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

The death of Jesus: not as difficult to understand as you might think

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.

The assumption is 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.

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.

Comments

Clearly the death of Christ is about more than a metaphysical substitution, but how is it straining anything to include that as part of its primary significance? The language of sacrifice is explicit, and what else is sacrifice (whether at the Passover or anywhere else), but a substitution?

No, my argument is that the death of Christ is about less than a metaphysical substitution. The language of sacrifice is used to speak about a historical event, not to point beyond the narrative to something mysterious and transcendent.

There is a sense in which, even historically, Jesus died so that the people of God might live—as a substitution, so to speak. Ironically, the sharpest statement of this is found in John’s Gospel:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (Jn. 11:49–52)

The transcendent account only became necessary once the church had forgotten the point of the Jewish-apocalyptic story and needed to redefine Christian belief in broader universal terms.

I would say that very rarely is sacrifice meant to be thought of as a substitution.

Especially if we look at the Passover, the text never says that the lamb is meant to be substitution. The only rationale that it is given for it is Exodus 12:26-27:

26 And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

They offer sacrifices to the Lord because he spared them when he struck down the Egyptians, but there’s no clause in there that indicates that the lamb somehow satisfied God’s wrath against the Israelites. That doesn’t even make sense in the Passover narrative - God is saving his people from the Egyptians.

Perhaps the closest we come to a Passover-substitution is Exodus 13:11-16, but that’s not a substitution, either. It’s a redemption. Surely that ongoing practice is not meant to imply God continually wants to kill the firstborn sons of Israel but is appeased by their continual sacrifice of firstborn livestock.

The death of the lambs absolutely is a substitution. Their blood is shed in place of the first born sons’ blood being shed. How is that not a substitution? In much the same way, Jesus is a substitution in that his blood is shed to save us from death, granting us eternal life.

There is nothing in the text that says that the lamb is killed in the place of the firstborn son. That is an implication you are reading back into it.

In fact, when God issues the warning about the tenth plague, He says:

“Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”

Ex. 11:5-7

There is absolutely no evidence that God wants to kill the firstborn sons of Israel, but they kill a lamb to substitute for them. Every evidence from the actual Bible says the Lord has no intention of harming any Israelite, and when the justification is given for the Passover, they kill a lamb because God saves them, not because it is a vicarious substitute for their own firstborn.

I’m sorry, but Exodus 12:13 is pretty clear - “and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.” They were spared because Yahweh “saw the blood”. That suggests a substitution, blood for blood.

Of course, I don’t dispute that Yahweh didn’t want to kill the Israelite firstborns. That’s precisely why He instituted the slaying of the lambs instead.

I couldn’t help but notice you cut off the first part of that verse.

“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live.”

The blood is a sign that identifies the Israelite houses. That’s what’s annexed to, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” It doesn’t say, “The blood will be a substitute for your own firstborn sons.”

It doesn’t “suggest a substition.” It suggests one to you because you want to find it, there, but there’s nothing -absolutely zero- in any of the texts that suggest that the lamb is killed in place of the Israelite firstborn who would otherwise be killed, themselves. In fact, the word God gives to Moses about how not even a dog will bark at an Israelite because God makes a distinction between Israel and Egypt says, in fact, the exact opposite of that. It doesn’t say, “I’m going to treat you exactly like Egypt unless you kill a lamb in your place.” That’s all you.

Philip,

I agree that God used the blood to identify the Israelite’s houses. But it’s not difficult to spot the correspondence between the death of the lambs and the death of the firstborn. Any first century Israelite offering the lamb would have made that connection. They would have done this recalling Abraham’s sacrificing of a lamb in place of his own son: (Genesis 22:13)

“Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

Notice the key word there - instead. The ram is offered in place of the son, as a substitute. In fact, even in the following chapter of Exodus the event is portrayed as a substitution: (Exodus 13:15)

“When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.”

The word “redeem” used here means to liberate, typically through some kind of down-payment. The animal offered is a down-payment on behalf of the firstborn son.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to speculate on what a first century Jew “would have” done in terms of these connections, especially if we ourselves are making those connections. I do not know of any early rabbinical commentary that says the passover lamb was a substitutionary death that died in the place of Israel’s firstborn, thus enabling their lives to be spared. If you find some, I am open to correction on that.

Instead of theorizing on connections they “would have” made, I think we’re on safer ground to look at the meaning to the original audience. Is there any indicator anywhere that the people who killed the lambs on passover understood that their sons were slated to die, but they could instead kill a lamb in their place, thus sparing their lives?

I have pointed out at least one text that explicitly say that the Lord was not going to harm Israel in the tenth plague - His actual announcement of the tenth plague. I don’t know where an Israelite would have gotten the idea that God was actually going to kill their firstborn as well unless they killed a lamb in their place.

