The claim that in his sufferings and death Jesus made atonement for the sins of others is based on the notion that in ancient Jewish thought the offering of sacrifice and the suffering and death of righteous persons could atone for sins. In reality, however, such an idea runs contrary to what we find in the Hebrew Scriptures and Second Temple Jewish thought, where it is maintained that the only thing that can atone for sins is a recommitment to living in accordance with God’s will.
In Second Temple Jewish thought, the Mosaic law or Torah was viewed as a gracious gift given by Israel’s God to his people in order to promote their well-being and happiness by leading them to practice justice and righteousness for the good of all. Many of the commandments of the Torah, such as those prescribing sacrifice, were thought to have been given in order that they might contribute indirectly to the same objective.
No Old Testament passage has influenced Christian interpretations of Jesus’ death more than Isaiah 53, which speaks of God’s servant bearing sin, suffering, and death on behalf of others in order to heal them and make them whole. Traditional interpretations of Isaiah 53, however, tend to read back into the passage ideas regarding sacrifice and atonement that are not actually found in the passage itself or in ancient Hebrew and Jewish thought in general.
A careful examination of Second Temple Jewish beliefs regarding sacrifice and vicarious suffering and death makes it clear that what was thought to atone for sins was not suffering or death but a renewed commitment to living in accordance with God’s loving will. Both the offering of sacrifice and the willingness to suffer or even die were atoning only when they were the expression or consequence of that renewed commitment.
Numerous passages from Jewish and Greco-Roman writings of antiquity speak of certain persons dying for others or attaining some benefit for them by means of their suffering and death. While it has been common to argue that many of these passages reflect the idea that the suffering or death of a righteous person could atone for the sins of others, in reality such an idea would have found no place among Jews in the Second Temple period.