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Another Look at the “Lamb of God”

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*Editor’s note: Chris Skinner was one of my interns at Dallas Theological Seminary, and a great student of the scriptures. I’m sure you’ll agree this is an insightful and provocative essay.

Inquiries into the interpretation of John the Baptist’s “Lamb of God” pronouncements (John 1:29, 36), have been the subject of serious discussion for almost a century in New Testament studies.2 Countless commentators have attempted to positively identify the referent behind the “Lamb,” leading to a number of prominent views. The fact that different trends in Biblical studies have continually informed the discussion and allowed for a proliferation of views renders hopeless the notion of a scholarly consensus or even a majority opinion on the “Lamb.” This study, therefore, does not purport to offer a final word on the discussion. Rather, the purpose of this study is to summarize the major positions with a view toward (1) understanding the history of interpretation; and (2) proposing an alternative view that incorporates a number of factors germane to the discussion.

In the forthcoming survey we will examine the nine most commonly posed views. The views to be considered will be divided into two groups—those that appeal to the theology of atonement and those that do not.

Major Views Associated with Atonement

A careful reading of the Baptist’s proclamation in the context of the Fourth Gospel has led many to understand the “Lamb of God” in a substitutionary sense. By far, the majority of interpreters connect the “Lamb” image with some aspect of atonement theology. The first seven of the nine views fall into this category.

1. The Tamid or the Lamb of the Daily Sacrifices. A critical part of communal life and worship under the Mosaic system was the lamb offered daily for ritual sacrifice in the temple. This practice eventually became known as the Tamid—the Hebrew term meaning “regularly” or “continually.” This daily ritual was outlined in the Mosaic Law in a portion dedicated to the requirements and activities of the priests.

Exodus 29:38-42 reads, “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old regularly [dymT=, MT] each day. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening and with the first lamb one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening, and shall offer it with a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing aroma, an offering by fire to the Lord. It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there.”3

As with other cultic sacrifice in the Old Testament, this was a way for the community of YHWH to gain access to him. Also like other instances of sacrifice in the Old Testament the animal in question was to meet certain requirements—among them was the standard of perfection. The sacrificial animal was to be unblemished in a tangible, physical sense.

The details outlined in Exodus 29 and in the wider context of the book, are intimately connected to the “otherness” of YHWH as expressed in his “self-revelation” recorded in the Pentateuch.4 It serves to emphasize his holiness while laying out strict guidelines as to how the community should endeavor to approach him. Thus, the ideas of God’s unapproachableness and his perfection juxtaposed with the glaring imperfections of his people emerge as critical theological concepts. Seen from that perspective, this view does have something to offer the discussion of the Baptist’s “Lamb of God.”

This view appears attractive because it offers a theologically sophisticated referent behind the Baptist’s “Lamb.” One we recognize that the Tamid identification of the “Lamb” presents us with—(1) the concept of “perfection,” (2) a sacrificial lamb, and (3) a vicarious act providing access to God—the strengths of this view as related to Christ, are evident.

Traditional Christian reflection has sought to establish Jesus’ absolute perfection as a fundamental element of the faith.5 Further, the cross of Christ is presented throughout the New Testament as both a sacrifice for sins and as a vicarious experience providing access to God. In these three areas, the Tamid interpretation offers valid theological correspondence.

While there are few commentators who make an explicit link between this Old Testament image and the Baptist’s “Lamb,” Hoskyns briefly points to Exodus 29 as the background for John 1:29, 36 in his commentary on the Fourth Gospel. He writes, “The faith of the apostles is authorized by the original and primary witness of John, who declares Jesus to be the property of God, by whose complete obedience the normal sacrifices in the Temple—a lamb without blemish was offered daily both morning and evening (Exod. xxix. 38-46). . . .The place of the sacrifice is the place where the glory and grace of God is made known (Exod. xxix. 43). The obedience of the Son of man is therefore the place where the guilt of sin is taken away, and since His obedience is an ultimate obedience its consequences are universal.”6 Concurring with Hoskyns in a more dated commentary, William Bruce states, “The Lord, as to his humanity, is the Lamb of God. This is a name given to him as the great antitype of the Jewish sacrifices, especially of the lamb of the daily sacrifice, and of the paschal lamb, which were types of Jesus, who offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.”7

We see then, that theologically, the association between Jesus and the lamb of the daily sacrifices is compelling. However, the theological sophistication of the three previously mentioned points of correspondence is based upon a reflective reading of Jesus’ mission, crucifixion, and resurrection from a distinctly Christian perspective. In other words, these points of contact are only recognizable in light of the cross in Christian theology. Further, in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion, there was not an immediate recognition of him as the embodiment of perfection nor was he recognized as a “sacrificial messiah.” And while Christians confess that Jesus did provide unique access to God through his death, this is only deemed true in light of Christian reflection on the crucifixion and resurrection. Thus, there is no way to intelligently explain these sophisticated points of theological correspondence apart from the Easter moment and the doctrinal development that followed.

It seems unlikely, therefore, from a theological standpoint that the Tamid represents the Baptist’s notion behind the “Lamb of God.” It should be noted, though, that the correspondence of the Tamid extends beyond the theological level. It also has correspondence at the lexical level.

