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Luke’s Understanding of Jesus’ Death

I have been dealing with the question of Jesus’ death in the Gospel of Luke and have been arguing that Luke does not appear to have understood Jesus’ death to be an atonement for sins.   He has eliminated the several indications from his source, the Gospel of Mark, that Jesus’ death was an atonement, and he never indicates in either his Gospel or the book of Acts that Jesus died “for” you or “for” others or “for” anyone.   Then why did Jesus die?

It is clear that Luke thought that Jesus had to die.  For Luke it was all part of God’s plan.  But why?  What is the theological meaning of Jesus’ death for Luke, if it was not a sacrifice that brought about a right standing before God (which is what the term “atonement” means)?

You get the clearest view of Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ death from…

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The Striking Conclusion: Jesus’ Last Supper in Luke
Anti-Judaism in the Gospel of Luke



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 9, 2015

    Before the formation of our current canon did any early church fathers notice the difference between how Luke and Mark viewed the death of Jesus? I’m especially astounded that apparently it went unnoticed that Luke, the supposed companion of Paul, had such a radically different view of Jesus than Paul.

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    Shane Russo  October 9, 2015

    I have never thought of Luke in these terms. I am enjoying it greatly. The difference in views about Jesus’ death is just one example of diversity within the texts of the Bible. I am grateful for the historical work people like you have done. Knowing the history and context of the texts helps in truly discerning meaning and potential applications for today.

    Do you think that “traditionalists” tend to ignore Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ death or is it that they just don’t realize there are multiple ways to see it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      Very traditional interpreters deny the difference.

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        qaelith2112  October 12, 2015

        Do they have anything particular they’re interpreting from Luke/Acts as supporting an atonement theology, or is more along the lines of “we don’t see any absolutely obvious contradiction (i.e., not obvious to them, at least) so it can be assumed that Luke agrees with the others”?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 13, 2015

          The only think close is Acts 20:28. Otherwise, they have to read atonement *into* the text.

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    Wilusa  October 9, 2015

    I get the idea, but I don’t see how hearing all this stuff could have convinced non-Jews *they* were guilty of anything! *They* hadn’t broken any sort of “covenant” with the Jewish God – their ancestors had never even heard of him.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      Yeah, funny what it takes to make some people feel guilty….

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    Pattycake1974  October 9, 2015

    I thought Paul and Luke knew each other? How could they view forgiveness so differently?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      Great question! (But I don’t think Luke was Paul’s traveling companion)

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    FocusMyView  October 9, 2015

    It certainly gives insight as to the character of God in the sending of Jesus. On the one hand, this God sends his son to suffer for you, and he is his own sacrifice of atonement. He paid your debt to himself. On the other hand, God sends his son and sacrifices himself simply in the hope of a response from his sinful creation. Manipulative, sure, but humiliating himself in the hopes of a response from those he loves. Very interesting.

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    Wilusa  October 9, 2015

    I think I’m being “heretical” here. But I can’t help believing that whatever these long-ago writers – religious fanatics – were writing about, it was just *the promise of a blissful afterlife* that attracted *normal* people to Christianity.

    Consider: as you’ve said, everyone in that part of the world had believed either that there was *no* afterlife, or that it consisted of a shadowy, subterranean existence that was only marginally better than annihilation. The Christians’ teaching might have been dismissed as “the latest crackpot new idea”…*except* for their claiming “God’s Kingdom on Earth” had *always* been promised by the ancient Jewish religion, even if not all Jews had understood. (Of course, the idea had really only been around for a century or so; but converts weren’t being told that.)

    Even when they had to be told the blissful afterlife would be in “Heaven” rather than on Earth, it still would have seemed preferable to anything pagan religions were promising. And if the teaching was true, anyone who *didn’t* at least go through the motions of leading a good Christian life would face eternal torture in “Hell”!

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    godspell  October 9, 2015

    I think very short memorable phrases could have been preserved with at least some measure of fidelity. And people would have repeated many of Jesus’ sayings and parables (obviously changing them in the process). Oral tradition was strong, and people could preserve much from memory alone.

    A State of the Union Address isn’t the best analogy, because let’s face it–we all tend to snooze through those a bit. It’s mainly for policy wonks.

    But we all remember “Yes we can”, “You didn’t build that”, and in perhaps his greatest speech, Obama saying that the shooter at that church in Charleston didn’t know God was using him. I think the people who saw that speech live will remember significant parts of it for as long as they live–and if there were no online videos to refer to, no electronic media of any kind, not even any newspaper transcripts, you’d probably have some of them able to reproduce sections of it from memory.

