Agnus Dei: a post for Good Friday

Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), Zurbarán, Prado Museum, c. 1635–1640

The Lamb of God (Agnus Dei in Latin) is a common motif for Good Friday services. Perhaps the best known biblical text using this phraseology is in the Gospel of John which records an incident when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and said: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29-35). This is not the only time in the New Testament that Jesus is referred to as a lamb. Other places are:

  • The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7). The story continues by saying that the apostle Philip “starting with this scripture, proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v.35).
  • “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
  • “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

The Revelation also refers to “the Lamb” about 30 times, and I wrote about this apocalyptic use some time ago in a post about the Lamb of God. It is commonly assumed that the slain lamb analogy is a reference to a sacrificial animal which was a “type” of Christ, and that as the blood of the animal made an atonement for sins so the shedding of Christ’s blood in crucifixion was a sacrificial atonement for sin.

However, there are a number of problems with this assumption.

  1. Almost all the New Testament references are alluding to the Passover lamb. The passage in 1 Corinthians is explicitly to “Christ our Passover” (strictly speaking, the word “lamb” is absent in the Greek – some translators have inserted it as they think it is implied) and 1 Peter speaks about being redeemed (set free, liberated) – an allusion to freedom from Egyptian slavery which Passover celebrates. As Easter coincides with Passover season, and Jesus was crucified the day after Passover, the connection to the lamb which was killed (and eaten) at Passover is logical enough.
  2. However, the Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement or for the forgiveness of sins. Its blood marked the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt to distinguish them from the Egyptians, and the lamb was eaten as the meal on the final night before escaping from slavery. Passover commemorated Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, but there is no association with atonement or forgiveness.
  3. It is sometimes assumed that the slain lamb analogy is an allusion to the Day of Atonement when Israel’s sins were forgiven and blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place. However, it was a goat that was slain on the Day of Atonement, not a lamb.
  4. For the daily sin offerings bulls and goats were most frequently sacrificed. Hence Hebrews says “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:14). If a lamb was offered it had to be a female lamb (e.g. Lev 4:32; 5:6). Lambs were also offered as burnt offerings, but when they were they were distinguished from sin offerings (e.g. Lev 12:6 “a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering”; Num 6:14 when a Nazirite completed his vow he was to bring “a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe [female] lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering …”). Burnt offerings and fellowship offerings were not for atonement or forgiveness of sins.
  5. The Isaiah 53 reference to a lamb is to a sheep being led to its shearers or for slaughter, but not necessarily being led to the altar as a sacrificial victim. The metaphor (“like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer”) were both in reference to the sheep/lamb being “silent” – “so he did not open his mouth”. We should not push the metaphor beyond what the prophet clearly intended. The sheep/lamb was “before the shearer”, not “before the priest”. The metaphor was about being silent like a sheep, not being sacrificed as an offering.

So what did John the Baptist mean when he said “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”? Geza Vermes, late professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University and a renowned scholar and expert in the Judaism and Aramaic of the time of Jesus, has pointed out that the description Lamb of God does not necessarily refer to the metaphor of a sacrificial animal. He points out that in Galilean Aramaic the word טליא talya literally means “lamb” but had the common meaning of “male child”. This is akin to “kid” meaning “child” in modern colloquial English. The female equivalent of talya was טליתא talitha, literally “ewe lamb” and figuratively “little girl” (the word is found in the narrative of the raising of the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:41). It is a term of endearment. Thus, “Lamb of God” could have been a colloquial way of saying “Son of God” or “God’s Kid”.

Understood this way John the Baptist wasn’t referring to Jesus as a sacrifice for atonement, but rather he was saying “Look, the dear child of God, God’s little pet-lamb, the one who will remove sin!” How he would remove sin isn’t specified.

3 comments on “Agnus Dei: a post for Good Friday

  1. Stephen,

    Yet another insightful post – thanks. In the Roman Catholic liturgy, not only on Good Friday but at every Mass, after the Eucharistic prayer, the faithful recite a prayer called the Agnus Dei, and a short while later the priest holds aloft the consecrated host and declares, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world; Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”

    I agree with you in challenging the assumption that the NT references to Jesus as “the Lamb,” particularly in John 1 and 1 Peter 1, refer to sin offerings in general from the Torah. On the other hand, while Prof Vermes’ interpretation of ‘the Lamb of God’ in John 1:29 is intriguing, I do not find it at all compelling. I think it is far more likely that John 1:29, 36 is an allusion to Isaiah 53 with Passover overtones. I will observe a couple of weaknesses with Vermes’ reading and very briefly highlight some reasons why an allusion to Isaiah 53 is likely.

    First, if “Lamb of God” in John 1:29 is tantamount to “God’s Kid,” then the phrase that follows, “who takes away the sin of the world,” comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. But if “Lamb of God” refers to a sacrificial offering, it sets the reader up for the following phrase. Second, Vermes’ reading requires John’s Greek-speaking readers to detect an unexplained Aramaic idiom behind the Greek text—an unrealistic expectation. You’ve pointed out that a similar idiom occurs in the Aramaic quotation in Mark 5:41; but there, Mark translates it into Greek as “Little girl,” not “Little ewe lamb.” He does not expect his audience to understand the idiom. John also interprets Aramaic terms for his readers—including several times in the verses following (John 1:38, 41, 42).