The Greek term used for the Baptist’s “Lamb of God” (ajmnov") is the same term used in the Greek translation of Exodus 29:38. There are numerous words used in both the Old Testament and the New Testament (as well as the extracanonical literature) for “lamb” and “sheep.” And, while this is not—in and of itself—convincing, it does deserve some attention.

It is important to note that the Fourth Gospel reports the Baptist using the term which corresponds to the LXX use of lamb in Exodus 29:38. However, the broad use of the term in the LXX (129 occurrences in 121 verses) alongside the fact that ajmnov" is used in reference to lambs in many different situations within the community, mitigate against it carrying much weight in the discussion of this interpretive option. The use of this term could potentially reveal something about the emphasis of the evangelist, but it should be noted that, while the evangelist does emphasize Christ’s death on behalf of his followers, he does not make reference elsewhere in the narrative to the daily sacrifices. This fact would make the Tamid interpretation unlikely even with consideration of the lexical congruence.8

2. The Scapegoat of Leviticus 16. During Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness there were many requirements placed upon the community in order that they might be able to maintain fellowship with a holy God. First mention of the scapegoat is made in Leviticus 16 where requirements for the Day of Atonement are outlined. Leviticus 16:6-10 reads as follows: “Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering (which is for himself), that he may make atonement for himself and for his house. And he shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the Lord fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.” Since the context in which the scapegoat is mentioned is the theologically significant Day of Atonement, there is, at the theological level, some credence to this view.

As with the view presented above, there is correspondence between the ideas presented by the scapegoat (i.e., atonement and acceptance before God), and what has traditionally been associated with Jesus in Christian confession. But while the ideas of atonement and acceptance present strong theological correspondence, they ultimately fall flat in that Christ’s death is not primarily in view at this point in the narrative, but his presence and likely his forthcoming ministry. This view, then, fails to be convincing for several reasons.

First of all, the notion of atonement was not initially associated with the coming of messiah,9 so it is a strain to identify the scapegoat as the primary image. As with the Tamid interpretation, this level of theological profundity could only be explained in light of the Christian interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection. Second, the view, in the words of Morris, “suffers from the fatal defect that the scapegoat was not a lamb.”10 While the images of sacrificial lamb and goat are somewhat related, the distinct terms for the animals allow for sharp distinction between the two. It seems unlikely then, that one would confuse the two animals and think of a goat upon hearing the phrase “Lamb of God.” Third, while other sacrificial rituals had a solid foundation in Judaism because of their continual impact on the community, the scapegoat is somewhat obscure in the larger context of Israelite life. The seeming obscurity of the concept alongside the fact that it does not appear in the larger context of the Johannine narrative, weighs against it being taken too seriously as the referent behind John’s “Lamb.”

Interestingly, while the scapegoat has been proposed as an option by numerous commentators, there does not seem to be even one strong proponent of this view among modern commentators. Although this explicitly reveals nothing, scholarly silence may, in many ways, tacitly confirm the tenuity of the position.

3. The “Gentle Lamb” of Jeremiah 11:19. Of the views offered to interpret John’s “Lamb of God,” this one appears to have the least amount of correspondence. In the context of Jeremiah the reference to a gentle lamb is connected figuratively to the threats against the life of the unsuspecting prophet. The text reads [Jeremiah speaking], “The Lord revealed it to me [i.e., the conspiracy against Jeremiah], and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb [ajrnivon, LXX] led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered.’”

Both on and below the surface, a connection between the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world ”and a vulnerable prophet facing a conspiratorial situation has a flimsy connection. The idea being communicated through the “gentle lamb” is one of unsuspecting innocence and meekness. While Christian reflection has sought to establish Jesus’ innocence and meekness in the face of suffering, it would be a stretch to conclude that this was the ultimate idea intended here. And, once again, should we choose to adopt this view, we would have an understanding of the phrase that points beyond Jesus’ initial appearance to significant events in his life—namely his sufferings.

In fact, the Baptist’s idea seems to be one tied to authority and power. Jesus is the “Lamb of God” and he, in some sense, takes away the sin of the world. Thus the ideas do not correspond well. Regarding this understanding of the phrase, Bernard agrees that, “the thought of the gentleness of a lamb is insufficient to explain the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world.”11

Bernard, (followed by Brown and Marshall) suggests that this view may have won a hearing among some scholars because the description so closely resembles the gentle lamb of Isaiah 53:7 which is “silent before its shearers.”12 Not only is the lamb of Isaiah 53:7 associated with Christ in the New Testament, but it has gained further momentum and recognition from reflection on his death. Ultimately, however, it would be risky to make a leap from the meaning of one text (Jer 11) because of its supposed relation to another text (Isa 53), further basing that upon its use in the New Testament, and to then conclude that it is the intended image in the Baptist’s pronouncements. While the “gentle lamb” of Jeremiah may find symbolic correspondence from a confessional standpoint, it ultimately fails to offer a valid textual image with which to associate the “Lamb of God.”

4. The Guilt Offering. This view is less clearly defined than the views offered thus far. There are several texts that point to the sacrifice prepared as a guilt offering. The first of these is Leviticus 14:12-13 which reads: “The priest shall take one of the lambs [ajmnov", LXX] and offer it as a guilt offering along with the log of oil, and raise them as an elevation offering before the Lord. He shall slaughter the lamb where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered in the holy place; for the guilt offering like the sin offering, belongs to the priest; it is most holy.”

