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Where the Idea of Christian Atonement Came From

by Dr. B. Brandon Scott

Detail from Meister des Rabula-Evangeliums, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Detail from the earliest crucifixion in an illuminated manuscript, from the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, AD 586. Click image to view a larger version in a lightbox.

The atonement is a difficult and complicated Christian doctrine. It has a long and twisted history. In this blog post I will explore one of the oldest attempts to understand Jesus’s crucifixion as atonement.
Getting Started

Jesus’s earliest followers did not have the advantage of a catechism or New Testament to instruct them. That came much later, actually many centuries later. The early followers had to figure things out as they went along. They were experimenting, and many of those experiments were dead ends, something we too often forget.

We have the advantage of hindsight, although that may be a disadvantage. Since we know how things turned out, we think it had to happen that way. Historians refer to this as the fallacy of the inevitable. Jesus’s early followers had no idea where things were going and some of things they expected, like Jesus’s imminent return, did not prove out.

There was little writing among these groups. Paul’s letters are a notable exception, not the rule. They communicate with his absent converts and the letter’s bearer would have read it aloud. Like most letters, Paul’s were occasional and, under normal circumstances, would have disappeared. Instead, they were treasured, edited, and collected, eventually forming the core of the New Testament. Writing became more prominent after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, beginning with the first gospel, the Gospel attributed to Mark. Then followed numerous other writings.

In the ancient world, most people did not read and write. Literacy was not a requirement, as in our society. Best estimates put urban literacy at about ten percent, with much lower percentages in rural areas.

The world of Jesus’s followers was mostly oral. Memory was more important than writing. The first rule of memory is to think memorable thoughts.

The Earliest Mention of Dying for Our Sins

One of the earliest efforts to understand the death of Jesus is 1 Corinthians 15:3: “The Anointed died for our sins” or, in a more traditional translation, “Christ died for our sins.” It’s so simple one might wonder, “So what?” But this phrase summarizes a complicated process.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in the early 50s CE. The Pauline writings are the earliest extant writing from a Jesus group. Paul introduces the phrase with a formula that indicates he is handing on tradition. “I passed on to you as of paramount importance what I also had received” (1 Cor 15:3).

This formula is common in rabbinic writings. Since he is quoting a tradition, these are not his words. Paul usually refers to sin in the singular and “in accordance with the writings” occurs nowhere else in Paul’s writings. This indicates that what follows predates Paul. Hard to get much older than that. How old? I would guess in the 30s CE.

Greek does not have quotation marks because ancient writings were read out loud. They required an aural clue, not a printed clue. The particle hoti (‘that’ in English translations) introduces a quotation. Paul informs the Corinthians that what follows is the gospel, the good news (euaggelion), as he preached and they received. Then he quotes what must be an agreed upon formula. He uses hoti (quotation marks, ‘that’) four times: Once before each phrase in the triadic formula, signaling each phrase’s independence and importance, and again once before the list of those by whom the Anointed had been seen. I would translate it in the following way:

For I delivered to you as the most important what I also received:
“The Anointed died for our sins in accordance with the writings.”
“He was buried.”
“He was raised up on the third day in accordance with the writings.”
“He has been seen for [the benefit of] Cephas . . .” (1 Cor 15:3-5).

I have set the initial quotation marks and the first word in bold type so you can see what they would have heard. By paying attention to hoti (‘quotation marks’), you see that Paul is introducing as evidence for the gospel four separate but interrelated statements. This is precisely laid out in the Greek and would have been heard as a precise statement, a rhetorical argument. Remember, the letter was not read silently but heard. The four quick repetitions of hoti drives the point home.

The first three statements form a balanced triadic formula. This formula is often referred to ‘proto-credal’ in that it foreshadows the later creeds, but that is anachronistic. It has a triadic structure to make it easy to remember. To remember, think memorable thoughts.

