The Death of Jesus as Sacrifice: An Orthodox reading of Isaiah 53 and Romans 3:25

The propitiatory or expiatory* nature of Christ’s death on the Cross is perhaps poorly understood in much of contemporary Orthodox theological discussion, and as a result, the notion of the sacrificial atonement of Christ is often minimized or excluded altogether. As an almost knee-jerk reaction to Anselmian notions of penal substitution that have taken hold in the Catholic and Protestant West, Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Cross tend to focus upon the destruction of sin and death in classic Christus Victor terminology to the virtual exclusion of the sacrificial terminology of the Bible.

A fresh example of this has recently been published in a post by David O’Neal entitled “Orthodox-Buddhist Engagement in America (or anywhere else)” on the blog Red River Orthodox: Eastern Christianities Engaging “the West.”

In the post, the author, a self-proclaimed practitioner of both Orthodox Christianity and Zen Buddhism, describes the Orthodox notion of salvation thusly:

This encounter revealed salvation to be an unending process, an eternal movement expressed by the word theosis. This salvation was revealed in the person of Christ, in whom the transcendent, ineffable reality was revealed to be profoundly intimate with us and whose self-emptying death confirmed the truth he embodied to be indestructible.

This understanding of the death of Christ is not the Orthodox Gospel, because it omits any mention of the atoning nature of the death of Christ. In fact, the author himself admits his uneasiness with the atonement, stating:

Over the past thirty-five years, I’ve come to understand and accept a great deal more than I did the day I was chrismated, including some things that puzzled me at the first encounter, but there remain elements of our faith as they’ve been presented to me that I haven’t bought yet and may never. Among these is the notion of Christ’s death as atonement, an idea usually traced back to the Book of Hebrews.

The atonement of Christ is not merely “traced back to the Book of Hebrews” but is drawn from principles comprised of the entire Old Testament Scriptures. As a response to this stated uneasiness with the atonement of Christ’s death, I would like to discuss an Orthodox approach to the atonement by examining two passages of Scripture, Isaiah 53:3-6, 10a and Romans 3:25. (As a biblical scholar and Hebraist, I will discuss Isaiah 53 from the Hebrew text with the aim to establish it as being in harmony with Orthodox theology rather than in conflict with the notable variants found in the Septuagint version traditional within Orthodoxy.)

Isaiah 53:3-6, 10a

Contextually, Is. 53 is one of four “Servant Songs” found in Deutero-Isaiah (the second portion of the book comprising chapters 40-55, dealing with the Babylonian Exile), in addition to 42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 50:4-9. These hymns all speak of an enigmatic “Servant of Yahweh†” variously interpreted by Christians and Jews as being Jerusalem and/or the Messiah. Both interpretations are in fact compatible with Orthodox Christian theology, and arguably the combination of the two provides the fullest interpretation.

Verses 3-6 and 10a provide the problematic crux of the Song, here given in Hebrew with my own translation, made overly literal for the purposes of making connections between repeated words, indicated by bold type. (There are no significant differences between the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text).

(3)נבזה וחדל אישים
איש מכאבות
וידוע חליוכמסתר פנים מננו
נבזה ולא חשבנהו

(4) אכן חלינו הוא נשא
ומכאבינו סבלם

ואנחנו חשבנהו נגוע
מוכה אלהים ומענה

(5) והוא מחלל מפשענו
מדכא מעונתינו

מוסר שלומנו עליו
ובחברתו נרפא לנו

(6) כלנו כצאן נעינו
איש לדרכו פנינו
ויהוה הפגיע בו עון כלנו

(10a) ויהוה חפץ דכאו החלי

Despised and rejected by men
man of pains
And acquainted with sickness,And as turning [our] face from him
He was despised, and we did not esteem him.

Surely he has borne our sickness,
And he carried our pains.

We esteemed him stricken,
Smitten by God and afflicted.

And he was pierced for our transgressions,
Crushed for our iniquities.

The chastisement of our peace was upon him,
And by his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray,
Each man turned to his own way,
But Yahweh laid upon him the iniquity of us all.

And it pleased Yahweh to crush him – he has made him sick.

The Servant of Yahweh as depicted in this text is most naturally understood as a personification of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Babylonians in 596 BC. Similar to the book of Lamentations, this song is a lament on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, once the glorious dwelling of God, now “despised and rejected,” acquainted with pain and sickness. Yet the song is also a theological reflection upon this cataclysmic event, whereby the Jews attached profound meaning to an otherwise senseless act of destruction. The author makes a significant move in separating the identity of the people from the city of Jerusalem, for he knew that a remnant of the people had been saved from the destruction of Jerusalem by being taken into exile. Jerusalem was destroyed, yet they were spared. The author realized that the destruction that was due them because of their idolatrous sin was instead placed upon Jerusalem itself as a substitution, thus making the destruction of Jerusalem an expiating sacrifice for the sin of the people now saved in exile. As in the days of Joshua, when the armies of Israel purified the Holy Land of Israel from the idolatrous Canaanites through holy war (ḥerem), so now the Holy Land had been purified of idolaters—this time, God’s covenant people themselves.

This notion of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile as sacrificial atonement fits within the broader scheme of ancient Israelite religion, where holiness and ritual purity were maintained as the means by which the covenant people of God enjoyed his presence. The Land and the People were holy, set apart to God, and purified of all idolatrous pollution that would render them profane and separated from their holy God. When any sin threatened to sully the holy purity of God’s people or the land, sacrifices would be made, which would expiate or destroy the sin symbolically placed upon the sacrificial victims. The blood of the sacrifices purified and sanctified the people, reconciling them to their covenant relationship with God. When the idolatry of the people became too great, God determined to make a final expiation of the sin of idolatry by destroying the Holy City of Jerusalem. Just as with an animal sacrifice, the substituted sacrificial victim was destroyed while the offending sinner was saved. So Jerusalem became the substituted sacrificial victim while the exiled remnant was saved. Yahweh laid the iniquity of the people upon the city, and he was “pleased to crush” the city. In what way was he pleased to do so? It was not that God was pleased to inflict punishment upon his people or destroy his abode among them, rather, he was please to purify the city and eradicate idolatry from it.

Romans 3:25

Understanding the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 53 as representing Jerusalem as an expiating sacrifice for the remnant exilic people now allows us to extend its interpretation to Jesus the Messiah as the Servant of Yahweh. From 586 to 596 BC, Jerusalem became a place of atonement, whereby the sin of Israel was expiated and destroyed, and this notion of a “place of atonement” is the precise meaning of the Greek term ἱλαστήριον as used by St. Paul in Romans 3:25:

ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν τῶν προγεγονότων ἁμαρτημάτων. Whom God set as a place of atonement through faith in his blood for the demonstration of his righteousness on account of passing over formerly committed sins.

As the sins of all Israel were placed upon Jerusalem resulting in its destruction, so then the Messiah took upon himself the sins of the whole world and was destroyed through his death upon the cross. As in Isaiah 53:6 and 10a, God is the agent of this action. It was God who established Jerusalem as a place of atonement and it is God the Father who sets up his own Son as the place of atonement, a true atonement foreshadowed by the sacrifice of animals under the Law of Moses. Whereas God had previously overlooked sin requiring only animal sacrifice, which accomplished nothing (Heb.10:4), he now moves to expiate the sins of the whole world in order to demonstrate his righteousness. Those who have faith in the sacrificial blood of the Messiah enjoy the benefits of this expiation. This stands in contrast to the Anselmian notion of penal substitutionary atonement. Rather than “punishing” sinners, God expiates or destroys their sin.

Within the divine economy of salvation, there are, to use St. Paul’s terms in Romans 9, “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy.” Vessels of wrath are those vessels chosen by God to bear the expiation of sin: Jerusalem at the beginning of the Exile, Jesus the Messiah at his crucifixion, and as St. Paul explains in Romans 9-11, the unbelieving Jews today. Because the vessels of wrath bear the wrath of God upon sin, the vessels of mercy, the remnant people of God chosen by grace, enjoy the demonstration of the righteousness of God as salvation. But, as Jerusalem was destroyed, so it was rebuilt, as the temple of the Messiah was destroyed, so it was also rebuilt in three days, and as the Jews have been “cast off,” so St. Paul tells us their acceptance will be as “life from the dead.” The vessels of wrath are never entirely obliterated, but as Isaiah 53 continues in verse 10b, “He shall see his seed, / He shall prolong his days, / And the pleasure of Yahweh shall prosper in his hand.”

