Messiah in the Day of Atonement

The second century Epistle of Barnabbas is the first Christian work to explicitly link the passion and parousia of Yeshua to the two goats of the Day of Atonement rituals of Leviticus 16. Nevertheless, Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra in The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity, suggests that ‘Implicit allusions are probably behind the scapegoat in the Barabbas episode of Matthew 27:15-23 and Galatians 3:10.13.’ Ben Ezra also sees a scapegoat allusion in John the Baptist’s identification of Yeshua as ‘the Lamb of God who bears away the sins of the world’ (Jn 1:29).

In the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we read that when Yeshua walked to Emmaus with his disciples, he opened their minds ‘to understand the Scriptures,’ revealing how it was written, and why it was necessary for Messiah ‘to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day.’ Similarly, in Acts 17:1-3 Luke records that in the synagogue in Thessalonica Paul reasoned from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that ‘Messiah had to suffer and rise again from the dead,’ and that Yeshua is the Messiah.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 Paul reminds the believers in Corinth that the good news he proclaimed to them as of primary importance was that ‘Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,’ and that ‘he was buried and raised up on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.’

All three references are in agreement that Messiah’s sufferings and death for our sins were according to what was revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. But what ‘Scriptures’ did Yeshua and Paul draw on to explain and demonstrate the case for the death and resurrection of Messiah? What Yeshua explained in the course of a Sabbath day’s journey took Paul three Sabbaths and, we may presume that had he been allowed the time, he could have taken several more Sabbaths to develop his theme.

Reasoning from the Scriptures
But another question also arises: Why did Yeshua and Paul need to prove to devout first century Jews that the Messiah the Jews hoped would redeem Israel had to do so through suffering and death? It is clear from Peter’s rebuke of Yeshua in Matthew 16 that although it had been revealed to him that his Rabbi was ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, he had no concept of a Messiah who had to be killed and raised up on the third day. The fact that Paul had to demonstrate and prove to synagogue congregations in the Roman world the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead, clearly demonstrates that the concept of a suffering Messiah was virtually unknown among first century Jews.

Viewed through the lens of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Yeshua, and with the aid of the New Covenant writings, passages such as Genesis 3:15, Psalm 22:, Zechariah 12:10-14 and even Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 make sense in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is clear from the account of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-35 that the eunuch did not understand Isaiah 53 to be a messianic prophecy. Philip, ‘beginning from this scripture . . . proclaimed Yeshua to him’ and, like Yeshua on the road to Emmaus, he ‘opened the mind’ of the high-ranking Ethiopian official to ‘understand the Scripture.’

Day of Atonement undertones are recognisable in Isaiah 53, where the ‘righteous servant’ of the Lord, like the high priest on the Day of Atonement, ‘was numbered among the sinners . . . and made intercession for sinners.’ But, like the Lord’s goat, he is an ‘offering for sin’, ‘led to slaughter’ and ‘cut off from the land of the living’ and, like the Azazel goat, the iniquity of Israel is laid on the righteous servant. Likewise, although the New Covenant Writings never explicitly refer to the scapegoat as a picture of Messiah, the double imagery of a Messiah who was ‘made sin’ for us (2 Cor 5:21) and also ‘carried our sins’ (1 Pet 2:24) is present.

But however first century Judaism understood Isaiah 53, it was not in a messianic sense. Why else would Yeshua, Paul and Philip have had to prove the death of Messiah to their contemporaries? Indeed, according to 1 Peter 1:10-12, the very prophets who wrote the Scriptures of the Old Covenant ‘sought and searched diligently concerning this salvation.’ They prophesied of the grace that would come to him and his readers, says Peter. The prophets ‘were searching for what or what particular time the Spirit of Messiah which was in them was pointing to by testifying beforehand of the sufferings of Messiah and the glories that would follow them.’ And he goes on to say, ‘These things have now been announced to you through those who proclaimed to you the good news by the Ruakh Kodesh sent out from heaven.’

