As I have discussed in earlier posts (here and here), the venerable Protestant doctrine (and fundamentalist “fundamental”) of penal substitution has fallen on somewhat hard times in recent decades. Characteristic of those who dispute the doctrine is New Testament scholar James McGrath, who succinctly summarizes what he considers the fatal weaknesses of the theologoumenon: it is unbiblical and it is immoral. Consideration of the morality (or otherwise) of the doctrine must await a future post. In the present installment I would like to continue my exploration of central New Testament texts bearing on the issue. Previously I looked at 1 Corinthians 15:3, perhaps the most significant text because it provides, if the Apostle Paul’s word can be trusted, the earliest theological interpretation of Jesus’ death, courtesy of the Palestinian (Jewish) church circa 35 CE (at the latest). In that text, Jesus’ death is proclaimed as expiatory, endured in the execution of his “Messianic” vocation, and hermeneutically controlled by the lens provided by the Hebrew Scriptures. More importantly, it remains a striking fact that, as I said before, “there never was a time in which a non-theological interpretation of Jesus' death prevailed.”[i] This begs the question as to where such an idea originated. Could it possibly, as difficult as this is — humanly speaking — to imagine, have been from Jesus himself? Two texts in the Synoptic Gospels, Mark 10:45 (//Matt 20:28) and Mark 14:24 (// Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25) are prima facie relevant in this regard. In the present post I intend to deal with the former of these, leaving the latter for a subsequent installment.
Mark 10:45 reads as follows:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Not surprisingly, the ink spilled in the interpretation of this text has been, like the spirits afflicting the Gadarene demoniac, legion. Three primary issues, all of which have a direct bearing on the text’s meaning, have dominated the scholarly discussion: (1) the contextual appropriateness of the saying; (2) the possible interpretative horizon provided by (Second) Isaiah (Isa 40-55), particularly the fourth so-called “servant song” (Isa 52:13-53:12); and (3) the authenticity of the saying (i.e., did Jesus actually say something quite like it?).
This verse provides the climax to Mark’s central section, which artfully revolves around three passion predictions (8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34) and is bracketed by two healings of blind men, which the author presents as symbols of Jesus’ disciples initial blindness and subsequent illumination concerning the suffering path Jesus’ Messianic mission would take. Most importantly, in Mark 10:45 Jesus for the first time provides his uncomprehending disciples with the reason why he (“the Son of Man”) had to (δεῖ [dei]) suffer and die.
Traditional exegesis took for granted that Jesus’ saying should be interpreted through the lens provided by Isaiah 52:13-53:12 — in particular, the “Servant of Yahweh” figure who suffers unjustly and vicariously for the sins of the people, whose death functions as a guilt offering, as a consequence of which he is vindicated and “justifies” many. For example, Dick France quotes I. Engnell, who as late as 1948 spoke in his John Rylands lecture of the “indisputable role that the ‘Ebed Yahweh figure and its ideological world played for Jesus and his messianic interpretation of himself.”[ii] Things changed in a hurry, however, when in the 1950s a series of studies by prominent and up-and-coming British scholars strongly questioned the widespread assumption.[iii]
Morna Hooker and (especially) C. K. Barrett marshaled a bevy of arguments against the proposed Isaianic allusion, some stronger than others, but most revolving around the acknowledged fact that the verbal parallels between the two texts are somewhat slim. Hooker adds another, somewhat draconian stipulation: verbal similarities or allusions are insufficient; what is required is explicit application of Isaiah 53 to the meaning of Christ’s death.[iv] Such artificial limitations, however, fail to persuade both at the level of method[v] and in terms of the details of exegesis. Indeed, I believe a careful reading of Mark 10:45 in conjunction with Isaiah demonstrates a deliberate connection between the two passages, justifying the apparent swing of the scholarly pendulum back to a chastened adherence to the traditional view of the passage.[vi] The two relevant linguistic/conceptual connections are as follows:
