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Blood Basics > Early Practices

Blood in Ancient Judaism and Christianity

"Give the gift of life, give blood." So reads the American Red Cross plea for blood. This simple modern equation, blood = life, would have resonated deeply with inhabitants of the ancient world. In antiquity, however, the giving of blood took place not on a transfusion table between donor and recipient, but rather on a temple altar between priest and deity. This is true for many ancient religions, especially Judaism. Prohibiting the eating of blood, Leviticus 17:11 states:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.

In addition to blood's association with life, this biblical passage reveals yet another of blood's attributes -- its purifying power. Moreover, bloods from different sources receives intense consideration and attention. While sacrificial blood "purifies" altars and Israelites (Lev. 16:14-19), reproductive blood "purifies" women after childbirth (Lev. 12:4). The similar potencies of disparate bloods render menstruating women and sacrificial space mutually exclusive company.

Christianity continued and developed concerns regarding various powerful bloods. Although gentile Gentile converts were not expected to adhere to most Jewish dietary laws, blood was not to be eaten (Acts 15:29). Jesus's death was understood to have provided the definitive outpouring of sacrificial blood (Romans 3:25), but the Eucharist involved -- strikingly -- consuming his flesh and blood symbolically (1 Corinthians 10:16). Anxiety about women's participation in eucharistic worship and priestly leadership was thus also connected to the tension between sacrificial and reproductive bloods.

These ancient concerns regarding blood still influence the dietary observances and religious rituals of many today. Blood determines not only the fact of being alive, but the shape and form of how life is lived.

-- Dr. Joan Branham and Rev. Dr. Andrew McGowan