In other words, before the coming of Messiah and the proclamation of the Good News concerning him, there was inevitably a mysterious ambiguity about some prophetic Scriptures. Those Scriptures could not be fully understood until they had been fulfilled. The magnum opus of the great English Puritan John Owen was arguably The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and, that being the case, had Satan known that inspiring Judas to betray Yeshua would undo the work he accomplished in Eden as well as sign his own death warrant, he would have never done it.

Let’s get typical
I share Michael Rydelnick’s concern, expressed in The Messianic Hope, about the current trend in evangelical scholarship to minimise the directly prophetic element in the Tanakh. I agree with Michael that ‘the best way of understanding the Bible as a whole is to see the Old Testament as predicting the coming of the Messiah and the New Testament revealing him to be Jesus of Nazareth’ is true. Nevertheless, there are rich typological themes that run through the Hebrew Scriptures that foreshadow Messiah. As Vern S. Poythress puts it in the title of his 1995 book, ‘the shadow of Christ’ is in ‘the Law of Moses.’

It is clear from the New Covenant Scriptures that the clearest type of Messiah from the Tanakh is the Passover Lamb, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8: ‘Purge out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump — just as you are unleavened, and because our Pesakh, Messiah, has been sacrificed in place of us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’

But the great type on which the ninth and tenth chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews draw is the Day of Atonement and the high priestly rituals of that day. Leviticus 16 with its detailed instructions for the observance of Yom Hakippurim is, as Christopher J. H. Wright observes in the New Bible Commentary 21st Century Edition, ‘like a hinge for the whole book of Leviticus. It brings to a climax all the preceding chapters about priestly duties in relation to sacrifice and to the diagnosis and treatment of uncleanness.’

‘Fixed in the annual calendar after the spring Passover, which celebrated the unique historical event of Israel’s redemption,’ says Wright, Yom Kippur ‘provided the ongoing means of cleansing God’s redeemed people so that he could continue to dwell among them.’

De-sinning the Tabernacle
In the UK, during the Labour government’s last term of office, so many hospital patients were contracting the superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that the Prime Minister Gordon Brown advocated the ‘deep-cleaning’ of hospitals in order to rid them of the deadly bacteria lurking in their wards. Yom Kippur was Israel’s annual ‘deep cleaning’. It was a ‘de-sinning’ of the Tabernacle and the people. Who could tell what sins of ignorance had escaped the notice of pious Israelites, all of which served to compromise the holiness of the nation and to alienate the people from their God.

On tenth day of the seventh month each year, the high priest had to enter the holiest site on earth, the place where heaven and earth met and where the King of the Universe sat enthroned between the cherubim. There, the high priest , dressed in a simple white robe symbolising the perfect purity which was the goal of the expiatory sacrifices of the day, had to make atonement for himself, for his family, for the other priests, for the people of Israel and for the tabernacle. The sanctuary required purging from the ritual pollution that had accumulated from both priests and people. The cleansing agent was, in the words of Leviticus 17:11, sacrificial blood.

The Jewish scholar Everett Fox in The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes, renders Leviticus 17:11: ‘For the life of the flesh—it is in the blood; I (myself) have given it to you upon the slaughter-site, to effect ransom for your lives, for the blood—it effects-ransom for life!’

The Epistle to the Hebrews takes up the imagery, focusing exclusively on the role of the high priest as a type of Messiah:

As a Kohen Gadol of the coming good things, Messiah came through the greater and perfect place of God’s presence, not made with hands; that is to say, not of this creation. And not through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, he entered in once for all into the Holy of Holies, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been profaned, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Messiah, who offered himself without blemish to God through the eternal Spirit, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? According to the Law, in general, everything is cleansed with blood and apart from shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary that the representations of the things in the heavens should be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. Indeed, Messiah has not entered into holy places made by hands, which are copies of the actual ones, but into heaven itself, to appear in the presence of God for us now. He does not need to offer himself often, as the Kohen Gadol enters into the Holy of Holies year by year with the blood of another. Otherwise he would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world. But now once, at the consummation of the ages, he has been revealed to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:11-26)

The Holy of Holies
In her remarkable study Christmas, The Original Story,Margaret Barker argues that ‘Day of Atonement imagery shaped the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter’s preaching in Acts 3, says Barker, describes the events surrounding the death of Yeshua as ‘fulfilling the Day of Atonement, showing that the early Church was waiting for her high priest to return’:

