Lamb of God
LAMB OF GOD
This subject is dealt with here first exegetically and then, on that basis, theologically. Finally, the iconography will be considered.
Exegesis. The origin of this title given to Christ (Jn1.29–36) is difficult to determine. It can perhaps be traced to Isaiah ch. 53, where the Servant of Yahweh is compared to a lamb (v. 7), and Acts (8.32) applies this text explicitly to Christ. There it is said that He bears our sins
(Is 53.6, 11–12); but by itself this text is incapable of explaining the expression, for in John, Christ is not said to be like a lamb; He is the lamb; what is more, the lamb of God. He does not bear the sins of others; He takes them away. However, the entire account of the baptism of Christ, within the framework of which John places the proclamation made by the Baptist (cf. Jn 1.31–34 and Mt3.16–17) directs one's search toward the Servant of Yahweh. The divine revelation, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," and the descent of the Spirit (Mt 3.16–17 and parallels) and Jn 1.34 (with the variant "he is the chosen one," which seems original) recall clearly the prophecy of the Servant of Yahweh, Is 42.1 [cf. O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, tr. S. Guthrie and C. Hall (rev. ed. Philadelphia 1963)].C. F. Burney, following C. J. Ball, has pointed out that the Aramaic word ṭalya', which like the πα[symbol omitted]ς of the Septuagint, signifies boy, young man, and servant, also signifies lamb. The studies of J. Jeremias render very plausible the explanation that the meaning of the expression can be found in the twofold signification of the word ṭalya' and that the original form of the expression was "Behold the Servant of God" (Cullmann, B. Gärtner, M. E. Boismard, R. Schnackenburg), a saying much easier to explain, coming from the lips of the Baptist, than the expression Lamb of God. B. Gärtner states that the Targum of Psalm 117 (118) in fact gives to the Davidic Messiah the title to ṭalya', taken by turn in the twofold sense of servant and of lamb. All this would indicate that the Johannine account is Aramaic in origin, moreover that the translation of ṭalya' into ἀμνός was intentional and not the result of an error.
The meaning of the title is to be sought not in the concept that the Baptist may have had of the Messiah, since the expression as it came from his lips probably had another form; it is to be sought in the fourth Gospel. However, the fourth Gospel appears to a number of exegetes, with the evidence growing [cf. F. X. Durrwell, The Resurrection: A Biblical Study, tr. B. Sheed (New York 1960); B. Gärtner John 6 and the Jewish Passover (Lund 1959)], as a paschal Gospel. The symbolism underlying the title is that of the lamb of sacrifice, and not of the daily sacrifice, but of the paschal sacrifice. The final evocation of the paschal lamb (Jn 19.36), when the Evangelist's account reaches its culminating point, explains the proclamation at the beginning (1.29). The primitive liturgy (cf. 1 Cor 5.7–8), the coinciding of the death of Christ with the paschal feast of the Jews, probably contributed to giving this title to Christ.
Theology. For St. John the title of Lamb of God is of great theological importance. This springs from the fact that the whole Gospel account is enclosed between this proclamation of Jesus as lamb of God and the evocation of the prefigurative lamb (1.29 and 19.36); also from the fact that John emphasizes (18.28; 19.14, 31) the coincidence between the immolation of the prefigurative paschal lamb and the Hour of Christ when the destiny of Christ is accomplished and His whole being is revealed (8.28), and when He is presented to men as the object of their faith (3.14–15; 12.32; 19.35, 37). It can be concluded, then, that the paschal lamb was for St. John a privileged image to express the mystery of Christ.
