This last week our class began to dive into atonement theory by looking at backgrounds and words. I have thought for the last year, before this class was known about, that I should do an open and public exploration of atonement theories and the theologies that undergird them. I have no personal preference for a specific atonement theory, if anything my background was about individualized penal substitution but my readings and studies have swung against that interpretation. I admit I’m at a point where I need to work though this subject, and these exploratory posts will be my format for doing so. My explorations will be my evaluation of historical settings of biblical texts, the texts themselves, historical reception of certain theories, the usage of those theories, an anthropological look at the place of atonement and sacrifice, and lastly, how useful are the metaphors for teaching in the churches.

This week will focus on understanding the Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds to atonement and sacrifice. Was there a theology within Israel as understood in Second Temple Judaism(s)? If so, what was this (common?) internal logic? How does it compare to Greco-Roman understandings of sacrifices? While this post will not go into exegetical detail about the New Testament it is necessary to look into if these strands of thought slightly to see if King Jesus’ or his followers’ language about atonement assume these cultural backgrounds.

Greco-Roman Sacrifices

The Greeks used sacrifice as a way to worship the gods in celebration. These celebrations were usually public and highly festive. These gifts of sacrifice sought to bring blessings from the gods for their particular city, more than seeking assuage the anger of the gods. The Roman cultic system was much more focused on maintaining peace between the gods and Rome, consequently elevating the appeasement of the gods to primacy. This peace was continually maintained by private and public enactment.[1] Those within the rule of Rome were expected, both culturally and politically, to participate in this worship of the gods in order maintain this blessed peace given to Rome.[2] In Hellenism, sacrifice focused more on the purification of those participating in the sacrificial ceremony. While the minority understanding of sacrifice, propitiation to appease the gods of any anger, became primary in Romanized sacrifice. Even still, a purification element remained within the sacrifice of propitiation.[3]

Old Testament Sacrifices

Israel’s sacrifices, in her gigantic and singular temple, were different from the Greco-Roman practices performed in their much more numerous and smaller temples. The Hebrew word for atonement (kpr) is primarily used in the cultic literature of the Old Testament to show how blood is used to expiate, remove the sins or guilt of the participants in the sacrificial ceremonies, rather than propitiate, remove the anger of God against the participants. Outside of the cultic writings, atonement (kpr) is used to substitute one thing for another, therefore righting or correcting something that has gone wrong. There are two particularly good examples of atonement. The first is seen in Moses putting his life in the place of the people who have sinned in Exodus 32:30. The second is Numbers 35:30-34 where the blood of the murderer is needed to atone for the murder. This atoning is not about stopping God from being angry but is to cleanse the ground of the pollution of murder.

The centrality of blood manipulation for expiatory atonement is located in the concept that blood itself is the life of creatures (Leviticus 17:11-12). The reverence for blood is because of the reverence for life as given by the Creator. Blood is not for common consumption because it is believed to have been created specifically for atonement. The issue of murder and ground pollution in Leviticus 17 makes, at least to me, a clear connection between sacrificial atonement theology in Israel and the Cain and Abel story. This might also be a foundation in the atonement concepts of the writer of Hebrews in his letter (12:24). The purpose of expiatory atonement was unquestionably to save the life of the participant in the sacrifices. By the first century the offerings which included a sacrifice had become associated with the concept of atonement, even the peace and burnt offerings, which were originally gifts to God and communal acts of presence with God. This would also seem to connect to the major confluence of atonement in all forms of sacrificial offerings referenced by the writer of Hebrews in his letter.[4]

E.P. Sanders stresses that Israel’s theology of sacrifice was not simply blood magic. The sacrifices alone did not atone for the participants or the people of God like a mechanism put into motion separate from the individuals involved. Sacrifice was the enactment of the participants devotion. If the atonement was to expiate and purify then the participant would need to give themselves to God through the act of sacrifice. While sacrifices allowed for communion and partnership with God, this was not the primary focus, the point was deliverance of the body and life of the participants from sufferings, pains, and death. The sacrifices also created a common identity for the people of God, especially those associated with the festivals. Further, sacrifices were used to bring gifts and prayers to God for the blessing of the participants’ family and nation, and even other nations, such as Rome.[5]

Atonement and Penal Substitution

One of the major fads I have overheard in atonement conversations is to reject penal substitution outright as a Reformation-created theory that does not deal with history of atonement, whether Jewish or Christian tradition. This is a substantial point to me, which if found true, would persuade me to disregard this theory. Often I hear the point articulated in this way: a) the Hebrew concept of atonement (kpr) does not include the propitiatory element of the Greek concept (hilosmos), b) God is angry at sin in humanity and to punish humans (or Creation) is arbitrary to the issue of overcoming evil, and c) God is non-violent love as revealed in the cross which means he would rather suffer himself from outside forces than punish others to bring all things into right relationship with himself.

