This week the lectionary offers us an excerpt from the second chapter of the first letter to Timothy, attributed by tradition to Paul, “a herald and an apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7). The passage is 1 Tim 2:1–7.
Just before making this authorial statement, the author offers one of the assorted short, formulaic statements about “the faith” that pepper the three pastoral letters: “there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5–6). (The other instances of such formulaic statements are at 1:15; 3:1; 3:16; 4:9–10; 6:15–16.)
Ransom is a term that we associate with the forced kidnapping of a person and the demand for a payment in order for them to be released. This is not the way the term is used in biblical texts, where payment in return for release of a captive is not in view. Rather, the orientation is towards the idea that there is a significant cost involved in the process of ransoming.
The Greek word used here is antilutron, a compound word comprised of the prefix anti- (in the place of) and the noun lutron. This noun also appears in a saying of Jesus, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The noun lutron comes from a verb, lutrein, which means “to release”. It was a common term for the payment needed to secure the release of slaves, debtors, and prisoners of war. The noun, translated as ransom, occurs in the Septuagint. It identifies the price paid to redeem a slave or captive (Lev 25:51–52) or a firstborn (Num 18:15). It also indicates the price to be paid as recompense for a crime (Num 35:31–32) or injury (Exodus 21:30). In these instances, it translates the Hebrew word koper, which has the basic meaning of “covering”.
Another form of that word appears in another form in the name of the Great High Holy Day in Judaism—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:1–34; Num 29:7–11). On that day, as the cloud of incense covers the mercy seat (kapporeth, Lev 16:13), the mercy seat is smeared with the blood of the sacrificed bull (16:14) and then the blood of the goat which provides the sin offering (16:15). According to Leviticus, it is these actions which “shall make atonement (kipper) for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16).
The process of atonement in the Israelite religion was to cover up, to hide away from view, the sins of the people. This is developed to some degree in the fourth Servant Song of Deutero-Isaiah, when the prophet honours the servant because “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). His life was understood as “an offering for sin” (53:10) which “shall make many righteous” (53:11). Indeed, as the Song ends, it affirms that “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). The Song resonates with the language and imagery of righteous suffering as the means of dealing with, and perhaps atoning for, sins.
That notion is further expounded in a later text which provides an account of the way that a righteous man, Eleazar, was martyred as a means of ransoming the nation during the time of upheaval under Antiochus Epiphanes (175–167 BCE). “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them”, he prays; “make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc 6:28–29).
The idea then appears in New Testament texts which describe the effect of the death of Jesus for those who have placed their trust in him. Paul uses ransom language tells the saints that they were “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). He also uses apolutrosis, a compound word but from the base word lutrein, to describe the redemption which was accomplished by Jesus, both in a formulaic way (1 Cor 1:30) and in a more discursive manner (Rom 3:24; 8:23).
The term recurs in later letters which likely were not written by Paul (Col 1:14; Eph 1:7, 14; 4:30), as well as in the Lukan redaction of the final eschatological speech of Jesus (Luke 21:28). In another late first century work, providing an account of Paul by an author at some remove from him, the book of Acts, Paul was said to have declared of the church that God “obtained [it] with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).
It was the combination of such passages that led the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria to develop an idiosyncratic theory of the atonement (the way that Jesus enables God to deal with human sinfulness). Origen’s ransom theory of atonement reads Genesis 3 as an account of Adam and Eve being taken captive by Satan; this state was then inherited by all human beings. The death of Jesus is what enables all humans to be saved; the means for this was that the blood shed by Jesus was the price paid to Satan to ransom humanity (or, in a variant form, a ransom paid by Jesus to God to secure our release).
However, none of these texts require this overarching theological superstructure to make sense of what they say. Origen’s ransom theory held sway for some centuries, but was definitively rejected by the medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury. It is not a favoured theory of atonement in much of the contemporary church (though it is still advocated in various fundamentalist backwaters). Certainly, none of this should be attributed to the saying we find at 1 Tim 2:5–6.