Luke and Atonement

For this post I would like to discuss The Gospel of Luke, specifically Luke’s view on atonement. There are a few radical skeptics these days who actually try and assert that Luke — in contrast to Matthew, Mark & John — did not understand Jesus’ death on the cross to be an atonement for sin. This is of course an absurd notion on a variety of levels, nevertheless, I will explore the issue in this post.

So where does this idea come from? The origin of this claim appears to stem primarily  from a rare variant reading of the Last Supper scene from the Gospel of Luke, specifically Luke 22:19-20. See the proceeding paragraph for a review on variants.

In previous posts I have discussed variant readings of the New Testament (NT). In fact, I have repeatedly emphasized whenever discussing the subject that nearly all of them (99%) are completely insignificant and don’t matter for anything. Most of these variants (70-80%) are nothing more than spelling errors, while others involve the random repeat and/or skipping of a line (scribal error), use of definitive articles with names, alternate Greek rendition of words (which do not even translate into English) and the use of synonyms, word choice or phrasing — none of which alter the meaning of the text. Again, these are the most common variants (99%), which are totally inconsequential and do not affect the content or meaning of the text at all. Moreover, in cases (less than 1%) where variants (i.e. word choice) do affect the meaning of the text, it is about largely insignificant issues. Also included in this latter category are possible interpolations (additions) to the text. These are even more rare — the exceptions to the norm. But even these are virtually all minor and insignificant, amounting to nothing more than a few words or a verse or two in length – with two exceptions. As stated in the past, Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 are the only two major variant readings in the entire NT — beyond the norm and of any length.            For some perspective on all this, the overwhelming majority of scholars in textural criticism, who have spent their careers studying the ancient biblical manuscripts, will attest to this fact: that the NT we have today is an accurate and trustworthy rendition of the original writings. Moreover, no cardinal doctrine of the Church is affected by any viable variant.

Nevertheless, skeptics continue to allege that these thousands of variants corrupt the originals, rendering the NT untrustworthy. Nevermind the breakdown summation of variants from the preceding paragraph shows that is not the case. Nevermind that most scholars in textual criticism say otherwise. For such cynics, they simply want it to be true, so for them its true. However, in reality several scholars have gone on record affirming that textual critics are certain of about 99% of the original wording for the NT — as in there is no doubt. That leaves about 1,300 words, which most say is in actuality only a few hundred words, out of over 138,000 NT words in doubt. Once more, compared to variant readings found in other surviving documents from antiquity, the evidence for the integrity of the NT is both remarkable and beyond question. Additionally, besides the numerous ancient NT manuscripts, textual critics also have ancient witnesses to the transmission of the text, i.e. the early Church Fathers, who quoted the NT extensively. In fact, these ancient pastoral quotes alone are enough for scholars to practically reconstruct almost the entire NT. In short, the NT is the most attested to and reliable collection of documents from antiquity bar none. So why does this issue keep coming up? One can only speculate, but I believe skeptics take comfort in challenging what the NT says, feeling this somehow gets them off the hook from having to deal with its message. Plus, it does not help that there are a small number of New School scholars that overstate and distort this topic, fueling further misinformation in the general public. But such scholars, while vocal, constitute a small minority of textual critics.

Now let us get back to the topic of this post: Luke and atonement. There is a rare variant reading found in Luke 22:19-20 at the Last Supper. How rare? It is found in only one early Greek manuscript. NOT the earliest manuscript of Luke, NOT in several Greek manuscripts of Luke, but in only ONE early Greek manuscript (5th century).      Do I really need to stress how unlikely it is, that such an anomaly found among the Greek manuscripts has, of actually going back to the original? But, skeptics will point to the fact that this variant is also replicated in a few later (but still early) Latin manuscripts (or translations) for support. However, even mistakes can be repeated in later manuscripts if a scribe does not catch the error. Needless to say,     most textual critics do not find this variant reading as credibly going back to the original. So what is the variant reading in these two verses? There is an awkward break in the middle of the verse after “This is my body” resuming with “But behold …” thereby leaving the words “given for you ..” and “poured out for you ..” in reference to Jesus body and blood at the Last Supper missing. However, this awkward break in the text is jarring, even in English translations, which strongly suggest it is a simple scribal error. It happens. For this reason, coupled with the fact it is found in only ONE Greek manuscript, many textual critics do not see this variant as noteworthy — but a simple scribal error. Nonetheless, skeptics will often use this variant to assert that Luke’s Gospel does not view Jesus death as an atonement for other’s sin. Aye yeah yeah! Where to start?

Let us now for the sake of argument ignore the awkward and anomalous nature of this variant, and just presuppose that it actually does go back to the original. Why would this change Luke’s view of atonement? Such skeptics response, I suppose,   would be that we are left without Jesus saying his blood was shed for us in Luke. I guess they don’t care what Matthew, Mark & John have to say on the same subject. Regardless, such reasoning displays a limited superficial understanding of Luke’s Gospel. Theologically, Luke very much views Jesus death as an atonement for sin. Once more, compared to the other Gospels, Luke seemingly has his own unique way of characterizing the atonement of Christ – what theologians call the “second Adam” motif. So let us explore what Luke has to say on the subject.

