The constituent elements of sacrifice have been incorporated into the particular religions and cultures of the world in various and often complex ways. A few brief observations that may illustrate this variety and complexity are given here.
Religions of IndiaSpeculations regarding sacrifice and prescribed rituals seem to have been worked out more fully in the Vedic and later Hindu religion in India than anywhere else. These rites, laid down in a complicated system known mainly from the Brahmana texts, included obligatory sacrifices following the course of the year or the important moments in the life of an individual and optional sacrifices occasioned by the special wishes of a sacrificer. Yet cultic sacrifice has not developed in Buddhism, another religion that arose in India. Ritual sacrifice was judged to be ineffective and in some of its forms to involve cruelty and to run counter to the law of ahimsa, or noninjury. There are, however, in the Jataka stories of the Buddha’s previous births accounts of his self-sacrifices. Furthermore, Buddhism emphasizes the notion of ethical sacrifices, acts of self-discipline, and there are instances of devotional offerings, such as burnt incense, to the Buddha.
Religions of ChinaIn China sacrifice, like other aspects of religion, has existed at a number of different levels. The essential feature of imperial worship in ancient China was the elaborate sacrifices offered by the emperor himself to heaven and earth. There are also records of sacrifice, including human sacrifice, associated with the death of a ruler because it was thought proper for him to be accompanied in death with those who served him during life. But, because the common people were excluded from participation in imperial sacrifices, they had lesser gods—some universal, some local—to whom sacrifices were made. Furthermore, ancestor worship has been the most universal form of religion throughout China’s long history; it was the responsibility of the head of a household to see to it that sacrificial offerings to the dead were renewed constantly. The blending of these elements with such established religions as Buddhism and Daoism influenced the great diversification of sacrificial rites in China.
Ancient GreeceThe Homeric poems contain the most complete descriptions of sacrificial rites in ancient Greece. These rites, which were maintained almost without change for more than 10 centuries, were of two types: rites (thysia) addressed to the Olympian deities, which included burning part of a victim and then participating in a joyful meal offered to the gods during the daytime primarily to serve and establish communion with the gods; and rites addressed to the infernal or chthonic deities, which involved the total burning or burying of a victim in a sombre nocturnal ceremony to placate or avert the malevolent chthonic powers. Besides the official or quasi-official rites, the popular religion, already in Homer, comprised sacrifices of all kinds of animals and of vegetables, fruits, cheese, and honey offered as expiation, supplication, or thanksgiving by worshippers belonging to all classes of society. Furthermore, the secret worship of what are known as the mysteries—cults normally promising immortality or some form of personal relationship with a god—became widespread. This practice became especially prominent during the Hellenistic period.
JudaismThe destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce marked a profound change in the worship of the Jewish people. Before that event, sacrifice was the central act of Israelite worship; and there were many categories of sacrificial rites that had evolved through the history of the Jews into a minutely detailed system found in that part of the Torah (Law; the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) that is ascribed by biblical scholars to the Priestly Code, which became established following the Babylonian Exile (586–538 bce). The sacrificial system ceased, however, with the destruction of the Temple, and prayer took the place of sacrifices. In modern Judaism the Orthodox prayer books still contain prayers for the reinstitution of the sacrificial cult in the rebuilt Temple. Reform Judaism, however, has abolished or modified these prayers in keeping with the conception of sacrifice as a once adequate but now outmoded form of worship, and some Conservative congregations have also rephrased references to sacrifices so that they indicate solely past events without implying any hope for the future restoration of the rite
ChristianityThe interpretation of sacrifice and particularly of the Eucharist as sacrifice has varied greatly within the different Christian traditions, partly because the sacrificial terminology in which the Eucharist was originally described became foreign to Christian thinkers. In short, during the Middle Ages, the Eastern church viewed the Eucharist principally as a life-giving encounter with Christ the Resurrected; the Roman church, however, saw it primarily as a bloodless repetition of the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross. For the Protestant reformers in the 16th century, the sacrifice of Christ was unique and all sufficing, so that the idea of repeating it in cult became unnecessary. Sacrifice was separated from liturgy and was associated, especially in Calvinist Protestantism, with the personal ethical acts that should be made by a Christian believer. The ecumenical movement of the 20th century, bolstered by modern biblical scholarship, led some of the Christian churches—e.g., the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches—to realize that they are not so far apart in their understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice as was formerly thought and that they hold many elements of belief in common.