Is Atonement Possible Without Blood? A Jewish-Christian Divide
Many Jews find odd the Christian belief that the blood of Jesus atones for people’s sins. At the same time, many Christians believe that Jews have no means for achieving atonement since the Temple was destroyed and, therefore, sacrifices ceased. Indeed, Leviticus makes atonement contingent on sacrificial rites with accompanying blood rituals, but Judaism focuses on atonement achieved through repentance, prayer, fasting, and other acts. Christianity, conversely, while it promotes these acts as well, associates atonement with Jesus’s crucifixion. How did these two groups, both reading the Bible, come to understand atonement so differently?
Blood in the Bible
In the Hebrew Bible, blood is both dynamic and powerful. Blood can make unclean and can purify; it is the sign of life: spilled blood can even cry out from the ground. In one of the Bible’s first commands, God gives Noah permission to eat animals, but insists: אַךְ־בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ “You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it” (Gen 9:4). Similarly, Leviticus 17:11, forbidding Israelites from consuming blood, explains: כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא “For the life of the flesh is in the blood.”
Blood of the paschal sacrifice smeared on their doorposts protected the Israelites from harm during the plague of the firstborn (Exod 12:7, 13, 22–23). Several chapters later, Moses uses blood to make a covenant with the people following the giving of the laws:
שמות כד:ח וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַדָּם וַיִּזְרֹק עַל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה דַם הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת יְ־הוָה עִמָּכֶם עַל כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה.
Exod 24:8 Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that YHWH now makes with you concerning all these commands.”
Later, the Torah warns the Israelites to adjudicate properly all cases of manslaughter כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ “for [the shedding of innocent] blood pollutes the land” (Num 35:33).
Blood Expiation in Israelite Sacrifices
The most prominent place blood takes in the Torah is in the sacrificial system, for all animal sacrifices include the sprinkling of blood on the altar. In the sacrifices known as the חַטָּאת chatat and the אָשָׁם asham, blood is explicitly connected to forgiveness (ס.ל.ח) and expiation (כ.פ.ר; literally “cover”), as we hear in the refrain (Lev 4:35, 5:9):
וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן מֵחַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא וְנִסְלַח לוֹ.
Thus the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.
Expiation or atonement in Leviticus is not accomplished through prayer, contrition, and/or fasting, but through blood rituals, especially of the chatat. Translators typically render chatat as “sin offering” (so the NJPS and NRSV), which suggests that the sacrifice removes the consequences of sin from the person making the offering. In 1976, however, Jacob Milgrom argued that the chatat cleanses not the sinner, but the impurities that various sins create, impurities that adhere to the sanctuary, the tent of meeting, and the altar. According to Milgrom, “wanton, unrepentant sins” create impurity that is attracted to the sanctuary, “and unless it is quickly expunged, God’s presence will depart.”
Central to Milgrom’s argument is his understanding of the root k-p-r as “purge,” on the basis of the same root in Akkadian, which connotes “wipe off” or “cleanse.” He coined the term “ritual detergent” to explain how blood functions in the chatat ritual: just as detergent cleans dirt from clothes, so blood—properly applied—cleanses (or purges) impurity from the Temple.
The language of expiation is especially dominant in the biblical texts describing the Yom Kippur service, where multiple chatat offerings expiate for the sins of high priest (Lev 16:6, 11) and for sins of the Israelite people, which pollute the Tabernacle (vv. 15–16):
ויקרא טז:טז וְכִפֶּר עַל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם.
Lev 16:16 Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.
Throughout Leviticus 16, דַם “blood” appears repeatedly, sprinkled inside the shrine on the kapporet (ark cover) and the curtain. Consequently, Milgrom translates “Yom Kippur” not as “the Day of Atonement,” but as “the Day of Purgation,” to reflect the purpose of the blood rituals.
The Power of Blood in the New Testament
Recognizing the significance of blood in the Torah, early Christ-believing Jews adopted and adapted biblical images of blood. This starts with Jesus himself.
Jesus, at his “Last Supper,” gives his disciples a cup of wine and proclaims, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28, cf. Mark 14:24). The Gospel of John makes the commandment to drink blood even more visceral:
John 6:53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly [Greek amen, amen], I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 6:54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 6:55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 6:56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Because Jesus dies at Passover, his followers found particular connections between his crucifixion and the Passover offering. John the Baptizer sees Jesus and proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 [cf. 1:36]). Although the Paschal lamb is not a “sin” offering, Jesus’s followers read it as such.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds his gentile congregation that drinking the sacramental wine is a way of participating in the covenant with Jesus:
1 Cor 10:16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” … 11:25 in the same way he [Jesus] took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Thus, the new covenant in the blood of Jesus echoes the connection of blood to the covenant making at Sinai.