As for the sacrificing the firstborn of livestock that is born later, I actually brought that text up in my first response to this thread. Hopefully, you and I can agree that this practice was not substitionary. God does not continually want to kill Israel’s firstborn, so they continually have to keep killing animals to prevent that from happening, right?

I don’t know where you’re getting your definition of epdeh since that passage is the only passage where that word appears. A slight variant occurs twice in Hosea (7:13 and 13:14), both of which in the sense of ransom. But a ransom or a redemption is not a substitution - it’s giving up something of value to obtain something of value. If I buy a candy bar at the store, I am not substituting the candy bar in the place of my money except in the most abstract of senses. I eat candy bars and I buy things with money. I am certainly not using one in place of the other. I am, instead, sacrificing something of value to me so that I might obtain something I value more, which I would say is a very good overall paradigm of sacrifice in the OT.

To convince me of your position, I’m going to need to see some actual evidence that anyone would have thought of the passover lamb in the way you describe. Your own exegesis does not count. I’m going to need to see some biblical texts or rabbinical commentary or something.

Philip,

You keep making a claim about my position that I have not made, namely that I believe that God wants to kill the israelite firstborn. My position is the exact opposite, that God does *not* want to kill the Israelite firstborn and thus provides a lamb as a substitute. This is in order to ensure that the principle of the firstborn being given to God is honoured whilst not actually killing the first born Israelites.

The concept of a “ransom” or payment describes exactly what I am talking about, you pay one thing in order to get another, in this case, you pay a lamb in place of an Israelite firstborn. This is, of course, an unfair trade, but God is quite content with it because as I said before, God does not want to kill the Israelite child. You might not use the language of “substitute” to describe this, but at that point, it’s a semantic distinction.

Out of interest, what do you make of the sacrifice of Isaac narrative?

Chris

If God is not disposed to kill the Israelite firstborn, how is the dying lamb a substitute? The whole idea behind a substitution is that the lamb dies -in the place of the firstborn-. That’s my whole point. If the firstborn of Israel were never slated to die, then killing a lamb is not a substitionary death.

At some level, this may be just semantic, but it’s a good example of how later theological constructions control how we read the biblical text. God is going to kill sinners, so Jesus dies in their place, and now God doesn’t have to kill them - so the theology goes. To read this back into the Passover, however, is very problematic. Here we have a set of people (the Israelite firstborn) whom God is NOT going to kill, yet somehow, killing a lamb is a substitutionary death for them. It doesn’t work out. Not only does this ask us to understand the Passover on its own terms, but it also forces us to rethink what it means for Jesus to be a Passover lamb (note: when Paul calls Jesus the Passover lamb in 1 Cor., he is clearly more interested in the unleavened bread).

The atonement sacrifices under the Mosaic Law were also not substitionary from the standpoint of the actual texts regarding atonement sacrifices, especially since there were several instances of non-lethal atonement sacrifices (jewelry, incense, flour, etc.). All that data makes sense from the standpoint of giving up something of value to make atonement, but it makes poor sense from the standpoint of a substitionary death. You didn’t bring up the sacrificial system, but I thought it worthy of mention in the context of the discussion, since the original comment posited that all sacrifice was substitutionary.

The Akedah is a test of Abraham’s faith. Even though God has promised descendants through Isaac, He instructs Abraham to kill him. Seeing that Abraham is actually going to do it, He stops Abraham and provides an acceptable sacrifice instead. In terms of raw, mathematical abstraction, you could see this as a substitution. Abraham was going to kill Isaac, but he kills something else in the end. God doesn’t want the sacrifice of Abraham’s child, so it’s a substitution in the sense that, if I’m using a wrench that doesn’t fit and I swap it out for one that does, it’s a substitution.

It’s hardly a substitution in the theological sense, though. The point of the passage is to establish Abraham’s faith in the promises of God that lead him to be willing to sacrifice anything God requires - a pivotal point for Israel to understand her past and present experiences as well as prepare them for future struggles. This faith is ultimately rewarded, even with a type of resurrection. The Akedah is even referred to in intertestamental writings concerning martyrdom under Antiochus Epiphanes.

There’s no atonement. God’s wrath is not against Isaac until a ram dies in his place. God does not require Isaac’s life up until Abraham kills a ram, instead. There’s no penal substitutionary atonement to be found, and if this story is in any sense typological of Jesus, I’d have to say it would be in the same way it was valuable for Israel’s experience - the complete trust in God’s promises that engenders a willingness to sacrifice anything, trusting that not even death is a barrier to God’s faithfulness.

Philip,

One has to ask, what is the purpose of covering the doorposts with blood if not for protection? The presence of Yahweh was passing through the land, and Yahweh’s presence was always dangerous. This is a prominent theme in Exodus:

“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to Yahweh to look, and many of them perish.” (Exodus 19:21)

“ ‘But’, He said, You cannot see my face, for no man may see me and live.’” (Exodus 33:20)

“For Yahweh will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the doorposts, Yahweh will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” (Exodus 12:23)

The presence of Yahweh is dangerous. But the blood covers the door, protecting the inhabitants. If that isn’t some kind of blood for blood substitution, then I don’t know how else to describe it. It certainly looks like one.

