“I Have Given the Blood to You” Lev. 17.11- By Jay Sklar


Many people think (wrongly) that God or His redemptive plan resembles a sort of cosmic vending machine in that we humans only need to find the right currency to deposit, and wah-lah, we have salvation. Jay Sklar shows that God turns sacrifice on its head in that it is He who pays the price:

During the Lord’s Supper, we pause to remember and celebrate the central event of Good Friday: Jesus’s death on our behalf. Each time I prepare to eat the bread and drink the wine, I find myself —perhaps surprisingly to most!—repeating a verse from Leviticus: “And I have given the blood to you on the altar to atone for your lives, for it is the blood, by means of the life, that atones” (Lev. 17:11). I repeat that verse because it reminds me of the central realities of Jesus’s sacrificial death.


In Leviticus 17:11, the Lord is explaining to the Israelites how sacrifice is able to result in atonement, which, simply defined, is what happens when God in his love makes a way to deal with our wrongs so that we might be right with him. His explanation of how this happens in sacrifice consists of three points.

First, in sacrifice, an innocent party takes the place of the guilty. The sacrificial lifeblood “atones for your lives,” which are guilty because of your wrongs and justly condemned for the ways you have defiled and vandalized God’s world of goodness, justice, mercy, and love. But the blood—the lifeblood—of a blameless animal has been placed on the altar on your behalf, and that blood, “by means of the life” it represents, makes a way for your wrongs to be forgiven. The penalty that justice requires is not denied, but transferred, taken on by another. The animal’s blood is accepted in place of yours; its blameless life is given as a substitute for your guilty one. It has died that you might live and be forgiven and be made right with God.

This is a picture of exactly what happened on Good Friday. Thus, Peter proclaims, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And Paul exults, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God!” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus has died in our place that we might live and be forgiven and made right with God.


The second part of the Lord’s explanation relates directly to the first: in serving as a substitute, a sacrifice ransoms the life of the guilty party. Most scholars agree that the phrase “to make atonement for your lives” refers to ransoming the offerer’s life. In support is the fact that the same phrase occurs in only two other instances and both times has the sense “to ransom your lives” (Exod 30:15–16; Num. 31:50). This means that the animal’s lifeblood serves as a ransom, that is, a mitigated penalty, in place of the one deserved, that delivers the offerer and restores peace to their relationship with the Lord.

Today, we often think of a ransom as the payment made by an innocent party to a guilty one to secure the release of a kidnap victim. But ransom worked differently in Israelite society: the guilty party paid a ransom to the innocent one. For example, if the owner of a dangerous ox knows it is dangerous but fails to guard it, and it kills someone, the owner is held responsible and sentenced to death (Exod. 21:29). The owner can escape this penalty only one way: the victim’s family can choose to allow the owner to pay a ransom in place of dying (21:30). So, the guilty owner pays a ransom to the innocent family, but the innocent party is not obliged to allow this for the guilty one; doing so is an act of mercy and grace.

This picture of ransom is at the heart of sacrifices that make atonement. God is not obliged to make a way for our wrongs to be forgiven. He chooses to because he is a God rich in mercy and grace. And he does so by allowing an innocent life to substitute for a guilty one and in this way ransom us from the penalty we deserve. In his commentary on Leviticus, biblical scholar Baruch A. Levine, citing the acclaimed medieval rabbinic scholar Rashi, brings the idea of substitution and ransom together:

Rashi states: “Blood represents life, and it can therefore expiate for life.” Basic to the theory of sacrifice in ancient Israel . . . was the notion of substitution. The sacrifice substituted for an individual human life or for the lives of the members of the community in situations where God could have exacted the life of the offender . . . This explains the specific intent of the Hebrew formula [behind the phrase] “for making expiation for your lives.” Literally, this formula means “to serve as . . . ransom . . . for your lives.” God accepts the blood of the sacrifices in lieu of human blood.

And he does so as an act of grace. In the place of death—in the place of ending the relationship between himself and the sinner—the Lord allows the sacrifice to serve as the ransom payment. He accepts the animal’s life in place of the offerer’s, saying, in effect, “Though it is far less than you deserve, I will accept this as satisfying the penalty for your wrong, and no longer hold that wrong against you.”

Again, this is a picture of what exactly happens on Good Friday. Jesus himself describes his mission in terms of ransoming the guilty: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And, once again, in his mercy and grace, the Lord accepts this ransom payment on behalf of the guilty. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Eph. 1:7). And that leads us directly to the third part of the Lord’s explanation.


