N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66D (Atonement Theories)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

A Note on “Sin Offering”

The translators disagree as to whether “sin” in Rom 8:3 is a reference simply to sin or to the sin offering of Leviticus. The key text in the Greek is —

(Rom. 8:3 BGT) περὶ ἁμαρτίας (peri hamartias, literally, concerning sin)

“Sin offering” first appears in the Bible in Lev 4:3,

(Lev. 4:3 NET) “‘If the high priest sins so that the people are guilty, on account of the sin he has committed he must present a flawless young bull to the LORD for a sin offering.”

The LXX for the bold text is,

(Lev. 4:3 BGT) περὶ τῆς ἁμαρτίας αὐτοῦ (peri tes hamartias autou; literally: concerning the sin of oneself)

The next reference is in Lev 4:8 —

(Lev. 4:8 NET) “‘Then he must take up all the fat from the sin offering bull: the fat covering the entrails and all the fat surrounding the entrails,

Here “sin offering” is an adjective, and the LXX says,

(Lev. 4:8 BGT) τῆς ἁμαρτίας (tes hamartias; literally, the sin)

And I could go on. As Wright argues, the LXX calls the sin offering “the sin,” which means you have to look at the context to tell whether “sin” or “sin offering” is in mind. And “sin offering makes much, much better sense in Rom 8:3, as you can see by this comparison:

(Rom 8:3 NET) For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,

(Rom 8:3 NIV) For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,

The NIV makes sense. The NET Bible translation is awkward, redundant, and doesn’t ultimately explain how it is that sending God’s son condemned sin. It’s missing a piece, and so I think Wright is right.

Although “concerning sin” need not be meant so narrowly, it probably evokes the biblical language of the levitical sin offering (over 80 percent of LXX uses of the phrase) to depict Jesus’s mission (cf. 3:25; 5:8–9). For God to “condemn sin in the flesh” was for him to execute judgment on it in Jesus’s person (cf. Jesus “becoming” sin in 2 Cor 5:21). By Jesus identifying with Adam, God destroyed sin in Jesus’s crucifixion, raising him as head of a new humanity, i.e., his body (see comment at 7:4; 12:5).

Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 99–100.

A Note on “Mercy Seat”

In Rom 3:25, hilasterion is sometimes translated “propitiation” or “atonement sacrifice” (ESV, NASB, NIV, NRSV, HCSB) and sometimes “mercy seat” (NET, Tyndale).

The means by which men’s sins are forgiven (see NEB “the means of expiating sin”) is used in the Septuagint as a translation of “the mercy seat” that was a part of the covenant box (or ark), and so may also mean “the place where sins were forgiven” (see Hebrews 9:5, the only other occurrence of this word in the New Testament). Although this noun (and its related forms) is sometimes used by pagan writers in the sense of propitiation (that is, an act to appease or placate a god), it is never used this way in the Old Testament. There God never appears as the object of this noun (that is, the one who is placated), though God does appear as the subject with sin as the object, in which case the meaning is “God expiates (that is, forgives) sins.” For this reason, the meaning of expiation (equivalent to TEV the means by which men’s sins are forgiven) is a much more accurate translation than propitiation (see Moffatt and Phillips “the means of propitiation”).

Barclay Moon Newman and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, UBS Handbook Series, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1973), 67–68.

Paul then appeals to a different biblical image, namely, the cover of the ark of the covenant (hilastērion in 3:25; see Exod 25:17–22 and elsewhere in the LXX; Heb 9:5), a translation earlier recognized by Origen, Luther, and Tyndale, among others. God “planned” Jesus as the “mercy seat” or ark cover.

But what is the point of Paul’s comparison? Granted, Jesus is the locus of the divine presence, but, as many have noted, the following mention of his “blood” strongly suggests an allusion to the annual consecration of this holy place through sacrificial blood on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:14–15). By Jesus’s own blood, God consecrated Jesus as the place where forgiven humanity can meet God. …

In an image related to the tabernacle, “blood” likely connotes sacrificial death, as elsewhere in early Christian meditation on the point of Jesus’s death, both regarding atonement and purification (1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7). Paul’s image would be intelligible; an extant Hellenistic Jewish source suggests that some others used hilastērion figuratively, as Paul did. For them, it was a figure for atonement itself, specifically the atonement offered by a human death turning away God’s wrath from the people (4 Macc 17:22). In a context replete with mentions of God’s wrath (Rom 1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15), this function is significant: Jesus’s blood elsewhere turns away God’s anger (5:9–10) and his death may be sacrificial in 8:3.

Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 59–60.

A Note on my two notes

The Septuagint translation of the OT into Greek (LXX) was Paul’s Bible. Most of his OT quotes are from the LXX. The LXX was to a Greek-speaking Jew of Paul’s day much the same as the King James Version was to American Christians in the 1950s — a well-established and honored translation that Hellenistic Jews grew up studying and memorizing, even though its language was somewhat dated.

The translation choices were sometimes surprisingly “free” or paraphrased. You see, translation issues — “literal,” free, paraphrased, etc. — go back to the time the LXX was translated — around the Third Century BC.

Therefore, when Paul refers to an OT concept, he’ll typically use the LXX language for that concept. But we American Christians have a bias against this approach. We prefer to make our translation choices in the light of the Reformation debates among Luther, Calvin, and the Catholic Church rather than Second Temple period Judaism. And so our English translations are often made to answer questions not really being asked by Paul or the text.

Wright, of course, typically prefers the meaning found in the LXX, and it’s hard to disagree as Paul was writing to a Greek-speaking world from a worldview steeped in the OT. When translators prefer words like “propitiation” based on the word’s use among Greek pagan writers, they are ignoring the fact that early Christianity was a culture within a culture and much more Jewish than Greco-Roman.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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