That sounds even less like substitution. When Moses hid in the cleft in the rock from YHWH’s presence, was the rock a substitute for Moses?

We can all speculate on the point of the blood on the Israelite houses. The only thing the text says is that it identifies the Israelite houses. In the story, the blood is how the destroyer will know it’s an Israelite house and leave it alone. It doesn’t say the blood affords some kind of mystical protection from YHWH’s presence or anything. That is all something we’d have to read into the text.

Various people have speculated. For instance, Dr. Meredith Kline has suggested putting the blood on the lintel and doorposts mimics the Egyptian practice of putting incantations on the doors of their tombs. But once again, the text tells us none of this.

But the thing is, this is exactly the phenomenon Andrew is talking about. We have pre-existing theological commitments, so when we go to a biblical text, we use the commitments as our metanarrative to make everything hang together. What we’re particularly bad at is exegeting those texts apart from our theological commitments in terms of the historical narrative of the people who created them in the first place.

So, if you begin with the idea that Jesus’ death was a penal substitutionary atonement, then of course you’re going to see it everywhere.

Philip,

My observations about the passover are not directly related to theories about penal substitution. I just believe that narratives have theological meanings already. To exclude theological meanings from our understanding of texts is to impose an a-theological grid upon the text arbitrarily.

When Moses hid behind the rock, the rock was a covering but not a substitution. That’s because the rock wasn’t giving anything up. Similarly I would not say that the blood was a substitution. The *lamb* was the substitute providing the blood as a covering. Although I agree that there is nothing mystical about the covering. God sees the sign and acts accordingly. That’s how all sacraments work.

Insofar as the author of a biblical text will make theological statements and reflections on his subject, I agree. But before attributing a theology to an author, I’d want some evidence that was the author’s theology - either by way of them making theological statements, or at least some kind of historical evidence that the theology was “in the air” during the circumstances that produced the text.

What I am against is reading the text with our theological efforts as the explanatory narrative. John Calvin wrote theological texts, but I wouldn’t interpret him according to Oneness Pentecostal doctrines. Early church fathers often made theological comments about their historical circumstances, too, but I would want to understand those statements on their terms, not assume they were making the same kinds of statements Christian theologians might make, today.

Likewise, I’m not going to want to project post-Reformational or modern evangelical ideas back into a biblical author’s mind and declare that the meaning of the text. This is, in my opinion, exactly what you are doing. If the texts themselves declared the Passover lamb to be a sacrifice to kill an animal in the place of an Israelite firstborn who would otherwise be killed, or if there were other extrabiblical literature that documented that this was a common way to think about the Passover lamb in early Judaism, then you might have something. Right now, it looks like what you’ve got is a theory of substitution, and when you apply it to the text, the theory works. Well, you can do that with quite a number of theories. That’s why we have fifty different theories on the Atonement.

What then, do you propose as the alternative? Why, specifically, was a lamb’s blood shed and applies to the door? Why did God choose that sign instead of, say, leaving a pot outside?

As to “the alternative,” that’s pretty much what this entire site is about. Near the top of the page, there’s a menu section called “Method,” and you might enjoy the articles in there that lay out an alternative approach to reading the biblical story without using systematic theology as the controlling narrative. In a nutshell, it involves reading it as an ongoing narrative of the people of God explaining their history and how that also shapes their thoughts on the future. The focus is on -their- questions, -their- issues, and -their- crises as become evident in concrete historical terms.

Because these are historical questions, we also find it helpful to look at things that give us insight into the historical climate at the time a text was written, such as extrabiblical writings, Jewish commentary, etc. to help us get inside the heads of an original audience.

Anyway, that’s the Method tab; I think you’ll enjoy going through it, even if you don’t always agree.

As to your question - why did it specifically have to be a lamb’s blood shed and applied to the door?

Well, one possible answer is that it didn’t have to specifically be that, but it needed to be something. Rahab didn’t specifically have to drape a scarlet cord from her house so the Israelites would recognize it. A blue thread would have worked. A sign saying, “Rahab lives here” would have worked. It’s just, for the purposes of the story, it’s a scarlet cord. If “lamb’s blood on the door” is substituted with, say, “scarlet cord,” I don’t think the story would change much at all. Even the allegorists among us would still be happy as they could say the scarlet cord was a type for the blood of Jesus or something.

So, we should be willing to at least entertain the idea that maybe there isn’t some grand, theological, metaphysical explanation for everything we come across. This is a story about the very early mists of Israel’s pre-history - made a ridiculously long time after the events they describe would have happened. The story exists to make sense of Israel’s present experience. For all we know, the reason it had to be a lamb was to explain their tradition of eating lamb at Passover.

