In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Atonement

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Scapegoat
  • Martyrology
  • Development of Principal Theories
  • Classic Critiques of Theories

Biblical Studies Atonement
Stephen Finlan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0128


Theological usage of the term “atonement” refers to a cluster of ideas in the Old Testament that center on the cleansing of impurity (which needs to be done to prevent God from leaving the Temple), and to New Testament notions that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3) and that “we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). In English translations of the Old Testament, “make atonement” usually translates kipper, the verb for the cultic removal of impurity from the Temple or sanctuary, accomplished through the dashing or sprinkling of the blood of the “purification offering” or “sin offering” on particular Temple furnishings. Kipper occurs most often, but not exclusively, in sacrificial texts. Kipper is also performed over the scapegoat in one passage (Leviticus 16:10). Thus, scholarly discussions of atonement in the Old Testament focus on the sacrificial and scapegoat rituals but also attend to the procedure for making a redemption payment, for which the word kopher (cognate with kipper) is used. The most important day in the ancient Jewish liturgical calendar was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the supreme sacrificial rituals of the year were performed, and the only day of the year on which the scapegoat rite was performed. Atonement in the New Testament is expressed through metaphors of sacrifice, scapegoat, and redemption to picture the meaning of the death of Christ. The Apostle Paul is the main fountainhead of these soteriological metaphors, but they occur in the other epistles and in Revelation. Atonement imagery is much less common in the Gospels, possibly appearing in the Lord’s Supper and the ransom saying (Mark 10:45). Most (but not all) scholars would agree that atonement in the Old Testament concerns cleansing the Temple (the Deity’s home), not soteriology. In the New Testament, however, atonement is central to the soteriological metaphors in Paul’s letters, the deutero-Pauline letters, Hebrews, First Peter, First John, and Revelation.

General Overviews

All these academic works address atonement and related ideas in both testaments of the Bible. The eleven articles in Beckwith and Selman 1995 cover most aspects of sacrifice in the Bible. Eberhart 2011b is valuable for social and intellectual aspects of sacrifice, while Eberhart 2011a covers sacrifice in both testaments of the Bible and, briefly, in subsequent theology. Finlan 2004 examines Old Testament atonement concepts before scrutinizing Paul’s atonement teachings in depth. Johnson 2017 contains articles on numerous aspects of the atonement discussion. Sykes 1991 looks at many aspects of redemption and soteriology from biblical to modern times.

  • Beckwith, Roger T., and Martin J. Selman, eds. Sacrifice in the Bible. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1995.

    Competent and detailed articles on Levitical sacrifice, kipper and kopher, sacrifice in neighboring cultures, and New Testament concepts of the sacrifice of Christ.

  • Eberhart, Christian A. The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically. Facets. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011a.

    Excellent short introduction to biblical data and theological debates, accessible to believers and scholars. Shows why the cereal offering can be called a “sacrifice.” Discusses the theme of consecration in both testaments. More thorough with the Old Testament than with the New.

  • Eberhart, Christian A., ed. Ritual and Metaphor: Sacrifice in the Bible. Resources for Biblical Study 68. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011b.

    These academic articles examine social backgrounds to sacrificial texts, the burning rite as a defining feature of sacrifice, prophetic rhetoric on sacrifice, the “Yom Kippuring of Passover” imagery, and the Epistle to the Hebrews’ spiritualizing of sacrifice (focusing on inner motives, and speaking of sacrifice metaphorically).

  • Finlan, Stephen. The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors. Academia Biblica 19. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

    Examines purification, scapegoat, and redemption in ancient Israel and surrounding cultures in some depth. Explores Paul’s metaphorical usage of these practices, including how he conflates the metaphors, as when sacrificial blood brings judicial acquittal (Romans 5:9).

  • Johnson, Adam J., ed. T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. New York and London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017.

    Has eighteen long articles and eighty-five short “essays,” including “Athanasius’s Incarnational Soteriology,” “Thomas Aquinas’s Pauline Theology of the Atonement,” “The Fury of Love: Calvin on the Atonement,” “Colin Gunton,” “Liberation Theology,” and “Wrath.”

  • Sykes, Stephen W., ed. Sacrifice and Redemption: Durham Essays in Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511659522

    Articles examine sacrifice and holiness in the Old Testament, the spiritualization of sacrifice in the New Testament, and sacrificial imagery in medieval and Reformation theology.

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