Another text that refers to the guilt offering—in the context of requirements for the Nazirites—is Numbers 6:11-12: “And the priest shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as the burnt offering, and make atonement for them, because they incurred guilt by reason of the dead body. They shall sanctify the head that same day, and separate themselves to the Lord for their days as nazirites, and bring a male lamb [ajmnov", LXX] a year old as a guilt offering.”

The guilt offering, like some of the views covered above, does provide theological correspondence with the Christian view of Jesus—particularly in the function and results of his death. The removal of guilt is intimately tied to the removal of sin, which the Baptist’s “Lamb” is said to provide—although it is unclear at this point exactly what that means.

One problem, which both Morris and Carson point out, is that the sacrifice itself was not always a lamb but was more often a bull or a goat—as alluded to in the book of Hebrews.13 A bigger problem for this view is that the guilt offering never appears in the wider scope of the Johannine narrative. It would be odd to have an unerring character introduce such a concept in the first chapter only to have it abandoned throughout the remainder of the gospel. 14 In light of these problems, we must conclude that this view fails to provide us with the best option in identifying the original referent for the “Lamb of God.”

5. The Aqedah of Genesis 22. Another view grounded in Christian thought and prominent since the early church, is the identification of the “Lamb” with the sacrificial animal provided as a substitute for Isaac in Genesis 22:8.15 This passage has come to be known as the “binding of Isaac” or Aqedat Yitshaq, and, in the Jewish theology of the Common Era, has come to carry a great deal of significance. The context in which this event takes place is important in that it contains the reaffirmation of God’s desire to bless Abraham and his descendants.

The significance of the passage is found in two elements of the story—(1) the faithfulness of Abraham in being “tested” by YHWH, and (2) the faithfulness of YHWH in providing a substitute for Isaac and in confirming his blessing upon Abraham. Isaac is only a secondary element of the story as the pericope primarily revolves around the relationship between Abraham and YHWH. However, those who have taken the Aqedah and applied it to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” have recognized correspondence between Jesus and Isaac. This seems risky but there is some correlation between the two.

The correspondence between Jesus and Isaac presents some notable details. For instance, in the Aqedah text, Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice just as Jesus carries his wooden cross to his ultimate sacrifice for sin. Further, Isaac lays down his life and, in a sense, receives it back. Some have even seen this as evidence that he was “resurrected from the dead.”16 The New Testament narratives clearly depict Jesus as both laying down his life and receiving his life back through resurrection from the dead. However, beyond these points, it seems as though there is a mixing of metaphors and general lack of coherence within this view.

The ram provided by YHWH is said to correspond with Jesus inasmuch as he is the sacrificial provision of God. In other instances, though, Jesus is said to correspond to Isaac as in those details listed above. This makes the link between Jesus and the Aqedah somewhat confusing and difficult to maintain. Further, the connections made by this view are to Jesus’ death and not to his arrival on the scene as in the narrative context of John 1:29, 36.

At the lexical level there is no direct connection as the text reports that YHWH provided a ram (krivo") rather than a lamb (ajmnov"). As with the instance of the scapegoat, it is unlikely that the “Lamb of God” would be readily or easily associated with the “ram caught in a thicket,” in the mind of an original readership.

Another argument used in support of this view is the notion that the sacrificial animal in both texts was provided by God.17 In other words, the “ram caught in a thicket” was provided by God in Genesis 22 just as Jesus, the “Lamb” was also provided by God in John 1:29, 36. In this latter case, the genitive in the phrase oJ ajmnov" tou' qeou' would be understood as “from God” or “provided by God.” However, ablatival uses of the genitive, like the one mentioned above, are rare in Hellenistic Greek. For such a translation one would almost expect ejk tou' qeou' or ajpoV tou' qeou' rather than tou' qeou' alone.18

While this ram image would have been familiar to the original readership of the Fourth Gospel, it is unsubstantiated that the image of the God-provided sacrifice in Genesis was, at this early stage, associated with the advent of messiah. Also, there is not much in the context that would lend itself to such an interpretation, nor is there any strong tie to the idea of the removal of sin—however that is to be understood in the context of John 1. In fact, the overarching purpose of providing a substitute was to spare Abraham’s son while testing his faith, not to atone for or “take away” sin.

In this image we can recognize a possible focus upon the substitutionary aspects of the event and of Jesus’ death. However, while there are some prominent Old Testament themes in the Fourth Gospel and something of a focus upon substitution, neither Isaac in general, nor this specific event in particular, is in view anywhere in the narrative. Thus we must conclude that the Aqedah fails to provide us with the best interpretive option.

6. The “Lamb Led to the Slaughter” of Isaiah 53:7. An examination of the use of Old Testament texts in the New Testament reveals an overwhelming emphasis upon Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaianic prophecy. The writings of the New Testament are replete with significant references to the Isaiah tradition. For instance, Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14—a passage with possible reference to the natural birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz—and expands its interpretation by applying it to the miraculous birth of Christ.19 Luke records Jesus’ own declaration that he is, indeed, the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1.20 John 12:41 announces that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and subsequently spoke about him—a text which is thought, by some, to be an indirect reference to the events of Isaiah 6. More specifically the silent lamb which is “led to the slaughter” from Isaiah 53:7 has, in post-resurrection reflection, been a traditional Christian image for Jesus who, in his meekness and faithfulness, submitted to “the slaughter” of the cross.

