The Scarlet Thread of Atonement

Romans 3:24-25

By Hillary Le Cornu

(© 1994 by Hillary Le Cornu, Jerusalem)

Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans as a spiritual, theological, and practical encouragement to the congregation there. As a written text, it is a letter: a personal communication and means of instruction from the apostle to one of the many communities of believers in Yeshua (Jesus). Since it was written at a particular time, it reflects the historical and theological circumstances of the period. In chapter 3, verses 21-25, Paul writes:

“But now apart from the Law (the) righteousness of G-d has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even (the) righteousness of G-d through faith in Yeshua the Messiah for all those who believe, for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of G-d, being justified as a gift by His grace through redemption which is in the Messiah, Yeshua; whom G-d displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.”

The statement “whom G-d displayed publicly as a propitiation (a means of appeasement) in His blood through faith” is an interesting and important concept, but it is difficult to understand it in its present context. In this article, we want to explore the meaning of Paul’s statement regarding the act of Yeshua’s death by looking at the:

  • Original Greek grammar of the statement.
  • Jewish religious customs of the first century.
  • Jewish writings from the same period which confirm Paul’s ideas.

The context of Romans 3: 21-25 is Paul’s discussion concerning the source of G-d’s righteousness. At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul sets out to defend Israel’s election (verses 1-2). The well-known fact that the people have been unfaithful to G-d’s covenant, however, immediately draws him into countering the objection that G-d has rejected His people because of their rebelliousness (verses 3-4). He follows this by disputing the further claim that man’s unrighteousness actually gives the occasion for G-d’s grace to abound (verses 5-8).1 This progression of thought leads Paul to address the issue that even though Israel’s election is sure, they too have sinned, so that man’s need for redemption is universal.

On the basis of this argument, Paul establishes the fact that G-d has provided an independent means of righteousness (justification) through Yeshua – “apart from” the Torah.2 Verse 24 continues the thought of verse 23 and further explains the implications of man’s transgression, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of G-d.” Paul then states that man is justified (given G-d’s righteousness) “as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in the Messiah, Yeshua.”

The root meaning of the Greek term apoluirosis, “redemption”, implies a “price paid in ransom.” In Hellenistic Greek, the word was used to refer to the price paid to liberate a slave.3 Paul describes man’s sinfulness in terms of being bound to an oppressive master – just as Israel was bound under Pharaoh’s slavery in Egypt. He therefore understands redemption and atonement in the sense of deliverance from bondage. The idea of a person ransoming or liberating one who is bound is also found in the biblical institution known as yibbum or levirate marriage.4 The Torah commands that a man whose brother dies childless is required to marry his brother’s widow in order to continue the family’s name (cf. Ruth). If a man does not wish to marry his sister-in-law, he must submit to a public ceremony called chalitza, in which the widow removes his shoe and spits in his presence, thereby gaining him the name of “the house of him whose sandal is removed” (Dt. 25:10).

Paul speaks of Yeshua undergoing this ceremony in order to redeem man from his slavery, in that Yeshua’s death and resurrection redeems or “releases” man (in baptism) from the “dominion of Belial” or the “prince of this world” into the kingdom of G-d (cf. Rom. 7:1-6, Gal. 1:4).5 The parallel between chalitza and Yeshua’s death and resurrection is difficult in some respects, since the ceremony is imposed on the man who is unwilling to marry his brother’s wife, and is also performed by the widow. The purpose, on the other hand, is clearly to free the woman to marry again, and Paul uses this same image (supported by halakhic backing) in Romans 7:1-6, where he clearly expresses the idea that Yeshua’s death and resurrection frees man from the mastery of his evil inclination, to serve G-d. The Sages also use the idea of chalitza metaphorically. In the talmudic tractate Yebamoth, for example, which specifically deals with the laws regarding levirate marriage, they interpret the verse “the angel of the L-rd encampeth round about them that fear him, and He girds them vaychalteem” (Ps. 34:8) to mean that “as a reward for those who fear Him He will deliver them from the Judgment of Gehenna” (Yev. 102b).6

Paul then goes on to say that G-d “displayed publicly” this redemption – Yeshua – “as a propitiation in His blood through faith.”7 The Greek term hilaslerios, “propitiation,” can be understood in two ways: either as an adjective which modifies an absent noun (e.g., atoning sacrifice), or as a neuter noun, meaning “propitiation,” a means of appeasement. As an adjective (masculine accusative), the word agrees with the relative pronoun hon (whom), referring to Yeshua. Translated this way, the statement would mean that “G-d publicly displayed Yeshua as an atoning (sacrifice).” Although the fact that Paul intends the meaning of propitiation to refer to redemption through a sacrifice is clear, the sentence becomes difficult when the subject of propitiation is used with the idea of public display.

