Unlocking The New Testament: The Lamb (2)

Two Lambs

In our last post,  we started to discuss a possible connection between  the lamb of  Aqedat Itzhak and the Lamb of Christianity.  The striking similarity between two traditions  has long been observed. Discussion has long been carried out concerning the independence of the Jewish tradition. In 1912, Isidore Levi managed to dispose of the common but highly mistaken notion that Aqedah was basically a Christian innovation stemming from the apostle Paul.  Then the  theme was taken up by a number of scholars, including a wonderful study by H. J .Schoeps[1].  A brilliant analysis of the Aqedah traditions up to the twelfth century C. E. has been presented by S. Spiegel[2] . There were more profound studies in the second half of XX century that concentrated upon early traditions: by G. Vermes[3],  R.J. Daly[4] ,  N. A. Dahl[5]  and P.R Davies[6] .  The most relevant sources from the first century AD, namely, the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus, IV Maccabees and Ps.-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, have been fairly well exhausted by all these studies, and Levi’s main thesis concerning the independence and priority of the Jewish tradition has been confirmed.  According to Gesa Vermes, “the two main targumic themes of the Aqedah story, namely, Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed and the atoning virtue of action, were already traditional in the first century AD”[7].  It  means that some time between the middle of the second century BC and the beginning of the Christian era,  this new doctrine had  established itself: that the atonement for the sins of Israel resulted both from Isaac’s self-offering and from the spilling of his blood. Not only the Aqedah was indeed considered a true and genuine sacrifice, but because of the free consent of the victim – unique feature, distinguishing it from, and raising it above, all other sacrifices – it became the sacrifice, sacrifice par excellence, whose lasting benefits would be felt for all time. Within this doctrine, the Binding of Isaac was thought to have played a unique role in the whole economy of the salvation of Israel and to have a permanent redemptive effect on behalf of its people.

Who  was the  first?

John 1.29 ceases to be a crux when inserted into this proper setting. For the Palestinian Jew in first century, all lamb sacrifice – and especially the Passover lamb – was a memorial of the Aqedah with its effects of deliverance, forgiveness of sin and messianic salvation. “According to ancient Jewish theology, the atoning efficacy of all the sacrifices in which a lamb was immolated …  depended upon the virtue of the Aqedah, the self-offering of that Lamb whom God had recognized as the perfect victim of the perfect burnt offering”[8]. That the Aqedah does not play a greater role than it does in the New Testament soteriology most probably might be explained by the fact that the slightest  allusion would have sufficed to recall its significance  to the Jewish Christians – and undoubtedly we do have these slightest allusions in the New Testament.

There is yet another question to be asked: if the Aqedah tradition existed before and independently of Christian tradition; if already in the first century AD there was belief that Isaac’s unique sacrifice is infinitely worthier that the offering of a lamb for the sins of men, and that the merits of his deed will be known to all the peoples for ever, – then to what extent and in which ways the Aqedah served as a model for early Christian understanding of the Atonement?  Apparently, anyone who attended regularly the synagogue services in the first  century – which was probably  the case  with the most of the first Jewish believers in Jesus – could not escape the influence of the ideas and imagery  of the Aqedah. Can we then state that, since the Aqedah was “a Jewish theological conception which must have been familiar to Paul, a former Pharisee, it served as Paul’s model when he undertook to develop” [9]  his doctrine of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross? Can we state that the Christian soteriology was developed out of the doctrine of the atoning sacrifice of Isaac in Aqedah,  – and “the Lamb of God” in John 1.29 is just an allusion to the Aqedah’ lamb?

