large number of Christian texts about sacrifice, employing a strict standard of interpretation that treats them on their own terms rather than attempting to harmonize them.

At times, however, Ullucci's understandable concern to avoid reading later Christian theology into early texts leads him to underplay sacrificial references to Jesus unless they are explicitly stated and explained. This approach does not always take genre fully into account and therefore results in some rather unpersuasive interpretations, especially regarding the New Testament texts. The gospels, for example, are not merely the sum of the gospel writers' or Jesus' explicit pronouncements; they are narratives, employing symbolism, irony, and allusion. If we accept only the most literal or overt readings of these texts as viable, we will surely miss much of their meaning. One example of where Ullucci's interpretation is rather unsatisfying in this respect is his treatment of the Gospel of John. He discusses the driving of the money-changers from the temple (John 2:13-22), as well as Jesus' teaching that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:25-59), and he argues that neither passage implies that the gospel writer saw Jesus as a sacrifice or the Jewish temple as obsolete (89). I agree that these passages do not necessarily imply that the Jewish temple has been superseded. More problematic, however, is Ullucci's claim that he can "find no other passages in John that discuss sacrifice or can be construed to do so" (90). What about the fact that, unlike the synoptic authors, the Gospel of John places the date of Jesus' death on the day of preparation for Passover (John 19:14), instead of after the Passover meal as in the synoptic gospels – a narrative choice, according to many scholars, that symbolically positions Jesus as the Passover lamb? Or what about John the Baptist's declaration, "Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29; cf. 1:36)? Or the claim in the crucifixion scene that, in fulfillment of scripture, none of Jesus' bones were broken, commonly understood to be referring to the rules for preparing the Passover lamb in Exodus (John 19:36; cf. Exodus 12:46)? True, none of these passages taken alone are explicit declarations that the author of John saw Jesus as a sacrifice, but textual meaning is not created only through explicit declaration. It may be, of course, that Ullucci would want to argue for non-sacrificial interpretations of all these passages, but at the very least they need to be addressed.

Part of the impetus for Ullucci's minimization of references to Jesus as a sacrifice in the New Testament texts is that, as he rightly points out, many of these same texts present Jesus and his followers as full participants in the rituals of the Jerusalem temple, and therefore they seem incompatible with the later Christian belief that the death of Jesus replaced the Jewish sacrificial system (78-79). However, one need not assume that understanding Jesus as a sacrifice necessarily entailed believing that all other sacrifices had been rendered obsolete. The challenge is to work out the complicated ways in which the idea of Jesus and/or the Eucharist as sacrifice could work with or against supersessionist ideas. For example, if Paul saw his Gentile communities not as replacing, but as supplementing Israel, as many scholars have argued, could he not have seen Jesus' sacrifice as in some sense supplementing Jewish sacrifice, providing a new way for Gentiles to participate in the blessings of Israel?

Even if many of the references to sacrifice in the New Testament texts are ambiguous, the cumulative effect of these images must surely also be taken into account. Ullucci emphasizes that many early Christian texts refer to the sacrifice of Jesus only briefly or cryptically and argues correctly that we are therefore not justified in importing consistent sacrificial theologies into these texts (7). However, while we should not assume that these texts are all articulating the same sacrificial theology (or even that they necessarily have a coherent sacrificial theology) it is striking how many of them do in some way compare Jesus to a sacrifice, whatever they precisely mean by that – especially since, as Ullucci notes, Jesus' violent, prolonged, and agonizing death did not actually resemble a typical animal sacrifice at all on any obvious level (6-7).

Indeed, the recurrence of sacrificial imagery relating to Jesus can be seen not only in those texts which later came to be considered orthodox or canonical, but also in Christian texts that were later declared heretical. Since part of Ullucci's aim is to escape the narrow interpretive perspective imposed by fourth century orthodoxy in order to reveal anew the immense diversity of early Christian views of sacrifice, it would have been useful if he had dealt with at least one or two of these alternative texts in his detailed treatment of first through third century Christian literature. Rich possibilities would include the Gospel of Judas, Melchizedek, the Gospel of Philip, and the Testimony of Truth, all of which employ sacrificial language in interesting, and frequently enigmatic, ways.

Regardless of these reservations, however, there is no doubting the immense value of Ullucci's monograph as a contribution to our understanding of early Christian views of sacrifice. The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice represents a significant break with many previous studies, and it will be an indispensable resource for future treatments of the subject.


1.   Recent scholarly books on the subject include Guy Stroumsa, La fin du sacrifice: Mutations religieuses de l'antiquité tardive, Paris: Odile Jacob, 2005; George Heyman, The Power of Sacrifice: Roman and Christian Discourses in Conflict, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007; Marie-Zoe Petropoulou, Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity, 100 BC-AD 200, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice, Jennifer Knust and Zsuzsanna Várhelyi (eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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