The atonement of Christ may be difficult to understand outside of the context of ancient Israelite sacrifice and the Jewish theological reflection on the Babylonian Exile. However, contextualized by the Jewish background of Christianity, the principle of an expiating atonement may be described and championed as an essential element of Orthodox theology without recourse to Anselmian language of “punishment” or penal substitutionary atonement. The Orthodox East has conditioned itself to speak of the atonement of Christ as accomplishing the “death of death,” the destruction of sin and death by the death of Christ, and this language is essentially the same as that of expiation, for expiation is the destruction of sin and the death that it causes. Because of the foreign nature of Israelite sacrifice, the sacrificial language of the atonement may be poorly understood and thus minimized, yet it remains vitally important and completely compatible with Orthodox theology. As the above linked blog post by David O’Neal illustrates, it remains properly the “stumbling block” by which the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be distinguished from counterfeits, though they be dressed up in Orthodox verbiage of “theosis” and “kenosis.” There is no theosis without the expiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ, nor is his kenosis meaningful save that his “emptying” was that of taking upon himself the sins of the whole world.

* We might understand expiation of sins as if sins were like germs on a dirty countertop. The countertop is sprayed with Lysol, which destroys the germs, and they are wiped away clean.  Propitiation is a term used to describe the worshipper who offers a sacrifice in order to appease the wrath of a deity.  Phenomenologically, propitiation describes the act of the worshipper, while expiation describes the effect of the sacrifice itself.  For our purposes, we will focus upon the expiatory nature of Christ’s death on the cross.

† While there are some who avoid the use of the full pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, the vocalization “Yahweh” has become the standard pronunciation accepted throughout academia and is believed to be a fairly accurate pronunciation of the name of the God of Israel. While some may regard it as being too holy to pronounce, Christians regard the name of Jesus as being the most holy name of God, which we pronounce in every tongue, confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Eric Jobe

About Eric Jobe

Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.



  1. The “Anselmian” take on propitiation/expiation is indeed a very pagan understanding of sacrifice and atonement. I love the Orthodox understanding of the Cross destroying death itself as it directly correlates to the utter smashing of Pharaoh and his horde in the Red Sea. Jesus’ sacrifice, rather than being a punishment of sin, ought to be understood like a “cosmic sponge” whereby He absorbs all the sin of the world and takes it away from us. Otherwise, there is really no forgiveness in the Anselmian/Protestant paradigm of salvation. Instead, all there is is Jesus buying an indulgence for us from the Father (satisfying the Father’s wrath). Contrast this to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There is no punitive nature there at all – yet there is a sacrifice. And that sacrifice is the joy of the relationship being made right again.

  2. This is a much needed correction for many Orthodox who overreact to Anselmian soteriology. In my present doctoral work on St Cyril of Alexandria on sacrifice, it is obvious that the Fathers were not afraid of the language of sacrifice and expiation.

    But I would like to address two points he makes in the article. The first is his exegesis of Romans 9. While this is an interesting interpretation of the “vessels of wrath” metaphor, it is debatable whether this is the best way to read these verses. There are several other ways to understand this image without employing the expiatory destruction of Israel.

    The second comment concerns his footnote on expiation. I would agree that expiation is the primary way to understand sacrificial expurgation in the OT (and NT); however, I would not agree that “propitiation” is a valid term for the same process from the perspective of the offerer. As has been pointed out by numerous scholars, from Lyonnet, to Daly, to Reardon, wrath is never directly connected with sacrifice in the Scriptures. (There is one debatable inference in the OT). Thus, sacrifice is not an appeasement of God, which would fall under pagan categories.

    1. Fr. Joseph, thank you for your cogent comments. Regarding Romans 9, I understand the difficulty involved in the exegesis of that passage, and that my take on it may be controversial. I hope to deal with that issue more thoroughly at a later date, after I finish a conference paper on that subject. The (possible) correspondence of Paul’s metaphor and atonement just occurred to me quite recently, and this post was the first time I have articulated it in writing. What it boils down to, in the case of both the atonement and with the Jews/Gentiles of Rom 9-11, is that there is a party who receives mercy (the repentant sinner, Gentiles) and a party who bears the sin and divine wrath (the sacrifice, unbelieving Israel). In all cases, the party that bears sin, either a sacrificial substitute or the unrepentant sinner, is a “vessel of wrath” whereas the repentant sinner (who is justified by faith) is a “vessel of mercy.”

      Your remark about wrath and sacrifice seems odd to me. Divine wrath is directed against sin in order to destroy it – what other cause is there? If the worshipper offers a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God (and yes, I am aware of the pagan associations with that idea), the wrath is not so much appeased, but redirected, i.e. the sin is destroyed having been transferred to the sacrifice (Yahweh has laid upon him the iniquity of us all). The wrath of God is not directed towards punishment, but toward the destruction of sin.

      1. Dear Eric:

        I agree in part with the aforementioned: the Scriptures definitely refer to God’s wrath directed towards sin. It is because of his holiness that God desires to destroy sin. But the OT is not systematic in its depiction of wrath vis-a-vis sin. In other words, only in certain instances does it specifically connect God’s wrath with sin, and never is sacrifice the answer in those cases. Stanilslas Lyonnet covered this 30 years ago; and several scholars have since elaborated on this matter. Here is a more recent article by Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, who has come to the same conclusion:

        For some, the concern is that God is depicted as wrathful at all. So it is with all anthropomorphicisms. And of course, the Macarian Homilies (amongst many other Patristic sources) state that God’s wrath is simply our perception of God when we are turned away from Him. But I believe that wrath (“orge”) is a valid concept in as much as it is found in the Scritpures. Any proper exegetical soteriology must address the wrath of God. Even so, we must be careful in our interpretation on what wrath means in relationship to sacrifice. In my view, the Greek Fathers must provide us with the proper interpretation of this. My specialization is patristic exegesis, and primarily their soteriology as derived from their exegesis. I have yet found wratch connected with sacrifice in their writings. Thus, we may differ in the results of our research, as you are a biblical scholar and can derive conclusions from the Scriptures independently of patristic interpretation.

        Regarding Rock’s comments, I agree that there should be no issue with the concept of substitution. It is found in the Fathers (such as St Athanasius who uses the term “antipsychon”). However, penal/juridical substitution, as a way to describe the process, is not used by the Greek Fathers, and this term was defined in a way very different than how the Fathers viewed substitution.

        Fr Joseph Lucas

        1. Fr. Joseph,

          Pardon me if I speak out of turn since you addressed Eric and not me directly…

          I don’t hear a necessary disagreement between your and Eric’s positions. I actually see potential harmony and fullness.

          Since the OT sacrificial system is but type and shadow, it is very possible that wrath is specifically never connected with sacrifices precisely because they could never take away sin. It may be that what Eric speaks to is Jerusalem, and ultimately the Messiah, being the complementary vision to the sacrifices – the place where transformative atonement (hilasterion) can actually take place. So it may do us well not to limit the atonement as understood by NT revelation to simply the categories of OT sacrifices. New wine, old wine skins. Rather, we may benefit from seeing all of the images coming together in one vision of the atonement.

          Also, while I am certainly not a Patristic scholar, in my reading of the Patristics, I have come across penal language and/or concepts several times (though not in each case attached to the atonement proper). Chrysostom and Athanasius have both been mentioned. In my reading Sts. Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Symeon the New Theologian and Maxius the Confessor are also among those as well. Still, in each case, the penal/juridical categories serve the overall love of God to rescue Mankind from death, not simply to punish because crime demands punishment.


        2. Fr. Joseph, I don’t believe there is much separating us here. If we strip the “anthropomorphisms,” the iconological language of Scripture, we might recognize the wrath of God as being an aspect of the uncreated energies of God manifested toward sin. Regardless of whether or not the OT explicitly connects wrath and sacrifice, I believe it does so implicitly or within the Gestalt of OT theology (To be sure, there is much censure and critique of the sacrificial system in the Prophets and other places in the OT.) So, stripping away the notion of “wrath,” we might then ask ourselves what the purpose and effect of this divine energy is, which is precisely the removal of sin and the redemption of the world back to God (or back to a state of holiness). The propitiating sacrifice, as it were, causes that divine energy to “pass over” the repentant sinner, because the sin has been transferred to the sacrificial victim (which is not a bull or a lamb, which is only a shadow, but the Lamb of God). So, the wrath of God, in this sense, is a part of the whole intention of God to purify his creation and redeem it back to himself. Wrath, if we may speak of it, is directed toward this aim and not toward the aim of “satisfying” passionate anger or some sense of God’s honor being offended by sin, which he must defend through tyrannical punishment.

