Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Are Christians Saved by the Blood of Jesus?

The blood that Jesus is believed to have shed on the cross has inspired hymns (William Cowper, "There is a Fountain filled with Blood" 1772), has been made the subject of movie films (Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ" 2004—garishly bloody), and if memory serves, evoked many (forgettable) sermons. It is striking, however, that the death of Jesus in the synoptic gospels is described as a bloodless event.1 Jesus is struck, beaten, scourged, and crucified, but blood is not mentioned. John (20:20, 25) and the Gospel of Peter (6:1) allude, after the event, to his hands being nailed in the act of crucifying him. But the only actual mention of blood during the crucifixion comes in the Gospel of John when "one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water" (19:34), prompted no doubt by the early Christian belief in prophecy (John 19:36-37; Zech 12:10)—so blood had to be spilled because it was prophesied. That the crucifixion was a bloody affair seems due to later Christian imagination, but not to the imagination of the evangelists who described the crucifixion.

How, then, did the idea that one "is saved by the blood of Jesus" enter into Christianity? It was not the only interpretation of the death of Jesus available to the earliest followers of Jesus. For example Phil 2:5-11, a pre-Pauline hymn, understands Jesus' death on the cross as an exaltation of Jesus with no reference to blood or even to the resurrection of Jesus. Acts 2:22-24, 32-33 interprets the significance of the death of Jesus as resurrection and exaltation; no blood is mentioned. The centurion present at the death of Jesus in Luke (23:47) described his death as the death of a righteous (dikaios) man, but the centurion in Mark (15:39) proclaimed his death as that of a divine man (theos anēr).

            In the earliest Pauline letter Paul describes Jesus' death as a "killing" (cf. Acts 2:23) rather than a crucifixion (1 Thess 2:14-16). He adds later, almost as an afterthought, that his death was "for us" (1 Thess 5:10); no blood is mentioned.2 In the later Pauline letters, however, the "killing" of Jesus becomes the crucifixion of Jesus (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2, 8) and Jesus' blood, shed in our behalf, becomes essential in describing the salvation event (Rom 3:24-25, 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16, 11:24-27).

            Those writers of the New Testament who came later than Paul were also insistent that the blood of Jesus was essential for the salvation of human beings. The blood of Jesus appears in the deutero-Pauline essays as a standard feature in describing the salvation event (Eph 1:7, 2:13; Col 1:20; blood was added to Col 1:14 by a later scribe). The author of Hebrews is, perhaps, rather dogmatic about the necessity of Jesus' blood being shed when he writes, "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22; cf. 9:7, 9:12, 9:14, 10:19, 13:11-12).3 The necessity that the blood of Jesus be shed is well documented in the Apostolic Fathers (1 Clement 7:4; 12:7, 49:6; Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 1:1; 6:1; To the Ephesians 1:1; To the Philadelphians Intro.; Barnabas 5:1).

            The earliest mention of the blood of Jesus appears in the liturgical tradition of the church. Paul inherited the blood idea through the liturgy being passed on to him in what he called the Lord's Supper celebration (1 Cor 11:23-26; see also Mark 14:24; Matt 26:27-28; Luke 22:20; John 6:53-56; Ignatius to the Philadelphians 4:1). The author of Hebrews (9:1-28) makes clear that the necessity of Jesus' blood being spilled came into the Christian tradition through the church's use of the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God (2 Tim 3:15-17). The ancient Hebrews believed that the life of any creature was in its blood. Yahweh had said to Moses:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life (Lev 17:11; cf. 17:14).

It is understandable that a primitive would come to the conclusion that the life of every creature is in its blood by observing that when exsanguination occurs the creature dies. Today, however, we know that life systems are more complicated. For example, one could argue from knowledge of the human circulatory system that the life of a human being resides in the heart, for the heart pumps the blood. One dies when the heart fails without one drop of blood being spilled. Or one might argue on the basis of the human respiratory system that life resides in the lungs, for the lungs oxygenate the blood that circulates oxygen throughout our bodies. In other words, the life systems of mammals are more complicated and the life of the organism is dependent on much more than its blood.

            One passage that confuses the issue is Rom 5:9-11, where Paul says that "we are now justified by his (Jesus) blood" and "now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life." So what saves the Christian, Jesus' blood or his life (resurrection)?

This has been a strange essay since to judge from the Bible God expects people to forgive one another without spilling anyone's blood (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32; Luke 17:3-4). Go figure! Apparently God (if God there be) expects us to do without spilling blood what s/he thought could only be done by spilling blood.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I understand Matt 27:24-25 as being metaphorical, meaning that Pilate was not responsible for Jesus' death rather than as a description of the crucifixion that followed. This incident is not found in the other gospels.
2See Hedrick, "Paul's Cross Gospel and 1 Thessalonians," pgs. 113-15 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Cascade, 2019).
3See also 1 Pet 1:2, 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, 5:9, 12:11.

Monday, May 11, 2020

All Things Work Together for Good (Romans 8:28)

If we judge by Romans 8:28, God (if God there be) is not watching out for all the denizens of this little blue and white planet earth; rather God is only concerned for the welfare of his chosen people. Here are three translations of the text:

  1. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (NIV; RSV and An American Translation are similar).
  2. We know that all things work for good for those who love God who are called according to his purpose (New American Bible for Catholics).
  3. And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (New living Translation).

The word “God” appearing as the subject of the main verb in translations 1 and 3, does not appear in most manuscripts, although the reading is supported by a few very early manuscripts. The United Bible Societies Committee for the establishment of the critical text of the New Testament judged the addition of the noun “God” as subject of the sentence had the character of a natural explanatory addition to the text, since the singular ending to the verb “works together for” (sunergei) suggested a personal subject. Since in Greek a singular verb may take a plural neuter subject, a majority of the committee opted for the subject being “all things” (panta, neuter plural with singular verb). Translations 1 and 3 opted for the minority reading.1 Translation 2 apparently followed the rationale employed by the United Bible Societies Committee.

Here is my translation of the text:

And we know that for those who love God, those who are called in accordance with a proposed end, all things work together for good.

The first thing that strikes me is that “all things work together for good” only for those who love God and are called in accordance with a certain proposed end. The rest of humanity is apparently excluded from the expectation that “all things will work together for good” in their lives. The lives of those not chosen and called will be clouded with things not working well; that is to say, there will be complications and disappointments, etc.

What is the “proposed end” to which Paul refers? In his undisputed letters Paul uses the word here translated as “proposed end” (prosthesis) one other time (Rom 9:11). In its context (Romans 9:6-18) the “proposed end” (Rom 9:11) appears to be “God’s proposed end of election,” which is that God’s calling comes to some and not to others. Paul seems to use the terms election/calling/choosing as different ways of describing the same event.2 This act involves God foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying, glorifying certain persons but not others (Rom 8:29-30).

            The difficulty with Paul’s idea that “all things work together for good for those who love God” is that it is simply not true.3 Bad things still happen to good Church folk in this briar patch we call earth, as a glance at any church or synagogue prayer list will prove, particularly as regards personal health issues. Church folk will be found to have as many health issues as the un-churched and they are as susceptible to covid-19 virus as anyone. The truth of the matter is that God (if God there be) does the best s/he can for all of us in the human family, or at least Jesus seemed to think so (Matt 5:45).4

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; United Bible Societies, 1971), 458.
2Calling/choosing: 1 Cor 1:26-28; election/calling: Rom 9:11; election/choosing: Rom 11:5, 7, 28-29.
3See Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981).
4See Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 110.