I don’t think that’s correct; I just want us to come to grips with the notion that, just because something in the OT might trigger a thought or meaning for -us- does not automatically mean it’s invested with meaning for the original audience.

Where I think the lamb gets its significance is from the meal. In the text, lambs are selected per household on the basis of what that household can eat. The texts around the preparation and eating of the lamb, herbs, and unleavened bread vastly eclipse the attention given to its blood. It is the meal that is significant for Jesus’ use of the Passover with his disciples in the Upper Room, and it is the meal that is significant for Paul when he talks about Jesus being the Passover Lamb - the practical implication of which is that the Corinthians need to purge out their leaven now that the lamb has been killed. It is the meal aspect that becomes a continuing part of Mosaic observance (they don’t continue to spread blood on doorposts or anything) and which continues to be significant in Judaism, today.

Why a meal? Probably because, in the early Levant, meals are part of covenant ratification. This won’t be the last time Israel has a meal with God. There is no particular need to have a meal before they leave Egypt. It seems like an opportunity for them to demonstrate faithfulness to YHWH’s commandments and shake His hand, as it were.

Rabbinical commentary supports this. For example, Rashi makes a comment on the “when I see the blood” phrase. Since God knows everything, why does He need to see the blood to know which house is which? Rashi concludes that the blood is evidence that the people inside were faithfully observing what God had commanded them.

So, in essence, we have a covenant meal with several commandments attached (including purging leaven, which easily gets the most air time in the text) that the Israelites observe, and the faithful are delivered from their oppressors.

But as far as I know (and you are welcome to produce it and prove me wrong), there is no evidence from the text or later commentary that anyone saw the passover lamb as some form of substitutionary atonement.

Philip,

I’ve read much of Andrew’s stuff and found a lot of it helpful. But there are a few aspects of his thinking which I do find problematic, the first being a kind of reductionism which reduces each passage down to one (and only one) ‘central’ meaning, whilst excluding all others (eg. “this is a minor detail and so isn’t relevant to the overall meaning of the passage”). The second is the lack of overlap between differing eschatological horizons (eg. “this passage is about Israel, so it can’t be applied to the church”).

Regarding the passover lamb, this was an instruction given by God. And God is never arbitrary in giving his commandments. I think you are right to highlight the meal aspect, and I do wish evangelicals would meditate more on the significance of that. However, every aspect matters. Why a blood covering and not a coat of wool left outside, for instance? Every detail of the liturgy matters. Even the animal in question. Some later sacrifices required a lamb, some others a goat. This one allowed for either. Why is that?

I don’t have all the answers, but I am not the one advocating an either-or approach. I don’t think it’s history or theology - I think both aspects play their part.

For the record, I don’t think it has to be either/or, but I do think we have to be very aware of what we’re doing and put our statements in their accordingly proper context.

For example, if a believer reads a Psalm and finds resonance there with their personal spiritual struggles, I don’t think that’s illegitimate or that they should stop doing that. I do think it would be in error to proclaim to the church that the Psalm’s purpose is for individuals to find resonance with their personal spiritual struggles and, by abstracting the Psalm into a contemporary, individualistic concern, we might actually be missing out on a lot of powerful meaning. I think what we need to do is recognize that we can read the Bible devotionally and bring our own experiences to it, appropriate its meaning into our context, etc. - but we need to recognize that’s what we’re doing and give it its due tentativity, and we also need to recognize that when we do that, we are most likely stepping way outside any of the reasons the early community would have preserved that writing. Nor can we plausibly do this in total isolation from the original concerns.

The problem we run into, I think, is when we conflate our theological understanding with “what the BIble says” or “what the BIble means.” By equating our theological constructions with the biblical narrative, we end up just gutting the biblical narrative in favor of our own concerns and constructions, and this is not healthy for the people of God, especially in the contemporary world when the theological story is so uncompelling and our identity as a people is virtually nonexistent in favor of a very individualistic story about where I go when I die. To me, that just cuts out so much of who we are, why we do what we do, etc.

If the church today had a healthier narrative, I’d probably be more congenial to theological constructions, but as it is, that way of understanding the Bible and ourselves is a towering colossus and, in the experience of your average believer, it’s only the occasional N.T. Wright book that dares to suggest we might look at the historical circumstances of the texts apart from our own concerns.

Loosely analogous - race and gender issues. Yes, the ideal is that everyone is treated the same no matter their race or gender, but when that has been used as a basis of systemic discrimination for possibly millennia, you can’t just say, “Hey, let’s all just start treating each other the same, starting now.” You have to push back against the beliefs and assumptions that brought us to that point as well as actively repairing damages that have been done. If the Church had carried with her a strong narrative continuous with the one in the Bible, then maybe naturally we would have assembled tentative theological constructions as they were useful, discarded them when they weren’t, and kept them in perspective as they sprang up historically. But that’s so, so remotely far from where the Church is at.

