Atonement is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, and penal substitution is the heart of this doctrine.
The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.
ABSTRACT: This article examines the Christ myth theory and its difficulties. A number of flaws are pointed out with the theory, such as it failing to reasonably account for the James passage in Galatians 1:19. Of important focus will be the moral influence interpretation of Jesus’ death as opposed to the penal substitution / sin debt model that mythicism demands. The theology of the cross is intended to inspire guilt in that the reader comes to see themselves in the disciples who all fled at the arrest, and those who wrongfully killed Jesus, and hence inspire and be a catalyst for repentance. Learning the Jesus story is imputing guilt, the opposite of Aristotelian purging catharsis. This is a substantial problem for mythicism. A celestial Christ who was never on Earth and was killed in outer space by sky demons can’t inspire such guilt, and so mythicism isn’t an effective interpretive model for interpreting the New Testament—among other problems. Interpreting theology is not necessarily helpful in determining things about the historical Jesus, but it can be fruitful to ask whether the kind of theology being produced makes more sense from a general historicist framework, or a mythicist one? Jesus wasn’t portrayed as being killed in a quick, merciful way, but was horrifically tortured and abused, which I will try to show points to an historical Jesus with immolated goat and scapegoat Yom Kippur theology, rather than a mythical one. The challenge of reading Old Testament theology into the New Testament understanding of the cross is that the Jewish word for atonement kaphar, which is translated into the Septuagint that the New Testament writers were using as exhilaskomai, surprisingly never occurs in the New Testament. So, there is going to be something about the cross that goes beyond doing away with sin so man and God can be reconciled.
Preamble: Awakenings with Bugs and Bass
Part 1: Eight Key Problems with the Christ Myth Theory
(1) James, the Brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19)
(2) The Seed of David Passage in Paul in Romans 1:3
(3) The Central Issue—Augustus vs. Jesus: Guilt and the Theology of the Scapegoat
(4) Carrier and the Rank-Raglan Mythotype
(5) John the Baptist
(6) A Foolishness for the Gentiles
(7) Jesus the Messiah
(8) Jesus the First Fruits
Part 2: Reflection and Analysis
Preamble: Awakenings with Bugs and Bass
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
One of my most vivid memories from when I was a child at school was at recess one day when a bunch of us had caught some Daddy Long Legs insects. We proceeded to engage in a fun game of pulling the legs off the insects. At some point, it overcame me that our fun game was actually horrific torturing of the creatures, and my violence awakened in me a sense of guilt and justice.
Fishing became similar for me, which I lived for as a kid. I have been an avid angler all my life, both with catch and release sportfishing and fishing for food. However, it occurred to me one day that sportfishing merely for excitement is in fact terrorizing and torturing the fish, so I felt like a horrible person and I haven’t done it since.
Let’s use the above two lenses of the excess of suffering with the daddy long legs and sport fishing to consider the moral influence meaning of the Death of Jesus, specifically in contrast to the penal substitution model of the Christ myth theory.
This article is in part a response to Richard Carrier’s books On the Historicity of Jesus and Jesus in Outer Space. Carrier’s Christ myth hypothesis is that original Christianity believed Jesus never existed on Earth and was crucified in outer space by sky demons.
Earl Doherty deserves special mention as the catalyst for the modern mythicism movement, inspiring both Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier with his The Jesus Puzzle. In his chapter of the recent Varieties of Mythicism anthology, Doherty argues for the most basic meaning of Christianity as a typical mythicist reading of the book of Hebrews with Jesus’ sacrifice taking place in heaven. The heavenly blood act in Hebrews is almost universally regarded as referring to something happening after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus from Earth after being executed by Pilate, but Doherty takes it mythically. Regarding the sacrifice, Doherty says:
Christ as heavenly High Priest is infinitely superior to the high priest on earth who officiates in the earthly tabernacle. The blood of the sacrifice Christ offers is his own blood, so much greater in power than the material blood of animals that it has “secured an eternal deliverance” (Hebrews 9:12), a forgiveness of sins which the earthly sacrifices could never achieve. (Loftus & Price, 2021, p. 272)
If we consider the Levitical background of Hebrews and Yom Kippur, Doherty means the celestial Jesus is the once and for all blood magic sacrificial goat of atonement that appeases God’s holy wrath and solves the sin problem. This is a very problematic reading of Hebrews that seems highly unlikely because it represents an inaccurate reading of the Christian appropriation of Yom Kippur. Anticipating that a little, I just wanted to provide a short quote from mythicist Price’s essay on Bart Ehrman in this same volume regarding the other animal of Yom Kippu, the scapegoat. Price writes:
The ancient Near-Eastern kings would act out the death and resurrection of their gods, ritually assuming the burden of the fertility of the land and the sins of the people. Sometimes this entailed a mock death or else a mere ritual humiliation, redeeming his people in a ritual atonement in which he himself had played the role of scapegoat. Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12 seems to reflect the Hebrew version of the same liturgy. (Loftus & Price, 2021, p. 349)
34 Mishna Yoma 6:4 recounts the ritual humiliation and abuse visited upon the scapegoat: “And they made a causeway for it because of the Babylonians who used to pull its hair, crying to it, ‘Bear [our sins] and be gone! Bear [our sins] and be gone’!” What is the nature of the relation between the scapegoat and Christianity, this second animal of the Yom Kippur background? Price cites Crossan that:
The Scapegoat (Mark 15:1-15)
John Dominic Crossan has drawn attention to the singular importance for early Christian typology of the Leviticus 16 scapegoat ritual, tracing its development, as it picked up associations from Zechariah, on its way to the composition of the gospel narrative of the mocking, abuse, and crucifixion of Jesus. Although Crossan assumes the process began with a vague Christian memory/report of Jesus having been crucified, with no details, his own compelling charting of the midrashic trajectory strongly implies something subtly different, that the process began with something like Doherty’s scenario of an even vaguer, ahistorical belief in the savior Jesus becoming progressively historicized by means of progressive biblical coloring, until the final stage of evolution was a crucifixion. Crossan describes the scapegoat ritual as it was being practiced in early Christian times by reference to Yoma 6:2-6 , the Epistle of Barnabas chapter 7, Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 40, and Tertullian’s Against Marcion 3:7. The goat was led out of the city walls. A crimson thread of wool was divided, half tied to a rock, half between the goat’s horns. Along the way, the goat was abused by the crowd shouting, “Bear [sins] and begone! Bear and begone!” The crowd spat at it and goaded it along with pointed reeds till it arrived at the ledge where it was pushed over (Crossan, p. 119). Barnabas implies that in his day the woolen thread was tied onto a thorny bush, no longer a rock, a significant change (no less significant even if this was a misunderstanding, already marking a slippage of the “piercing” motif from the reed-poking to the wool-tying). Even without reference to a passion narrative of any sort, Barnabas and the Sibylline Oracles (8:294-301) apply the ritual in all its details to the death of the savior Jesus. Barnabas and others also attach to it the typology Zechariah 12:10 (“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a firstborn”) because of the catchword “piercing,” derived from the reeds and thorns of the scapegoat ritual. From this it was a natural step to page through Zechariah to 3:1-5 and to associate the scapegoat-savior Jesus with the high priest Jesus (Joshua). There Jesus/Joshua is clothed in a crown (turban) and robe, which Barnabas, et. al. “recognized” as an expansion of the two bits of crimson wool from the scapegoat ritual. Once this connection was made, it was easy for the wool motif to be segregated to the robe, the crown assimilating to the thorns to which the other thread had been tied, resulting in a crown of thorns (Crossan, p. 128). From these roots, as the passion narrative begins to form, the piercing motif takes several forms. When Jesus becomes a mock king (as in the Roman Saturnalia games or the mockery of Carrabas in Philo, Flaccus VI), the reeds that once poked the scapegoat have become the reed sceptre of the mock king (which his mockers seize and use to hit him) as well as the mock crown of thorns and the scraping bits of the scourging whip. Then, in a full-scale crucifixion narrative (involving, of course, the driving of the scapegoat Jesus outside the city walls), the piercing motif takes the form of the nails of crucifixion and finally the piercing lance of Longinus. (Price, 2005)
Does this clarify things? Not at all, because unless we clarify the relative roles of the immolated goat and the scapegoat, Yom Kippur will remain hidden from us, and we will uncritically adopt the common reading of Hebrews 9 as sin payment blood magic.
So, Christ mythicism is the position that the original Christians such as Peter and Paul believed Jesus never existed on Earth, but was a celestial deity who was crucified in outer space, thus paying humanity’s sin debt once and for all as appeasing God’s wrath at sin: a blood magic spell. Animal sacrifice could not solve the sin problem, but the super blood of the great angel Jesus could.
There are numerous New Testament passages that are not good fits for the mythicism paradigm, like the James passage in Galatians and the seed of David passage in Romans, which I will look at in the first part of this essay. Secondly, mythicism only makes sense on a vicarious blood magic atonement interpretation of the cross, which I will dispute with a moral influence interpretation.
The moral influence interpretation of the cross argues the New Testament casts Jesus as the ultimate High Priest who serves as the immolated goat and scapegoat filling full of meaning (fulfilling) the essence of the traditional Yom Kippur Day of Atonement. Jesus is not an offer to God to cover sin and assuage God’s holy wrath against sin, but an offering for and from God to humanity to uncover (a-letheia) the true/hidden source of sin and overcome it, so God can reconcile humanity to Himself. Thus, the book of Hebrews speaks of abolishing the endless repetition of burnt and sin offerings, for the onetime offering of Christ. We often speak of Christ’s death defeating sin and Satan, but struggle as to explaining why from the penal substitution interpretation in a satisfying manner. Analogously, how does the execution of an innocent child in Africa for the murders of a felon in Chicago serve justice?
Through his unjust abuse, judgment, and death by the world, Jesus is cast as a false scapegoat, as the personification of sin in the world’s eyes, and because he is a scapegoat he is ritually mocked (Hebrews 12:2; Mark 15:16-20; Isaiah 53:3; Psalm 22:7), abused, and violently killed (Hebrews 9:28; Isaiah 1:18; Mark 10:45). However, the irony is that this process un-covers the true personification and source of sin, the Devil tempting and influencing man. In this way the sinful nature of humanity is transferred to the Devil as the actual scapegoat/source of the evil of man. So, there are two basic interpretive paradigms of the cross. A moral influence interpretation of the cross means: when we come to see ourselves in those who abandoned Jesus at his arrest and the others who unjustly brought about his death, we are convicted by the law written on our hearts which is a catalyst for repentance and change. By contrast, a vicarious blood atonement interpretation of the cross means we deserve to die for our sins, but what luck Jesus dies for us!
As Paul says, the power of the Devil is death, in that if we are all just going to die and that’s it, we might as well just ignore God’s rules and do whatever we want. Jesus overcomes the judgment of the world by being vindicated by God with the resurrection and demonstrates the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age is not just some theological speculation by some Jews, but is real and has begun. Jesus is thus shown to be the pure/unblemished sacrifice, the ultimate immolated Goat of Yom Kippur that “purifies our conscience from dead works to worship the living God (Hebrews 9:14).” In one of a few senses, Jesus is pure in the sense that he has a perfect understanding of the source of sin in Satan’s temptations and influence, and so is not susceptible to them. The essence of, and responsibility for sin is thus in scapegoat manner transferred from man to Satan, re-vealing Satan as the true scapegoat/culprit in sin, Satan as the true scapegoat, providing the ultimate catalyst for repentance and hence salvation.