While it is not always as evident in English translations, the Lord emphasizes in Leviticus 17:11 that he himself is making the ransom available. Translated woodenly, the phrase reads, “And I, I have given [the blood] to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives.” The first “I” is unnecessary and emphasizes that the Lord is the one doing this. This is in keeping with the fact that ransom is always an act of grace: the offended party is not obligated to make ransom available but chooses to do so as an act of mercy toward the guilty party. In the case of sacrifice, the offerer tends to think, “I am putting this blood on the altar for the Lord.” But here, the Lord turns that idea on its head. As scholar Baruch Schwartz explains in his essay “Prohibitions Concerning the ‘Eating’ of Blood”:

What our clause does, in its unique, metaphorically graphic way, is to take a set phrase, the “placing” of the blood on the altar, and to reverse the conceptual direction of the action: “It is not you who are placing the blood on the altar for me, for my benefit, but rather the opposite: it is I who have placed it there for you—for your benefit.”

In his mercy and grace, the Lord has provided a way for guilty sinners to be forgiven.

This becomes even more remarkable when we think of what happened on Good Friday. With animal sacrifice, the guilty brought their own sacrifices before the Lord. With Jesus, it is the Lord—the very one we have betrayed and rebelled against—who provides an atoning sacrifice for us! In a stunning reversal that can only be brought about by love, the one who was wronged pays the penalty for those who have committed the wrong so that we might again have fellowship with him. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Rom. 5:8).

And so, every time I prepare to take the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper, I repeat Leviticus 17:11, and glory that Jesus is my substitute, my ransom, the one who God himself has provided to me in love in order to make a way to deal with my wrongs so that I might be right with him.

Hurtado Reviews “Mary Magdalene:” The Film

March 28, 2018

Viewing the recently released film, “Mary Magdalene,” wasn’t quite as boring as watching paint dry, but the comparison did come to mind.  I did wonder at various points how much longer it would go on.  And that’s a shame, because Mary of Magdala is an intriguing character.  We don’t really know all that much about her, but there is at least an interesting “reception history.”

She was from Magdala, often identified as a village north of Tiberias on the western side of Lake Galilee.  Per Luke 8:1-3, she was one of a number of women who followed Jesus along with the familiar twelve disciples, and is said to have been delivered from seven evil spirits (by Jesus we presume).  In Mark 15:40, she and other women disciples see Jesus die, then where he was buried (15:47), and then discover the empty tomb (16:1-8).

It is the Gospel of John, however, that developed her further as an individualized character.[1]  In John, she alone discovers the empty tomb and informs Peter and another disciple (20:1-10), and then there is also the touching account where she alone encounters the risen Jesus (20:11-18), and thereafter announces to the other disciples “I have seen the Lord.”[2]

In later texts, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary (both 2nd century?), the figure is appropriated to make certain emphases that seem in a “gnosticizing” or esoteric direction.  In the Gospel of Thomas (logion 114) there is the curious incident where Peter objects to her as a woman being among Jesus’ entourage, and Jesus replies that it will be OK, for he will “make Mary male” (which likely reflects the ascetic emphasis of the text and the image of maleness as spiritual strength and superiority). [3] The Gospel of Mary attaches her name to a text that seems to express a somewhat similar polemical attitude toward what was then becoming the mainstream of Christian teaching.[4]

In the 6th century, Pope Gregory identified her as the unnamed woman “sinner” who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50, which became thereafter influential upon nearly all representations of her in Western Christianity (but not Eastern):  a former prostitute who becomes a devout follower of Jesus.  (This is the character reflected in Jesus Christ Superstar.)[5]

Oddly, this movie seems to have taken particular inspiration from the later appropriation of Mary of Magdala in the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary.  These both seem to me to have appropriated the character from the Gospel of John, but with very different intents from John. I say “oddly” because both GThomas and GMary are much later texts, and obviously reflect a polemical stance against what was by then mainstream Christian teaching on some matters.  That is, they hardly can be used as if they somehow preserve authentic traditions about Mary.  But the script writers have chosen to do so, producing a caricature, a naïve use of obviously tendentious sources.

Aside from the dubious quality historically, it’s too bad that a film focused on her is so very slow-moving and, well, often boring.  The actor playing her, Rooney Mara, obviously took her role seriously.  She spends long and frequent spells of staring intently at Jesus, and they occasionally exchange shy smiles in a way that I presume is supposed to convey some secret, or interest or connection or . . . something.

