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

The salvation of the Jews by the “Author of life”—not quite in the way you might think

Here’s an interesting question. What are we to understand by the phrase “Author of life” in the ESV translation of Acts 3:15? Since we would normally say that God as creator is the author of life, we might imagine that Peter is saying, in this very early defence of the apostolic witness, that Jesus is God. We would be wrong. But what’s interesting here is not the negative (Peter is not saying that Jesus is God) but the positive thought that emerges regarding how the saving impact of Jesus’ death was understood—at least, how Luke understood it to have been understood by the early Jewish-Christian movement.

BDAG, which is the standard dictionary of New Testament Greek, gives three meanings for archēgos: 1) leader, ruler, prince; 2) “one who begins someth. that is first in a series, thereby providing impetus for further developments”; 3) “one who begins or originates, hence the recipient of special esteem in the Gr-Rom. world, originator, founder”.

In the Greek Old Testament archēgos is used most often for the “head” (roᐣsh) of a tribe of Israel, but since “head” indicates someone who is in the first or foremost position, I think we can say that the word basically signifies a person who first does something or who initiates, inaugurates, or instigates something.

The city of Lachish is the archēgos of “sin for daughter Sion because in you were found the impious acts of Israel” (Mic. 1:13). Lachish sinned first, Israel followed suit. 1 Maccabees 9:61 speaks of certain men who were “instigators (archēgōn) of the evil” of a plot against the Maccabeans. Alexander, the son of Antiochus Epiphanes, is described as “the archēgos of peaceful words to them”—the first to speak words of peace to them (1 Macc. 10:47). The archēgos is the first person to do something; others will follow.

When Jesus is described as archēgos in the New Testament, therefore, we should ask in what sense he is the beginning or initiator of a series, for which he has become the recipient of special esteem.

This sense is especially clear in Hebrews. In order to bring “many sons to glory”, God “made perfect the archēgos of their salvation through sufferings”. Because Jesus and the many sons, who will be tested and will suffer in the same way (2:14-18), have the same source, Jesus is “not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:10-11). The idea here is that the “salvation” of these Jewish believers consists in the fact that they are walking the path that Jesus walked before them. God made him perfect through suffering and brought him to glory. Therefore, his persecuted followers, his brothers, will also be perfected through suffering and brought to the glory of resurrection and vindication.

This is exactly the argument that Paul makes in Romans: this community, which will soon face Nero’s savagery, has been chosen “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). Jesus and his followers are “brothers” to the extent that they share the same experience of suffering, death, vindication and glory.

The writer to the Hebrews also urges his readers to “run the contest” (the agōn of faithful witness under severe opposition) with endurance, “looking up to the archēgos and perfection of the faith, Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has been seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). The inspiration for the endurance of the persecuted community will be the vision of Jesus who travelled this painful path before them and is now seated in glory at the right hand of the Father.

Through his faithfulness even unto death on a Roman cross (cf. Phil. 2:6-8), Jesus has initiated a concrete modus operandi, a narrow and difficult road leading to the life of the age that will come after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Matt. 7:13-14; Lk. 13:24), which the Jewish-Christian community must follow if it is to be saved in this period of eschatological crisis—as it works out its own salvation, in the wake of the vindication of Jesus, with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:9-12). The narrative conforms closely to the BDAG definition: Jesus begins something that is first in a series, thereby providing impetus for further developments.

Now let’s go back to Acts. I think that the very Jewish argument of Hebrews helps us here.

Peter’s contention, in two speeches, is that the Jews in Jerusalem had Jesus killed, but the God of Israel raised him from the dead, glorified his obedient servant (paida), and exalted him to his right hand (Acts 3:13-15; 5:30-31). It is this Jesus who is the archēgos of life, or archēgos and saviour.

Because this is the work of Israel’s God, the people of Jerusalem ought to repent of what they have done (they killed the originator of the life of the age to come) and turn back from the course they are on, so that they may be forgiven by God, receive the Holy Spirit, and await the time when Jesus will restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 3:19-21; cf. 1:6).

Notice how the soteriology was supposed to work: the Jews recognise that their God has raised from the dead the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel; therefore, they repent and begin to produce the fruit that the vineyard owner’s Son sought; therefore, because they have repented, they are forgiven and will not suffer the catastrophe of divine judgment. All very straightforward, no theology of atonement required.

