‘In The Blood Is Life” — A Common Belief In Ancient Times? -- By: Anonymous
BSP 2:4 (Autumn 1973) p. 105
‘In The Blood Is Life” — A Common Belief In Ancient Times?
God spoke to Moses in the wilderness and said, “The life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11).
In the full light of 20th century medical science we now know that indeed the very center of our life system is the blood flowing through our veins. This was revealed to the Israelites thousands of years ago and blood sacrifice became a central part of their worship.
But blood rites were common throughout the ancient world. That would lead one to conclude that there was some basic, common belief regarding blood among ancient peoples which constrained them to use blood in various religious rituals. And, in fact, this has been commonly held among scholars since around the turn of the century. It was then that two scholars, Julius Wellhausen and W. Robertson Smith, put forward the assertion that the ancient Semitic world (or at least the West Semites) generally believed that “in the blood is life.” This assertion was never seriously challenged — that is, until recently.
Catholic scholar Dennis J. McCarthy, S.J., formerly of St. Louis University Divinity School and now of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, conducted an exhaustive study of blood rites among ancient peoples to determine if indeed there was a commonly held belief. The results of his study were first published in June 1969 (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 88, No. 2) and then updated in June 1973 (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 92, No. 2). His conclusion? After reviewing the evidence he stated: “We must, then, conclude that the evidence from the ancient Semitic and Aegean areas does not show a general belief outside Israel in blood as a divine element which served as the basic reason or explanation for sacrifice. As far as we know, the reservation of blood to God because it was life and so divine is specifically Israelite.”
Because of the vital importance of this study, we are here presenting a substantial portion of Dr. McCarthy’s reports.
BSP 2:4 (Autumn 1973) p. 106
“Turning to the evidence, we might expect that the ancient cultural leader, Mesopotamia, would attribute a divine character to blood, for blood, or at least human blood, was from the gods. They had created man by vivifying [giving life to] clay with the blood of a god slain for rebellion, but no conclusions for the cult seem to have been drawn from this. The Mesopotamian sacrifice was essentially a meal served to the gods, a ritual undoubtedly i...
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