And the actors are so old!  Joaquin Phoenix plays a Jesus who has to be at least in his early fifties.  No wonder this Jesus seems so tired and wan most of the time.  That itinerant preaching, healing, etc., travelling on foot up and down hills and coping with the crowds, starting a new religious movement intended to win over the nation, that’s a younger man’s work!  And also, what’s he been doing for the preceding 50 years or so?

Jesus’ circle of male apostles in the film, likewise, are far too old for their roles.  The youngest looking is perhaps Judas Iscariot, and he’s got to be well into his 30s.[6]  Several others are quite obviously senior citizens.  But, by any reasonable reckoning, Jesus was likely no more than thirty, and “the twelve” were probably young men, in their 20s.

For that matter, where are the many children and young people more broadly?  In that society a goodly percentage of the population would have been children and youths.  There should be gaggles of children running around the streets, but in the movie they’re populated more like adults-only villages.

Speaking of “the twelve,” I counted perhaps nine males tramping about with Jesus in this film.  So, couldn’t they afford three other actors?  Or did the director think twelve too many for the camera shots?  Or what? Many scholars think that Jesus likely did appoint twelve followers as a symbolic expression of addressing the hopes of ancient Israel.

The film has some bizarre (or at least historically dubious) scenes, such as the one where those convinced that Mary has a demon try to perform an exorcism by repeatedly dunking her in a lake.  I don’t recall that technique mentioned in the various ancient exorcism texts.  The film makes a lot also of Jesus baptizing, and assigning Mary the role of baptizing women.  Scholars actually debate whether Jesus himself baptized at all, and the evidence isn’t all that clear.

Or how about the scene where Jesus and his disciples come into a village, and everyone there is lined up to meet them, holding lit candles in little bowls.  Candles??  People in first-century Galilee used oil lamps (of which there are many found in archaeological digs there).  And, anyway, it’s broad daylight, so why the lights?

Or consider the lengthy segment where Peter and Mary (yup, the two of them travelling on their own) go to, wait for it, Samaria!  There, they find a village that’s been ravaged by Roman soldiers, which allows Mary to take the lead in caring for the victims left to die. Really?  Is any of these things based on anything, or even plausible?

I mentioned the tired and almost vacant way that Jesus is portrayed in the film.  It’s not entirely Joaquin’s fault.  The script gives him such vapid lines.  The lines convey no fire in his belly, no eschatological excitement to his message (except in a few of the disciples, which we’re to take as ill conceived).  Oh, sure, he urges peace and love and forgiveness.  All very nice.  But it hardly seems the stuff to move individuals to abandon their livelihoods and hit the road with Jesus.

Even the resurrected Jesus/Joaquin retains this placid, perhaps pensive, but rather vacant demeanour.  You’d think that being raised from death into new and immortal existence would make you kind of . . . excited, maybe, with something to say.  The depiction of the risen Jesus certainly doesn’t draw on any of the early reports of the people who claimed to have seen him.

Now, as I say, some of the disciples harbour eschatological hopes, and aim for Jesus to be recognized as the royal Messiah of Israel.  But where on earth would they have got such ideas, given the bland diet of what Jesus espouses in this film?

And what on earth would have led to this Jesus angering the authorities sufficiently to apprehend him, torture and degrade him, and them execute him by crucifixion?  The film gives no hint.  But isn’t that a pretty important question?  Jewish teachers who only espoused the virtues put in Jesus’ mouth in the film didn’t tend to get this kind of treatment by the authorities.

Ah, but, of course, this isn’t really a film about Jesus (as the title makes clear).  Jesus is more the occasion for a particular representation of Mary Magdalene.  Implausibly, early in the film, Jesus’ little “I’m OK, you’re OK” talk with her not only substitutes for the exorcism referred to in the Gospel of Luke (8:2), but also somehow suffices to make her a devoted follower.  Thereafter, she quickly becomes Jesus’ closest disciple who uniquely understood him, on whom, indeed, Jesus depends for emotional comfort and support.

In the final moments, in addition to claiming to be the first witness of the risen Jesus (taking the Gospel of John above the other Gospels here), Mary also sketches a new/revised understanding of Jesus’ purpose and the future direction that his followers should go.  In place of Peter’s emphasis that injustice and other evils remain and need eschatological remedy, Mary urges inner enlightenment as a way of making the world a better place (echoing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”?).  It’s kind of mindfulness in lieu of messianism, I guess.

Peter is portrayed as jealous that Jesus favoured her over him and the others, and insists that he will chart the future of the Jesus-movement, and Mary should keep her theological views to herself.  So, we got a bit of a Davinci-code type thing going on here in the script, it seems, the putative source of the Papacy shutting down alternative voices (especially women) already in 33 AD!