Repentance is a crucial concept for Paul, though not linguistically. Eckhard J. Schnabel writes:
Paul rarely uses the terms µετάνοια / µετανοεῖν (“repentance” / “repent”), but word statistics should not be accorded too much weight. Besides using these terms to describe the process of returning to God by regretting one’s transgressions, Paul uses other terms and phrases in order to express the need to, and the reality of, changing mind and heart, outlook and behavior. It can be demonstrated that Paul knows the Jewish doctrine of repentance, that his missionary preaching calls for repentance, that his theological discourse presupposes repentance, that his rhetorical discourse in his letters includes the discourse of repentance, and that his ethical discourse entails exhortations to repentance.
The traditional Yom Kippur ritual had no power to address sin in any ultimate way, and so had to be repeated yearly. The Christian argument, by contrast, is that Jesus, who was the highest and ultimate choice of God to restore the Davidic throne, who demonstrated to the world who he was by signs and wonders (John 10:25), was nonetheless viewed by the world as the personification of sin, un-covering the satanic hold the Devil had on the minds of people and providing a way for humanity to untangle themselves.
The demonic Azazel or scapegoat represented demons / Satan the Devil: Azazel was probably a demonic being. Apocryphal Jewish works, composed in the last few centuries before the Christian era, tell of angels who were lured into rebellion against God. In these writings, Azazel is one of the two leaders of the rebellion. And post-Talmudic documents tell a similar story about two rebel angels, Uzza and Azzael—both variations of the name Azazel. These mythological stories, which must have been widely known, seem to confirm the essentially demonic character of the old biblical Azazel. In the Book of Enoch, Azazel is a fallen angel who teaches mankind unrighteous ways. As a result, he is bound and sentenced to the desert forever. It also contains another tradition typically taught on the Day of Atonement—that Satan is the author of human sin: “And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin.” In other words, the ascribing of all human sin to a fallen angel is from the very same Jewish tradition that identifies the Azazel as a demon. Just as Matthew in haggadic midrash presents Jesus as the new and greater Moses, filling full of meaning the Moses story (e.g., Jesus’ infancy recapitulates the story of Moses), the exegetical work on Yom Kippur shows Jesus as the new and greater high priest, a sacrificial, immolated goat. Once Jesus’ unjust death has written the Law on your heart completely, if you persist in sin you will suffer judgment, because you have been given a fair chance (Hebrews 10:26-39). Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 5. He writes:
3 For I, though absent in body, am present in spirit, and as if present I have already pronounced judgment 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord…. Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed… 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons, 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy or an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler. Do not even eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging those outside? Are you not judges of those who are inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5)
Just as Jesus as pure goat and scapegoat fulfilling Yom Kippur is one lens, Jesus as the Passover or paschal lamb mentioned in the Paul quote above is another angle. Note here in Paul above, like in the book of John, Christ is identified with the Passover lamb, not the atonement sacrifice or scapegoat. The emphasis is not on cultivating the individual repentance of the sinner as one would expect on the penal substitution model if Christ had vicariously atoned for mankind’s sin, but rather expelling the sinner from the bushel so the bad apple doesn’t pollute the rest of the fruit. Paul apparently thinks by expelling the man from the community the loss of fellowship and the self-destructive results from the immoral behavior “may” make the person repent, which seems to be what happens (see 2 Corinthians 2:6-8), but the important player here is the health of the community. The concern here is for the flourishing and escape from bondage of the community, hence the Passover imagery, and Paul’s claim elsewhere it is the community that will defeat Satan, not just Jesus. Eisenbaum points out there is a long tradition of the distinction between willing and unwilling sin, and a focus, not just on those who reject Christ, but of Jesus followers who commit apostasy.
Carrier is often a good critic of other less rigorous mythicists. Price characterizes the basic point of his mythicist position as follows:
Mythicists infer that the author of these epistles was writing at a time when Christians believed in a celestial Man of Light who had not appeared on the earth to teach and heal and die on a Roman cross, but who had been ambushed and slain by the demonic entities (fallen angels, archons, elemental spirits) inhabiting the lower heavens. As we read in various surviving Gnostic texts, this death would have occurred in the primordial past [emphasis mine]. (Loftus & Price, 2021, pp. 344-345)
Speaking to the above claim Jesus’ death occurred in the primordial past, Carrier doesn’t think this fits Paul and the first Christians at all. Paul cites a tradition that he got from previous Christians “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” So, Christ died, was buried, and was raised over a three day period. And, Paul seemingly thought this was recent, as he calls the resurrected Christ the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age which had begun. We can infer then that since the death burial and resurrection was very close in time, and the resurrection apocalypse was beginning in Paul’s time according to him, then Jesus’ death couldn’t have taken place in the primordial past.
Given that background introduction, I will now consider the key ways that the Christ myth fails as an interpretive paradigm:
Part 1: Eight Key Problems with the Christ Myth Theory
(1) James, the Brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19)
The James passage in Galatians has long been the bane of mythicists. With a usual translation, it reads: “18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days, 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19, NRSVUE). So, the clear implication is if Paul met Jesus’ brother, Jesus must have existed. Carrier attempts to skirt this problem by translating the passage as Paul met with the apostle Peter, and no one else but the Christian “Brother James,” meaning James was a nonapostle baptized Christian and not Jesus’ brother. Grammatically Carrier has to make this distinction because Peter can’t be a brother of the lord in the sense James is, since Paul is distinguishing them from one another (Carrier, 2020, p. 41ff, 174ff). Carrier says: “So it’s just as likely, if not more so, that Paul means he met only the apostle Peter and only one other Judean Christian, a certain ‘brother James'” (Carrier, 2014, pp. 588-590).
For Carrier’s translation and interpretation to be right you have to infer that Paul went to the center of the early Christian movement with Peter for two weeks and the only Christians Paul encountered were Peter and James! Against this, for example, Paul would have met another Christian, Peter’s wife. The three Synoptic Gospels recount how Peter’s mother-in-law was healed by Jesus (Matthew 8:14-17, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38); this passage clearly depicts Peter as being married. 1 Corinthians 9:5 identifies Peter had a wife who was a sister in Christ and accompanied him. Paul had no problem acknowledging female Christians, saying there is neither male nor female, and even identifying his relative Junia as high up in the church, even before he converted. Some (especially dogmatic Catholics) understand 1 Corinthians 9:5 to mean Peter was a widower who had Christian female attendants, but this still implies the women being believing Christians Paul would have come in contact with.
But, even this in effect is conceding Carrier too much because Carrier is claiming Paul spent two weeks with Peter and met no one else besides James, Christian or otherwise. The traditional translation doesn’t fall prey to this oddity of an implication because according to it Paul only met two apostles, but it leaves open that he could have met other nonapostle people. On the other hand, if you want to argue for Paul meeting James and Peter exclusively, it makes much more sense that Paul was boasting to the Galatians that he did not meet with any lesser Christians, but rather Peter and Jesus’ brother James exclusively (the two leaders of the early church), rather than he had met with Peter and some average Christian named James the Galatians had never heard of.
Moreover, the apparent Caliphate of James in Acts matches too well with the blood brother of Jesus reading of Galatians to be mere coincidence. James is portrayed as a skeptic, Jesus’ family in fact thinking he was crazy. To go from skeptic to leader of the Jerusalem church makes sense if James was promoted due to familial relation, not just some random guy who converted.
On all these grounds I think the better reading of Galatians is Paul encountered two apostles among the people he met on the trip, Peter and Jesus’ brother James, rather than just Peter and one other person, brother (nonapostolic Christian) James as Carrier wants to read.
(2) The Seed of David Passage in Paul in Romans 1:3
A related problem coming from Paul’s epistles for the Christ myth theory is Paul identifying Jesus coming from the seed of David. If Jesus was of Davidic heritage, must he not have existed on Earth? We read:
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-6)
Similarly, Hebrews says Jesus was from the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14; also see Matthew 1:6; Luke 3:31). Seemingly, if Jesus was descended from David, he existed on Earth, and so an example of Carrier making a forced argument is accounting for the “Jesus as the seed of David” passage in Paul as mythical by postulating a cosmic sperm bank that God stored David’s sperm in (How did God attain the sperm!?) for hundreds of years which he then created a celestial Jesus out of. The other main mythicist, Price, thinks that Carrier’s cosmic sperm bank hypothesis is ridiculous, and has no basis in the text. Price deals with Paul here by saying that it’s an interpolation, although Price has been criticized (even by Carrier!) for conveniently finding interpolations whenever the text disagrees with his interpretive model. In the case of the seed of David passage in Romans, the case for interpolation is weak because it fits nicely with Paul elsewhere stressing Jesus’ lineage: Jewish, Galatians 4:4; Davidic, Romans 1:3; Abrahamic, Galatians 3:16; Israelite, Romans 9:4-5; of the line of Jesse, Romans 15:12. Dennis MacDonald makes the important point in various interviews that Paul’s readers wouldn’t have been able to read a cosmic sperm bank meaning into the letter given their background knowledge, so it’s unlikely that Carrier is right that that’s what Paul meant.
Carrier further argues that God attaining the sperm of David is actually implied in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. The genealogies speak against this. Let’s consider why.
In Matthew’s genealogy of Joseph, Ehrman (2012) points out there is a curse upon the bloodline of Jeconiah in Jeremiah 22:30, pointing that his descendants will never sit on the throne. He is part of Joseph’s bloodline in Matthew, but because Jesus is not Joseph’s offspring, he can inherit the throne as an adopted son of Joseph—the idea of an adoptive son being very powerful in the context of the Roman empire, more so than a biological son, as Ehrman explains (and Michael Peppard points out in his book The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context). So here Jesus is adopted into David’s royal line, not by blood—like new believers are adopted into God’s family.
The scripture the evangelists want to fill full of meaning is the LXX translation of the Hebrew scriptures which can be read to say a virgin will conceive (as opposed to “young woman” in the Hebrew). We know this doesn’t involve the literal sperm of David because Matthew and Luke go through the awkward process of creating a royal genealogy for Jesus even though Joseph was only an adoptive father, which they wouldn’t need to do if they thought Jesus was magically created from the seed of David—which would be evidence enough of his royal bloodline. Obviously, on this approach the writers were trying to reconcile Jesus Davidic heritage with the virgin birth and this was the best they could come up with. Just as Jesus was adopted into the royal line of David, so too is the believer adopted into God’s family (Romans 8:15; 9:26; Galatians 3:26; Ephesians 2:19). A person is, per Galatians 2:16 with regards to Pistis Christou, thereby justified, as Kevin Grasso argues, not just by faith in Jesus, or by Jesus’ faithfulness, but through belonging to the whole Christ/messiah religion. This adoption means the believer will judge the angels and the world (1 Corinthians 6:2-3; Matthew 19:28/Luke 22:30), and they demonstrate ability and readiness for this by fully demonstrating the Christian message. Grasso comments: “In adopting the Christ-faith and being faithful to the Christ, they will fulfill the Torah, as it was intended (through love; e.g., Romans 13:8-10), but they will not need to adopt the system of Torah-works, which would include all of its commandments, including (but not limited to) the so-called “boundary marker” commandments such as circumcision and food laws” (Grasso, 2022). “Belief” is important in that you believe Jesus was God’s specially chosen one, testified by his life of wisdom and miracles, who instead of reinstating the Davidic throne was abandoned by his followers, tortured and horrifically executed by the world as a lowly criminal mocking his messianic claims. If this slap in God’s face didn’t make humanity’s sinful nature conspicuous and inspire guilt/repentance, nothing would. Thereby, this transformative experience is open to all, so “all flesh will see the salvation of the lord” (Luke 3:6). Of course this was all planned by God who Paul says, as the great mystery since creation, ironically gave the Law because He knew man would transgress it and thereby become sinful beyond measure, making the ground fertile for Jesus to be planted and address sin through the ultimate moral influence sacrifice (not a Penal Substitution one).