I don’t mind taking a stronger corrective stance to try to wrench the train back onto the tracks, especially since the Theology-Driven Church Message is losing adherents at unprecedented rates and seems wholly inadequate to deal with the historical crises of our time.

Philip,

I’m a huge fan of a narrative-driven approach to scripture a la NT Wright, Richard Hays, Peter Leithart etc. And I’m all up for de-individualising things and appreciating the corporate and often political context into which the scriptures were written (which in itself makes for some pretty fascinating applications to modern day situations). But I don’t think de-prioritising theology is the way to do that. Rather, I think a return to good, narrative-driven theology is the best way forward.

In some of your statements, you’ve implied that theology is almost a sort of appendage, an add-on which we can take or leave. In my view, this can’t simply be compared to racial or gender issues. The two disciplines - history and theology - need each other. To the extent that one is neglected, there is a loss for the other.

And I simply don’t believe that an individual-theological approach drives people away. The churches which show the fastest signs of growth are the ones with the strongest individual focus, typically charismatic evangelical and pentecostal churches. I’m not a charismatic, but the attendance figures speak for themselves.

How does the death of Christ make us righteous? If not through metaphysical means?

Doesn’t seem that anything merely historical about a man dying on a cross makes us righteous.

Alex, I think it’s faithful obedience to God that makes a person righteous, i.e. doing the “right” thing as a part of one’s day-to-day life. I think that’s what you see in both the Old and New Testaments.

You disagree with Paul then.

Alex, I disagree with what you think Paul is implying.

That’s well put, Alex. It gets exactly to the nub of the issue. This is a rough sketch of a response, developing the basic point that Peter makes.

Paul’s argument is that people are “justified” by faith, which is also not an abstraction but an act of real belief and trust in the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was no longer observance of the Jewish Law that guaranteed the future of the people of God but the faith that God had put his Son in control of all things.

The death of Jesus does not make the person righteous. God justifies or counts as righteous the person who believes that Jesus died for the sins of his people and is now seated at the right hand of God, eventually to rule over the nations.

The comparison is with Abraham (Rom. 4), who was counted righteous by God because he believed the promise about future offspring. It’s not the promise that put him in the right. It was his belief in the promise.

So I’m not sure we have to say that Jesus’ death achieved anything metaphysically beyond what it achieved as part of the narrative of the coming of the kingdom of God from the perspective of historical Israel in the first century.

Even today, we are justified by a concrete, embodied, lived out act of faith in the fact that Jesus died for the sins of his people, was raised from the dead, has been made Lord above all things for the sake of the people of God, the descendants of Abraham, and will continue to safeguard and direct his people as we journey from Christendom into the wilderness of Western secularism.

That, to my mind, is justification by faith. God thinks that we are in the right for holding to this conviction; and as a faithful people we will be found to be in the right at some point in the future.

Andrew,

I think you’re right to view the gospel as primarily a historical event, a story and I love the focus that this piece brings. However, I don’t think there’s ultimately a conflict between story and theology in the bible. Why do the two perspectives have to be at odds?

Perhaps there’s a theological way of telling the stories and likewise, perhaps there’s a more narrative-driven approach towards the theology. These two perspectives can be reconciled.

Chris

Regarding the OP and why Jesus had to die: Jesus’ suffering during his Passion was sufficient to forgive the sins of everyone (1 John 2:2), because Jesus is not just a human, but also God (John 1:1,14, John 10:30, John 20:28). His soul is infinite, and so the suffering of his soul (Isaiah 53:11, KJV) was infinite in amount, even though it was not infinite in duration. And so his suffering could satisfy God the Father’s justice (Isaiah 53:11, KJV; 1 Peter 3:18), which requires an infinite amount of human suffering for sin (Matthew 25:46). Because humans who are not God have finite souls, for them to suffer an infinite amount for their sins, they must suffer over an infinite duration of time (Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:10-11, Mark 9:46).

Every human has sinned (Romans 3:23), except Jesus (Hebrews 4:15b; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But because Jesus suffered for sins (1 Peter 3:18, Isaiah 53:11, KJV) an infinite amount, when the elect repent from their sins and believe in Jesus’ human/divine sacrifice, they can have their past sins forgiven (Romans 3:25-26, Matthew 26:28), while God the Father’s justice remains fully satisfied by Jesus’ suffering for their sins (Isaiah 53:11, KJV; 1 Peter 3:18).

Regarding the OP and Ennis’ idea of how “uncooperative the Bible can be if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically”: This idea is absurd from a Biblical Christian’s point of view. For the Bible, in its entirety, is given to us precisely in order to pave a smooth path for us theologically:

2 Timothy 3:15  And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16  All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17  That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

Pity for Timothy the New Testament didn’t exist yet.

…yep, pretty much. The OT = “the Scriptures” in the NT.

