Vicarious salvation in Second Temple-era literature

The early Jesus Movement came to believe that Jesus’ death somehow brought salvation to his followers vicariously. While the Book of Hebrews draws analogy between Jesus’ death and the Torah’s commanded sin offerings—especially that of the Day of Atonement (Heb 10)—Jesus is instead most frequently associated with the Passover lamb throughout the NT (in the crucifixion narratives, of course, but also briefly in Paul).

However the Passover lamb was not actually a sin offering; its death was not meant to cause Yhwh’s wrath to subside against his followers because of sins they committed. It instead was meant to provide protection when his wrath was directed against Egypt. Those who trusted Yhwh surrounded themselves (i.e. the doorframes of their homes) with the lamb’s blood, and judgment passed by them. Following the analogy, we may reasonably suggest that Jesus’ death was understood to provide protection when God’s wrath is directed on the world during the eschaton. Those who trust God surround themselves with Jesus’ blood (figuratively speaking) so that God’s judgment will pass by.

This eschatological application is coherent, but the puzzle is how Jesus’ followers came to think his death has this function. Much like the belief that Jesus is a divine being, this seems to be a theological innovation which separates the Jesus movement from its roots in Second Temple Judaism. But just like Jesus’ divinity does, in fact, have extensive precedent within STJ, the concept that his death could vicariously bring salvation to God’s followers has some support in previous STJ literature.

4 Maccabees 17.7–10, 17–22

If it were possible for us to paint the history of your religion as an artist might, would not those who first beheld it have shuddered as they saw the mother of the seven children enduring their varied tortures to death for the sake of religion? Indeed it would be proper to inscribe on their tomb these words as a reminder to the people of our nation: ‘Here lie buried an aged priest and an aged woman and seven sons, because of the violence of the tyrant who wished to destroy the way of life of the Hebrews. They vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death.’


The tyrant himself and all his council marvelled at their endurance, because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live the life of eternal blessedness. For Moses says, ‘All who are consecrated are under your hands.’ These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honoured, not only with this honour, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.

Fourth Maccabees, a philosophical treatise which reflects primarily on seven martyrs from the early Maccabean period, was probably written 19–54 CE, immediately contemporary with Jesus and his earliest followers. There is also a passage in the Testament of Moses (written around the end of the first century BCE) which is closely related to this Maccabean tradition. T Mos 9 portrays a mysterious Levite man named Taxo who—in some interpretations—appears to anticipate that the martyrdom of himself and his seven sons will initiate the eschaton. In broad terms, this may be compared to the death of the ‘Wise’ in Dan 11.33–35 (cf. 8.10, 24); immediately after, the world enters its final stage (11.36–45), which concludes with the eschatological judgment in which these Wise receive a unique reward (12.1–3). In NT tradition, Jesus’ death and resurrection likewise initiated the final, short period of time which would conclude with the eschaton.

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