Jesus and the Temple Incident: A New Proposal

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
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  • 1 California Lutheran University

The Temple incident was a pivotal moment in the ministry of the historical Jesus, if not the causal factor that led to Jesus’ execution. Yet the incident continues to present interpretive problems, not least of which is determining precisely what Jesus objected to about the Temple and its administration. This study proposes a new working model for Jesus’ critical stance towards the Temple, identifying the Temple incident as a symbolic act of eschatological Temple restoration.

  • 3

    Klyne R. Snodgrass, ‘The Temple Incident,’ in Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus (eds. R. L. Webb and D. L. Bock; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), pp. 430–32.

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  • 4

    E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), p. 306; The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 254. For discussion and bibliography, see Snodgrass, ‘The Temple Incident,’ pp. 429–80. See also Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); ‘Did Jesus Oppose the Purity Laws?,’ br 11.3 (1999): pp. 20–25, 42–47.

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  • 7

    Richard Bauckham, ‘Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple,’ in Law and Religion: Essays on the Place of the Law in Israel and Early Christianity (ed. B. Lindars; Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1988), pp. 86–87, points out that Sanders’ Jesus predicts what many of his contemporaries hoped for: the replacement of the Herodian Temple with a new Temple and that this fails to explain why this would have led to Jesus’ death.

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  • 9

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 73.

  • 10

    Paesler, Das Tempelwort Jesu, pp. 76–92, 256, 259–60, concludes that Mk 13.2b is authentic. Paesler argues that 13.1–2 is not a vaticinium ex eventu, but an apophthegma which can be retranslated into Aramaic. See also Ådna, Jesu Stellung zum Tempel, pp. 440–42. Wedderburn, ‘Jesus’ Action in the Temple,’ pp. 15–20, also regards Mk 13.2 as possibly authentic.

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  • 12

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 76, appeals to Acts’ narrative accounts of early Christian activity in the Temple (2.46; 3.1; 21.26) as an ‘added advantage’ in his case for the essential historicity of the Temple incident as an act of symbolic destruction. The problem is that Acts is not a very reliable historical source for much of anything, let alone the authenticity of its account of early Christians participating in Temple worship and animal sacrifice.

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  • 13

     See 1 Macc. 7.37; Josephus, Ant. 8.108; Philo, Moses 2.133.

  • 21

    N. H. Taylor, ‘Jerusalem and the Temple in Early Christian Life and Teaching,’ Neot 33 (1999): pp. 445–461 (456), sees Jesus’ symbolic act as a corrective measure.

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  • 22

    Contra Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 61–76; Holmén, Jesus and Jewish Covenant Thinking, pp. 323–29; Matson, ‘Contribution,’ pp. 489–506; Theißen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, p. 433; Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 334.

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  • 28

    W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 350–51; C. A. Evans, ‘From “House of Prayer” to “Cave of Robbers”: Jesus’ Prophetic Criticism of the Temple Establishment,’ in The Quest for Context and Meaning: Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders (eds. C. A. Evans and S. Talmon; Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 417–42, esp. 441–42. But see Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 68; A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of ­History (London: Duckworth, 1982), p. 132; C. S. Mann, Mark (ab; Garden City: Doubleday, 1986), p. 419; Seeley, ‘Jesus’ Temple Act,’ p. 269. Gaston, No Stone on Another, p. 87, points out that the term ‘Court of the Gentiles’ was unknown in antiquity. Josephus refers to it as πρώτoν ἱερόν (B. J. 5.195), ἔζωθεν ἱερόν (B. J. 4.313), τὸ kάτω ἱερόν (B. J. 5.187), and πρώτoς περίβoλoς (B. J. 4.204).

