Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Origin of the Christian Doctrine of Atonement

The Gospel of Luke has no theology of the cross. Matthew and Mark do. This article explains the development of the theology of the cross in Mathew and Mark. This is a problem that the synoptic theorists have not addressed. No one has explained why Luke has no theology of the cross. Franklin puts the matter plainly: “Why has Luke avoided all references to the redemptive significance of the death of Jesus and the vicarious expressions that should have been suggested by his use of the Servant idea?[i] My theory not only explains why, it also provides an explanation of the reasons why and how the theology of the cross developed in the early church.

One of the core doctrines of Christianity is the statement that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Scholars have debated the origins of the doctrine of atonement generally referred to as the theology of the cross. The true origin of the doctrine is in the death of the Jewish High Priest. The death of the High Priest had atoning significance. The Jews believed that the death of the High Priest had atoning significance. Persons charged with accidental homicide who had fled to a city of refuge were permitted to return home after the death of the High Priest without facing prosecution [Num. 35: 11, 25, 28, 32]. The death of the High Priest was regarded as atonement for the innocent blood that had been shed. Jacob Milgrom in his JPS Torah Commentary on Numbers with respect to Num. 35:25 states 'As the High Priest atones for Israel's sins through his cultic service in his lifetime (Exod. 28:36; Lev. 6:16, 21), so he atones for homicide through his death. Since the blood of the slain, although spilled accidently, cannot be avenged through the death of the slayer, it is ransomed through the death of the High Priest, which releases all homicides from their cities of refuge. That it is not the exile of the manslaughter but the death of the High Priest that expiates his crime is confirmed by the Mishnah: "If, after the slayer has been sentenced as an accidental homicide, the High Priest dies, he need not go into exile." The Talmud, in turn comments thereon "But it is not the exile that expiates? It is not the exile that expiates, but the death of the high priest."' [footnotes omitted]. The doctrine of the theology of the cross replaced both the High Priest and the Day of Atonement.

Creed and those who agree with him note that Luke has no equivalent of the ransom saying (Mk. 10:45; Mt. 20:28), nor of Matthew's connection of Jesus's covenant blood with the remission of sins (Mt. 26:28). Luke does not connect forgiveness of sins with the death of Jesus. Whether one agrees with Creed who says there is no theology of the cross in the Gospel of Luke or with I. Howard Marshall who
asserts Luke has chosen not to emphasize a theology of the cross, the question still remains why did Luke present his material in this manner?

Luke has no theology of the cross because he believes that the death of the High Priest has atonement value. The author of Hebrews expressed his belief that the death of the High Priest has atonement value in these words: “Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.”[ii] Paul could not have written these words. His theology of the cross eliminated the need for a high priest, temple and the Day of Atonement. Rather than adopt Pauline terminology, the unknown author reached the same result by making Jesus Christ the High Priest that he might make a sacrifice of atonement for the people. The designation of Jesus Christ as the High Priest is the most distinctive theme of Hebrews and it is central to the theology of the book.

Finlan[iii] devotes an entire chapter, The Sacrificial Metaphor in Roman 3:25, to a detailed analysis of a single word, hilasterion, meaning [to be] a propitiation. For Finlan, hilasterion that also means ‘mercy seat,’ is a cultic atonement metaphor designed by Paul to be an allusion to the act of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement and sprinkling blood on the mercy seat. Neither Paul nor Finlan mention that it is the High Priest who is the actor in the cultic setting. Every NT writer had to deal with the question: what do we do with the High Priest and the related belief structure? We know from Philo that the ceremonial robes of the High Priest repeatedly vaunted in Hellenistic literature and interpreted in terms of cosmic symbolism endowed him with transcendent glory. The High Priest possessed by sanction of scripture the supreme power to interpret the law.[iv] Furthermore, particularly Jews in the Diaspora viewed the religious duties of the High Priest in the cult as a universal saving event.[v] Since the High Priest was viewed as “the captain of their salvation,”[vi] even a cynical Jew would want to treat the High Priest with the utmost respect. Paul treads carefully. Paul does not explicitly state that Jesus is the new High Priest.
As part of her explanation of Atonement as a rite of Healing, Margaret Barker in Great High Priest stated: “The priests are said to ‘bear’ the guilt of the sinner after they have performed the atonement ritual for inadvertent offenses (e.g. Lev. 10.17), yet the LORD, with the same verb, is said to ‘forgive.’ ‘Who’, asked Micah, ‘is a God like you bearing, i.e. forgiving, sin?’ (Mic. 7.18). Job asked (again reading literally): ‘Why do you not bear my transgression and cause my guilt to pass away?’ (Job 7.21). There are many examples. What emerges is that ‘carrying’ iniquity was the role of the priests, of the LORD and of the scapegoat.”[vii]