An Atonement Sacrifice
Other New Testament books emphasize the atonement granted through Jesus’s spilled blood. In the book of Acts, Paul advises:
Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
In his letters, Paul insists that Jesus is the one “whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:25). Indeed, he proclaims:
Rom 5:9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.
The Epistle to the Ephesians, ascribed to Paul but likely written by one of his followers, makes the blood an agent of reconciliation between Jews and gentiles by telling its gentile audience:
Eph 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Its companion volume Colossians, also ascribed to Paul and with better claims for Pauline authorship, proclaims that through Jesus:
Col 1:20 God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The text known as the Epistle to the Hebrews—though it is not really an epistle, nor was it written by Paul, nor do we know if its intended audience was Jewish—insists that blood is required for sealing a covenant (Heb 9:18), that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22), and that the only timeless and universally effective blood sacrifice is the one Jesus makes of himself. Jesus’s blood, which with his flesh marks him as human (Heb 2:14), is of unique value:
Heb 9:13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 9:14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
Using sacrificial language similar to that of Hebrews, the First Epistle of Peter speaks of “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet 1:19). The First Epistle of John proclaims that Jesus’s blood cleanses from all sin (1 John 1:7; cf. 5:6, 8). Revelation, the New Testament’s final book, states “for you [the Lamb] were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God” (Rev 5:9; cf. 12:11); it even speaks of the cleansing properties of the “blood of the Lamb” (7:14), following the chatat model.
Just like the Hebrew Bible, so the New Testament does not explain how blood seals a covenant or atones for sin; it need not do so. In both the ancient Near East and the first-century Roman world, sacrifice was theological currency; everyone knew of it, and everyone recognized its value. Sacrifice was normative not only for Jews but also for pagans.
Atonement in Judaism Without Sacrifices
With the loss of the Temple, when offering a chatat (or an asham) was no longer possible, Rabbinic Judaism needed a new approach to expiation through blood. Moreover, the entire character of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, needed to be rethought, since the central rituals of blood expiation were no longer practiced.
The rabbis agreed that sacrificial blood expiates for sin (e.g., b. Zevahim 7b), but they also agreed that the Torah’s sacrificial texts show evidence that blood is not necessary to achieve atonement. For example, in describing a sacrifice brought for various sins, Lev 5:1–13 allows a grain offering to substitute for animals:
ויקרא ה:יא וְאִם לֹא תַשִּׂיג יָדוֹ לִשְׁתֵּי תֹרִים אוֹ לִשְׁנֵי בְנֵי־יוֹנָה וְהֵבִיא אֶת־קָרְבָּנוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא עֲשִׂירִת הָאֵפָה סֹלֶת לְחַטָּאת לֹא יָשִׂים עָלֶיהָ שֶׁמֶן וְלֹא יִתֵּן עָלֶיהָ לְבֹנָה כִּי חַטָּאת הִיא... ה:יג וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן עַל חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר־חָטָא מֵאַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה וְנִסְלַח לוֹ...
Lev 5:11 And if his means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, he shall bring as his offering for that of which he sinned a tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a chatat; he shall not add oil to it or lay frankincense on it, for it is a chatat… 5:13 Thus the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for whichever of these sins he has sinned, and he shall be forgiven…. It shall belong to the priest, like the meal offering.
Thus, flour offerings, which have no blood, can expiate for sin. In crafting a Judaism with nonsacrificial atonement, the rabbis had precedent, especially in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy and Turning to God
In contrast to the Priestly texts that emphasizes chatat, Deuteronomy never speaks about atonement offerings. Rather, it emphasizes turning or returning (שׁ.ו.ב) to God, a concept never expressed this way in the earlier Torah books. For example, Deuteronomy states that Israel can always turn to YHWH, even in exile:
דברים ד:כט וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ׃ ד:ל בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלוֹ׃
Deut 4:29 But if you search there [in exile] for YHWH your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul— 4:30 when you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and, in the end, turn to YHWH your God and obey Him.
Deuteronomy 30 makes a simple measure-for-measure point: if you turn (shuv) to God, God will turn (shuv) to you:
דברים ל:ב וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ. ל:ג וְשָׁב יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה:
Deut 30:2 And you return (shuv) to YHWH your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, 30:3 then YHWH your God will restore (shuv) your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again (shuv) from all the peoples where YHWH your God has scattered you.
Even in places where we might expect an emphasis on sacrifice, we find the promotion of a change in action.