You killed the prince of life, whom God raised from the dead. But in this way, God fulfilled the things which He announced by the mouth of all His prophets, that Messiah should suffer. Therefore change your ways and return to God, so that your sins may be blotted out, and so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Everpresent Lord, and so that He may send the Messiah, Yeshua, who was proclaimed to you before. Heaven must receive him until the times of restoration of all things, which God announced long ago by the mouth of His holy prophets. (Acts 3:13-21)

In other words, the ascension of Messiah was his entrance into the true Holy of Holies in heaven, where he sat down (something the Aaronic high priests could never do) on the true mercy seat – the throne of God – in heaven, from where he would reappear.

On the Day of Atonement, says Barker, when the high priest prepared to remove the effects of sin by purifying the temple that represented creation, ‘he had to sacrifice a bull and a goat and to collect their blood which represented their life. The bull was a sacrifice for himself and his family (Lev. 11.16), and the goat was ‘for the LORD’. In each case the animal whose blood/life was used to make atonement represented the agent of atonement.’

Referring to the two identical goats that were chosen for the Lord and for Azazel, Barker suggests the two lots bore the names ‘the LORD’ and ‘Azazel’, and that ‘these markers were actually put on each animal.’ She goes on:

The goat for sacrifice was not ‘for the LORD’, as usually translated, but ‘as the LORD’ . . . The blood of the goat represented the life of the LORD. After the blood of each animal had been offered separately in the holy of holies, the high priest had to mix them before he could complete the sprinkling that cleansed and healed the creation. ‘He emptied the blood of the bull into the blood of the goat and then poured the full into the empty vessel.’ He symbolically mingled his own life – the bull’s blood – with the life of the LORD – the goat’s blood. The order of the pouring shows that the human became divine – the bull into the goat; and then the mingled ‘lives’ became the high priest – the bloods were poured into the vessel for the bull. Mingled, divine and human, the bloods were sprinkled on the golden altar within the temple and on the great altar outside.

Manhood and Deity

If Barker is correct, the typology of the Day of Atonement becomes even more remarkable as we reflect on Yeshua, the perfect mediator between God and man, in whom both deity and humanity dwell; Yeshua, divine high priest and sacrificial victim; Yeshua who, ‘existing in the form of God, he did not think of equality with God as a prize to be grasped. He emptied himself instead, taking the form of a bondservant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death. . .’ (Phil 2:5-8).

Alfred Edersheim observes that after each of the goats had been designated by lot for the Lord or for Azazel, the high-priest tied a tongue-shaped piece of scarlet cloth to the horn of the goat for Azazel and another round the throat of the goat that was to be sacrificed. In view of the people, the high priest symbolically transferred the sins of Israel to the scapegoat which was then sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel. ‘Assuredly,’ says Edersheim, ‘a more marked type of Christ could not be conceived, as He was brought forth by Pilate and stood before the people, just as He was about to be led forth, bearing the iniquity of the people. And, as if to add to the significance of the rite, tradition has it that when the sacrifice was fully accepted the scarlet mark which the scape-goat had borne became white, to symbolise the gracious promise in Isaiah 1:18; but it adds that this miracle did not take place for forty years before the destruction of the Temple!’

The tradition to which Edersheim refers is found in Yoma 39b in the Talmud: ‘During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘for the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the western-most light [of the menorah] shine; and the doors of the Hekal [the temple] would open by themselves’


Remarkable typological similarities between the scapegoat and Messiah present themselves when we understand where Messiah was put to death. The traditional sites for the crucifixion hitherto have been the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and ‘Gordon’s Calvary’. However, advocates for either site ignore vital clues to the site of the crucifixion in Matthew’s Gospel where, in chapter 27, as Yeshua dies the veil of the Temple is torn in two from the top to the bottom and an earthquake takes place the earth quakes and the bedrock was split. Matthew records that the centurion and those who were with him saw the earthquake and the things that were done, said of Jesus, ‘Truly this was a son of God.’ Among the things done was the rending of the veil; and they saw it.