Moreover, what Carrier doesn’t see is that it is precisely that “Jesus as the royal Davidic heir anointed by God to restore the throne but was rejected by the world” is the whole point, as I will argue below. We will see Jesus is God’s specially chosen one brutally tortured and executed as a lowly criminal, the realization of such makes our corrupt nature conspicuous in guilt, and inspires repentance: seeing ourselves in indifferent to justice Pilate, the corrupt religious elite, and the raging crowd. This is seen as demonic influence, like Luke reporting the Devil going into Judas before he betrayed Jesus. Analogously, in Chronicles we read: “Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to count the people of Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1). Phenomenologically we see a similar experience when we say, not that I’m inwardly feeling rage, but I am overcome by rage—something from outside that comes over me. As I said we see a similar transformation in Judas in Matthew 27:1-10 where Judas realizes the nature and consequences of his sin, and hangs himself. One possibility for reconciling the account of Judas’ death in Matthew with the one in Acts is in Acts Judas intentionally threw himself, fell “headlong,” which would mean Matthew and Luke had a common source that Judas committed suicide, but there were no details about the death. If in Acts Judas was envisioned jumping off a cliff to his death with his body burst open and his intestines spilling out, this would suggest scapegoat imagery, which will become important below. In the Yom Kippur service with the two goats, one of the goats—the se’ir la’azazel (scapegoat)—is taken out to be pushed off a cliff. The Mishna (Yoma 6:6) teaches that it was dashed to pieces before it made it halfway down the cliff. Apologists since Augustine have tried to reconcile Matthew and Luke on Judas’ death by claiming Judas hung himself, then the wood broke so he fell down a cliff and burst open. There is little textual or thematic support for such inerrancy dogma. Ancient suicide was often viewed in the Roman world as making up for terrible behavior, and may hint at dying / suicide / “crucified with Christ” imagery we find in Paul.
(3) The Central Issue—Augustus vs. Jesus: Guilt and the Theology of the Scapegoat
A further sense of the injustice of society being challenged is the setup of Jesus vs. Caesar. And, in fact, a “gospel” is understood as the good news about an important person, in the sense of propaganda. Randel Helms comments:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.” (Helms, p. 24)
John Dominic Crossan has amply demonstrated this element of the Jesus image in relation to Caesar Augustus. It is the Peace through Victory of Augustus vs. the Peace through Justice of Jesus. Augustus, like Jesus, is the son of God, the Lord, he is the God incarnate, the redeemer from sin, the savior of the world. The Mediterranean world attained peace and prosperity under the government of Augustus, who was celebrated in temples, statues, and dedications as an earthly redeemer from sins. Augustus had conquered the world and established the Pax Romana (Peace through Victory) that would last some 200 years. He wanted to inspire a better people who changed the way they looked at the world:
Augustus faced a problem making peace an acceptable mode of life for the Romans, who had been at war with one power or another continuously for 200 years. Romans regarded peace not as an absence of war, but as a rare situation which existed when all opponents had been beaten down and lost the ability to resist. Augustus’ challenge was to persuade Romans that the prosperity they could achieve in the absence of warfare was better for the Empire than the potential wealth and honor acquired when fighting a risky war. Augustus succeeded by means of skillful propaganda. Subsequent emperors followed his lead, sometimes producing lavish ceremonies to close the Gates of Janus, issuing coins with Pax on the reverse, and patronizing literature extolling the benefits of the Pax Romana. (Wiki)
Importantly, Crossan argues Augustus was revered as Lord, Redeemer from sin, and Savior of the World. In the New Testament every title Augustus has is being ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth, and this makes sense of Jesus’ crucifixion—for treason: saying Jesus is a more appropriate ruler for the world than Caesar. The Romans called this majistas and we call it high treason. Jesus preached the kingdom of God and that he would be king.
For example, regarding Augustus as redeeming people from sin, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill points out:
The Roman fascination with the Golden Age theme all from a single epoch-making poem, Virgil’s fourth Eclogue the return of the Golden Age is prophesied: the Virgin the reign of Saturn are coming back. A miraculous child born; and at his advent the world will change, human sins disappear, and a state of peace and Paradise. (1982, p. 20)
Like the Jewish tradition envisioned Adam and Eve living without sin in the garden, Romans such as Tacitus saw primitive man living without laws because they had no moral degradation (lust/abuse sin [scelus]) that would necessitate legislation/laws. It was when man learned greed that desire for money and property became the root of all evil, especially war which was a huge problem for the ancient Romans.
For Romans scelus or sin is more than mere wrongdoing and risked incurred the wrath of the gods unless expiated with the appropriate ceremony or piaculum. Augustus Caesar was a redeemer of sin in this regard that he was to get rid of scelus, because traditional ceremonies were no longer though able to deal with the gods’ wrath because without Augustus to save them the state will be overcome by scelus.
After the Actium civil strife, there were signs of repentance by the people at their behavior (Horace, Odes, i. 35.), and Augustus struggled to institute a programmer of moral legislation, which passed in 18 BC. Horace believed the ancient Golden Age of Rome had returned, but not because laws had been enacted, but because behaviors and attitudes have changed. What had solved the sin problem? It was the person of Caesar Augustus as a moral exemplar who was at the root of what was changing (Ovid, Metamorphos, xv. 833-834). As a Saturnian King Augustus sets the example for how the people are supposed to behave, without compulsion, voluntarily reformed (cf. John 13:15).
However, Tacitus saw things in Rome more realistically and pessimistically, that the people were being compelled by laws and held in line by informants. Ovid too saw through the recovered Golden Age, in that now all men desired was gold:
The victory of one of the dynasts at Actium renewed the dilemma. Had he saved the Romans from their troubles, or was he engrossing power for his own benefit? He himself denied any interest in power. He had, he claimed, fought to protect the state from tyranny and barbarian domination, and now returned control to the senate and people. But the Romans had to cope with the fact of his continuing domination. War was over and the language of the period of crisis, the confession of guilt, had lost its point. But the continued presence of the dynast demanded a continued confession of guilt. It was convenient, as Augustus realized, to harp on sexual offences, with their high potential for inducing feelings of guilt. (Wallace-Hadrill, 1982, p. 36)
From the quote, we see imputing guilt is a key to saving people from their sins, as was the message of Jesus as a catalyst for repentance.
Also, Augustus instituted a policy of forgiving enemies, one we also see with Jesus (e.g.. “forgive them father they don’t know what they are doing; love your enemies”), because doing so was the most effective way of getting enemies to repent/convert and tow the company line: “[A] sparing emperor establishes good moral in the state and washes away vices” (Seneca, On Clemency, I 22 3). The general idea is that if punishment is rare and the state finds itself innocent, it will behave innocently. Key here for the Romans is the belief in the absolute need by the subjects of the emperor (like with Jesus), because his paradigmatic mercy is the catalyst for the people to show him good behavior. For instance, the emperor as a stand-in for the god Saturn (like Jesus was a mask for the Jewish God) was uncommonly objective because he wasn’t personally involved in the cases he overheard. A citizen in this regard was returned to original innocence of the mythic Golden Age before Rome had gone wrong. Analogously, a new Christian is returned to the state of clean innocence of Adam before the snake.
Crossan argues if the issue of Christian origins was a group of apostles of a celestial being claiming they would rule the Earth instead of Caesar with Jesus in the new Kingdom of God, they would have been executed for treason, but they aren’t, only Jesus is. Herb Montgomery comments:
The gospel of peace proclaimed through Roman Imperialism was a peace through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels the nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class who most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows the entire message of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.
For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel and the peace gospel of Jesus come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative transcendental visions for arriving at peace on Earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored justice for all people.
Marcus Borg and Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas).
To understand Caesar/Jesus as redeemers from sins, Crossan points out regarding the eschaton or “end time” being taught that:
Eschatology is not about the destruction of the earth but about its transfiguration, not about the end of the world but about the end of evil, injustice, violence—and imperialism. I think of the eschaton as the Great Divine Clean-Up of the World. It is clear, I hope, that the kingdom is 100 percent political and 100 percent religious altogether and inextricably intertwined at the same time. It is ultimately about who runs this world and how, therefore, it should be run. (Crossan, 2009, p. 109)
How does Christ differ from Caesar? Christ is the High Priest in Hebrews, and also the pure immolated goat, and a false pure scapegoat. This is a polemic against the Jewish elites and the Romans. Richard A. Horsely points out in the first century the Romans appointed the high priest of the Jews. The Jewish aristocracy were meant to care for the people, but were often Roman collaborators. The high priests and aristocracy did little to protect the people against Roman abuses and confrontations, and in the years leading up to the revolt of 66 contributed to the breakdown of the social order through their aggressive, violent, predatory actions. Naftali Meshel points out Mishna Yoma 1:3-6 points out the high priest is often embarrassingly unlearned. We can see the contrast with Jesus the authoritative teacher of the law who is himself the immolated goat and the scapegoat who gives himself in sacrificial love. Hebrews contrasts the earthly temple as Platonic “mere image” with the heavenly temple Christ presents his blood to after his resurrection and ascension—which is figurative language for Christ’s death awakening the law written on our hearts, the true holy of holies.
To begin to consider the Yom Kippur scapegoat, Jennifer Berenson Maclean perceives the scapegoat typology as operative in the Roman abuse scene (2007, pp. 332-333). So, with Jesus also as scapegoat (Galatians 3:13; 4:4-5; 2 Corinthians 5:21) there is a caricature understanding of the scapegoat as escaping and carrying away paying the sin debt/ penal substitution in a general vicarious sense, which is foolish, and a deeper level of meaning in seeing what we did to Jesus through the excessive unnecessary suffering of the scapegoat as it crashed down the cliff, which leads to repentance.
This all said, a much more central issue is the notion of the scapegoat and whether we are to have a moral influence, or penal substitution view of Jesus’ death? As I said, mythicism only makes sense if a celestial Jesus vicariously atoned for man’s sin through blood magic that satisfied God’s holy wrath. The original Christians had to believe this for Carrier, and so a Lukan moral influence interpretation of the cross makes no sense for belief in a celestial Christianity. Why? If a main feature of the cross is to inspire repentance, the cross is of little effect if Jesus was killed in outer space by sky demons as opposed to being killed by us. Generally speaking, we like to distinguish theology from the historical Jesus, but sometimes the way the writer theologizes can be a clue to what they think of the historical Jesus. Carrier argues that Mark knew full well Jesus did not exist on Earth, but was writing an extended parable. I’m going to challenge this with the imagery of the scapegoat.
In the gospels there has been increased scrutiny about the relation of Jesus to Jewish scapegoat theology. Traditionally in Jewish Yom Kippur ritual, the pure animal is killed so as to remove unintentional sins and purify the holy place that so God can dwell among a sinful people, and the intentional sins that cannot be removed in this way are placed on the second animal, the scapegoat, that is then ritually abused and driven over a cliff and killed. The purpose of the sacrificial animal of the pair in the Day of Atonement ritual is thought to purify the most holy place (Leviticus 16:16, 18, 20) from the sin and uncleanness of the people, so that God could dwell there in their midst, because God can’t dwell in the midst of sin (Psalm 5:4).
