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.