So I’m reading through a copy of a Scot McKnight‘s new “A Community Called Atonement.” It really is a great book and I’ll write a review of it soon. But something struck me that I wanted to comment on.
At the end of a chapter where Scot explores Jesus’ own interpretation of his death, linking it to Passover, which is the Story of protection from God’s wrath (via the blood of the lamb on the door posts) and God’s liberation from Egypt. But Scot notes that the early church didn’t feel compelled to stick only to this interpretation. That’s Jesus’ interpretation is not privileged. Paul links atonement as much to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) as to the Passover; John’s Gospel drops Kingdom language and talks of ‘eternal life’. And Hebrews links Jesus to the Priesthood and the Temple. And the early church copied Jesus kingdom language and interpretation.
Scot just notes this, but I ask why? Why are they so free to interpret differently?
The answer given by much of critical scholarship is that Jesus never intended his death to be thought of as accomplishing anything between God and man, i.e. Jesus didn’t have an atonement theory and the Church just make up whatever was useful for them at the time. But that is too easy.
Instead I would propose that the disciples had freedom to reinterpret, or go beyond Jesus, because the Hebrew Scripture (the OT) already had interpreted God’s might acts in various way, all complimenting one another. After there is not one covenant, but three between Abraham, Moses, and David. God does and doesn’t want a king, and the king turns into the coming Messiah. God gives the land after the exodus, and then takes it way in the exile. The tension the OT between God’s revealed Law and the order of Wisdom (some think there is a shift from one to the other). The interpretation of the rise of David in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. There are some many strands of salvation in the OT that the early church gathered them all into Jesus, even if he only emphases the Passover.
And isn’t that appropriate? Passover was the beginning for Israel; so too for the church. Jesus interpreted himself as at the beginning of something new, and therefore Passover is his theme, and he lets the disciples reinterpret the rest of the story accordingly. And we continue to this day.