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  • 30

    Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, pp. 326–56; Martin Hengel, The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I Until 70 A. D. (trans. D. Smith; ­Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), pp. 213–217. But see Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 68; Chilton, Temple of Jesus, p. 96; Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 234. On Jesus’ criticism of priestly corruption, see C. A. Evans, ‘Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?,’ in Jesus in Context: Temple, Purity and Restoration (agju, 39; eds. B. Chilton and C. A. Evans; Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 395–439, esp. 421–26. Nicholas Perrin, Jesus the Temple (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), argues that Jesus thought of himself and his community as the new Temple. While Perrin is right to emphasize the hostility between Jesus and the Temple administration, the construction of Jesus-as-Temple risks reinscribing post-70 C. E. (supersessionist) Christian formation with the historical Jesus’ own view of the Temple.

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  • 33

    Kloppenborg Verbin, ‘Discursive Practices,’ pp. 161–62.

  • 34

    Kloppenborg, ‘The Sayings Gospel Q and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,’ pp. 315–19; Ron Cameron, ‘The Sayings Gospel Q and the Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Response to John S. Kloppenborg,’ htr 89:4 (1996): pp. 351–54; Helmut Koester, ‘The Sayings Gospel Q and the Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Response to John S. Kloppenborg,’ htr 89:4 (1996): pp. 345–49.

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  • 36

    Kloppenborg, ‘Nomos,’ pp. 35–36, 47.

  • 43

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 71.

  • 45

    Jostein Ådna, ‘Jesus’ Symbolic Act in the Temple (Mark 11:15–17): The Replacement of the Sacrificial Cult by his Atoning Death,’ in Gemeinde ohne Tempel: Zur Substituierung und Transformation des Jerusalemer Tempels und seines Kults im Alten Testament, antiken ­Judentum und frühen Christentum (eds. B. Ego, A. Lange, and P. Pilhofer; wunt, 118; ­Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), pp. 461–75, regards the Temple act and sayings as ­representative of Jesus’ ‘messianische Sendung.’ On Mark as anti-Temple, see Burton L. Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), p. 292; Paula Fredriksen, ‘Jesus and the Temple, Mark and the War,’ in sbl Seminar Papers, 1990 (sblsp, 29; Atlanta: Scholars, 1990), pp. 293–310, 297.

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  • 49

    Hooker, St. Mark, p. 267.

  • 51

    R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, ‘Sacred Violence and the Messiah: The Markan Passion Narrative as a Redefinition of Messianology,’ in The Messiah, pp. 461–93, esp. 467, proposes that the tree is a symbol of the sacrificial system ‘whose time is now passed.’ Similarly, Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, p. 137, concludes that the fig tree represents ‘Israel’s Temple and its cultus.’ See also W. W. Watty, ‘Jesus and the Temple - Cleansing or Cursing?’ ExpT 93 (1982): pp. 235–39, esp. 237; E. L. Schnellbächer, ‘The Temple as Focus of Mark’s Theology,’ hbt 5 (1983): pp. 95–113, esp. 101–02; C. Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988), p. 304; Edwards, ­‘Markan Sandwiches,’ p. 208; Kinman, Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, pp. 125–26; Böttrich, ­‘Jesus und der Feigenbaum,’ p. 353; Evans, Mark, p. 155; J-M. Sevrin, ‘Mark’s Use of Isaiah 56:7 and the Announcement of the Temple Destruction,’ in Jerusalem: House of Prayer for All Peoples in the Three Monotheistic Religions: Proceedings of a Symposium Held in Jerusalem, ­February 17–18, 1997 (sbfa, 52; ed. A. Niccacci; Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 2001), pp. 45–57, esp. 50.

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  • 54

    Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, pp. 92–93, n. 102.

  • 61

    D. Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), p. 287; W. Weren, ‘Jesus’ Entry into Jeruasalem: Mt 21, 1–17 in the Light of the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint,’ in The Scriptures in the Gospels (betl, 131; ed. C. M. Tuckett; Leuven: Leuven, 1997), pp. 117–41, esp. 136–37.

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  • 62

    Roloff, Das Kerygma, p. 101; Harrington, Matthew, p. 295; D. Runnalls, ‘The King as Temple Builder: A Messianic Typology,’ in Spirit within Structure: Essays in Honor of George Johnston (ed. E. J. Furcha; Allison Park, 1983), pp. 15–37, esp. 30; T. Söding, ‘Die Tempelaktion Jesu,’ ttz 101 (1992): pp. 36–64, esp. 42; Trautmann’s, Zeichenhafte, pp. 97–98.

