The first atonement theology

The disciples on the road to Emmaus give an account of the crucifixion:

[Jesus] was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.

It’s clear that they have already assimilated Jesus’s story to the prophets. Christ was a mighty prophet deserving canonical status, and whose story is in keeping with Elijah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Habakuk, Micah, etc. Like any figure in the Hebrew scriptures his story is about great promise and several significant works leading to the eventual fizzle. Adam names the animals, discovers women, and crashes; Abraham raises up the patriarchs and they collapse into infighting, intrigues, and eventual slavery; Moses sets the people free and they grumble and sin in the desert before Moses himself dies in exile; Joshua leads people into the land but they collapse into the kingship of Saul; Saul is conquered by David who seduces the wife of a subordinate before murdering him and handing the kingship to the child of the adultery; Solomon rebuilds the temple before falling into idolatry; the prophets replace the kings but usually die in exile or by violence. Now Jesus came and was another prophet great in power, but he died in a failed attempt to purify the temple and drive out the Romans. Maybe we can look forward to another prophet who will drive out the Romans and perhaps even give us a period of peace before it too collapses into ruin and defeat; and maybe after that God will raise another prophet who will bring peace to Israel before becoming fascinated with Ba’al worship at the end of his life.

Against this, Jesus:

“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Christ rejects any attempt to make his story just one more link in the Scripture, so Scripture is over. The last book in the Bible was already written and any further writing can only announce the fact that the goal of the project is accomplished. In keeping with this, the summary of Christ’s discourse on the road stresses universality and totality: beginning with the Pentateuch [through] all the prophets (i.e. starting at the beginning of the Hebrew scripture and going to what is now its end) He explained what all the prophets (not just some) said in all the scriptures (not just some) concerning himself. The unmistakable point is that we now have “all the prophets” and all the books of Scripture. The depressed disciples thought they had just one more familiar scroll to add to the collection when in fact they saw the end of history and the beginning of the kingdom of God. 

And so atonement theology is not a theory foisted on the gospels or developed after we have put them aside. Christ gives the first theory of atonement, and the disciples going to Emmaus had no clue that this was coming. They would have been happy to record his sermons and deeds in “The Book of Jesus”, and they certainly would have concluded with his resurrection and ascension, just as the story of Elijah ends with a similar ascension. What Christ’s disciples wrote instead was the good news that all time had ended and a new time had begun. In defense of their claims one can notice that no more books were added to the prophets, the idols that enthralled the world were broken, Israel’s God was worshipped to the ends of the earth, the faith of Abraham was adopted in all the nations, and an international monarchy arose for the succession of the apostles.

All atonement theology – and in some sense all christianity – is a footnote to Lk. 24: 27 and an attempt to reconstruct Christ’s speech. Luke gives no details of the speech even if one assumes it would have been easy enough for him to give a sketch of it. The sermons of the resurrected Christ seem to be beyond one’s ability to reconstruct in words, but the Emmaus story ends with the amazement of the disciples at what they took as incomparably good news: Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Bible to us?

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