1 Kings 8—an exilic narrative affiliated with Deuteronomy—ascribes to Solomon a prayer at the completion of his Temple. While the chapter briefly mentions a huge offering (1 Kgs 8:63), it focuses on efficacious prayer. Notable is the usage of the Priestly terms ח.ט.א “sin” and ס.ל.ח “forgive/pardon” together with the Deuteronomistic emphasis on שׁ.ו.ב “turning (or returning)” to God:
מלכים א ח:מו כִּי יֶחֶטְאוּ לָךְ כִּי אֵין אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יֶחֱטָא וְאָנַפְתָּ בָם וּנְתַתָּם לִפְנֵי אוֹיֵב וְשָׁבוּם שֹׁבֵיהֶם אֶל אֶרֶץ הָאוֹיֵב רְחוֹקָה אוֹ קְרוֹבָה. ח:מז וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֶל לִבָּם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבּוּ שָׁם וְשָׁבוּ וְהִתְחַנְּנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְּאֶרֶץ שֹׁבֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר חָטָאנוּ וְהֶעֱוִינוּ רָשָׁעְנוּ... ח:מט וְשָׁמַעְתָּ הַשָּׁמַיִם מְכוֹן שִׁבְתְּךָ אֶת תְּפִלָּתָם וְאֶת תְּחִנָּתָם וְעָשִׂיתָ מִשְׁפָּטָם. ח:נ וְסָלַחְתָּ לְעַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ לָךְ וּלְכָל פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר פָּשְׁעוּ בָךְ וּנְתַתָּם לְרַחֲמִים לִפְנֵי שֹׁבֵיהֶם וְרִחֲמוּם.
1 Kgs 8:46 When they sin against You—for there is no person who does not sin—and You are angry with them and deliver them to the enemy, and their captors carry them off to an enemy land, near or far; 8:47 and then they take it to heart in the land to which they have been carried off, and they repent and make supplication to You in the land of their captors, saying: ‘We have sinned, we have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly’… 8:49 oh, give heed in Your heavenly abode to their prayer and supplication, uphold their cause, 8:50 and pardon Your people who have sinned against You for all the transgressions that they have committed against You. Grant them mercy in the sight of their captors that they may be merciful to them.
Unlike the ideas highlighted in the Priestly literature, here forgiveness requires no sacrifices or blood. And this Deuteronomic idea is shared with many prophetic texts.
Rabbis, Repentance, and Prayer
Keeping with Deuteronomic tradition, the rabbis regard repentance, without blood sacrifice, as fully effective. But while the Hebrew Bible speaks of shuv, turning, or returning to stand before YHWH, which is an external action, rabbinic texts stress teshuvah in the sense of internal contrition and repentance.
Some early rabbis claim that the daily prayers along with repentance and charity replace the morning and afternoon Temple offerings. This idea continues in Jewish liturgy, for example, in the congregational response to the medieval unetaneh tokef, one of the central prayers recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה.
But repentance, prayer, and charity (or: “good deeds”) cancel the harsh decree [that should be meted out on the sinner].
In other rabbinic texts, fasting or the study of Torah atones. And in still others, “The death of the righteous atones for sin.” Indeed, not a single text in the huge rabbinic corpus suggests that after the Temple had been destroyed, atonement is impossible without blood rituals. When rabbinic texts speak of blood as effecting atonement, they refer to past Temple ritual, not to post-destruction reality.
Understanding the Roads Not Taken
The rabbinic view of atonement, built mostly upon the Deuteronomic corpus, takes for granted that whereas sacrificial rites were efficacious, they are not the only or even the primary way of receiving forgiveness. In contrast, the Christian tradition focuses on the Priestly corpus, especially on the ritual use of blood to effect atonement, but transfers an ongoing requirement to offer sacrifices to the crucifixion of Jesus, which functions as a kind of chatat for believers past, present, and future.
Were Jews to become more familiar with how Jesus’s early followers applied the concepts about blood atonement, well-known from both pagan and Jewish sources, to the crucifixion, they would have a better understanding of how the image of the blood of Jesus became so powerful. Were Christians to gain familiarity both with the Deuteronomic emphasis on repentance apart from blood sacrifices, and with how Jews, following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, downplayed the role of blood sacrifices, they would appreciate how Judaism finds blood for atonement unnecessary, for God is always ready to forgive the repentant sinner.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.
Prof. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Program in Jewish Studies. She holds a B.A. from Smith, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke. Her thirty books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi; four children’s books (with Sandy Sasso); The Gospel of Luke (with Ben Witherington III); and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (co-edited with Marc Z. Brettler), and co-author of The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Marc Zvi Brettler). In 2019 she became the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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