Comments

Good stuff here, Andrew. I don’t mean to impute motives to the original commenter but why do you think people overlook these exaltation texts? Why do you think people have an issue with a human messiah that has been exalted and given these things because the one God says so?

Addtionally, would a good name for this kind of Christology be what Ehrman calls ‘Exaltation Christology’? What do you think?

My guess would be 1) because the vindicated-messiah theme has been superseded by Trinitarianism; and 2) because we have been conditioned to think of “Christianity” as a universal-existential-salvationist phenomenon rather than as a historical phenomenon.

Yes, it is an “exaltation Christology”, as long as we keep in mind that exaltation entailed a future rule over the nations. Crudely, I think that an exaltation christology gets fused with, or is supplanted by, a Wisdom-Logos christology, which then becomes the springboard to a full-blown Trinitarianism, which was a necessary move once the church had settled in the Greek world and had forgotten where it had come from.

Well said.

In your opinion, though, do you think we need to return to this paradigm and leave Trinitarianism in its own historical context? I believe you’ve said something akin to that in another post, if I’m not mistaken. If I am, I don’t mean to misrepresent you!

Was that future rule over the nations Christendom? Is it now? Should we be waiting for the second coming? What is the way forward and what is the relevance of Christianity today if it isn’t a ‘universal-existential-salvationist phenomenon’?

Thanks!

I’m inclined to think that classical Trinitarianism has run its course. The intellectual conditions that generated and sustained it have disappeared.

If we bring a strong enough historical consciousness to the task, the best approach might be simply to tell the Jewish story as the early Jewish Christians told it, and leave it at that. On that basis we affirm that a crucified Jewish messiah is Lord. How meaningful would that be?

In the absence of a strong historical consciousness, I guess we would need to find new ways of integrating the Lordship of the exalted Jesus into a modern/post-modern conception of deity.

Yes, I think the best way to read the New Testament in hindsight is to identify the rule of Christ over the nations that happens at the parousia with European Christendom.

I do not, therefore, think that we are still awaiting a second coming of Jesus—that whole motif had to do with the vindication of persecuted Israel and the eventual judgment of the persecuting empire.

The way forward is not complicated. The task of the people of God is always to serve the creator as a blessed new creation, as a priestly-prophetic people. We are now having to do that under radically different post-biblical conditions, which is demanding considerable re-formation of the church, and a considerable re-imagining of its way of operating.

The “salvation” of people is always a corollary of the historical existence of the church, but it is not the defining factor. What sets the trajectory is the self-consciousness of being a “chosen” people since Abraham, which now serves the living God under the Lordship of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Andrew,

You said “The way forward is not complicated. The task of the people of God is always to serve the creator as a blessed new creation, as a priestly-prophetic people. We are now having to do that under radically different post-biblical conditions, which is demanding considerable re-formation of the church, and a considerable re-imagining of its way of operating.”

How do we know what the creator God wants from us if the Scriptures are history for us and we’re not looking forward to ‘the day of Christ’? What are some practical ways of living this out? How do we interact with those of differing faiths?

Thanks!

I’m not sure about the people of other faiths part (though see #8), but an outline response is given here.

This is helpful; thank you.

I notice that this suggestion also bears on the “faith vs works” controversy that is so deeply embedded in the “theological DNA” of the protestant traditions.

You end with these words, “no theology of atonement required.”

I believe you’ve said in numerous posts that Yahweh was willing to forgive those Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and repented because Jesus was obedient to the point of death. Jesus became the sacrifial lamb that appeased Yahweh.

If this is right, are you saying that Jesus’ atoning death was necessary, but the complex (and mystical) theology that was built on top of it is not required?

Perhaps I would say that at a basic historical level Jesus was killed, God raised him from the dead, and his followers argued that Israel would be forgiven if the nation repented of the particular sin of killing Jesus and the broader sin of rebelling against YHWH, and believed that YHWH had made Jesus Lord and Christ. That narrative does not require an atonement theology—just repentance and forgiveness.

