The Many Deaths of Christ: Martyr, Sacrifice, Scapegoat, and Ransom Payment


Stephen Finlan's The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors is the book I've been waiting for since Mel Gibson subjected us to an unrelenting vision of the passion. How was Christ's death thought to be salvific by the New Testament writers, and Paul especially?

Finlan argues that four models drive Paul's particular view: martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom payment. Taken together, they point to Christ as a martyr who reaches out as a paschal lamb, mercy seat of faith, sin-bearer, and redeemer all in one (p 194). This needs unpacking, because the various metaphors are so different and can even be at odds with one another.

Martyrdom is the primary metaphor, and the one most frequently invoked. Finlan cites Jeffrey Gibson's important essay, "Paul's Dying Formula", which shows how the apostle inverted the noble death theme found in Hellenistic literature (see pp 196-197). "X dying for Y" signaled 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 our sins", 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 polemical bite. Christ died for the benefit of sinners and ungodly people, and he went down in shame.

Very surprisingly, Finlan doesn't mention David Seeley's The Noble Death, which deals with the subject more comprehensively. 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.

Paul believes that Christ is to be followed this way. 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.

I think Gibson and Seeley are right about this. IV Maccabees, the Greco-Roman philosophers, and Paul share an important commonality, believing in martyrs who die for a holy or noble cause, and as models for others to follow. Seeley further notes that the idea of sacrifice creeps in. 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 like this (though again, he never actually mentions Seeley’s book) to downplay the importance of sacrifice, at least where Paul is concerned. Martyrdom may be the most fundamental theme, but not necessarily the most important. Martyrdom provides the platform for understanding Christ's death, but it's conveyed through imperative ideas of cultic sacrifice, and through other important metaphors too (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: it takes all of Paul's ideas seriously, and integrates them without glossing or distorting ideas currently out of favor. It’s helpful to lay out certain texts pertaining to each metaphor. (This fleshes out Finlan’s list on p 5.)

(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 (see J. Gibson’s essay)

(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's soteriology depends on all these usages taken in tandem. Martyrology undergirds the others, and in turn is expanded by them.

Finlan devotes an entire chapter to distinguishing sacrifices from scapegoats, showing why their fusion in the Christian tradition is so radical. Scapegoats were not sacrifices, a point too often misunderstood. They were 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 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 a bewildering oxymoron.

But how did sacrifice, whether traditional or Christian, actually effect atonement? In Israel's earliest periods, sacrifice served a propitiatory function, appeasing an angry God ("food bribe"). As the Torah became increasingly important, sacrifice 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)

The life-force that resides within blood, when harnessed properly, somehow reverses the anti-life of sin and pollution (p 41). This is an animistic idea, emphasizes Finlan, overlaid with theism: the life-force can be manipulated by priests, but only because God allows it. (p 42). The sacrifice also involves substitution -- “atonement for your lives” -- in the sense that it cleans up a person’s spiritual pollution (p 42). This is not, however the later idea of penal substitution, where the sacrifice "stands in" for the offender. It's monetary substitution, in the (propitiatory) sense of payment to a sovereign deity, in order to appease his anger and wrath (foodstuffs, after all, have value) (p 43). So by the time of the Levitical Holiness Code, propitiatory and expiatory understandings had become fused: tribute payment and animistic cleansing both explain how sacrifice atones for sin.

Paul's belief that Christ is the new mercy seat (Rom 3:25) likewise involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners) (p 135). Gentiles would have probably heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Judeans (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).

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Finlan's book is his discussion of the way sacrifice, in practice and thought, evolves. 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", he claims that the crucified Christ has become for the world what the mercy seat was for Israel.

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)

One wonders, as always, what the Nazarene himself would have thought about all this. Did Jesus have a martyr's complex? Did he 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? Curiously, Finlan claims that sacrifice and ransom payment are out of place in the gospels, despite the eucharist tradition of Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29 and ransom saying of Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28 (pp 165, 181). Richard Anderson, Kratistos Theophilos, has argued more wisely: while Luke disdained these ideas (Lk 22:19b-20 is probably a later scribal insertion), Mark and Matthew clearly believed in them. Theodore Weeden of Crosstalk has recently argued (unconvincingly) that all death traditions misrepresent Jesus, whose focus was on the celebration of life in the present age. I suspect Jesus had a martyr’s theology, anticipating suffering and death as part of the tribulation period before the apocalypse.

Finlan's book is destined for a long shelf life, a must for anyone wanting to understand Christ’s death in Paul. A bit different from Catherine Emmerich and Mel Gibson's vision, though not to the extent that Passion of the Christ does any serious damage to the apostle’s meaning. Cultic atonement, bloody sacrifice, was part and parcel of Paul's view, integrated into a martyrdom theology.

UPDATE: Richard Anderson comments on the role of the scapegoat at Kratistos Theophilos. I fail to see how Richard resolves the tension in portraying a single person as both sacrifice and scapegoat. He claims that, "on the Day of Atonement, two goats were offered for sacrifice", but this isn't true, because scapegoats weren't sacrifices.


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