Johannine Atonement

Johannine Atonement May 13, 2014

In a fascinating 2009 JETS article, Nicholas Lunn shows that John’s account of Jesus’ death and resurrection follows the pattern of the day of atonement. He begins from the common observation that the tomb of Jesus, with its flanking angels and discarded linens, is analogous to the ark of the covenant (I’d be more specific: the tomb is the Most Holy Place, in which is the slab/cover/ark flanked by angels).

He finds further echoes of the day of atonement in the fact that Jesus dies “for the people” (John 11:50; 18:14 with Leviticus 16:15, 24). He also notes a number of intertextual links between Jesus’ “priestly” prayer in John 17 and the gift of the Levites to Aaron in Numbers 3:9, 8:19, and 18:6. “They were yours and you gave them to me,” Jesus says (John 17:9); “You shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons,” Yahweh tells Moses (Numbers 3:9). The reference to the “son of perdition” in the prayer resembles the description of the destruction of Korah in Numbers 16. 

The atonement pattern runs through John’s passion narrative. Jesus’ “woven” garments are removed (John 19:23-24), as the high priests woven robe was removed during the rite of Yom Kippur (Exodus 28:32; cf. Leviticus 16:4). In both cases, the clothing change occurs prior to the offering of a sacrifice. 

When the high priest was finished, he left his linen garments in the sanctuary (Leviticus 16:23) and came out to offer an ascension offering. Jesus, having finished the sin offering, discarded his garments, and emerged from the inner sanctuary of the tomb, meets Mary in the garden and speaks of his “ascension.” Lunn links this with the ascension offerings (olah) that were offered after Aaron completed his ministry in the inner sanctuary (Leviticus 16:24). The fact that Jesus ascends to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God” echoes the dual purpose of the ascension offering “to make atonement for himself [the priest] and the people.”

Lunn summarizes the similarities: “both Leviticus 16 and John’s death and resurrection account present the same basic sequence: the initial removal of ^ garments as an expression of humility, the main event of the sin offering, the putting off of linen clothes, the exit from the tabernacle/tomb, the reference to ‘that which ascends/ascending,’ with its twofold end” (744).

To add a few notes: There may be further echoes of atonement in the comings-and-goings of Peter and John, and of Pilate, during the trial of Jesus. Pilate goes into his Praetorium, back out to the Jews, into the Praetorium, etc., as the priest entered and reentered the sanctuary on the day of atonement. And Pilate enacts a scapegoat ritual, presenting a choice between Jesus and Barabbas (18:38-40). 

To fill this out entirely, we’d need to follow through the atonement patterns in the Apocalypse.

(Nicholas P. Lunn, “Jesus, the Ark, and the Day of Atonement: Intertextual Echoes in John 19:38-20:18,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52:4 [2009] 731-46.)

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