Salvific Transcendence. In its form, the title is close to others in the fourth Gospel that express the transcendence of Christ. Just as Jesus is not like bread, a vine, a shepherd, etc., but indeed is the Bread, the Vine, the Shepherd, etc., so that no others can be so named, in the same way He is not only like a lamb, He is the Lamb. This transcendence is emphasized by the addition "of God," which expresses not only the divine origin and character (cf. "the bread from heaven," "the bread of God" 6.32–33), but also the sacrificial consecration in God. Christ is the victim of the true sacrifice. There is on this point as on others [cf. C. Spico, L'Épître aux Hébreux (Paris 1952) 1:109–138] a certain resemblance between Johannine thought and that of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The transcendence of Christ is, according to St. John, essentially salvific, so that in Him one cannot separate the mystery of the Incarnation from that of the Redemption. Christ says: "I Am" (8.28, 58); but ordinarily He adds a predicate signifying that He Is for men (the bread, the vine, the resurrection and the life). The title Lamb of God makes it clear and precise that this salvific mystery is sacrificial. One can say that the mystery of Redemption, the paschal mystery, is for St. John inherent in that of the Incarnation.
Just as Christ is from the beginning "the bread from heaven," "the shepherd," etc., and just as He becomes so in plenitude only by His sacrifice (6.52; 10.11), so also He is from the beginning called the lamb (1.29)—from the beginning there is in Him the sacrificial consecration (10.36)—but He becomes so in plenitude only in death. The salvific Incarnation is realized in plenitude only by passage through death, and it is as immolated that Christ continues forever when, in glory, the mystery of the salvific Incarnation has reached its plenitude (cf. Rv 5.6).
Sanctification in God. This title also sheds light on the nature of the redemptive sacrifice. The paschal rite was a sacrifice of communion (cf. 1 Cor 5.7–8); the meal was an essential element of it. Understood by St. John by means of the symbolism of the paschal lamb, the sacrifice of Christ is not presented in the manner of a substitution, where the victim bears the sins of others and expiates them by undergoing their punishment. Contrary to Isaiah 53.6, 11–12, it is not said that the Lamb bears but that He takes away sin. Just as, according to St. John, darkness is dispelled by the Word that is light, and death by communion with Him who is the bread of life, the resurrection, so also sin is destroyed by communion with the Lamb, by participation in the sanctity proper to His sacrifice.
For the sacrifice is, in the eyes of John, a sanctification in God (17.19). Sanctified from the beginning (10.36), Christ comes to the plenitude of His sanctification in His death (17.19), where He is caught up into the glory of God (13.32) and where He shares this sanctification with His own (17.19).
It is therefore vain to pose the question: Is it by His innocence (Lagrange) and by His holiness (Boismard) or rather is it by His sacrifice that the Lamb abolishes sin? It is certainly through His sacrifice, according to St. John, that sin is abolished (1 Jn 1.7; 2.2; 4.10), but in this sacrifice is the plenitude of the sanctification of Christ by God.
Sin, therefore, is abolished by the sanctity of Christ in His sacrifice and by communion with Him. So the Apocalypse shows the faithful washing their garments in the blood of the Lamb (7.14). Christ not only merits the pardon of sin, He is Himself the expiation (1 Jn 2.2;4.10), that is, the abolition of sin. This is in conformity with the idea of the Old Testament, according to which it is the holiness of God that expiates the sins of men in the sacrifice. A confirmation that sin is expiated by Christ immolated and by communication with His holiness is found in the fact that the Lamb of God is characterized by the presence of the Holy Spirit in Him (1.29–34), that Christ is designated once again as the Lamb of God at the moment when from His opened side issued the water, symbol of the Holy Spirit (19.33–36; cf. 7.37–39), and that it is in the Spirit that sins are forgiven (1.33;20.22–23).
The theology of the Lamb is taken up again in the Apocalypse. Heaven is the place proper to the sacrifice of the Lamb (5.6). Christ is there forever immolated (5.6). All that is said of Christ: Lord, judge, fullness of the Spirit of God, pastor of the Church and its spouse—all this is said of Him in so much as He is the lamb immolated. The paschal sacrifice belongs to His very being, and the faithful are saved by communion with this Lamb immolated.
