The best arguments on Hilasterion
A couple of months ago I wrote this post taking a skeptical view of the meaning of the word Hilasterion in Romans 3:25. I suggested that given the total indecision within the last few hundred years of scholarship on the subject that no one can really be sure what the word means. (See also this post by Doug on the meaning of Rom 3:25)
However, I have since that time been reflecting on the subject and looking at the various arguments proposed by scholars. It seems to me to be the case that if you sort through all the scholarly arguments and keep the good ones and discard the bad ones, then all the good arguments point toward one particular reading.
Some linguistic points
Dan Bailey in his recent PHD on the subject points out that scholars have clouded the matter by trying to find the meaning of the Hilas- word group rather than focusing on the word Hilasterion itself. He found that all extra-Biblical occurances of Hilasterion prior to 200AD mean "propitiatory gift or offering", or as one ancient writer puts it: "gifts capable of soothing". These are gifts given to an enemy or an offended person or god in an effort to make peace with them or appease them. Perhaps the most natural English description of this would be "reconciliation gift" or "peace offering". The word does not seem to be sacrificial, for "hilasterion never denotes an animal victim in any known source." The LXX uses hilasterion as the name for part of an altar (ie the Mercy Seat on the ark in the Pentateuch or to the "ledges" on an altar in Ezekiel). These are the only two meanings of hilasterion prior to 200AD.
The Parallel between Romans 3:24-25 and 4 Macc 17:21-22
By far the strongest parallel passage with Romans 3:25 is a passage in the book of 4 Maccabees. It reads:
"they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and the hilasterion of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated." (4 Macc 17:21b-22)
The similarities include:
- Numerous key word matches: Hilasterion, blood, ransom, sin, divine
- Both speak of the hilasterion as the death of a person. (unique in surviving ancient literature)
- Maccabees was written within a century of Romans, and also by a Hellenistic Jew.
It is relatively straight-forward to determine the meaning of hilasterion in 4 Maccabees.
- The theology of the context. The author makes it clear that God is punishing Israel because they have offended him. Then this group of Israelites have been faithful to God and his Law to the point of torture and death. Their faithful matyrdoms appease God, and oblige him to repay their faithfulness with kindness to Israel. This fits perfectly with the "appeasement gift" meaning of hilasterion.
- Grammatically the verse just doesn't make sense if it is read as "mercy seat". To talk of the "mercy seat of their death" is nonsense. It can only be read as "gift of appeasement".
- 4 Maccabees is extremely Hellenistic in its language and philosophy. Thus the standard Hellenistic meaning of hilasterion is the most likely intended meaning. The chances of it favoring the LXX meaning of the word over the standard Greek meaning are slim-to-none.
The meaning of Hilasterion in Rom 3:25
A number of arguments are relevant, I think in the following order of importance, for why hilasterion in Rom 3:25 must mean appeasing gift.
- The parallel with 4 Macc 17:22 is so strong that the meaning of hilasterion is almost certainly identical in both passages.
- The idea of Christ as a "gift of appeasement" makes great sense in Paul's theology. Paul elsewhere speaks of Christ making peace, undoing enmity, reconciling us and God.
- The statement that Christ was a "mercy seat" makes no real sense. How can Christ be part of an altar? Perhaps it could metaphorically mean that Christ is the locus of the presence of God among men, or perhaps that he is the Holy of Holies, or perhaps that he is the New Temple, or perhaps that he is the place where atonement takes place. But none of this is obvious from calling him a "mercy seat", and if any of this was what was meant, more clarification would be necessary.
- Most of recent scholarship believes that Paul's intended audience for Romans was primarily Gentiles. Therefore it makes sense for hilasterion to have its standard Greek meaning rather than any unusual Jewish one.
- Stowers in Rereading Romans, claims the Temple of Paul's time had no hilasterion in it. This strikes me as likely wrong, but if true then it implies that the average Jew of Paul's time would have been more likely to use the normal Greek meaning of hilasterion than the no-longer-applicable ancient Jewish one.
Who is receiving the Hilasterion?
If this is a gift of reconciliation who is giving it and who is receiving it? Is it a gift from God to humanity, or from God to himself on behalf of humanity? Here the arguments are mixed:
- If we simply take Paul's words at face value in Romans 3:25 then Jesus would seem to be a gift to humanity from God.
- This is consistent with the rest of Paul's theology, because he always speaks of us being reconciled to God, and us putting away our enmity against God, and never vice versa. So if makes sense in Paul's theology to see Jesus as the messenger and minister of reconciliation sent to us from God, who is given to us and killed by us in the course of saying "be reconciled to God". (1 Cor 5:19-20)
- However the strong parallel with 4 Maccabees would suggest otherwise. In 4 Maccabees the martyrs are giving their lives faithfully to God and thereby appeasing him.
- The idea of Jesus giving his life faithfully to God in order to appease God's anger against humanity has historically been fairly popular in Christian theology - it is Anselm's "Satisfaction" model.