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Thus Spake Dustin

I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.

Part II; Review of Judaism: Practice and Belief by E.P. Sanders

Judaism: Practice and Belief 63BCE - 66CE - E. P. Sanders

E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 B.C.E. - 66 C.E. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992). Pp. 580. Paperback.


My original review can be found here; however, as I said, I had a very specific reason for picking up this book. I wanted to learn more about first century Judaism and how the temple functioned. My goal was to be better informed when reading the New Testament. My last review discussed the book as a whole; in this review I want to focus on the sections that spoke about the sacrificial system of the temple: how sacrifices where done, and how people understood the theology of them.


When Sanders begins his practical discussion of how the sacrifices were done, he begins with a discussion of the temple mount, and a physical description of the temple. For those who have never thought about this, the second temple was huge, especially after the renovations of King Herod. As Sanders described the temple, I was able to use several charts he included to visualize myself walking through the various courts. His description is well written, so much so that I know which door I would enter in, where I would go to buy a victim to be sacrificed, and how I would take my offering into the temple.


Sanders then fully describes how I would have offered my sacrifice: how I would have laid my hands on the head of the sacrifice and made a confession (i.e., what the offering was for, or what type of offering it was); how I, not a priest (assuming I’m a first century Jewish male), would have reached over the barrier to slit the throat the animal (which sounds disgusting to us, but Sanders points out this would have been very common in the ancient world); how the priest would collect the blood to pour it around the altar; how the priest would then take the animal to butcher it; how the priest would take the appropriate parts to be burned; and then how the priest would return the appropriate parts to me so that I could also share in the meat of the offering. In all, he imagines this would have been about a 10 minutes process.

Sanders also describes how the temple priests would have started and ended their day with a community sacrifice that included two male yearling lambs with flour, oil, and wine. This was a very in depth discussion, which even included how the priests cleaned the temple. This daily routine of morning and evening (late-afternoon) offerings included the casting of lots for jobs, the offering of incense within the temple, prayers in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and the clanging of cymbals with the recitation of Psalmody. He imagines the temple would have been staffed with 700 Levites and priests a week – 50 at a time for 2 shifts a day.


Sanders also describes the exact liturgical celebration of the 3 major feasts: Passover, Feast of Weeks (also called Pentecost or Day of First Fruits), and the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). It’s interesting that he includes a discussion of the Day of Atonement as a separate feast, apart from the other three (why it’s not the 4 major feasts, I’m not sure – perhaps because it wasn’t celebrated by the community, as a whole, as the others were?).


As much as I found the description of the liturgical rites interesting, I found the theology of the sacrifices even more interesting. Here’s how Sanders spells it out:


  • Purification – Sanders believes that one offered a sacrifice as a means of purifying yourself – and/or your family – from your sins/impurities. He believes the people were taught this included preparation by self-examination. In Eastern Orthodoxy, we go through a similar process before communion every Sunday, and before confession.
  • Blood Atonement – this was a common concept in the ancient world. Sanders believes this aspect provided an opportunity for confession, which included mending one’s life through repentance. The point is the intention and the zeal of the one offering the sacrifice.
  • Thanksgiving – Sanders believes that many would have seen the offering as a way to give thanks to God, as well as honor and glory.
  • Communion with God – certain sacrifices required that the one who offered the sacrifice receive a portion of the meat to eat while in Jerusalem. Sanders argues that this was understood as a means of communion with God. The idea of the Great Banquet is a part of it.
  • Welfare of Society – in this category, some sacrifices would have been seen as a way to ask for safety and preservation from God. In modern religion, we would understand this as petition or supplication to God.
  • Sanders believes sacrifices were also offered for the good of the whole world.
  • Finally, Sanders argues that sacrifices offered the people a sense of community – i.e., the people of Israel.


As I read through this list, I was struck by how close it matches the Eastern Orthodox understanding of communion, which is offered as a thanksgiving (i.e., the Eucharist), as a means of purification (forgiveness, or remission) from sins, on behalf of the world, as a means of communion with God, and as a means of transforming the world – among other things. What this indicates, for me at least, is that the more traditional understanding of communion (rather than the Protestant’s stress of communion as only a remembrance) has roots in the temple.


I’ll end this review again by stating that I highly recommend this book to anyone who takes his or her biblical studies very seriously. It will not only aid your reading of the New Testament, but also your understanding of Church theology.