Peter Enns has written in his characteristically provocative style about two issues in the Bible that are really important but not at all clear.
The first has to do with Israelite origins. We can be reasonably confident about the broad outline of Israelite history back to the reign of David, but earlier than that things are decidedly murky. “Historically speaking,” Enns writes, “we really don’t know where the Israelites came from, and the exodus and conquest stories, which are so central to the biblical account, are particularly problematic.”
The second issue is of a very different type: “Why did Jesus die?”
The crucifixion is obviously central to Christian belief, but actually explaining its significance has proved very difficult. The writers of the New Testament seem to have been working it out as they went along. They certainly had things to say about the significance of Jesus’ death, but the church has generally felt it necessary to furnish more theoretical or systematic accounts of how “the cross” (notice how it has already become an abstraction) achieved the benefits attributed to it. This has left us with an alarming stockpile of high-level atonement theories that are supposed to explain the metaphysics—how dying on a cross could bring about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.
So two problems: a historical one from the Old Testament, and a theological one from the New Testament.
Enns does not try to solve them. He simply wants to point out how “uncooperative the Bible can be if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically”—or more positively, that the Bible “drives us to work together by faith in thinking through the nature of the Christian story and its implications”.
I think he’s right, and I think that how we explain Jesus’ death can be used to illustrate rather sharply the difference between providing theological rationalisations and thinking through the story. It’s a good example of the distinction I made in my previous post between theology as dam and narrative as river.
Narrative and narrator
First, a general observation to make. There are two different modes of historical investigation, depending on whether we are interested in what is being described or in who is describing it—the historical referent or the historical speaker.
We can ask , for example, whether the events described in the Old Testament actually happened. Do the Old Testament accounts agree with what we know from other sources? Do they make historical sense? The problem that Enns draws attention to is that on the whole the pre-kingdom narratives do not agree very well with what we know from archaeology, etc.
But we can also ask what the historical community understood by the stories that it was telling about its remote origins or its more immediate historical experiences. That is essentially the narrative-historical approach. It doesn’t dismiss the factual question, but it focuses on the perspective and interests of the historical community that interpreted its existence by means of the biblical texts. Even if the community got some of the facts “wrong”, it is still historically true and significant that the story was told in this particular way.
The New Testament community told the story of Jesus’ death and what happened afterwards, and we have quite a lot of information about how the sequence of events was understood. The narrative-historical approach is interested primarily in clarifying how this story worked in its original context on the assumption that such clarification is sufficient for determining the life, thought and praxis of the church today.
The theology of Jesus’ death
What theology has tried to do in this instance is to give what is essentially an abstract or theoretical account of Jesus’ death not as simply an execution at a certain point in history (“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”) but as a means of “atonement”.
The assumption seems to be that behind the historical event of the cross is a metaphysical event or process or mechanism or mystery that does the heavy lifting of redemption. This metaphysical reality shows up in fragmentary and poorly grasped ways in the witness of the New Testament community, but later reflection by philosophically trained theologians led to more coherent theoretical accounts—except they couldn’t agree with each other.
These later attempts to construct absolute models for the atonement—or for the Trinity—were also part of the story and should be respected for that reason. But they do not help us with the narrative-historical task. I agree with Enns that the Bible can be uncooperative “if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically”.
But can we let the biblical story do the hard work? Can we make sense of the cross by reading historically rather than theologically, forwards rather than backwards?
I think we probably can. In fact, I think we can make better sense of the death of Jesus without the theoretical nonsense, as a moment in the narrative world of Second Temple Judaism rather than as grist for the mill of theological ratiocination.
The story of Jesus’ death
So here’s the first point to make. Jesus’ death has to be interpreted as an event in the river of Israel’s story as it flowed through the landscape of the history of the ancient world. The later church felt the need to ascribe a universal, transcendent, cosmic significance to it, but that is not the controlling perspective of the New Testament. Jesus died for the sins of his people.
The idea that the kingdom narrative—the story of the clash with paganism—would entail the suffering of the righteous as a consequence of Israel’s sin is well established by the time we get to Jesus. We see it in Isaiah’s suffering servant and in numerous accounts of the violent oppression that a faithful section of Israel endured from Greek and Roman overlords, with their own leaders often conspiring against them.
Jesus was not the first Jew to die on a Roman cross, but more importantly for the New Testament narrative he would also not be the last. His crucifixion anticipated the crucifixion of thousands of Jews during the war against Rome a generation later. He suffered the wrath of God that would come upon his people.
The account of the Lord’s Supper suggests that Jesus attributed sacrificial meaning to his death: he was implicitly the Passover lamb; his blood confirmed a new covenant with his followers, as Moses had sprinkled the “blood of the covenant” on the people (Ex. 24:8). But these are not pointers to a deeper theory of personal atonement. They are ways of speaking about the effect or impact of Jesus’ death in the unfolding kingdom narrative.
The supper is a fellowship meal for the disciples who will have to follow Jesus—the Son of Man who must suffer and come in his glory (cf. Lk. 22:22)—on a journey of Christ-like suffering until the kingdom of God comes and they are vindicated. They are bound together as an eschatological community. They share the meal in order to remember him until they eat together again when the kingdom of God comes. During the course of the meal Jesus says to them:
You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:28–30)
Jesus’ death is eschatological before it is soteriological, which is why Luke makes so much more of the resurrection and ascension in Acts than he does of the crucifixion. Or to put it another way: Jesus’ death has narrative significance rather than theological significance.
Luke’s soteriology in Acts is otherwise very simple: Jews and Gentiles are exhorted to repent of their sins and to believe that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything, both for Israel and for the nations; if they believe that, their sins are forgiven.
The same point can be made with respect to Paul’s statement that God put forward Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). It adds nothing to work this up into a general theory of substitutionary atonement. The narrative argument is that Israel faces condemnation under the Law because of persistent sin; Jesus (as the Son sent to Israel in the likeness of sinful flesh) was faithful unto death; on the basis of this God has demonstrated his righteousness regarding his people; and those who believe this, whether Jew or Greek, will be publicly justified at the parousia, when the nations confess that Jesus is Lord.
Within the context of this narrative it makes sense to say that Jesus’ death was a propitiation for Israel’s sins, serving a purpose similar to the sin offering on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:15). But the efficacy of the whole thing lies in the faithfulness of Jesus and the belief of his followers regarding the future outcome.
Keep telling the story
This has obviously not been an adequate analysis of the New Testament data, but I think it makes the basic point. Jesus’ death was not a metaphysical event requiring abstract theological explanation. It was a historical event that had far-reaching historical repercussions. What set it apart from the many other deaths of righteous Jews at the time was, on the one hand, the claim that Jesus was the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel, and on the other, the confirmation of that vocation by his resurrection from the dead and elevation to a position of supreme authority at the right hand of God.
As part of the narrative it made sense to invoke Old Testament themes of sacrifice, but the language is not straining to articulate a transcendent mystery of atonement. It is simply part of the telling of the story. Our interest in it lies in the fact that it is our story. We are still living it out.