Here is the entry on ancient sacrifices in my copy of The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature an authoritative reference guide to the classical world (ie ancient Greece and Rome) and its literary heritage. When I first read this I couldn’t help noticing the commonalities between the description of blood offerings in pagan sacrifices and the early Christian understanding of the Eucharist in the church:
There are key features to the blood sacrifice:
the slaughter and consumption (of flesh and blood) of a domestic animal (eg a sheep) as an offering to a god was ‘the most popular form of ancient sacrifice’.
- Jesus was called a lamb of God;
- Many Christians believed he was slaughtered on the cross as a sacrifice;
- Many first century Christians believed the flesh and blood of Jesus was literally consumed in a meal.
As evidence, consider the view of Ignatius of Antioch who was born in 35 AD and was an early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch. He wrote in a surviving letter:
“Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They abstain [ie do not eat and drink] from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”
From the Letter to the Smyrnaeans.
While in route to Rome, where he met his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote a series of letters. This correspondence now forms a central part of the later collection known as the Apostolic Fathers, of which he is considered one of the three chief ones together with Pope Clement I and Polycarp.
As the religion of Jesus morphed into the religion about Jesus (the Proclaimer became the proclaimed) and cut itself off from its Jewish roots as it became an almost exclusively gentile religion, is it any surprise that the new faith’s central sacred act – the Eucharist – resembled other pagan sacrificial meals in the gentile world?