Richard W. Coffen  |  12 August 2019  |

Slogans and mottos influence us all, and most glom onto our brain cells. Can you name the product that the following slogan promotes? “When you care enough to send the very best.” Yes, Hallmark Cards. I always look for a Hallmark card because . . . you guessed it . . . I don’t want to insult you by not sending you the very best!

The Apostle Paul had a byword. “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2). Elsewhere Paul talked about the cross 10 times.

The Romans crucified thousands. In 73 B.C., following the revolt sparked by Spartacus, Rome crucified 6,000 persons! On another occasion, Roman officials crucified 3,000 persons. Nero crucified hundreds and perhaps thousands of Christians in A.D. 64, after the conflagration in Rome.

None of those thousands of crucifixions had any spiritual significance. However, the crucified Jesus concretized what Scripture calls (1) “atonement” (80 times in Old Testament and once in the New Testament (KJV))[1] and (2) “forgiveness” (once in the Old Testament and six times in the New Testament (KJV)).[2] In this piece, we’ll try to understand: (1) During the 1st century, why did Jesus’ death mean forgiveness (at-one-ment)? (2) During the 21st century, what can Jesus’ death mean to us?

Why, During the 1st Century, Did Jesus’ Crucifixion Provide the Process for Divine Forgiveness—Atonement?

In the ancient Near East, males—especially—had dyadic personalities. An individual with a dyadic personality keeps reckoning with what others think of him. Public opinion builds and maintains honor. Honor was akin to a combination of (1) reputation and (2) self-concept.

In light of the ancient Near Eastern dyadic personality, when Jesus asked: (1) “Who do men say that I am?” and (2) “Who do you say that I am?” it was possible and even probable that he was not using the Socratic method in order to teach his disciples how to think about him. Rather, what others, including his disciples, thought about him helped to mold his self-image. Peer opinion augmented his honor.

Because maintaining honor was a primary concern to dyadic personalities, such persons remained on the defensive in order to defend honor. The technical term for such behavior is agonistic. Ancient Near Eastern men lived in an agonistic culture. They felt duty-bound to maintain the honor (1) of their family and (2) of themselves.

When the Stakes Were Low—Men in public would verbally joust, and (1) the winner (in public opinion) would gain enhanced honor whereupon (2) the loser would leave with diminished honor and augmented shame.

Historically, here’s how it worked for Jesus. Opponents would publicly verbally accost him. Jesus would counter, making fools of them. They would depart, having publicly gained shame. He would leave, having publicly gained honor. Jesus always won the verbal jousting.

When the Stakes Were High—Peace (shalōm) was shattered when a fellow-citizen, for example, killed someone else’s son. As a result, the bereaved family lost honor. A family member’s task was to recoup that lost honor. He did this by blood vengeance. Blood vengeance allegedly restored peace (shalōm). Bloodshed was to bring about atonement (at-one-ment). That is the way forgiveness was thought to be produced.

Historically, here’s how it worked. Cain murdered Abel. God sent Cain into exile. Cain feared for his life while on the lam. Someone “out there” might enact blood vengeance by killing Cain, which would atone for Abel’s shed blood (Genesis 4:14).

However, God upped the ante, telling Cain that whoever might kill him would receive seven times recompense (Genesis 4:15). If anyone killed Cain, seven of his relatives (Bible in Basic English) from seven different generations (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translated by Etheridge) would be killed. Seven, of course, to the Hebrew mind connoted completion or perfection.

Genesis 4:23, 24 tells the story of Lamech. He’d gained shame resulting from a superficial injury caused by a lad (Hebrew: yeled = youth). To regain his lost honor, Lamech killed (Hebrew: harag = ruthlessly slew) that youngster who had diminished his (Lamech’s) honor. But Lamech intended to out-perfect Cain’s hypothetical reprisal by raising the perfect number to 77 (Genesis 4:24, NAB[3] and NIV[4])!

Genesis 34 tells about another attempt to restore honor lost after Shechem had raped Dinah. Because Jacob did nothing to recoup honor, sons Simeon and Levi rose to the occasion. Their attempt to restore lost honor involved (1) killing all the males in the town and (2) taking women, children, and everything else as booty. By means of this blood vengeance, at-one-ment was to be achieved.

Rituals of the cultus required bloody sacrifices as the means for restoring God’s diminished honor resulting from his people’s sins. To obtain forgiveness, the male Israelite would bring a herd animal to the sanctuary. He would lean his hands (Hebrew: sāmak yādô)[5] upon the head of the animal. By so doing, the offense would transfer to the animal. The animal’s throat would be slit. The priest would catch the spurting blood in a ceremonial bowl and sprinkle it in specified places. He’d dismember the animal and incinerate the remains on the altar of burnt offering.

God relished the stench of burning flesh. It was “an offering . . . of a sweet [heb: nichowach = soothing or pleasing] savour unto the Lord” (Leviticus 1:9; cf. 1:13, 17; 2:2, 9; Exodus 29:25; and many more). The blood would be ceremoniously dispersed. As a result: “It shall . . . make atonement for him” (Leviticus 1:4). “The priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him” (4:31).

When Hezekiah reconsecrated the First (Solomon’s) Temple, “the assembly brought a total of 70 bulls, 100 rams, and 200 lambs as burnt sacrifices . . . , and 600 bulls and 3,000 sheep were consecrated” (2 Chronicles 29:32, 33, NET).[6]

Assuming that the blood volume body on average of (1) a bull is six gallons, (2) a sheep, 1.65 gallons, and (3) a lamb is 1.236 gallons, the total volume of sacrificial blood shed on that occasion amounted to approximately 7,879 gallons!