          As an addendum to this, I would say that what is associated with propitiating sacrifice in Scripture is faith on the part of the worshipper and mercy on the part of God. The purpose of sacrifice (admittedly a pagan ritual adopted by primitive Israelite religion) from God’s point of view, is to elicit faith from the worshipper. As St. Paul teaches us, it is by faith that we are justified, or placed within a right(eous) relationship with God. It is not that the sacrifice itself changes God’s disposition toward us (i.e. from wrath toward mercy), but that it causes the worshipper to have faith in God’s mercy – it changes the disposition of the repentant sinner from his sin toward the merciful God. The assuagement of the wrath of God is not in view here, but rather the expression of faith, which allows that uncreated energy of God to be received by the worshipper as deifying grace rather than expiating wrath. (I will attempt to write this up in a separate post as a “part 2” to this post.) We are justified by the faith that is expressed in sacrifice, not the sacrificial work itself – because we find that it is God himself who gives his own Son to expiate sin through his death on the cross. God is the one doing the sacrificing, and we must only put our faith in him.

          1. Eric:

            I would wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I’m still a bit uncomfortable with the word “propitiation” only because of the way it has been defined within Calvinism and other systems. When given a definition such as yours, it is acceptable. I will provide another similar issue. In my book on Justification, I point out that the term Justification itself is laden with specific connotations due to its systematic usage in Western theology. I have opted for the term N.T. Wright prefers–Vindication–because in most cases it better represents what the Greek Fathers are saying, and it doesn’t conjure up the negative aspects of Justification.

            When applying Patristics to contemporary theology, I have found it necessary to select different terminology in order to approach the same traditional themes, sans the late Scholastic and Reformation baggage.

            I was making a similar point to Rock. I agree that substitution is found in the Greek Fathers, and they even speak at times about Christ taking our place in terms of punishment, as he points out. However, this is not exactly the same thing as the complex system that came to be known as Penal Substitution in the West. St Cyril of Alexandria speaks more on substitution than other other Greek Father. He frequently uses the language of Substitution (“on behalf of all”; “for us”; “in our place”). Yet it is clear for him that Christ does not take this on for us so that we don’t have to suffer–as if His suffering removes ours. If this were the case, St Cyril (and the rest of the Fathers) would not have placed such emphasis on the necessity for we Christians to suffer “with” Christ, to offer ourselves according to His example. Rather, St Cyril speaks often of how Christ suffered for us so that He could transform suffering within His own flesh. He refers frequently to Hebrews 2, which makes the connection that the “One sanctifying” and “those being sanctified” are one by nature of human consubstantiality. Suffering for us, in Christ, becomes salvific. Everything is turned on its head in Christ. In addition, the punishment and suffering that Christ takes on here is the consequence of the Adamic sin. Although Christ is being obedient to the Father in voluntarily undergoing suffering and death, we must always remember who actually is punishing and killing Christ: the Jews and Romans in collusion (in other words, man not God!). To get to the Western concept of Penal Subsitution, the punishment and suffering must be inflicted by the Father to the Son.

            The Fathers frequently point out a great paradox: there is a great poverty of human idiom, because created, finite human words always fall short of the infinite uncreated God; and yet God reveals Himself to us through human language, and thus we must use our words with the greatest precision. This paradox is the core of theology. My career focuses on revitalizing aspects of Patristic Biblical soteriology that many Orthodox ignore because of an “allergic reaction” to anything the West has adopted. However, I’m careful to redefine my terms so that we do not risk implying that the Patristic understanding is the same as later doctrines by the same name.

            In Christ,
            –Fr Joseph

          2. Fr. Joseph,

            I praise God for your work in, “revitalizing aspects of Patristic Biblical soteriology that many Orthodox ignore because of an “allergic reaction” to anything the West has adopted.” I pray many Orthodox will reengage the Scriptures and Fathers on their own terms, not from reaction against the West.

            With that I offer 3 thoughts for consideration:

            1) I’m not sure that the majority of those who would subscribe to any version of PSA would think that Jesus’ suffering makes it, “so that [they] don’t have to suffer–as if His suffering removes [theirs]” temporally. I think the majority would say that Sin’s condemnation in Jesus’ body makes it so that they don’t suffer condemnation from God-as if His suffering removes theirs eternally (i.e. Gehenna). This would be a key difference.

            2) I understand wanting distance from any version of PSA whereby, “the punishment and suffering must be inflicted by the Father to the Son.” However, I’m not sure that that notion is part and parcel to every version of PSA even in the West. Again, a more nuanced version says the punishment and suffering was inflicted by the Father, not to the Son proper, but rather to Sin proper; Sin which the Son has taken up.

            3) While I understand what you mean when you say, “we must always remember who actually is punishing and killing Christ: the Jews and Romans in collusion (in other words, man not God!)”, we must also remember that they did “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:28)

            All in all though, it seems there is fundamental agreement on what is recognizably Orthodox and what is not when it comes to the atonement.

          3. Eric Jobe: I very much enjoy your articles as I love the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

            My question is: How would you answer Reformed Protestants when they argue that some of our saints (i.e. Sts. John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Clement of Rome, etc.) believed in penal subtitutionary atonement? They pull out quotes that are quite convincing (though some of their quotes only show substitution).

  3. I appreciate the point and the biblicism presented in this article. I have lamented the fact that someone who practices Zen Buddhism and may never “buy” the atonement, could even feel comfortable (or Orthodox!) within the modern American Orthodox churches. Such is an ethos of reactionism, and I feel it infects many of our churches at the moment. This article gives me hope; thank you for writing it.

    I would like to point out though, that among the Fathers and hymns of the Church, we do have instances of penal language in connection with the atonement. Therefore, it may behoove us to not speak so strongly against the language itself as much as we do the poor theology of seeing God as somehow in need (of having his wrath exhausted, honor repaired, “so called” justice meted out, blood satisfaction, etc.).

    For instance, St. John Chrysostom says in Homily 6 on Colossians, “To wit, we all were under sin and punishment. [Christ] Himself, through suffering punishment, did away with both the sin and the punishment, and He was punished on the Cross.” St. Athanasius in ‘On the Incarnation’ in short says, God laid down a “law” which Man broke thereby being liable to coming under the penalty/condemnation of death. This liability Christ took up as he offered his body to the Father as a representative substitute. By so doing he put an end, via fulfillment, to the law which was against us therefore we are no longer condemned. The Doxastichon (at “Glory to the…”) for Vespers for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross states in part, “Come, all you nations, let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree, by which eternal justice has come to pass…the curse of just condemnation is undone when the Just One is condemned by an unjust judgment.”

    Yet in all these, it seems to me that they do not mean any version of satisfactionism, but rather what you have described here, namely, the condemnation of sin and death (not to the sinner) to eradication. Or as the bible calls it, propitiation/expiation.

    As NT Wright writes, “‘There is therefore now no condemnation’ in Romans 8.1 is explained by the fact, as in Romans 8.3, that God condemned sin in the flesh of his Son; he bore sin’s condemnation in his body, so we don’t bear it. That, I take it, is the heart of what the best sort of ‘penal substitution’ theory is trying to say. And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others.” So while you distance yourself from the term “punishment”, I’m sure some who would describe themselves as adhering to a version of penal substitution would feel quite comfortable with your description as their own. This could be a great tool in bringing those people into the Church.

    1. Rock, thank you for the clarification. Yes, there is language of penal substitution in the Fathers, notably in St. John Chrysostom. As you note, punishment/condemnation is intended to expiate, not merely to exact justice. What Orthodoxy rejects is the notion of God having to satisfy is justice by repaying sinners – the notion of Christ as paying a penalty. Punishment is always directed toward correction and purification, and this sort of penal substitutionary atonement is Orthodox.

      1. While having a conversation with another Orthodox friend about this post, we came to understand the thrust of your reply to me differently.

        I hear you acknowledging a version of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) that rejects satisfactionism. That is, we accept a version of PSA in which the true justice of God rescues us from tyranny by condemning/expiating sin in the flesh of Christ, so that actual godly transformation may take place in us. This naturally results in propitiation – reconciliation/union between God and man, the beginning of theosis. What we reject is, any version of PSA that “satisfies” God in any way – or – that is solely forensic, with no actual removing of the realities of sin and death from us thereby not establishing union between God and man.

        My friend, in hearing you say, “Orthodoxy rejects…the notion of Christ as paying a penalty”, feels you effectively deny PSA altogether. Would you clarify your position? Thank you.

        1. I don’t believe we have to reject the notion of satisfaction either. I offer here part of a reflection on this very topic by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon:

          “I concede that some notion of satisfaction was always implicit when Christians thought about “being saved.” That is to say, the very concept of salvation carries with it, at least tacitly, the question, “What was required for us to be saved?”

