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The ‘Ransom for Many,’ the New Exodus, and the End of the Exile

This month, you can get Letter and Spirit, vol. 1: Reading Salvation: Word, Worship, and the Mysteries for free, plus two more volumes from the Letter and Spirit collection for less than $5! Throughout May, we’re sharing excerpts from Letter and Spirit, vol. 1, to give you a preview of thoughtful and thought-provoking scholarship you can expect from this month’s free book.

Today’s excerpt comes from the essay “The ‘Ransom for Many,’ the New Exodus, and the End of the Exile,” by prolific author and professor Dr. Brant Pitre.

Of the many difficult sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, the famous statement about the Son of Man having come to give his life as “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) is arguably one of the most enigmatic. While exegetes continue to offer various competing interpretations of the statement, and while it has been traditionally interpreted as somehow referring to an atonement for the sins of humanity, the precise meaning of Jesus’ words continue to remain veiled in obscurity. Moreover, the passage has been the subject of a long-standing scholarly debate about whether or not the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah, in particular Isaiah 52–53, are being alluded to in Jesus’ references to the Son of Man “serving” and “giving his life” for “many.”

While to my mind the arguments favoring an Isaianic background are stronger, the debate continues, and even those scholars who agree that Isaiah lies behind the text are still left with unanswered questions about the exact meaning of Mark 10:45. In this essay, I would like to advance a fresh interpretation of the “ransom for many,” not by rehashing arguments about Isaiah, but rather by focusing on those aspects of the wider Old Testament background of the text which are often overlooked but which provide important keys to its meaning.

First, I will argue that the “ransom saying” should be interpreted in light of the Danielic background present throughout Mark 10:35–44, and not isolated from the preceding material. When this is done, it becomes clear that the request of James and John that leads to the ransom saying presupposes the vision of the eschatological kingdom described in Daniel 7, with Jesus as the royal “one like a Son of Man” and themselves as the exalted “saints of the most high.” This Danielic background, combined with the role of the Twelve as representatives of the twelve tribes, establishes an initial link to the eschatological restoration of Israel.

Second, I will argue that Jesus’ ominous response to James and John about having to suffer before being exalted also presupposes the Danielic vision of the kingdom, but focuses on the sufferings of the eschatological tribulation that will precede the exaltation of the “Son of Man.”

Third, I will suggest that Jesus ties the royal figure of the “Son of Man,” who suffers in the tribulation in Daniel 7, to the royal figure of the “Messiah,” who dies in the eschatological tribulation in Daniel 9, and that this is the origin of his claim that the Son of Man must “give his life.” This point will be crucial to the overall argument, because the purpose of the tribulation in Daniel is to atone for the sins that led Israel into exile and inaugurate the restoration of Israel and the end of the exile.

Finally, I will attempt to show that Jesus’ words about the “ransom” for “many” fit squarely into this eschatological context by demonstrating that the terminology draws on the widespread Old Testament hope for the restoration of all Israel: that is, the ingathering of the scattered tribes—including the lost ten tribes of the northern kingdom—in a new exodus.

When seen in the light of these points, Jesus’ otherwise mysterious words in Mark 10:45 become amazingly clear. He is declaring that the messianic Son of Man will give his life in the eschatological tribulation in order to release (“ransom”) the scattered tribes of Israel (the “many”) from their exile among the Gentile nations. That is, he will give his life, in a kind of new Passover, in order to bring about a New Exodus: the long-awaited return from exile.

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Get the complete essay and more like it in Letter and Spirit, vol. 1, free through May 31! And add volume 2 and volume 3 from the Letter and Spirit collection for less than $5.

And don’t miss your chance to get the entire collection—the remaining eight volumes—for 23% off. With the combined steep discounts on the free book, plus one, and plus two, and dynamic pricing you’ll get on the collection, the savings really add up!

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