It is the thesis of Margaret Barker that the goat 'lyhwh' on the Day of Atonement is a substitute for the high priest (who plays the role of YHWH) in the cultic drama. It is the blood of this goat that makes the atonement (in the pre-eminent act of atonement) as a substitute for the life (i.e. Death) of the high priest/yhwh. (See e.g. M. Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000); The Great High Priest, The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T. & T. Clark, 2003), chapter 3). In both books, Barker has fascinating interpretative observations on a number of late Second Temple texts to support her thesis.

The next step in understanding the development of the doctrine is the Septuagint that Matthew, Mark and Luke all utilized. The LXX in Isa. 53:9a, 10-11b rewrites the outcome of the servant's suffering excising his sacrificial death and any notion of vicarious atonement. Paul trained in the Hebrew MT was certainly aware of the differences between the MT and LXX. One synoptic writer used the LXX and consistent therewith has no atonement theology. Luke has no equivalent of the ransom saying (Mk 10:45; Matt 20:28) nor of Matthew's connection of Jesus' covenant blood with the remission of sins (Mt 26:28). [I accept the conclusions of Bart Ehrman that verses {Lk 22:19b-20} were added by second century scribes.]

The first followers of Jesus worshipped in the Temple every day; Paul offered an animal sacrifice in the Temple. There was no need to develop a theology of the cross for people who believed in the animal sacrificial system and the High Priest, who was the captain of their salvation, and for people who had not been excluded from the Temple. Perhaps the dispute narrated in Acts was not simply about food for widows but exclusion from the Temple and exclusion from the redistribution of food donated to the Temple. These people would have a need to develop a new theology and according to Heitmuller, it developed in pre-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity. Thus Walter Schmithals, The Theology of the First Christians, can state: "Wilckens (1982, 155) like Raisanen (1986, 21-22, 242ff) limits the criticism of the Torah by the ‘Hellenists,’ who were persecuted by Paul, to a criticism of the temple cult, which was put forth because Jesus' atoning sacrifice made the temple cult superfluous.”[viii]

I am inclined to believe that it was someone who recognized the differences between what the MT and LXX said in Isaiah 53 and that someone was probably Paul. If Paul did not develop the new theology, he was the editor and it was his articulation of the new theology that has survived in the writings.

The other two synoptic writers also used the LXX but influenced by Paul included atonement theology. Mark does recognize having traveled with Paul that the theology of Luke is pre-Pauline and very Jewish. He therefore includes the theology of the cross missing in Luke and adds the ransom saying in Mk 10:45 that appears in Matthew. This is the gospel message and appropriately there are 11 instances of EUAGGELION (4 in Matthew, 7 in Mark, 0 in Luke) in the synoptics. Therefore the origin of one of the most important doctrine in Christianity can be traced to Judaism and its High Priest.

[i] Eric Franklin, Christ the Lord (1975), 66.
[ii] Heb.2:17.
[iii] Stephen Finlan, The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors, (2004).
[iv] Deut. 17:11-12; 33:10; Malachi 2:8.
[v] Philo Spec. I.197; II 162, 165f.
[vi] Josephus, Bell. 4.318.
[vii] Barker, 48.
[viii] Schmithals, 107.

copyrighted 2005


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the work of Margaret Barker and others who are making connections between early Christian beliefs about the Atonement and First Temple Jewish beliefs to be most facinating.

Mrs. Barker presented some controversial remarks earlier this year at a Library of Congress conference focused on early Mormon prophet, Jospeh Smith.

A good transcript of her remarks can be found at my son's poetry web site, (Click on the "misc." category.)

Larry Hunt

10:35 PM


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