          In fact, that question was raised explicitly in the great Christological controversies of the early Church. For example, a major premise of the orthodox faith affirmed, “Whatever was not assumed was not healed.” This thesis declared that God’s Son, in the Incarnation, took on our full humanity, not selected parts of it. In other words, only the Word’s full assumption of our human nature could satisfy what was needed for human beings to be saved.

This principle, enunciated explicitly at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, was later applied to the question of Christ’s human will by the Third Council of Constantinople in 670. According to this latter council, the work of salvation required a complete agreement of the divine and human wills in Christ. Hence, said the council, a full human will in Christ was required for our salvation. Nothing less would satisfy.

          The new component in St. Anselm’s soteriology seems to be this: He introduces the idea that some aspect of God required “satisfaction” by the work of Christ. Specifically, it was the offended honor of God. This was the “debt” that only God’s Son could pay.” – From “Fr Pat’s Pastoral Ponderings,” June 28, 2009

          1. I don’t see the necessity of the connection to Christology. Fr. Pat’s acceptance of “St.” Anselm here does not seem to be in accordance with the main flow of Orthodox thought.

          2. Having spoken with Fr. Pat on particularly about this issue, I am confident that he does not accept Anselm’s satisfactionism in reference to God. What he accepts is that “only the Word’s full assumption of our human nature could satisfy what was needed for human beings to be saved”, not satisfaction in God. He firmly believes there is no need in God at all for the atonement to affect.

          3. Sorry, I should’ve been more clear. I was not implying Fr. Reardon was accepting Anselm’s theory, I was saying that, in spite of Anselm’s articulations, we do not need to reject the notion of “satisfaction.” In other words, there is an Orthodox/patristic understanding of the concept. Fr. Reardon explored this further:

            “Indeed, [St. Nicholas Cabasilas] goes on to explain this point, in lines that are nearly Greek translations from Anselm’s Latin. He speaks of Christ, who “alone was able to render all honor [timen] due to the One who begot Him and make satisfaction [apologesthasthai] for that which was taken away, achieving the former by His life and the latter by His death. To outweigh the injury which we had committed, He introduced the death He died on the Cross unto the Father’s glory, thereby making abundant satisfaction for the debt of honor we owed [opheilometha timen] by reason of our sins” (The Life in Christ 4.4).

            Nicholas is clearly reliant here on Anselm, and it seems important to remark on this reliance. In fact, throughout his treatise on the Incarnation—Cur Deus Homo? —Anselm treats many of the same soteriological themes as Cabasilas and the Church Fathers: The integrity of two natures in Christ (2.7) and the unity of His person (2.9), the freedom of Christ’s will in the Passion (1.8; 2.17), man’s destiny to beatitude (2.1), and the final grace of the bodily resurrection (2.3). Although the soteriology of Anselm seems rather thin beside that of Cabasilas, the latter theologian detects no heresy in it, and, when it suits his purpose, he does not hesitate to incorporate Anselm’s thought into his own reflections.

            As we noted above, Nicholas uses Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” in his discussion of the Holy Eucharist. The body of Christ received in the Holy Communion, Nicholas affirms, is the same body in which the Savior “made satisfaction for our sins”: It sweat blood in the agony, received lashes upon the back, was pierced with nails. It is to this very body, which “became the treasury of the fullness of the Godhead,” that the believer is united in the Eucharist (The Life in Christ 4.5).” – From “Fr Pat’s Pastoral Ponderings, July 26, 2009”

            What Orthodox reject is not that Christ’s death was satisfactory to achieve salvation for all mankind, but that something *in God* was what needed “satisfying.”

  4. What if contemporaries of Jesus understood His death not through the lens of Isaiah’s more or less original text in its original context (as reconstructed above), but already by the lens of the later interpretation of Isaiah 53 as exemplified in LXX? Between Isaiah and Jesus there are several centuries of theological reflection on redemption, sin, sacrifice etc. It is impossible just to leap back and ignore the evolution of understanding like it never happened.

    1. In Palestine, the LXX or its Hebrew Vorlage would likely not have been used much. It is certainly possible that some would have had it and used it, but it was not likely mainstream. In the diaspora, the LXX would have been used more prominently. By going back to the Hebrew, first I wish to demonstrate that it is not in error or somehow incompatible with Orthodox theology. Secondly, I want to establish the origin of the Isaiah passage in the theological reflection upon the Exile, not in the time of Jesus. To be honest, the LXX doesn’t change the text much at all, and there is really no substantial change in meaning. I am not ignoring the evolution of the text, but rather I am establishing two different points in salvation history in order to demonstrate the correspondence between them.

      1. In Palestine, the LXX or its Hebrew Vorlage would likely not have been used much. It is certainly possible that some would have had it and used it, but it was not likely mainstream.

        This is quite an assertion, but assuming the Gospels were written in or around Palestine by Jewish converts to Christianity—and that they have faithfully recorded the words of Christ, by Divine inspiration—I find it lacking.

        Considering the book of Isaiah specifically (since that’s the subject of this post), Jesus and the Gospels often show a preference for the Septuagint tradition, over-and-against the Masoretic or other Hebrew traditions.

        For example, here are passages where Jesus or the Gospels are quoting Isaiah, and where they use the LXX/Greek reading over-and-against the Masoretic/Hebrew:

        Matthew 1:23 / Isaiah 7:14
        Matthew 12:21 / Isaiah 42:4
        Matthew 13:14–15 / Isaiah 6:9–10
        Luke 3:4–6 / Isaiah 40:3–5
        Luke 4:18–19 / Isaiah 61:1–2

        Note that in at least one case above, Jesus is reading the Septuagint version of scripture in the synagogue.

        There are also a few cases where the Gospel writers quote Isaiah in a way that does not line up exactly with either the LXX or Hebrew traditions known to us.

        1. I’m not saying it wasn’t in use in Palestine, just that it wasn’t mainstream. Christian converts were not necessarily mainstream. They may have had a preference for the LXX for evangelistic purposes, but that doesn’t mean mainstream Jews in Palestine were using it. Hellenistic Jews living in Palestine were probably using it or one of the other Greek versions, but I would imagine that Aramaic/Hebrew speaking Jews would not have been.

          1. That’s just an assertion, though. I don’t see how it helps your overall points. All it does is attempt to downplay the importance of the Septuagint, which, as an Orthodox Christian, I find questionable. Greek was the language of the world, even in Palestine. Pelikan has good material on this in Whose Bible Is It?. Hebrew was not a mainstream language, even in Palestine. Among the priesthood, sure, but not among the people.

          2. Well, if you want to drag the Aramaic Targums in to this… If we take the Biblical evidence from Qumran as representative of the indeginous Palestinian Jewish tendencies, we find that the Masoretic or otherwise unaligned texts make up the majority of the Biblical texts found there. Proto-LXX and unique text types account for a much smaller percentage. Greek texts are few and far between, the Greek Minor Prophets scroll is probably the foremost among them, and it shows a greater degree of correction toward the Hebrew than the LXX.

            I would assume that the average Palestinian synagogue for indigenous Palestinian Jews would have had readings from the Hebrew proto-Masoretic text followed by an Aramaic Targum.

          3. That’s anachronistic, at best (since what we have today is much, much later than the first century A.D.), but if the Syriac Peshitta is the result of such Aramaic textual development, this shows a strong agreement with the Septuagint textual tradition in multiple readings.

            Hebrew was a mostly dead language by the first century (outside of the temple/priesthood), which is why Aramaic came into play to begin with. But in the Synagogues, we have good reason to believe the language used was predominately Greek. Again, I think Pelikan makes this point rather well.

            This is not really pertinent to the overall article, of course, so there’s no reason to belabor the point. I just find the assertion that the LXX was somehow unimportant to be untenable (and contrary to Orthodox claims), given its influence on both the New Testament (especially Paul, a Pharisee) and the early Church.

            My main concern is, again, the Tradition we’ve received as the Church, and that is a preference for the LXX. I’m not here to bash Hebrew or that textual tradition.

          4. Look, It’s not like I’m ignorant of the evidence here. The Targum tradition does go back to the 1st century – there are targums in the Dead Sea Scrolls, not to mention the Palestinian Targum, Pseudo Jonathan, et al. Regardless of whether or not the hoi polloi understood Hebrew or not, it was still read in the synagogues, just as Greek and Slavonic are in churches today. Aramaic was the primary language of targum with Greek in the diaspora and hellenistic synagogues. In Palestinian synagogues, I *seriously* doubt you would hear Greek, seeing as how many Jews considered Greek learning to be avodah zarah – idolatry. If Greek was so prominent, why is there no evidence? Again, look at the evidence from Qumran. Hebrew, Aramaic targums, are found at Qumran – very few Greek texts. The *evidence* supports the vast popularity of the proto-MT among Palestinian Jews. That’s just the way the evidence shakes down.