The other animal, the scapegoat, though not fit for sacrifice, is magically infused with the intentional sins of the people and then violently killed by pushing it off the cliff—and is broken apart as it falls as the Mishna Yoma 6:6 teaches. For Rabbi David Rosenfeld this means by us causing a horrific inhumane death for the scapegoat animal (Jewish tradition otherwise promotes humane sacrifice, whereas the scapegoat is torn apart going down the cliff) in the scapegoat we can see the excess of violence our past sins have caused—arousing our guilt and inspiring true repentance. In the same way, the excess of evil done to Jesus is meant to arouse guilt at our fleshly nature (in Paul’s sense) and inspire transformation and repentance, like the soldier at the cross in Mark (Truly this is the son of God) and Luke (Truly this was an innocent man). Recall the daddy long legs and sportfishing imagery I gave above. Early Christian testimonies reflected in the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian are also cognizant of the peculiar details of the final demise of the scapegoat in the wilderness.
I tend to think the main thrust of the theology surrounding Jesus’ death is moral influence rather than penal substitution. For example, with Luke, Ehrman comments that:
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 [emphasis mine]. (Ehrman, 2017)
Everyone is familiar with the vicarious atonement understanding of the cross, the idea that I deserved the cross, but Christ went in my place, even though it reduces to any numbers of absurdities (e.g., what did I ever do to deserve capital punishment?!). This isn’t the place to argue this fully, but Luke typifies the “father forgive them” approach rather than a punishing God penal substitution model. This seems to be main the theology behind the cross in the New Testament, not penal substitution, but rather moral influence where Jesus’ death and suffering convicts our hearts and lets us see ourselves in those who wrongly killed specially chosen one Jesus.
I have been using the idea “guilt leading to repentance,” but “guilt” in English misses the mark somewhat. The reader of Luke-Acts isn’t supposed to think “I killed Jesus” any more than me reading about the feeding of the Christians to the lions by the Romans for sport is meant to make me think I killed those Christians. Rather the point is overcoming an evil conscience, in that while I find what the Romans did for entertainment horrific, I understand that if I had been born a Roman at that time, I probably would have been cheering along with everyone else at the Christians getting mauled. The same is true of those who killed Jesus. The gospels are meant to have us see ourselves in those who brought about Jesus’ death (and all the disciples who failed him and fled at the arrest, or denied him like Peter). It’s the opposite of Aristotelian purging catharsis, although English and Greek don’t seem to have an appropriate word: something like imputing a swelling guilt-ness that results in conspicuous festering. This is the higher figurative meaning of Matthew 27:25: “25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Here it is not simply anti-Jewish condemnation, since Matthew is a Judaizing of the gentile gospel of Mark. So, the issue is a circumcision of the fleshly (in Paul’s sense) from the heart, awakening the law written on our hearts and a transformation of one’s very nature, and so Paul struggles:
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that the good does not dwell within me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do the good lies close at hand, but not the ability. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that, when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am enslaved to the law of God, but with my flesh I am enslaved to the law of sin.
Sins being made conspicuous, either by being pointed out or experienced, is a great source for repentance. As Paul says, in sharp contrast with the bad behavior that he was speaking to when he initially wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:2), we read:
8 For although I grieved you with my letter, I do not regret it. Although I did regret it (for I see that that letter caused you grief, though only briefly), 9 now I rejoice, not because you were grieved but because your grief led to repentance, for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:8-10)
Key Summary: In Mark, the scapegoat imagery seems to be contrasting Jesus with Barabbas. So, with Jesus also as scapegoat (2 Corinthians 5:21) there is a caricature understanding lampooning a superficial idea of the scapegoat Barabbas as escaping and carrying away / paying the sin debt as penal substitution, which is foolish, and a deeper level of meaning in seeing what we did to Jesus through the excessive unnecessary suffering of the scapegoat as it crashed down the cliff, which leads to guilt/repentance.
For one thing, though often assumed by interpreters, there is in fact no inherited sin debt in Christianity. We get that idea from Augustine who was using a Latin translation which in turn was based on a flawed Greek manuscript. Although the human condition (suffering, death, and a universal tendency toward sin) is accounted for by the story of the Fall of Adam in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, the Hebrew Scriptures say nothing about the transmission of hereditary sin to the entire human race. Michael S. Heiser points out that Romans 5:12 doesn’t say man is born morally guilty before God because of Adam, but rather inherited the condition of death and can’t avoid sinning in life. Just as for the Romans the arrival of Greed led to the “Fall” in the primitive past of Rome, for the Jews Death, the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin brought a whole host of problems to the human condition (e.g., If I’m just going to die anyway, I might as well ignore God’s burdensome laws and eat, drink, and be merry). Moreover, there can be no true forgiveness of sins without repentance—because otherwise the forgiving must be done endlessly because the unrepentant person will just keep sinning. A cross without repentance is of no effect. And so, even in early Roman law an innocent person was allowed to take upon himself the penalty of another only if the other had confessed his own guilt. Crossan points out there seems to be scapegoat Hebrew Scripture typology here:
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)
The idea then in our earliest gospel, Mark, was that Christ’s sacrifice discloses the guilt of the crowd, religious elite, and indifferent-to-justice Pilate who we are to see ourselves in, and hence inspiring repentance—the figurative meaning of the soldier declaring the crucified Jesus the son of God, like Luke declares him innocent. The holy spirit discloses your guilt to you, so that once the playing field is levelled you are free to continue sinning if you want, in which case you would be lawfully condemned by God. This is what Hebrews means when it says:
26 For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins 27 but a fearful prospect of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26-27)
Hence when Mark says blaspheming the holy spirit is the one unforgiveable sin, he means it in the sense of breaking the third commandment knowingly, which I discuss below. Mark writes: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). Clearly, if Carrier is right and sin debt/penal substitution is the right interpretation, and the death of Jesus “atone(s) for all sins once and for all” (Carrier, 2020, p. 168), then why would such a death not wipe away the sin of blaspheming the holy spirit?
Blaspheme here doesn’t mean cursing or swearing, but as we will see below, it means perverting and misrepresenting the will of God. Specifically, if you have experienced that the cross of Christ has made your sin nature conspicuous and yet you persist in sin, then obviously there is a problem for your judgment by God because then you can’t blame ignorance or the Devil for your persistence.
It’s increasingly thought that Mark read Paul, and so the soldier saying at the cross truly this is God’s son/an innocent man in Mark and Luke may be foreshadowing Paul’s success with the gentiles. This arousal of guilt which leads to repentance is a moral influence understanding of the cross as opposed to a penal substitution one. The Hebrew scriptures are clear that God is ultimately interested in a contrite heart, not sacrifices (Psalm 51, Jeremiah 7, Amos 5, Micah 6, Hosea 6:6). Jesus as the special emissary of God is not a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath and demand for justice, but a sacrificial offering for God and from God to man to help man see he is in bondage from the Devil God created and to offer a way out.
In summary, scapegoat/moral influence theology informs the historicity question. Carrier argues the first Christians thought Jesus was never on Earth and was crucified in outer space by sky demons, but this doesn’t account for the moral influence realization of guilt that inspires repentance, because how does a crucified celestial entity convict me of guilt? Ironically, Carrier’s highly idiosyncratic interpretation depends on the traditional conservative evangelical penal substitution/vicarious atonement reading of the cross, whereas the moral influence component is ignored. Hence, Carrier wrongly writes:
And here likewise being “revealed” to Peter would have been the risen Christ Lord, now explaining to him that God’s first created archangel (the very “image of God” himself) had just secretly undergone a cosmic incarnation, death, and resurrection at the hands of Satan and his minions above (the “archons of this eon”) to atone for all sins once and for all, and thereby usher in the end of days. (Carrier, 2020, p. 168)
As I said, the Barabbas scene seems to be satirizing the average, everyday understanding of the Jewish scapegoat practice by showing the absurdity of it if a Roman was doing it: The idea that Pilate, the supposed representative of Roman justice in the region would break Roman law and free Barabbas, a known murderer of Romans, because Pilate had a “custom” of doing that to please the crowd is absurd. Pilate is known to have been particularly cruel, not lenient or crowd pleasing. This is analogous to the Jewish customs/traditions of man that perverted God’s will for Jesus to restore the Davidic throne, and the elite and crowd got Jesus killed by finding a loophole in God’s will, supposedly outsmarting Him, asking Pilate to kill Jesus even though God forbid the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus themselves.
One note before proceeding. We are here assuming for the sake of debating mythicism that the death of Jesus originally had theological meaning. One of the problems with mythicism is it needs to see sin debt payment everywhere, while ignoring the moral influence cross most evident in Luke and John, and even the point that most primitive Christianity seems to have no salvific meaning to Jesus’ death at all. We see this lack most conspicuously in Q, Luke, and also traces in Mark with the point in Mark that if the idea was for Jesus to suffer or die, the disciples wouldn’t have gotten violent at the arrest. It was obviously a problem for Mark that Jesus hadn’t known of the centrality the crucifixion would play in the early church, so Mark invents the apologetic that Jesus did in fact predict his death multiple times in plain terms (Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10:32-34), but the disciples absurdly/bafflingly didn’t understand what he was saying.
In any case, regarding guilt and moral influence with Jesus, we really have to stress the illegal nature of what is satirically presented as happening to Jesus with his trial and death, such as we see in The Illegal Trial of Jesus by Earle L Wingo. For instance, in the mythicist movie The God Who Wasn’t There, Price points out the absurdity of presenting the Jewish Supreme Council meeting on Passover Eve to deal with Jesus (16:50ff). When the Sanhedrin took Jesus before Pilate hoping for a death sentence to be carried out according to Roman law, they changed the charges from blasphemy to treason, which was illegal under the Law of Moses. Scholars estimate those conducting Jesus’ trial broke at least 18 of the Mosaic laws that were meant to protect the accused, characterizing it as an illegal trial where Jesus was fraudulently convicted:
- The testimony of an accomplice was not allowed. Therefore, Judas could not accuse or witness against Christ.
- The accused could not be questioned by a private individual. Christ was taken to Annas (Caiaphas’ father-in-law and the former high priest) and then Caiaphas.
- No legal proceedings could take place at night.
- The Sanhedrin (Jewish judges) could not bring charges. Witnesses had to do that. But indeed, the Sanhedrin brought charges. Then they sought for and brought in false witnesses.
- Capital offenses could not be tried on a preparation day for a Sabbath or high holy day and the Passover began the next evening.
- Capital trials had to last more than one day to allow for great consideration on the part of the judges.
- There had to be two or three agreeing witnesses and they had to cast the first stones at the criminal. If witnesses were untruthful, they were to receive the same punishment themselves.
- The accused had to have a “friend in court” to defend him. Jesus had none.
- No one can accuse himself. Jesus agreed that He was/is who He claimed to be.
- The high priest is not allowed to grandstand. Caiaphas rent his clothes and accused Christ of blasphemy.
- The accused must be given ample time to defend himself of any accusations.
- If with a capital crime the decision is unanimous against the accused, the case is actually thrown out. Any members of the Sanhedrin who may have defended Christ were not invited to this court session. The court found unanimously against Jesus, so He should have walked free.
- The trial was held at Caiaphas’ palace instead of at the proper court. The next morning part of the Sanhedrin convened at the proper place to make things look legal.
- Any sort of bribery disqualifies a member of the court. The court bribed Judas to turn on Christ.
- The judges are not allowed to assault the accused.
- When the Sanhedrin took Jesus before Pilate hoping for a death sentence to be carried out according to Roman law, they changed the charges from blasphemy to treason, illegal under the Law of Moses.