Working back through these issues, Sanders shows Paul is well within Jewish theology to believe the people of God will be subjected to punishment in this world, and even in the one to come. This punishment was expected to be temporal, but could easily be conceived of as eternal if it did not lead to repentance before death.[6] The writer of Hebrews, again, exemplifies a Jewish theology by teaching Christians are disciplined for complicity with sinners and sin so that further punishment does not come against them (12:3-17). The writer goes on to explain King Jesus’ blood (sacrifice) makes the people of God holy and overcomes death (13:12, 20). Because of this I don’t find compelling the idea that God cannot punish just because he has revealed his love in King Jesus on the cross.

The second issue with this common caricature of penal substitution is the arbitrariness of God’s anger. Wright does a great job of showing how the New Testament’s Jewish theology lends itself to the reality that there is both substitution and punishment in the atonement.[7] Wright’s necessary corrective to popularly held penal substitution is that God is motivated to atone through King Jesus by love to rescue his covenant people, not anger. Wright believes God’s anger is justified against sin and therefore he does punish it, but this is not arbitrary. Idolatry, both in humanity turning toward Creation from the Creator and in Israel turning to other gods from Yahweh who liberated them in the Exodus, allowed humanity to become enslaved and corrupted by the demonic forces of Sin and Death. This enslavement, intensified in Israel’s oppressive Exile, was a  punishment for unfaithfulness to the covenant with God and in no way arbitrary. If these consequences were not arbitrary punishments then the atonement made through King Jesus’ cross is not arbitrary forgiveness.

This, to me, seems central to evaluating the penal substitution atonement theory. Was the central idea of the atonement about stopping God’s anger and punishment? Or was anger and punishment things that simply were dealt with as the people were purified from their sins? Again, the writer of Hebrews offers a good indication of an answer. His quick summary of God’s work in King Jesus in 1:3 as the “purification of sins” places the idea of expiation as central. He retains the concept of punishment for those who outside of the blood of King Jesus throughout the letter. Therefore, punishment is something that atonement does address, but it is addressed as the people are formed in the expiating blood of King Jesus’ holy obedience. There is no forgiveness without the expiation of blood (9:22), and this expiation results in the new covenant people being able to approach God without having to fear his judgement anymore (13:18-24).[8]

Lastly, Jewish theologies’ usage of “atoning expiation” (exilaskomai, a syntactical variant of hilosmos) for Hebrew atonement (kpr) reveals that Jewish theologies did not believe the effect of atonement was only on the participants. Atonement effected God as well. The Greek concept of atoning propitiation was that humans assuaged God, particularly his anger, by sacrifice. Jewish atonement saw atoning expiation as God’s act, whereby he forgave humans and overcame the expected punishments of his anger.[9] Jewish theology saw God as the initiator of atonement to purify humans by expiation and subsequently this circumvented the punishing consequences of sin and death. The main motivation for God to act was therefore love (hsd, covenant faithfulness) for his people, not satisfying his anger, but it cannot be assumed there was no element of propitiation within the expiation of God’s atonement in King Jesus.


[1] David E. Aune, “Religion, Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 917–26.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016), 37–76.

[3] Friedrich Büchsel and Johannes Herrmann, “Hileos, Hilaskomai, Hilasmos, Hilasterion,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 310–11.

[4] This section is highly indebted to the following works, which should be mandatory reading for the subject of atonement. Büchsel and Herrmann, 302–10; R. E. Averbeck, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 710–22.

[5] E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London : Philadelphia: SCM Press ; Trinity Press International, 1992), 251–57.

[6] Sanders, 270–75.

[7] N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 287–88, 337–38.

[8] There is also the connection in 11:28 to the Passover and how blood of the lamb saved the lives of the firstborns of Israel from the Destroyer. Exodus 12:23 seems to show that God’s inaction, not covering the doors of the Egyptians, allows the destroyer to kill the firstborns of Egypt. It also seems to express the Destroyer’s action as (at least a part of) God’s own action, as if he himself is taking the lives of the Egyptian firstborns. A Jewish theology could be posited that the Yahweh’s sovereignty as the Creator means his inaction to stop the evil powers under his control means they enact his judgement and their restriction under his power is always a merciful gift.

[9] Büchsel and Herrmann, “Hileos, Hilaskomai, Hilasmos, Hilasterion,” 316–17.

Posted by Justin Gill

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