1. “The Son of Man did not come to be served (diakonhqῆnai [diakonēthēnai]) , but to serve (diakonῆsai [diakonēsai] …”
In English the connection appears, at first blush, to be obvious. The subject of the Isaianic oracle, after all, is designated “my servant” (‘abdî) in Isa 52:13 and 53:11. Upon closer examination, however, what appears obvious at first blush becomes somewhat less than certain. Indeed, the Greek Old Testament (the LXX) uses the noun παῖς (pais), not diάkonoς (diakonos) to translate ‘ebed (“servant”) in these verses. Moreover, when the servant is later said to “serve many” (53:11), the LXX uses the Greek term douleύω (douleuō) rather than the diakonέω (diakoneō) used by Mark. Hence the simple English term “servant” in itself cannot bear the weight of any proposed identification. On the other hand, neither can such bare linguistic data disallow the proposed allusion. For instance, it may not be without significance that the term diάkonoς only occurs 7 times in the LXX. More significantly, Mark uses the terms diάkonoς and doῦloς (doulos [“slave”], cognate to the verb douleύω used in Isaiah 53:11) interchangeably in verses 43-44 to describe the proper stance of Jesus’ disciples, thus demonstrating the synonymous nature of the terms (i.e., “overlapping fields of meaning”) at least in certain contexts. Most importantly, however, the linguistic appropriateness of Mark's language in reference to the task of the Isaianic servant cannot be gainsaid. As Davies and Allison note simply, “diakonῆsai accurately describes what the ‘ebed does.”[vii]
Hooker was right to point to an additional background here in Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13, who is “served” (douleύsousin) by all peoples and languages (7:14). The Markan Jesus’s point here is thus seen to be deliberately ironic. Far from rejecting the Danielic scenario, Jesus is reinterpreting it through the lens of Isaiah 53. Better, the dominion exercised by the “son of man” of Daniel’s vision must be attained by virtue of his having previously undergone the vicarious or representative suffering described in Isaiah 53. That this is Mark’s intention is all the more likely in view of his narration of Jesus’ baptism, where the voice from heaven identifies Jesus in such a way that his Davidic Sonship is qualified by an allusive identification with the Servant of Isaiah (Mark 1:11).[viii] In other words, it is Jesus' role as the Suffering Servant that must be allowed to qualify the naive, triumpahalist understandings of his explicitly kingly roles to which the Jews of his day, chafing under Roman rule and still, in a real sense, in "exile," were prone.
2. “… and to give his life (doῦnai tὴn yucὴn aὐtoῦ [dounai tēn psyche autou]) as a ransom ([lύtron [lytron]) for many (ἀntὶ pollῶn [anti pollōn]) …”
Conceptually, the phrase “to give his life” closely matches the thought found in Isaiah 53:10 (“when you make his ‘soul’ [MT = נפשGk. yucὴ]) and Isaiah 53:12 (“because he poured out his soul to death”). More controversial, however, is the possible connection between Mark’s lύtron (“ransom”) and Isaiah’s אשם (’āšām, “guilt offering”). Noting that the noun lύtron is not found in Isaiah 53, and that it never is used to translate אשם in the LXX (where it regularly translates גאל and פדה ), both Hooker[ix] and Barrett[x] deny a connection, even claiming that the two terms occupy divergent semantic fields (’āšām relating to guilt and expiation, lytron speaking of equivalence and compensation).[xi]
Things are not so simple, however. For, as all acknowledge, the primary concern of Isaiah 40-55 is to announce the return of Israel and Judah from exile, which return the author portrays as a Second Exodus and as a redemption (e.g., Isa 41:14; 43:1, 14; 44:22-24; 52:3) akin to his prior deliverance of the nation from servitude to Egypt. Indeed, the literary structure of Isaiah 52-54 is telling:
- 52:1-12 — Exhortation to prepare for/participate in the New Exodus
- 52:13-53:12 — Fourth Servant Song
- 54:1-17 — Song of Zion’s Restoration
