The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§9)

This chapter transitions us from what we don’t know to what are overwhelmed with. As much as Paul assumes most of Jesus’ life, he makes explicit the significance of his death as a key part of the substance of Gospel.

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Chapter 4: The Gospel of Jesus Christ

§ 9: Christ crucified

The centre of Pauline theology is this: Jesus died and rose from the grave. As we saw in the last chapter, Paul tends to move straight to Jesus’ death, with little regard to the assumed details of his life. Indeed, Jesus’ life gains its purpose by his death.


When Jesus died, as messiah and as second Adam, he represented humanity. Jesus’ death would not have been a theological difficulty for Paul’s Jewish contemporaries, but his messianic death was anathema. “A crucified/cursed Messiah was no doubt for most Jews a contradiction in terms” (209). Jesus’ death was part of his messianic purpose—it was also the culmination of his role as the second Adam. Because Jesus died, therefore all died—not just those in Christ, but all humankind. Paul’s theology of the cross is terse, packed into kerygmatic formulae. We need to unpack these elements next.


Sacrifice is a powerful image Paul used to convey the significance of Jesus’ death. Post-Enlightenment thinkers find the bloodiness abhorrent and tend to view sacrifice as either secondary to Paul or even misconceived. We need to consider how Paul uses the image:

  • Romans 3:25: Immediately after indicting humanity in the first chapters of Romans, Paul stated the solution: God presented Jesus as a hilastērion (expiation/propitiation) to demonstrate his righteousness by paresin (passing over) the sins committed. A number of debates flow from this tightly worded passage. (1) Hilastērion in the LXX refers to the lid of the ark where annual atonement was made for Israel. Should hilastērion in this Romans passage refer to the place or the means of expiation/propitiation? (2) Should hilastērion be translated as expiation (the removal of sin) or propitiation (with overtones of appeasing God).  In Greek usage, God is the object: he is the one propitiated—but he is also the one who provided the sacrifice. In Hebrew usage (kipper), sin is the object. The point is the removal of sin, not the appeasing of God. (3) Is the background of this passage more martyr theology than cult? This is largely irrelevant since martyr theology is derived from the cult. More significant than these debates is the fact that God passes over sins as a part of his covenant obligation to demonstrate his righteousness. We don’t know whether Jesus’ atonement validated the sacrificial system, or demonstrated its end.
  • Romans 8:3: Jesus was provided as a sin offering.
  • 1 Corinthians 5:7: Jesus was provided as our paschal lamb. This is curious since the Passover lamb is not a sacrifice. Passages like Ezekiel 45:18-22 demonstrate that the Passover lamb became associated with atonement.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21: Jesus who knew no sin was made sin for us. This echoes the need for a clean and unblemished animal to be provided for sacrifice.
  • Several Passages that use “in/through his blood“: The only way to understand this is as sacrifice.

How, then, does Jesus’ atoning sacrifice work? There was no clear rationale in Paul’s day to explain the process. We must correlate Paul’s language with what we know about sin offering:

  1. The offering was “for sin”. The sacrifice passed judgment on sin. One important element of the sin offering was to purify the altar and sanctuary. That, however, is not Paul’s main idea with respect to Jesus’ atonement.
  2. Jesus embodied sinful flesh. Just as the sacrificial animal took the sin of the participant when that person laid hands on its head, Jesus took humanity’s sins on himself. Two goats were used on the Day of Atonement: one was run out of the camp and one was killed. Paul had the same dual understanding of Jesus’ death: he died because of sin, but also was carried out of the camp.
  3. Paul made a greater leap: the death of the sacrificial animal was also “the death of the sinner qua sinner” (221). There is a transfer here. Sin is transferred to the pure animal, which makes the animal guilty and deserving of death. Conversely, the purity of the animal is transferred to the participant, bringing life. This is more than mere “substitution”. Substitution implies that Christ dies for us so we can escape death. The truth is that Christ shares our death so that we can in turn share in his—along with what comes next.

Paul speaks of Jesus as God’s Son rarely, but when he does it usually associates his role as Son with his death on the cross. To what extent this theme is derived from the binding of Isaac, we’re unsure. We do know that the purpose of the binding of Isaac for Paul’s contemporaries was to demonstrate Abraham’s faithfulness. Applied to Christ, this theme demonstrates God’s faithfulness.

Curse of the Law

While sacrifice is the fundamental metaphor used to describe the significance of Jesus’ death, there are others such as the curse of the law. Removal of the curse has two elements. First, the Jewish people are cursed for not obeying the law. Second, when Jesus was cursed for hanging on a tree, he was removed from the camp implying expulsion from the covenental community. Therefore, his death removed curse from Jew and Gentile alike.


Apolytrōsis occurs only a few times in Paul, but it is used in his central statement in Romans (3:24). The image evokes the ransom of a captive from war or slavery. The most obvious example here is the ransom of Israel from Egypt.

There are texts that refer to a price we were bought with. Semantically, the verb “buy” is not linked directly with redeem. Contextually, though the two meet. 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 is a good example.


Reconciliation is introduced in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, and elaborated in Colossians 1:20. Creation and Creator are estranged so it takes Jesus’ death to bring about reconciliation. Dunn lists four important points here:

  1. The reconciliation is between God and the world, not just people
  2. God was involved in the act, not merely an angry opponent that Jesus appeased
  3. God chose to forgive, to ignore our active hostility
  4. Reconciliation is focused on the cross

Christus Victor

In Jesus’ death, he stripped the powers of any hold over those in Christ. Talk along this theme often focuses on Jesus’ exultation rather than his death, since the final victory over death is still ahead. The most vivid mention of this theme is in Colossians 2:15. The disgraceful cross ends up leading a chain of broken rulers and authorities behind it.

As we have seen, Paul used a variety of metaphors to explain the significance of Christ’s death, many of which are blurred together in Pauline literature. All metaphors would have spoke vividly to the people in Paul’s day with this unified theme: God did it. This survey demonstrates how significant Jesus’ death is to Christianity. Indeed, thanks to Paul, Mark made Jesus’ passion the main part of his gospel—Luke and Matthew followed suit. Without the cross, there is no Christianity. The message is plain: Jesus’ death is a response to the powers of sin and death. As we find our identity in Christ’s death, we will share in his resurrection as well. (That’s the next chapter.)

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To say the least, I think I know how I’ll preach the Sundays leading up to Easter this year! This was the most awe-inspiring chapter of the book so far. I can understand why Paul periodically broke into doxology in the midst of his theological reflection.

< § 8: Jesus the man

§ 10: The risen Lord >

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