The verse reads, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb [provbaton, LXX] led to the slaughter, and like a sheep [ajmnov", LXX] that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

This verse occurs in the larger context of the “servant songs” of Isaiah.21 Traditionally, the “servant” of the servant songs has been identified in numerous ways. These range from historical individuals to the community itself, to a specific group or “remnant” within the community.22 However, there is little evidence, if any, that these passages were thought of as referring to messiah prior to the 1st century. Since the many Jewish messianic expectations did not have a category for a messiah who suffered, these texts would have been completely foreign to the context of a discourse on the nature of messiah.

There is some evidence that, as early as the New Testament period, this text was thought to be a valid prophecy of Jesus’ substitutionary death. In Acts 8, Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who is trying, without success, to understand the scriptures. Isaiah 53:7 is the particular verse which puzzles him and he asks Philip to explain it to him. The text says, “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture [i.e., Isa 53:7], he preached to him the good news about Jesus.” This identification cannot have escaped the attention of the church fathers, who not only saw this as a legitimate way of describing Jesus’ messiahship but also interpreted the servant song texts in this manner.

So we see that in Christian theology this notion presents a profound picture of Christ as a servant of God, but in the context of the Fourth Gospel this connection is questionable. This view then, ultimately suffers from three weaknesses. First of all, there was no conception in Hebraic thought of a suffering messiah. This is the most glaring weakness. Second, no Jewish exegetes prior to the late second century understood or interpreted the text in this way. Finally, this view claims to have theological correspondence to Christ’s death, which was not primarily in view at this point in the narrative. While this notion may find symbolic expression in Christian exposition of John 1:29, 36, from an interpretive standpoint we are forced to reject it as the primary notion behind the “Lamb of God.”

7. The Passover Sacrifice. Without question one of the most common images connected with Jesus’ sacrifice throughout Christian history, and specifically in John 1:29, 36, is the Passover sacrifice. There is much to commend this interpretation within the Fourth Gospel. First of all, Christ is explicitly identified with the Passover Lamb in John 19:36,23 and it seems a certainty that the evangelist is intending to portray Jesus, on some level, as the ultimate Passover Lamb.24 Also, in recording three different occasions of the observance,25 the evangelist clearly emphasizes the Passover and its significance in religious life. So in the Fourth Gospel it is clear that the evangelist is intending to make a connection between Jesus’ death and the Passover.

The question that needs to be asked is: Did the Passover previously have reference to messiah in Jewish contexts? This leads us to an examination of the feast and the theological significance it held for the nation.

Passover was one of the four great festal celebrations for the Hebrew people. The inception of the celebration is seen in Exodus during Israel’s struggle for independence from Pharaoh’s oppressive regime. The manner of escape for the Hebrews eventually came about through the blood of a sacrifice—the paschal lamb—in the midst of a great plague.

The significance of this event for the Hebrews was immense. It facilitated the establishment of their autonomous state as a theocracy under YHWH. It not only procured their freedom, but it remained a fundamental event of remembrance for communal worship. The significance of the Passover is further recognized in Jesus’ use of it as the locus for his theologically pregnant “Last Supper.” It is no mistake nor is it coincidence that these events occur during the same time frame, especially in the Fourth Gospel where, as has already been stated, the evangelist places pronounced emphasis upon the festal observance.

A major problem for this view, is that an identification of Jesus as a Passover Lamb, is related to his death and its effects inasmuch as they are held, in Christian theology, to be propitious with respect to sin. From a narrative critical standpoint, though, it is not unlikely that the Baptist’s early identification of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” is a foreshadowing of what will occur in later chapters.

Another objection is that the Passover victim was not always a lamb, and therefore an explicit identification with the Passover sacrifice would not necessarily have followed from the reference.26 We recognize that the term pavsca is found nine times in John’s Gospel, and while only one seems to be a direct reference to the sacrifice itself (18:28), this does reveal the evangelist’s familiarity with the proper terminology. Further, the differing terms are not problematic if we consider the evangelist’s predilection for double entendre.27

C. K. Barrett28 and R. E. Brown29 both identify the paschal lamb interpretation as that intended by the phrase, “Lamb of God” (although Brown also sees the suffering servant as an equally valid referent). However, both also make a distinction between the meaning intended by the evangelist and that intended by the Baptist. In concurring on the validity of the paschal lamb interpretation, both Barrett and Brown assert that this could not have been the Baptist’s original meaning, and that it must have been the emphasis of the evangelist. Considering the obvious attention given to the Passover in the Fourth Gospel this is not a far-fetched claim.

The proponents of this view argue that, at the literary level, there is theological correspondence in the notion of atonement. This view points to the protection and atonement provided by the initial paschal lamb and associates that in a wider sense with Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross. In that sense, the paschal lamb is said to be a type of Christ.

