If you need something to read for Good Friday/Easter, make it Stephen Finlan’s The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors. It’s a detailed analysis of how Paul thought Christ’s death had saving power, and while no single answer emerges, at least one can be safely excluded: the Protestant idea of penal substitution. The idea that “Christ stands in for the sinner” is absent in Paul’s letters, despite his rich variety of death metaphors.
There are four metaphors, as Finlan shows: (1) martyrdom, (2) sacrifice, (3) scapegoat, and (4) ransom payment. For Paul, Christ was a martyr who also functioned as a sacrificial paschal lamb, mercy seat of faith, sin-bearer, and redeemer all in one. The metaphors are different and even at odds with each other, so let’s go through them.
Paul’s favorite metaphor: martyrdom
I call it his favorite because he uses it most. It is best explained in Jeffrey Gibson’s essay, “Paul’s Dying Formula”, cited by Finlan, which argues that Paul inverted the “noble death” theme found in Greek literature (see pp 196-197). “X dies for Y” referred to the warrior ideal by which heroes die for friends, family, city, or religious ideas, though never for enemies. So when Paul says that “Christ died for sinners”, and for his enemies at that (and by submitting to dishonor on the cross rather than going down in combat), he was invoking martyrdom and giving it a brutal twist. Christ died for the benefit of sinners and ungodly people and he went down in shame. The point is that “Christ died for us” doesn’t refer to sacrifice or atonement (far less penal substitution). It refers to martyrdom.
So how does martyrdom benefit the believer? What does Christ’s death “do” for the sinner, if not atone? Surprisingly, Finlan doesn’t mention David Seeley’s The Noble Death, which deals with the subject at some length. Like Gibson, Seeley thinks Paul’s view is closest to that of the Maccabean martyrs and Greco-Roman philosophers. In IV Maccabees the Judean heroes defeat tyranny through defiance and obedience to the Torah, dying for it (IV Macc 1:11; 18:4). In a Greco-Roman context, a philosopher like Socrates dies in prison in order to free humanity from the fear of death and imprisonment (Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 24:4), an example followed by Cato who kills himself rather than be captured by Caesar. The deaths of the martyrs and philosophers benefit others who follow their example and die virtuously.
And what is the benefit to following Christ’s example? According to Paul, believers die with him at baptism, reenacting his death by destroying the sinful body and gaining release from enslavement to sin (Rom 6:1-11; 8:10). To be sure, Christians have only begun to die — and they’re not literally crucified like Jesus — but the “mimetic pattern”, says Seeley, is exactly the same. Just as copying a martyr gains victory over a tyrant, or copying a philosopher gains victory over fortune, copying Christ gains victory over sin and death. “Christ died for us” means that one can achieve the same victory by dying as Christ did. It does not mean that Christ died as a sacrifice of atonement, or ransom payment… though Paul does happen to believe that Christ’s death functioned in those ways too.
The importance of all four elements
Seeley notes that the idea of sacrifice sometimes creeps in to martyrdom theology. The blood of the Maccabean martyrs served as “an atoning sacrifice” (IV Macc. 17:21-22); the blood of Thrasea’s suicide was sprinkled on the ground as a libation to the gods (Tacitus, Annals 16:35); the blood of Christ was put forward in atonement as the messiah became a new “mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25). But Seeley thinks these sacrificial metaphors are subsidiary, supplementing the far more important martyrdom theme.
Finlan refutes attempts to downplay the importance of sacrifice and other elements. Martyrdom may have been Paul’s “favorite” idea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was his most important. Martyrdom provided a platform for other ideas that were imperative for him and other Christians of his time: cultic sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom-payment:
“Martyrdom seems to have been absorbed into these other metaphors, to be interpreted by them; it may be the most fundamental of Paul’s concepts, but its meaning requires the usage of metaphors from the cultic and social realms.” (p 193)
This is the strength of Finlan’s approach, as it takes all of Paul’s ideas seriously, and integrates them without glossing or distorting ideas currently out of favor. Here are the texts pertaining to each metaphor.
(1) Martyrdom/Noble Death — I Cor 8:11, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:15 (x2), Rom 5:6-8 (x2), Rom 14:9, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10
(2) Sacrifice — Rom 3:25, I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25
(3) Scapegoat — Gal 3:13, II Cor 5:21, Rom 6:6, Rom 7:4, Rom 8:3
(4) Ransom/Redemption — I Cor 6:20, 7:23
Paul believed all of this, and it was a bold fusion on his part. Finlan devotes an entire chapter to distinguishing sacrifices from scapegoats, showing why their fusion in the Christian tradition is radical. Scapegoats were not sacrifices but rather expulsion victims, and opposite in every way. Sacrifices were pure and offered reverently to God; scapegoats impure and driven out harshly to a wilderness demon. The former were spotless and their blood was a cleansing agent; the latter were sin carriers, vile and corrupt (see pp 81-93). To portray an individual as a sacrifice and scapegoat at the same time, as Paul did, would have been an oxymoron. Putting all four together makes this game of metaphors schizophrenic in the extreme.
How sacrifice worked
But how did sacrifice, whether traditional Jewish or Christian, effect atonement? It served a propitiatory function, appeasing an angry God as a “food bribe”. The idea of propitiatory substitution was different from the later (Protestant) idea of penal substitution. In penal substitution the sacrifice “stands in” to take the punishment of the offender, and that’s what most of us today associate with atonement. But propitiatory substitution involves a pure sinless offering, offered as payment to a sovereign deity in order to appease his anger and wrath.
