The World's Oldest Religious Ritual


The idea of animal sacrifice seems very peculiar to most modern people. Especially if they hold the erroneous belief that I had that the animals offerings are completely destroyed. In fact the animals are butchered, roasted and distributed to the participants and only the inedible leftovers (entrails, etc.) are completely burned up.

The ritual is actually a community meal with thanks given to the gods for the food.

The burning of the inedible parts is said to provide a smell pleasing to the gods. I suspect it was originally a way to dispose of these parts before they developed a rather unpleasing smell to everyone else.

It seems perfectly natural that ancient people would go out and hunt a large animal, bring him back to the village and share him with the others and then thank the gods for it by offering the remnants.

Old Testament

In Exodus and Leviticus there is a good deal of discussion of how sacrifices are to be carried out and which portions the priest will get to eat and which is for the people offering it. Already we are seeing a formalization of this form of religious ritual with prescribed actions for specific purposes.

Again we see the reference of the burnt parts as "a smell pleasing to Yahweh".

Roman Religion

The Romans celebrated many holidays each month and for each holiday a rich member of the community was expected to donate a large animal such as a bull.

The animal would be slaughtered on the steps of the temple of the god being honored (NOT inside the temple), butchered, roasted and distributed among the festival participants.

Again the burnt parts were seen as creating a smell pleasing to the god.

Early Christian Attitude

Early Christians had no time for Roman religion. St. Paul discusses this in I Corinthians 10:14-33

"... when pagans sacrifice, what is sacrificed by them is sacrificed to demons who are not God." I Corinthians 10:20

Since for Paul false gods amount to nothing, he advocates a sort of "don't ask" position to meats sold in butcher shops. Still if someone tells you it was sacrificed, don't eat it.

Early Christians went much father than this and not only didn't eat sacrificed meat, didn't participate in the festivals but actually began publicly condemning them as devil worship.

Roman Reaction

Roman religion was pretty mechanical, you just did it and failure to do it could bring on the wrath of the gods.

The Romans tolerated religions that chose to abstain from their festivals but calling them devil worship and publicly railing against them could only aggravate the gods eventually.

This scared a lot of Romans and so whenever a drought or famine or plague came along, they thought the gods must be displeased because of the Christians.

The Christians were seen as atheists in the Romans' eyes since they denied the traditional religion, also they denied the divinity of the Roman Emperor and that was an assault on public order as well.

And what do you do with atheistic revolutionaries that are the cause of all sorts of natural ills as well?

As in most cultures you convert them or kill them.

Jesus as "Lamb of God"

For a long time I wondered where the idea of Jesus as the "Lamb of God" came from since the predictions of the Messiah in the Old Testament did not predict this.

However it makes perfect sense in a culture, Roman or Jewish, that was centered around animal sacrifice.

The Christians replaced animal sacrifice with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the offering was now the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

"... [Jesus gave] himself up for us as an offering and a sweet smelling sacrifice to God" Ephesians 5:2.

Email me at

Return to Bible Studies Page

Return to Home Page

(c) 2002 Thomas F. Swezey All rights reserved.