Jesus died for our sins, so the earliest Christian creed has it (1 Cor 15:1-8). It is one thing to dip that language into the OT sacrificial system and the temple’s language, but how did the “pagans” understand someone like Paul announcing that Jesus died “for our sins”?
Good question. Simon Gathercole, in his tidy little book Defending Substitution examines that question. It would require a long post to summarize unfamiliar names and texts so instead I’ll zoom in on three major ideas in Simon’s third chapter.
First, read Romans 5:7-8 carefully:
Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Big observation: Paul is trading on a commonplace of someone dying for a good person. When the NRSV translates “for a good person” some want to back off that and say “for the good” (it be more abstract), but Simon’s argument is that this is for “a good person“.
The context, however, is the classical world: “Rather, in talking of one person dying for another good or righteous person, the most natural link in Romans 5 is with examples of vicarious death in classical texts (broadly understood). There are a number of such classical works, as we shall see, where this same substitutionary language is used” (90).
Second, here is the big picture of vicarious deaths in the classical world:
In sum, we can see a consistency of language used to describe vicarious deaths, and we have a number of different examples. The earliest example we have looked at goes back to the glory days of classical Athens in the fifth century BCE, in Euripides’s Alcestis. A great deal changes in the five hundred years between Euripides and Paul, but interestingly the tale of Alcestis endures, and she continues to be described as a heroine up to the time of Paul in the first century. We can see this in Musonius Rufus (an exact contemporary of Paul) and the Pomptilla inscriptions. The ideal of death for a friend is held across a wide spectrum of philosophical schools; we have seen examples from Pythagoreans, Stoics, and Epicureans, and the cases we have looked at include Stoics and Epicureans from around the time of Paul. As we noted, the surviving copy of the life of the Epicurean Philonides comes from the first century BCE, and the Stoics Seneca and Epictetus make comments about substitutionary death for friends in the first century CE. So the historical links between Paul and the classical authors we have discussed are close. We do not know if Paul actually knew any of these works or whether the idea of death in someone’s place and some of the characters like Alcestis were just part of the atmosphere. In either case, such works and characters provide a fitting background to Paul’s language in Romans 5 (102-103).
[Thus, the language emerges out of conjugal, friendship, and family contexts.]
Third, for Paul Jesus’ substitutionary death is more unlike those of the classical world.
In sum, it is not simply that Jesus’s death differs from these heroic Greek and Roman deaths. Many of the same elements are there. The theme of vicarious death overall, however, is radically subverted by Paul. In the examples from classical literature, there is first the relationship, and this relationship provides the context that makes the vicarious death at least understandable, even if it is still heroic. In the case of the Christ, however, his death does not conform to any existing philosophical norm. In Romans 5, Christ’s death creates a friendship where there had been enmity.