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Understanding the Scriptures


Question & Answer


Albert Gentleman from Pakse, Laos writes:

As a recent evolving Progressive Christian I have started reading Marcus Borg’s “Evolution of the Word”. Wonderful book. But as I was reading I noticed many scriptures that made reference to Jesus dying/sacrifice for our sins. Where did all these scriptures come from and when were they written? How do we understand them?

Answer: By Fred Plumer

Dear Albert,

Yes, the idea the Jesus died for our sins, or sinful nature, is really one of the causes for so many people turning their backs on Christianity today. The truth is that the word atonement was hijacked my Paul primarily from the Book of Leviticus where it is used 52 times.(It shows up briefly in seven other books in the Old Testament) The Book of Leviticus was in large part a guide for Leviticus Priest who were expected to be very pure. However atonement is clearly an opportunity to clear one’s name if you have broken one of their rules. Over the years the Conservative Jews have adopted the rules of Leviticus to live by and in my opinion, fail to understand how the Leviticus Priest followed the law and how it was to be used. (This is another story.)

Paul was a contemporary of Jesus but never knew him and frankly had huge battles with Jesus’ disciples. I suppose, Paul was trying to figure out why Jesus had to die and possibly came up with the idea that it was for the sins of society. This was a very different idea than the established use of atonement where only individuals could atone for breaking one of the Jewish laws. This could be satisfied by offering a sacrifice. But according to Paul, it was a done deal. Our sins are atoned when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord. He did not believe, however, in the physical Resurrection.

However, over the next 60-70 years as the other writers of the New Testament were developing their own versions of the Jesus story, all different by the way, some of them developed another idea. That was that we would “saved” by believing the Jesus story the way they told it. That included the bodily resurrection by a couple of writers. But none of the gospel writers believed that there was atonement of society or believers or for an unlawful act. You have to remember that the people of the Old Testament were living in a very different world than the people of the New Testament. Granted both had hard lives, however, Jesus does not speak of atonement nor was it part of Jewish life, except once a year during the holidays, for righting a wrong with a sacrifice in the Temple.

That is why you have to read the stories with an openness and understanding of how they were living, what did the people know and what did they believe. That is why I focus first on understanding their conditions, their wants, and what information they had. They were still living on a flat earth, walked or rode donkeys wherever they went, most of them were terribly poor and lived in a very small area. However, Jesus managed to see beyond all of that. He did not agree with the Leviticus Priest, was not a big fan of the Temple and lived far away from the city. And, he never mentions atonement, nor did he believe in it, certainly not as the reason for his death.

Now fast forward approximately 300 hundred years and the Catholic Church was born, under Constantine’s watch. The Priests were masters of manipulation and battled to ultimately settle on something like the Nicene Creed or the Constantinopolitan Creed. Frankly, little has changed in “Rome.” Jesus dying for sins became the “law.”

~ Fred Plumer, President

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

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