If, on the other hand, the word “propitiation” is read as a noun, Paul may be specifically referring, as several commentators have noted, to the kaporet or “mercy seat” which covered the ark of the covenant in the Tabernacle (cf. Ex. 25:17ff, Lev. 16:14f). This was sprinkled with the blood of the animal sacrifices offered by the High Priest on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Paul’s meaning would then be that Yeshua was both the place (the “mercy seat”) and the means (through his blood) of atonement. It therefore seems clear that Paul’s thought concerning redemption and atonement is governed by the idea that man is bound to a master from whom he must be delivered, and that Yeshua, as the person who releases him, takes upon himself the biblical role of the scapegoat, whose blood sprinkled on the altar effected atonement for the High Priest and all the people of Israel (cf. Lev. 16:5ff). He thus refers in verses 24-25 to the ceremonies performed on the Day of Atonement.

In this respect, several passages in the Talmud give textual testimony to the historical background to the events of Yom Kippur during the time of Yeshua’s death and resurrection, and provide us with information about the rituals concerning the Day of Atonement practiced during the Second Temple and Talmudic period (broadly dated between 536 B.C.E.-500 C.E.).

According to the Talmud, G-d publicly indicated His acceptance of Israel’s sin-offering and their forgiveness through the use of a scarlet thread. The basic purpose of the scarlet thread was to “display publicly” to the people of Israel that G-d had forgiven their sins, based on the verse in Isaiah 1:18, “though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow.”8

According to the Mishna (the earliest rabbinic interpretation of the biblical commandment) the High Priest divided a thread of crimson wool, tied one half to the rock at the peak of the mountain from which the scapegoat was to be cast down, and the other half between the horns of the scapegoat itself. The goat was then pushed from behind, and “went rolling down and before it had reached half its way down it was dashed to pieces” (Yoma 6:6).

The talmudic discussions in The Gemara (the commentary on the Mishna) on this early practice give different reports of this ritual, and disagree as to the reasons for the changes in practice which also took place. In the tractate Rosh Hashanah, which deals with the commandments regulating the New Year, the Sages claim that the thread was originally tied to the outside of the door of the Temple. Apparently the people would gather to see if the thread had turned white. If it did, “the people rejoiced, and if it did not turn white they were sad.” Therefore the Sages ruled that the thread should be tied to the inside of the door, out of view of the public eye, However the people “still peeped in and saw.” Once again, “if it turned white they rejoiced and if it did not turn white they were sad” (Rosh Hashanah 31b).

According to the mishna in Yoma, however, because the distance from Jerusalem to Beit Hararo (the mountain off which the scapegoat was thrown) was three miles, it took time for the news to arrive that the scapegoat had in fact reached the wilderness. The thread which had been tied to the rock was therefore also tied to the door of the Temple itself. Thus without having to wait for the news to arrive from the desert, the people would visually see that G-d had received the sacrifice of the scapegoat and that their sins had been atoned for and forgiven (Yoma 6:8).9

Although the motivations and some of the practical uses of the scarlet thread are obscure, its theological significance remains clear: G-d not only demonstrated His forgiveness of the people and the atonement of their sins, but He did so publicly, by turning the scarlet thread white so that it should be visible to the people.

A further point concerning the scarlet thread lies in the fact that in the tractate Rosh Hashanah it is raised in the middle of a debate concerning the identity of nine regulations laid down by Rabban Johanan ben Zaccai. Rabban Johanan was one of the few survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C. E., and was among the leading Pharisaic Sages who laid the foundation for the establishment of rabbinic Judaism following the collapse of the Temple and its sacrificial system. He was thus alive and active in religious life in Jerusalem around the time of Yeshua’s death and resurrection (c. 27-30 C.E.). In the continuation of the same section of the Talmud, the text says that during Rabban Johanan’s lifetime:

“For forty years before the destruction of the Temple the thread of scarlet never turned white but it remained red. “(Rosh Hashanah31b).10

According to these Jewish sources, during the forty years following Yeshua’s death up until the destruction of the Temple when the sacrificial system ceased, the scarlet thread never turned white. This indicated that G-d no longer accepted the sacrifice of the scapegoat to atone for Israel’s sins.

Paul’s text is thus confirmed by the talmudic evidence. Yeshua’s crucifixion, around 27-30 C.E., displayed publicly “G-d’s forgiveness, and occurred at the same historical time when, according to rabbinic sources, the scarlet thread which was contemporarily regarded as the symbol of G-d’s forgiveness ceased to turn white (forty years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.), indicating that the scapegoat was unable to effect the forgiveness of Israel’s sin. Yeshua himself had become the scapegoat, whose blood atoned for Israel’s sins.