However, one objection is that the Passover sacrifice was not generally held to be expiatory and therefore, would not necessarily have lent itself to an understanding of atonement. Morris notes that this is not insurmountable though, since there seems to be strong evidence that all the sacrifices were held to be expiatory in some way by the close of the Old Testament period.30

The Fourth Gospel records at least 2 1/2 years of ministry, punctuated by three observances of the Passover. This is significant when compared with the single Passover mentioned in each of the Synoptics. Also, the evangelist has the time of Jesus’ condemnation coincide with the slaying of the lambs for Passover.31 Finally, the evangelist unambiguously identifies Jesus with the Passover in John 19:36. When all these factors are considered we are forced to regard the paschal interpretation as a strong contender for the position of primary referent behind the “Lamb of God.” After all the views have been considered, we will return to this view in further detail at the conclusion of the article.

Major Views Not Associated with Atonement

All of the views presented thus far have had some connection with the idea of atonement or sacrifice. The two views that follow represent further attempts to identify the referent behind the Baptist’s “Lamb of God” without appealing to the theology of substitutionary atonement.

8. The “Servant of YHWH” of Isaiah 53. This viewpoint was first given expression in 1909 by C. J. Ball in his short article “Had the Fourth Gospel an Aramaic Archetype?”32 It then found clearer exposition in 1922 in Burney’s work, The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel.33 Thirty-five years later, Jeremias and Zimmerli spoke to it in their monograph, The Servant of God.34 According to these proponents, there was an ambiguous Aramaic expression underlying the “unparalleled genitive combination”35 (oJ ajmnoV" tou' qeou') that was mistranslated and has therefore been misconstrued over time. This view is based upon the idea that behind the Fourth Gospel there was an original, Aramaic source.36 The primary contention of this view is that behind the Greek phrase, oJ ajmnoV" tou' qeou', there lies an Aramaic expression ahlad aylf (“Servant of the Lord”) in the sense of the well-known Hebrew phrase hwhy dbu (“Servant of YHWH”). This view points out the ambiguity in the Aramaic term aylf,37 which can mean (1) lamb, (2) boy, or (3) servant. It is further postulated that in the Greek text of John, aylf, with its multiplicity of meanings, was mistranslated as ajmnov" rather than the more proper pai'" (“servant”), resulting in an incorrect Greek rendering.

As with the specific “suffering servant” reference in Isaiah 53:7 there is nothing in the overall context of the Fourth Gospel that seems to point to such an understanding. Also, there are some serious holes in its lexical support. Dodd effectively speaks to this concern when he states, “As I have elsewhere observed, ajmnov" in the LXX never translates hlf. No examples are adduced of aylf as a rendering of dbu. Even the Syriac versions go back from pai`~ to adbu, except where they take it to mean ‘son.’ Thus we lack evidence in support of the view either that the Aramaic-speaking Church (or John the Baptist) could have spoken of the hwhy dbu as ahlad aylf, or that a bilingual translator who took aylf in the sense of ‘lamb’ would have chosen ajmnov" as its equivalent.”38

Along with the lexical difficulties already presented, Morris makes a significant point when he comments, “It is not easy to think that so well known an expression as ‘the Servant of the Lord,’ should be unrecognized, and should be translated by so difficult and unusual a phrase as ‘the Lamb of God.’”39 Carson adds that this view “presupposes that whoever put this Aramaic expression into Greek somehow avoided a perfectly common and obvious expression, ‘the servant of the Lord,’ in order to produce a new and rather strange expression, ‘the lamb of God.’”40 These points are well taken and, along with the evidence submitted by Dodd, ultimately lead to the conclusion that, while novel and imaginative, this option fails to present the most likely sense of the original “Lamb of God” pronouncement in the overall scope of the Fourth Gospel.

9. Triumphant Lamb of the Apocalypse/Apocalyptic Literature. In his work, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, C. H. Dodd arrives at a previously unmentioned conclusion in recognizing the title “Lamb of God” as equivalent to “King of Israel,” and seeing it as an indication that Jesus was, indeed, the messiah in the mind of John the Baptist.41 While Dodd downplays the notion of certainty regarding this title, he nonetheless identifies the Baptist’s oJ ajmnov" tou' qeou' with the prominent, conquering lamb (ajrnivon) of Revelation.

The triumphant, horned lamb of Revelation is a slain lamb that returns from death, receiving worship in the forms of “power and wealth and wisdom, might and honor and blessing and glory” (Rev 5:6-14). He is a powerful figure who exercises wrath and who strikes fear in those with whom he comes into contact—some who are powerful and revered (Rev 6:15-17). In a strange mixing of metaphors, the lamb is also described as the shepherd of God’s people (Rev 7:17). He even stands triumphant upon Mt. Zion (Rev 14:1)—the place associated with God’s blessing and the place that has traditionally stood, metonymically, for the “promised land” in Jewish theology.42 The Lamb also overcomes in the midst of opposition (Rev 17:14) and ultimately establishes his enduring reign upon the earth as the representative of God (Rev 22). Critics of the theory have presented several difficulties with this view that must be examined.

To begin with, it is often pointed out that the term used for the “triumphant lamb” in Revelation is a0rni//on rather than the term ajmnov", used in John 1:29, 36. However, the difference between ajmnov" and ajrnivon is not problematic if we recognize that—(1) ajrnivon, as used in the Apocalypse, is something of a technical term, and (2) there is often ambiguity in terms and concepts used by the Fourth Evangelist, thus allowing for his ironic wordplays.43 So it may be that the evangelist’s purpose in using ajmnov" was one of intentional ambiguity (i.e., he used a term which allowed for multiple meanings), while the author of Revelation is statically using a technical term within the context of the Apocalypse.