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  • 71

    Matson, ‘The Contribution to the Temple Cleansing,’ p. 499, n. 55; Haenchen, John, 1, p. 183.

  • 72

    D. Moody Smith, ‘Jesus Traditions in the Gospel of John,’ in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (4 vols.; eds. S. E. Porter and T. Holmén; Leiden: Brill, 2011), 3: pp. 1997–2039, 2036, proposes that ‘John is almost certainly historically preferable’ to the synoptic accounts ‘In its explanation of the reasons for opposition to Jesus on the part of the chief priests (11:47–53)’ and is ‘probably historically preferable’ in ‘spreading Jesus’ ministry or a period of public activity over a period of more than one year rather than less’ as well as in ‘maintaining that he made more Jerusalem visits (for Passover or other festivals) than the one Passover visit reported in the synoptics.’ Smith further concludes that John is ‘conceivably historically preferable’ in ‘placing the occurrence of the temple cleansing at an early (or earlier) point in Jesus’ ministry’ (my emphases). On the Temple in John, see Coloe, God Dwells with us. See also Chanikuzhy, Jesus, the Eschatological Temple.

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  • 73

    Barrett, John, p. 198; R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; New York: Crossroad, 1987), p. 356: ‘The cleansing of the temple is meant to portray the abrogation of the Jewish cult by Jesus.’ Neusner, ‘Money-changers in the Temple,’ pp. 287–90, esp., 290; Coloe, God Dwells with Us, p. 73.

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  • 77

    Reed, ‘“Jewish Christianity” after the “Parting of the Ways,”’ p. 211, suggests that Rec. 1.27–71 ‘fits well in the context of Jewish attempts to come to terms with the tragic events of 70 and 135 ce (e.g., 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch).’ Bauckham, ‘The Origin of the Ebionites,’ p. 167; Ron Cameron, The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), pp. 103–06, both assume a late (i.e., post-70 C. E.) date for the tradition. For the tendency to attribute Jewish Christian sectarian formations to the second or third centuries C. E., see Johannes Munck, ‘Jewish Christianity in Post-Apostolic Times,’ nts 6 (1960): pp. 103–16; ‘Primitive Jewish Christianity and Later Jewish Christianity: Continuation or Rupture?’ in Aspects du Judéo-Christianisme: Colloque de Strasbourg 23–25 avril 1964 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), pp. 77–93. For critique, see Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1987). John Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1999), p. 229: ‘A connection between early Jerusalem Christianity (the Hebrews) and the later Ebionites is probable’; Gerd Lüdemann, Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity (trans. John Bowden; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), pp. 52–53: ‘the group of Ebionites should be seen as an offshoot of the Jerusalem ­community’; Michael Goulder, St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), p. 134: “‘Ebionite’ Christology … was the creed of the ­Jerusalem Church from early times.’

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  • 78

    Evans, ‘The Jewish Christian Gospel Tradition,’ pp. 252–53. Most scholars do not think that Jesus’ announcement of the Temple’s destruction was ‘based in a negative view of the temple as an institution.’ See Snodgrass, ‘The Temple Incident,’ p. 432. Casey, ­‘Culture and Historicity: The Cleansing of the Temple,’ p. 322, dismisses the idea as ‘culturally inappropriate.’

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  • 79

    Koch, ‘Epiphanius’ Knowledge of the Ebionites,’ p. 344, and Rec. 1.39, 64. Gregory, ­‘Jewish-Christian Gospels,’ p. 56, notes that while these gospels ‘might be thought likely to have been transmitted in an unbroken chain of transmission that may be traced back to the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus,’ this hypothesis is ‘difficult to sustain’ as ‘it is by no means clear how much continuity may be traced between the early Jerusalem church and later Jewish-Christian circles.’

