In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart Ehrman argues that Luke-Acts does not believe that Jesus died to atone for people’s sins. Jesus’ death in Luke-Acts is significant in another way, according to Ehrman.
Ehrman makes a variety of arguments to support this claim: that Luke in drawing from Mark’s Gospel omits Mark’s view of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that brings atonement (Mark 10:45; 15:39); that there are New Testament manuscripts that lack the part of Luke 22:19-20 about Jesus giving his body and shedding his blood for people; etc. Remember the veil of the Temple that rips from top to bottom at Jesus’ death? According to Ehrman, Mark and Luke interpret that incident in different ways. Mark probably sees it as indicative of atonement, that people now have access to God through the death of Jesus. Luke, by contrast, seems to regard it as a sign of God’s judgment on Israel and her religious institution for preferring darkness rather than light. Ehrman notes that, in Mark, the veil rips after Jesus’ death, whereas Luke depicts it as ripping before Jesus gives up the ghost (Luke 23:45). In Luke, Ehrman argues, God is demonstrating during Jesus’ crucifixion his displeasure at what Israel is doing.
What, then, is the significance of Jesus’ death in Luke-Acts, according to Ehrman? Ehrman states on page 201: “The death of Jesus in Luke-Acts is not a death that effects an atoning sacrifice. It is the death of a righteous martyr who has suffered from miscarried justice, whose innocence is vindicated by God at the resurrection.” What about Acts 20:28, which affirms that Jesus bought the church with his own blood? First of all, Ehrman notes that the text can actually mean that Jesus acquired the church with his blood, not necessarily that he bought it. Second, Ehrman on page 202 explains how he thinks that Jesus would acquire the church with his blood, according to Luke-Acts: “The blood of Jesus produces the church because it brings the cognizance of guilt that leads to repentance.” On page 203, Ehrman applies this insight to Acts 20:28: “…Paul states his relief at being guiltless of ‘the blood’ of the Ephesian elders—-meaning that he fulfilled his obligation to preach to them his message of salvation, a message that can save them from the coming judgment. Only if his hearers repent when confronted with Jesus’ blood will they be saved from spilling their own.” This sounds somewhat (but not entirely) like the moral-influence view of the atonement, which states that Jesus’ death was not something that objectively cleansed us of our culpability for our sin, but rather was something that was intended to influence us on a subjective level: Jesus’ death would encourage us to turn to God. The moral-influence view said that Jesus’ death would show us how much God loved us and melt our hearts to turn to God, whereas Ehrman’s interpretation of Luke-Acts is that Jesus’ death (and subsequent exaltation) would make people feel guilty and thus repent. But both are subjective models for the atonement.
I think that Ehrman is on to something. In Luke 23:48, we read (in the KJV) that, after Jesus’ death and the centurion’s confession that Jesus was innocent, “all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.” The idea here may be that people repented out of guilt when they saw the death of Jesus, as they realized that they put to death an innocent man. Moreover, Ehrman does well to note the lack of references to blood atonement in Luke-Acts. I remember reading an article by a scholar named Henry Cadbury that made that same sort of point, but what I learned in reading Ehrman is that there are actual manuscripts that don’t have anything about Jesus giving his body and shedding his blood for people in Luke 22:19-20.
But there is a question that I have: How could Jesus’ death make everyone feel guilty, when not everyone was directly involved in Jesus’ crucifixion? If Jesus did not die for my sins, indicating that I’m not really part of the picture, then why should I feel guilty about his death? Is it because of collective guilt: that, in a sense, the Israelites and the Gentiles who participated in Jesus’ crucifixion represented all Jews and Gentiles, or they displayed how we would act if we were in their shoes? (It would be like what some Christians say about why Adam’s guilt is imputed to us: God knows that we would have done the same sin as Adam had we been in his shoes!) Are all people supposed to somehow see themselves in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion?
I’d like to make one more point: it seems to me that, in Ehrman’s book, Luke-Acts is a rather mavericky voice in the New Testament. I doubt that Ehrman would say this explicitly, but it’s just the impression that I’m getting. Luke-Acts is the book that causes the proto-orthodox problems and that does not go with the flow of other parts of the New Testament. Mark at Jesus’ baptism presents God acknowledging to Jesus that Jesus is God’s son, whereas Luke (in earlier manuscripts) depicts God as begetting Jesus as God’s son at that point, which appears consistent with adoptionism. Mark and Paul have blood atonement, whereas Luke-Acts generally does not. Mark depicts Jesus as experiencing agony when he is about to die, whereas Jesus in Luke is much more composed (Ehrman argues that Luke 22:44 is not authentic to Luke, and he notes the absence of this verse in early Greek manuscripts as well as elements of the Alexandrian tradition, including Clement and Origen), which may have struck some as rather docetic (Jesus only appeared human).
Don’t get me wrong: Ehrman talks about how proto-orthodox scribes altered Mark, Matthew, and Hebrews, too. Ehrman states that Mark at least appeared consistent with adoptionism (that Jesus was adopted as God’s son at his baptism), whether or not Mark intended it that way. But it just seems to me that Luke-Acts is the mavericky work in the New Testament. Of course, some of the speeches in Luke-Acts may actually predate the book—-the speeches that talk about Jesus’ death without mentioning blood atonement, or that depict God as making Jesus the Christ at his resurrection. Luke-Acts, consequently, may contain Christian voices that are even earlier. Perhaps, very early on in the history of Christianity, there were different ideas about the significance of Jesus’ death, or when Jesus became Son of God.