The act of making sacrifices plays a large role in the Old Testament and in Jesus's life. However, our word "sacrifice" has changed dramatically from the way that Jesus used it. Making a sacrifice to God was the pivotal act of the first men born into the world, Cain and Able, leading to envy and death. Despite the importance of sacrifice at the temple in Judean culture, Jesus uses the terms related to sacrifice very rarely. Jesus refers to the idea of temple sacrifices more as a cultural background, but he uses the Greek words that we translated as "sacrificed" very rarely. Indeed, he seeks to redefine the nature of what we would call "sacrifice," and the way we use the word demonstrates that he succeeded.
In this article, we will discuss the original meaning of the Greek words related to sacrifice, the purpose of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and how Jesus taught people to serve that purpose in a different way.
The Greek Words
There are two Greek words, a noun and a verb, that are translated as "sacrifice" in the NT. Jesus only uses the verb four time and the noun five times. There is a third word that is related to these words, the word translated as "altar." That word is used only seven times referring to sacrifice, but more than the other two. These words refer to a very narrow concept, the burning of gifts to the Divine on an altar. The sense of our word "sacrifice" is a broader idea that to emerged from Jesus's teaching in the ways we discuss later in this article, but there is no Greek word to describe it.
The verb describing the act is thyro (θύω), which means to "offer by burning", "sacrifice", "slay", "slaughter", and "celebrate [with sacrifices, offerings]." This word does not have the general meaning of undertaking a personal sacrifice for some reason. Jesus uses in only four times, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Matthew and Luke. Note that this is a Greek word, so the Greeks had the same ideas of offering to the Divine that the Judeans did. According to the Greek philosopher* Theophrastus, the Greeks sacrificed to the gods for three reasons: to honor them, to thank them, or to request a favor from them. Sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, as well as fish and birds, were offered to the gods. We are, of course, more familiar with the Jewish tradition, but the point is that this was a broader tradition, used generally in the ancient world for reasons we discuss later in this article.
The noun describing "a sacrifice" is thysia (θυσία), which means "a burnt-offering", "a sacrifice", "a victim of sacrifice", "mode of sacrifice", "festival at which sacrifices are offered", "rite," and "ceremony." The later ideas of "festival" and "ceremony" emerged from the primary concept of that which is sacrificed. Just like the Judeans, the Greeks and later Romans offered sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, as well as fish and birds, were offered to the gods.
The noun describing the "altar" used by Jesus is thysiastērion (θυσιαστηρίον), which is a noun formed from the same root as the Greek noun and verb for "sacrifice." This word is also an adjective that means "sacrificial." This is not the standard Greek word for "altar" but one that appears first in the Greek OT. It is used only in Judeo/Christian Greek writings. The Greek use a couple of different words relating to the place of sacrifice which are closer in meaning to our words "shine" or "sanctuary." Greek and Roman sacrifices always took place as a specific shrine for a specific god.
Why Burn Sacrifices?
For us today, it seems odd that the ancient people burnt offerings to the Divine. However, the fact that the act was widespread among all human cultures indicates how basic it is. According to the Bible, it was the first act of the first people.
The question is, "Why?" The answer seems simple.
From the time people became conscious, they recognized that there was a higher order of existence on which their existence depended. This "higher" order was closely associated with the sky and the weather. Jesus called this higher order, "the realm of the skies." All peoples recognized that their earthly success depended on this higher reality. Their success was dependent upon their acting in concert with that higher order. Temporary success was never as important as "right acting," that is, aligning ourselves with the most powerful forces in the universe. In Greek, the adjective is dikaios which means "observant of rules." The concept is dikaiosyne, which is translated as "righteousness" in the NT. For the ancients, the was no logical separation between the laws of nature and the Divine. The material and the spiritual were as united in the world order as they were in the human body.
The burning of sacrifices reinforced the need for people get their priorities straight. The act was one of individual and social psychology. Sacrifices were not burned for the benefit of the Divine, but for the benefit of those making the sacrifice, to make sure that they recognized what was truly important for their future. Because we are at the mercy of transcendental forces, sacrifices must be made today to conform our thinking to reality. Sacrificial acts were always associated with ritual cleansing ceremonies. We tend to lose sight of what was important during everyday life. Dirt represented the dross of the world, holding people down. By cleansing, people aspired to a higher, purer form. The symbolic sacrifice to the Divine was a recognition of the proper order of things in life.
The Broadening of "Sacrifice"
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recognized the general concept of "sacrifice" even though he did not have a word to describe it. He specifically discusses three forms of "sacrifice" that do not involve burning gifts at the altar. Those sacrifices were discussed in terms of "charity," "prayer," and "fasting," While all three of these types of acts were considered "right acting," dikaiosyne, Jesus saw that they had been transformed from a "sacrifice" to a method of winning social recognition. Today, we would call them "virtue signaling."
Why were these public acts of righteousness no considered sacrifices? Money was given to the poor. Recognition was given to the Divine. Purification came from fasting. Why were these all not proper sacrifices?
Because these acts were performed for the immediate gratification of social status and social recognition. The higher power being recognized was not the Divine, but society. There was no act of faith involved in some aspect of the transcendental laws of nature. The act was based upon the perfectly comprehensible fashions of society.