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Ever wonder what it means for Jesus to die “for” others? Yeah, me too.

I get how someone can take a bullet for his buddy, or pleading with the kidnappers to“take me instead,” but I’m talking about Jesus and the cross, which is more than just Jesus filling in for someone else.

According to the New Testament, Jesus’s death “does” something. The common way of putting it is that Jesus’s death “atones” for our sins.

What does that mean?

That’s actually a very good question that is hard to answer in a few words.

But the gist of it is that the death of Jesus does something to restore our relationship with God.

The New Testament writers tie Jesus’ death, understandably, to animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, where the blood of a slain animal removes the guilt of the sinner (among other things). Now, what exactly that means isn’t the easiest thing to wrap our heads around, either, and doing so would be beside the point here.

I’m more interested in how in the world any Jew at the time would ever be comfortable with the idea of a person’s death doing what an animal’s death did—especially if that person is called “God’s Son.” After all, child sacrifice is a pretty major no-no in the Old Testament. Other people may do that, but Israelites don’t.

And yet, here we are, God sacrifices his own son for others.

And so this brings me to my point.

The idea of a person—not an animal—dying for others wasn’t taken from the Old Testament, but neither did the New Testament writers make it up.

Rather, it’s an idea that arose in Judaism in the centuries after the return from Babylonian Exile (538 BCE).

Well . . . in a way . . .  something like it is found in the Old Testament.

In Isaiah 52:13-53:12, we read of God’s “servant” who suffers on behalf of others. This is the passage that a lot of us know. This servant is described as: “despised and rejected” who “has borne our infirmities . . . wounded for our transgressions,” and so forth.

In fact, this passage sounds a lot like Jesus, so much so that Christians have tended to read this as a prophecy of Jesus.

But two things. First, note that the servant doesn’t actually die for anyone. He suffers. So that doesn’t quite get us where we want to go, though it’s moving in the right direction.

Second, even though the “servant” is referred to as he/him, the “servant” isn’t a person but the nation of Judah—or better, that part of the nation that was taken to Exile. Many more were left behind.

The Exile was understood as punishment from God for disobedience, and so this group of exiled Jews suffered for the people as a whole. So like I said, this is getting close, but not close enough.

To see the fuller picture, we need to look at later Jewish thinking.

In 4 Maccabees 17 (one of the books of the Apocrypha), we read that the Jewish martyrs who died under Antiochus in the early 2nd century BCE were a “. . . ransom for the sin of our nation,” and “the blood of those devout ones and their death [was] as an atoning sacrifice” (verses 21-22).

These pious ones would rather have died a cruel death than disobey God’s Law at the command of Antiochus. Their pure and noble character “carried over,” so to speak, to others. So precious and powerful is the blood of martyrs.

What makes the Gospel stand out here is not the idea of dying for others, but the idea that one man’s death atoned for the sins of the world.

To put it another way, Jesus’s death is more than simply “fulfilling” of the Old Testament in and of itself, but a step in an evolving Jewish tradition that owes much to relatively recent developments in Judaism.

Or think of it this way. The notion that the death of some atones for the sins of others is a 2nd century adaptation to Israelite faith in response to martyrdom. The atoning death of Jesus is a further adaptation to that idea.

By the time Paul and others got around to explaining the death of Jesus, they had a ready and waiting concept that could bear the weight—not derived from the Old Testament, but from later Jewish tradition.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.