          5. I’m not saying you’re ignorant. We disagree.

            If learning or speaking Greek is idolatry, why would the most-hardcore of all first-century Jewish sects—arguably the Essenes—have been in possession of Greek manuscripts to begin with?

            Why have *any*?

          6. Because they weren’t Essenes. The scrolls are likely an amalgam of several sects, not just one. The identification of the Yahad sect with the Essenes is not air-tight. Nevertheless, the Greek evidence from Qumran is very slim, almost entirely in cave 7. The Greek minor prophets scroll was found at Nahal Hever, not at Qumran.

          7. >>Hellenistic Jews living in Palestine were probably using it or one of the other Greek versions, but I would imagine that Aramaic/Hebrew speaking Jews would not have been.

            In his book, “Jesus the Jew”, Geza Vermes points out at during the time of Jesus’ birth the Galilee was a hot-bed of Hebraic nationalism. It is very unlikely that He would have been called to the bema to read the haftorah (the portion of the profits) from the LXX. It would have been Hebrew. I might add the I doubt He would have spoken Aramaic in this context either. Rather it would have been mishnaic Hebrew.

        2. Also, Luke was not Jewish, and his Gospel could have been written from Ephesus or elsewhere in the diaspora. Mark may have been written in Rome, for all we know. John was probably written from Ephesus as well. I’m not even sure if Matthew has to be placed in Palestine. It could just have easily been directed toward diaspora Jews. The Hebrew/Aramaic edition (now lost) may have been otherwise.

          “and that they have faithfully recorded the words of Christ, by Divine inspiration” What do you mean by this? – that Jesus was speaking Greek to a bunch of people that most likely didn’t speak Greek, or whose knowledge of Greek was probably limited to commercial and/or judicial affairs? The Gospels themselves record his Aramaic words, so it is almost universally recognized that the words of the Gospels are at best translations of his words with quite a bit of paraphrase. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of divine inspiration requiring such verbal exactitude.

          1. I’d love to discuss the Aramaic version of the Gospel. Once you find it, let me know. 😉

            Until then, I’m going with Jesus quoted the Septuagint version of Isaiah in the synagogues. That’s all I can go by: the received tradition, rather than speculation. I’m not getting at verbal exactitude, just going by what we’ve received in the Church as part of tradition. *shrug*

          2. It’s not speculation, it’s common sense! Besides, the fact that he is quoted in Greek by the Gospels is not empirical evidence that he was reading in Greek in the Synagogues. That notion is itself speculative.

          3. I’m not talking about empirical evidence. I’m not interested in a speculative, archaeological investigation into the historical-critical inner-workings of the text. I’m talking about Tradition, with the scriptures a key and central part to that Tradition. And in such Tradition, we have Jesus quoting the LXX in Greek in the Greek Gospels. That’s all we have. For me, that’s enough. I realize that’s not satisfactory for a lot of people, especially critical scholarship—but we have different motivations.

          4. I can’t go against reason, facts, evidence, regardless of what “tradition” says. Besides, the notion of tradition which you are using here I think is far too rigid. The Tradition of the Church should not (and cannot) contradict reason – it may supersede it mystically, but not violate it. What comprises Tradition, I don’t think includes whether or not Jesus was speaking Greek in the synagogue.

          5. By tradition here, I’m referring to our lectionary and textual tradition of scripture, which I don’t think its incidental or meaningless, supplanted by historical-critical (largely Protestant and/or Jewish) scholarship.

            If the scriptures are part of tradition, and if we have received a particular (Greek) manuscript tradition through our monasteries and that whole tradition of manuscript preservation (e.g. the Byzantine Text), then Jesus speaking Greek, quoting the LXX, in the synagogue is “a part of tradition.”

            Anything else is—by definition—speculation against our scriptural tradition. That’s all I’m saying, really.

          6. Wait, how does Orthodox textual tradition have any bearing on what language anyone was speaking at any particular time? That’s just silly. Come on now.

          7. But this notion of tradition here is just not accurate. First of all, Greek is not the only language that has been used by Christians. The Syriac and Old Latin are a part of it too. The LXX itself is a composite tradition that has undergone much revision throughout it’s history. It’s just not so simple and rosy as you want to paint it.

            And I’m not posturing, I’m trying to be rational.

          8. One last thing here: It’s only been in the past century or so that Orthodox Christians have had the option of reading anything other than the LXX or a daughter translation, so we are just now trying to figure out how to understand and assimilate the broader world of biblical scholarship. This LXX triumphalism over-and-against the Hebrew is not so much based on tradition but ignorance. The fact that almost everyone waxing polemically against the Hebrew text doesn’t even know Hebrew speaks to how widespread the ignorance is, whereas scholars such as myself who have extensively studied the Palestinian Jewry of the 1st century, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Targums, etc., are ignored. We’ve got to pull our heads out of the proverbial sand and realize that the integrity of the Orthodox faith does not hinge on the LXX. There’s a big world out there, and there is much to be learned.

            This rigid concept of Holy Tradition is just not consistent with the diversity that we find throughout Christian history. The Bible is not like the Qur’an, where the text has to be exact and in a particular language for it to be “real.” Projecting debatable aspects of received praxis back into history where there is no evidence or even contradictory evidence flies in the face of reason. If our faith cannot be rational, than what can it be?

          9. This is mostly an appeal to authority as well as straw men against my actual position. There is just as much scholarship that seeks to vindicate the LXX tradition as there is to the contrary. In the end, one has to choose. My benefit of the doubt to the Orthodox Church leaves me where I am on this position, and the arguments of those with clear biases against Christian Tradition and the LXX (Jewish and Protestant scholars) are neither convincing nor interesting to me (although I am aware and read in such things). *shrug*

            We can agree to disagree, but I’m not sure that this is the best or right place to be passing off debatable, liberal scholarship as orthodoxy. Apparently, I’m in a minority here.

          10. Would one of you mind explaining exactly what assertion of tradition is being debated here?

            Is it that Jesus read the LXX in a synagogue? Does Orthodox tradition really make that claim? I can’t see how that’s a necessary conclusion from the texts of the Gospels.

            I’m also kind of unclear where the LXX is being degraded in any way by Eric.

            Anyway, I really cannot figure out what’s at issue in this discussion. Please help. Thanks!

          11. The original context was the comment by Kamil above: “What if contemporaries of Jesus understood His death not through the lens of Isaiah’s more or less original text in its original context (as reconstructed above), but already by the lens of the later interpretation of Isaiah 53 as exemplified in LXX?”

            My response was that Jesus’ contemporaries (in Palestine) would not likely have been using the LXX – some hellenistic Jews could have, but the majority of mainstream Jews used Hebrew and Aramaic for religious discourse. (And Peliken says nothing about the situation in Palestine – his chapter is about the diaspora, which is entirely different.)

  5. Friends, This is totally off of the topic of Buddhism, but it kind of relates to the subject of Orthodoxy theology and what is permissible for a Greek/Russian/American (and in other nations: Japan, Finland, Latvia, Romania, Serbia, etc.), to learn from non-Orthodox philosophy, which is acceptable as a theologoumenon or as a philosophical principle not in conflict with Orthodox Christian/Byzantine Orthodox philosophy, as suggested by Constantine Cavarnos, and the Greek church’s selective use of Plato, Aristotle, and whatever ancient philosophy, in defending Orthodox Christian theological concepts? My study of philosophy suggests to me that some existentialist themes from Danish Lutheran philosopher Soren A. Kierkegaard (1813-1855 AD) and Scottish Catholic philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308 AD), are interesting for an Orthodox (American) Christian (such as myself). Coming from a Lutheran (and Pentecostal), non-Orthodox background, I wonder what the mainstream Orthodox theologians are thinking, and what influences they permit in their theologizing? Such as Yannaras, and so on, and David Bentley Hart? And Richard Swinburne? What does the Greek Orthodox philosopher make of the Fransciscan Catholic philosophy of Scotism (John Duns Scotus), at least, only, in limiting the thinking to Scotus’ concepts of “haecceitas” (haecceity, “thisness”) and its relation to his concept of “individuation”.? See: Duns Scotus, John. (2005). Early Oxford Lecture On Individuation. Latin Text and English Translation. Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M. Saint Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute. God save us all. All of you, Christ remember in His Kingdom. LORD Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us; Remember us, O LORD, in Thy Kingdom. Amen. In Pennsylvania Scott R. Harrington February 2014 AD