The Lamb of Isaiah  

I would like to recall the figure of the Suffering Servant now. The leading idea in Isaiah 53  is parallel in leitmotiv  both to the targumic tradition on Genesis xxii – and to the Christian soteriology. Both Isaac and Jesus freely offered their lives and were  accepted by God in favor of their descendants  and  even the nations (according to Ps.Philo, in the case of Isaac). The servant is compared to a lamb brought to the slaughter (53.7); both Isaac and Jesus are called “lamb”. The Servant’s sacrifice was ordained by God; so also were the sacrifices of Isaac and Jesus. This resemblance is realized both in Judaism and in Christianity, and the nature and effect of the Servant’s passion are applied to the sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus.  We know that Isaiah 53 is still one of the main stumbling blocks in the polemic between the Jews and the Christians: whether the chapter speaks of Christ or of the people of Israel, whether Suffering Servant is Jesus or Israel. The discussed connection between the Lamb, the redemption and the Pesach makes this conflict even sharper: we can see now clearly that in the both traditions the Suffering Servant is identified with the Lamb, whose redemptive death brings salvation to the people “he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors ”  and is ritually memorized in the Passover celebration. In a sense,  it brings both religions even closer, because we see the same motif of redemptive death of the Righteous One  bringing salvation to the sinners. The crucial difference between the two is who is considered to be the  Righteous One: Isaac, as the  righteous ancestor of the Chosen People and as a type of whole Israel, or Jesus.  Certainly, if we are talking about the modern Christianity, the worlds separate it from the modern Judaism; but it’s important to know that in a sense, the theory of redemption existed already in the pre-Christian era and till some point, it had been developed by the consequent traditions, both Christian and Rabbinic, in a very similar way  – but with different redemptive personage in the center.


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[1] Hans Joachim Schoeps, The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology, Journal of Biblical Literature  65


[2] Shalom Spiegel, The  Last Trial.

[3] Geza Vermes, Redemption and Genesis XXII, in: Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: 1961), pp 193-227


[4] Robert J. Daly, The Soteriological Significance of the Sacrifice of Isaac”, The Catholic Biblical  Quarterly 39 (1977), 45-75


[5] N. A. Dahl, The Atonement – an Adequate Reward for the Aqedah? (Ro 8:32), Neotestamentica and Semitica (Edinburg: 1969), pp.15-29


[6] P.R. Davies, B.D.Chilton, “The Aqedah: A Revised Tradition History”, The Catholic Biblical  Quarterly 40 (1978), 514-546


[7] Geza Vermes, Redemption and Genesis XXII, in: Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: 1961), p.204

[8] Ibid., p.211

[9] Hans Joachim Schoeps, The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology, Journal of Biblical Literature  65, p. 387      


About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Nick Edwards

    Thanks Julia for exploring these “murky” waters – much to ponder here!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thanks Nick, I wish these waters were not “murky”, but this is a very complicated matter indeed; nevertheless, I believe that seeing the Jewish background as the basis of the Lamb motif adds another dimension to the understanding of it.

  2. Jackie McClure

    Since biblically all “roads” point to Jesus Christ, it must be Christ.

    1. Julia Blum

      Of course, Jackie, this would be an answer of faith – yet, before this answer is given, it’s good to know the human interpretations of the time, and this is what I am trying to present in this series.

  3. Mondo

    This is a great article building on one of the most meaningful passages in the Torah. As to why it’s not used as a direct reference to Yeshua’s offering could be as simple as…. Isaac wasn’t sacrificed. He was willing and offered but to compare Isaac’s offer with Jesus’ actual sacrifice is the true INFINITE sacrifice.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Mondo, for your kind words and thoughtful comment. Definitely, the sacrifice of Jesus and the willingness of Isaac are different things; however, my point was to show that the idea of the actual sacrifice was also present in the Jewish tradition. You can see it as a believer – something foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus, the human reflections of God’s ultimate plan; or you can register it as a scholar – but in any case, it’s there.

  4. Paul

    As an aging believer who still sometimes goes off on a bunny trail, I must say I don’t think Isaacs being bound and hoisted up on a sacrificial pyre was voluntary.

    1. Julia Blum

      Well Paul, according to the Jewish tradition, Isaac was 37 years old – a young and strong adult; his father, accordingly, was 137 years old – not so young anymore. Don’t you think that Isaac could have overcome his father easily? And if so, his sacrifice had to be voluntary.