For this week’s readers’ mailbag I have chosen a question about my claim that the author of Luke-Acts, unlike other writers of the New Testament, does not have a doctrine of the atonement – that Jesus’ death brought about a restored relationship with God (for Luke, it was the *resurrection* that mattered, not the crucifixion). The questioner sets up the question with an important observation. I suspect my answer will not be what he expected.
I have spent a lot of time looking in the gospels for teachings on the atonement. I could only find 5 passages (really more like 2, because they are parallel).
- Mt 20:28/Mk 10:45 Jesus life as a ransom for many Luke leaves this part out of the story
- Mt 26:28–this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
- Mk 14:24–This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
- Lk 22:20 This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Are you saying that Luke (in Acts and in his gospel) is diverging from Matthew and Mark re the atonement? If so, what does Lk 22:20 suggest, if not the atonement?
First I would say that yes, these are key passages in the discussion. Another is Mark 15:37-39, where Jesus dies and the curtain in the Temple is immediately ripped in half. This curtain is to be understood as separating God from humanity – he was believed to dwell in the Holy of Holies behind the curtain, and only the high priest could go into his presence in that room, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement to make a sacrifice for the people’s sins. Now, with the death of Jesus, in Mark, the curtain is destroyed, and people do have access to God. Luke changes the scene significantly: for him the curtain was ripped, but it was *before* Jesus died. Now it doesn’t show that Jesus’ death brings access to God. It is a symbol of God’s destruction of the temple because of what the Jewish people have done to Jesus. (As Luke says “the hour of darkness has come”)
So here’s the deal so far. Luke omitted Mark 10:45, that Jesus’ death was a ransom for many. Why’d he do that? He also changed the ripping of the curtain. Why’d he do that? And as significantly, he also omitted Mark 14:24, that Jesus blood was poured out for many? Why’d he do that? Or *did* he do that?
The questioner is pointing out that the verse (Jesus’ blood is “poured out for many”) *is* found in Luke 22:20. BUT, here’s the big deal: it appears that Luke did not originally have the verse. It was added by later scribes. Here is my discussion of the passage in my book Misquoting Jesus (I have a much longer and detailed discussion in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).
For proto-orthodox Christians, it was important to emphasize that Christ was a real man of flesh and blood because it was precisely the sacrifice of his flesh and the shedding of his blood that brought salvation – not in appearance but in reality. Another textual variant in Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion emphasizes precisely this reality. It occurs during the account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. In one of our oldest Greek manuscripts, along with several Latin witnesses, we are told the following:
And taking a cup, giving thanks, he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves, for I say to you that I will not drink from the fruit of the vine from now on, until the kingdom of God comes.” And taking bread, giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body. But behold, the hand of the one who betrays me is with me at the table” (Luke 22:17-19).
In most of our manuscripts, however, there is an addition to the text, an addition that will sound familiar to many readers of the English Bible, since it has made its way into most modern translations. Here, after Jesus says “This is my body,” he continues with the words “‘which has been given for you; do this in remembrance of me’; And the cup likewise after supper, saying ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured for you.’”
These are the familiar words of the “institution” of the Lord’s Supper, known in a very similar form also from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23-25). Despite the fact they are familiar, there are good reasons for thinking that these verses were not originally in Luke’s Gospel, but were added in order to stress that it was precisely Jesus’ broken body and shed blood that brought salvation “for you.” For one thing, it is hard to explain why a scribe would have omitted the verses if they were original to Luke (there is no homoeoteleuton, for example, that would explain an omission), especially since they make such clear and smooth sense when they are added. In fact, when the verses are taken away, doesn’t the text sound a bit truncated? Precisely the unfamiliarity of the truncated version (without the verses) may have been what led scribes to add the verses.
And it is striking to note that the verses, as familiar as they are, do not represent Luke’s own understanding of the death of Jesus. For it is a striking feature of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus death — this may sound strange at first — that he never, anywhere else, indicates that the death itself is what brings salvation from sin. Nowhere in Luke’s entire two volume work (Luke and Acts), is Jesus’ death said to be “for you.” And in fact, on the two occasions in which Luke’s source Mark indicates that it was by Jesus’ death that salvation came (Mark 10:45; 15:39), Luke changed the wording of the text (or eliminated it). Luke, in other words, has a different understanding of the way Jesus death leads to salvation from Mark (and from Paul, and other early Christian writers).
It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith. What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins. It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It’s extremely important for Luke. But not as an atonement. Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent). Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins.
Jesus’ death for Luke, in other words, drives people to repentance, and it is this repentance that brings salvation. But not according to these disputed verses which are missing from some of our early witnesses: here Jesus’ death is portrayed as an atonement “for you.”
Originally the verses appear not to have been part of Luke’s Gospel. Why then were they added? In a later dispute with Marcion, Tertullian emphasized:
Jesus declared plainly enough what he meant by the bread, when he called the bread his own body. He likewise, when mentioning the cup and making the new testament to be sealed in his blood, affirms the reality of his body. For no blood can belong to a body which is not a body of flesh. Thus from the evidence of the flesh we get a proof of the body, and a proof of the flesh from the evidence of the blood. (Against Marcion 4, 40).
It appears that the verses were added in order to stress Jesus’ real body and flesh, which he really sacrificed for the sake of others. This may not have been Luke’s own emphasis, but it certainly was the emphasis of the proto-orthodox scribes who altered their text of Luke in order to counter docetic Christologies such as that of Marcion.
Short story: Luke didn’t originally have the verse. Scribes inserted it.
And that means that Luke omits all references in Mark to Jesus’ death bringing about an atoning sacrifice.
Moreover in all the speeches of Acts, where the apostles talk about the salvation that Christ brought, it is never said to have been brought specifically by his death. It is the resurrection that matters.
My conclusion: Luke did not have a doctrine of Jesus’ death as an atonement.
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