As the Torah became increasingly important, sacrifice also took on a purifying/expiatory role, the cleansing of impurity and sin. Lev 17:11 explains: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (Lev 17:11) When harnessed properly, the life-force that resides within blood somehow reverses the anti-life of sin and pollution.
In other words, by the time of the Holiness Code of Leviticus, propitiatory-substitution and expiatory understandings had become fused: tribute payment and animistic cleansing both explained how sacrifice atones for sin. The context of Rom 3:25 shows that Paul believed both. His explanation that Christ is the new mercy seat involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners) (p 135). Gentiles would have probably heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Jews and God-fearers would have heard both (pp 141-143). Propitiatory themes dominate, however, since the cultic act of Rom 3:25 offsets the divine wrath recounted previously at great length in Rom 1:18-3:20 (p 144). But the idea of penal substitution, developed centuries later by Protestant reformers, is alien to Paul’s thought. (The Catholic view of satisfaction substitution is the one that more properly derives from propitiatory-substitution.)
That’s the sacrifice passage of Romans, anyway. What about the sacrifice passages of I Corinthians (5:7 and 11:25), where Christ is depicted not as a mercy seat (for the Day of Atonement), but as a paschal lamb (for Passover)? Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh “passed over” those so protected when he came in judgment. The ancient tradition of Israelites smearing lamb blood on the doors of their homes was so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. In the eucharist tradition (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus’ own “body and blood”, in the bread and wine, which was likewise intended to protect (not propitiate or purify as in the rite of atonement) his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders.
That’s a lot of ideas Paul makes room for, but for all the variety there’s not a hint of penal substitution. The only passage in the New Testament which possibly provides a basis for penal substitution is I Pet 2:24b, which owes to Isa 53:4-5, “by his wounds we are healed”. This may indicate that (for the writer of I Peter), Christ, like Israel’s servant, died in place of others. Aside from this one text, however, there is nothing in the NT pointing to Christ’s death as a penal substitute — certainly nothing in Paul.
The evolution of sacrifice
A fascinating part of Finlan’s book is his discussion of the way sacrifice evolves in practice and thought. Though it irritates many scholars to speak of evolution in a way that suggests “progress through spiritualization”, it’s a matter of fact that “a heightening of intellectual culture brings a heightening of moral sensibility, and calls bloody sacrifice into question” (p 46). Finlan proposes that sacrifice evolves away from its primitive roots in six stages: substitution, moralization, interiorization, metaphorization, rejection, and spiritualization (see pp 47-70):
1. Substitution, occurring when human sacrifice (Gen 22:2) becomes replaced with animal sacrifice (or other foodstuffs) (Exod 13:2,12-13; 34:20; Num 18:15).
2. Moralization (or reformism), attributing new spiritual and abstract meanings to the practice of sacrifice (Psalm 4, Malachi).
3. Interiorization, asserting that what matters to the deity is the right attitude and a clean heart, though sacrifice is not rejected (I Sam 15, Psalm 51, Psalm 141, Proverb 15, Proverb 21, I & II Enoch).
4. Metaphorization, applying cultic ideas to non-cultic practices; sacrifice is valued on a metaphorical level (IV Maccabees, Paul, Philo, Greco-Roman philosophers).
5. Rejection, repudiating the sacrificial cult altogether (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah 1).
6. Spiritualization, interiorizing religious values to the extreme that transformation of the human character has become the chief goal of religious faith (Middle Platonic philosophies, the patristic and Greek Orthodox concept of theosis).
Paul values sacrifice on the metaphorical level, superseding without rejecting the temple cult. In saying that “God put forward Christ in a bloody death as a mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25), he claims that the crucified Christ has become for the world what the mercy seat was for Israel. Or in saying that Christ is the new paschal lamb (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), he claims that the savior’s blood protects believers against the wrath of God poured out on oppressors and the wicked.
Supersessionism is inherent to levels 3/4 (interiorization/ metaphorization), when death and glory are seen simultaneously in the old system (as in II Cor 3:6-11; Philip 3:4b-11). But it gets complicated, because sometimes a view of sacrifice can be found straddling many levels. And there are subtypes within levels. For instance, level 4 metaphorization can involve either typology (Paul) or allegory (Philo). Typology can lean in a direction of level 2/3 (reform/interiorization) or 5 (rejection) without taking sides. Allegory, meanwhile, involves a strategy of replacement along levels 1/3/5 (literal/ interiorization/ rejection). So typology sees fulfillment, whereas allegory sees replacement; each is a variation of the level 4 stage. (See pp 68-70)
Jesus’ thoughts on the matter…?
What would the historical Jesus have thought about all this? Did he have a martyr’s complex and brace himself (and his followers) for a “noble death” as he prepared to take on Jerusalem? Did he have even more radical ideas — cultic ideas which scholars are loathe to attribute to Paul, let alone him? I suspect that, at the very least, Jesus had a martyr’s complex, believing that his suffering and death were part of the tribulation period that preceded the apocalypse. He may also have attributed sacrificial (Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29) and/or ransom elements (Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28) to his death as reported in the gospels, but I suspect that he didn’t.
Finlan’s book is the best I know of that does justice to Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death. We may have little use for “barbaric” ideas like cultic atonement and bloody sacrifice, but for better or worse they were part of his theology, integrated into a broader framework of martyrdom. The variety of metaphors makes Paul conflicted to say the least, but there you have it.