A Close Parallel

The opening of Paul’s letter to the Galatians contains an interesting parallel to the triadic formula in 1 Corinthians.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the master Jesus Anointed,
who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age,
according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:3-4, my translation).

Here Paul is also quoting oral tradition, but makes no claim about exactness. “Our God and Father” and “Master” (lord, kurios) are Pauline phrases, but otherwise this is traditional language. “According to the will of our God and Father” parallels “in accordance with the writings,” indicating that we are not dealing with a specific text, the tradition is not proof texting, but the scriptures as a whole point to this outcome.

“Who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” parallels “he died for our sins.” “Gave” replaces “died.” The purpose, “to set us free from the present evil age,” imparts an apocalyptic understanding to Jesus’s crucifixion. But the 1 Corinthians formula also implies the same thing because the fourth hoti quotation concerns the resurrection, an apocalyptic event which marks the end of this evil age.

“He died” and “he gave” both shy away from the brutality of “he was crucified.” In the active voice, “he” is the agent, instead of the one acted upon. The Roman complicity is completely missing. This inaugurates a long history of denying or ameliorating Roman involvement. (See, for example, Mark 15:5, where Pilate wonders about the charges, and is, in 15:15, afraid of the crowd. In Luke 23:14-5 both Pilate and Herod find Jesus innocent).

The Nicene Creed gets closer to the literal truth: “suffered and died under Pontius Pilate.” Paul is one of the few thinkers who faces the scandal of the crucifixion head on.

Atonement: a preposition, everything else is elaboration

“For our sins” indicates why the Anointed died. “Sins” does not indicate my and your personal, individual moral failings. It is OUR sins, not my individual sins or moral failures. For example, in our culture, systemic racism is an example of “our sins,” the sins of the people. In Judaism our sins are the corporate offenses of the people against the covenant. The context is God’s covenant with Israel.

The preposition “for” translates the Greek hyper, which means “for” or “on our behalf.” This little preposition bears an enormous weight because from this preposition derive eventually the different theories of atonement. Atonement is a preposition, everything else is elaboration.

The martyr tradition arose during Antiochus IV Epiphanies’ desecration of the temple and his extensive efforts to outlaw Judaism (167 BCE), which led to the Maccabean revolt in 164 BCE.

Practicing Judaism, especially circumcision, became a capital crime. Second Maccabees (6:18-7:42) and Fourth Maccabees (5-18) describe numerous executions in vivid and often legendary detail. Dying of old age is not a tragedy, whereas dying for one’s religious beliefs changes the dynamic. God had allowed Antiochus to attack the temple because of the people’s sins and the martyr dies in place of the people. But on the other hand, a martyr’s death calls into question God’s power and goodness. If God does not act, God will be proven impotent.

Resurrection resolves this dilemma. God will raise up those martyrs and vindicate them as just. God must act. For the first time in Judaism, resurrection becomes established among some groups. Dying for the people’s sins and resurrection are tied together from this period forward. The Jesus group who originated the piece of tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:4-5 was not innovating. They were borrowing ideas and metaphors well established in Judaism and applying them to Jesus the Anointed. Their only innovation was resurrection now, not in the future.

A Martyr’s Death

Martyrdom surely was the earliest way in which Jesus communities tried to understand Jesus’s execution, precisely because his was a martyr’s death. Paul draws upon martyr metaphors to understand how Jesus’s death was redemptive, and the author of the Gospel of Mark employed the same metaphors in constructing the passion narrative. In the second and third centuries martyrdom became the primary element in the formation of Christianity identity. And when martyrdoms ceased in the fourth century, the ascetic monks in the desert became the new martyrs.

Martyrdom remains a powerful metaphor. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he was honored as martyr because it made sense of his senseless assassination. In 1998 a statue of the Martyr, Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled in Westminster Abbey. King the martyr stands in a line tracing back through the Christian martyrs, Jesus the martyr, and the Maccabean martyrs. They all died for our sins. Atonement is the preposition for. We are all implicated in the martyr’s death.

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