My question "Do source-criticism scholars think the doctrine of Atonement originated after the Crucifixion?" was just deleted, with the reason given that "When a doctrine in a particular form originated might work as a question on Christianity, but as noted above it's not really on topic for this site." But it was my impression that questions related to source criticism scholarship are relevant to Hermeneuetics.SE. Are there any modifications I could make so that it's on-topic at Heremeneutics.SE rather than Christianity.SE?

Also, could I request that my question simply be closed rather than deleted? My question had quite a good answer drawing on source-criticism scholarship, and I'd like to see it.

In any case, here is the text of my question:

Do source-criticism scholars think the doctrine of Atonement originated after the Crucifixion?

One of the major arguments that secular scholars give for the historicity of Jesus is that if Paul or someone else was making up the story of Jesus out of whole cloth, they would not make up the detail that Jesus was crucified. That's because the fact that a putative Messiah was assassinated would hugely undermine belief in him. So the fact that this embarrassing detail is included in the story is an indication that it's a true detail about his life.

But this got me thinking, Christianity managed to survive despite this embarrassing detail, because it contextualizes Jesus' execution as dying for the sins of Mankind. This doctrine of Atonement is encapsulated in John 3:16, where Jesus says "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life." But secular scholars who believe in source-criticism don't believe that all Jesus quotes in the Gospels are authentic expressions of Jesus' thoughts. So my question is, do source-criticism scholars believe that the doctrine of Atonement was developed by Christians after Jesus' death, as a way of explaining away the inconvenient fact that a putative Messiah was killed?

Now source criticism has moved away from the idea of ipsissima verba, the notion that some statements in the Gospels are close to the actual words that Jesus uses. This has been replaced with ipsissima vox, the notion that some statements in the Gospels at least capture the concepts that Jesus expressed, if not his precise wording. So I want to know if source-criticism scholars believe that the Jesus quotes enunciating the doctrine of Atonement constitute ipsissima vox or not.

Now the general consensus of source criticism is that the three synoptic Gospels are derived from two sources, the gospel of Mark and a lost sayings gospel called Q. But Dominic Crossan goes one step further and argues that Mark, Q, and the apocryphal gospel of Thomas all drew from a source known as the Common Sayings Tradition, which would have at least reflected Jesus' original thoughts, i.e. ipsissima vox. Here is an attempted reconstruction of the Common Sayings Source by the Jesus Seminar; you can see that the doctrine of Atonement is nowhere to be found. But do other source-criticism scholars agree with Crossan that the doctrine of Atonement was a later addition to Christianity?

Note that I don't want users to give their own views on whether Jesus' death undermines Christianity or whether the Atonement is a later addition. I just want to know what source-criticism scholars have to say on this issue.

EDIT: This blog post is a good example of the historicity argument I alluded to in the beginning of my question:

But probably the best example of an element in the story which was so awkward for the early Christians that it simply has to be historical is the crucifixion. The idea of a Messiah who dies was totally unheard of and utterly alien to any Jewish tradition prior to the beginning of Christianity, but the idea of a Messiah who was crucified was not only bizarre, it was absurd. According to Jewish tradition, anyone who was "hanged on a tree" was to be considered accursed by Yahweh and this was one of the reasons crucifixion was considered particularly abhorrent to Jews. The concept of a crucified Messiah, therefore, was totally bizarre and absurd....

The accounts of Jesus' crucifixion in the gospels also show how awkward the nature of their Messiah's death was for the earliest Christians. They are all full of references to texts in the Old Testament as ways of demonstrating that, far from being an absurdity, this was what was supposed to happen to the Messiah. But none of the texts used were considered prophecies of the Messiah before Christianity came along and some of them are highly forced. The "suffering servant" passages in Isaiah 53 are pressed into service as "prophecies" of the crucifixion, since they depict a figure being falsely accused, rejected and given up to be "pierced .... as a guilt offering". But the gospels don't reference other parts of the same passage which don't fit their story at all, such as where it is said this figure will "prolong his days and look upon his offspring".

Clearly the gospel writers were going to some effort to find some kind of scriptural basis for this rather awkward death for their group's leader, one that let them maintain their belief that he was the Messiah. Again, this makes most sense if there was a historical Jesus and he was crucified, leaving his followers with this awkward problem. If there was no historical Jesus at all, it becomes very difficult to explain where this bizarre, unprecedented and awkwardly inconvenient element in the story comes from. It's hard to see why anyone would invent the idea of a crucified Messiah and create these problems. And given that there was no precedent for a crucified Messiah, it's almost impossible to see this idea evolving out of earlier Jewish traditions. The most logical explanation is that it's in the story, despite its vast awkwardness, because it happened.

And again, I'm not asking users to criticize or comment on the argument quoted above, I'm just looking for what source-criticism scholars have to say on the subject of how/when the doctrine of Jesus' death constituting Atonement originated.

  • As I believe I commented on the question originally, the problem seems to keep coming back to the usage and definition of "atonement" whether big or little A and the assumed connotation of it in various cases. Find one or two verses and focus on just them. Then build out wider if a pattern emerges across these cases. Then move to C.SE where it touches historical theology.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 22:59

4 Answers 4


Thanks for asking here. There ought to be a way to fix this up for one site or the other, but you might have to narrow the question down to the bit that is on topic for the respective site(s). In any event just so you know I deleted the post partly to push you to find the proper home for it. Sitting around in a "just closed" state is not a good long term solution and given you hadn't responded to the feedback it seemed you were too comfortable with that state.

Posts that are closed and not on topic usually be deleted eventually. If there is good content that people should be coming to this site to find we should fix the questions until they can be opened again. Having one answer locked in that other's can't post to improve or rebut means the basic mechanisms of this site that make in a quality resource are disabled.