  6. Overall, it is a good article, but I want to make some critical comments:

    1. Be careful about too readily acknowledging Protestant liberal scholarship as assumed fact. The Church has consistently understood the whole of Isaiah as being written by Isaiah of Jerusalem. The hypothesis of a second and third Isaiah is not nearly as strongly evidenced as some might lead you to believe. For example, the exile is referred to in the future tense in Isaiah 43. In addition, all three parts of Isaiah allude to the same favorite texts, especially Deuteronomy 32. Common phraseology might be explained by later redaction, but allusion subtly permeates the structure of the whole book, making it very hard to explain by redaction. Furthermore, allusions in the first part of the book are completed by allusions in the last. Isaiah 1 echoes Deuteronomy 32s pronouncement of judgment, while Isaih 65-66 echoes the promise of restoration. Isaiah 1 doesn’t make sense apart from Isaiah 65-66. Other portions of the book, such as Isaiah 34, also echo the Song of Moses. Finally, Daniel 9:24-27 evokes resonance with Isaiah 53:10. Since Daniel was written before the return under Cyrus (if you acknowledge the tradition about Daniel’s authorship), this requires “second Isaiah” to be written before the exile. It is not heretical to say that multiple authors composed the book of Isaiah, but it does strain the traditional Patristic understanding- and I think it strains the internal evidence as well.

    2. I would have liked to see more interaction with the context of Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53 comes as the climax of the prophecy of restoration in Isaiah 40-55. Israel has been exiled from the Land just as Adam was exiled from Paradise, so at the return from exile, God restores Paradise. Compare Isaiah 55:13 with Genesis 3:18, as well as Isaiah 51. The restoration of Israel took place through the resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, so that all who are in the Messiah are members of the covenant people.

    3. I reject the notion that Isaiah 53 has a double application to Jerusalem in the flesh and the Messiah. Rather, there is a trajectory running from Isaiah 40 to Isaiah 55. Israel is called to be the light of nations, but she herself is blind. God summons Cyrus to bring his people back home, but when they come back to the land, they still possess a foreskinned heart and the true restoration does not happen. There is no peace, sighs God, for the wicked. Hence, in Isaiah 49 God focuses Israel’s election onto one person- God names the Servant “Israel” but summons the Servant to bring the remnant back from exile and fulfill Israel’s calling as light to the nations.

    4. Isaiah 53 is about the return of the Lord to Zion. Check the context of Isaiah 52. From eye to eye they see the Lord returning to Zion. “How beautiful are the feet of him who proclaims the good news.” The good news is that God has become king. And what does that look like? It looks like the crucified Jew of Isaiah 53, who takes on Himself the exile of death and returns from exile into the land of the living. This is why 52:13 describes the Servant as “high and lifted up” and “exalted.” Isaiah 6 has the Lord sitting on His throne, “high and lifted up.” Isaiah 2 describes the nations streaming to Zion when the Lord “rises to terrify the Earth.” On that day, says the prophet, the Lord alone will be exalted.

    5. Isaiah 53 is a reversal of Isaiah 14. In Isaiah 14, the king of Babylon lifts himself up and is brought down to Sheol, where he astonishes the kings of the Earth by his humility. In Isaiah 53, the Servant (by implication, the king of Zion) humbles Himself but is then lifted up- astonishing the kings of the Earth by his exaltation.

    6. I liked your point about Romans 11 and the Jewish people embodying the Messiah’s casting off for the sake of the world, but I would nuance it. It’s not so much about them serving as a substitute like the Messiah did. The Messiah was born in the likeness of sinful (that is, corruptible) flesh according to Romans 8:3. He took on flesh so that He might transform Israel into an incorrupt people. Adamic flesh is cast off at the Cross, and He rises from the dead in a glorious body animated by the Spirit. Hence, ethnic Israel, being “in the flesh” is cast off in the death of the Messiah. In the resurrection, the people of God is newly constituted as a risen, animated-by-the-divine-glory people. 11:15, then, is not about the general resurrection being launched by a mass conversion of Jews. Rather, it is Paul asserting that God is fully ready to welcome the Jew back into his own olive tree if he is baptized into the Messiah. If they have been cast off in the flesh of the Messiah, can they also not find life in His resurrection? “All Israel shall be saved” is a play on “All who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Israel of God is the Church.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to be long-winded or overly critical. 😛

    1. Seraphim,

      I’m not sure there is much difference in viewing the book as a whole or as three separate sections composed at different times, but to me, and I emphasize that this is a personal preference, I find more meaning in seeing Deutero-Isaiah as being contemporary with the events it depicts, i.e. as a contemporary reflection by the Jews as a whole as they come to terms with what has happened. This is how real life happens. Tragedy strikes, and then we scramble to make some sense out of our faith that has been challenged and shaken to the core by that tragedy. Now, I am a scholar in the secular world besides being an Orthodox Christian, and I don’t believe the secular scholarship, either in regard to the authorship of Isaiah or Daniel, conflicts with the Orthodox Faith, and I’m not alone in that view either. The Fathers wrote in their time with the knowledge they had at the time. We do the same.

      As a historian, I try to find a contemporary context for prophecy, not just the future context fulfilled by Christ. Whether it is the Syro-Ephraimite war and the Emmanuel prophecy or the Exile in Isaiah 53, for me, it needs to make sense for them there, not just for me here, though to be sure, there are many things that don’t makes sense until Christ comes.

      I will probably write up a more detailed post on Romans 9-11 (mainly as a rebuttal to Calvinist readings), but that will have to wait for a later time.

      1. I started out by seeing Isaiah as three separate sections- because of the allusive resonances created by the various parts of the book, however, I came to see it more and more as a unity. I agree, though, that it’s not a hill to die on. I agree about finding the context of the events, but one thing that has piqued my interest lately is an approach to Isaiah 40-55 within the context of preexilic Judah- it sees the description of the enemies of Israel as being shaped by the Assyrian empire, which is interesting. The book of Daniel, however, is a book which I don’t see much middle ground on. If it was written during the Maccabean period, it’s a forgery that includes after-the-fact prophecies of the Maccabean War. I enjoy the work of Kenneth Kitchen and Edwin Yamauchi on the historical context of Daniel in the Babylonian empire. Kitchen in particular did some excellent work on linguistic indications of the date of the book.

        I look forward to your post on Romans 9-11. That is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. I finally came to understand the passage once I sought out the Old Testament resonances. I have a post on Romans 9 here if you’re interested in reading:

        1. Regarding Daniel, I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game, where it becomes a forgery and is thus worthless. I think it (at least parts of it – Daniel is a textual tradition compiled of several pieces written in three different languages) can be an accurate apocalyptic understanding of the Hellenistic period *and* be significant prophecy of the Messiah. Also, I don’t view prophecy as being always or necessarily predictive of future events. It can be contemporaneous reaction to events as well – the application of the Word of Yahweh to whatever is going on. Apocalypticism as a genre is pseudepigraphic (the only exception may be the Revelation of St. John), so trying to place it within the 5th century really does violence to the integrity of the text as reflecting the genre of apocalyptic literature. But, we’ll probably have to disagree here, and I don’t want to take the debate too far afield on this post, which is about the atonement.

          1. I understand your concern, so I’ll just make a few final comments here.

            1. I agree that prophecy is not only predictive. Oftentimes it is a divine lawsuit against the people for their unfaithfulness to the covenant. Other times it is a divine interpretation of contemporary political events. But sometimes prophecy is predictive, and that is the case with Daniel, which is explicitly presented as predictive prophecy.

            2. I have trouble seeing how texts like Daniel 7 and Daniel 9 could be applied both to the Hellenistic period and to the period of the Roman Empire. The prophetic sequence depends on each kingdom having only one referent, so that in the days of the fourth kingdom God establishes His eternal kingdom. The Maccabean hypothesis would argue that this is a failed attempt at prophesying the complete restoration of Israel after the fall of Antiochus IV. Traditionally, the Fathers have said (and they explicitly argued against the Maccabean hypothesis) that the fourth kingdom is Rome, and Christ established the kingdom of God during the days of the Roman Emperors.

            3. Part of the way that Daniel has been dated is by finding where Daniel’s prophecies fail. It is then said that the author lived before the point of failure and was trying to attempt genuine prophecy. It becomes very difficult to argue that Daniel is in any way inspired when the dating scheme rests on the idea that some of the prophecies were false.