The point is that Isaiah 53 describes the way Yahweh’s servant would bring about the second Exodus and Israel’s promised restoration, to wit, by bearing the covenant curse and guilt incurred by Israel, thereby redeeming her through his suffering and, indeed, death.[xii] When one adds the consideration that Mark 10:45 is one of only three texts involving an object complement construction with the idea of “giving” or “taking” a “life” (i.e., he gave his life as a ransom; cf. also Isaiah 53:10 [MT] and 4 Maccabees 6:29),[xiii] one is inclined to accept the probability that Mark is deliberately alluding to the Isaianic text at this point.[xiv]
The most obvious point of comparison between Mark 10:45 and Isaiah 53 is the striking, idiomatic use of “many” to refer to “all” (or the totality of the “elect”[xv]) who benefit from the work of the Servant (cf. Isa 53:11-12). Barrett demurs, thinking pollῶn too common a term to make such a sweeping assumption of dependence.[xvi] In isolation such a conclusion might be warranted. But the complex web of allusions and conceptual similarities already demonstrated between Mark and Isaiah 53 is almost certainly not coincidental, and has thus caused almost all subsequent scholars to acknowledge a deliberate allusion here. And if so, we can confidently claim that Mark portrays a Jesus who consciously defined his ministry as the fulfillment of the Isaianic servant. In the words of Oscar Cullmann, “It is as if Jesus said, ‘The Son of Man came to fulfill the task of the ebed Yahweh.”[xvii]
That Mark, writing in the 50s-60s CE, should have had a “Servant of Yahweh” Christology is not surprising. After all, as I have previously argued, the traditional formula cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3 likely has Isaiah 53 in mind. Even clearer is the allusion to Isaiah 53:12 in the traditional formula cited by Paul in Romans 4:25 (for details, see here). The question is whether or not it is adequate to attribute such a Christology to the creative genius of the earliest church. That Jesus likely anticipated his eventual martyrdom is generally accepted.[xviii] But did he place an atoning significance on that death prior to the fact? Scholars have been less likely to affirm this point. Long ago the august Rudolf Bultmann lamely attributed the theology of the ransom saying to Hellenistic Christian “redemption” theories.[xix] More circumspectly, J. D. G. Dunn suggests that “the final clause of the Markan/Matthean version (assuming the allusion to the Isaianic Servant) is an elaboration, presumably at an early stage, of the core tradition, in the light of the developing use of Isaiah 53, to illustrate the significance of Jesus’ death.”[xx] But where, I ask, is there any evidence of such a “developing use of Isaiah 53”? It is said that an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption. In the present case, the scales fail to register even a meager ounce, and presumption in such a case is worse than worthless. Indeed, the evidence we have inexorably compels us, as Martin Hengel said, “to push our enquiry back to Jesus himself.”[xxi] In my mind, the only adequate explanation of the evidence is one that attributes the origin of the soteriological interpretation of Jesus’ death to Jesus himself, who interpreted his mission in terms of the ministry of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.
What, then, does Mark 10:45 say about Jesus’ understanding of his death? Two primary features stand out. First, Jesus death was a ransom price. A lύtron (lytron) was the price paid for the manumission of a slave from servitude or a soldier from imprisonment.[xxii] In other words, a “ransom” refers to deliverance by means of a payment of equivalence. Contextually, the point is obvious: apart from Jesus’ death, the “many” could not have been set free from their bondage. And from Isaiah 53:11-12, it is clear that this bondage is, at one level, the bondage of the covenant curse that had led the nation into exile; at another level, it is the bondage to the “iniquities” and sins that characterized them as “transgressors” in need of “justification.” Jesus, in other words, is portraying his death as the necessary means to bring about the promised return from exile/Second Exodus. And, insofar as his death as ransom substitutes for the Gentiles who had been appointed to that role (Isa 43:3-4), it provides the basis for their inclusion in the “many” who benefit from it.
