Throughout the span of biblical history, Jewish and Christian ideas of offerings and sacrifices changed as new beliefs arose out of shared cultural and theological systems. In the Hebrew scriptures, the numerous types of offerings or sacrifices represented ways that people drew closer to God. Mosaic and other Jewish laws describe a variety of offerings performed for specific purposes. In the time New Testament, Jesus and those who followed after him developed an entirely new idea of sacrifice and offering. Jesus symbolizes the new way that early followers -- and, later, the fathers of the church -- interpreted the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the resurrection in terms of sacrifice.
Offerings and Sacrifices in the Bible
The Hebrew word "Karbanot" translates as "sacrifices" or "offerings." Derived from a root word that means "to draw near," Karbanot indicates the reason for offerings in Judaism -- offerings and sacrifices draw believers near to God. Strictly regulated, and representative of God's covenant with Israel, the different types of offerings in the Jewish tradition represent the different ways priests or individuals approached God. Near the end of Jesus' life, at the Last Supper, the Bible records that he introduced a revolutionary idea of sacrifice. In the Christian scriptures, the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus' life, in the name of forgiveness, makes all other ritualistic offerings unnecessary.
Offerings and Sacrifices in the Old Testament
In Leviticus, Mosaic Law defined numerous types of offerings. Major types of sacrifices include burnt offerings (or "olah," the oldest kind of sacrifice), which symbolize submission to the will of God. Offered to atone for unintended or careless offenses, a sin (or "chatat") offering varied in size according to the offense. In chapters 2 and 7, priests received peace offerings of wafers, cakes and unleavened bread, tokens of friendship and of supplication. Leviticus 3 describes a ritual of expressing gratitude to God for bounty and mercy. Guilt offerings, such as those described in chapter 5, atone for such failings as breaches of trust and for stealing from the altar. Additional offerings consist of meals and drinks, as well as the sacrifice of a young red heifer, a purification ritual detailed in Numbers 19.
Purposes of Offerings in Judaism
Although forgiveness plays a role in the offerings described in Mosaic law, the purposes of Karbanot seek to achieve more than the forgiveness of sins. More important, some offerings strive to establish communion with God and bring the offering party closer to the divine. Other offerings serve as expressions of love and gratitude, and as means to cleanse impurities. Atonement, in Judaism, only occurs in cases of unintentional errors, sins committed under duress, and those errors made by lack of knowledge. Those who commit malicious sins must repent before performing Karbanot, and must correct any harm done.
Sacrifice and Purposes in Christianity
With the words "Take and eat; this is my body," and "Drink from [the cup] … for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins," the ancient ideas of offerings and sacrifice gained a new dimension for the followers of Jesus. Jesus established himself as the new sacrifice and a new covenant to whom Christians look for forgiveness and for hope of eternal life. For Christians, Jesus' sacrifice, the crucifixion, supplanted the terms of offerings delineated in Mosaic law. In some Christian churches, including the Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopalian churches, the Mass serves as a literal sacrifice or offering, which consists of four essential elements. In comparative religious history, to meet the definition of a sacrifice, an act must include a gift, one who makes the sacrifice, an act of sacrifice and an object of sacrifice. In the sacrifice of the Mass, when Christians eat and drink the "body" and "blood" of Jesus, they participate in Jesus' sacrifice and offer praise.
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