Another problem for this view is that the particular understanding of the “Lamb of God” offered by the ajrnivon of Revelation is potentially anachronistic in that the Apocalypse was likely written years later than the Fourth Gospel. This is hardly a consensus opinion regarding the dates of the Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel.44 However, if we grant—for the sake of argument—that the Fourth Gospel preceded the Apocalypse, we must also recognize that it is not as though the images presented in the Apocalypse arose in some apocalyptic vacuum.

It is at this point where an appeal to the extrabiblical literature makes a significant contribution to the discussion. Here, Dodd introduces an important point in tracing the a0rni//on image used in the Apocalypse to lamb imagery found in intertestamental apocalyptic. He then connects the Baptist’s “Lamb of God” conceptually to these same images. What Dodd argues, however, is that the apocalyptic lamb is the idea intended by the evangelist.45 This seems unlikely given the consistent focus of the evangelist upon the redemption provided in Christ.46 Further, there is little room theologically for the notion of a “conquering messiah” as a theological emphasis at the narrative level. However, there is a potential place for such a notion in the historical context of the Baptist and that is where we must take up a more detailed discussion of this view.

There are several early, extrabiblical texts that contain such a “conquering lamb” image. Among the more prominent texts are: 1 Enoch 90:6-19; Testament of Joseph 19:8-12; and Testament of Benjamin 3:8.47 Interpretive issues aside, three vital criteria are met in each of these texts. First, they all contain a conquering lamb image that was early enough to have informed the messianic expectation of John the Baptist.48 Second, all three “lamb” references are found in works clearly concerned with the nature and role(s) of messiah. Third, they all three appear in apocalyptic works.49 This final one is an incredibly significant criterion since biblical and historical inquiry reveals, without question, that John the Baptist was expecting an apocalyptic-eschatological, triumphant messiah, and not one who would suffer or atone for sin.50 Since there is a historically viable image with which to associate the Baptist’s pronouncements, it seems likely that the previous approaches to the interpretation of the “Lamb of God” have been unintentionally reductionistic in that they have failed to recognize two strands of meaning at work in the narrative.

If the “Lamb of God” is to be regarded as a genuine historical pronouncement recorded in the narrative for the sake of ironic emphasis—a common Johannine technique—then a proper interpretation of the title in context would yield two meanings: one historical and one theological. Based on this idea, each of the previous views, if it stands alone, must be rejected. Rather, the most acceptable solution incorporates more than one of these views. Before setting forth a final conclusion, one more interpretive issue must be considered.

The Meaning of oJ ai[rwn thVn aJmartivan tou' kosmou'

A significant element in the Baptist’s pronouncement in John 1:29 is the qualifying phrase “who takes away the sin of the world.” Invariably, this has been understood in the Christian tradition, as a reference to Jesus’ bearing of sin for the sinner through substitutionary death. Considering the interests of the evangelist, this is an appropriate way of understanding the phrase. However, as already stated, this is rooted in a distinctly Christian theological viewpoint. Therefore, we must examine the lexical and conceptual background of “taking away sin” as it appears in this context.

First, there is a question as to the precise meaning of the adjectival participle oJ ai[rwn the qualifying phrase, “who takes away the sin of the world.” Some seek to contrast the meaning of ai[rw in this text with the meaning of the verb fevrw (to bear, to carry), in order to arrive at an acceptable understanding of what the Baptist’s “Lamb” purports to do.51 An examination of both the LXX and the MT reveals that the phrase oJ ai[rwn thVn aJmartivan,” hearkens back to one of two Hebrew expressions—(1) /wu acn, or (2) afj acn.

Each of these phrases uses the verb acn—which literally means to “take away”52—combined with a term for sin (afj)53 or iniquity (/wu).54 The very idea of “removing” or “taking away” sin, as expressed literally in both the Hebrew and Greek constructions, is actually understood figuratively as the pardoning or forgiveness of sin.

The passages having this combination, then, offer a circumlocution for pardon or forgiveness. Significantly, the Greek verb used to translate acn is often a cognate form of ai[rw—the verb used in John 1:29. Therefore, the most important examples in the LXX, for the purposes of this study, are those containing ai[rw or a cognate form.55 In those cases, the literal phrase “to take away sin” is best rendered as “to forgive” or “to pardon.” In this regard, Barrett notes that these Hebrew constructions—and by analogy their LXX counterparts—“often signify the removal not of evil simply but of guilt.”56 In that case the qualifying phrase provides a gloss connected with atonement not messianic triumph. This excludes it from the category of strict historical pronouncement but allows it to fall directly in line with the theology of the Passover as mentioned above.

The Triumphant Lamb and the Substitutionary Lamb

In light of the foregoing survey, it is now possible to set forth a final conclusion. The most acceptable conclusion sees a combination of the Passover image as a theological emphasis and the triumphant lamb image as rooted in the historical context of the Baptist. This means that the phrase “Lamb of God” is something of a double entendre consistent with the evangelist’s practice of investing a speaking character’s words with greater post-resurrection significance. John the Baptist, in his true historical setting, declared, “Behold the Lamb of God,” in referring to Jesus.57 By this John likely intended to refer to Jesus as a conquering messiah, poised to bring swift judgment like that meted out in the images from his own eschatological preaching. The evangelist—in his narrative setting—took the opportunity to capitalize on this genuine pronouncement, investing it with greater meaning. Since the Johannine Jesus was a sin-bearing messiah, the evangelist framed the pronouncement in such a way and in such a context as to allow for and to produce double meaning. This is largely accomplished through the combination of the sacrificial Passover image with the qualifying phrase in 1:29.