It’s interesting how the same event can be claimed as evidence for two conflicting interpretive paradigms. For Price, obviously the Jewish supreme council didn’t meet on Passover eve to deal with the Jesus issue, so this is evidence of the Jesus story as myth. For me, I agree the Jewish supreme council obviously didn’t meet on Passover eve to deal with the Jesus question, but this story element is evidence in favor of the historicity of Jesus for me because those guilty of his death are being satirized as sinful beyond measure—suggesting an historical core of a belief that Jesus had been seen as being treated unfairly by society by his followers. Price comments regarding the illegality of the trial with the Sanhedrin in Mark:
Mark borrowed from Daniel 6:4 LXX the scene of the crossfire of false accusations (Helms, p. 118): “The governors and satraps sought (ezetoun) to find (eurein) occasion against Daniel, but they found against him no accusation.” Of this Mark (14:55) has made the following: “The chief priests and the whole council sought (ezetoun) testimony against Jesus in order to kill him, but they found none (ouk euriskon).” (Price, 2005)
This exaggeration of evil for effect fits exactly with a general presentation of exaggeration for effect: e.g., faith can move a mountain; you can’t follow Jesus unless you hate your family; you have to sell all your possessions and give them to the poor to follow Jesus; a lustful eye is adultery; etc.
As it is the cross and resurrection that awakens us to our sin (1 Corinthians 15:17), the resurrection vindicates Jesus as being a paradigmatic holy man despite the condemnation of the world, and his undeserved suffering with the scourging and cross that allows us to see the evil in the society that condemned him that also resides in us and must be overcome. Socrates’ last words to Crito giving thanks for the poison for his unjust death, like the impaled just man of Plato’s Republic Book 2, serves a similar point.
In fact, the principal offence of the religious leaders in the Jesus story is breaking the third commandment: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Exodus 20:7). Another way you could translate this phrase from the original language is: “You shall not take up the name of God [in vain]” or, “You shall not bear the name of God [in vain].” What this verse is saying is that God’s people are His image-bearers. The same is true for all who follow God. We bear His image (2 Corinthians 5:20). What we do, how we treat others, and what we say tells someone something about Him. Good or bad. The challenge of this verse is to represent God well. The Hebrew word we translate as “vain” carries a meaning of empty, hollow, nothing, worthless, or to no good purpose. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid saying God’s name while cursing, as some think. Rather, that we should be careful how we use His name. The religious elite were misrepresenting the will of God, thus breaking the third commandment. That’s what this commandment is getting at. We are forbidden from taking the name of God (representing Him) in a manner that is wicked, worthless, or for our own gain, like the elite petitioning Pilate to kill Jesus for them, though they knew God forbid the killing.
As we will see below, this is the main interest of the book of Hebrews, not sin/hamartia generally, but Hebrews 9:15 speaks of parabasis/parabaseon (transgression), etymologically a word that comes from parabaino, which is pará, “contrary” and bainō, “go”)—properly, an “overstepping” (bagd); a deliberate going over “the line.” “A stepping over the line” in the New Testament refers to the willful disregard (breaking) of God’s law which defies His drawn-lines (boundaries); an arrogant “overstepping.” For instance, in Matthew we read: “‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:2-3). As the Doherty quote indicated earlier, and as Carrier admits, mythicism makes its stand on the hill of a vicarious blood magic atonement interpretation of Hebrews, because otherwise the sacrifice of a celestial Jesus in outer space makes no sense as redemption.
Duane Aslett points out the trial of Stephen in Acts mimics the trial of Christ on this issue:
The polemical nature of Stephen’s speech serves to show that the charges against him are false and on the contrary, that the audience stands guilty of these charges. The charges of blasphemy against temple and law are committed by the audience in resisting the Holy Spirit, who is the witness of Christ, and betraying and murdering Jesus, who is the Temple and the Law.
Crucifixion was common enough in the ancient Roman empire, so it’s not immediately evident why Jesus’ crucifixion would have mythicist cosmic penal substitution significance. And, since Jesus says John the Baptist was greater than him and the true turning point in history, it is unclear why John’s humiliating death had no vicarious atoning significance but Jesus’ supposedly did. Now, Jesus was supposedly the special anointed one of God who repeatedly proved who he was through countless signs and wonders. Despite this, the incited crowd, corrupt religious elite, and indifferent to justice Pilate executed Jesus as a lowly criminal, mocking his claimed messiahship. It’s not just about what Jesus’ crucifixion did for us, but also what we did to him, the sinful nature in all of us. Recognizing this inspires repentance, which was the whole point of the religion. Mark 4:11-12 says Jesus didn’t want people to repent because of his teaching or simply believe through his teaching. It was only through seeing themselves as culpable in his horrific torture and humiliating death could self-understanding and repentant transformation come. The teaching parables and wonders were just meant to create wonder about Jesus and facilitate fascination with him, so he would be the center of focus when the real point, the crucifixion and resurrection happened.
This is an essential point because it goes right to the heart of the mythicism question. Mark says:
11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables, 12 in order that
they may indeed look but not perceive,
:and may indeed hear but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'” (Mark 4:11-2)
It was not enough to intellectually repent, but to experience one’s sinful nature in his/her very stance toward life. The fundamental point of the gospels is that Jesus, God’s specially chosen one, was unjustly killed by the rulers, but that God had basically tricked the rulers into doing it so Jesus’ story would transform the world—which it did, interestingly enough. Carrier recently has acknowledged this dimension of the cross in the gospels, but denies it in the earliest layers of the Jesus message such as 1 Clement and Paul. He says for 1 Clement:
When they need examples of men of honor being killed by unjust authorities (§45-46), Jesus doesn’t make the list; nor the beheading of John the Baptist or the stoning of Stephen [emphasis mine]. (Carrier, 2022)
Carrier has to deny moral influence cross theology at the earliest level, which as Ehrman says is most conspicuous in Luke, because mythicism only really makes plausible probabilistic sense if the core of the religion is vicarious blood magic atonement, since how does a celestial Jesus who was never on Earth and crucified by sky demons inspire my self-recognition of sinfulness and be a catalyst for repentance? Clearly, he doesn’t. Carrier is mistaken here, as I show in my other Penal Substitution essay, because Paul clearly implies the human leaders were tricked by God to wrongly torture and execute Jesus:
7 But we speak God’s wisdom, a hidden mystery, which God decreed before the ages for our glory 8 and which none of the rulers of this age understood, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)
Verse 8 suggests the rulers were tricked into crucifying Jesus, which is an irrelevant detail for Paul to be stressing if vicarious blood magic atonement was the issue, but instead was the entire point if the issue was moral influence cross theology. And, clearly the “rulers of this age” above in verse 8 are not sky demons of mythicism, but rather included in the human hearts that didn’t conceive in verse 9. Carrier likes to point to this passage as the rulers of this age (archons of this aion) referring to demons executing Christ, not humans, but this passage needs to be seen in the context of other passages like Ephesians 6:12 which says we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but powers and principalities, and the Devil entering into Judas so that he betrayed Jesus (Luke 22:3-6). The issue is the demonic held control the minds of the human leaders, which the death of Jesus was meant to overcome.
Moreover, if Carrier is being consistent above in his reading regarding 1 Clement, he is using a specious argument from silence strategy about what 1 Clement should have included, but this is hermeneutically unhelpful because Carrier rejects the criterion of embarrassment trying to guess at what would have embarrassed the gospel writers on the very same grounds. Carrier gives a list of biographical examples from the gospels the author of 1 Clement could have cited to bolster his argument, which could imply mythicism, but just as easily could have meant the writer wasn’t aware of the details as they had not been researched and collected in gospels yet (Carrier takes the minority position that 1 Clement is pre-Mark), or the author simply didn’t feel like writing in a Jesus biography citational way. It makes perfect sense a moral influence cross is present in Paul because Mark (as Carrier concedes) appears to be adopting what he found in Pauline theology, and hence we get the soldier in Mark at the cross acknowledging Jesus dying to expose the corrupt system and that he was truly the son of God / And an innocent man for the soldier in Luke for whom Paul was the great hero of the faith in Acts. Also, are these scenes not the essence of Mark and Luke acknowledging the success of Paul with the pagans?
Sticking with Carrier’s analysis of 1 Clement, he objects that the words of Jesus in the letter/homily are only scripture citations, not referencing anything we find in the gospels:
Sayings of Jesus are quoted, but never anything from the Gospels; rather they simply quote the Old Testament …, as in §8, §22, §24-26, §30, §45, or otherwise unknown sayings [emphasis mine]. (Carrier, 2022)
Again, Carrier is arguing against himself because it is well known ancient historians would invent dialogue for famous people’s sayings and speeches because the actual words were unknown. 1 Clement is not purely quoting scripture, so there are also sayings not from scripture which suggests a possible historical source. In any case, mythicism is clearly not more probable here because a variety of sources are being used, not simply inventing out of scripture. This makes just as much sense out of historicism as it does mythicism, since if Carrier is right that 1 Clement predates Mark, then it is from a time prior to when we have evidence that the biography and sayings of Jesus were researched and recorded.
(4) Carrier and the Rank-Raglan Mythotype
Now, as to the mythical nature of Jesus in the New Testament as a whole, Carrier argues if we collected together all the figures who were as heavily mythologized as Jesus and put their names in a hat, the likelihood of drawing the name of a historical figure would be 1/3. Carrier concludes Jesus more likely didn’t exist than did. This defense has been used by Carrier for years, the Rank-Raglan mythotype, and has not persuaded the scholarly community because the assigning of a “type” to Jesus in this manner is arbitrary. We could just as easily call Jesus a messianic claimant type, all of which from that time period existed in history.
Moreover, this suggests Jesus saw himself in these traditional messianic terms as their leader. Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t make him a messiah any more than it makes him a baseball player, so messiahship probably would have been claimed by Jesus during his life.
(5) John the Baptist
Further, it is interesting that Carrier simply rules out of court passages that seem historical, like Jesus’ relation with John the Baptist. Regarding John the Baptist, James McGrath (2022) points out that we read:
- “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28).
- “The Law and the Prophets were until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is being proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force” (Luke 16:16).
You can see the problem for Jesus mythicism here, since it’s hard to imagine the early church inventing Jesus saying that John the Baptist was greater than Jesus, or that the turning point in history was John, not Jesus. We also have John questioning who Jesus was, which would be an odd thing to invent.
(6) A Foolishness for the Gentiles
Another very important point is reconciling how Carrier can claim Jesus is just another dying/rising God if the gentiles considered Christ crucified a foolishness? Paul says the crucified Christ was a stumbling block for the Jews and a foolishness for the gentiles. The usual reading is perfectly plain here: Christ crucified was a stumbling block for the Jews because the messiah was supposed to show up and liberate the Jews and overthrow the world powers, not be executed by them. And it was a foolishness for the gentiles because Peter and company were arguing a dead peasant from backwater Nazareth had been raised to a position equal to God. Moreover, from a pagan perspective, strong gods required service from people in order to be rewarded. Only the weakest of gods would serve mortal humans, especially in death. For sake of argument, even if Carrier is right and Jesus was just another common dying rising God, Carrier is still wrong because Jesus wouldn’t have been absurd to the Gentiles.
Moreover, as we can see, even if intellectual gentiles may have found the belief that gods appear as men on Earth silly, this still means Paul was arguing Jesus appeared as a man in history, which is a problem for mythicism. You can’t argue, as Carrier does, Jesus was just another dying/rising god prevalent in the gentile word, but at the same time that Christ was a foolishness to the gentiles, and especially the gentile intellectual elites.
Key Idea: Carrier points out that for the masses the gods were taught to have been on Earth, but the intellectuals knew otherwise. But, there is only a seeming parallel here. Why? As I said, if the gentile elites regarded gods on Earth as a foolishness, and they saw Paul’s teaching about Christ as a foolishness, then the most natural explanation is Paul was teaching Christ lived on Earth! And, following McGrath, reading godhood/archangelhood back into Paul’s Jesus as Carrier (and even Ehrman does in How Jesus Became God) does doesn’t really work either, because Paul says Jesus was highly exalted and received the divine name/title after he died. He didn’t already have it. In fact, early Christian critic Celsus pointed out Jesus was not like the pagan gods.
