They Know Not What They Do: The Passion as Roman Sacrifice|
by Eric "Fritter" Riley
Yes, I admit it. I too was one of the Pagans in the audience of the new Mel Gibson film
"The Passion of the Christ." Being raised in a Christian family, the story was very well
known to me, and I admit I was intrigued by the concept and the hype of the film (not to
mention the beautiful cinematography). However, now as a Pagan, and one who has been
looking further into Roman Reconstructionism, I had a very different experience in
watching that film than I had expected. In fact, I was shocked. I gasped, perhaps not
unlike the original Greek audience would have done, because in that very well-known
story I saw something only a handful of people in today's society would ever recognize.
The story of the Passion is the story of a human sacrifice, done unknowingly, and yet
according to Roman ritual sacrifice structure. Let me start at the beginning, and how I
came to this realization.
First let me tell you some assumptions I will be making.
Greek Literature: The Gospels were written in common (Koine) Greek, for a Greek
audience. I see the Gospel literature fitting itself in with other Greek mythological
literature, from its time, and before it.
Roman vs. Greek: Yes, I understand that I'm talking about Roman ritual, and this story
is in a Greek/Roman/Jewish context. I am assuming that Greek ritual sacrifice was not
terribly different from Roman sacrifice, excepting the garments one wore, and the lack
of head covering in Greek ritual.
Book vs. Movie: The film is not entirely based on the Gospel, but also on other
Christian mystical literature. I may flip between the text of the Gospels and the film,
so please bear with me.
My religious work to date has been in a personal eclectic Wiccan tradition. Slowly I
came to find myself being called to Venus, and over time I began searching to find more
information about how devotions were originally performed in ancient Rome. In this
deepening search I found Nova Roma
(think SCA for Classicists), and the Religio Romana
website. Pontifex Graecus(1) provides a very well researched outline for how Roman
sacrifices were performed; let me briefly cover the steps here.
1) Praefatio: Here preliminary offerings of incense, wine, water, etc. are made to
Ianus and the deity for whom the sacrifice is intended.
Nearly every one of these steps is followed in the story of the Passion. Only a few were
omitted, but the overall arc of the story shows that the intent is there, and each
action taken in the Passion leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus is a human
sacrifice. Let me now walk you through the story.
2) Precatio: The sacrificer will make a prayer to the deity stating the intent of the
sacrifice, what will be sacrificed, and what is expected in return. The sacrificer will
wash his hands either before or after this prayer.
3) Immolatio: When a living animal was being sacrificed, it would be washed, and
decorated with ribbons or gold, and cows were sometimes covered in a cloth. There are
several steps to this phase:
a) Consecrating the victim, by anointing, asperging, or application of spelt meal.
4) Redditio: This is the actual act of devoting the sacrifice to the God. The offering
would be disposed of in a manner appropriate to the deity being worshipped, i.e.
chthonic gods would receive their offerings by burial, or in a ditch; water gods, in a
river or stream, etc.
b) The butchers would verify that the victim was willing, i.e. not panicking, or showing
signs of distress, and showing consent by lowering its head. Then it would be killed.
c) The victim was laid on its back and the belly opened. The haruspex, an omen reader,
would inspect the internal organs to determine if the victim had been accepted.
d) The victim was divided into an offering for the Deity, and the rest of the meat
profanated and eaten in a banquet.
5) Profanatio: The sacrificer would profane the rest of the sacrifice simply by
touching it and the meat taken to the following banquet.
6) Epulum: This is the feast of the profanated meat.
The story of the Passion, in all of the Gospels, begins with the Last Supper. Anyone who
has attended a communion service has heard the words, "Take this. This is my body. Drink
this. This is my blood." Jesus is providing here a prophecy, that he will be a ritual
sacrifice, and that this act is representative of the banquet feast following the
slaughter of an animal. Greek drama is full of prophetic speeches. We need only look to
Oedipus, the most infamous of oracular deniers, to know what happens when people receive
a dooming prophecy. They don't understand, and they don't believe it. They will do
anything to prevent it. This scene is also where Peter is told he will deny Jesus three
times, and what does he do? He doesn't believe it. But the audience knows. Every Greek
citizen knew all the mythology that was turned into drama for the festival of Dionysus.
And every Greek citizen would have known, from the earliest age, how the living
sacrifices were carried out. When this scene occurred in the story, everyone in the
audience would have known exactly what was going to happen next.
After the Last Supper, Jesus and the apostles go to the Garden of Gethsemane. In the
Gospel of John, the entirety of chapter 17 is a prayer from Jesus to his God. He tells
of his works for the deity, that this prayer is on behalf of the people he has been
given (the Apostles), and that he is coming to the deity, as sacrificial victim. He ends
this prayer with the desired outcome, ."..and my desire is that they may be with me
where I am, so that they may look upon my glory, which you have given me because you
loved me before the world began" (John 17:24)(2).
