Christian soteriology works on the assumption that Jesus’ death was a unique saving event. The only real antecedent considered is the suffering of Isaiah’s servant, upon whom the Lord has laid “the iniquity of us all”, understood not as referring to a historical figure or community in Isaiah’s world but as a prophecy about Jesus. But the easy presumption of uniqueness is maintained only by suppressing the historical context. Broadly, Jesus’ death can be located in a tradition of righteous suffering under pagan oppression. In particular, Jews at the time—presumably including Jesus himself—would have been familiar with the stories of the Maccabean martyrs.
In 2 Maccabees, which is generally dated to the late second century BC, we are given the story of the gruesome torture and killing of the old man Eleazar, seven brothers, and their mother by the tyrant Antiochus, for refusing to perform an “unlawful sacrifice” and eat the meat of a pig. This is happening because Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant and is being punished by God—sooner rather than later, “in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward, when our sins have reached their height” (2 Macc. 6:15).
There is more to these deaths than heroic faithfulness. The seventh brother informs the king that he gives up his life for the sake of the Law, “appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and… through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation” (2 Macc. 7:37–38). The martyrs also expect to be raised up “to an everlasting renewal of life” (7:9, 14, 36). The concrete evidence for the saving efficacy of their deaths is presented in the fact that Judas Maccabeus then “became insuperable for the nations, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy” (2 Macc. 8:5).
4 Maccabees, which perhaps dates from around AD 100, has a more developed soteriology (and its author a much more vivid imagination). Eleazar prays: “Be merciful to your people, and be satisfied with our punishment on their behalf. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc. 6:28–29). Later the author comments that “through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory (hilastēriou) of their death” the enemy was defeated, the homeland was purified, and Israel was preserved (4 Macc. 17:20-22).
The dating is an issue here, but it shows at least that during this period the suffering of righteous Jews could be interpreted in much the same language that Paul applies to Jesus in Romans 3:25: “…whom God put forward as a propitiation (hilastērion) by his blood, to be received by faith.”
How do we explain the emergence of the idea of a human sacrifice, which is hardly sanctioned by Torah? It appears that when the normal sacrificial system is malfunctioning or unavailable for whatever reason (in this case, because it has been abolished by Antiochus: cf. Dan. 11:31), “the voluntary self-sacrifice of a righteous person is seen to function as would a sin offering”.1 Another example: in the expanded Greek version of the story of the three young men thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, Azarias prays that their sacrifice may be accepted in place of the burnt offerings that can no longer be performed in the temple:
And in this time there is no ruler and prophet and leader, no whole burnt offering or sacrifice or oblation or incense, no place to make an offering before you and to find mercy. But rather with a broken life and a humbled spirit may we be accepted, as though it were with whole burnt offering of rams and bulls and with tens of thousands of fat lambs; thus let our sacrifice come before you today…. (Dan. 3:38–40 LXX)
So through the sacrificial and atoning deaths of these righteous martyrs Israel is saved from the wrath of God, which has come upon it on account of the sins of the people and of the Hellenizing priestly aristocracy in particular. In other words, the martyrs are a precise historical precedent for Jesus’ atoning death for the sins of his people in light of the present corruption of the temple cult and in anticipation of its destruction. David deSilva makes this argument in his chapter on “Jewish Martyrology and the Death of Jesus”, in G.S. Oedema and J.H. Charlesworth, The Pseudepigrapha and Christian Origins (2008).
The martyrs were righteous insofar as they remained faithful to the Law at the end—there is no suggestion that they were sinless otherwise. But the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness may overstate the biblical argument. When the author of Hebrews says that he was in every respect “tested as we are, yet without sin”, it is specifically persecution that is in view (Heb. 4:15; cf. 1 Pet. 2:22): Jesus was under intense pressure to abandon the dangerous course that had been set before. This does not rule out the more general affirmation (cf. 1 Jn. 3:5), but it remains the case that the narrative highlights the concrete act of obedience under duress.
Does this mean, then, that Jesus was just another Jewish martyr? Are there any significant respects in which his story was different from theirs? Yes, there are.
1. If the suffering of the martyrs is understood to forestall a much more serious punishment “when our sins have reached their height” (2 Macc. 6:15), then their deaths constitute a provisional or penultimate atonement, bringing only temporary respite. Jesus’ death may be seen as a final atonement for the sins of Israel before the final catastrophe of the war against Rome, when Israel’s persistent sins will have indeed reached their height. The martyrs die and the temple is restored. Jesus dies, and there will be no more temple.
2. The martyrs die for the sake of their ancestral laws. Jesus dies because he is seen as a pretender to the throne of Israel—Caiaphas will see the Son of Man seated as Israel’s king at the right hand of God, coming with the clouds of heaven (Mk. 14:62). It is not the Law that is at issue but kingdom.
3. The martyrs die believing that God will raise them to everlasting life, but the writings do not follow up on that expectation. There is no account of their resurrection—presumably they have to wait (cf. 2 Macc. 12:44). In the story about Jesus it is of central importance that God immediately vindicates his Son by raising him from the dead and visibly elevating him to his right hand in heaven.
4. Once seated at the right hand of God, Jesus pours out the Spirit on his followers (Acts 2:33). In the first place, this is the Spirit of prophecy by which the community will be empowered in these last days. But it is also the Spirit of a new covenant, which will quickly make the Law redundant.
5. As Gentiles receive the same Spirit and become part of this kingdom movement, it becomes apparent that Jesus’ death not only saved God’s people from annihilation; it removed the dividing wall of the Law which barred Gentiles from participation in God’s people. The deaths of the martyrs preserved Israel from the nations. The death of Jesus paved the way for YHWH’s annexation of the nations.
- 1. David A. deSilva, “Jewish Martyrology and the Death of Jesus”, in G.S. Oedema and J.H. Charlesworth, The Pseudepigrapha and Christian Origins (T&T Clark, 2008), 55.