Bibliography: r. schnackenburg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 6:768–769, bibliog. e. lohse, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 1957–65) 4:218–219. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 1297–99. m. e. boismard, Du baptême à Cana (Paris 1953).
[f. x. durrwell]
Iconography. The symbol of the Lamb shows up very early in Christian iconography. Behind the representation, which underwent only slight modification throughout history, lies a wealth of theology. The lamb first appears, it seems, with representations of the Good Shepherd, but by the fourth century the lamb became an independent symbol, without the figure of Christ. Both the symbol and the idea behind it derive from Scripture: the eating of the paschal lamb and the saving power of its blood (Ex ch. 12); the comparison of the Servant of the Lord to a lamb (Is ch. 53); and John the Baptist's reference to Christ as the Lamb of God (Jn 1.29–36).
The symbolic lamb began to appear in the apses or façades of basilicas, on sarcophagi, and on smaller pieces of art. In ancient Christian portrayals of paradise one sees the lamb on the mountain, with four streams (the four Gospels) flowing to the four ends of the earth (SS. Cosmas and Damian, Rome). Frequently six lambs were added on either side, representing the Apostles or the faithful. In the apse of old St. Peter's, Rome, the lamb is depicted as in Rv 5.6–10, standing in a triumphant, redeeming position in front of the cross. In a.d. 692 a small restriction was placed on the symbolic representation of the lamb. The Council of Trulla, held in the Eastern Church, forbade the representation of the lamb to take the place of the body of Christ on the cross.
In the baptistery of the Lateran, one sees the lamb depicted as the source of the fruits of Baptism. The Lateran also shows the lamb, according to an image in the Revelation, resting on the scroll with seven seals, holding a victorious banner, and adored by the 24 elders and the four living creatures. All of these representations, with minor differences, are found in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany as far back as the fourth century. Somewhat later the lamb was associated with the holy sacrifice of the Mass and with the Passion by having the lamb appear with a chalice; this chalice is sometimes receiving a stream of blood from the wounded side of the lamb. The symbolic use of the lamb continued through the Middle Ages, but during this later period deterioration crept in. The lamb, for instance, became the base for pillars and doorposts or was pictured led by Mary as its shepherdess. Today the lamb symbol is modeled mostly upon very early types.
Gradually the lamb was also used in art forms and in other instruction media of the Church as a symbol of purity, humility, holy simplicity, patience, and still other virtues; e.g., St. Agnes is shown with the lamb (purity).
With regard to liturgical music and recitation, the term Lamb of God is prominent in the Latin rite. The lamb, apparently representing Christ as the victorious Redeemer, is cited in the Mass and in litanies. Some of these Mass texts reach as far back as the fourth century. In the Byzantine liturgy the sacramental bread bears the figure of the lamb; and in order to signify the sacrifice and death of the victim Christ, the lamb is cut into four parts. A popular sacramental is the agnus dei (Latin for Lamb of God), wax blessed every seven years by the Pope. It has a very interesting history and is used as a reminder of God's special blessing.
In the Western Church as far back as the seventh century (Sacramentary of Bobbio) one finds a blessing of a lamb that was to be eaten at the Easter meal. The Rituale romanum contains the blessing of the lamb. In the Eastern Church there was some hesitation to accept this blessing of the lamb, but by the Middle Ages it was received into their rituals.
To appreciate the lamb symbol adequately, one must be acquainted with the nature and peculiar habits of the lamb. Unfortunately, many people today are almost entirely ignorant of these, as well as of the special mode of pasturing sheep in seminomadic areas like Palestine.
See Also: resurrection of christ, 2; suffering servant, songs of satisfaction of christ.
Bibliography: e. mangenot, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903—50) 1:576–585. v.h. elbern et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 6:766–768. r. schnackenburg, ibid. 768–769. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie. ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou (Paris 1907–53) 1:877–905. Proceedings of the Precious Blood Study Week, 2 v. (Rensselaer, Ind. 1957–60), index s.v. "Lamb."
[v. m. oberhauser]