While working with the Jerusalem archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, Ernest L. Martin, began to do research into the place where Yeshua was crucified because, he says, ‘It appears as though the centurion who was at the foot of the cross was able to observe the tearing of the Temple veil [the outside curtain, called in Hebrew Masach], something that would have been possible only from a point east of the Temple Mount, and not from any point west of it."

Historical sources, says Martin, are conclusive that a massive 80-foot curtain, what Josephus refers to as a ‘Babylonian tapestry’ was located in a spot that was visible only from the top of the Mount of Olives. According to Martin, ‘It would have been a physical impossibility for anyone in Jerusalem to have seen this curtain from the south, the west, or the north - the locations of today's traditional crucifixion sites.’

Across the Bridge

But why would the death of Yeshua on the Mount of Olives be typologically significant. Although few Bible Atlases depict it or even refer to it, according to the Mishnah, in the second temple period, ‘they made a causeway from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, an arched way built over an arched way, with an arch directly above each pier [of the arch below], for fear of any grave in the depths below. By it the priest that was to burn the [Red] Heifer, and the Heifer, and all that aided him went forth to the Mount of Olives.’ The bridge led from the east Temple gate to a place near the summit of the Mount of Olives, thus ensuring that the priests could cross the Kidron Valley and remain uncontaminated by the graves below.

If Yeshua was executed at the place where the Red Heifer of Numbers 19 then the crucifixion occurred in a ‘holy place’, the place that Hebrews 13:12 refers to as ‘outside the gate.’ According to Prof. Ory Mazar, the author of numerous books on the history of Jerusalem, ‘outside the gate' was the name of the location where the Miphkad altar, where the ashes of the red heifer were burnt, stood, The Kidron Valley causeway was also the route along which the scapegoat was led on the Day of Atonement, as it carried away the sins of the people of Israel. If Yeshua was put to death on the Mount of Olives he fulfilled two important types: that of the Red Heifer and the Scapegoat.

‘The true place of Golgotha,’ says Ernest Martin, ‘is very critical, because it proves that Jesus Christ was indeed sacrificed, as the ultimate Sin Sacrifice for the world, at precisely the same place which was designated by Biblical Law, by tradition and by the ritual custom of the Temple for the major sin sacrifices to be killed.’


Gordon Wenham points out that the Epistle to the Hebrews highlights not only similarities but also contrasts between the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement under the Mosaic covenant and the great atonement accomplished by Messiah’s sacrificial death.
First of all the high priest was a sinner among sinners who needed to offer sacrifice for himself before he could atone for the sins of the people. By contrast, Hebrews 7:26-27 emphasises that Yeshua, the high priest after the order of Melchizedek is ‘holy, guiltless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens [and] does not need, like those high priest s, to offer up sacrifices daily, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. For he did this once for all, when he offered up himself.’
Second, although the Aaronic high priest s had to repeat their sacrifices regularly, Messiah ‘entered in once for all into the Holy of Holies, having obtained eternal redemption’ (Hen 9:12)

The Aaronic rituals secured for the high priest an entrance to the earthly Holy of Holies, which was only a copy of the true Holy of Holies but, according to Hebrews 2:24, Messiah Yeshua ‘has not entered into holy places made by hands, which are copies of the actual ones, but into heaven itself, to appear in the presence of God for us now.’

The repetition of the atoning sacrifices each year was an annual reminder of the persistence of sin and uncleanness whereas, according to Hebrews 10:1-18, Messiah’s once-for-all offering of himself secured permanent forgiveness for his people:

Since the Law has a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of these things, it can never completely cleanse those who draw near with the same yearly sacrifices which they offer continually. Otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, because those who serve, having once been cleansed, would have had no more consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a yearly reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. so when [Messiah] comes into the world, he says, ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for me . . .We have been sanctified by this purpose through the offering of the body of Yeshua the Messiah, once for all time. On the one hand, every Kohen stands serving daily and repeatedly offering the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. On the other hand, this Kohen, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God; waiting from that time until his enemies are made the footstool of his feet. For by one offering he has fully cleansed forever those who are being sanctified.’

This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of the Herald

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