(7) Jesus the Messiah
Pressing the critique of mythicism further, as I said it is instructive that Jesus’ followers thought he was the Messiah, because nothing we are told of his life would make him out to be a messiah, and being resurrected doesn’t make him a messiah any more than it makes him a hockey player. So, the reasonable inference is that Jesus proclaimed himself as a Jewish Messiah during his life in the apocalyptic sense that he would sit on the thrones when the kingdom of God was soon established on Earth. Paul and Mark thought the apocalypse and judgement were imminent, so people needed to repent and get right with God.
As McGrath has claimed for years in various media that unlike mythicists who claim Jesus was invented out of haggadic midrash and mimesis of Old Testament and Greek literature, in many ways the New Testament writers are uncomfortably shoehorning a historical Jesus into prophesies, like Jesus being from Nazareth, but a complicated story is invented to make him born in Bethlehem. Our earliest sources have Jesus as a person descended from David who will restore the Davidic crown, and this has augmenting legend piled on with the miraculous birth in Matthew, to the incarnation with John. As McGrath says, why would you invent a story that Jesus was going to restore the Davidic throne but then doesn’t do it in any visible sense?
(8) Jesus the First Fruits
Commenting briefly on apocalypticism mentioned earlier, For Paul, following the Pharisee worldview, the resurrected Jesus is the first fruits of the of the general resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the age in preparation for the final judgment, “first fruits” obviously pointing out the similar humanity with Jesus and the rest of the harvest (humanity). Clearly, the first fruits of an apple harvest are not carrots. Jesus was like other humans, not God or a great angel.
Part 2: Reflection and Analysis
The whole of the mythicist argument falls apart if you can’t ground it in vicarious substitutionary atonement theology, because otherwise what significance does the death of a celestial being who had never been on Earth have? Carrier wants to read penal substitution theology off Hebrews as the ground of his sin/debt interpretation, but this is questionable. The death of the pure animal is meant to sanctify the place so God could dwell among a sinful people. Moreover, we can clearly see how an earthly crucified Jesus would be effective here as the false scapegoat mentioned earlier, but the celestial Jesus crucified by sky demons of mythicism can hardly fit here as a catalyst for imputing guilt and so a heart becoming contrite and birthing a good conscience out of an evil one. Let us consider the theology of Hebrews to determine whether it better fits a historicist model, or a mythicist one.
Carrier’s own thinking on the Levitical background of Hebrews appears undeveloped on this point, on a number of issues. He says:
In the real Yom Kippur, every year two identical goats would be selected, and upon one all the sins of Israel would be cast, and it would be released to die in the wilderness, while the other would be sacrificed and its blood atone for those sins. (Carrier, 2020, p. 121)
If this is the case, why is the pure sacrificial goat necessary if the impure scapegoat carries away sins, and to the reverse, why would you need a scapegoat if the sacrificial goat erased the sins? Carrier says in Mark the crowd incorrectly chooses Barabbas as the scapegoat, when it is really Jesus (Carrier, 2014, p. 407), though oddly Carrier repeatedly says in many other places Jesus is the immolated pure goat, not the scapegoat. So, there seem to be some interpretive knots here Carrier needs to untangle for himself to present a clear reading of the Yom Kippur background of Hebrews (and early Christianity generally). All the same, Carrier sees Jesus as a once and for all blood magic sacrifice, so let’s proceed as though Jesus is both sacrifice goat, and scapegoat, though if I’m reading him correctly Carrier sometimes only sees Jesus as the pure sacrifice and others as both sacrifice and scapegoat.
To begin, Leviticus 16:5 says the two goats constitute a single offering, and it seems Jesus is meant as both the sacrifice that is presented to God and the false scapegoat that takes away sin (Isaiah 53:4,5; Matthew 8:17; 1 Peter 2:24) so it can ultimately be transferred from humanity to Satan, who is the real culprit/scapegoat—since once the good conscience/Law written on our hearts is awakened, we basically have a revulsion/allergy to sin. Carrier calls Jesus the atonement goat and Barabbas the scapegoat to illustrate Christian appropriation of Yom Kippur, but since the Levitical background sees both as necessary for purification, it’s unclear how Jesus would function in Hebrews if the scapegoat imagery is not present, since Hebrews assumes a Levitical background.
To begin with, Hebrews is not about concerned with vicarious sin payment of all and any sins whatever. The author of Hebrews indicates that Jesus came to redeem sin, that is, to redeem the parabasis/parabaino type of sin. As I said, this includes the religious elite who perverted God’s will by advocating for the death of Jesus even though God’s law forbid execution in this case. And, in terms of culpability, the elite believed that they were in the right, knowing more than God. The Mishna Yoma 8 comments that:
Furthermore, for transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person. Similarly, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught that point from the verse: “From all your sins you shall be cleansed before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person.
When we blindly adopt the conservative evangelical interpretation of blanket salvation by grace, we turn the Jewish notion of sin into a nebulous general concept of “bad mojo” that seems to apply to everything. By contrast, as Matthew says, while Yom Kippur addresses sin that man commits against God, it does not address the sin that man commits against his fellow person: “15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15; see also Eleazar ben Azariah commenting on Leviticus 16:30). There is a caricature of Christianity that says all that is required is belief, but even the Devil believes who Jesus is, and yet is not saved because of how he harms man. Matthew 6:15 says that sin between man requires action between man before it can be forgiven by God.
More specifically still, Jesus came to redeem the sin of misusing the law. It is this issue that concerns the author of Hebrews. “Forgiveness” here in Hebrews is the word aphesis, which means being released or delivered from captivity, not “I sinned. I’m sorry. Please erase the transgression from your tally book.” It not only requires that the liberator unlock the chains; it also requires that the liberated run away from what had chained them. Jeremy Myers comments that unlike forgiveness as charizomai which has to do with getting into heaven, aphesis forgiveness as release has to do with escaping bondage in this life. Myers comments:
[W]e all still struggle with the consequences of sin in our lives and in our relationships. The biblical answer to this problem is to first of all recognize that we have the gracious and loving forgiveness of God, but then to admit to God that we have actually messed up our lives by failing to live according to His instructions, and then seeking to take steps and make changes which allow us to live according to God’s will. The biblical words for what I have just described are confession (admit, agree) and repent (turn from sin and turn toward obedience). When we do this, we receive release (aphēsis) from the captivating power of sin in our lives. When understood this way, we see that aphēsis forgiveness has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not a person goes to heaven when they die. Aphēsis forgiveness is about whether or not we live in bondage and enslavement to sin here and now in this life. This sort of forgiveness is not about whether or not God “forgives” us. He does and He has! No, seeking to gain release (aphēsis) from our sins through confession and repentance is about whether or not we gain freedom from the destructive power of sin in our lives which seeks to wreak havoc in our lives, our health, our marriages, our family, our finances, our jobs, and pretty much everything else.
Hebrews 9:22 says without blood there is no forgiveness of sins—sort of. What it actually says, with slight editing, is that “22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and [under the law] without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This is talking about the Old Covenant, and thus Carrier misuses this passage to argue for blood magic atonement in the New Covenant.
But, there’s more. Under the old covenant blood atoned for or “covered” sins temporarily, but the blood of Jesus sealed the new covenant that for all time the story of Jesus’ death was an exemplary catalyst for a contrite heart. As I said, the word for forgiveness here is actually aphēsis, which as I said Myers points out does not mean “forgiveness” in the way that modern, English-speaking people think about forgiveness. Instead, aphēsis is something closer to “deliverance” or “release.” Christ delivers us from our trespasses. It has in mind the picture of someone who is enslaved and in chains, and someone else comes along with the key to unlock them and set them free. Hebrews 2:14-15 says Jesus defeated the Devil through death, who was holding humanity hostage through fear of death (see Wisdom of Solomon 2:24). Paul adds that the Devil will not just be finally destroyed by Jesus, but will be crushed under the feat of the believing humans, breaking free from the Devil’s grasp and resisting him. Sinful man is the source of the Devil’s power because a sinful heart spreads to others like a disease, and the cross is the means of stripping him of that power. How would a penal substitution interpretation of the cross disarm Satan? Obviously it couldn’t. Contra mythicism, Jesus is fully human and fully divine (Hebrews 4:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28:), an elder sibling to man who shared human experience and a high priest who intercedes on behalf of others (Hebrews 10:19-31; 12:3-8).
Even under the Old Covenant, for the author of Hebrews 9:22 there is purification apart from blood, which fits Leviticus. There would have to be purification apart from blood, since some families would be too poor to purchase an animal, or live too far from the temple to make the sacrifice. So, the issue isn’t blood magic as Carrier thinks, but the blood of Christ is figuratively sprinkled on the heart through encountering his unjust crucifixion to awaken the law written on it and inspire guilt and so repentance (Hebrews 9:11-12, 12:24). Eisenbaum comments “Jeremiah was suggesting that the Torah would be renewed after the Babylonian exile by being implanted in people’s hearts or minds so they could instinctively observe it; therefore they would no longer and there would not be another exile (Eisenbaum, JANT 476 Note).” The principal problem with the animal sacrifice system is that it can’t remedy and perfect the conscience of the person (Hebrews 9:9).
Myers comments that:
If we went back to read the Levitical law, we would see that purification and forgiveness was extended under a variety of circumstances, including the washing with water (Lev 15:16-17; 17:15), anointing with oil (Lev 14:29), burning flour (Lev 5:11-13), giving money (Exod 30:11-16), or releasing an animal into the wild (Lev 16:10).And in fact, when it comes to intentional sins, there was no offering of any kind which was prescribed by the law. All the sacrifices and offerings of the law are for unintentional sins only. (Myers, 2015)
People didn’t generally seek forgiveness for wrongs they did intentionally, and so an absence of repentance prevented forgiveness (just like lack of belief prevented Jesus from doing great works in his home town).
Liane Feldman comments that the animals of the Yom Kippur ritual are each meant to address two different kinds of sin:
The Day of Atonement ritual as a whole is designed to remove the accumulated contamination, caused by the impurities and sins of the Israelites, from the tabernacle. This contamination was understood to physically accumulate in the tabernacle, and different types of contamination required different procedures for removal. The scapegoat is part of one such procedure and has a specific function: to remove the contamination caused by the intentional sins of the Israelites from the tabernacle complex by physically carrying the contamination into the wilderness. The scapegoat is laden with the Israelites’ iniquities and sent to Azazel after the priests complete the two other purification offerings in this ritual. As the scholar Jacob Milgrom has argued, the first two purification offerings serve to clean up and remove contamination caused by the impurities and unintentional sins of the Israelites; however, their intentional sins cannot be removed in the same way. In fact, the contamination caused by intentional sins is so severe that it cannot be neutralized at all. Instead, it must be physically relocated to a place far away from Yahweh and his tabernacle. This is why the scapegoat exists…. Despite the fact that it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible, the idea of a scapegoat existed throughout the ancient world. Scapegoat-like figures are present in several Mesopotamian and Hittite texts that predate the Hebrew Bible. This concept also appears in the New Testament and is used in at least two places to describe Jesus, the Gospel of John (John 18:14) and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 9:11-10:18). (Feldman, n.d.)