Second, Jesus’ death was substitutionary in character. The substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is implied in its ransoming capacity. But it is explicit in the simple prepositional phrase “for many” (ἀntὶ pollῶn [anti pollōn]). The preposition ἀntὶ is best rendered “in the place of” or “in exchange for.” Jesus’ point is thus very clear: Jesus gave his life in exchange for the forfeited lives of others.
As Davies and Allison note with reference to Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45 leaves a lot of interesting questions unanswered.[xxiii] It offers no developed “theory” of the atonement. But it does portray Jesus’ death as an atonement that operates on the principle of substitution to provide a ransom for sins. In other words, it does not offer a full and developed theology of penal substitution as would later be articulated by the likes of Luther and Calvin. But, not only does it come close to doing so, it also provides the necessary foundation upon which the developed theory might later be constructed. And what it does teach gives the lie to the claim that penal substitution is “unbiblical.”
[i] Cf. also Martin Hengel, The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament (tr. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981) 71.
[ii] I. Engnell, BJRL 31 (1948) 54; cited by R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament: His Application of Old Testament Passages to Himself and His Mission (London: Tyndale, 1971) 110. The classic, and in many respects still the best, defense and exposition of the traditional position is found in Walther Zimmerli and Joachim Jeremias, The Servant of God (rev. ed.; London, SCM, 1965), an update on their famous article in the Kittel-Friedrich Wörterbuch.
[iii] C. F. D. Moule, “From Defendant to Judge — and Deliverer: An Inquiry into the Use and Delimitations of the Theme of Vindication in the New Testament,” in The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1967 ) 82-99; Morna D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1959 ) 74-79; C. K. Barrett, “The Background of Mark 10.45,” in New Testament Essays: Studies in Memory of Thomas Walter Manson (ed. A. J. B. Higgins; Manchester: MUP, 1959) 1-18.
[iv] Hooker, Jesus and the Servant, 155.
[v] Indeed, I would argue that conceptual parallels without direct verbal allusion often indicate a deeper level of coherence, in that such conceptual parallels demonstrate tacit, assumed knowledge shared between two parties. If indeed Mark was writing to Christians in the 50s or 60s who already knew the early church’s teaching about Christ’s death, there was no explicit need to spell out the OT background by direct quotations or allusions to specific terminology.
[vi] The literature is massive, but a few studies stand out. Cf. e.g., Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (tr. Shirley C. Guthrie and Charles A. M. Hall; London: SCM, 1959) 60-69; France, Jesus and the Old Testament, 116-21; Hengel, The Atonement, 56-71; Douglas J. Moo, The Old Testament in the Gospel Passion Narratives (Sheffield: Almond, 1983) 122-27; Peter Stuhlmacher, “Vicariously Giving His Life for Many, Mark 10.45 (Matt. 20.28),” in Reconciliation, Law, and Righteousness: Essays in Biblical Theology (trans. of Versönung, Gesetz und Gerechigkeit; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986 ) 16-29. G. B. Caird and L. D. Hurst, New Testament Theology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 310-16; Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997) 270-84. Among commentators, cf., inter alia, C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel according to St. Mark (CGTC; Cambridge: CUP, 1959) 341-44; Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 586-93; Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 (WBC; Nashville: Nelson, 2001) 119-25); R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 419-21); Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 404; W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988-97) 3:94-100; R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 760-63.
[vii] Davies and Allison, 3:96, emphasis added.
[viii] The combined influence of Daniel 7 and Isaiah 53 on Mark 10:45 has recently been defended by G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) 194-97, 396-98. Cf. also Seyoon Kim, “The ‘Son of Man’” as the Son of God (WUNT; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983) 38-60.
[ix] Hooker, 76-78.
[x] Barrett, 5-7.
[xi] Though Aquila uses the cognate lύtrwsiς to translate אשם in Leviticus 5:18, where, in the judgment of D. Kellermann, אשם means a “compensatory payment” (TDOT, 1:430-33. Cf. also BDB, 79-80..