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  • 82

    Ådna, ‘Jesus and the Temple,’ p. 2668, seeks to avoid ‘anachronistic’ interpretations in which Jesus rejects the Temple cult by affirming that Jesus ‘accepted and endorsed the Zion tradition’ while simultaneously symbolically ‘abolishing’ and replacing Temple sacrifice with his own blood sacrifice. Ådna appeals to Jesus’ ‘high and unique calling which granted him an authority that surpasses all traditional limitations of prophetic and messianic offices.’ Jesus’ act in the Temple is ‘to be understood as a challenging call for repentance by accepting Jesus’ kingdom message’ (p. 2669, n. 113). Unfortunately, Ådna does not always succeed in avoiding Christian anachronism, especially in the way he describes the Temple authorities as ‘clinging to the traditional temple cult instead of obediently answering Jesus’ call’ (p. 2669). Ådna is correct in identifying Jesus’ action as an ‘eschatological transformation for which a new, or a renewed temple on Mount Zion, will be a part.’ For Ådna, Jesus intentionally sought to abolish the ‘old atonement cult’ and thus ‘renew’ the Temple. Jesus’ death was the atoning ‘alternative’ (p. 2671) to the Temple leader’s acceptance of his message: Jesus was ‘willing to offer himself and consequently take over and substitute for the sacrificial cult’ (p. 2672). Ådna, ‘Jesus’ Symbolic Act in the Temple,’ p. 471, proposes that we also accept the ‘so-called “ransom saying” and the words of administration at the last Passover meal.’ Jesus thus engaged in ‘rivalry with the atoning sacrificial cult’ and saw his death as having ‘an atoning effect.’ See Ulrich Wilckens, Theologie des Neuen Testaments, vol. i.2 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2003), pp. 62–65.

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  • 83

    Theißen and Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus, p. 182. See also H. Mödritzer, ­Stigma und Charisma im Neuen Testament und seiner Unwelt (ntoa, 28; Freiburg-Göttingen: ­Universitätsverlag Freiburg Schweiz: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994), pp. 144–56.

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  • 84

    Neusner, ‘Money-Changers in the Temple: The Mishnah’s Explanation,’ p. 290; Chilton, The Temple of Jesus, pp. 150–54. Chilton suggests that Jesus objected to the way in which Temple officials were conducting the sacrifices, especially in that they required the poor to purchase animals in Jerusalem instead of being able to bring their own animals. He argues that Jesus identified the wine and bread of his last supper as a new form of sacrificial worship that replaced animal sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus’ shared meals were a better form of ‘worship’ than the sacrifices offered in the Temple and became ‘a rival ­altar.’ ­According to Chilton, Jesus’ intent was misunderstood, although Peter followed ­Jesus’ meaning that the wine was ‘my blood of the covenant’ (as recorded in Mt 26:28). It was Paul who transformed Jesus’ message with his reference to ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood’ (1 Cor. 11.25), identifying the ‘blood of the covenant’ with Jesus’ own blood so that by the time of John’s Gospel, eating Jesus’ own blood and body became a divine ­communion and ritual consumption that gave the partaker ‘eternal life’ (Jn 6.53–57). ­Jesus’ original intention (to replace animal sacrifice with a shared sacred meal) was misunderstood by Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Jesus created a ‘substitute,’ but when translated into Greco-Roman culture, Jesus became the substitute.

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  • 85

    Theißen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pp. 432–35.

  • 86

    Theißen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, p. 434.

  • 88

    Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp. 285–317, here 325, proposes that Jesus ‘rejected the institutions themselves … The kingdom of God apparently had no need of either a mediating hierocracy or a temple system.’

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  • 89

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 61–76.

  • 90

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 207–11, esp. 271.