Similarly, Christ in Hebrews is going to be dealing with a particular kind of sin: parabaino/parabasis sin. Commenting on the above passage from Hebrews 10, Henk Bergsma clarifies:
Just as the scapegoat carried away the people’s sins and iniquities into an uninhabited land, Christ carried away the sins and iniquities of His people. Those sins and iniquities will never be found again. Once Christ, the Scapegoat, carried them away, they are gone for good; God will remember them no more: “And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17) (Bergsma, 2011, p. 4)
So, Carrier seems to be missing a key part of the Yom Kippur theme when he says Jesus is the sacrificial goat, but not the scapegoat. My solution is there are two senses of “scapegoat” at work here: a popular silly escape one illustrated by Pilate releasing Barabbas, and a more profound torture one illustrated by Jesus.
Hebrews uses the figurative language of Jesus sprinkling his blood on the heavenly place to suggest the purifying of the kingdom of God inside the believer. Crossan talks of the “end” or eschatology not as God destroying the Earth, since God made the promise there would be no repeat of the flood, but rather the key to the general resurrection at the end of the age is resurrection faith being not simply Jesus’ appearances + the empty tomb. In this way, the apocalyptic interpretation of early Christianity can be seen as destruction in an exoteric sense, but we need to push through to an esoteric meaning of personal and societal transformation. Rather, Jesus prepared the disciples for the inbreaking of the eschaton in the resurrection by announcing during his lifetime that the kingdom had already begun. Caesar Augustus was the incarnation of Roman theology as the epitome of mercy inspiring right behavior, while Jesus was the incarnation of Jewish self-sacrifice, inspiring hope. As I said, Augustus, for all the lofty ideals, pacified through laws and informants, while Jesus pacified through love.
So, the resurrection appearances of Jesus are spiritual as James D. Tabor, Carrier, and others point out, not just a resuscitated corpse. And so, we see Paul talking of the pneumatikos or spiritual resurrection, which we see preserved in Acts where Paul has a visual experience that no one else sees. Does this mean the traditional interpretation of the first Christians trying to sell a bodily raised Jesus is wrong? By no means, there are two levels: (i) The bodily raised Christ of the empty tomb, and (ii) the spiritual body Christ that is earthly corpse transformed (metamorphosis in Paul’s language, e.g., 2 Corinthians 3:18, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:44). A metamorphosis is not readily meaning discarding the old and becoming the new; rather it is something changing and becoming something else, the dead body changing into a spiritual one. Hence, regarding metamorphosis:
Metamorphosis was a familiar concept from Ovid’s play, “Metamorphosis.” The play was completed about the same time Jesus was born. So, in the world around the earliest Christians this idea of metamorphosis was common. In it characters are changed, not only in form, but in substance, in essence. Narcissus really becomes a flower. Arachne really becomes a spider. Scylla really becomes a seabird. Niobe really becomes a rock. Metamorphosis didn’t just change what you looked like, but changed what you are.
The animated corpse is one meaning expressing life after death and the end of the age with the kingdom of God to be established on Earth, and the spiritual meaning being the transformation of the heart, the breaking in of the kingdom of God inside you. Let’s see this in Hebrews.
Jesus, the High Priest, figuratively sprinkled His own blood in the Holy Place in Heaven (Hebrews 9:11-12, 12:24). This means the blood of Christ is sprinkled on our hearts birthing an opportunity for true repentance, “22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). The Psalmist says: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Paul gives the image of God circumcising humans’ hearts. Uncovering the holy heart from its sinfulness is precisely the element we also see in good gentiles. In this way, we read: “9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15).
The kingdom of God is within, hidden even in the hard hearts of the Pharisees (e.g., Luke 17:21 NKJV—the adverb εντος [entos], meaning inwardly, or when used substantially: the inside, as opposed to εκτος [ektos], outerly or the outside). Many more modern translations than the NKJV, such as the NRSVUE, render “entos” here in Luke 17:21 as “among you” as a better translation choice, although “within” or “inside” is listed as a possible alternative translation. In this case, the preferred choice of the NRSVUE as “among” is incorrect because, analyzing Luke 17:21, if the verse says that the kingdom of God is neither “here (hode)” nor “there (ekei),” then obviously it isn’t “among” us: “within” or “inside” us is the better translation, and fits exactly with the New Testament imagery, such as (in Paul) of the heart as the true holy of holies that needs to be circumsized to reveal the law written on it (see also 2 Corinthians 3:3; Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26; Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10). It is the law hiddenly written on our hearts which is awakened by the crucifixion, such as with the soldier at the crucifixion in Mark and Luke (Truly this was the son of God/an innocent man). Our heart is the true holy of holies that resides in our body, which is the temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Corinthians 3:16). Paul teaches us in Ephesians that “Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (3:17). Jesus is not the scapegoat in the sense of tainted with sin who is not worthy of sacrifice like Barabbas, but rather is the pure sacrificial goat (without blemish Leviticus 22:20-21; also priest without sin Leviticus 21:16-21), sinless, as priest expectation in Leviticus and a pure scapegoat (cf. Isaiah 53:4-8). Why is the new covenant in Hebrews sealed by Jesus’ blood? The Levitical sacrifices could not change the hearts of men (Hebrews 9:9-10), but Jesus’ sacrifice completely saves mankind from their sins (Hebrews 7:25), changing them from the inside out (Hebrews 8:10).
Brad Jersak (2022) points out that Hebrews 9:22 says that blood is powerful, and can cover “nearly everything,” but not everything. Obviously if you’re not contrite, ritual is hardly transformative. The blood in Hebrews 9 is brought up in relation to purifying the new temple (moving beyond Moses’ temple), not appeasing God’s wrath (as Jersak and Santo Calarco point out). Hebrews suggests, in contrast with Christ, Moses’ sacrifices were repetitious and ineffectual. God’s wrath or justice is not even brought up here. In fact, Hosea shows specifically that nothing prevents god from forgiving, certainly not God being forced to worship a greater God like Dike/Justice. Hebrews says Christ needed to die to free us from being held hostage by the Devil (Hebrews 2:14-15). In seeing our depravity, so much lower than animals, we see the demonic has a hold of us, like the drunk sees herself being trapped by her addiction, and we work to free ourselves.
The sacrifice of Jesus is not being made to a wrathful God demanding punishment, but an offering of God to man and Himself through Christ to rescue an estranged people in bondage into repentance, and so meaningful forgiveness/freedom from Satanic bondage. In Hebrews chapter 10 God didn’t ask for the blood of animals like in the OT (10:5-7). The blood doesn’t carry away sin as with the scapegoat, but transforms an evil conscience to a good one that will then convict us of our hidden vileness. This is the meaning of the transformation of the soldier saying truly this was the son of God/an innocent man witnessing Jesus suffering horribly for unjust persecutors in Mark and Luke. This is the essence of Jesus saying, not father avenge me, but father forgive them, since they are under the influence of Satan and don’t know what they are doing.
These are the desires and requirements of God. NOT the sacrifices associated with death and violence, but the offering of a God-honoring life. This kind of ‘sacrifice’ was fulfilled most perfectly in the self-offering of Christ … in his God-pleasing life-and-death martyr-witness, even in the face of a corrupt temple establishment. This signals a crucial shift in the text. The blood sacrifice that secures forgiveness re-emerges throughout the rest of chapter 10. But from here on, Jesus is now seen as the High Priest who brings the sacrifice (vis-à-vis the victim being sacrificed). Why is this? The shift is not at all random and should not be overlooked. Christ has given his whole life in obedience to God—doing justice, loving mercy, proclaiming peace, enacting grace—even to the bitter end, when religion and state do what they do: in a murderous self-preserving plot, they choose him as their scapegoat for execution. He becomes the innocent Lamb slain in their illegitimate and unholy sacrifice. But what does Christ do? In obedience to and partnership with his Father, he overthrows the wickedness of their sacrifice by offering himself as the Father’s agent of redemption, extending forgiveness to all. Thus his blood comes to represent the self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love of God—and not the inherent need for appeasement through violence. It is this blood—the gift of self-giving love—that Christ as High Priest uses to sprinkle clean the new temple and inaugurate the new covenant. It is with this blood—this offering of sacrificial forgiveness—that Christ our High Priest enters the Holy of Holies and offers to God. If God is ‘satisfied,’ it is not that his wrath is placated by a sufficiently torturous death, but rather, with the pleasure of a life that so beautifully reflected and ministered God’s own heart [emphasis mine]. (Jersak, 2022)
This is the awakening of the law written on the hearts of not only Jews but also gentiles, as their conscience attests to when they follow the law without having the written law (Romans 2:15). Christ dwells in our hearts (1 Corinthians 3:17). Christ dying ripped the temple curtain in Mark, which means in Paul’s language a cutting away or circumcision of the fleshly from the heart (see Romans 2:29). The traditional reading of the tearing of the veil, which Carrier adopts, is overcoming the temple cult, but this is just an initial stage of interpretation that must be pushed beyond to the higher figurative meaning.
Paul talks about parabasis, ton parabasewn charin, to create transgressions (Strongs NT 3847), i.e., that sins might take on the character of transgressions, and thereby the consciousness of sin be intensified and the desire for redemption be aroused (Romans 5:20; Galatians 3:19). In fact, the apology/defense for God here is that the Law was given in full knowledge the people would pervert it while simultaneously claiming to adhere to it, specifically so Jesus would come on the scene and with his unjust torture and execution reveal their hidden vileness and awaken the law written on their hearts:
“But law came in, so that the trespass might increase, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).” The Law was given “because of transgressions:” its real effect was to provoke and enhance them: “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. 13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin that was working death in me through what is good, in order that it might be shown to be sin, so that through the commandment sin might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:12-13).”
In other words, for instance, the third commandment was given by God knowing full well it would trick the religious elite into trying to outsmart God with the Pilate loophole so they could kill Jesus (even though they thought Jesus’ death was against God’s will), making the religious elite’s hidden sinful nature conspicuous, and hence making possible the work of the cross of Jesus (and the excess of evil that awakened the law on the soldier’s heart). Analogously, in Matthew we read: “28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:28—see also Mark 7:6-8; Matthew 15:3-6).
Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but fulfill it, inspire repentance par excellence (e.g., Jesus says if you lust after a woman you have already committed adultery even if you haven’t acted on it—e.g., Matthew 5:17-18; Romans 10:4). In this way, we read: “You who boast in the law, by your breaking (parabaseōs | παραβάσεως | gen sg fem) of the law you dishonor God! (Romans 2:23).” The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon says Parabasis is a disregarding, violating of the Mosaic law the breach of a definite, promulgated, ratified law. τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν means to create transgressions, i.e., that sins might take on the character of transgressions, and thereby the consciousness of sin be intensified and the desire for redemption be aroused (The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, “Strong’s Number: 3847”; also see Galatians 3:19). The BibleRef commentary is helpful here:
Paul’s answer is that the law was added “because of transgressions.” This is from the Greek word parabaseōn, a word which can mean “breaks, violations, breaches,”…. One purpose of the law may have been to show the Israelites what actions were sinful so they could avoid them. God, in His grace, gave them the law to show His own standards for their right and wrong behavior. Paul may also mean something else by the phrase “because of transgressions,” however. It’s true that the law showed the Israelites God’s standard for right and wrong. More than that, though, the law showed the Israelites that they wanted to do what was wrong and were unable to obey God’s standard perfectly. Or, as Paul put it in Romans 5:20, “the law came to increase the trespass.” God instituted the law, in part, to show the Israelites, and all of us, just how sinful we really are. Only sinful people know they need to be saved from their sin; the law convinces us of how much sin we have to be saved from. Grant Richison comments: “The law is like a mirror that reveals our dirty face so that we can wash it in the blood of Christ. We do not wash our face with the mirror. That is not the purpose of a mirror. The purpose of the law is to show us that we are bankrupt morally…”
Carrier’s mythicism paints the broad stroke that Jesus was never on Earth, but was crucified by demons in outer space which was the ultimate vicarious atoning blood sacrifice magic that once and for all paid the sin debt for a God who demands justice and can’t forgive. Why the original Christians would have thought such a thing is baffling? How does killing an innocent child in Africa for the crimes of a felon in Chicago serve justice? Besides, if there is one thing the God of the Hebrew scriptures can do, it is forgive. The problem is that people can’t be contrite if they don’t see their own vileness. What good is forgiveness if you still have an evil conscience? Christian origins can’t be made sense of without addressing the problem of repentance, which I don’t think Carrier even raises, let alone addresses.