[xii] On this, cf. especially Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, 155n.135; 277-80.
[xiii] Cf. Gundry, Matthew, 404.
[xiv] This is all the more likely in view of Mark’s programmatic interest in presenting the Isaianic New Exodus as having been fulfilled in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This has been massively demonstrated by Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark.
[xv] As was the sense in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Cf. the discussion by Ralph Marcus, “‘Mebaqqer’ and ‘Rabbim’ in the Manual of Discipline vi, 11-13,” JBL 75 (1956) 298-302. It goes without saying that using such a text to adjudicate discussions concerning “unlimited” or “limited” atonement asks the text answers it was never designed to answer.
[xvi] As an alternative background, Barrett suggested the vicarious atoning effect of the death of Maccabean martyrs found in Hellenistic Jewish texts such as 2 Maccabees 7:36-38 and 4 Maccabees 17:20-22. Cf. Sam K. Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin of a Concept (HDR; Missoula, Mont.: Scholars, 1975) 211-13. There is no need to deny the significance of these texts. Indeed, they provide helpful contemporary evidence that Jews could portray the suffering and death of a human being as having beneficent, even atoning, significance. But the choice, either Isaiah 53 or 2/4 Maccabees, is a false one. Indeed, it has been suggested — rightly, in my view — that the authors of these texts are dependent on Isaiah 53 for their theological ruminations on martyrdom. Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:98.
[xvii] Cullmann, Christology, 65. More than thirty years ago Werner Grimm made the intriguing suggestion that the conceptual background to Mark 10:45 is to be found in Isaiah 43:3-4 (“For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give man in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life”) (Die Verkündigung Jesu und Deuterojesaja [2nd ed.; Frankfurt am Main, Bern: Peter Lang, 1981]) 231-77); cf. also Stuhlmacher, “Vicariously Giving His Life for Many,” 22-26. The verbal parallels are indeed impressive, despite Gundry’s reservations (Matthew, 404; Mark, 592). Indeed, they are, in my judgment, significant enough to make coincidence unlikely. But, once again, one wonders whether an either/or choice must be made. Could it not be that the “many” who are “justified” by the Servant’s vicarious suffering include the Gentiles who, according to Isaiah 43, were to serve as the “ransom” price for Israel’s redemption? (i.e., the obedient suffering and death of the Servant substitutes also for them and effects the redemption of both groups). Cf. Kim, “The ‘Son of Man’” as the Son of God, 55-57; Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus, 282-85.
[xviii] N. T. Wright goes so far as to say that anticipating his ultimate demise at the hands of the Romans “ did not … take a great deal of ‘supernatural’ insight” (Jesus and the Victory of God [ Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996] 610). Dale C. Allison, Jr., after listing 31 texts from every strand of the New Testament, concludes: “They obviously reflect a very widespread belief: Jesus did not run from his death or otherwise resist it. On the contrary, anticipating his cruel end, he submitted to it, trusting that his unhappy fate was somehow for the good” (Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010] 432.
[xix] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (rev.ed.; Oxford: Blackwell, 1972) 144. In fact, such a position is inexplicable in light of such explicitly Semitic/primitive features as the “son of man” title and the “comprehensive” use of “many.” A comparison with 1 Timothy 2:5-6, clearly an adaptation of the logion for a different cultural location, is instructive with regard to the saying’s tradition history: “… the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” This is what the saying would look like had it been articulated originally in a Hellenistic context.
[xx] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Christianity in the Making, vol. 1; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003) 813-14.
[xxi] Hengel, The Atonement, 71. Scholars affirming authenticity include Cranfield, Cullmann, France, Gundry, Moo, Watts, Stuhlmacher, Grimm, Barrett, Hooker, Evans, and Wright.
[xxii] Cf. Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (3rd ed.; London: Tyndale, 1965) 11-64.
[xxiii] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:100.