            4. The idea that apocalyptic literature is of necessity pseudipigraphal is itself based on the idea that Daniel is pseudipigraphal. By the Second Temple period, the Jewish people were conscious of the fact that the classical age of Israelite literature had passed- so they attempted to imitate it and attributed their work to an ancient Biblical figure. If Daniel was a forgery, then the author would attribute the book to a figure that had never played any role in the Bible. I would suggest that the genre of apocalypticism was itself generated by texts like Daniel. The Jewish people imitated literature that was already revered, and the fact that a second century BC copy of Daniel was found at Qumran demonstrates that the book had a very wide acceptance- which is odd if it had just been written fifty years earlier and had its attempts at prophecy refuted within a couple years.

          2. That’s a great point. It makes no sense to say Daniel is pseudepigraphal if Daniel himself is unknown outside of that writing. Better to use a known figure (such as Enoch).

  7. OH one more thing. The language of “vessels of wrath” is drawn straight out of Jeremiah 18. In Jeremiah 18 God is working at His wheel to accomplish a purpose through the clay. The clay “spoils” in the hand of the potter so that God “reworks it” in order to accomplish His purpose through it despite the clay’s unfaithfulness. The key is Romans 7, which is the voice of Israel in exile. The Torah which promised life (in Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 28-30) proved to be death (exile is death, see Ezekiel 37) to Israel. God was drawing all the powers of darkness into one spot, where they would be suddenly crushed by the one in whom Israel’s election is focused, that is, the Messiah. God used Israel’s unfaithfulness to bless the world. The clay spoiled in the potters hand, but He still accomplished His purpose through the clay.

  8. I have not ever doubted Christ’s Atonement as Sacrifice and an Offering for sin, even as an Orthodox, but my spiritual and ethical difficulties with the implications of popular Evangelical and more Reformed presentations of PSA are what eventually drove me into what turned out to be Orthodoxy. The key for me was understanding Christ’s Sacrifice (and the OT sacrifices) as expiatory (in terms of what change is foreshadowed/effected through it) rather than propitiatory where that is taken to mean appeasement of a wrathful or offended “God.” It was very healing for me to learn the latter notion was blasphemous from an Orthodox perspective, since this is the conviction I had formed in the years prior to becoming Orthodox as well (H/T to St. Gregory the Theologian for clarifying that latter issue from an Orthodox perspective rather definitively in the context of the Ransom theories of his day).

    The only “penal” aspect I would expect to find in the Fathers is in the sense it is discussed in Hebrews 12–that is, as chastisement and correction (i.e., what some have termed “restorative justice”), not as “punishment” as an end in itself through which the offended party exacts retribution/vengeance on the offenders. May God grant that what is “out of joint” in our understanding of the nature of Christ’s work of Atonement also be healed. Thanks for this contribution, Eric.


    1. Romans 3:25
      Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,

      Hebrews 2:17
      Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

      1 John 2:2
      And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

      1 John 4:10
      In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

      We don’t have to ditch terminology just because some group of Christians decide to distort the meaning. Christ is definitely a propitiation.

      1. Romans 3:25 – The word is hilasterion. This is rightly translated “expiate,” as it is in several English translations.

        Hebrews 2:17 – The word is hilaskomai. Also rightly translated “expiate,” as noted by LSJ.

        1 John 2:2 – The word is hilasmos. When compared to Ezek. 44:27 and 2 Macc. 3:33 of the Septuagint, this is a word related to the atonement or sin offering. Expiation is a valid translation here, too (note RSV-CE, for example).

        1 John 4:10 – Same as 2:2 above.

        While propitiation has come into the English language and our translations, one could argue this is due to translator and theological bias, not accuracy. Just as many translations use “expiate” in every one of these verses (such as the RSV-CE). FWIW.

        1. IIRC hilaskomai is also used in Greek literature to mean “propitiate.” At any rate, my contention is that the difference between “propitiate” and “expiate” is phenomenological – the former describing the action of the worshipper (which I say is rightly “faith”) and the latter describing the effect of the sacrifice itself. Christ does “propitiate” the Father – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

          Hebrews 2:17 uses the verb with the direct object, hilaskesthai tas hamartias “To expiate sins” One would “propitiate” a deity, but “expiate” sins. The translation “propitiation for sins,” IMO, is incorrect.

          1 John 2:2, hilasmos is used with the prepositional phrase peri twn hamartiwn hmwn “concerning our sins.” Propitiation might work best here. The immediate, preceding context speaks of Christ as an “advocate” with the Father, so propitiation is definitely in view here.

          1 John 4:10, Same prepositional phrase, which might lean toward “propitiation,” but, since “God” is the one doing the “sending,” expiation might be better.

          Notice one thing – none of these examples uses hilasterion which I define as “place of atonement” following the Greek morpheme of place -rion. We might describe then, the dual nature of the highpriesthood of Christ – as propitiator, the one who offers himself to the Father as a propitiation, and as the expiator, the one who is offered as an expiating sacrifice.

          1. Part of the difficulty is that these are English terms with their own baggage. What I want to affirm is that there is divine wrath and judgment that does more than heal the one being judged. If God wipes out a rapist, is He healing the rapist? Of course not. But He’s not judging simply to judge. He’s healing creation by taking away something which has opposed itself to creation. That’s why judgment is so celebrated in the Psalms and Prophets. The Lord comes to judge the Earth! Arise O God, judge the Earth, for you will inherit all the nations!

            Stephen Finlan says that the best rendering of hilasterion in Romans 3:25 is “mercy seat”, which would make good sense. If you read this together with Jacob Milgrom’s work on the holiness laws and sacrificial system in Leviticus, then it fits really well. The Tabernacle (a microcosm of the creation) is cleansed of death through what happens at the mercy seat. Likewise, the Messiah renews creation by identifying fully in its suffering and pain on the Cross, turning them back in the resurrection.

            I’d want to say, re propitiation and expiation, that they aren’t necessarily opposed to each other. We escape the wrath of God not by being blocked from it, but rather, through Christ and the Spirit, being turned into that which is no longer an object of wrath. Had we remained in the flesh, we would have been destroyed since we were unable to fulfill our human calling as image-bearers. But Christ descended to the depths of our lowliness and raised us to the heights of his glory, thereby enabling us to fulfill our calling and escape the wrath of God. In that way, it’s not propitiation or expiation, but propitiation through expiation.

          2. Forgive me if this comment ends up being a repeat, but my computer pages are not loading properly, and a comment I attempted to post appears to have gotten derailed.

            Thank you Gabe, Eric, and Seraphim for those translation clarifications for AJ. This is what I had understood as well.

            “Propitiation through expiation” (where God’s wrath is averted because of a real change effected in humanity through union with Christ) I can accept as Orthodox, but in contrast to popular Evangelical and Reformed explanations of “propitiation,” I think this Orthodox view can just as accurately be called “expiation,” for short. I could be wrong, but I have always understood “propitiation” in Evangelical and Reformed Protestant explanation as inferring an actual change in God’s intent toward humankind as a result of Christ’s sacrifice (and absent any real change in “redeemed” humanity). Fr. James Bernstein, raised in an Orthodox Jewish context, claims that the Jewish understanding of sacrifice is expiatory. This would make sense when you consider that sacrifices, if offered sincerely, necessarily reflected and represented repentance on the part of the offerer. Sacrifices offered hypocritically were not acceptable to God (however perfectly they fulfilled the letter of the Law), whereas a “broken and contrite” heart, in contrast to (merely ritual) sacrifice, is what actually effects our reconciliation with God according to Psalm 50 (51).

            Jesus’ prayer for the Father to forgive us from the Cross certainly takes a propitiatory form, but I have some difficulty calling it true propitiation (in the sense I understand this) for a few reasons. First, do we really believe, given everything else we are told in the Scriptures about God’s plan of salvation in Christ (including John 3:16 and Revelation’s description of Christ as the Lamb “slain from before the foundation of the world”), that even if Jesus had not voiced this prayer, the Father would not have forgiven? I doubt it. John 12:49-50 as well as John 14:9-11 are reasons why I believe Jesus’ prayer here (as well as elsewhere in the Scriptures) is for the sake of revealing the will of the Father, not an appeal to God to change His mind, much less something that would actually effect such a change.

  9. I have waited 6 long years for this post!

    Isaiah 53 has been just flat out impossible for me to understand as an Orthodox Christian.

    Having been raised on the Reformed and Baptist gospels of satisfaction and pen-sub atonement, I found it difficult to see anything but that in Is. 53

    At last, someone explained it in a way that I get it.

    You are a God send Eric Jobe !!!

    “Ka-rip!” Zip! Bang! OBU!

    1. Scott, good to see a fellow Bison here. Were we at OBU at the same time? Please contact me at ejobe AT uchicago DOT edu – I would like to talk with you more.