However, given the background of temple sacrifice and the second temple Jewish background of atoning martyrdom, it was natural to argue that Jesus’ death had atoning value for Israel, at least metaphorically if not metaphysically. Luke tells the historical narrative, Paul and others provide the theological overlay.

Now I’m a bit confused. I thought you had argued in earlier posts that first-century Jews stood condemned for violating the covenant, but the death of Jesus served as an atonement ensuring a future for the faithful remnant.

Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but are you now saying that Jesus may not have seen his death as a requisite for Israel to have a future?

Sorry. It could have been clearer. I’m suggesting that the atoning part is a secondary reflection upon, a figurative way of speaking about, the historical narrative of repentance and forgiveness that we find in the early chapters of Acts. Israel sins by killing YHWH’s anointed Son; Israel repents; Israel is forgiven; destruction of this wicked generation is averted; therefore, Jesus’ death can be seen as (even by Jesus himself) an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people. And because the crucifixion was not a Jewish but a Roman execution, I guess it was easy enough to say that his death as an “atonement” for Israel anticipated the destruction of Israel by Rome.

So I think Jesus understood his suffering and death to be a prerequisite for Israel’s future, but from his point of view, the reason for this is that he sets the pattern for the faithfulness of an eschatological community that would proclaim the coming of the judgment and rule of God over the coming decades, through to the end of the age, in the face of intense hostility. He determines the narrow gate, the difficult path leading to life, but his followers will have to walk down it faithfully, until the end of the age of second temple Judaism, when the Son of Man will be vindicated. As Davo rightly says, in his suffering, death and resurrection Jesus is a “trailblazer”, an archēgos.

It’s probably worth making the point that there are different perspectives at work here. Jesus is concerned about the mission to Israel. The apostles in Jerusalem are concerned about Israel’s reaction to his death and resurrection.

This may be controversial, but I have found NT Wright’s proposal that Jesus envisioned his death at the hands of the Romans to be his final prophetic warning to Israel to be plausible— “this is what Rome does to Israel’s would-be kings. If it happens even to me, who has wrought only mercy and peace, what will happen to your would-be military ‘messiahs’ and to their followers?”

If I am reading NTW rightly at this point, Jesus hoped by his shocking death to prevent the rebellion that was portended in the “signs of the times.” This looks to me like a plausible model of “how the atonement could have ‘worked’ ” had all gone to plan. The people would have been ‘saved’ by their obedience to Jesus’ warnings.

One of the things that I find appealing in NTW’s “crucifixion as intentional prophetic warning” proposal is that it provides an historically plausible (rather than theologically puzzling) account of the “offer his life a ransom for many” saying. Ransomed from whom or what? Historically, from the crushing weight of Roman vengeance against rebels.

It’s an interesting angle. Can you provide the reference?

I’m very confident that the idea that Jesus’ intentional embrace of the expected fate of crucifixion by the Romans was, in his own mind, a prophetic act, is in “Jesus and the Victory of God”, perhaps in the chapter “Praxis of a Prophet.” There is, IIRC, some discussion of the precedent of OT prophets doing strange things to make a point to their hearers. I’ll have to dig out my copy to get an exact page. That may take a while, given the disorder of my things.

NTW doesn’t, IIRC, make the the connection with the “ransom for many” saying, though that seems a natural implication of his line of argument.

Will try to find that reference.

Archēgon… in a word — trailblazer.

Notice how the soteriology was supposed to work: the Jews recognise that their God has raised from the dead the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel; therefore, they repent and begin to produce the fruit that the vineyard owner’s Son sought; therefore, because they have repented, they are forgiven and will not suffer the catastrophe of divine judgment. All very straightforward, no theology of atonement required.

Unfortunately, for the “soteriology to work”, the Jews (their chiefs first and foremost) should have accepted that Jesus was “the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel” (Matt 21:33–46; cp. Mark 12:1–12 and Luke 20:9–19). But that is precisely what the “chief priests and Pharisees” refused to do, in fact became infuriated about, when they “perceived that [Jesus] was speaking about them” as the wicked “husbandmen” who, in the end “took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”.

Indeed. That’s why I said that that was how the soteriology was “supposed” to work.

Is the “recognition”, of Jesus by (many or even most) Jews as “raised from the dead” “anachronistic”?