“Jesus died for the sins of his people.”

That “for” is highly ambiguous, isn’t it? It allows for several interpretations.

  • It can be taken to mean, in context, “Jesus died because of the sins of his people.”
  • Or, “Jesus died to deflect God’s wrath for the sins of his people.”
  • Or, “Jesus died to compensate for the sins of his people.”

Not so different from all the existing “atonement theories”, really.

“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 …”

Of course it makes quite a lot of difference if we understand Isaiah’s “suffering servant” as an individual or collectively (“suffering servant” = Israel). I have already proposed my criticism of the latter.

“He suffered the wrath of God that would come upon his people.”

This is not much different from a form of atonement. I can even suggest a name for it: Antecedent Atonement.

“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).”

I agree. I am only afraid that you are confusing and conflating Exodus 24 with Exodus 12.

Jesus’ death has narrative significance rather than theological significance.

How about: Jesus’ death was inevitable rather than necessary. The “prophet disarmed” that Jesus was - or rather “armed” only with his word and his love - it was inevitable that he would succumb to his enemies, Roman and Jewish and even from the circle of his close associates.

“This has obviously not been an adequate analysis of the New Testament data, but I think it makes the basic point. (…) Our interest in it [the narration of Jesus’ death] lies in the fact that it is our story. We are still living it out.”

Yes, to refer to Moses’ institution of the Passover and to his confirmation of the Covenant with blood, to compare Jesus to the Passover lamb, and then to minimize the event of the cross as “narrative”, as our story, is certainly inadequate.

That “for” is highly ambiguous, isn’t it? It allows for several interpretations.

Paul says, “Christ died for (hyper) our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). That hyper is ambiguous. How would you explain it?

Not so different from all the existing “atonement theories”, really.

But you have turned it into a theory by proposing interpretations of it. “Jesus died because of the sins of his people” is basically historical description within the terms of the covenant narrative, but your other two statements are pushing in the direction of a theological explanation. My argument is that a narrative-historical approach primarily foregrounds the contemporary telling the story. Jesus’ death was a historical event, not an especially unique historical event, that had causes and consequences.

Of course it makes quite a lot of difference if we understand Isaiah’s “suffering servant” as an individual or collectively (“suffering servant” = Israel).

I wasn’t particularly thinking of Isaiah. More directly relevant is the suffering righteous man in Wisdom 2-3:

Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is a divine son, he will help him and will rescue him from the hand of those who oppose him. (Wis. 2:17–18)

To say that Jesus “suffered the wrath of God that would come upon his people” points, at least roughly, in the direction of a penal substitutionary idea of atonement. But I understand that historically rather than metaphysically: his death on a Roman cross anticipated the “punishment” of Israel in AD 70. I don’t think it demands a theoretical account of how someone dying could bring about forgiveness of sins.

I am only afraid that you are confusing and conflating Exodus 24 with Exodus 12.

No. The two ideas remain distinct: both the passover lamb and the blood of the new covenant. But it could have been clearer.

By the way, I’m having trouble keeping up with you.

Paul says, “Christ died for (hyper) our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). That hyper is ambiguous. How would you explain it?

Thank you for making my point. If you look at ὑπέρ + Genitive (at LSJ), you can see that there are many possible uses, including, in defence of, on behalf of, instead of, in the name of, because of, by reason of, as a thank-offering for, for the sake of, etc. Which of them had paul in mind? Your guess is as good as mind, and I cannot make up my mind …

But you have turned it into a theory by proposing interpretations of it.

Not really, as I have just shown, it is the broadness of meaning of hyper in the Greek language that legitimates all those possibilities. I leave it for you to fill in the different meanings from the LSJ herebelow …

“Jesus died the sins of his people.”

… and choose the one you think fits best.

I wasn’t particularly thinking of Isaiah. More directly relevant is the suffering righteous man in Wisdom 2-3 …

Poor try: in your post, you explicitly refer to Isaiah (” We see it in Isaiah’s suffering servant …”). And I am waiting to see how you respond to my comment with the link to my post on the subject, The suffering servant of Yahweh, at my blog Strict Monotheism.

BTW, Wis 2:17-18, that you have just quoted, is rather echoed by this verse …

“He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” (Matt 27:43)

… which incorporates a quotation of Ps 22:8

… his death on a Roman cross anticipated the “punishment” of Israel in AD 70. I don’t think it demands a theoretical account of how someone dying could bring about forgiveness of sins.

This seems to me like remarkable backstepping from your previous statements about Jesus attributing “sacrificial meaning to his death” and being “implicitly the Passover lamb”, about Moses and the “blood of the covenant” …

BTW, let me know openly if you feel like I am “invading” your blog :)

As an observer, I don’t know that you’re invading the blog, but it does look somewhat like self-promotion. A slew of contra-comments on a wide variety of posts in a short amount of time doesn’t look very much like an honest invitation to discussion.

