But We Do See Abel: Hebrews and Depictions of Abel’s Sacrifice in Some Mosaics of Ravenna

The references to Abel’s sacrifice and to his ongoing speaking in Heb 11:4, as well as the possible allusion to Abel’s blood in Heb 12:24 have tended in modern times to be read in terms of Abel’s death at the hands of Cain as prefiguring in some way the sacrificial death of Jesus. Two mosaics in different late-antique basilicas in Ravenna, Italy, appear to reflect a different interpretation. They present imagery that invites Christian worshipers to link Jesus’ sacrifice and Abel’s sacrifice at the level of Abel’s offering of an animal to God. The mosaics depict the biblical figures Abel and Melchizedek offering sacrifices together at the same altar. In the context of a Christian basilica, the union of Abel and Melchizedek at the same altar likely draws upon Hebrews, the only biblical text other than Genesis to mention both figures. This allows the further inference that Heb 11:4 and 12:24 underlie these images and, together with Genesis, are understood in terms of Abel offering a lamb, not in terms of Abel’s own blood being offered to God or crying out to God as some kind of sacrifice. That is to say, Abel’s murder is not depicted in these mosaics as the implied point of contact between Abel’s sacrifice and that of Jesus. This use of Abel correlates well with some ancient eucharistic prayers that invoke Abel as a model for the Christian priest’s reenactment of Jesus’ offering of his blood and flesh to the Father at the heavenly altar to which he ascended after his resurrection. The fact that Melchizedek is offering bread and wine further supports the importance of the Eucharist for these mosaics. These images may, therefore, provide access to an interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice especially linked with Hebrews that places as much or perhaps more emphasis on the presentation of Jesus’ blood and flesh to the Father at the heavenly altar than it does on his death on the cross. In contrast to some modern accounts of Jesus’ sacrifice in Hebrews, these mosaics present Abel’s sacrifice in a way that highlights his act of giving the gift of an animal to God, not the fact or effects of his death. Such evidence is important for reflecting both on alternative theologies of sacrifice and on the interpretation of Hebrews in the past.