  10. Thanks for this post it has been very helpful in a number of ways. I have a question regarding a phrase used when the vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy from Romans 9 are being discussed. In the article it says “the vessels of wrath bear the wrath of God upon sin” could anyone clarify what is meant by this. It seems very much akin to the language used by PSA advocates. I may be missing some detail that would help me understand but I’m curious about that phrase. Thanks!

    1. That was a bit adventurous on my part to write that, I admit, as I had been studying that passage quite a bit for a conference paper, and the connection just came to me. It is not PSA, because the wrath that is born is not a punishing wrath but an expiating wrath. Keep in mind, what Orthodoxy does not generally accept is “penal” substitutionary atonement, not substitutionary atonement itself, which is undeniably biblical, and even many of the Fathers such as St. John Chrysostom can often be seen to describe even PSA. The “vessels of wrath,” i.e. those who are chosen to bear the wrath of God instead of being saved from it, are the actual agents of cleansing. In them, sin is expiated. Jerusalem is destroyed, Christ is crucified bearing the sins of the world, and unbelieving Jews, and indeed all unbelievers bear their unbelief by being hardened by God himself. But, in Romans 11, St. Paul says that even these unbelieving Jews who have been hardened will receive mercy. So these vessels of wrath are not utterly destroyed. Jerusalem is rebuilt, Christ is risen from the dead, and the Jews – well, we wait to see what God will do. God’s wrath is directed against these objects in order to expiate and destroy the sins that they bear, and they do so as substitutions. Jerusalem bears the wrath of God for the exiles, Christ for the whole world, and the Jews were hardened, Paul says, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, i.e. they were hardened so that the Gentiles might be saved. The typology works, IMO. If you disagree, I welcome further discussion.

      1. Thanks very much for the reply, I really appreciate it. Could you please elaborate on what you mean when you say “wrath of God”? And on that note what is an expiating wrath? I think it would be very helpful to me in better understanding your reply if you clarified what you mean by wrath. My other question has to do with Christ being an agent of cleansing and thus bearing the wrath of God instead of being saved from it. Is it only the Father’s wrath that is born by Christ? Does God the Son or the Holy Spirit also have wrath? Also this last one is unrelated but are you Orthodox? Thanks for the work your doing to help people better understand the Biblical language around the atonement!

        1. When I or anyone speaks of the “wrath of God” what must be understood is a particular manifestation of the uncreated energies of God, and as such there is not ontological difference in it from what we call “grace” or the “love of God,” for all of the energies of God are united towards accomplishing the will of God, which is the salvation and redemption of all creation. Yet his works are diverse in the context of wisdom – “How manifold are Thy works, O Lord / In wisdom hast Thou made them all” – wisdom that adapts the energies of God to specific situations and people. So, when we speak of “wrath” we are speaking of the energies of God directed toward sin, which is at once expiating, cleansing, and corrective. To those who repent, the wrath of God is not a destructive force, but life-giving, and it is experienced as chastening. To those who do not repent, the wrath of God is destructive, as sin itself must be cleansed. Christ bears the sins of the world and thus bears the wrath of God as it expiates those sins. The wrath of God is ultimately one, belonging to the whole Trinity, as the actions of the Trinity are all in perfect unity, though we may see certain interactions between the persons, such as the Agony in the Garden. But, Christ is raised from the dead, Jerusalem is rebuilt, all Israel will be saved, so that those who do bear the wrath of God are ultimately saved, at least from a large-scale, typological point-of-view. And, yes, I am Orthodox as are all of us who write on this blog.

          1. Thanks for your prompt and incredibly helpful replies! Your last comment helped tremendously in clarifying things. I appreciate you contributing this article. Sometimes I’m afraid that my only view on the Atonement is a snide distaste for PSA so I’m glad to have this to help better understand the Sacrificial aspect from an Orthodox point of view. I have been exploring Orthodoxy since about last July and am hoping to begin my Catechism this Summer. I’m grateful for the work you’ve done to help me have a better knowledge of the Atonement. Have a great day!

  11. Eric,

    I appreciate your take on the Hebrew and the LXX and the language of Palestine. My impression as one who has spent time studying these things is that you are correct. Palestinian Jews were mostly going to speak in Aramaic and learn in Aramaic. The scrolls attest to that.

    What I would like to add is that contrary to what Gabriel Martini asserts, the quotes in the New Testament are not mostly LXX. They are a variety some agreeing with the LXX, some with the Masoretic text, some differing from both. The evidence from the scrolls in Palestine shows that the text of the Hebrew scriptures were far from fixed at this time and that it seems common for the writers of the New Testament to choose texts forms with which they were familiar which would be fitting for the point they were trying to make. The book of Hebrews is a great case in which the LXX is usually followed.

    I would also like to affirm what you said about the LXX text being far from uniform. I would be worried if the issues were made simpler than they are. There are many difficulties with arriving at an “original text” for the LXX including corrections toward the New Testament and corrections towards the Masoretic/proto-Masoretic text.

    Wondering if you have read Richard Longenecker’s book Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period. He has a very clear way of presenting evidence of what was available to the New Testament writers and how they handled the scriptures. It is an excellent read.


  12. @ Eric, could you explain me the whole message behind 1 John 2:1-3, especially how the advocacy of Jesus works. Thanks.

  13. Dear Eric,

    I’ve been doing some reading on Old Testament sacrifice, and I think you misunderstand its rationale. Describing OT sacrifice as substitutionary punishment (the victim dies in place of the offerer), ignores several details from the Old Testament text.

    First, most sacrifices were not sin offerings but rather whole burnt offerings (acts of worship) and peace offerings (acts of fellowship with God and the sacred community).

    Second, the crucial moments of sacrifice were the offering of the animals’ blood and meat to God, not the killing of the animal. Only the former were explicitly performed by the priests (God’s agents), whereas the latter was probably performed by the offerer. Killing the animal was simply a prerequisite for obtaining the blood and meat to offer, and the OT text pays little attention to it. All of this undermines the idea that the significance of sacrifice is to be found in the death of the victim. Rather, it is found in the friend-making gifts of meat (symbolizing hospitality and fellowship) and pure blood (symbolizing dedication of life).

    Third, the idea of substitutionary punishment is abhorrent to OT morality. Ezekiel 18:20-24, RSV: “The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, he shall die.”

    Fourth, (as a corollary to what I just said) in the OT there were no sacrifices for those sins punishable by death (serious sins intentionally committed, “with a high hand”). Other sins could be resolved through sacrifice, but these sins could only be resolved through the execution of the offender: “If one person sins unwittingly, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who commits an error, when he sins unwittingly, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unwittingly, for him who is native among the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.” (Numbers 15:27-31, RSV)

    Fifth, only one Hebrew ritual explicitly depicts “sin symbolically placed upon the sacrificial victims” (quoted from your blog), and that is not a sacrifice. It is the rite of the scapegoat, where the animal is not sacrificed but rather sent into the wilderness. The ritual instructions for sacrifices include the offerer laying hands upon the animal but no confession of sins over the animal. This laying of hands should not be read in terms of the scapegoat ritual; for, in fact, these rituals are inverses of one another. After the scapegoat symbolically receives the stain of the people’s sin it is no long fit for offering to God (no longer “unblemished”), but only fit to be cast out of the holy community. When it comes to sacrifices, the offerer lays hands in order to identify himself with the purity of the animal, so that as it goes to God so might he.

    A more authentic perspective on OT sacrifice is ably summarized by scholar William Gilders here:

    1. Fr. Jeremy, I won’t quibble with your points above, which are good, other than to say that, I suppose, I am getting to the substitutionary aspect of the sacrifice in a more round-about way (forgive me, it’s been some time since I wrote the piece, and it may be that I would phrase things differently now). My main point is the necessity of purifying the Holy Land from sin, which, according to Deuteronomistic theology would be accomplished by the destruction of the people if they worshipped idols. My contention is that Deutero-Isaiah understood the destruction of Jerusalem as accomplishing this very thing, i.e. that the destruction was a kind of purification akin to herem (the ban). Yet, the Exiles were somehow saved from this fate, a fate that nevertheless was suffered by “The Suffering Servant,” i.e. Jerusalem itself. Therefore, they were saved from that destruction by being taken into exile, yet the land itself was purified by the destruction, i.e. the sins of the people were laid upon it, per Is 53. Thanks for interacting with the post in such a thorough manner. If I have time later, perhaps I will revisit it. BTW, I see you are from St. Elijah OKC. I got my start in Orthodoxy as an inquirer there while I was a student at OBU.

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