Most Christians will answer this question with a resounding “Yes, of course.” Wasn’t that the entire reason for Christ’s suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die as a sacrifice to atone for sins that would have otherwise resulted in the death of the sinner? In some sense, the earliest Christ-believers, that is, mostly Jews and some Gentiles of the early-to-mid-first century, would have acknowledged that most of these questions could be answered affirmatively. What they would not have understood, however, was that Christ died for the sins of the world.
The problem here is not one of semantics but of supersessionism in disguise. It is a statement that preferences Christianity over Judaism by either ignoring Judaism or relegating it to nonessential status. How so? The interpretation of Christ’s death as having anything to do with atoning for sins was the unique contribution of the apostle Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). As an observant Jew, Paul was well aware of the various means of atonement for sin already available to Jews. Some of these are spelled out in the Torah, others in the prophets. Atonement was achieved, for example, through repentance, prayer, sacrifice, almsgiving and monetary contributions, fasting, suffering, and even one’s own death (if that death was offered as atonement for one’s own sins). The point is that Jews did not need or await a dying messiah to atone for their sins. There were many alternatives and provisions for atonement as part of Jewish obedience to their covenant requirements.
Beginning in the second century BCE, there did come to exist the notion in Judaism that some righteous Jews suffered and even died on behalf of the Jewish people. This idea arose most notably in the apocryphal/deutero-canonical books of the Maccabees. But this idea was not one in which a dying, righteous Jew atoned for the sins of other Jews. Rather, these Jews underwent the sufferings that were actually threatening all of the people; their deaths vicariously represented the possible fate of all righteous Jews. The historical background to these books of the Maccabees is that the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, had outlawed the practice of Judaism under penalty of persecution and even death. These books relate stories of righteous Jews who refused to give up their religion and way of life even if it meant death for them. They were not dying for Jewish sins. They were dying as representatives of all righteous Jews who were in danger of suffering the same fate. They were seen as martyrs and heroes for that reason. It had nothing to do with Jewish sins.
The work of John the Baptist is often seen by Christians as a response to the need for Jews to make atonement for their sins through baptism as if there were no available alternatives. In light of what was said above, this was hardly the case. Jews were not waiting on John or some other divinely inspired prophet for redemption. From a Jewish point of view, John served to encourage the people to make proper atonement for their sins at that particular time, before it was too late to do so. His ritual washings were either meant to signify the sincerity of the baptizand’s commitment to atone or were themselves meant as yet another means of atonement. In neither case did John bring atonement for sin because there was no means for doing so.
Neither did Jesus’s death satisfy his Jewish followers’ need for a means of atonement. Again, Jews, even followers of Jesus, were not waiting for a messiah to redeem them from their sins. Many awaited a messiah who would triumph over God’s enemies, namely, those foreign oppressors who, for at least the past 500 years, had dominated the Jewish homeland once exclusively designated for them by God. Those Jews with an apocalyptic bent understood that those foreign oppressors were working, knowingly or not, for the leading enemy of God, Satan. The messiah would defeat Satan and all his earthly and non-earthly minions.
Paul, as a Jew, knew all this. He knew that Jews were not waiting for a messiah to bring liberation from their own sins. Remember that Paul did not declare himself apostle to the circumcised. The circumcised did not need the unique gospel message that Paul felt divinely called to bring to non-Jews (though he did believe Jews should acknowledge that his message was valid). Paul’s gospel to the non-Jews proclaimed that Gentiles now had available to them a means of atonement outside the provisions of the Jewish Law. That was a good thing for Gentiles, in Paul’s view, because, as things stood, they could not properly lead righteous lives according to the provisions of Torah without converting to Judaism. God was now calling Gentiles to join his family as adopted Gentile sons and daughters.
This difference in Paul’s message to Gentiles as opposed to Jews is, incredibly, missed by a whole host of mainstream scholars, not to mention most Christian theologians and ministers. One example will have to suffice.
For my Introduction to the New Testament course, I use as our textbook the otherwise excellent A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart Ehrman. I don’t, however, use the chapters on Paul because of statements like this:
“Missionaries like Paul actively propagated the faith, converting Jews and Gentiles to faith in Christ as the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world and then raised by God from the dead.” Bart Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, 4th ed., pg. 47 (italics added).
First of all, the word “converted” is entirely misleading and indicates to many readers that believers of Paul’s message were converting to Christianity. For one thing, Jewish believers in Christ were not converting to anything. They remained Jews even as they accepted Jesus as the Messiah or Christ. Ask yourself: What would they have converted to? There was no Christianity in the days of Paul. Christianity was a development of the second century though obviously having roots in the first. Paul himself did not convert to a different religion – the only alternative available to him was paganism. And, surprisingly to some, pagans did not convert to anything either, notwithstanding the fact that they came to express faith in the God of Israel and his Christ. They certainly did not convert to Judaism (Paul insisted they not do that) and, as we said, there was no religion known as Christianity at that time. They did, however, convert out of paganism – Paul insisted that his non-Jewish audience reject their ancestral and civic gods and worship only the God of Israel. This ambiguous condition, neither Jew nor pagan, eventually proved unsatisfactory and led to the creation of a stand-alone (mostly Gentile) religion we now know as Christianity.
Just as Paul insisted that idolatry had no place in the life of a righteous Gentile, neither did a past filled with unredeemed sin. These Gentile sins are the ones Paul insisted Christ died for (Gal. 5:2) not, as in Ehrman’s statement, the sins of the world. Note the Christian supersessionistic implications of that phrase which simply ignores the fact that Jews, too, are part of the world. It ignores the atonement provisions already available to Jews as if they were nonexistent or rendered meaningless now that Christ had come. It lumps Jews in with sinning Gentiles as part of a world that had no prior means of atonement. That was not Paul’s view.
Paul’s unique good news message, or gospel, proclaimed to his non-Jewish audiences was that God had made a way, through the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, for non-Jews to be washed clean of their sins. If the non-Jew put his or her trust (Greek = pistis, sometimes translated as “faith”) in God’s plan of salvation for Gentiles, enabled through the faithful act of Jesus Christ who carried out his part by allowing himself to be crucified, they could be saved from the coming wrath by way mystically joining in that crucifixion with the hope of an afterlife like that experienced by Christ.
The messianic expectations of the Jews would be fulfilled, according to Paul, when Christ returned. The period of time between Christ’s crucifixion and parousia (return) was divinely designated as the time for the Gentiles to come to faith in God. Paul felt he was a vital cog in God’s plan to make salvation available to the rest of the world (not the world) in order to fulfill prophecy and validate God as the God of all people not just of the Jews.