    After all, we still have Homer’s Iliad, even if not exactly the way he composed it, though it was written down long after he did. Assuming Homer existed at all, but let’s not open that can of worms. Somebody else’s department.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      What makes you think people weren’t snoozing through Jesus’ speeches? In any event, we can’t repeat a speech we’ve heard, even though we’ve heard it. Imagine repeating a speech that was reported to you who heard it from someone whose brother was married to a woman whose cousin once knew someone whose nextdoor neighbor had once talked to someone who claimed he had been there at the time — 40 years earlier….

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 13, 2015

        I think if people were snoozing through Jesus’ orations (I can’t bring myself to call them speeches), this blog would not exist, and neither would Christianity itself. I think the people who were listening were mainly very interested in what he had to say–either because they were having a very positive reaction to it or a very hostile reaction. Most others would have not been listening at all. Not for nothing did he keep saying “If you have ears, hear!” And I have no doubt he did say that.

        We know there’s a very real vivid personality being conveyed to us in these texts. There’s been a widespread consensus about that. No question at all what he said has been changed in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. But as you’ve said many times, the gospels are a real source of information about what Jesus said and did. They agree with each other much more than they disagree.

        The parables are so memorable, I have no trouble at all believing that people could remember them and pass them along with a great deal of accuracy. The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of very short memorable phrases.

        Do you think people listening to this man, wondering if he was the messiah, hoping that he was, certainly thinking he was a great teacher, would be listening to him in the same way they listen to a politician? And most of the time he was speaking to rather small groups of people, so it’s not as if they’d be off at a distance–they’d be standing quite close to him. And with so few of them being literate, their memories had to be better trained, in order for them to conduct business.

        And for the record, I’m pretty sure Jesus never said anything like “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.” I still love that movie. 😉

        • Bart
          Bart  October 13, 2015

          I”m not saying *everyone* was snoozing!! My point was simply that you can’t assume everyone was completely attentive. No reason to think that.

          • Avatar
            godspell  October 13, 2015

            I think we made the same point, really. Most people Jesus came into contact with were not interested in what Jesus had to say. But those who were actually listening to him were, in the main, very interested. Either because they found it compelling, or because they found it appalling.

            And the same was obviously true of Socrates, since Thucydides didn’t even mention him in his famous histories, even though one of the men he was most concerned with (Alcibiades) was a pupil of Socrates. I doubt Plato was jotting down his dialogues in shorthand (and there is no doubt that many if not most of the words and ideas Plato puts in Socrates’ mouth are his own), but most scholars would agree we’ve got something of Socrates’ actual sayings preserved in Plato’s work. And we have many fewer sources for Socrates, as you know.

            But to be sure, Plato at least did hear Socrates speak. But then again, Plato didn’t think Socrates was a messenger from The One True God. He wasn’t afraid of any post-mortal consequences that might stem from intentionally misquoting him. He was using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. And I’m sure Paul did that to some extent, but Paul never quotes Jesus directly.

            It is my belief, which could be wrong, that the people preserving actual sayings of Jesus felt a certain obligation to at least try and get it right. That’s why so many inconvenient sayings have survived.

        • Avatar
          Kent  October 15, 2015

          Occam’s Razor applied: People have been making this stuff up to suit their desired messages. These works are crafted and adapted from other legends & myths. These aren’t historical records (like a diary) for the greater part.

  8. Jeff
    Jeff  October 9, 2015

    Hate sounding like a butt-kiss but your last two posts are the most elucidating I’ve read here. And Bart, I’m talking about a very high bar. Thanks again. I don’t know how you find the time but please, keep it up.


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    RAhmed  October 9, 2015

    That’s fascinating. I still find it strange that Luke would have such a completely different understanding from Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death. If all Luke wrote was his gospel, this wouldn’t be so strange. However, he clearly knew of Paul and regarded him highly enough to dedicate a short book about him. So why did he find Paul to be so important if he didn’t agree with Paul’s theology?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      Great question! Same thing can be asked of modern preachers who champion Paul without understanding or really agreeing with his message!

    • Avatar
      Kent  October 15, 2015

      He did found the church. I think that this would count for a lot and I’ll speculate that this could have made him useful for promoting the religion and that his celebrated name, at that time, was quite powerful in certain circles.

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    Xyloplax  October 10, 2015

    This is great. I was going to ask what examples of folks admitting to embellishing the wording of speeches we have, so thank you for the Thucydides. Are there other examples in Greece, Rome or elsewhere in the Ancient world by any chance?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      His is the most explicit discussion, but it was clearly what every historian did.