It worked, though, because I did hop over to your blog to read the article you mentioned and thought it was unimpressive. Your point is basically, “I can’t imagine this imagery that applies to a single person could apply to a corporate entity.”

If the suffering servant means Israel, it is presenting them in the imagery of single person. The obvious implication would be that the language that spoke in the sense of something happening to an individual or an individual doing would refer poetically to the trials and journeys of the nation. Given the nuance involved in some of your other comments, I was a little surprised to see such a fundamentalist reading from you.

Hi Phil. I’m not too bothered by the self-promotion, but the intensity and number of “Miguel’s” comments has surprised me, and I’m having trouble keeping up. I also checked out his piece on the suffering servant and was unconvinced by the argument. The whole point of a metaphor is that it is not literally like the object of comparison. If he’s interested, I addressed the question of the identity of the suffering servant in “Who was the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12?

Fair enough. Here’s why I’m not convinced by your argument against the collective interpretation of the suffering servant passage. It’s certainly possible that Isaiah had in mind an individual, but in context I think that the collective interpretation makes better sense.

1. I don’t think that the alternative to seeing the suffering servant as an individual is to see him as ‘a collective “messianic entity”’. He simply suffers because of the sin of Israel. Jesus was a suffering messiah, but it wasn’t the suffering that made him a messiah; it was his anointing by the Spirit at his baptism. He was an agent of God’s purposes. The suffering servant is not an agent.

2. You don’t discuss the context in Deutero-Isaiah. Why does this passage come between the promise of the return of the exiles and the promise of a great increase in the number of inhabitants in Jerusalem?

3. I don’t think there is any obstacle to the collective interpretation (as, for example, a reference to the late exilic community) in the details that you highlight in blue. Isaiah imagines (poetically) the community of exiles, descendants of the generation that sinned and brought judgment on itself, as the suffering servant Israel, as a maltreated individual servant.

4. The servant is “Jacob/Israel” in the servant songs (Is. 42:1 LXX; 49:3).

… It’s certainly possible that Isaiah had in mind an individual, but in context I think that the collective interpretation makes better sense.

That the Suffering Servant of Isaiah was always understood by Christianity as a prophecy pointing to Jesus is confirmed from the NT, Acts 8:26-40.

Here is an extensive list of verses from Isaiah’s “servant songs” and their => quotations or “echoes”in the NT

Is 42:1 => Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17

Is 53:4 => Matthew 8:17

Is 42:1-4 => Matthew 12:18-21

Is 53:11 => Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45

Is 53:3 => Mark 9:12

Is 53:12 => Luke 22:37

Is 53:7 => John 1:29, 36

Is 53:13 => John 12:34

Is 53:1 => John 12:38, Romans 10:16

Is 53:15 => Romans 15:21

Is 53:7 => 1 Peter 2:23

Is 53:9 => 1 Peter 2:22

Is 53:4,5,6 => 1 Peter 2:24-25

Is 53:11-12 => 1 Peter 3:18

Let’s see your points, now.

1. Of course “it wasn’t the suffering that made him a messiah”. It is a distinctive prophetic mark though, and most of all a mark of his meek messiahship: certainly nothing like Judas “The Hammer”.

2. What has the “promise of a great increase in the number of inhabitants in Jerusalem” to do with whether the “suffering servant” is an individual or a collective figure?

3. Your “poetical interpretation” of my “blue highlights” is a real stretch. Anyway, I will look at your post Who was the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12? and comment on it.

4. Nothing in Is 42:1 (and in the entire Is 42:1-7) suggests even vaguely a collective interpretation as Israel.

Is 49:3 identifies the servant as Israel, but in Is 49: 5-6 (part of the second “servant song”, Is 49:1-13) this servant says he has been commissioned to reconcile Israel to God, so he is obviously distinct from the exiled nation, albeit closely identifired with its destiny.

Your point is basically, “I can’t imagine this imagery that applies to a single person could apply to a corporate entity.”

I wonder how you would have explained Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), if he had asked you, but I suspect that he wouldn’t have asked you to baptize him, at the end.

That was a very rude thing to say.

Sorry if you feel offended, but there is no doubt that Philip referred Isa 53:7-8 to Jesus, NOT to Israel. And, as you can see, Andrew says, “Jesus was a suffering messiah”, NOT something like “Israel was symbolized as a suffering Servant of YHWH”.

“Sorry if you feel offended?”

You know, you would probably have a lot more productive conversations with people if you dropped the sneering contempt. I don’t know if you’re trying your best to emulate the real Servetus (and that didn’t work out exceptionally well for him in terms of persuasive power), but it definitely does not lead me to believe you have correctly apprehended the Scriptures.