  • 92

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 269, maintains that Jesus’ action meant ‘that the Mosaic legislation of sacrifices was neither “final” nor “adequate.”’ See also Theissen and Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus, p. 182: ‘For Jesus, God offers salvation without any ritual act.’ On the other hand, Sanders argues that ‘the principal function of any temple is to serve as a place for sacrifice, and that sacrifices require the supply of suitable animals’ (63). Here Sanders problematically conflates animal and vegetable sacrifice, i.e., the principle of sacrificial ritual with a particular practice or form of sacrifice. Sanders also simply assumes that Jesus, ‘like others … regarded the sacrifices as commanded by God,’ although this is precisely what should not be assumed (70). In The Historical Figure of Jesus, 255–56, n. 92, Sanders further claims that Jesus could not have attacked the Temple because it ‘was central to Palestinian Judaism and important to all Jews everywhere. To be against it would be to oppose Judaism as a religion. It would also be an attack on the main unifying symbol of the Jewish people.’ He adds that ‘If Jesus really assailed this central institution, we would have some evidence of this apart from the incident of the money-changers’ tables.’ It is perhaps debatable whether the Temple was truly ‘central’ to Judaism, ‘important to all Jews everywhere,’ and the ‘main unifying symbol of the Jewish people.’ These assertions seem to presume a relatively monolithic and normative definition of what was ‘important,’ ‘unifying,’ and ‘central’ to ‘all Jews everywhere.’

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  • 93

    Snodgrass, ‘The Temple Incident,’ p. 432, claims that Jesus’ ‘announcement’ was ‘not based in a negative view of the temple.’ Jesus’ act was ‘a prophetic protest that pointed to future eschatological hope’ (p. 464). He sees this as the ‘most compelling option’ (p. 471) and links the cleansing and destructive motifs to the idea that the ‘Messiah would be a temple builder’ (p. 472). Jesus ‘for a brief time enacts the reform expected in God’s future ­kingdom’ (p. 473).

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  • 94

    Jostein Ådna, ‘Jesus and the Temple,’ in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3: pp. 2635–75, esp. 2670, proposes that ‘the action of Jesus hit critical functions of the ­temple service and was a symbolic gesture towards disrupting the sacrificial cult … the old atonement cult must be brought to an end because it is inappropriate in the eschatological era.’ John Henry Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John (2 vols.; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928), pp. 87–88, proposed that Jesus ‘directed public attention … to the futility of animal sacrifices. He had declared Himself against Jewish Sabbatarianism. He now attacks the Temple system. This it was which set the Temple officials against Him.’

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  • 99

    Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 293.

  • 103

    Stegemann, ‘Some Aspects of Eschatology in Texts from the Qumran community and in the Teachings of Jesus,’ p. 417. A. I. Baumgarten, The Flourishing of Jewish Sects in the ­Maccabean Era: An Interpretation (jsj Sup 55; Leiden: Brill, 1997), p. 155: ‘Apocalypses are revelations concerned with … the achievement of the ideal humanity.’ Hartmut Stegemann, ‘Some Aspects of Eschatology in Texts from the Qumran community and in the Teachings of Jesus,’ Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, April 1984 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, ­Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, American Schools of Oriental Research, 1985), pp. 412–416, suggests that Jesus believed that the sacrificial system ended with the arrival of the messianic era and the restoration of ‘paradise,’ citing 1qs 4.25 and 1qh 13.11–12.

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  • 105

    Meier, A Marginal Jew: Roots of the Problem, p. 177.

  • 106

     See Robert L. Webb, ‘The Historical Enterprise and Historical Jesus Research,’ in Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus, p. 71, for his description of this criterion.

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  • 108

    Guy G. Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity (trans. Susan Emanuel; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 72. While early ­Christianity represents ‘a transformation of Judaism,’ it also ‘seems in other ways to mark a ­conservative return to Israel’s sacrificial system’ as a religion ‘in which sacrifice is ­offered, or re-offered, perpetually.’ See also Robert J. Daly, Christian Sacrifice: The Judaeo-Christian Background before Origen (Washington, d. c.: Catholic Univesity of America Press, 1978); Frances M. Young, The Use of Sacrificial Ideas in Greek and Christian Writers from the New Testament to John Chrysostom (Cambridge: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979).

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