In that light we can regard the “Lamb of God” as both an utterance of the historical Baptist as well as a powerful theological affirmation of the evangelist. The historical Baptist’s idea is related to the conquering messiah images of the Apocalypse and/or the extrabiblical, apocalyptic literature of the intertestamental period.58 We can regard the very Johannine, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as an implicit reference to Jesus as the ultimate Passover lamb. This finds greater significance in the Fourth Gospel’s emphasis on that observance. Thus, the notoriously difficult “Lamb of God” reveals not only the incompleteness of the historical Baptist’s messianic expectation, but the completeness and the gloriousness of the messiahship embodied by Jesus.59


1 This article has been accepted by Bibliotheca Sacra for publication in the January-March 2004 issue.

2 Cf. these major contributions to the discussion (in chronological order): C. J. Ball, “Had the Fourth Gospel an Aramaic Archetype?” Expository Times 21 (1909): 92-93; C. F. Burney, The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Parker, 1922), 104-08; E. May, Ecce Agnus Dei: A Philological and Exegetical Approach to John 1:29, 36 (Washington: Catholic University, 1947); C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 230-32; C. K. Barrett, “The Lamb of God,” New Testament Studies 1 (1954): 210-18; idem., The Gospel according to St. John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 175-77; W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, The Servant of God (London: SCM, 1957), 82; Raymond E. Brown, “Three Quotations from John the Baptist in the Gospel of John,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960): 292-98; Stephen Virgulin, “Recent Discussion of the Title ‘Lamb of God’,” Scripture 13 (1961): 74-80; C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 269; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (AB 29; New York: Doubleday, 1966), 58-63; E. W. Burrows, “Did John the Baptist Call Jesus the ‘Lamb of God’?” Expository Times 85 (1974): 245-49; Charles B. Coussar, “John 1:29-42,” Interpretation 31 (1977): 401-06; George L. Carey, “The Lamb of God and Atonement Theories,” Tyndale Bulletin 32 (1981): 98-121; Peter M. Renju, “The Lamb of God,” Bible Translator 49 (1988): 232-39; D. Brent Sandy, “John the Baptist’s ‘Lamb of God’ Affirmation in its Canonical and Apocalyptic Milieu,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 447-59.

3 All translations in this article are my own unless otherwise indicated.

4 Cf. especially Exodus 34:6.

5 The Chalcedonian definition reads, “This selfsame one [i.e., Jesus] is perfect both in deity and also in humanness” (John Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed. [Louisville: John Knox, 1982], 34).

6 Edwyn Clement Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel, reprint. ed. (Great Britain: Latimer Trend & Company, 1947), 176 (emphasis added).

7 William Bruce, Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John (London: James Speirs, 1891), 26-7 (emphasis added).

8 Several commentators suggest the plausibility of the “end” or “general fulfillment” of all the OT sacrifices in John’s application of this title to Jesus. Cf. the pertinent sections in C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John, 2d. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 175-77; Marcus Dods, The Gospel of St. John: I-XI (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1895), 46; Arno Gaebelein, The Gospel of John (New York: Our Hope, 1925), 32-3; Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 147-48; A. W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 57-9.

9 This assertion is based on the idea that the title “Lamb of God” is messianic to some degree but not in toto. In other words, the phrase is not to be understood as strictly messianic but may reveal an aspect of the John’s expected messianic figure. Moloney’s comment in this regard is helpful, “Many christological themes emerge across these first days, especially in the witness of the Baptist to Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Son of God. . . .In the Fourth Gospel, the Baptist is the one sent by God to give witness to Jesus, and he never fails in the task. He unerringly says things about Jesus which match what has been revealed to the reader in the Prologue” (Francis J. Moloney, “‘The Jews’ in the Fourth Gospel: Another Perspective” Pacifica 15 [2002]: 21) (emphasis added).

10 Morris, The Gospel according to John, 146.

11 J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928), 43 (emphasis added).

12 Ibid., 43. Cf. also Brown, The Gospel according to John, 63; and I. Howard Marshall, “Lamb of God,” in Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds., The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992), 433.

13 Morris, The Gospel according to John, 147. Cf. also D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 149.

14 See n. 8 above.

15 For a detailed treatment of the Aqedah in the OT, early Judaism, the NT, and extrabiblical literature, cf. James Swetnam, Jesus and Isaac: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Aqedah (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1981), 23-85; and P. R. Davies and B. D. Chilton, “The Aqedah: A Revised Tradition History,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978): 514-46.

16 C. T. R. Hayward, “The Sacrifice of Isaac and Jewish Polemic Against Christianity” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 [1990]: 292-300.

17 Morris also briefly discusses this as a translational possibility. Cf. Morris, The Gospel according to John, 144.

18 Cf. Daniel B. Wallace, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 107. It is possible, however, that the simpler tou' qeou' is used because a double entendre is in view.

19 Matthew 1:23.

20 Luke 4:14-21.

21 Cf. Isaiah 42:1-17; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12.

22 For an extensive discussion of the history of interpretation on this text, see Christopher R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 6-116.