The reference to the scarlet thread whose turning white demonstrated the forgiveness of Israel’s sins finally clarifies Paul’s text in verse 25: “…whom G-d displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith.” As it stands, the text refers “faithfulness” to Yeshua’s blood (“through faith in his blood”), and translators and commentators have frequently felt justified in changing the word order to give the verse the meaning: “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” Although this does not transgress the rules of Greek grammar, it does involve a deliberate alteration of the original word order. This in turn violates the exegetical principle which holds that the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior) should be retained.

When the word “faithfulness” is taken to refer to Yeshua’s faithfulness to G-d, as in verse 22, Paul’s meaning becomes clearer, however. Yeshua is faithful to G-d in becoming “obedient to death” and in “pouring out” (shedding) his blood in order to cleanse, redeem, and sanctify mankind. Paul’s idea and description of Yeshua’s act of redemption is also reflected in an apocryphal book called “The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs”:

Joseph also urged our father to pray for his brothers, that the L-rd would not hold them accountable for their sin which they so wickedly committed against him. And Jacob cried out, “O noble child, you have crushed the inner of feelings of Jacob your father.” He embraced him and kept kissing him for two hours, saying, “Through you will be fulfilled the heavenly prophecy concerning the Lamb of G-d, the Savior of the world, because the unspotted one will be betrayed by lawless men, and the sinless one will die for impious men by the blood of the covenant for the salvation of the gentiles and of Israel and the destruction of Belial and his servants.” (Testament of Benjamin 3.8, version c.).

Paul thus clearly identifies Yeshua’s atonement and propitiation for man’s sins with the “biblical rituals concerning the Day of Atonement. He builds his argument upon the ideas of the mercy seal and the role of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. Moreover, the major elements of his thought are reflected by other Jewish sources, which confirm both the historical and theological context of his writings.


NOTES

1. Paul counters the logical extreme to which this conclusion leads in verses 5-8. Since we are not dealing primarily with a textual study of this section of Romans but with an historical clarification of its theological significance, we shall leave aside a detailed examination of the surrounding text.

2. Again, the purpose of this article is not to give an in-depth exegesis of this text. On the simplest level, however, the statement “apart from The Torah” is not meant be read to say that G-d’s righteousness has replaced the Torah, since Paul clearly says that the Torah witnesses to this righteousness.

3. See G. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1964), 4:351-36. The Hebrew root ma (padah) carries the same meaning of ransom: cf. Ex. 13-13, 15; Lev. 27:27f; Num. 3:11f, 40ff; Ps., 34:22, 44:26, 71:23; Mt. 20:28; 1 Tim, 2:6.

4. Cf. Dt. 25:5-6. The English word “levirate” comes directly from the Latin levir, meaning a husband’s brother.

5. Paul’s language and thought also closely resemble the expression of the Qumran texts in this respect: the phrase “the dominion of Belial,” for example, is used by the community to describe the rule of the Spirit of Perversity or darkness who is in constant battle against the “sons of light”. G-d utterly destroys the forces of evil on the final Day of Vengeance. cf. 1QS 2:19, 3:18-4:26.

6. In the same sugia (talmudic passage; Yev. 102b), R. Gamaliel counters the argument of a heretic who claims on the basis of Hos. 5:6 (“He has withdrawn”) that G-d has rejected His people. R. Gamaliel argues that since it is the sister-in-law who performs the ceremony, G-d cannot be impugned and therefore cannot be said to have rejected His people.

7. Here again Paul’s language and syntax (sentence structure) are both difficult. Since we are not engaged in an exegetical study of the passage per se, we shall leave these difficulties aside.

8. Although the talmudic text quotes the text from Isa. 1:18, the “scarlet thread” is actually only mentioned in the biblical story of Rahab. Joshua 2 identifies the scarlet thread as being used as a sign of deliverance for Rahab’s household after she had sheltered the twelve spies.

9. These Sages were particularly concerned with the risks of the non-visibility of the scarlet thread. They argued that the thread had to be transferred the rock and the horns of the scapegoat to the Temple because the High Priest might either be too pleased himself at seeing the thread turn white to remember to information on to the people, or that he might not even hurl the goat off the mountain if the thread turned white very quickly thus leaving the commandment unfulfilled. It seems that the passages in Yoma and Rosh Hashanah are either interpreting two different mishnaic texts, or that the discussion in Rosh Hashanah is less accurate, seeing that the acknowledged purpose of the scarlet thread was to provide a visible sign of G-d’s forgiveness.

10. A parallel account In Yoma 39b, on the other hand, suggests that following the forty years of Simon the Righteous’ high priesthood (c. 219-199 B.C.E.) during which the thread stayed white, the thread sometimes became white and at other times remained red.


Used with permission of author. Lea worked with her while living in Israel. Hillary has written several books in conjunction with Joseph Shulam. These are “A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Galatians”, “A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Acts”, and “A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans” They can be viewed here.

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