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    dragonfly  October 10, 2015

    That would mean, for Luke, you don’t really need Jesus. If you can realize how you have sinned and turn to God to ask for forgiveness some other way, God will forgive you and you’ll be right with God. No Jesus required. Or does Luke have some other loophole that means you still have to believe in Jesus to get forgiven?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      Yeah, that would seem to be the implication. But Luke insists that you need to accept the fact that Jesus was God’s messiah, the Son of God. Otherwise you don’t really believe in God.

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    RonaldTaska  October 10, 2015

    The “thousand dollar” example is very helpful. Thanks.

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    fred  October 10, 2015

    Hmmm. Luke obviously knew what Mark wrote, so perhaps there’s not really a contradiction between them. Perhaps Luke felt he was clarifying how the atonement would work (in his estimation): Jesus undeserved death put us in position to request forgiveness, a prerequisite to salvation.

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    Mhamed Errifi  October 10, 2015

    hello bart

    you said : Mark, and Paul, have a doctrine of atonement. Jesus’ death is a death “for the sake of others.”

    what about matthew and john and where do you think this idea of atonement come from was it invented after jesus death

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      Matthew definitely has a doctrine of atonement, and John too, though in a different way.

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    dragonfly  October 11, 2015

    Using your example, each one of us owes God a thousand dollars. So God pays himself a thousand dollars and we’re all off the hook. It seems to me the atonement idea worked slightly better before Jesus became God.

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    jbjbjbjbjb  October 11, 2015

    “Jesus’ death, then, continues to be vitally important to Luke.”
    Jesus’ suffering-free death continues…..
    Still wondering about this.
    We do not have accounts of how the OT prophets suffered in their deaths, we are left to imagine. Any links? Still doesn’t seem to totally add up.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2015

      Well, there are Jewish traditions of prophets being martyred (see the Martyrdom of Isaiah, e.g.)

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    Jana  October 12, 2015

    Then would it be accurate to say that Luke was directing his understanding with conversion of Jews in mind? .. making them feel guilty for what they did and then causing them to seek repentance within Christianity?

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    Jana  October 12, 2015

    Another question, some time ago I read a classic The Hour of Our Death Phillip Aries and Western burial practices (mass graves) seemed to indicate I think? that the Resurrection was to be a mass event rather than an individual event. Therefore was the idea of atonement for individuals or mass ? I would be the first to admit that I might be confused.

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    Britt  October 12, 2015

    If Luke thought you had to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and that you had to ask God to forgive you of your sins, why does it necessarily follow that Jesus HAD to die? A person could simply believe Jesus was God’s Son and ask God to forgive his sins. What was so essential about Jesus’s death that He HAD to die?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2015

      For Luke it was all part of God’s plan (just as the prophets had to die)

  20. Avatar
    Steefen  October 24, 2015

    Mark, and Paul, have a doctrine of atonement. Jesus’ death is a death “for the sake of others.” He dies in the place of others. His death is a sacrifice that pays the debt that is owed by others.

    In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke does not have a doctrine of atonement. For him, Jesus’ death makes you realize how you have sinned against God and you turn to God and beg his forgiveness, and he forgives you. No one pays your debt; God simply forgives it.


    This is all Post-Temple destruction religion, not of the historical Jesus and not of the historical apostles who supposedly lived while the Temple was still a vibrant place of worship. This is all a test of historicity which the New Testament fails.

    It is a corruption of the Torah. If Mark and Luke were presented to Jews, it would lead them astray from Yom Kippur, Leviticus 16: 29. In the New Testament, John the Baptist and Jesus are not shown honoring the holiest day in Judaism. Paul, “Mark,” and “Luke” make an assault on the Torah. How deficient the picture of Judaism is in the New Testament to black out and silence Yom Kippur but make a new religion of atonement, repentance (confession), and salvation.

    There was no vacuum to fill in reference to forgiveness and repentance.

    Yom Kippur (/jɔːm ˈkɪpər, joʊm, jɒm/;[1] Hebrew: יוֹם כִּפּוּר, IPA: [ˈjom kiˈpuʁ], or יום הכיפורים), also known as Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism.[2] Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jewish people traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services.

    Yom Kippur is “the tenth day of [the] seventh month”[3] (Tishrei) and is regarded as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”. Rosh Hashanah (referred to in the Torah as Yom Teruah) is the first day of that month according to the Hebrew calendar. On this day forgiveness of sins is also asked of God.

    Leviticus 16:29 mandates establishment of this holy day on the 10th day of the 7th month as the day of atonement for sins. It calls it the Sabbath of Sabbaths and a day upon which one must afflict one’s soul.

    Leviticus 23:27 decrees that Yom Kippur is a strict day of rest.

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