In 1978, it became clear to my director of studies at Christ’s College—a little-known, shy, heavily-bearded young Anglican theologian named Rowan Williams—that I had no clue about how to take a Cambridge University tripos examination in theology. That’s not quite right. I knew how to take it. I just didn’t know how to succeed in it.
So Rowan Williams sent me to the equally young chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge, a New Testament scholar named N. T. (or Tom) Wright. Tom painstakingly led me through the process, including how to write a “gobbet.” “‘A gobbet’ is a small piece of something, like a bit of gum. On the exam, it is a quote, typically from the Bible, and you have to comment upon it,” he explained. “You do this by noting its context, key words and themes, and related texts.” I made it through the exams, even managed to succeed.
For a few decades, Tom and I saw each other only occasionally. Then in 2012 he wrote a lovely endorsement for my Fresh Air: the Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life, and we reknit our friendship, this time not as faculty and student but as peers (if anyone can be Tom’s peer).
Tom asked me if I would read the manuscript of a book he had written. He wanted honest critique. I dished it out, and he asked for more. Over the course of a couple of months in early 2016, Tom and I traded emails bulging with my bald criticisms and his responses. The book became The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion.
At about the same time, Alyce McKenzie asked me to teach a class period on the atonement. Perfect! Providential, even. I had found myself puzzled and challenged by Tom’s approach to Jesus’ death and now had the chance to float my ideas in the collegial context of a class of bright and engaged Perkins School of Theology students.
Here is the gist of what I taught.
Many of us see the crucifixion of Jesus as a problem. It’s so violent. Well, violent or not, it happened. And it was violent. You can avoid all of that, pretend Jesus didn’t die violently. But he did. So we have to deal with it.
How do we deal with it? How do we understand his death? In terms of three images from Romans 3:21-26, especially verses 24-25. Jesus’ death was a justification, a redemption and a propitiation.
In order to understand these incredibly thick words, I’ve typically led students to the agora—the marketplace—at Corinth, which I visited as a college student. (Paul may have written Romans from Corinth.) With a 360 degree turn, Paul could see the bema (high place), the slave market, and the temple of Apollo.
Voila! Paul used the Corinthian agora to explain Jesus’ death.
- Jesus took our penalty so that we could be declared innocent. This is an image from the bema, the court, where justification took place.
- How could this happen? How could a guilty person go free? Jesus paid the price to purchase us from slavery to sin. This second image comes from the slave market, where redemption took place.
- But what price, redemption? Jesus gave his life, the whole of it, as a sacrifice on our behalf. This image, the third in a row in Romans 3, comes from the Temple of Apollo, which looms over the agora on a nearby hill.
There you go. Neat and tidy. Even as I write this now, I think it may be right. A simple 360 degree turn, and the mystery of Jesus’ death becomes clear to us through everyday Corinthian sites.
But Tom Wright challenged me to look elsewhere as well. Tom also put these three images into Israel’s storyline, such as we discover it in the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament. Tom interprets the death of Jesus in light of pivotal moments and places in Israel’s history:
- Abraham’s faith (justification)
- the exodus (the mother of all redemptions)
- the mercy-seat (propitiation, not in the sense of penal substitution but as reconciliation at the the place where God met human beings) in the tabernacle.
That’s the gist of Tom Wright’s take on the cross. Not the whole of it–but the gist. The proper context for interpreting the death of Jesus is the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament–and not principally passages on sacrifice. If you want more, you’ll have to attend Crosstalk at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology on Monday (call Sabina at 214-768-2124 and beg for late registration) or pick up a copy of Tom’s book. Both will be worth your while.
Photo of Rowan Williams from yale.edu. Photo of NT Wright from Religious News Service. Photo of Corinth from gotravelaz.com.