The Temple Jesus visited channeled the sacrificial blood down into the Kidron Valley. It flowed into a crimson pool from which the priests made a tidy profit by selling the blood to local farmers as fertilizer.

The Meaning of the Cross to First-Century Christians

Among the ancient peoples, bloodshed was regarded as the means by which forgiveness could be achieved. Even in New Testament times, Christians understood that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22, NET).

When 1st-century Jews thought about Jesus’ hemorrhaging on the cross, they understood two things. (1) Sin diminishes God’s honor. “All [are coming] . . . short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). (2) God continuously [present, ongoing tense] is pronouncing “all” not guilty (“justified”) (Romans 3:24) as a result of Jesus’ bleeding out on the cross.

Although our constant sinning dishonors God, his demonstration of blood vengeance at Calvary clarified that he will enact whatever it takes to convince us sinners that he forgives. In order to produce this clarification, nailing it home literally and graphically, Jesus had to shed his blood.[7]

What Today, During the 21st Century, Does Jesus’ Death Mean?

We regard those bloody practices as quite foreign. We find them—despite their having been divinely commanded—psychologically repugnant and morally offensive. None of us would attend church if each Sabbath the pastor killed a lamb, caught its blood, and scattered it around. (Although our pastor would be arrested for cruelty, in America it’s legal for adherents of the religion Santeria, which originated in Cuba, to offer animal sacrifices.)

Just Suppose

  • Co-worker Cindi falsely accused you. No one accepted your self-defense. As a result, you left the company the same way you’d entered: fired with enthusiasm. Instead of fuming inside and developing ulcers, you forgave Cindi. How? Did you kill Cindi’s cat?
  • You continue to experience a sort of Seventh-day Adventist shunning because Deacon Smith saw you enter a tavern. (You’d gone in so that you could phone AAA because your car, parked around the corner, had a flat tire.) You might have held a grudge against Deacon Smith, but instead you forgave him. First, though, did you shoot and kill his daughter?
  • Pastor Wally took a disliking to you. As a result, the next nominating committee didn’t ask you to continue as first elder, a position you’d held for a decade. At first, your gut tied into a knot every time you thought about your demotion. Finally, you decided to forgive Wally. Did you bring about reconciliation by slicing the throat of your teenage son?

I venture to assume that at least once (most likely numerous times) you’ve forgiven someone whose blatant behavior injured you—even if the grievance was emotional rather than physical. Perhaps the hurt may have caused you steep financial loss. Never, though, did you resort to any sort of personal retribution, let alone blood vengeance.

Ever since the blood-feuding between the Hatfields and McCoys from 1863 to 1891, we have come to understand that at-one-ment comes not from physical feuding but by something occurring within the brain. Forgiveness is an inner act of the psyche.

Unlike first-century Jews and others in the ancient Near East, you and I don’t forgive via bloodshed. We perceive that if we can forgive by means of an internal psychological act, then God, also, can forgive without bloodshed.

In the Old Testament, YHWH cared so much for mutinous humanity that he acculturated himself to primitive ancient Near Eastern society, pressing into service the ancient object lesson of animal sacrifice.[8] Since bloodshed was the way dyadic males back then regained honor, it isn’t surprising that a form of blood vengeance marked the cultus.

In the New Testament, Jesus became enculturated into an agonistic culture. On the cross he revealed in crisp focus God’s eagerness to forgive. Had God not provided atonement via bloody violence, first-century dyadic personalities could easily have regarded him as “weak,” and he’d lose yet more honor.

By means of the cross, God made it clear that forgiveness doesn’t come easily. Divine honor, affronted by human wickedness, illustrated via the commonly accepted route to atonement. Because honorable men settled the score by way of violence and thereby reinstated harmony, that’s what God would do, even though our ways truly are not his ways (Isaiah 55:8).

By means of bloody animal sacrifices and later through torture by crucifixion of Jesus, God demonstrated that he’d taken the initiative to forgive. God would go to extremes to “get through” to humans, even though the cross dumbed down and even distorted (to a degree) his character. All this in order to communicate his fervor to forgive.

Although we 21st-century Westerners achieve pardon through psychological means and without bloodshed, we recognize that at-one-ment is ever costly. It takes a toll on the psyche of the one doing the forgiving. And this lesson in merciful interpersonal relationships becomes much clearer—even to our modern consciousness—when we understand the dynamic of divine acculturation as revealed at the Crucifixion.

Grace—divine or human—isn’t cheap! Never has been; never will be.


  1. To be more precise, the Greek word translated “atonement” does appear elsewhere in the Pauline corpus (Romans 11:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18, 19) and is rendered “reconcile” (verb) or “reconciliation” (noun).
  2. Again, to be more accurate, the verb “forgive” appears 56 times in the KJV. The Hebrew verb most often rendered by “forgive” appears 654 times in the OT but is translated by various verbs, such as “lifted up,” “bear,” “take,” “removed,” and “armourbearer.”
  3. Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible®, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
  4. Texts from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, by the International Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
  5. Leviticus 1:4, Jacob Milgrom, Anchor Bible vol. 3, pp. 133, 150.
  6. Scripture Quoted by Permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the Holy Bible: The Net Bible® (New English Translation®) copyright © 1998, 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org. All Rights Reserved.
  7. Some theologians have speculated that just a single drop of his blood would have produced the desired effect.
  8. It is speculated that animal sacrifice began c. 10,000 B.C. It appears in Egypt between 4400 and 4000 B.C. By 3000 B.C., it was a common practice (Https://quatr.us/religion/end-animal-sacrifice-history-religion.htm; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_sacrifice#Prehistory).


Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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