(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The narrative logic of salvation from the point of view of a Jewish apostle

Carrying on the conversation from here, with some repetition…

God was gracious and forgave or overlooked the sins both of Jews and pagans who believed in the new future vouchsafed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Both Jews and Gentiles, therefore, like Abraham, were “justified” by faith in something (Rom. 3:27-4:25; 5:1). They were not justified by Jesus’ death as a propitiation for their sins; they were justified because they believed something about Jesus’ death and resurrection. So in principle it could be said that Gentiles were justified on account of their faith in—among other things—Jesus’ death as an atonement for the sins of Israel.

The question then was: on what grounds might Jewish and Gentile believers participate in the future life of God’s people? This was an important question for all concerned because the future of God’s people was in jeopardy. But it was a question in a different way for Gentiles inasmuch as hitherto they were debarred from participation as Gentiles by the Jewish Law.

For Jewish Christians, therefore, the death of Jesus could quite reasonably be seen as a propitiation or atonement for the sins of Israel (Rom. 3:25). Jesus suffered the punishment—destruction by Rome—that Jerusalem would suffer within a few decades. Daniel 9:11-12 is again worth quoting—it supplies the eschatological logic behind Paul’s argument about the atoning significance of Jesus’ death:

All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem.

When Jesus died, however, Gentiles were not part of this people; they were Gentiles; it was not their sins that was bringing the wrath of God on Israel in the form of invasion and war. So in historical terms it makes no sense to say that Jesus’ death was an atonement for the sins of Gentiles. The Gentiles were a problem for first century Israel for quite different reasons.

For Gentile Christians, who did not share the Jewish back story, the historical death of Jesus for the sins of Israel was also the event that removed the barrier of Law-observance that kept the uncircumcised from participation in that community of people which was called to serve the living creator God (Eph. 2:13-16; cf. Col. 1:20).

When we read Paul, we should keep in mind that he speaks as a Jewish apostle, on behalf of redeemed Israel, to Gentiles who have subsequently been included in this community.

The narrative distinction is not always apparent, granted, when Paul mentions the death of Jesus. But I suggest that when we read Paul, we should keep in mind that he speaks as a Jewish apostle, on behalf of redeemed Israel, to Gentiles who have subsequently been included in this community and who therefore must share in its dying and living with Christ.

So for example, in Galatians 1:4 he says that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age”. By “our” he does not mean “humanity’s”; he means Israel’s sins—and the Galatians, or the Gentile believers among them, have become part of that unfolding eschatological narrative. I would read Romans 4:25; 5:9-11; Ephesians 5:2 in the same way.

Christ died for Israel, therefore he died for all who have subsequently been included in redeemed Israel; therefore all share in the resurrection life of the redeemed people (2 Cor. 5:14-15).

1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9-10 do not speak of propitiation. Jesus died historically for his people; Gentiles have become part of that people by their faith in the eschatological significance of his death and resurrection; therefore, they will saved from the wrath to come.

Paul says that “our passover was sacrificed, Christ”. The historical redemption of God’s people took place when Jesus died; now that “festival” is to be properly celebrated by the church (1 Cor. 5:7-8), including those Gentiles who have been grafted into the promises made to the patriarchs. The death was for the sins of Israel (there was no “passover” for Gentiles); but Gentiles now participated in the celebration.

In Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:13-14 Paul speaks about the historical event by which part of Israel, at least, had been redeemed.

The clause “having washed out the written document that stood against us with its legal demands (tois dogmasin)” (Col. 2:14) is difficult to interpret, but it is not a reference to propitiation. Arguably the point is roughly the same as in Ephesians 2:15, where en dogmasin also occurs: the thought is that the death of Jesus transcended the division between Jew and Gentile, perhaps by disarming the rulers and authorities (2:15).

So I stick to my view that the death of Jesus meant different things for Jews and Gentiles. For Jews who were already the people of God it was an act of atonement for the long history of rebellion that was bringing the nation to the brink of catastrophe. For Gentiles who were justified and forgiven by their extraordinary faith in what YHWH was doing, it meant that they could participate in this redeemed people through the Spirit; they were not required to keep the Law.


I’ve mentioned before that I think your historical-narrative view sometimes comes across as quite strained, and I would say this is another area where I see that. I think you can find interpretations that work with your narrative, but in many cases this creates a very strange and disjointed reading. I also think you have to be careful with pronouns since “we” and “us” often refers to the church/body of Christ and not specifically to Paul and his countrymen.

Paul does the same thing Matthew does. He raids the scriptures to find support and justification for his position. Specifically, he takes the language of sacrifice that Jesus applied to his role with Israel and constructs a theology that extends Jesus’ action to Gentiles. He’s carefully broadening the narrative by going back in Jewish history to pre-Jewish characters such as Adam and Abraham to lay the groundwork:

Just as Adam’s sin brought death to Jews and Gentiles, Jesus’ death brings life to Jews and Gentiles.

God’s wrath would be poured out on Jews first but then on Gentiles because of persistent (and growing) sin, but as the result of Jesus’ sacrificial death, Jews who placed their faith in Christ…and Gentiles who place their faith in Christ…would be saved. This is possible for Gentiles because Abraham was uncircumcised when God reckoned him righteous because of his faith.

Paul uses various strategies to show that what applies to sinful Jews also applies to sinful Gentiles, and what applies to faithful Jews also applies to faithful Gentiles who are now lumped together in some ways with Jews since they have been grafted in and are now part of a single body.

(I’m not arguing as some do that Paul now saw no special and unique ongoing role for Jews in this single body called the Church.)

Yes, the narratives were different but Paul found a way to show that the Gentile narrative necessitated a path intersecting the Jewish narrative at the cross–a place where the sins of Jews and Gentiles could be forgiven so that both could be reconciled to God.

Of course, I don’t expect you to agree and I’m not saying I know that I’m right and you’re wrong, just that your position sometimes feels unnaturally forced and that always raises flags with me. (But I’m trying to keep an open mind as I consider your arguments.)

I am probably not ready for this conversation, but - can you say all this without recourse to the words atonement or propitiation? (I hope to be ready within the year.)