Flash forward a bunch here. There's been a trial, he was found guilty, and brought to
the Romans to be executed. Pilate sent Jesus out to be flogged, and the soldiers placed
the crown of thorns on his head and draped him in a purple cloak. Think of the bulls,
with gilded horns, and fringed coverings being led through the streets to be killed.
Even in the mockery of the soldiers, the unknown sacrificial actions were continuing. In
this garb he was brought back before the mob and handed over to Pilate.
When seeing the film I was unaware of this particular scene from John, and I had to look
to find it. Pilate stands with Jesus before the screaming mob and says to Jesus, "Surely
you know that I have the authority to release you, and authority to crucify you?" Jesus
replied, "You would have no authority at all over me if it had not been granted you from
above" (John 19:10-11). Pilate is verifying that the victim is willing, and interpreting
this twisted answer determines that Jesus is indeed ready to be sacrificed.
Now, I looked, and only in the Gospel of Matthew do we find the scene where Pilate
washes his hands. In this Pagan interpretation, and in the popular understanding, this
is a very key image. The washing of the hands is done some time before or after the
prayers to the deity. Since Jesus himself made those prayers, had been dressed in ritual
garb, and had presented himself as a willing victim, to make this a holy sacrifice it is
only fitting that the sacrificer Pilate should wash his hands. This is a double act of
purification. He says in the text, "My hands are clean of this man's blood" (Matt.
27:24), but in this public declaration he has also unknowingly purified himself to
present a living sacrifice.
Flash forward some more. After laboring up the hill to Golgotha, Jesus is crucified and
dies upon the cross. In the film and in the Gospel of John we find the following
account: "The soldiers accordingly came to the men crucified with Jesus and broke the
legs of each in turn, but when they came to Jesus and found he was already dead they did
not break his legs. But one of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side, and at once
there was a flow of blood and water" (John 19:32-34). As with all living sacrifices the
victim is opened and the entrails read; the soldier need not go any further in opening
the body, because this would surely have been seen as an omen that this sacrifice was
indeed holy and accepted.
Unlike the sacrifice of an animal, a human sacrifice would surely not have been
consumed, and the entirety of the victim would most likely have been buried according to
the tradition dictated by that deity. Here the body of Jesus is given a burial shroud by
Joseph of Arimathaea, anointed with myrrh and aloe and placed in a tomb, only to rise
again. But hearken back to the Last Supper: "Take this, this is my body." Jesus ~~was~
consumed, the night before, and every event that transpired afterward, made that
prophecy come true, just like every other Greek tragedy. And also, like other Greek
tragedies, all of the characters involved in the events were unaware of what they were
doing. When Jesus said "Forgive them for they know not what they do," I had that moment
of realization, that no, they really don't know. Even though every step has been taken,
and every act led into the next, none of them were aware of the huge amount of meaning
in this terrible though all-too-common act of crucifixion.
It's my contention that as a piece of Greek literature, written for a Greek audience,
the Gospel writers would most certainly have drawn upon existing Pagan cult practices to
add weight and dramatic tension to the narrative of the Passion. By placing the
concluding act of the Epulum at the beginning of the story, the Classical audience would
have been looking for each of these cues in the story, and seeing each of them fulfilled
would have been just as shocking to them, as it was to me when I witnessed it in the
theater. The image of Pilate washing his hands made my hair stand on end, because I have
performed vegetative sacrifices to Pomona and to Venus, and I have stood there washing
my hands before my people.
Never in my life would I have expected to feel as though I was living in that age,
thousands of years ago, when these stories were first being told. Me, the Pagan, knowing
the ways of his people, and being presented with this story, watching each detail
unfold, and gasping at every item further down the list. This makes me wonder, of all
the millions of Christian people in this world, could any of them have felt this
experience as I did? Will any of the others of my Pagan family dare to see this film, to
experience this strange connection with the old ways?
How rare a gift I have been given; to see a story so old, perhaps in the way it was
meant to be seen.
1) Graecus, Antonius Gryllus, Pontifex.
Template and Guidelines for Domestic Roman Sacrifice."
2) Oxford Study Bible, Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha. New York : Oxford
University Press, 1992. All biblical quotations taken from this version of the text.
Eric "Fritter" Riley
Eric "Fritter" Riley received his Bachelor's Degree in English Literature with a minor
in Classical Civilization (Roman Republic) in 1998 from the University of Cincinnati,
and his Master's in Library and Information Science in 2002 from the University of
Washington. Though practicing in a Wiccan tradition, he is a devotee of Venus and slowly
experimenting with Roman Reconstructionism. Among other things he is a Librarian in
Washington, DC and a Radical Faery at the seat of his soul. He can be contacted at the
email address above.