Paul’s narrative world: roughly why I disagree with N.T. Wright about the meaning of “propitiation by his blood”

Read time: 6 minutes

My wife thinks this is rather heavy reading for Easter, so be warned….

The doctrine of “penal substitutionary atonement”—the idea that God punished Jesus on Good Friday in our place—divides Christians: some find it theologically profound, others find it morally repugnant. My argument has been—see, for example, my recent post on the reconciliation of all things—that, however the doctrine strikes us as moderns, it makes good sense in the context of the New Testament story about Israel. And only in that context. I’ve suggested that Paul’s statement about God putting forward Jesus as a hilastērion by his blood in Romans 3:25 fits this pattern.

Tom Wright appears broadly to agree that penal substitution is part of the Jesus story (eg., Rom. 4:24-25), but in a chapter in a collection of essays in honour of Richard Bauckham he argues that it is not to be found in this passage in Romans.1 It’s a typically complicated chapter, and I can’t do justice to it here. But a couple of points are worth highlighting, I think, relating to how we construct Paul’s narrative world.

Wright admits that in 4 Maccabees 17:22 the word signifies “the means by which divine anger is turned away”, but he thinks that Paul’s statement points in a different direction—towards a “new exodus” narrative, which is also a new return from exile narrative, which is the controlling paradigm for so much of Wright’s interpretation.

The sequence of thought, he says, is not “we all sinned; God punished Jesus instead; problem solved”, but “God promised to rescue the whole world through Israel; the crucified Messiah has been faithful to that purpose; therefore sinners, Jew and Gentile alike, can be justified freely” (154). Jesus is the hilastērion or “place of mercy” in the sense that his blood cleansed the sanctuary that had been made unclean by Israel’s past sins.

More specifically: “The Messiah is, in Paul’s mind, the unique place where Israel’s God really does meet with his people” (157). As I say, I can’t do justice to the argument here—and I’m not entirely sure it’s coherent anyway.

The propitiatory of their death

So Wright associates the “propitiation” interpretation with the traditional “God is angry with universal human sin and takes it out on Jesus” soteriology. He complains that this takes Paul’s language out of its Jewish context (158). But 4 Maccabees 17:22 is also part of a Jewish covenant narrative:

And these who have been divinely sanctified are honored not only with this honor, but also in that, thanks to them, our enemies did not prevail over our nation; the tyrant was punished, and the homeland was purified, since they became, as it were, a ransom for the sin of the nation. And through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted. (4 Macc. 17:20–22)

The existence of Israel as a covenant people is threatened by the Hellenising onslaught of Antiochus Epiphanes. The faithfulness of the martyrs to the point of death is interpreted as a “ransom” (antipsychon) for the sin that had brought the crisis upon Israel, and as a “propitiatory” (hilastēriou) by which “divine forethought” (hē theia pronoia) preserved the nation.

Wright argues that the author of 4 Maccabees “paganised” or “Platonised” the older Jewish martyr traditions, which provided the basis for the development of a doctrine of penal substitution as the solution to the problem of universal sin (159). So this line of thought can be disregarded: it’s not Paul.

I think he may be overstating the point. No doubt the author is selling the story to a pagan readership and has translated it accordingly, but it remains the story of a covenant people which has Abraham as its father (4 Macc. 17:6).

No Gentiles are saved by the death of the martyrs.

Wright says that the promise of resurrection, so prominent in 2 Maccabees, has been abandoned, but surely Paul would have recognised the expression “incorruptibility (aphtharsia) in long–lasting life” (4 Macc. 17:12; cf. Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 53; 2 Tim. 1:10). The martyrs are “crowned” as “athletes” (4 Macc. 15-16; cf. 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8). Hebrews says that Jesus was “crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). The martyrs now “stand before the divine throne” (4 Macc. 17:18; cf. 2 Cor. 5:10). If the New Testament is telling a Jewish story, then so is 4 Maccabees.

The reference to “divine forethought” is not so far from Paul’s “God put forward” (proetheto ho theos). Elsewhere in the New Testament the verb protithēmi has the sense “to have someth. in mind beforehand, plan, propose, intend“ (BDAG)—in other words, to have forethought about something. In Romans 1:13 Paul says that he has “often intended (proethemēn) to come to you.”

Two narrative paradigms

I suspect that Wright has trouble seeing the relevance of this narrative because he is so committed to the new exodus / return from exile theme. The more relevant paradigm, I would suggest, is what happens to Israel after it has returned to the land. From Daniel onwards the real question is not how God will lead his people (back) to the land from foreign parts but how he will deliver them from invading pagan tyrants such as Antiochus or from the unclean occupying forces of Rome.

There are two grand redemption narratives in the Old Testament and in the literature of second temple Judaism.

In the first, Israel is outside the land and needs to be taken by God to the land, either by exodus or by return from exile. Egypt and Babylon are the powerful, overbearing polytheistic centres of opposition to YHWH and his people.

In the second narrative, Israel is in the land but imposition or occupation by western powers—Greece and then Rome. The expectation is that this storyline will climax first in disaster for Israel (wrath against the Jew), from which Israel needs to be saved, then in a dramatic defeat of the pagan aggressor (wrath against the Greek), and the positioning of Israel as first among the nations. The martyrdom of the priest Eleazar, the seven sons, and their mother belongs to this narrative.

Wright tends to blur the distinction between these two narratives, subsuming the second under the first. I think that needs to be turned on its head. It is the second narrative which gives us the controlling paradigm for New Testament eschatology—not least in the vision of one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.

Jesus and the wrath of God

It may be unnecessary to say that divine wrath is meted out on Jesus, but his death may certainly be interpreted in light of the present or future wrath against Israel. Like the Maccabean martyrs, Jesus suffers Israel’s punishment for sin. There is no wrath against Israel in the exodus story, and in the return from exile story devastating judgment is in the past—all is now forgiven, let’s go home. But Paul speaks of Jesus’ death as a “propitiation” at a time when his people are threatened with annihilation or at least obsolescence (eg., Rom. 9:22).

So Romans 3:25 is not a direct appeal to the logic of the Day of Atonement. It is an appeal to martyrdom traditions, going back to the violent imposition of pagan culture and rule on Israel, in which terms such as hilastērion and antipsychon were used to express the redemptive power of the suffering of faithful Jews.

  • 1Wright, N.T., “God Put Jesus Forth: Reflections on Romans 3:24–26,” in Gurtner, D. M., G. Macaskill, & J. T. Pennington (eds.), In the Fullness of Time: Essays on Christology, Creation, and Eschatology in Honor of Richard Bauckham (2016).