And of course Christians interpreted Isaiah 53 as speaking about Jesus. Christians repurposed lots of the Old Testament in light of Jesus, as well they should. That doesn’t mean Isaiah as Isaiah was thinking about Jesus when he wrote those things, and Isaiah’s original meaning is what shapes how we can meaningfully understand Jesus in light of it. That original meaning is how later rabbis could come to see the passage as also being about a Messiah. It seems rather ludicrous to think that Isaiah would interrupt assurances to Israel regarding Babylon to entertain an extended prediction of Jesus Christ who would arrive centuries later.

The only thing worse than someone being so consistently wrong is someone who is so consistently wrong and treats everyone else like they’re idiots. It’s like when young-Earth creationists make sarcastic jokes about Crocoducks - as if their gross misunderstandings are the height of wisdom and everyone else is an idiot because they don’t see how stupid the theory of evolution is.

Well, it doesn’t serve them well, and it doesn’t serve you well, either. You are a uniquely unpleasant person to have a discussion with and it troubles me that you associate yourself with Jesus.

I don’t know if you’re trying your best to emulate the real Servetus (and that didn’t work out exceptionally well for him in terms of persuasive power), but it definitely does not lead me to believe you have correctly apprehended the Scriptures.

Interesting comment about the “real Servetus”, his irksome interactions, his poor “persuasive power”. And his final demise burned at the stake, thanks to the “Christian care” of John Calvin, may I add.

BTW, my goal is not to persuade you - or anybody - that I “got it right”, but to confront them with the weaknesses, absurdities, inconsistencies and plain contradictions of their positions, if there are.

It seems rather ludicrous to think that Isaiah would interrupt assurances to Israel regarding Babylon to entertain an extended prediction of Jesus Christ who would arrive centuries later.

Your sentence eerily echoes this other one:

“There is no reason to think that Isaiah has interrupted the narrative about exile and restoration with an unrelated prophecy about a future suffering messiah.” (Who was the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12? - 14 April, 2015 - 14:52 | Andrew Perriman)

On the contrary, I see prophecy as God’s intervention that breaks the linearity of the prophet’s thoughts with something that has got value precisely because it is very unlikely that the prophet thought it up all by himself. Otherwise he would be a historian, or a chronicler, wouldn’t he?

It’s like when young-Earth creationists make sarcastic jokes about Crocoducks - as if their gross misunderstandings are the height of wisdom and everyone else is an idiot because they don’t see how stupid the theory of evolution is.

Reading this very brief essay, The Game of Science: Reflections After Arguing With Some Rather Overwrought People (Richard E. Dickerson, 1992, @ asa3.org) may help you. It helped me.

You are a uniquely unpleasant person to have a discussion with and it troubles me that you associate yourself with Jesus.

Sorry that you perceive me like that. All I can say is, maybe you should concentrate on what I say, rather than on my perceived attitude. :)

I am paying attention to what you say. What you say is littered with barbs, accusations, and insults. Those are not tones of voice I’m reading into your words; those are things you’re actually saying.

And it does remind me a lot of the original Servetus who sent scores of unsolicited, sneering letters articulating his position. I think he was treated unjustly, but he sure didn’t do his case any favors by burying Calvin under a ton of acidic snail mail.

But as they say, those who don’t know the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them, I suppose.

my goal is not to persuade you - or anybody - that I “got it right”, but to confront them with the weaknesses, absurdities, inconsistencies and plain contradictions of their positions, if there are.

It’s interesting, then, that you keep referring people back to your blog articles where you articulate your positions. That looks remarkably like a suggestion that you have a more correct formulation, somewhere. I think your statement is disingenuous, but it’s been somewhat obvious that you aren’t arguing in good faith to begin with.

Unfortunately, though, the “weaknesses and absurdities” you point out are being countered with hypotheses like Isaiah merrily espousing his prophetic take on Babylon when God literally interrupted his brain with words about Jesus, then let him continue on his merry way. Isaiah, I suppose, was used to this sort of thing and just wrote it all down naturally. I always thought the prophets were upset with God because of the persecution and unbelief their vocations elicited, but perhaps it’s because they never knew when God would randomly interrupt their brain with words for a completely different audience about events they knew nothing about.

As I noted, that’s what makes your tone particularly jarring. We all fall prey to sneering and jabbing from time to time, but not only have you made spite a personal branding element, it’s the vanguard for the same assertions one gets from a backwoods fundamentalist.

To you, I’m sure arguments like, “I don’t understand how a metaphorical description of an individual could apply to a group” and “God periodically messed with Isaiah’s brain in ways he didn’t understand but wrote down anyway in the middle of his normal brain function” may seem like unassailable critiques, but I think they’re more unfalsifiable than unassailable.

Why dont you show how succesfully you have been “influenced by Andrew Perriman’s thoughts” and provide a narrative-historical interpretation of Zechariah 9:9, that does away, once and for all, with the abusive use of this verse in Matthew (in particular the fake aetiological connection that this gospel pretends to establish at Matt 21:5)?