I noticed that my friend Tony Jones is frustrated with Hebrews (an anonymous epistle in the New Testament) for its atonement theory. I wrote a chapter on atonement and eucharist in my most recent book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? I knew I had to deal with Hebrews and so dug in for a thorough study of the whole epistle, heavily resourced by Girardian/mimetic approaches to the text.
I became convinced that Hebrews actually argues against blood atonement theory, although its argument doesn’t work in the same way modern arguments do (which, I find, is often the case in the New Testament!).*** First a quotes from early in that chapter of my book:
Will the Bible be the sword by which we cut off and threaten “the other”? Or will the Bible point beyond itself, directing us to Jesus who offers to his disciples the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19)—or, we might say, to pick and choose? For those who choose the latter approach, the Bible is transformed from the sword of combat to the scalpel of surgery—for self-examination and self-critique, exposing our own hostility so that we can join God in compassion for all people and solidarity with the other (Hebrews 4:12–16).
It’s interesting to see the sword metaphor not used aggressively in Hebrews, but for the purpose of self-examination, echoing Jesus’ teaching about dealing with one’s own planks before others’ splinters.
Next is a single long footnote from the eucharist/atonement chapter (slightly edited for this setting). It offers a brief overview of atonement in Hebrews:
This is the message of the Epistle to the Hebrews, as I understand it. Hebrews is not seeking to explain Jesus inside the framework of blood sacrifice, thus validating that framework (as the epistle is commonly read). Instead, Hebrews argues that in Jesus, the whole idea of sacrifice is put behind us “once and for all” (9:28), because blood sacrifice was never what God really wanted or needed (10:8). God has always wanted far more for us than forgiveness alone (10:18): God wants to change our hearts (10:16) so that we do God’s will (13:21)—which is a life of love and good works (10:24) in service to all people. In this, we follow Jesus’ example (12:2), who endured hostility—without responding in kind (12:3). In so doing, we “pursue peace with everyone” (12:14) so that “filial love” will continue and we will show “hospitality to strangers” (13:1), always empathizing with those who are imprisoned and tortured (13:3). The old altar mind-set is the mind-set of insiders (13:10), but Jesus has identified himself with outsiders (13:12). So the old sacrificial system is left behind forever, and now, sacrifice (in the sense of a holy gift) remains in two senses only: first, “the sacrifice of praise … the fruit of lips that confess his name” (recalling Psalm 50, which is itself a fascinating reflection on sacrifice), and second, doing good and sharing with others, “for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (13:15–16).
I know that verses from Hebrews are often extracted as proof texts for traditional atonement theory, but as Tony wisely said in his post, that kind of prooftexting is singularly unhelpful. (I think my use of references above is more like footnoting than prooftexting. I’m not trying to shut down conversation by quoting a verse, but rather “showing my work” by making clear where in the text I’m rooting my proposals.)
But even if we play the proof-texting game, it’s worth noting:
Hebrews 9:22 is frequently quoted to validate traditional atonement theory.
But what happens if we hold it up to Hebrews 10:8?
It turns out that there is a major argument in the Hebrew Scriptures between the priestly voices that say blood sacrifice is required and the poets and prophets that say the opposite. Most striking, of course, is Hosea 6:6, which Jesus references (Matthew 9:13) and adds the words, “Now go and learn what this means.” Jesus, I believe, was siding with the prophets and poets who said that blood atonement was never the point … I believe Paul does the same, and so does the writer of Hebrews. (Again, mimetic theory has so much to offer in helping explain how first human sacrifice and then animal sacrifice played a role in human evolution.)
That’s why the Melchizedek reference is so intriguing. By holding up Jesus as an alternative kind of priest (“in the order of Melchizedek”), the writer in a sense “trumps” the Levitical priesthood by going back to a pre-Mosaic era, something more original. (Paul, I think, does the same thing in Romans – going back before Moses to Abraham in Romans 4, and then to Adam in Romans 5. Can’t get much more original than that!) This instinct is, I think, akin to many of us referencing Celtic or pre-Constantinian Christian figures today to marginalize Constantinian assumptions in our tradition. Anyway, Hebrews moves in this way to marginalize/de-absolutize the Levitical/Mosaic priesthood – and with it, sacrifice, the Temple, circumcision, and the idea of clean-unclean, “once and for all.”
This subject is so important, and I was thrilled to learn that Tony is going to be writing a lot more about it in the future. I frequently recommend his “Better Atonement” - and am glad to know that won’t be his last word on the subject.
***For example, rabbinic rhetoric didn’t seem to have a problem using a widely-accepted premise to make a point, without necessarily endorsing that premise as absolutely and universally true. The point was (often) simply to root an argument in the tradition. We might similarly today make a point with a reference to “Icarus flying too close to the sun” without in so doing endorsing all of Greek mythology. Ancient writers loved the Scriptures, but that doesn’t mean they read them with all the philosophical assumptions of Cartesian foundationalism!