First, Luke presents Jesus as the new Adam, i.e. his genealogy starts with Jesus and goes all the way back to Adam whom he calls “the Son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke also explicitly depicts Jesus as quite literally and uniquely “the Son of God” (Luke 1:34-35). This is later affirmed at the Baptism of Jesus, where God says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). This is immediately followed by the aforementioned genealogy which goes back to Adam. So from the start, Luke wants to make a connection between Jesus & Adam — both of whom are called God’s son.

Next, immediately after the genealogy come the three temptations of Jesus – thus Jesus, like Adam, is tempted. But unlike Adam, Jesus does not fall to sin. But for Luke this success is merely the first battle, i.e. after the temptations the devil left him until an “opportune” time (Luke 4:13). In Luke, Satan finds this opportune time at the crucifixion plot, entering into Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3). This suggests that for Luke, the events surrounding the crucifixion are in actuality, a continuation of the temptation of Christ. Notice how he’s challenged is often reminiscent of Satan’s challenges: If you are the Son of God, do X, Y & Z. Also significant in Luke is the order of the temptations. Compared to Matthew, Luke flips the order of the second and third temptations by Satan. Therefore, in Luke the third temptation to put “God to the test” and save himself is what has now resumed at the crucifixion.

Thirdly, at the crucifixion, Luke interestingly departs with Mark & Matthew on this detail: The Roman Centurion in Luke does NOT say “Truly this man was the Son of God” as he does in Matthew & Mark, but rather “Truly this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47).    (Note, some English translations have righteous for Luke 23:47, but most have innocent).  It is highly doubtful that Luke, who literally regards Jesus as God’s Son, would want to depart from earlier witnesses on this very important point, unless he had a really good reason. To that end, it appears the Centurion’s verdict of Jesus “innocence” in Luke is to more explicitly illustrate his theological point, i.e. the comparison of Jesus to Adam. Specifically, Jesus (the Son of God) in the face of temptation remained innocent of sin, unlike Adam, who gave into temptation.

Therefore, for Luke, Jesus’ innocence is not simply referring to his alleged crime, but His final victory over temptation. What Jesus in his innocence has done, is to reopen the way to God closed by Adam — something only God’s Son could do. His final words to the thief on the cross bring home the “second Adam” motif found in Luke,            “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The Greek word for “Paradise” is the same word used in both the Septuagint — the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible — and in Revelation for the “garden” of Eden. In other words, in Luke, Jesus is the innocent Son of God who’s final victory over temptation reverses the curse of Adam. Once more, one thief on the cross recognizes that Jesus is innocent and has done nothing to deserve this punishment. Furthermore, he recognizes that he himself is not innocent, but guilty, and deserves his fate, simply asking that Jesus remember him in his Kingdom. This is when Jesus states the aforementioned words, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” So Luke very much understands Jesus’ death as an atonement for sins. And as illustrated in this beautiful exchange on the cross, we sinners can be reconciled to God though Christ, and be with him in Paradise (Heaven).

Finally, as if all this was not more than enough to demonstrate that Luke views Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin, consider the following passages:

“It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:37)

Note, the scripture Jesus quotes & applies to himself in this passage from Luke is from Isaiah 53:12, which speaks of the Servant of the Lord who will die an atoning death for other’s sin. Furthermore, Jesus tells this to his Disciples at the Last Supper meal     (well after the verse in question at Luke 22:19-20).

“He (Jesus) said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.'” (Luke 24:44-47)

Note, in this post resurrection scene from Luke, note how Jesus connects the preaching in his name for the repentance & forgiveness of sins, with his suffering and rising from the dead. Translation: His suffering death brings salvation for sins, i.e. atonement.

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of (the Lord) God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

Note, in this verse from Acts (also written by Luke) we have another illusion to Christ’s atoning death for sin.

But enough already, I think I have gone on enough about this topic. In conclusion, despite the absurd claim from modern radical skeptics, Luke very much understands Jesus’ death on the cross to be an atonement for sin. The source of this false contention otherwise, is from a rare variant found in Luke 22:19-20. This variant is both awkward and anomalous (found in only one Greek manuscript), so many textual critics regard it as a simple scribal error. Nevertheless, as discussed in this post, even if we were to accept this variant reading as valid and original, it would NOT excise Jesus’ atonement of sin from Luke’s Gospel. The charge is completely unfounded. Regardless, radical skeptics will go on making mountains out of molehills for forever it seems. We can only hope and pray that such skeptics will stop trying to argue with what the NT says (God’s Word), and start contemplating its actual message.

That concludes this post. Thanks for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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