23 The text reads, “These things occurred that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’” This is an allusion to Exodus 12:46 and/or Numbers 9:12—both of which describe requirements for the feast of Passover.

24 In this regard, Brown writes, “Most commonly scholars point to noon as the hour when the priests in the Temple began slaughtering the lambs for the Passover meal to be eaten that night. One may wonder whether John’s readers would have understood this symbolism. . . .That Jesus the Lamb of God was sentenced to death at the very hour when lambs for the Jewish Passover began to be killed would constitute a replacement theme (i.e., Jesus in place of a significant festal motif) quite at home in John’s treatment of Jewish feasts” (Raymond E. Brown, Death of the Messiah—From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels [New York: Doubleday, 1994], 1:847-48).

25 Cf. 2:13-23; 6:4; 11:55; 19:14.

26 The text itself reads, “you may take it from the sheep or the goats” (Exod 12:5).

27 See, for instance, Samaritans woman’s use of kuvrie throughout her conversation with Jesus in John 4. She is using the term as a polite title, probably to be understood as “sir.” However, the reader has already been given privileged information in the Prologue. Therefore, the reader understands that the application of this term to Jesus is ironic because the term kuvrie can also mean “Lord,” and this is how the reader has already come to know Jesus. For a full scale treatment of Johannine irony and the many ways the author uses this literary device, cf. Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985).

28 C.K. Barrett, “The Lamb of God” New Testament Studies 1 (1955): 217-18.

29 Brown, The Gospel according to John, 62-3; idem., Death of the Messiah, 1:847-48.

30 Morris, The Gospel according to John, 145.

31 Cf. Brown’s discussion of this in Death of the Messiah, 1:847-48.

32 C. J. Ball, “Had the Fourth Gospel an Aramaic Archetype?,” Expository Times 21 (1909): 91-93.

33 C. F. Burney, The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Parker, 1922).

34 W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, The Servant of God (London: SCM, 1957), 82.

35 Ibid., 82.

36 There is much debate among the proponents of this position as to whether the supposed Aramaic source was written or oral. For more on this cf. Oswald T. Allis, “The Alleged Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel,” Princeton Theological Review 26 (1928): 531-72; Schuyler Brown, “From Burney to Black: The Fourth Gospel and the Aramaic Question,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26 (1964): 323-39; C. C. Torrey, “The Aramaic Origin of the Gospel of John,” Harvard Theological Review 16 (1923): 305-44.

37 aylf is taken in the sense of the Hebrew hlf which means “lamb” but in the Aramaic corresponds to the Greek pai'" which means both “boy” and “servant.”

38 C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 235-36.

39 Morris, The Gospel according to John, 146.

40 Carson, The Gospel according to John, 149.

41 Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 231.

42 Mt. Zion is often to be understood as a synecdoche of part for whole. It is but one of the prominent hills surrounding the “promised land” but has achieved a place of prominence as a symbol for the whole.

43 Cf. n. 26.

44 There is fairly wide acceptance among NT scholars that the Fourth Gospel was written sometime between AD 90-110. With respect to Revelation, though, there are two primary options set forth for its composition. The first is just after the death of Nero—around AD 68-69. The second is near the end of Domitian’s reign—around AD 95. There is much speculation and varying opinion among NT scholars about which of the two eras is the most likely candidate for the composition of the Apocalypse.

45 This is also how Brown understands Dodd in his assessment of this view. Further, he appears to regard this as a legitimate historical saying. Cf. Brown, The Gospel according to John, 58-9.

46 Cf. e.g., John 1:12-13; 5:24-27; 8:51-52; 10:9, 15-17.

47 For the most current, authoritative translation of these texts, consult James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 1:70, 1:824-26.

48 Though clearly composite in nature, the three works in question were all written prior to the 1st century C. E. and all were used at the popular level of Jewish religious societies.

49 While there are questions raised as to the authenticity of portions of all three passages, all three contain the conquering lamb image apart from Christian interpolation.

50 This can be seen not only in John’s kerygma as preserved in Matthew 3:7-12 and Luke 3:11-17, but also in the description of John provided by Josephus. See Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, vol. 9 (trans. H. St. J. Thackeray et al; LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 77

51 In fact, Dodd speaks plainly to this notion when he writes, “I have pointed out that it is illegitimate to understand ai[rein aJmartivan as ‘to bear sin,’ implying an interpretation of the death of Christ as a piacular sacrifice. It means ‘to remove sin’, as in I John iii. 5 ejfanerwvqh i{na taV" aJmarativa" a[rh/?, i.e., to abolish or do away with sin” (Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 233).

52 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and Charles A Briggs, The Brown-Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 4th printing (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 671.

53 Ibid., 06-09.

54 Ibid., 730.

55 There are 5 such examples: Exodus 28:38; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; 1 Samuel 15:25; Micah 7:18.

56 Barrett, “The Lamb of God,” 210.

57 The second, shorter occurrence of the title in 1:36 probably reflects the more historical pronouncement that likely goes back to the Baptist.

58 As stated above, the dating of Revelation has some bearing upon this conclusion.

59 Thanks are due to Dr. Francis J. Moloney of The Catholic University of America and Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary. Each offered valuable critiques at different stages in the writing of this article.

Related Topics: Atonement