It ought to be difficult to make stories as riveting as those in the Gospels bland and uninteresting.  But the Hollywood record largely shows them fully up to the task, and, sadly, this film is no exception.  In focusing on the Magdalene, and in not portraying her as a “fallen woman,” the film is technically notable.  But, aside from its numerous historical mis-steps, including its characterization of the title figure, it also has to be judged a poor-to-middling movie (as seems reflected in the several newspaper reviews).


[1] This, however, is only one of several characters that get a more developed persona in the Gospel of John.  The others include Thomas, Nicodemus, Philip, Nathaniel, and Mary and Martha (of Bethany).  This highlighting of certain individuals seems to have been a feature of the author’s literary practice.

[2] The narrative in John is the obvious basis for the recent Papal decree designating a Feast Day for Mary Magdalene (22 July), and referring to her as “Apostle of the Apostles.”  Curiously, this ignores the equally important role of other named women in the other Gospels.

[3] See now the extended discussion of this logion in Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas:  Introduction and Commentary (Leiden:  Brill, 2014), 607-16.

[4] Christopher Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, Early Christian Gospel Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[5] See, e.g., M. Starowieyski, “Mary Magdalene,” Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, ed. Angelo Di Berardino (Downers Grove, IL:  IVPAcademic, 2014), 2:724 (with bibliography).

[6] The portrayal of Judas’ intention in arranging for Jesus’ arrest (to provoke Jesus into messianic action) may be derived from the ideas of a former colleague in the University of Manitoba, William Klassen, Judas, Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).



It Was Not the Season for Figs-Mark 11.12-14

This clause, “it was not the season for figs” in Mark needs to be taken in its wider theologic import and typology. Jesus, His disciples, and anyone else familiar with figs in Israel knows about breba figs- those trees which bear fruit early as a first crop just after winter time during initial leaf set. Here is a picture taken today in Israel one week before Passover (March 24, 2018) showing these early figs:

(picture credit: https://bleon1.wordpress.com/2018/03/23/caesarea-philippi-2/#comment-23904)

Attestation to breba figs in the O.T.: When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. (Hosea 9.10 NIV)

Is. 28.4b: will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer; whoever sees it, eats it up as soon as it comes to hand(NRSB)

All your fortresses are like fig trees with first-ripe figs—if shaken they fall into the mouth of the eater. (Na. 3.12 NRSV)

Song of Solomon 2.13a: The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom (NRSV). Note that the grapes are in blossom in the spring season while the text has the fig tree setting fruit at the same time. All of these texts reference breba figs in the O.T. Therefore, the clause: “It was not the season for figs” needs to be explained to give understanding. The main crop of figs is after summer as Mark says, but in certain years some trees produce figs also in the spring in addition the the heavier crop in autumn. However, one indication of brebas is abundant leaf set in the spring season. Therefore, Jesus sees the abundant leaves as a sign of this early fruit, but finds the tree empty. This was like Second Temple Israel, very religious outwardly but no real fruit. So the statement of Mark, “it was not the season for figs” cannot be construed as an irrational motivation when Jesus subsequently curses the tree. Rather, this reasonable expectation by Jesus is turned into a trope to signal judgment upon the nation.

Luke 22:43-44. Is the Angel and the Sweat like Drops of Blood an Early Addition? — The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge

Here is an account of our Lord’s suffering that most biblical editors regard as factually true but possibly “not literarily true” (to quote the note in the NET Bible- the event happened but Luke did not write it originally in his account). In this article, Dirk Jongkind, seems more open to the inclusion as authentic. 

Dr. Jongkind spent some 10 years editing sources (along with others) to produce Tyndale House’s edition of the NT Greek text. He has been posting the rationale behind the choices as to the final shape of text. This discussion is technical but not so much as to lack benefit for a generally informed reader. For someone looking to acquaint themselves more fully with the production and transmission of the bible, Dr. Jongkind’s posts in this series offer many insights of how (and possibly why) the bible says what it does. The upshot from an apologetic angle is the reliability and veracity of the bible as a whole.  


This post is part of a series [2018] on some of the textual variants found in the Passion narratives. We will discuss the rationale behind the text adopted in the Greek New Testament as Produced at Tyndale House in (1) Mt 27:16,17, (2) Mt 27:49, (3) Mk 14:30, 49, 72a, 72b, (4) Lk 22:31, (5)…

via Luke 22:43-44. Is the Angel and the Sweat like Drops of Blood an Early Addition? — The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge