In this concise but meaningful book, Martin Hengel demonstrates that the credal proclamation "Christ died for our sins" (1Cor. 15:3) goes back to Jesus himself. The idea of Jesus being a saviour was not foisted upon Christianity from paganism as so many critical scholars would have us believe.
Hengel admits that the idea of a martyr figure dying on behalf of his or her people was unknown to ancient Judaism which did not allow a cult of heroes. However, by the second century BCE, the Jewish faith integrated Hellenistic ideas perhaps to counter their Greek opponents. The book of Daniel promotes the idea of the righteous martyr which is even more explicit in the Maccabean literature.
The atonement doctrine can be traced to John the Baptist who provided an alternate form of salvation outside the Temple sacrificial system. It was from this mileau that Jesus and his disciples emerged. The execution of the righteous John the Baptist by the wicked Herod obviously had a profound effect upon how Jesus foresaw his own suffering and death. Hengel points out that the unique term "batism by fire" (Luke 12:50) and his words at the Last Supper are unparalleled and could not have been created by an evangelist. They are connected to Jesus fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.
The idea of a heavenly atonement without the Temple posed a serious challenge to the High Priesthood. According to Hengel, the belief that Jesus died for our sins must have been formulated before Paul's conversion, "otherwise there would have been no uproar against Stephen and the Hellenist members of the Jerusalem community". The kerygma which Saul of Tarsus tried to stamp out was based upon the radical and offensive proclamation that the Messiah died for our sins.
Hengel points out that there were pious martyr figures in Jesus time but none wer exalted to the status of Messiah or Son of Man. As Hengel adroitly puts it, "if Jesus had no messianic pretensions, and was merely perceived as a pious rabbi or even a prophet, the origin of the Christian kerygma would be completely inexplicable."
Hengel destroys the credibility of the mantra being touted by modern liberal scholars that Paul's doctrine of atonement was his own invention. In his own words, Paul indicates that the churches in Judea continued to suffer persecution at the hands of Jewish authorities even after the Hellenists were expellled and even after his own conversion (1Thess. 2:14). They weren't being persecuted simply because Jesus was a righteous martyr. The credal formula of (1Cor. 15:3-8) can be traced to Jesus' earliest followers. The people who Paul referred to as preaching this gospel could only have been the earliest witnesses to the resurrected Jesus to include Peter and James.
Peter must have shared this belief since he shared the same space in Antioch with Paul and lived like a gentile himself for a period of time. In addition, Paul was accompanied throughout his ministry be members of the Jerusalem community or people chosen by the elders of that community to include Barnabas and Silas. It is highly unlikely that Paul could have created a doctrine of his own which conflicted with the Jerusalem community. As Hengel points out, "one can hardly imagine how the unity of the earliest church, so dear to Paul's heart (as demonstrated by his collection of tithes), could have been preserved had the community in Jerusalem not shared the belief in the soteriological efficacy of the death of the death of Jesus."
Hengel points out that the disparagement of the Temple and its sacrificial system by the second century Jewish Christian Ebionites and the apocryphal "Ascents of James" embedded in the Pseudo-Clementine writings (well outside of Paul's sphere of influence) can only be explained by the belief that the Temple sacrifice was made obsolete by Jesus taking that role upon himself.
Martin Hengel is a scholar of the highest quality. He is careful in phrasing his ideas so as to be exact. I rate him as high as possible in terms of his ability to explain precisely his ideas. Each sentence carries the impact of a paragraph from some other writers.