Thursday, November 11, 2010

Historical Proofs of Christ's Intentions Regarding His Death

More from the book.

The second category of sacrifice that Christ fulfills is that of atoning sacrifice.  As our exegetical findings in chapter two make clear, the New Testament writings clearly and consistently teach that Jesus' death was a sacrifice for sin, in according with the types of the Levitical cult and the prophecies of the Old Testament (particularly Isaiah 53, etc.).  Nevertheless, in modern theology, this aspect of Jesus' work has been frequently rejected.  It has suffered this rejection for two main reasons.  First, it is often doubted by many New Testament scholars (and others) that Jesus actually regarded his death as the final sacrifice for sin.[1]  Even if we did not possess an infallible witness in the New Testament writings (as we do, Lk 10:16, Jn 16:12-6), there are in fact very good reasons within the historical documents themselves to believe that Jesus held his death to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

To begin with, the earliest traditions regarding the death of Jesus that we possess come to us from writings of St. Paul, dating from the 50s of the first century.[2]  Paul delivers to his congregation the tradition that Jesus' death was a sacrifice for sins which he has clearly received from the earliest disciples.  He states explicitly: "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3-4, Emphasis added).  In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul begins by referring to the tradition that he has received that Christ died as a sacrifice for sin, and then proceeds to speak of it within a body of traditions that refer to Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the apostles.  Paul ends by affirming the unity of his proclamation with that of the original disciples of Jesus by stating: “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Cor. 15:11).  Hence Paul himself both testifies of this understanding of the death of Jesus as being the earliest tradition and one he received directly from the other apostles.

Not only does Paul attest that the earliest disciples understood Jesus' death as a sacrifice for sins (which is strongly suggests that Jesus himself did as well), but he also more directly affirms that this was Jesus' own self-understanding by recounting the words of institution at the last supper.  As we observed in chapter two, the words of institution clearly attest Jesus' understanding of his death as a sacrifice for sins in that it presents his flesh and blood as something separated.[3]  The act of atoning sacrifice for the Jews was in fact the act of separating body from blood (Lev 17:11).  Therefore, in the words of institution Jesus presented his physical substance as something sacrificed for sins: "this is my body" "this is my blood" etc.

The veracity Paul's own witness to these words and the narrative of institution in 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 cannot be doubted. According to the passages in 1 Corinthians mentioned above, Galatians 1-2, and Acts, the Apostle clearly knew Jesus' original followers and therefore those who had been in Jesus' own presence when he spoken the words of institution.  Unless we are to believe that they intentionally lied about what Jesus had said, the words must be understood as historical and therefore Jesus without a doubt understood his death to be a sacrifice for sins. 

Beyond Paul's own witness to the words of institution, there is the attestation of them by the Synoptic tradition.  The Synoptic Gospels record the words in a very nearly identical form.  There is some variation, but this is not surprising.  Such variation is doubtless due to how the words were translated from Aramaic and there was also probably some stylization of them due to liturgical usage.  What is important though is that this dual witness to the words gives us multiple attestation of their veracity.  Multiple attestation is generally one of the criterion used by liberal scholars use for the verification of the authentic words of Jesus in Gospel research.[4]  For this reason, the data shows that the words of institution must be considered historical and therefore Jesus must have considered his death a priestly act of sacrifice for sin.[5]

The Gospels give further historical evidence that Jesus intended his death to be a sacrifice for sin.  For example, as N. T. Wright has pointed out, it cannot credibly be believed that the early Church invented Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane that his vocation of dying might be changed (Mk 14:32-42, Mt 26:36-46, Lk 22:39-46.).[6]  In fact, there is fairly good evidence that such a portrayal of Jesus stands in rather stark contradiction to the portrayals of heroic martyrdom found elsewhere in the immediate environment.  For example, Josephus’ portrayal of the binding of Isaac[7] and much later, Eusebius’ source for the martyrdom of St. Polycarp.[8]  In both of these histories, the hero goes unflinchingly to his death and does not attempt to ask God for a reprieve.  Josephus tells us that it “pleased” Isaac to hear of his impending death.  Raymond Brown has made a similar comparison of Jesus to the brave and stoic martyrs of 2 Maccabees.[9]  If one connects the fact of the words of institution with such a plea, then one cannot escape the conclusion that Jesus believed that the Father willed his death as a sacrifice for sins.   

Beyond the veracity of the earliest tradition, it should be noted that although Jesus' conception of his death as a sacrifice for sins was unique, it possesses some close parallels within the Judaism of his time.  Not only is the idea of the necessity of the Israel’s eschatological suffering for sin as prelude to the eschaton a staple of apocalyptic Jewish thought (as Wright has shown),[10] but the idea of vicarious and representative suffering has also been found among variety of Jewish apocalyptic literature, as well as at Qumran.[11]  Both Ben Whitherington III[12] and more recently Brant Pitre,[13] have demonstrated that Jesus’ claim to be the bringer and embodiment of the kingdom necessitated within the Jewish apocalyptic worldview his suffering of what have been typically referred to as “the Messianic woes.”[14]  Pitre in particular makes this judgment after surveying a large number of Second Temple Jewish eschatological literature which refers to representative and atoning suffering.[15]  This makes Jesus' belief that he was to be the final sacrifice for sins perfectly coherent with his message of the coming of God's kingdom.  This also shows that the frequent assertion that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom whereas later Christianity proclaimed his death and atonement is utterly false.[16]  In fact, since Jesus' death is the only thing that can bring the kingdom, the two are mutually dependent on one another and therefore represent the same proclamation simply stated two different ways.


  1. The samples are enticing. Can we anticipate the whole work sometime soon?