    Now, why is an allusion to Isaiah 53 likely? First, the ‘servant of the Lord’ oracle of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 features very prominently in early Christian literature. Isa. 53:7 (“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter… he did not open his mouth”) is quoted explicitly in Acts 8:32 (as you noted) as well as 1 Clement 16.7 and Epistle of Barnabas 5.2, and implicitly referenced in the Passion Narratives when Jesus remains silent before his accusers (Matt. 27:12-14; Mark 15:5; Luke 23:9; John 19:9). Second, the SOTL oracle plays a central role in the Christology of John’s Gospel. John 12:38 states that Jesus’ rejection fulfilled the words of Isa. 53:1, and the “lifting up” and “glorification” of the SOTL in Isa. 52:13 is a theme applied by John to Jesus repeatedly, with “lifting up” carrying the double meaning of exalted/crucified (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34). Third, a spiritual “new Exodus” is a prominent theme in deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40-55) and this is on prominent display in John’s Gospel, with the liberation being from enslavement to sin (see esp. John 1:23; 8:31-36). This provides a theological link between the Passover Lamb in Exodus, the lamb-like SOTL in Isa. 53:7, and Jesus in John. The bread of life discourse in John 6, which climaxes with Jesus giving his flesh as true food, is prefaced by the remark that the Passover was near (6:4). So for John, Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away sins (thus liberating his people from slavery to sin) and nourishes his people for their journey out of slavery to eternal life.

    A couple of final comments. You indicated that in Isa. 53:7, “The metaphor was about being silent like a sheep, not being sacrificed as an offering.” You also make the distinction that male lambs are not offered under the Torah for a sin offering. Isa. 53:7 specifically likens the SOTL to a “lamb led to slaughter,” and 53:10 describes the SOTL being made into a “reparation” (אשׁם), followed by two references to bearing the sins of others (53:10-12). אשׁם means “guilt,” and so an אשׁם-offering seems to involve reparation from guilt. Lev. 5:6-7 and 5:15-16 mention a ewe lamb or a spotless ram offered for אשׁם, and I am not convinced that the sex or age of the animal is of fundamental importance. If one insists that it is, we also have אשׁם offerings described in Lev. 14:10-32 and Num. 6:9-12 where the victim is a male lamb offered for an atonement.

    Finally, 1 Pet. 1:19 seems to allude to the Passover lamb, as you’ve rightly noted, but we should also observe that 1 Pet. 2:22-24, another statement about Christ’s salvific work, paraphrases from Isa. 53:9-12. Thus, the author’s understanding of Jesus as Passover Lamb may be mediated through the lens of Isaiah 53 (perhaps applying a gezerah shavah hermeneutic)—just as I think is the case in the Fourth Gospel.

    Thanks for stimulating our minds this Easter with this thought-provoking content.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thanks Tom. Your comments are also interesting, informative, sometimes challenging, and always appreciated. In the regular Anglican service for Holy Communion a variation on the Agnus Dei prayer after Communion may be said or sung as part of the Gloria in excelsis, an anthem or similar. I think the Agnus Dei may be “standard” in High or Anglo-Catholic churches as well. But I’m not an expert on Anglican liturgy! But you’re right that it’s not restricted to Good Friday.
      My main problem with John 1:19 is that the Gospels don’t explicitly say *how* Jesus “takes away sin.” 1 John 3:5 uses a similar expression: “he appeared so that he might take away our sins”. I think there are at least four possibilities. He could “take away” sins by:
      (a) cancelling sin, i.e. paying the price for it, or dying in the place of sinners (but I have a problem reconciling this with Ezekiel 18 which says no one can die in someone else’s place – each dies for their own sins), or
      (b) by abolishing sin, i.e. remove the Law and it’s no longer possible to break it, or
      (c) removing the cause of sin, i.e. taking away whatever it is that makes one sin, or
      (d) enabling people to overcome sin.
      I should write in more detail about Isaiah 53 later. There is no doubt that it was appropriated by NT writers and re-interpreted to apply to Jesus as the suffering servant. In its original context, however, it could not possibly have referred to one person dying in place of the nation (or the world). I’m still trying to understand how early Christians were able to make the leap from a Judaism that condemned human sacrifice to a theology which demanded it, and why so many Jewish Christians were able to come on board with that.

      • Stephen,

        Admittedly the Fourth Gospel says very little about its author’s theology of atonement. It does appear that he regards Numbers 21 and Isaiah 53 as important texts in this regard. He also appears to hold something like a Christus Victor view of the atonement in that he regards his death as a conquest of the world and a judgment of its “ruler” (understood, I’ve argued elsewhere, as the devil).

        I think some sort of identification between Jesus and Israel is behind the application of Isaiah 53 to Jesus. I think a similar move can be seen in the application of Hosea 11:1 to Jesus in Matthew 2:15, in the Wilderness Temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke, and in the self-application of Isaiah 61 by Jesus in Luke 4:16-21.

        However, I also think that after the resurrection of Jesus, his death took on such an augmented significance for his followers that in their minds it must have been foretold and foreshadowed in their Scriptures, so that necessity became the mother of invention to some extent.

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