Restoring Passover to the Cross

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 12.03.06 PMIn his new book, N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, is offering a total reworking of how to understand the cross. One might think such a rethinking is hubristic (as some did last week on my blog) or one might take a more charitable approach and see it as a relocating the older categories into a more biblically nuanced storyline. One thing is clear about most atonement theory books — and I have two of them myself (Jesus and His Death and A Community called Atonement) — is that they do tend to operate with pre-set categories, problems and therefore solutions. Few are narrative-based. Fewer still care about Passover.

Wright wants to resituate the whole into a Passover narrative. Good for Wright, so do I.

In baseball pitching is about location, location, location. In theology, it’s all about narratival location, location, location.

When he comes to Paul he looks at Galatians first, and asks what the letter is about — and we see here Wright’s big picture approach: keep the aim of the cross in view, and what is the aim of the letter according to Wright?

The letter is about unity: the fact that in the Messiah, particularly through his death, the one God has done what he promised Abraham all along. He has given him a single family in which helievingjews and believing Gentiles form one body (234).

He’s right. It’s about the church as a unity, a fellowship of “differents” in the church made of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus as the Messiah and Lord. Hinting at a slightly apocalyptic approach, he says this:

‘Unveiling of truth” is in fact what Galatians is all about. For Paul, the messianic events of Jesus’s death and resurrection (though, like “salvation,” the resurrection is scarcely mentioned here) are all about disclosing the victory that the one God won, through Jesus, over the “powers” that had kept the non-Jewish nations enslaved to their own pseudo-divinities and had likewise kept the Jews themselves enslaved under the power of sin (235).

What does this look like in Galatians? He takes three or four basic passages and relocates them in a Passover narrative framework, though he doesn’t spell out Galatians 5:1’s charter of freedom — a Passover term if ever there was one — enough for me. He begins with 1:3-4 and then to 6:14-16, and then to 4:3-7, now all cited in the NRSV:

Gal. 1:3   Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,  4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

Gal. 6:14 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!  16 As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

Gal. 4:3 So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.  4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Here we have cross effecting the forgiveness of sins, a code expression for the end of exile by means of a new exodus and new passover. This cross-effecting-forgiveness creates the new creation because through that cross and resurrection Jesus conquers the powers (stoicheia) and liberates those who are in him. Thus, in 4:3-7 we see…

… that in a “new Exodus” (the passage is full of Exodus overtones), God has brought his plan to its long promised fruition (the “fullness of time”), so that now all those who were enslaved, Jew and Gentile alike, can be welcomed as ‘sons’ (Israel as “son of God” is another Exodus allusion) (237).

Many will want Wright to explain the classic PSA approach to the curse of the law in Galatians 3:10-14, which Wright also relocates in the Passover narrative:

Israel as a whole will rebel … Israel as a whole will therefore incur the ultimate curse… Then, eventually, there will be restoration (239).

Galatians 3:1-14 thus focuses on the achievement of the cross in undoing the Deuteronomic “curse of exile.” This passage makes it clear that this happens through the representative work of the Messiah, who, because he is Israel’s representative, can therefore appropriately act as substitute.

Which leads to 2:19-20 and the Ego, and the necessary in-Christ-putting to death of former categories, that is in “putting to death all earlier identities” (242).

Thus, Wright sums up Galatians and the cross in two categories:

First, the new Passover has occurred; therefore you are now living in the Spirit-driven “age to come” and must, of course, behave appropriately (244).

Second, as in Galatians 1:4, this new Passover, the victory over the powers of darkness and of the “present evil age,” has been accomplished because the Messiah “gave himself for our sins (245).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.