Rather, Jesus is the Yom Kippur sacrificial animal that purifies the heart as the true holy of holies, circumcising the heart and awakening/revealing the law written on the heart in Paul’s sense, and simultaneously as the false scapegoat who we excessively violently kill that dis-closes our satanically inspired sinful nature to us—Jesus offers himself as high priest to undo the mess God created by making Satan/evil. Christ removes the satanic prison of sin holding man hostage by making the human sinful nature conspicuous. This awakens the law written on people’s hearts, and the realization Satan was controlling them. For the good person, this causes horror at their sinful nature and inspires repentance, the act of which transfers sin back from the good person to the Devil, who is the true scapegoat and ultimately responsible here.
The idea is that Jesus was the catalyst, and through learning his story the holy spirit will “convict the world concerning sin (John 16:8).” Paul calls Jesus a blood sprinkled mercy seat (Romans 3:25), a place allowing reconciliation between Holy God and sinful man. Zane Hodges comments that the word translated propitiation in Romans 3:25 is related to, but not the same as, the word hilasmos, translated propitiation in 1 John 2:2 (which Hugo Mendes identifies as a forgery). In Romans 3:25 the apostle uses the word hilasterion (often translated as propitiation or atonement, which in a sense is right since Christ is a sacrifice—but read further). This particular Greek word is primarily used in the Greek OT to render the Hebrew word for mercy seat (kapporet). It also means mercy seat in its only other NT use in Hebrews 9:5. Thus it is very likely that in Romans 3:25 we have this same meaning.
While interpreting theology may not be particularly helpful in gaining information about the historical Jesus, we can still interpret the theology to show that in general it was built on a historicist framework rather than a mythicist one. In the end, one of the main things that we have with early Christianity is a theodicy. God’s previous answer to an evil world was destroying it with a flood and destroying Sodom. Now what we have is a removal of the source of sin, satan, so that people can be fairly judged and have the opportunity to make it into the kingdom that is to be set up on Earth.
If you found this article interesting and would like to read more, here are some related blog posts by me:
- I Get Interviewed on Freethinker Podcast about Mythicism, Atonement, and Gnosticism (and click on the links)
- Septuagint Isaiah 53:4 and Matthew 8:17 (Reflecting with Mako Nagasawa)
- The Law Written on Our Hearts
- Washed in the Blood Of Christ
- Dunn and Ehrman on “Forms” of Jesus in the Philippian Christ Hymn/Poem (Part 1/2) & Dunn and Ehrman on “Forms” of Jesus in the Philippian Christ Hymn/Poem (Part 2/2)
- The Gospel of John on Incarnation
- Mythicism and Method (Part 1/2) & Mythicism and Method (Part 2/2)
For my other two library essays, please see:
- The Justified Lie by the Johannine Jesus in its Greco-Roman-Jewish Context
- A Critique of the Penal Substitution Interpretation of the Cross of Christ
 Examples of the Devil tempting and influencing people include: the Devil entered Judas; “we struggle against powers and principalities not flesh and blood”; Jesus’ ministry starts with the temptations of Satan; and so on.
 There has been recent interest in applying scapegoat typology to Jesus’ death. For instance, see Berenson Maclean (2007) and the reply to it by Hans Moscicke (2018). Berenson Maclean points out that Origen and Jerome associate the scapegoat (and Barabbas) with the Devil, not with Christ; and the scapegoat has demonic connections in numerous Jewish texts (e.g., 1 Enoch and the apocalypse of Abraham). However, Moscicke critiques Berensen Maclean, rightly in my view, that there is no report of ritual abuse of Barabbas in Mark or Matthew. Indeed, Moscicke—following Joel Marcus (1992, p. 188)—points out that the episode may be born out of mimesis/imitation: “Marcus, on the other hand, posits a single, broad correspondence between Isaiah 53 and the Barabbas story: ‘The general plot of the Barabbas episode—a criminal is saved, while an innocent man is handed over to be murdered—as well as the prominence of the verb παραδιδόναι … may mirror Isa. 53.6, 12‘” (2018, p. 78). He continues: “Scholars have increasingly affirmed the impact of Yom Kippur on Matthew’s Barabbas account (27.15-26). As noted above, this creates a theological problem that awaits a more satisfactory explanation: how does Barabbas assume the role of the scapegoat in Matthew’s typology (i.e., bearing Israel’s sins)—or does he? If the First Evangelist portrays Jesus as scapegoat in the following episode of his Roman abuse (27.27-31), how can Matthew present two scapegoats in such close proximity? Is this a contradiction, or do these ‘scapegoats’ have different functions in the evangelists’ narrative and theology?” (Moscicke, 2018, pp. 79-80). I am arguing here that it seems that Matthew is augmenting what we already see in Mark with scapegoat typology: a false scapegoat, Jesus, is being contrasted with a true scapegoat, Barabbas (the Devil). The world sees Jesus as the personification of sin, but they are awakened to see the responsibility for sin transferred on to the Devil.
 For a fuller treatment of a liberal and secular reading of the cross, see my Secular Web pieces “A Critique of the Penal Substitution Interpretation of the Cross of Christ” (2022) and “The Justified Lie by the Johannine Jesus in its Greco-Roman-Jewish Context” (2nd ed., 2022).
 See Heiser’s short YouTube video “Was Augustine Wrong due to a Faulty Translation?“
 Carrier further tries to argue that Paul’s having said that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) is metaphorical, but Tabor points out that this is simply another way of saying that Jesus was human, as the same description was given of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28).
 Martin I. Lockshin shows that the Jewish elite and crowd knew it wasn’t God’s will for them to kill Jesus, so deceitfully they find a loophole that basically perverts the direction that God gives:
All four gospels suggest either implicitly or explicitly that because the Jews were not allowed to punish other Jews who were guilty of blasphemy, they had to prevail on the reluctant Romans to kill Jesus. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, is described as basically sympathetic to Jesus but unable to withstand the pressure from the Jews who demanded Jesus’ execution. This idea is expressed most clearly in the gospel of John: “Pilate said, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your own law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death'” (18:31). (Lockshin, n.d.)
[T]he disciples’ lack of comprehension when Jesus predicts his death is a writer’s creation and the reason behind these pervasive examples at Mark 8:14-21; 9:2-10; 4:39-41; 6:47-52; 10:33-45; 14:68-72 is that they were included with the intention to, ultimately and convincingly, confirm the disciples’ lack of comprehension in regard to Jesus predicting his death [emphasis mine]. (Hur, 2019, p. 42)
 Hebrew etymology/philology reveals the Hebrew לא תשא לשוא is translated as “thou shalt not take in vain.” The word here translated as “in vain” is שוא (shav: ’emptiness’, ‘vanity’, ’emptiness of speech’, ‘lying’), while ‘take’ is נשא (nasa: ‘to lift’, ‘carry’, ‘bear’, ‘take’, ‘take away’; appearing in the second person as תשא). The expression “to take in vain” is also translated less literally as “to misuse” or variants of it. Hebrew Bible passages also refer to God’s name being profaned by the hypocritical behavior of people and the false representation of God’s words or character.
 In terms of incarnation, as Crossan argues, Jesus was seen as the Jewish religion incarnate, paradigmatically the loving widow, orphan, stranger, and enemy, just as Caesar was Roman values incarnate. A basic idea of the mythicist approach is that Jesus cancels out the law with vicarious atonement. But Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Jesus also says that the essence of the law is love of God and neighbor (Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; Matthew 40:37-40). So Jesus fulfills the former by obeying God unto death even though he desperately didn’t want to die (Gethsemane), and fulfills the latter because he sacrificed himself out of love for his fellow people, rescuing them from Satan’s stranglehold on their minds. Again, here we see Jesus imagery that he is a fellow human (love of neighbor), not a celestial deity.
Near the end of the first century, around the same time the Gospels were being written, the Greek scholar Plutarch honored Clea, a priestess of the mysteries of Isis, with a treatise about her religion entitled On Isis and Osiris. In this he explains why her cult had adopted a certain belief about the life and resurrection of Osiris, in the “true” account reserved for those who, like her, were initiated into its secrets. He said the real truth was that Osiris was never really a historical person whose activity took place on Earth, as public accounts portrayed him to be. Osiris was, rather, a celestial being, whose trials and sufferings took place in outer space just below the moon, where death and turmoil reign. Thence Osiris descends every year, becomes incarnate by assuming a mortal body of flesh, and is killed by Set (in Greek, Typhon, the Egyptian analog to Satan). Then he is resurrected—literally undergoing, Plutarch says, an anabiôsis, a “return to life,” and a palingenesia, a “regeneration” (the same word used of the resurrection in Matthew 19:28). From there Osiris ascends back to heaven in glory. (Carrier, 2020, p. 31).
 For example: “14 When gentiles, who do not possess the law, by nature do what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, as their own conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God through Christ Jesus judges the secret thoughts of all” [emphasis mine]. (Romans 2:12-16)
Again, the author draws contrasts to emphasize the superiority of Jesus’ covenant. The most obvious is that the sacrificial system of Moses’ law was earthly, while Christ’s was heavenly (9:23-25). Moses’ sacrifices had to be repeated in perpetuity, while Christ’s was sufficient once and for all (9:26-10:2). And more importantly, Moses’ sacrifices didn’t even work. They were not only repetitious; they were ineffectual. Note this well: under the law, [for the most part] without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. But also, under the law, even with the shedding of blood, there was no forgiveness. Try reading 9:22 and then 10:4 together out loud: (22) The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness … (3) But … (4) it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Jersak, 2022)
What God desires (not demands) is the offering of sacrificial obedience (not sacrifice for sacrifice sake) given in self-giving love and forgiveness. This is not just the perspective of the author of Hebrews. The author is reminding us that already in the Psalms and Prophets, there is an ongoing, concerted anti-sacrificial critique. God doesn’t need or want animal sacrifices—the sacrifices he wants include a broken and contrite hearts, a life of humility and obedience, and a society marked by justice and mercy. Here’s a sample—please don’t skim this part: Psalm 51, Jeremiah 7, Amos 5, Micah 6 [emphasis mine] (Jersak, 2022)
Hilasmos is a noun from the same family of words, used twice in the New Testament. It is translated “propitiation” (“expiation” in the R.S.V.) in both cases which occur in the First Epistle of John (chaps. 2:2; 4:10). It is clear from the second of these passages that John did not use the word in its heathen or classical sense of that which brings about a change in the attitude of a god, for he says that God Himself was the active party, in that He sent His Son—the propitiation for our sins. …In both places, John uses the preposition peri. This is frequently used in the sense of “for;” but it is an exact translation of the Hebrew word which is used with kipper nine times in the Old Testament and frequently in the Dead Sea scrolls. Although almost invariably translated “make an atonement for,” the combination really means “cover round about,” and may be taken to show the completeness of the process by which sin is separated from the sinner and hidden from the sight of God. (Hyde, 1962, p. 19)
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