Closure is a temporary moratorium on answers while the scope of a question is adjusted. If no adjustment is going to take place assume the question will be removed eventually (there is even a robot running that we can't control that goes around deleting old closed questions!)

So is your question really a source criticism thing or is it about the history of a specific doctrinal formulation in Christianity?

  • For the record I didn't even know my question was closed until today. (Too bad Stackexchange doesn't give closure notifications.) In any case, it's a source-criticism question; I want to know whether source-criticism scholars believe that the statements in the Bible that talk about the Atonement are ipssissima vox, or whether they believe that they were later additions to justify Jesus' death. Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 15:08
  • 1
    @KeshavSrinivasan That sounds really broad - there are lots of statements about the atonement and there are lots of source criticism scholars.
    – curiousdannii Mod
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 15:10
  • @curiousdannii Well, an answer that gave a few quotes from source-criticism scholars on the subject of whether Jesus' statements about his death constituting Atonement were ipsissima vox or later additions would satisfy me; I don't need a comprehensive answer giving quotes from every source-criticism scholar who ever lived. Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 15:15

I can only give my reason for closing the question, I cannot speak for the others who also closed it, but the reason I voted to do so was not because source criticism was being discussed, but instead because of what source criticism was being applied to.

This site is about hermeneutics, not doctrines and dogma. Hermeneutics deals with the original text in it's original context. In other words, if you had asked about what source criticism has to say about a particular passage or text, I would consider this on topic, or even if you asked about source criticism itself. Instead you asked what source criticism has to say about the doctrine of atonement. Doctrinal questions really do belong at Christianity.SE (or a similar site.)


For The Record: There are numerous "Source Criticism" questions in BHSE, and they are valid questions. Source Criticism-though not my favorite, has been firmly entrenched in BHSE. Any question regarding "Q" is a Source Criticism question; there are numerous "Q" questions which you are invited to examine on BHSE.

Though I didn't vote against it, I do see some issues which perhaps stirred others to "DV" and VtC your question. The Main Objection as I see it is you are using Source Criticism in reference to a "Doctrine" rather than a text. The solution is to simply quote the text, and ask if "Source Criticism" can be used to derive the meaning in question. Those with "Source Criticism" understanding can verify, or perhaps lend a different synopsis on the meaning of the text.

Since you chose to evaluate a "Doctrine", Source Criticism in itself is not the right methodology. Canonicity, application, tradition, and other criteria go into evaluating a Doctrine; and these are outside the domain of BHSE. Certain doctrines(mostly modern adaptations) have been influenced by Source Criticism, to be sure. But unless you identify a text, and ask for it's meaning, whether or not Source Criticism was used would only be useful in discerning the meaning; how it is handled doctrinally requires a different set of questions.

  • My question is simple: what do source-criticism scholars believe about the statements in the Bible that talk about Jesus' death constituting atonement? Do they think that those statements are ipsissima vox, or do they think that those statements were added later in order to provide a justification for Jesus' death? My question is not about "evaluating" a doctrine. Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 7:32
  • @KeshavSrinivasan But in answering your question, you're asking us to evaluate the Atonement, something our site doesn't purposefully do. It's not that we can't refer to the Doctrine of Atonement in responses, it's just that in order to stay within the parameters of this site, we evaluate Text-Not Doctrine.
    – Tau
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 1:42
  • But I'm not looking for answers that evaluate the doctrine of Atonement, I'm just looking for answers that discuss what source-criticism scholars have to say about the age of the Bible quotes that discuss the Atonement. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 1:49

Some ways to edit your question to be more BHSE specific (there are too many variables for me to attempt an edit, as you need to answer some questions). Primarily the main thing is you need to focus on texts, not doctrine. So here are some examples of things that appear to me may need to be changed:

  1. Title

    [From:] Do source-criticism scholars think the doctrine of Atonement originated after the Crucifixion?

    [To:] Do source-criticism scholars think the source for texts about atonement originated after the Crucifixion?

  2. Narrowed key texts

    Give about three key texts (to limit the scope) that you believe are fairly unambiguously (a) about atonement (i.e., Christ crucified for the sins of the people) and (b) stated (at least according to the text) during Christ's ministry.

    This gets to the heart of your issue about source criticism as it relates to the source of the texts for statements Jesus supposedly made about the crucifixion/atonement. That is, do source critics believe Jesus made any of these statements while alive (hence, He is the source) or do they believe those were added later (hence, a later source).

    It would probably be better to pick some different verses than John 3:16, for that verse simply says God "gave" His Son and v.17 clearly states that was in "sending" His Son into the world, so it is really more v.15 that alludes to the crucifixion, but even that is by symbolism. So the more unambiguous the verses you can find, the better to evaluate source criticism views on those verses. (NOTE: I do believe that the "giving" in v.16 relates as well to the crucifixion/atonement, but my point here is that the verse is not unambiguous on that point; it is somewhat of a "doctrinal" position based on other revelation.)

    Perhaps verses like:

    • Mk 10:45 || Mt 20:28 (life as ransom)
    • Mk 10:32-34 || Mt 20:18-19 || Lk 18:31-34 (death and resurrection)
    • Jn 1:29 (Lamb of God that would take sins of world away, which is an unambiguous allusion to a sacrificial lamb)

So the key is to limit the set of verses being referenced, so that actual research of source critical views on those texts can be used as an answer. Focus on the texts that refer to points of the doctrine of atonement, but leave direct discussion of the doctrine of atonement out of the question for BHSE (though you can imply that your interest in this is in relation to their understanding of that doctrine, so that a person answering might give you their impressions from the evidence on what the source critical view on the doctrine might be, but only as a secondary point to the primary point of how they view those texts).

No guarantee this will get the question undeleted, but I think it would have a strong case for a reconsideration.

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